Monday, August 31, 2015

James 1: Hear - Do

Readings: Psalm 45:1-9, Song of Sol. 2:8-13, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, James 1:19-27 
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, Sunday August 30, 2015

I’m starting today on a series of sermons based upon the lectionary lessons from the Book of James. James, along with the books of Peter and John, is considered to be the first of the ‘general’ or ‘catholic’ epistles, meaning 'for everybody' letters. In other words, what James has to say is something every wannabee disciple of Jesus Christ needs to take note of.

Many commentators believe James was the brother of Jesus, who occupied a position of leadership in the first generation church in Jerusalem. As a document, often given a dating of around 60 A.D, it gives us a special glance into both what the earliest church believed and how they put their beliefs into practice.

Central to the Book of James is the idea that, if you are not practicing your faith, then you not really believing it. For James the only truths that we can really be said to ‘believe in’ are the ones by which we live our lives.

James begins by asking a deeply challenging question. 'Do you believe – really believe?' If so, then what you hear, you will do. More than that, you will be taking care about ‘what’ you listen to, in order that ‘what you do’ is the right thing to do.

The infant church grew in the midst of serious opposition. Jesus was regarded by some as a radical with designs to bring down the establishment and by others as a criminal. To be associated with the 'People of the Way' could bring serious opposition to your door, particularly from those who held the keys of political and religious power.

James asks us searching questions about our belief. 'Do we believe, really believe that God is with us when we go through the bad times? Do we believe that such times have a purpose and a reason to them, that even in the midst of your trials, God walks with us?

'Do we believe, really believe, that if we search for an answer God will help us find it?' If not, James seems to suggest that it’s not worth bothering to ask and we might as well not waste our words!

'Do we believe, really believe,' he intimates, 'That all our stuff, all those possessions and insurances and people and things can not buy us happiness or true love?' If we are looking for fulfillment and security in those things then we need to know that we are going to grow old and like the flowers of field, just fade away and die. And then what will we have? What we won't have is what he calls 'A crown of life'.

Our reading began at verse 17 'Every good gift is from above' ‘Do we believe, really believe’ James challenges us ‘that God’s desire is to do good things in our life? Or have we got this picture that giving all to God is too costly, or too full of risks, or too uncertain for us to let our self go with the stream of God’s grace?'

If we believe, really believe, then something we will be learning to do is hold our tongue. We will be in a situation where we recognize that we are not the one who has all the answers but that commitment to God holds the way forward, so we will be looking to God, seeking to hear and be guided by God’s Word and God’s Spirit.

He counsels us take care of where we are looking for answers and direction and guidance. 'People of the Way' should be looking to the way outlined in scripture, the way of taking up a cross, the way of giving our lives in service to others, the way of faithful action.

Fill our head full of this world’s stuff and guess what our life is going to be full of? If all we’ve got up here is Oprah Winfrey and the latest political shenanigans and the most recent gossip from Hollywood, then guess what is determining the way we are living our life? Clue. It is not God’s Word.

He really gets to the crunch in verse 22.
'Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves'.

That is the heart of the matter. It is SO easy for religion to become a matter of words rather than actions. We can even make our knowledge of what the bible says a substitute for doing what the Bible tells us to do.

Oh, yes ,we know all the stories of Jesus, we are up on that Paul guy, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me’ ...' I love that song'... and the Apostles Creed? 'Buddy I’ve studied every stanza and I think I’ve got some good theories on that little bit about descending into hell..and oh, I read my bible every day, I can name all of the books and recite some portions by heart'

That may be so, but what are we doing about it? As Presbyterians we are proud of our stance on education. We want our people to be nurtured and to understand their faith. But for what purpose? So we can argue with Baptists? So we can, when called on to do so, recite the 10 commandments without having to look them up, or so we can outline, at the drop of a hat, the ten plagues of Egypt?

It’s great to learn. We need to be listeners. But it’s a waste if it doesn’t lead us to 'Do'. Faith is a verb. Faith has to be activated to mean anything. Hearing and learning is important. But they are not the whole picture. The other side is the faithful doing. So James offers us this simple pattern.

Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do.

He tells us that if we don’t get that, then do we know what we are like? We are like a person who looks in the mirror, recognizes themselves and looks away, and then looks in the mirror again and says, 'Well, who is that? Oh.. duh.. it’s me.'

