Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fishy Followers

Readings; Psalm 62:5-12, Jonah 3:1-5, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 25, 2015

There was something fishy going on in Galilee. Following the imprisonment of His cousin John the Baptist, Jesus had arrived in town. He is telling people that the day had arrived, the time had come and they should stop fooling around and start sorting their lives out. He had great and good news for them. These were the days of God's favor. The Kingdom of God was near. So near you could almost taste it!

There was often something fishy going on in Galilee. It was a sea port whose economy rested heavily upon the fact that most of its inhabitants made their livelihood from the fishing industry. It was situated on a trading route that exposed it to foreign influence. It was an occupied territory, considered spoils of war, by some of its Gentile inhabitants. Indeed the Romans preferred to call the Galilean lake 'The Sea of Tiberius', after one of their own renown emperors.

The historian Josephus tells us that there were around 230 boats regularly working on the water. In 1986 archaeologists discovered one such boat. It has since been nicknamed 'The Jesus Boat'. They also tell us that the only way you could operate a boat in that area was through having a state authorized fishing license. Taxation would have made life hard for the locals and the area did not have a reputation for prosperity.

Poverty, alienation and exposure to foreign ideas may account for the Galileans reputation of having a rebellious streak. In the year 6-BC, the governor Quirinius tried to do a census in the area. There sprung up a resistance army, led by a 'Robin Hood' like character known as 'Judas the Galilean'. Though he was spectacularly unsuccessful, later zealot movements that opposed Roman taxation and occupation looked upon 'Judas the Galilean' with great fondness.

It doesn't seem like the kind of place where a future world religion would attract it's earliest followers. But there was something fishy going on in Galilee. Jesus was in town. And what He has to say is causing quite a buzz. His message is uncompromising and startling.

The promised 'Day of the Lord' had dawned and it was all being fulfilled through Him. He was the One who was going to change everything, so people had better get with the program, repent and believe.

By 'repent' He did not mean throw a personal pity party and shed a few tears because they had messed up their life. He meant that, in the light of God's unfolding revelation, there needed to be a radical break from the past and a total turn around.

When He said 'believe', He didn't mean that there had to be a slight shift in their theological understanding. He was talking about making a radical reassessment of everything they were building their lives upon. He was using 'believe' as an action verb, rather than inviting any merely intellectual and passive response.

If, as a whole, this message went over their heads, they were about to be given an unprecedented example of the impact the Kingdom could have upon people. Four of their own brightest and best, four local lads from among their own kith and kin, decide that when Jesus said 'Follow me', it actually meant leaving everything else behind and doing whatever it was Jesus would ask of them.

It is a story many of us are over familiar with because we have heard it since our Sunday School days. Jesus strolls along the lake shore, sees Simon and Andrew fishing, and says 'Come with me and I will make you fishers of people'. 'And immediately they left their nets and followed Him.' (Verse 18). He goes a little further along and sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and 'immediately' offers them the same invitation. It receives the same response; 'They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed Him.' (verse 20).

Imagine for a moment that this wasn't the the Sea of Galilee, but Mount Hebron High School. A preacher had come to town and wandered along to the High School. He had entered a classroom where two of the teachers were teaching, and said to them, 'Come with me, I'm going to get you to teach people about the Kingdom instead of teaching Maths and English' and 'immediately' they went with him to the principal, handed in their notice and became his followers.

The preacher went a little further and wandered down to where soccer practice was taking place and said to two of the senior high school students, (who happen to be two brothers who are rising stars on the team). 'Follow me', he said, and immediately they had quit practice, quit school, and gone with him.

Wait a minute, are you talking about two of our Ellicott City born and bred local students? They 'immediately' had some kind of eureka-epiphany moment? How do we explain that to their parents? And two of our local teachers? And who is this preacher guy anyway? All sounds a bit fishy to me!

Put it into context and it really was startling and shocking. It didn't make a lot of sense. A preacher comes to town and four completely rational, young, everyday people with their whole lives ahead of them, decide they are going to turn their backs on all that they so far had held dear and go with Him?

It certainly underlines the things that the message Jesus offered was asking of those who listened. 'Repent' meant that they needed to totally turn their lives around and go in a different direction. 'Believe' meant 'Do something', not just 'Y'know, maybe, think about doing things a little differently, if that's O.K. with you!'

The transition that the disciples make is to do with the way they see their whole world. Notice, they are not called to a new career, they are still asked by God to be fishermen. That doesn't change. But the reasons for their activity, and the arena in which they will work, take a cosmic shift.

