Sunday, February 22, 2015

Noah and the Rainbow

Readings: Psalm 50:1-6, Mark 1:9-15, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22
Not preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on February 22nd 2015
(but posted online)

In our reading today we learn of God’s covenant with Noah. Our God is a covenant-making God. Throughout Lent we'll be taking a look at covenants of grace that were made with some great Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah. But today... Noah and the Rainbow.

A covenant is an agreement between two parties in which promises are made. Sometimes the promises are conditional, so that certain things have to be done if the covenant is to be effective and honored. Other times, the promises are unconditional, and it is God who initiates, keeps and fulfills the covenant. The covenant God makes with Noah has the nature of being an unconditional covenant that bears witness to God's love and grace.

It includes Noah's descendants and every living creature. It reminds us that God is concerned about all creation, not just humanity. God created this vast, magnificent universe and God loves it. In the Creation story, God pauses to declare 'This is Good!' Because God cares for all of creation, God invites humanity, created in God’s image, to be responsible in the stewardship and management of the earths resources. Our survival as a species on this earth is intricately related to our connection with the earth it's variety and abundance.

Thankfully Christians today are realizing how important our calling is as responsible stewards of creation. Consider the following words of the much traveled Rev. Bob Ogle, in a book titled 'A Man of Letters'. *

I am glad that I have been around the world several times: I know how small it is. And these last years have taught me just how fragile our existence is. We are all interrelated. Anything you or I do will have an influence on all our sisters and brothers around the globe. More than half the resources consumed in the entire history of the planet have been used up in my lifetime. Most of the pollution destroying creation has occurred since my father was born. Fifteen billion years of creation destroyed by two generations! I have decided that as long as I live and am able to function, I will address that question.

The story of Noah and the Ark has fascinated people as long as we have had history. If you ever read it from an illustrated children's book, it is worth pausing to look at the artwork that accompanies it. Invariably the picture of Noah and a big boat, and two of every exotic creature you can imagine, is one that sparks the visual artists imagination.

And it is a fascinating picture! For a brief moment in time, on a boat that is riding out the storm, humanity and all creation are in harmony. All the bad stuff is being washed away. A new beginning is just around the corner. Not surprisingly the Ark has often been used as symbol for baptism, and our lectionary passage from Mark's gospel today told of Jesus being baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. Whilst there is no rainbow at the Jordan, there is a voice from heaven that declares... “You are my Son, with You I am well pleased”.

Through Jesus Christ God's love will be declared to all creation. His message to the disciples is 'Go into all the world...” Paul writes in Romans 8:22For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”. In Christ Paul tells us All living things will be made free from the power of death and will have a part with the free children of God in glory. (8:21)

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet is given a beautiful vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a creation once again in full harmony and peace. Natural enemies living together and enjoying each others company. Swords are turned to plows. Lions lay down with lambs. It is a restatement of that brief moment on the Ark when all was in harmony.

The New Covenant God makes with humankind through Jesus Christ does not end this older, covenant. The two belong together. They don't contradict each other but complement each other. God’s promises of old remain and those promises given us in the New Covenant offer a greater appreciation of the old. We see the true nature of God and God’s activity, how consistent and long-suffering God is. God’s unconditional love never changes. It is new every morning, as we sing in our hymn... 'Great is Thy Faithfulness'.

But if you follow the story through, after the waters recede and people and animals are back on dry land, you notice that it isn't long before harmony is shattered and things start to get crazy again. Good Noah becomes bad Noah, gets drunk and shames his family. His sons disrespect their father. The meat eaters turn from their vegetarian ways and lambs start to avoid the company of lions.

Likewise, we are aware that our baptism does not make us immune from the temptations and sins of all humanity. We fall and we fail. What makes this covenant with Noah significant is it's unconditional nature. It is not dependent on our ability to keep it but upon God's ever flowing grace that seeks to renew us and restore us.

The sign of this covenant is the rainbow. The rainbow that arches over all creation, the indifferent and the ungracious, the forsaken and the forgiving, the repentant and the cold hearted, the good and the bad and the ugly. God says in Verse 16: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” There is a children's song (that had we been able to have church this morning we would have sung)... 'Whenever you see a rainbow (Woo!) - Remember God is love!'

