Monday, August 28, 2017

Wilderness Living 1 "Faith Against the Odds”

Reading: Psalm 124, Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 27 2017

When you think of Egypt, you think of pyramids. When Joseph was in charge in Egypt times were good for the Israelite's But Joseph died and people started to treat the Israelite's as the outsiders. As successive Pharaoh’s came along the treatment they received grew worse. Ambitious building projects were started and cheap labor needed. The Israelite's were forced into slavery. By the time that Moses was born, the Israelite's plight was desperate.

A pyramid like power structure had come into play. At the top was the Pharaoh, and just below that, the governors of Pharaoh’s court. Then various layers of government reached down to the Egyptian people. Below them were the foreigners and slaves, referred to in some ancient texts as the ‘hapiru’ - ‘lower class folks’ who were both despised and feared. They had a purpose in that they were necessary to carry out the work that the Pharaoh’s needed doing.

There was even a power structure among the ‘hapiru’ (or Hebrews as the Israelite slaves became known.) Those who would collaborate with the government were given the job of overseers. Those who were the strongest were honored above the weakest. Of least importance were the women and children. Their place was very much at the bottom of the pyramid of power.

Impressive as the Pharaohs pyramid of power may have been, there was a power in Egypt that could flatten the tallest pyramids. That power rested not in the hands of the Pharaoh, nor the government, or in the Egyptian population, or in some Israelite warrior, but in the lives of 3 women and a young girl. The power of faith.

That’s one of the things that frightened Pharaoh about those Hebrew people. They appeared to be blessed, despite their lives of servitude. Their numbers were growing and their influence was spreading. Some of them seemed to have their finger on some thing that eluded everybody else. They didn’t seem to fear him in the same way as everybody else did.

They had their faith in a higher power than Pharaoh. No doubt at times they worried what would become of them, but they clung to the promises made to their ancestors, that one day their people would prosper. Right then, it must have seemed a dim and distant hope. Yet it was a hope that lived in the life of three women and a girl child at the bottom of the pyramid of power. They had a faith that went against the odds.

The odds were that the Israelite people could look forward only to a long and unhappy life of drudgery. The odds were that Pharaoh’s jealousy and fear of them would bring nothing but trouble. Their chance of survival in such a hostile environment was extremely slim.

Everyday brought more bad news. They were forbidden to marry. They heard an order that at birth their sons were to be murdered. When this order failed to be carried out, they had the threat that all their boy children who were born would be thrown into the river and drowned. 

Despite all of that, the faithful actions of three women and a girl-child were about to set in course a chain of events that would bring the Egyptian nation to it’s knees and have Pharaoh begging for the Israelites to depart from the land.

The first two women to give voice to this life transforming faith are two mid-wives, “One of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,” Not exactly household names these days, but without their faithful refusal to carry out Pharaohs commands, then Moses would not have survived to be a child, yet alone a leader of the people of God.

Pharaoh calls the women to him and tells them that, at the time of birth, if it is a Hebrew boy child they are to kill it, if it is a girl then that was fine. But, Scripture tells us, Exodus 1:17 “The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”

Pharaoh is not pleased by this and demands an explanation. The midwives are less than truthful and inform the Pharaoh that these Israelite women are so blessed and fertile that they kept having babies before the midwives could even get to them. Of course Pharaoh is not pleased and then gives the order for all the new baby boys to be drowned in the river.

The first two ladies expressing “faith against the odds” are Shiprah and Puah. The third is the mother of Moses, Jochebed, who was married to Aram. They were both from the priestly tribe of the Levites and after getting married they have a daughter, followed some time later by a son who appears on the scene at the time the Pharaoh is trying to murder all the baby boys.

Now there are hints in the story that this new born is no ordinary child. There is almost a mirroring of the early chapters of Genesis, that may not have been as lost on the original hearers of the story as it has become for us. First of all there is Exodus 2:2 “The woman conceived and bore a son; and she saw that he was a fine baby

The word structure in the Hebrew for the phrase ‘saw that he was a fine baby’ is similar to that of the Creation narrative, where God looks upon all the earth that has been created and proclaims “It is Good.” The idea of new beginnings is here hinted at, that through this child something new and creative was about to happen.