He suggests that is how stupid our faith appears to be if we are looking in the Bible to find God’s way, then thinking to ourselves, ‘Hey, I got the message, life’s like that’ and we move on and do nothing about it.

Do you know what I have heard time and time again? 'Oh, I don’t go to church. Those so called Christians. They don’t live right. What a bunch of hypocrites'.We don’t have a reputation for hearing and doing. We have a reputation for hearing and ignoring. We have an uphill climb ahead of us.

But it is not a mountain we are called to climb alone. Psalm 45 speaks of the God who anoints God's servants “With the oil of gladness (Psalm 45:7 NRS). Scripture teaches us that as God calls us to faithful service, He sends His Holy Spirit, the anointing we need to do God;s work. The Spirit is here described as the 'Oil of gladness'. Serving God is not a thankless grind, but a response of thanksgiving. As we learned at Vacation Bible School 'We love because He first loved us.' (1 John 4:19)

In our gospel lesson today from Mark, Jesus chastises the religious folk who knew the letter of the law, but failed to act upon its spirit. ' He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me' (Mark 7:6)

Jesus also said that we are known by the fruits we produce, rather than the by the good intentions we profess to hold to. In other words we need to be both hearers and doers of the word!

Let us resolve to be people who not only listen, but act upon every Word of God that touches our hearts. Let us take James message about hearing and doing on-board our own lives. For in such a way, the Kingdom of God is built and grown in our personal life, in our church life and in our community.

Our churches mission statement states that we are congregation pursuing two goals 'Growing in Faith, Called to serve' That statement takes us to the heart of James simple pattern for Christian life.

Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do, Hear – Do.

May we grow in faith and respond to Christ's call to be faithful servants.
To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition (Psalm 23)

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1-30, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69, Psalm 23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 23, 2015

A piece of music I remember for my youthful days, partly because it was covered by a progressive rock group known as ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’ was titled ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ by the composer Mussorgorsky. The music in the piece reflected different pictures the composer viewed in an art gallery.

One day I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and thumbing through a magazine article about the 23rd Psalm. It compared the 23rd Psalm to a series of portraits about spiritual life. I neither recall what the magazine was, nor whom the author may have been, and I apologize to them if I am stealing their material. This idea, of the 23rd Psalm being an exhibition of pictures that speak to us about the love and protection of God, left an impression on me and it’s those impressions I want to share with you this morning.

I invite you to walk through pictures at an exhibition of the 23rd Psalm.

  1. The Lord’s My Shepherd, I shall not want’.
Here is a picture of peace, rest and care. Here is a lying back, sipping a cool drink on a wonderful summer’s day, enjoying the blue sky, no clouds in sight, green pasture. The grass is rich; everything is under control, because the shepherd has taken care of it. A cool stream is gurgling by, the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, “It is well with my soul”. You are satisfied. You want for nothing.

There is neither worry nor hurry in this picture. Feast your eyes upon it. Sink down into that cool grass. Feel the warmth of the suns rays caress your face. Problems? What problems? Just savor the moment and squeeze every ounce of joy from it that you can. Perfect peace. Perfect rest. Perfect care. The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. God is taking care of things. And we are one of the things that God is taking care of! It’s looking good in the neighborhood.

I’d like to leave you in this picture but we must move along to our next frame, and this one is not so pretty. Verse 4

  1. I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’
The sky turns black. The clouds roll in. The air becomes heavy and threatening. No more lying down in green pastures. The still waters have become an ugly torrent. The birds are no longer singing. That peaceful world has been shaken and swept away.

This is the ruins after 9/11. This is New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy has rolled through. I remember a congregational member I had in Liverpool describing what it was like to live through the Blitz when German planes dropped bomb after bomb upon the city. How they sheltered in a dark and suffocating concrete bunker and could hear the sirens and the sounds of the bombs falling, and prayed that the next one did not have their name on it. How much they feared the scene they would see when they emerged from the shelter.

This is a picture of dark desolation. And there is a question hanging over this picture. Where has the Shepherd gone? ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?’

If this were a movie, maybe the scene would pan to a busy Jerusalem street, where bruised and battered, wearing a crown of thorns, a man is carrying a cross through a cussing and blaspheming crowd. Harsh soldiers are driving Him forward. He stumbles and they force a member of the crowd to take up His cross.