I’ve never lost my fascination or awe and wonder (or sense of 'Woo!') at seeing a rainbow. I posted a video on the churches Facebook page not long after we came here of a rainbow arching over our grounds here at Mount Hebron. It felt like a sign for Yvonne and I that we had made the right decision to come to this area and this church.

When we took a trip to West Virginia for a wedding late last year, we stayed at Hawks Nest Park and were greeted by the sight of a double rainbow arching over the New River Gorge (pictured above). Photographs really don't capture that beauty. The sun captures drops of water and then white light bursts it into seven different colors: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

We are given a visible symbol of unity and diversity; of harmony and beauty and love all working together. The fact that the rainbow is born out of the rain, as well as the sunshine, speaks to our lives. We all face ups and downs, times of storms and struggles, times of quiet and peace. As we open up our lives to the influence of God's Holy Spirit, God is able to make all things work together, even the ugly bits, and produce something beautiful.

Bear in mind that the bow for the Hebrew mind was also a weapon of war, an instrument of conflict, designed to cause suffering to those who opposed the ways of the world and shoot arrows that killed. The rainbow can remind us of Christ and His cross. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins, takes the punishment and pain of fallen humanity upon Himself, takes the arrows of shame and blame and absorbs them into the depths of God's being.

The diversity and unity of colors in the rainbow, coming from white light, remind us of how Jesus is the light of the world, of how, on the cross, Jesus drew all of humankind, in all their diversity into a unity as one, big family, as children of God through the water of baptism. Through the baptismal water God, together with the words of promise, makes a New Covenant with us; based upon the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Whilst God's love is unconditional in accepting us and receiving us, the right way to respond to such love is to care. Jesus died for us, not so we can sit back and thank God for our place in His plans, but so we can get busy making sure others know that they also are loved and treasured and desired by God. That no matter what shade or color or aura their personality may reflect, there is room in God's rainbow for their life and their light to shine.

That care and concern is intended to spread to all creation. Our stewardship of the earths resources is a part of that. Taking care of our fragile environment is a part of that. Wise use of land and allowing people a fair share is part of that. Our care towards animals is part of that love. Taking care of our church facility is part of that. A beautiful garden is part of that. Making sure all have enough to eat and a place to live and a job to work at is part of that. It's not either/or, it's both/and. It is personal and communal. How we treat the planet is a reflection of how we treat the people who live on the planet.

Every time we see a rainbow it can be a reminder that we believe in a God who loves all of creation. A God who promises that they are always going to be there for us and with us. A God who never writes us off. As the Presbyterian (USA) Brief Statement of Faith declares 'In life and death, we belong to God, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

As we move through the Lenten season and head towards the cross we see that there is nothing that can ultimately separate us from Christ's love. Even that desolate, lonely place was turned to something beautiful through the resurrection. The rainbow is a sign of God's promise that we, and all creation, are not forgotten. We are claimed as God's children through the waters of baptism, just as the whole of creation was claimed and renewed through the waters of the flood.

Genesis 9:16 “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” May God help us to keep in mind all of His wonderful promises and so may we be inspired to share Christ's love with all people, looking to a day when God's Kingdom shall come, and God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; looking to that day envisioned by the prophet Isaiah, when peace and justice shall reign, and harmony be restored to all Creation. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

*This quote and some of the other reflections are taken partly from a sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday - Taking Stock

 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up." So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.

Back in the time of Jesus there was a big business in Jerusalem. It was called the Temple. A lofty institution that covered some thirty acres. It's inner sanctuary was the Holy place where only the High Priest could enter on special occasions. Beyond that were a number of courts to which access was granted according to status. There was the Temple court, then the Court of the Priests, then the Court of the Israelites, then the Court of the Women and then finally, the largest area, the Court of the Gentiles.

Everybody was allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles. It was designed to be a place of prayer and preparation. A place where those denied access to other areas of the temple could seek and find God. A place where people could prepare their hearts for worship.

One of the things that was important for worship in those days was paying the temple tax. The temple tax was one half shekel a year. It was the equivalent of about two days wages. You couldn't pay your temple tax in any old currency. It had to be paid in Sanctuary Shekels. At Passover time Jews from all over the world, with Greek, Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Tyrian coins jangling in their pockets made their way to the Gentiles Court.