We are familiar with the story of Moses mother, Jochabed, placing the child in a specially prepared basket, and floating him on the river so that he may escape the wrath of Pharaoh. Here the images of Noah and the Ark that became the people’s salvation are evoked. Again the impression is given that this is no ordinary child.

Something more than just self-preservation is going on here. The mother of this child is acting with a faith that went against the odds. To simply hide the baby in a basket and let it float away would be a rather foolish action. The impression is given that she was following some barely discerned plan; acting in faith that these were actions God was directing her to take.

Then, the boldest of them all, the fourth in our quartet of faithful ladies, is the sister of Moses, Miriam, who sticks around to see what was going to happen to the baby. That the daughter of Pharaoh should come and find the child, then adopt it as her own, was not anything that either the baby’s sister or mother could have predicted, but that’s what happens.

Think of the boldness of that little girl in approaching the daughter of a Pharaoh! The daughter was a princess whilst she was the child of a slave. And how quick witted she is, arranging that the child’s nurse be her mother. Who could have seen that one coming? Truly these are examples of women and a little girl who had faith that went against the odds! Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam. Four great (female) hero's of faith!

We have the benefit of hindsight. We have not only watched the cartoon “Prince of Egypt” but even read the original script in our Bibles. Not surprising they made a movie out of it. It’s a heroic story. Moses the adopted Prince, coming to terms with who he is, then leading the people towards freedom.

BUT… were it not for the faith of two-mid-wives, Shiphrah and Puah, of mother Jochabed who faithfully obeyed what she sensed God was calling her to do and the boldness of a young girl called Miriam in approaching a princess, then Moses would never have survived being born and his name would be lost among all the others who fell foul of Pharaohs madness.

There is a lot of talk around these days about the future and even survival of the traditional churches. It is no secret that most of the major denominations have seen a numerical loss. It’s part of our story here in this church that congregations once were larger and membership figures were once higher.

The world has changed. This is a land where many people believe they can live comfortably without needing a religion to help them through. We live in a period of history where people are more and more defined by what they do rather than who they are.

We are a fast food, speed of light, instant gratification society across the generations. The processes of sustained thought and disciplined action; the whole idea of denying of self in order to serve others has become increasingly devalued. We are just too complacent, too stimulated and too busy for the things that Jesus suggests are Kingdom priorities.

That’s a lot to deal with. It’s a huge pyramid of ideology that we labor under. It’s a difficult thing to truly influence when there are those that tell us right and wrong no longer have any meaning and that the only thing that really matters is that we do as best as we can.

BUT... we can learn from this story of three women and a little girl. They had the one thing that could bring the pyramids down. Faith. A trusting, uncomplicated reliance on God and ability to respond to what God was calling them to do.

Remember some of the things that Jesus said about faith?

(Matthew 17:20) “He said to them, (Because of their little faith), truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."

(Luke 17:6) “And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you.”

To those who felt his healing touch. (Luke 8:48) “He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."

To those needing to know they were accepted by God:- (Mark 2:5) “And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."

Mountain removing, tree-planting, wholesome making, sin forgiving, pyramid shattering faith. That’s all those ladies back in Pharaohs day had. What a difference it made. How it changed things. What sort of difference should faith be making to our lives? What sort of changes can faith in God bring about in our situations?

We’ll never know, unless we like those ladies, seek to be people who are faithful to God. Such is the challenge they lay before us today. To embrace a faith that goes against the odds. A faith like that of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
Through the power of God’s Spirit
May that be a challenge we take on board
To the Glory of God.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hand Washing or Heart Changing?

Readings: Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Isaiah 56:6-8, Matthew 15:10-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 20 2017

The Pharisees were offended. Jesus and His disciples hadn’t washed their hands in the way that Pharisees said hands should be washed. Hand washing is important. Everybody knows that. If you don’t wash your hands then germs can spread and people can get sick. Surely Jesus knew that?

But for the Pharisees hand washing wasn’t just about germs… but about ritual purity. It was a way of showing that you were one of God’s important people. Lesser people just didn’t get it! It wasn't good enough to be just a religious person. You had to practice your religion in a way that let people know they were not up to the standard when it came to the things of God.

Pharisees were important and influential people. The disciples knew this. That’s why they came to Jesus, and said to Him, “Jesus, be careful. You are going to offend the Pharisees!” Jesus takes it up a notch. He tells His disciples that the Pharisees were the blind leading the blind. He suggests that their hand washing rituals accomplished nothing more than massaging their own ego’s.