Up to this point in their lives they believed that participating in the system that provided for their families and put food on the table was what life was all about. Life was defined by working, providing and staying within the guidelines that family and culture dictated. Jesus walks by and they are invited to leave all of that behind.

The Greek word 'aphentes' carries the thought that they are 'released' from one way of living and liberated to seeing their lives as being about something more. No longer will they be defined by 'what they do' or by 'who their family might be', but they are given a new identity as followers of the 'Way' of the Kingdom of God, as it was being redefined by the teaching of Jesus.

That is a goal for all of us to pursue. To live for the Kingdom rather than live like everybody else. To question the values and aspirations of this world, in the light of what Scripture teaches. Of course, when we act that way, people may suspect something fishy is going on! It takes a lot of trust in God to do that!

Rev. Neil Kirkham, current moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Wales (who also happens to be married to my wife's sister) tells how he felt God calling him to leave behind his career as a civil engineer, building bridges for the British road system and embraced a call to ministry and to build bridges between people and God.

When his son Daniel was little, Neil was trying to explain to him, that there were some big changes coming now that he decided to be a minister. 'So, dad, what are you going to wear? ' “I guess I'll wear much the same things as I do now!” 'And what about eating, do you have to eat locusts and honey, like John the Baptist?' “No, I can still eat normal food!” 'And what about, mum, will she have to wear hats like other ministers wives do?' “No, she'll be able to still just be mum”.

And so the questions went on and on. Eventually Daniel asked him, 'But, dad, where are we all going to live when you finally become a minister?' Neil, said, “I don't know yet. I guess we are just going to have to trust God” 'There you are, dad,' smiled little Daniel, 'You're getting the hang of it already!'

Responding to God's call certainly requires a whole lot of trust on our part. Not many of us are called to full time ministry within the church, but all of us are called to change the way we do the work we are already doing, in the light of the call Jesus places upon our lives. He calls our name and we follow. That is discipleship.

It touches upon every single area of our lives. Our relationship to our families. The places we work. The way we do our work. The way we invest our time and our spiritual gifts, financial gifts, and our personality gifts. It touches upon how we use the influence our lives have, to influence others to live God's way.

When we truly repent, turn around and begin living for Christ over and above all other things, when we believe, not just intellectually, but with actions that are a response to Christ's love, then people might start thinking we are acting a little fishy.

And if that happens, rejoice! Because Jesus calls us all to be fishy followers. By the grace of God, may our lives cause others to also hear His call and so discover the peace that passes all understanding and the deep joy, that following Him can bring. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Figgy Thinkers


Readings; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 18, 2015

Are you a figgy thinker? A what? A figgy-thinker! In our bible reading today Nathaniel, who according to tradition, was also known as Nathaniel-Bartholomew, is the figgy thinker of all figgy thinkers!

You might be a figgy thinker if when everybody else is going with the flow you decide to take things slow. At the start of John's gospel there is a lot going on. John the Baptist is shaking things up talking about a Messiah. Some of Nathaniel's friends, Andrew and another guy have been going down to the river to witness the action

Whilst there they have encountered Jesus. 'Come and See' He invited them, and they saw their need to become His disciples. Andrew tells his brother Simon about it, and he also becomes a disciple and in the process receives a new name; Peter. The next day they meet Nathanael's best buddy Phillip. Jesus says to Philip 'Follow me' and Phillip follows Him.

But Nathanael. Where's he at? While all this is going on Nathanael is figgy thinking. In the Old Testament the fig tree is pictured as a place of meditation and contemplation. It was a symbol of the peace and prosperity the coming of a Messiah would bring. (Micah 4:3-4, Zechariah 3:10). Under the shade of its branches successive generations of rabbi's studied and taught. So whilst everybody else was running around and jumping on the band wagon, Nathanael was figgy thinking.

When I turn on my TV in the morning one of the first things that comes on is 'What's trending?' It's never me! I feel that as soon I purchase a new electronic device it is out of date and needs an upgrade. I can't keep up with the next thing, because I'm still trying to figure out the last few things. If ever there was a culture that needed to make room for figgy-thinking it is ours.

Scripture calls it 'Sabbath Time' and it is important because the alternative is running around like a headless chicken. We need places and times to stop and reflect. You might be a figgy thinker if when everybody else is going with the flow you decide to take things slow.