Before they could pay their taxes, money had to be exchanged. So, the money-changers set up their stalls in the Court. To change your coinage into sanctuary shekels, a fee equivalent to half a days wages would be charged. If you didn't have the exact coinage, then you'd be charged another half a days wages. There were various other rates and schemes that all involved money flowing into the money-changers pockets. And this was before you'd paid a penny of your tax.

Along with temple taxes, worshipers would also bring an offering. This could be an oxen, or a sheep or a dove. You could buy a dove down at the Jerusalem market quite cheaply. However, there was a law about temple sacrifices that said that a sacrificial victim had to be without blemish. In the Gentiles Court there were appointed temple inspectors to examine the offerings and see if they came up to the grade. The strange thing was, none from the market ever did.

So they advised worshipers to buy their sacrificial animals from the selection they had in the Gentiles court. The difference was that an animal purchased there could cost as much as twenty times more than one purchased down at the market.

Merchandising is a good thing in the Market Place, but not in the temple.

That day when Jesus went to the temple to pray and prepare Himself for the difficult days that were ahead, what did He find, a place of prayer for all nations? "No" he said, "It's a den of thieves". It was nothing more than a market place. The sellers were trying to exact as high a price as possible. The pilgrims would argue and defend themselves with an equal fierceness. The oxen would be mooing, the sheep bleating, the doves cooing, beggars begging, the children running wild, and it was all very much the sort of place that it was never meant to be.

And Jesus got mad. Real mad. The theologians use the words "Wrath" or "Righteousness indignation" or as John's gospel puts it, "Zeal for thy House will consume me" He overturns the money-changers tables, scattering the coins all over the floor. He drives out the animals. "Get out, this is God's house, not a marketplace."

Nobody lifts a finger to stop Him because everybody knew He was doing the right thing. The temple authorities knew what was going on, but it brought in a lot of much needed revenue, some of which paid their wages, so they turned a blind eye. The money-changers justified their practices because a lot of their earnings were being siphoned off by the people they had to pay for permission to put up a table in the court. The temple inspectors justified their refusal to allow offerings in the temple that hadn't been purchased there, by saying they were ensuring God got the best.

The people went along with it because it was easier to put up with the way things were than dare challenge those who had the power to make their lives very uncomfortable. Everybody knew it was wrong, but no-one did a thing to make it right. Except for Jesus. He had the authority to put things right. This was His Father's business and His Father's house that they were fooling around with.

Jesus claimed the temple as His own. He uniquely identified Himself with the temple. When He said to the Jews who questioned His authority, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up", He was using a figure of speech to point towards His own death and resurrection. He spoke of the temple as His own body. He also claims our lives for Himself. Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?"

As we consider the temple of our own lives, are there things in us that Jesus could rightly get mad at? Are there things that we need to clear out of the way to truly worship God?

What really angered Jesus that day was that here was something beautiful that had turned ugly, something sacred that had become profane. A place of prayer and peace had become a place of pandemonium. The greatest gift of all God has given to us is the gift of life itself. Yet many go through life divorced from any sense of its mystery or is wonder or it's sacredness. So life becomes cheap, people become numbers or objects to be manipulated for others ends and any sense of meaning or purpose goes out of the window.

As Christian people we have a particular responsibility. People look to us to model Christ-like living. "You are a temple of God" says Paul. Well, that's real nice! But what sort of temple are we? The sort where you find prayer and peace which leads others to the presence of God, or the sort that would invoke Jesus' anger because it was so full of un-spirituality and compromise.

The season of Lent is a time when we are called to examine our hearts in the crystal clear light of God's love. I'm not going to stand here and tell you what's right and what's wrong in your walk with Christ. That's the job of the Holy Spirit, to bring conviction of sin and open up previously unexplored heartland's to the scrutiny of God's love. We know where we are weak and where we are strong. We know if there are areas in our lives where we say, "I really must work at that". That's what Lent is all about; opening up our hearts to the Savior. As we think about Jesus clearing the temple in Jerusalem, I invite us to consider what God needs to do to clear out the temple of our own lives.

As we do so let us remember that the very nature of God is love. God is not mad at us. God loves us. He sent Christ to save us. He sends the Spirit to renew us and reshape us. But for that to happen we have to pause and take stock. We have to seek to be the people God truly wants us to be. The clearing of the temple was a wake up call.