You wonder if you could really look that defeated man in the eye. Alone. Despised. Rejected by humanity. A carpenter from Nazareth who left his nails and wood to minister the love of God to us, only to find himself stumbling up a hill towards the nails and wood of a crucifixion.

Where is the Shepherd? Look. He walks through the darkest of all valleys. He does not fear evil. He takes it upon Himself. He absorbs its darkness. For us. For you. For me. As the wind blows cold and the darkness deepens remember where the shepherd is. He walks through that dark place with us. Maybe unseen. Maybe barely distinguishable among all the other sights and threatening sounds.

But like that story of the footprints in the sand of life’s journey, those times when only one set of prints appear in the sand, are the times that He carries us. King David, the poet to whom the 23rd Psalm is attributed, many times had to flee for fear of his life from King Saul. David stubbornly maintained, “Lord I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me!”

The music that plays in the background is not “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Rather we hear a gentle, yet confident voice that declares, “My dear child, I will walk with you. Hold my hand. We’ll talk about the “Why” and the “How” at a later time. For, now, just hold on tight. There is a light up ahead that you cannot yet see. Hold on and trust me.”

We must move on through our gallery. Our next picture is plain and simple. Maybe it’s a sculpture. Or even just an item or two laid up against the wall. A Shepherd’s Rod and a Shepherd’s staff. The last part of verse 4.

  1. Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort me”
In this verse the word ‘comfort’ is in the sense of “To make strong”. A Fort is a place of strength. When our lives are under the protection of God’s Grace and love we are in a strong place.

The Shepherds Rod was used to count the sheep. Jesus told that wonderful parable about how the good shepherd would go looking for even one that strayed from the fold. Our lives count to God. That is a strong place to be living from. We count. We matter. Our contribution to the life of our church is important. Every one of us has a vital part to play in God’s scheme of things.

The Shepherds staff, or crook, had a hook on the end of it. It could be put around the wayward sheep’s shoulders and neck to guide them back into line. As the prophet declared, “We all like sheep have gone astray”. It is a strengthening thing to know that our God will come after us to guide is back into the right way when we go astray. Take a look at the rod and staff. Reach out a hand and touch it. Run your fingers over the wood. Feel the grain of the staff and know you count enough for God to guide your life with His strong love.

Now here’s our next picture. Verse 5

  1. You prepare a table before me, in the presence of mine enemies”
A sumptuous table laden with every imaginable goody to enjoy. In West Virginia they'd call it a ‘Bean Feast’. This is not the place to be counting calories or worrying about cholesterol numbers. We have walked through the valley, come through to the other side and the Father has welcomed the prodigal home. This is an Hallelujah, Amen, Resurrection bathed glory of a celebration. Enjoy the delights, the sounds, soak up that atmosphere.

God is here. You are the R.S.V.P guest. God has set the table. Your cup is bubbling over and it’s O.K. to let it. You can make a face at all the forces that told you that you would never make it, because you win, they lose. All the enemies of Christ are now revealed for what they really are, devilish losers who never had a chance of victory.

Some of you ladies, I know that before you go somewhere special you like to make a visit to the hairdressers, to the Salon. I know that when you come out of there you are glowing and woe betide us men if we don’t notice you have a hairdo that could make fashion models green with envy.

David says, “Lord, my head You anoint with oil”. That was his way of saying, “I am looking good tonight. I should be on the cover of Vogue. Look out fashion gurus, the new kid on the block has walked out on the catwalk and the flash bulbs have gone ballistic”. This is a meal to be enjoyed and basked in, and you have never looked in better shape to enjoy it!

Here is a call for us to let the goodness of God overflow upon us, to be anointed by the Holy Spirit, to allow the beauty of the presence of Jesus Christ around us and within us, to be something that we celebrate and bask in and bathe in.

One picture left. Verse 6 of our Psalm.
  1. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”

I realize it is a cliché, but as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home”. I don’t know what the home in your final picture looks like, but mine is one that I haven’t reached yet, but without a doubt it looks like home.

I can offer a few clichés, “Wherever I lay my hat is my home” and “Home is where the heart is.” Going beyond the clichés I know one thing for sure. Our resting places here on earth were never meant to be our final home. We’re all just passing through. And as we travel the pictures change and God keeps moving us along through the many different scenes of our lives.

Stick with God and surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life. Jesus spoke about many mansions being reserved for us in our Father’s house, that at the end of the road our hearts will find perfect peace and perfect rest. Such is the final picture in our exhibition. Let me take you through our pictures one more time.