You might be a figgy-thinker if when somebody tells you something is too good to be true you agree that it's too good to be true. Figgy thinking Nathaniel is sitting in the shade, reflecting on all the crazy talk about John the Baptist and Messiah's and people saying they are going to follow Jesus for the rest of their days. He sees his best buddy Philip coming his way and thinks 'What now?' We read John 1:45 “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."

You can picture Nathanael stifling a laugh. 'Really!' Joseph's son, Jesus, from Nazareth? "Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (v.46) At first it sounds like Nathanael thinks Nazarines are a bunch of red necks incapable of producing anything good. But that's not it. He's not speaking out of prejudice but from within his understanding of what Scripture taught about the Messiah. Moses, in the law, said that the Messiah would come from Judah, and the prophets said he would be born in Bethlehem.

When Philip tells him, 'The Messiah is from Nazareth' it just didn't fit in with everything Nathaniel knew. It was a nice idea that a guy from a few towns could turn out to be the chosen one of God, but Nathanael was a figgy thinker and followed the maxim that if it sounded too good to be true than it was too good to be true.

Nathanael didn't have all the facts. Nobody mentioned that although Jesus now lived in Nazareth, He had been born in Bethlehem. The genius of Philip is that he doesn't try and argue with Nathanael. He knew him better than that. Philip just offers him the same invitation that Jesus offered; 'Come and See!'

There's a lot of people who know something of the story of Jesus, but don't have all the facts. We are tempted to think that we may be able to argue them into the Kingdom. This passage invites us to consider not pushing our case. Just to say 'Come and See!'

That's hard to do when we really care about people. That's tough when the gospel is something that means so much to us. But you know what? When people aren't interested or dismiss what we are saying, or make some smart response, it's O.K.

Because the good news that 'God gives a fig about the way we live our lives' is huge. For most of us there was a time when that just didn't fit in with how we understood life. But someone said to us 'Come and See!' and here we are. Nathanael was right to express his doubts. You might be a figgy thinker if when everybody else is going with the flow you decide to take things slow. You might be a figgy-thinker if when somebody tells you something is too good to be true you agree that it's too good to be true. Which brings us to this.

You might be a figgy thinker if you are not afraid of being amazed. Jesus was always able to look beyond outward appearances and know what was really going on in peoples lives. Verse 47 'When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, He said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"'

Peter had a tendency to put his words before his thoughts. James and John were over ambitious and had short tempers. Judas looked the part but never followed in his heart. Thomas thought only seeing was believing. But Nathanael? Jesus recognizes in Nathaniel character traits of honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness.

Nathanael hears what Jesus says about him. Being a figgy thinker he doesn't accept it. He knew that sometimes people used complementary words because they were setting you up for a fall. Nathanael doesn't mince his words, looks Jesus straight in the eye, and says 'How do You know me?''

How often do we hear that from people? 'You don't know what I'm going through. You just don't understand!' What an amazing insight this is from John's gospel. Jesus actually does know what we are going through. Jesus truly does understand. Jesus knew that out of all the people in town, nobody had been hoping more deeply and searching more carefully for their Messiah than figgy thinking Nathanial.

Have you ever had the experience where you have been reading something or watching something and you are trying to figure it out, and then you are doing something else, totally unrelated, and it suddenly all becomes clear. They call them 'Eureka' moments. Or even 'Epiphanies'!

Nathanial's epiphany comes when Jesus said to him "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanial understood that Jesus hadn't just physically seen him, but the Spirit of God had searched his heart. This is a 'Wow! You really see me!' moment.

Back in 1999 country group Lonestar had a huge hit with a gentle love song that declared 'Baby, I'm amazed by you'. The mystery of human love and attraction is certainly a source of amazement. People fall in love and sometimes their whole character changes. Hardened rockers start listening to country music. People start relating to Hallmark movies. Poetry makes sense.

Being amazed by the love of God can have an equally dramatic change upon our lives. It opens up possibilities we had never imagined for our lives. Nathanial understands who Jesus is. "Rabbi,' he says' You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

Jesus turns up the volume and says 'You ain't seen nothing yet!' "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these... you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

The reference there is to Jacob's vision of a ladder that reached to heaven upon which he saw angels ascending and descending. Jesus had already affirmed Nathanael as being a true child of Jacob, a true Israelite. Now He's promising him that this was just the start. He's encouraging him that if he sticks with it, then he should be prepared for even more amazing things to happen.