I invite on this Ash Wednesday to consider coming forward and being marked with ashes. It won't grant you any better access to God. It's a sign of being awake to God's call to repentance. It's a reminder that your inward prayer has to be backed up by outward actions.

Be marked with ashes as we begin our lenten pilgrimage. Clear out the temple of your heart. It's not a bad way to begin the journey!


Monday, February 16, 2015

Don't Blame Peter

Readings: Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on February 15th 2015

'Then Peter said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.' (Mark 9:5-6)

Peter was a straight ‘A’ student in the class of 'Embarrassing things I wished I’d never done'. He was the one who suggested Jesus should get out of the boat and let him, the fisherman, take care of the fishing business, only to be told 'Cast your net on the other side' and take in the biggest haul of fish he’d ever witnessed in his life.

He was the one who, when they came to arrest Jesus, took a swipe at the one of the guards and injured his ear, only to be told by Jesus, 'Put your sword away'. He witnessed Jesus healing the man and then ran away. He was the one who after Jesus had been crucified, three times, denied he was or ever had been a disciple.

In our reading today we are told, that in the face of an amazing happening on a mountain top, Peter says the wrong thing. Peter wants to stay on the mountain. He wants to build 3 little tents up there, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. But… wait….don’t blame Peter.

I can imagine Peter thinking, 'This is great! Everybody can come up the mountain and have a personal counseling session with the prophet of their choice! Maybe we could charge an entrance fee. Andrew could set up a concession stand. We could advertise. T-Shirts. Bumper Stickers. Get them to write stuff down and sell autographed copies of ‘The wisdom of the Three prophets’. Let’s stay on the mountain!

Peter’s dreams, whatever they may have been, were short lived and quickly silenced. We read in Mark 7:7 'A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"'

Once the voice had spoken and the cloud disappeared they were alone again. No clouds. No voices. No Moses. No Elijah. Just some awe struck (and confused) disciples standing on a lonely mountain with Jesus. No need for tents now. No need to stay on the mountain any longer. I want to draw two things from out of Peter’s experience.

  • Firstly, that there is a time for talk and a time for silence.
  • Secondly, that there is a time for being up on the mountain and a time to come down from the mountain.

There is a time for talk and a time for silence.

Don’t blame Peter. We all do it. We’ve all done things, said things, reacted to things, got involved with things, that weren’t only ‘inappropriate’ or ‘embarrassing’ but were ‘just plain wrong’. We all have moments when we are tortured by thoughts of ' I’m such an idiot!' We speak out when we should shut up and sometimes shut up when we should speak out.

There are many things in our Christian faith that are described as a ‘mystery’. The doctrine of the Trinity. The nature of the future in relation to prophecy. The celebration of communion. For centuries the church has been divided over mysteries. People have tried to contain the mysteries of faith with their words, and their theories and their assumptions.

If ever I claim to be able to tell you everything you need to know about God – do this church a favor and get another preacher! Do you think that any person, any church, any denomination, any system of belief, can fully capture in its words, the mystery, the majesty, the magnificence, the very presence of almighty God?

All the words of the Bible, all the confessions of the Churches, all the hymns and the prayers and the creeds, they are words. Oh! How we’d love to capture God in our words. How we’d love to contain God to something we know. How we’d love to put up little tents and say, 'Hey, that’s it, just go in there and talk it over. We’ll sort it out.'

God is Spirit. God is love. God is Mystery.
God is greater than we can conceive,
(Let alone contain)

Do you know what makes a mystery a mystery? Thefact that it is a mystery! Something that goes outside and beyond our normal experience. Like a Transfiguration. Moses, Elijah and Jesus bathed in light on a mountaintop. It is something that defies explanation. Before God it is a very good thing to sit in silent awe and wonder and contemplate life's mystery, rather than explain it.

Some of us are not very good at silence. We like the radio on or leave the TV going even if we are not watching it. We need a soundtrack playing behind our lives. When things happen that we can’t explain we want to block them out by answering questions that nobody is really asking.

When we have nothing to distract us it can make us aware of noise going on inside our own lives. Unanswered questions. Deeply rooted fears. Experiences we have never quite got over. Things we just don’t want to deal with. Shut them out. Say something. Play something.