Firstly – a picture of tranquility where we want for nothing, for the Lord is our shepherd.
Secondly – a picture of a dark valley, which though awful and desolate, is one that we do not travel through alone.
Thirdly – A Shepherds Rod and Staff by which we are strengthened and comforted
Fourthly – A feast to which we are invited and at which we are anointed by God’s love
Finally – a home for our restless spirits in the presence of God.

And the great thing about this exhibition is that you are not supposed to leave these pictures here. Take them home and share them with your friends.

To God’s name be the Glory.
Adrian J Pratt

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Trusting and Telling

Readings; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13, John 6:24-35,Romans 10::5-13, Psalm 621-8,
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 2nd, 2015

This morning as we come to the communion table I want to talk about two simple themes. 'Trusting' and 'Telling'. I would like us to focus on verse 8 of Psalm 62 which reads “Trust in God at all times , my people, tell God all your troubles, for God is our refuge”.

The Psalm speaks of three things;
  • Trusting in God
  • Telling God what troubles us, and then gives us the reason why we should do that,
  • God is our refuge.

Why talk about this verse? Well please keep in mind as I minister this morning, I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm not trying to entertain you, all that I desire this morning is that by looking at this Psalm we can open up our lives a little bit more to the Lord Jesus Christ, so that He can come today, in the power of His Spirit's love and can do something special for us. Of course, if that is to happen, then we must trust in God. As this verse says;

1. Trust in God at all times, my people.

All times, includes the present moment. It is what is happening here and now in our heart relationship with God that is the vital thing. We can say to our selves, 'Lord, I'll trust You for tomorrow, but, well, today things are not as they should be”. We can think back on past experiences and say, 'Lord, I placed my trust in You, last week, or last month or last year or in that service or 'the hour when I first believed”. But those moments are either yet to come or have already passed into history.

We are here because God has invited us. We are here because God has made it possible for us to be here. We are here, at this place, at this hour, for a purpose and a reason. Our purposes and reasons may not be all the same, but we are, nevertheless, all here. In a similar way, God is here. This is God's meeting place, God's touching place, with our lives and the question the Psalmist has placed on God's lips is 'Do you trust me?' 'Trust in God at all times, my people.'

Notice God is not asking us if we are hoping that God can help us out. God is inviting us to place our trust in Him. Trust and hope are not the same thing. I've used the story of the tightrope walker and Niagara Falls in bible study, and as it's a favorite illustration I'll probably use it again, so here it is.

A particular entertainer had a show, which featured a tightrope stretched across the Niagara Falls, across which he walked, pushing a wheel-barrow. Before he set off he said to an onlooker, 'Do you believe I can do it?'. 'Yes, of course I do' said the spectator. 'Right' said the entertainer, 'Then jump in the wheelbarrow and I'll push you across!'

Now not one of us would jump into the wheelbarrow of a tightrope walker if we only 'hoped' they would make it across. We would have to genuinely 'trust' they could do what they said they could do.

God does not want us just to 'hope' in Him. It doesn't seem to work when we come to God with an attitude of 'Well; I sure hope You can do something about my life, and this world that we live in and it's problems and all that stuff'. That is not a commitment. That's an evasion. That's not faith. That's just expressing an interest.

Jesus was quite clear. Simply being interested in the things He was up to was not a qualification for discipleship. The commitment he asked for was plain. 'Follow Me!' Only a fool would leave everything to follow somebody they 'hoped' might turn out to be a decent sort of chap. The foolishness of the gospel is the power of God for those who are being saved. Paul writes in Romans 10:11 'The Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed”'.

Trust in the things that this world offers and we easily reach a barrier of disappointment. Money can buy a lot of things, but life is more than things. We can surround ourselves with earthly security, financial plans, people to care for us and all of that, but at the end of all things it is just going to be us and God, and then where will our security be?

How would the Psalmist answer that question? Verse 7 'My salvation and honor depend on God; he is my strong Protector, he is my Shelter.' Let us search our hearts this morning. Who are we trusting? Who are we depending on? The psalmist encourages us to take this message on board.'Trust in God at all times'. Then we are invited;

2. 'Tell God your all troubles'

What a gem of a verse to focus on as we come to a table laid with bread and wine! Here is God saying “What's on your mind? What's bothering you this morning? C'mon, tell me about it!' What a great statement 'Tell God all your troubles'.