After Jesus had been crucified a group of disciples are out on a fishing trip. (John 21:1-13) They haven't caught a thing. A stranger on the shore shouts out to them, 'Try throwing your nets the other side'. They catch the biggest haul of fish they had ever known. Peter recognizes that the stranger is His risen Lord. They get to share in a fish supper with Him on the beach. Amazing.

Jesus has a conversation with them about love. The basis of it is simply that if they love Him, they'll keep on trying to catch people up in His love. Figgy thinking Nathanial, (who was also known as Nathanial-Bartholomew) gets it. The call that he had received whilst he sat under the fig tree is confirmed. No more catching fish. Back to catching people for the Kingdom. Our world needs figgy thinkers.

You might be a figgy thinker if when everybody else is going with the flow you decide to take things slow. As the world rushes on we get caught up in the latest thing. Yet there are those who have that rare gift of discernment. There are those who take the time to test what is going on against the Word of God and decide that seeking God's way is always the better option.

You might be a figgy-thinker if when somebody tells you something is too good to be true you agree that it's too good to be true. Philip invites Nathanial to 'Come and See'. Asking questions before we commit to things can save us a lot of embarrassment further down the road. A vital part of the art of discipleship is owning the gospel for ourselves; not just taking other peoples word for it, but experiencing the love of Jesus personally.

You might be a figgy thinker if you are not afraid of being amazed. Being believers in the midst of a world that doesn't believe is not easy. It takes tenacity to sing a resurrection song to a culture that belittles hope. Understanding that God has more in store in for us than we can ever conceive or imagine requires a childlike trust in God that is prepared to never call it a day, never quit believing, and never give up on hope.

Figgy-thinkers... your church, your community, your world needs you! People who seek only the truth and when they find it commit themselves wholeheartedly to living it. People who are ready to follow wherever their search may lead. People who truly believe the best is yet to come and take Jesus at His Word; “You will see greater things than these...”

May God grant us each the gift of figgy thinking! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bubble Blowers

Readings; Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11, Genesis 1:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 11, 2015

From my childhood I gained the impression that the biblical story of creation was very straightforward. It all happened in six days and then God took a day off. It began with God saying 'Let there be light!' and the rest was an unfolding process. Sea. Earth. Vegetation. Animals. People.  I went to school and 'got myself an hed-u-cation' and was told that evolution, not creation myths, held the answer to where we came from.

Scientific theories of  life's beginning are numerous and intriguing. One model suggests that at the start of all things there was chaos; the earth was a ball of erupting volcanoes, meteor storms and noxious gases that over time transformed into a rather windy and watery (to use Charles Darwin's words) 'warm pond' capable of producing life as the influence of light was introduced.

Having taken all that on board, it was only as a theological student, forced to study Hebrew, that I ever bothered to look again at the early chapters of Genesis.  I then realized that the bible doesn't begin with God saying “Let there be light and there was light and that was the first day”. There are two whole verses before light comes and order starts to appear. Before we get to any statements about light, we find words and images of chaos, a formless void unable to sustain life, turbulent winds and endless waters.

My discovery didn't stop there. We get down to verse 6 and in our NRSV we find these words; “God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." Waters, in the midst of waters, separating the waters from waters; that's a lot of water in there, but it wasn't the water that caught my attention but the image of the dome, and the Hebrew word used there which is 'Rakia'.

Take a stack of different English translations and you will understand the trouble translators have had with this ancient Hebrew word 'Rakia'.  Among other definitions you find 'solid arch', 'firmament', 'expanse', 'vault' and 'space'. Each have different connotations. Some suggest something firm, immovable and solid, others as though  'Rakia' was permeable and flexible.

I am grateful to theologian and lecturer, Karla Suomala, who suggests that the way to truly picture this 'dome/firmament /vault/space in the waters' verse is to say that on the second day, as the light and heat begin to produce a reaction, God blew a bubble into the midst of the watery chaos, a bubble that created the space for the creation to begin, an expanse where the chaos was pushed aside and creation became possible. 

My rediscovery of Genesis One didn't stop there. I was in a dentists waiting room, flicking through the pages of a science magazine when I came across an article that was explaining how the sun and moon had to be in exactly the right configuration at some point in the evolutionary process in order for life to thrive.  That it was probable that for much of earths early history there was just sea and land and algae... the most basic form of vegetation. Only at a given point in time did the sun and moon become positioned in such a way as to enable rapid growth.