Don’t blame Peter. He was just trying to deal with a situation where he felt totally out of his depth. Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us there is 'a time to be silent and a time to speak'. Wisdom is found when we discern the difference. That day on the mountain Peter got it wrong. Sometimes we will do the same. But if we make room in our lives for silent wonder then we are less likely to respond in inappropriate ways.

A second thing we see in this passage: There is a time for being up on the mountain and a time to come down from the mountain.

We all have our spiritual highs. Memories. Moments. Places. Experiences. Retreats. Conferences. Concerts. Mission Trips. Epiphanies. Milestones. Insights. Call them what you may. Be thankful when they come your way. Accept them. Cherish them. But don’t calcify them. Don’t petrify them. Don’t make idols of them.

That’s what Peter wanted to do. It was easy to have faith when the glory and radiance of that mountain moment was shining all around. 'Hey, let’s capture it and stay up here forever'. Don’t blame Peter. We all do it.

We have some experience away from our normal circumstances. We make great promises and come away having high ideals. But then the reality of the everyday crashes in on us. And our high intentions are left up on the mountain top. It’s hard coming down from the mountain. It’s not so easy to get back into the routine.

Experiences on the mountain are not given for us to stay up there, but are for us to take down into the valley with us. They may well be moments that have shaped us, but their genuineness will be measured by the influence they continue have upon us.

As a pastor I know this. I’ve been to this conference or that seminar where I’ve been presented with the ' 10 steps to the perfect church' approach. So often the presenters are speaking about things that have truly happened in their own situations. You rejoice with them. You hope to gain some insight. You feel your confidence boosted and say, 'Yes, that’s exactly what we need to do!'

It’s when you get back and you start dealing with the reality of your own situation that you start to realize that they were not coming from where you are. Thankfully we have a God who knows exactly where we are. One who offers forgiveness for the times when we like, Peter, have our mouths in gear whilst our brains in neutral. A God who is just as present in the valleys as upon the mountain-tops. A couple of insights from that Transfiguration experience.
  • There is a time for talk and a time for silence.
  • There is a time for being up on the mountain and a time to come down from the mountain.
The Transfiguration was a moment in time when the declaration of who Jesus was thundered once more from the heavens; "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!" (Mark 9:7)

Peter talks when he should have kept quiet. Don’t blame Peter. We all do it. We would rather explain everything than live with the mystery of unanswered questions. We would like a step by step master plan to guide our lives, rather than take each step prayerfully and carefully.

It is for us to make room to listen for Jesus Christ in the midst of our busy lives. If we don't create that space it is not going to happen. If we don't make the effort we risk reacting to situations in ways that might not be the best.

Don't blame Peter. He was on the mountaintop. He thought he had arrived. He thought 'This is it'. We also have fallen prey to the temptation that there are 'one size fits all' solutions. The reality is that yesterdays high is no help in getting us through today's low! No matter how wonderful Sunday morning worship may be, if it doesn't help us get through Monday morning then we are missing something.

It is for us who seek to be disciples to meet with Christ on the mountain and walk with Him in the valley. God does grant us moments of insight and encouragement. Be thankful for them. But recognize that the hard part is allowing those insights to transform our daily routines.

The good news is that it can be done. Peter learned from his mistakes. He became a great leader within the church. He didn't allow his misconceptions to define his life. Neither should we allow our failures to determine our futures.

Peter did not leave his faith up on the mountain. He embraced God's mystery, in such a way as it gave his life greater clarity. He did not allow those things he struggled to explain prevent him declaring those things that were as clear as day. He lived them out in the valley of his everyday battles and experiences.

God declares "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!" Jesus wasn't about to give up on Peter. Peter could have walked away from that experience feeling bitter and disillusioned. But he knew that with God there is grace. Through His Holy Spirit there is renewal.

Let us pray that we can walk though the valley confident that we serve a God who can guide our every step, who can take our embarrassing failures and turn them to strengths and whose greatest desire is that we know ourselves God's children, free, forgiven and capable of amazing things.