So let us use our God given imaginations for a moment. Instead of being here in church, imagine that we are sitting alone, on a bench, on a beautiful summers morning, right by the banks of a clear, cool, flowing a stream. It's a perfect day. There is nobody else around. You are alone with your thoughts.

You start to think things through. Some worries and concerns start to surface. Some regrets. Some doubts. Some deep down hurts that you thought you were over. It all starts to build up. You are a little tensed up right now.

Then along comes Jesus and He sits down on the bench right next to you. It doesn't feel strange. It just feels right. He smiles, looks you in the eye and says, “Hey, What's wrong? What's troubling you? How can I help?”

What would we say? We couldn't hide the truth from Him. He knows us better than we know ourselves. We know He wants only the absolute best for us. I think some of us would have tears. We'd have things to share we are afraid to share with anybody else. Experiences for the past that we have bottled up and sometimes been ashamed of.

We'd share things we are going through right now. For one it might be a money problem. For another it might be anger. For another it might be a relationship. For some it might be a habit we can't let go of, or a sickness that won't let go of us. Maybe we'd just tell Him how tired we are or lonely we are or frustrated we are by life right now. For sure each one of us would have something different to say. Yet He would deal with each one of us.

That picture, in our minds, it is not just an image. It's a way of thinking our way into the Bibles teaching. Whenever we gather in His name, Jesus is among us. The Risen Christ is in our midst and by His Holy Spirit, as we lay our lives before Him, He longs to help, He comes alongside us and says 'Tell me all your troubles.'

He invites us to come to His table so that we remember Him, not as a dead prophet, but as our Living Lord, whose love went to the depth of the Cross. That we remember He wants to be involved with the whole of our lives. That He is the healer, the restorer, the bringer of peace, the joy bearer, the One who offers truth and justice and dignity and light.

Trust in God. Tell God all your troubles. Then thirdly think on that last part of the verse;

3. God is our refuge.

A refuge is a place of shelter from pursuit or danger or trouble. Many times in his life, David, the person who receives the credit for collecting together all of these Psalms, had to escape from King Saul, who wanted him dead. Though David had to find a literal hiding place, the source of his strength was not in the depths of some dark cave, but in the light of trust in God. He expresses his complete confidence on God to protect him and save him. In the words of one of our hymns 'Rock of Ages cleft for me, Let me hide myself in thee'.

Here at the table of the Lord are emblems and symbols of our faith. Here is our shelter, our refuge. We can know the security of Christ's love, if only we allow His Holy Spirit to break through to our hardened hearts.

I recall some years ago, when I served a church in inner city Liverpool, I went on study leave to a place called Waverley Abbey, in Southern England. As the course went on, I regretted my choice. I was serving a struggling congregation. We were plagued by local crime. The drug abusers in the area used to shoot up on our church steps. We had put barbed wire around the roof, because vandals would steal the slates and the lead that held the slates in place.

It seemed everybody else on the course was serving thriving congregations, with budgets that overflowed and growth like that of the day of Pentecost. The more the week went along, the more discouraged I became. I almost left early as it was a long drive back to the north. But I decided to stay for the final communion service.

I couldn't tell you what the preacher said. I couldn't tell you what the hymns we sang were. I couldn't tell you if we had communion by intinction or in little cups or how it was served.

What I remember from that service was a lady Baptist minister who sat down and sang a solo at the piano. I can't tell you her name, I can't even tell you what the song was, but as she sang, suddenly and unexpectedly, a warmth started to flow from the top of my head, to the tips of my toes. It was as though Jesus had come and sat on that bench next to me and said. “Tell me all your troubles”.

And I left that course with a goofy smile on my face, a burden lifted from my shoulders and went back into ministry in the city with a renewed hope and trust in God. What happened? God did what only God can do. Overflowed with grace that gave me a new perspective on my situation and changed my heart from within.

Before that time and since that time there have been other occasions when God has broken through. Always unexpected. Always memorable. Always with grace and truth and peace. God is our refuge.

So come to this place of refuge, this table, this day. Remember Jesus Christ in such a way that you know... He remembers you! He died for you. He was raised for you. His Holy Spirit can guide you and lead you and heal you and feed you!

As the Psalmist says; “Trust in God at all times , my people, tell God all your troubles, for God is our refuge”.

To God's name be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.