Looking back at that Genesis story, it always confused me how on the first day there was light, but the creation of the sun and moon doesn't come along till the fourth day, after the dome has been established on the second day and the land and sea and grass have already appeared on the third.  Now here was a scientific theory suggesting that's more or less the progression. Chaos, followed by light, followed by a firmament that could allow growth, followed by the positioning of sun and moon that accelerated it.

Where am I going with all of this? Am I going to suggest that science and scripture can be irreconcilably harmonized? That the ancient battle between science and religion can be resolved by a linguistic study of ancient Hebrew?  Nice idea... but really I'm imagining possibilities, rather than suggesting anything concrete.

What I'd like to do today is invite you to engage your imaginations, to muse on this idea that on the second day God blows a bubble into the midst of the chaos, a bubble that creates space for creation to happen. I'm always attracted to new images for mission and I like this notion of disciples as bubble blowers, as people who can create spaces where new things can happen under the influence of God's Holy Spirit.

At our upcoming mission meeting our committee will be discussing suggestions for a 'Mission Possible' project that has been talked about in the magazine and in our bulletins.
As they explain; 'Mission can be anything that spreads God's love in our community or in the world - Our ministry will provide funding, support, and helping hands. Old members, new members, visitors, youth are all invited to submit ideas. No idea is too big or too small.' Anybody can be a bubble blower!

Blow bubbles of hope into situations of hopelessness. Blow bubbles of light into places of darkness. Blow bubbles of healing where there is pain. Blow bubbles of joy where there is despair. Blow bubbles of love where there is fear. Blow bubbles of stability where there is chaos.

You can picture the bubble word 'Rakia' in two ways. You can think of it as a dome that separates us from the chaos. As a safe place or as a barrier. For most of us chaos does have negative connotations. We are constantly seeking ways to avoid, manage, contain, or escape chaos. We tend to think of chaos as a problem that needs a solution or as something that needs to have an order or structure imposed upon it.

Certainly there are mission initiatives that support the creation of safe places. Safe houses for victims of domestic abuse or human trafficking. Places of recovery for those battling addictions. Hospice facilities. Truly we desire for our sanctuaries and nursery schools and educational facilities to be safe places where learning can happen and ideas be expressed without fear.

But there is also the idea of 'Rakia' as being an expanse that is permeable. As we think about our own lives we understand that chaos, confusion and striving are much closer than we would like them to be. That we can't erect barriers and keep everything out. Chaos is a fact of life.

Maybe the bubbles we need to blow are ones that create a porous space in the midst of the chaos rather than shut it out completely. Could be our task is to find ways to live with what we can't control, as opposed to constantly fighting against it.

Such a picture would  resonate with the second story of creation that appears in Genesis chapter 2. The one where man and woman are seen as having a deep connection  with each other, and with all the earth. The story where animals are named and the work of stewardship centers on the garden, and the care of the planet. These also are areas where mission can be imagined and new projects begun.

The second creation story doesn't end well. It ends with a return to chaos! Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden and toil and trouble become their daily lot. If this is indeed indicative of what the theologians call our 'fallen state' then a little bit of resurrection, hope filled, bubble blowing seems most appropriate.

Just about 100 years ago, topping the music charts was a song composed by Tin Pan Alley writers James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent with a chorus that proclaimed 'I'm forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air!' It didn't make it into our hymnbooks so we won't be having it as a closing hymn. But I do like that image. Disciples as bubble-blowers, who reflect the creative potential of their Creator God, who on the second day blew a bubble into the midst of the watery chaos and created an environment where new life could be born.

In the church calendar today is 'Baptism of the Lord Sunday'.  According to science and Scripture life on earth began in water. Our own lives began in the waters of birth. The beginning of our spiritual journey is celebrated in the waters of baptism. Water, water, water, water everywhere.

In Genesis we read “God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."  John the Baptist greeted Jesus with the words “I baptize you with water. But He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In so many ways the life of Jesus was one that created bubbles in peoples lives, where the love of God was experienced through the action of God's Holy Spirit.

May we seek, through our ministry together and as individuals, to be bubble blowing disciples.  May we blow bubbles of hope into situations of hopelessness. Blow bubbles of light into places of darkness. Blow bubbles of healing where there is pain. Blow bubbles of joy where there is despair. Blow bubbles of love where there is fear. Blow bubbles of stability where there is chaos.

May we be people who give visible expression to the children's song we were singing earlier 'Jesus love is a bubblin' over... Hallalujah.'

 And all to the glory of God. Amen! 
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.