To God be the glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Handy Healers

Readings; Psalm 147:1-11, Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 8th, 2015

In the neighborhood where I grew up if somebody was good at doing something they would often be described as being 'handy'. If you were having a plumbing problem somebody would suggest, 'Give Joe a call he's pretty handy with the plumbing'. If you were buying a new car they'd say, 'Take Harry with you, he's handy when it comes to negotiating a deal'.

I sometimes describe myself as a self-taught guitarist. That's highly inaccurate. It's not as if one day I bought a guitar, then a 'play in a day' book and the next I had it down. I learned to play guitar in community. I had friends who were 'handy' when it came to playing, and sometimes a group of us would gather together in the front room at my parents house and learn from each other.

I went to a lot of concerts and tried to worm my way to the front so I could watch what the real guitar heroes were doing. Playing with others in a band taught me lessons I could never have learned if I'd never interacted with others. There were also those times I would just hide myself away and try to assimilate what I'd seen and in some way reproduce it.

I have just finished reading an autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards. There was a lot in it I couldn't identify with. The way he has often dealt with fame and fortune has been to follow a path of over indulgence, particularly in regard to the consumption of illegal drugs. The late comedian Robin Williams once commented that if ever there was a nuclear war only two species on the planet would survive – cockroaches and Keith Richards.

Excesses aside, the part I could identify with was how he learned to play guitar through observation. He relates a number of times how he would be on tour and encounter some blues 'great' whose technique he was trying to master and they would show him... 'Look, this is how the riff goes. Drop tune the B string, dampen the E, pull off on the D and there you have it ' Simple when you know how. Handy information to have if you are one of the Rolling Stones!

I've always thought that a great name for a church would be 'First Church of the Rolling Stones.' A central doctrine of our faith is the resurrection message that on Easter morning the women found the tomb was empty and because Jesus lived the stone had rolled aside. Our mission is to roll away the stones that prevent people from experiencing God's love, acceptance and direction.

When you see the way people react under pressure, (Yes, even the rich and famous), how they become entwined in relationships that cause them great pain, get hooked on all kinds of addictive behaviors, never know who their friends are and or who is just using them... well... the message that Jesus Christ is the great healer and hope bringer is a good one to know about. I gave this sermon the title 'Handy Healers' because as disciples of Jesus we are called to become 'handy' when it comes to sharing the good, liberating, life giving news of the gospel.

Our passage from Mark this morning gives us a picture of the learning process of the first disciples. They never went to college or had degrees in theology, so you could say they were 'self-taught'. But the reality is that they had the greatest life-coach there has ever been in the person of Jesus Christ.

He teaches them in their own home. Their first lesson is very personal. Our passage today begins with the small band of disciples going to the house of Simon and Andrew. All is not well. Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. We have no idea how intense a fever it was or what had caused it, but it was debilitating enough to prevent her from taking the active role she wished to occupy in the family.

Jesus takes her by the hand, and in the literal sense of the word, He 'raises her up', a phrase that would come to have great significance for the disciples after the stone had been rolled away from Christ's tomb. She is restored to health and sets about taking care of her guests. The Greek word used for her service is 'diakoneo', from which we derive our word 'deacons'.

In a similar way as to how I learned to play guitar, the disciples are learning through observation. It's personal. They experience first hand how Jesus is able to find us where we are, and through His healing love, restore us to full life. They see through Simon's mother-in-law that the right response to make to such a gift of grace is to seek to be of service to His Kingdom.

The road to being a handy healer begins at the personal level. We learn by observing how others are expressing their discipleship. But it moves into something public. As news about His ability becomes public knowledge we read 'At sundown, they brought to Him all who were sick or possessed...' and that 'He cured many who were sick with various disease and cast out many demons' (Mark 1:32, 34)

The disciples witness a master at work. Without a doubt they were kept busy trying to deal with the different needs of a great crowd of folk who had made their way to their door. Jesus would have dealt with each person and each situation differently. As they observed His techniques, they would be learning how to be handy healers.

When learning guitar I used to go to concerts to observe masters at work. The disciples are in an unprecedented position to see the impact the Kingdom of God could have upon peoples lives. I also was able to improve my skills by being part of a group.

One of the reasons why involvement in a church community is important for spiritual growth is that is that we learn lessons in community that we can never learn if we practice our faith as purely a private affair. In his autobiography Keith Richards talks a lot about the tensions that existed between the different band members. Belonging to any kind of community is never easy. Our faith communities include people we would naturally gravitate towards and those who, except for coming to church, would never cross our paths.

Every person within a church community has their own issues, their own peculiarities, and their own agenda. We are not all on the same page, we do not all have the same needs, we don't all see life from the same perspective, we are all at different places in our pilgrimages of faith.

I understand why people sometimes say, 'Jesus I like, it's His followers I have a problem with!' In our culture of 'Me first!' the very idea of deliberately spending quality time with people who may not think our needs matter as much as theirs do, can seem a strange one.

That's why God calls us into community. It forces us to consider other peoples needs. We may even conclude that their needs are so much greater than ours and that we ar in a position to become handy healers in their situations. Who knows, maybe if we can model what being a community looks like, we could be a healing force for our whole community!

At which point maybe God smiles and says, “Yep, I think you are starting to see the bigger picture now! I'll teach you things at a personal level that I want you to put into practice in the very public arena of a worshiping community.”

There is a third strand in this passage. Verse 35 “And in the morning... Jesus went to a deserted place and He prayed.” The disciples are confused by this action and they go looking for Him. Didn't He realize that everyone was searching for Him? When they find Him, He tells them that it was time to move on because there were other people who needed to learn about the Kingdom.

When learning guitar it was great to sit around and jam with friends. It was great to go to concerts and observe the greats. It was great to play in a band with others and try to put a performance together. Yet there were also those times when you just had to go somewhere alone and assimilate everything you were learning.

Whilst our faith is nurtured in both personal and public settings, there also needs to be those times that are intensely private. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 6:6Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6). If the disciples were ever to become 'Handy Healers' they needed to understand the importance of having a secret place of prayer.

It was whilst in that secret place Jesus found the direction and empowerment He needed to fulfill all that God was calling Him to do. If He needed a secret place, and tells us we need a secret place, then I 'm confident that means this is something we should pursue!

Learning to be handy at doing just about anything takes three things.

  • We learn from personal interaction with those who are closest to us.
  • We learn through public expression of our faith within a worshiping community.
  • We consolidate all we are learning through taking our lives in private to God, spending some one-on-one time in God's presence so that we may be empowered, through the Holy Spirit, to be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let us pray that, by following the example given us in Mark's gospel, we can, as disciples of Jesus, become 'handy' when it comes to sharing the good, liberating, life giving, healing news of the gospel. And all to the glory of God. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Play Makers

Readings; Psalm 111, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 1st, 2015

Today onto the field shall step two teams, the Seattle Sea Hawks and the New England Patriots. Each shall attempt to become supreme champions in the football arena. Both shall try every trick in the book to win. The gods of chance and misfortune shall play their part. Ultimately the team that makes the best plays shall win.

Back in Capernaum some 2000 years ago a different game was about to play out. On the one side are the defenders of religious tradition and orthodoxy. Their opposition comes in the form of a preacher, proclaiming that because the Kingdom of God had drawn near in His very person, things had to change.

Almost as soon as He opens His mouth comes an awareness that His teaching is coming from a different place than that of the Scribes. His presence and His message exude a freedom that the listeners had never encountered before. He is bubbling over. The plays He is making suggest a revolution.

Then comes one of those moments that sometime happens in a game. A crazy gets onto the field. Don't you hate it when that happens? Some half-naked, placard waving individual feels that their particular cause is one that the rest of us really need to be informed about and it stops the whole game.

In 2012, during one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar, the historic traditional 158 year old Oxford and Cambridge University Boat-Race, just as the boats were reaching the very last bend, the umpire noticed a man swimming in the River Thames directly in front of them and he had to stop the race. A representative of the Metropolitan Police noted: 'They almost took his head off'. Is nothing sacred?

That morning in the synagogue the crazy is described as being 'a man with an unclean spirit'. Verse 24 'He cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.

I'm sure I don't have to tell those of you who are used to snoozing through the morning sermon that this is not what you want to hear during your morning meditation. Religion has its place. Preachers have their place. Crazees have their place. And never the twain shall meet!

Actually 'twain' only refers to two things colliding. If there's 'three' things colliding maybe it should be called a 'Thrain'. But as 'Thrain' is a character in Lord of the Rings, that makes no sense. 'What's going on here? I'm losing the script!' Which is precisely how the scribes, that morning were starting to feel about Jesus.

Why couldn't He play by the rules? Who let the crazy in? Who really were the crazees? Was it Him? Was it the deranged man? Was it us? There's some strange plays being made on the field this morning.

The religious authorities felt that the events that morning were violating their sacred space. This kind of thing shouldn't happen. Not in our synagogue. Not in our town. Who's in charge here?

Lest they had any doubt look at the next verses. “Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him."

This passage is not really about an individual finding healing. It's about 'Who has the authority?' It's a very threatening passage. When people start manifesting what appears to be evil, when there are crazees about, when people start to redefine the game or make plays we have never seen before, people are going to feel threatened.

Here is the challenge. Our lives are our sacred space. We don't want it violated. We want to feel like we are in control. We do not want to even acknowledge that in our lives there may be dark places, there may be unsettling corners of evil or insanity or craziness. If they even for a moment threaten to reveal themselves we are going to shut them down, and not hear them or acknowledge them.

Jesus calls them out. Jesus exposes them. He confronts the demons. He names them. They really don't like it! "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who You are, the Holy One of God." We put our lives under the scrutiny of divine holy light and we know we are not going to like everything that is revealed. We want to lift up our strengths, not our shortcomings. Our victories, not our defeats. Our good points, not our failings.

Pretending everything is OK doesn't work when it comes to God. In Matthew's gospel Jesus tells His followers 'For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (Matthew 10:26)

Has your computer ever had a virus? This is how viruses work. They exploit the vulnerabilities of the system. They find an area of compromise and worm their way in. Suddenly you get all these weird pop-ups appearing on your screen. Or worse still your whole system can be frozen up and everything on your computer, including your passwords and private information, end up in the hands of folk who you don't want anything to do with.

You can picture sin as a virus that attacks our personal system. Temptation sometimes gets the better of us. We tend to excuse it and say, 'I'm only human'. Jesus tells us, 'You are only human, and that's part of the problem. Human nature is very deceptive. To be delivered from something you have to confront your inner demons, and that's why I'm calling them out!'

Ultimately that's the only strategy that can win the game. Until we allow God to deal with our vulnerabilities and heal the wounds we don't want to acknowledge, we live with them and they open us up to be exploited. The first thing anybody with a problem has to acknowledge is... they have a problem. Be it our temper, our finances, our diet, our avoiding something or our over indulging in something... I don't have to tell you what your vulnerabilities are... you know them!

Jesus is the great play-maker. He wants our spiritual life to be strong. He wants us to know the joy of God's wholeness and healing. He calls out the demons, not to embarrass us or create a scene, but because He wants the personal sanctuaries of our lives to be free from all that would cheapen or destroy them.

Shallow and silly as it may be the song “Drop Kick me Jesus”, does have this prayer within it. “Make me, oh, make me, Lord, more than I am, Make me a piece in Your master game plan, Free from the earthly temptation below, I've got the will, Lord, if You got the toe!

Jesus certainly 'had the toe' back in Capernaum. He kicked the crazees right out of the poor unfortunate guy who cried out for help in the middle of morning worship. Predictably, people didn't like it. Particularly those who sought to control everything and felt that they were the ones in charge. The demon cried out in anger 'I know who You are, the Holy One of God.' - a conclusion the scribes were certainly not willing to share!

This morning we come to a table laid with bread and wine. Communion. A place to confront our personal demons and seek to be delivered. In his communion directions to the church in Corinth, Paul instructs; “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (1Co 11:28). The Lord's Prayer contains that simple phrase 'Deliver us from evil'; surely meaning both evil within and around our lives.

Today two teams will battle it out on the field of play. One will win. One will... take second place. Life will go on. Everyday of our life we face conflicts, both internal and external. Everyday we are called to face structural evils, hunger, injustice, hatred. God promises us to walk with us. Sometimes God may call out the demons. If that happens notice the results. We are called to a place of deeper peace. We become whole. We move forward.

As we approach the communion table we shall sing the words of Hymn #345 “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, Forgive our foolish ways, Re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives they service find, In deeper reverence praise” ;- a fitting prayer in the light of the passage we have looked at today.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.