In Shakespeare's play “Macbeth” Lady Macbeth stands by the sink and vainly tries to wash invisible blood from her hands. Her guilty conscience consumes her. “Out damn spot” she declares as every night she tries to absolve herself of her murderous actions. But no amount of scrubbing and washing is able to cleanse her soul as she descends deeper and deeper into madness.

Jesus is saying that hand washing doesn’t work. That it is not enough. That the only solution for the dilemma of sin and guilt was changing the heart. Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

On August 11th I celebrated my 60th birthday. It was a good day. I got to play with my grand baby and eat out at a nice restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. After dinner there was a festival to celebrate summertime going on downtown. We listened to the music and I smiled to see the joy in my grand babies eyes when a vendor made her a balloon animal. A day of good things.

On August 12th the largest crowd of White Supremacists seen in decades gathered to spread their particularly vile message of hate. It was not a good day. It was a bad day for Charlottesville and for the United Stares. I never believed as a teenager, as a young adult or even a not so young adult I would live to see large numbers of people openly declaring their allegiance to the ideals of Nazi Germany.

The very fact of my existence is partly due to my father, a gentle, peace, loving man, serving his country to fight against the manifest evil that was the heart and soul of Hitler’s Germany. My father-in-law, captured at Dunkirk, spent most of the Second World War in prison camps and his salvation came partly from the fact that injuries received when trying to escape landed him in a prison camp hospital rather than an extermination camp.

It was Hitler's bombs that bombed my parents home of Coventry and took the lives of many of their friends and Hitlers bombs that dropped on the city of Liverpool, where, when I ministered at my congregations annual service of remembrance there were always tears in the eyes of those widowed during those raids and that conflict.

So on my Facebook page I posted a picture of a man, on August 12, in Charlottesville, proudly wearing a t-shirt that featured a quote. The quote said; “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.” The man was not ashamed to display the source of such wisdom. A quotation from Adolf Hitler. No doubt those who waved swastika flags and gave Nazi salutes saw no problem with such a sentiment as they shouted their racist and homophobic slogans.

One of them, Alex Field James Jr, a man with history of association with right wing hate groups decided to drive his car into the crowd, injured 19 people and killed Heather Heyer, an unarmed young woman with a bright future ahead of her and a passion for peace and justice. You know this. And it’s horrible.

Jesus declared that evil begins in the heart. Sadly, what has been revealed is that there is is evil in the heart of this nation. The sort of evil that finds a focus in Nazi ideology, that rejoices in violence and feeds on people's ignorance and insecurity, just as the Nazi ideology of the late nineteen thirties was able to propel a nation of rational people into waging war against the whole world.

Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.” Words designed to fuel violence, inflame prejudice and cause harm. Words that the man wearing that T-shirt and his fellow agitators identified with, as a course of action to make this nation a great place.

Out of the heart” declared Jesus, “come evil intentions.” From evil intentions in people's hearts violence overflowed on Virginian streets. Freedom of speech was not meant to be a license to indulge in hate crimes… for that is what we call words that incite violence, prejudice and discrimination. “Out of the heart” says Jesus’ “Comes murder, false witness and slander.

Here and now we are not in a good place. So what are we going to do about it?

We can look for someone to blame. The current president. The previous president. The presidents before them. The Republicans. The Democrats. The media of the left or the right. The war in Iraq. The Korean War. The Second World War. The Civil War. Ignorance. Selfishness. Materialism. The 1%. The 99%. Religion. Religion that isn’t our religion. Wrong religion. Lack of religion. Atheism. The Devil. God.

We can claim we are not responsible. That “white privilege” isn’t a thing. That we do our best and can’t be expected to do more. That it’s not our problem. That if people lived decently.. and kept to the script… and washed their hands when they were expected to… they wouldn’t end up in such troublesome situations.

We can wring our hands and like Lady Macbeth, hope that by our constant scrubbing there will be no blood on our hands. We can start making lists of “bad sins” and “acceptable sins” and excuse some, while condemning others with fire and brimstone like intensity.

When Jesus spoke about the hollowness of the Pharisees religion, He knew it would land Him in trouble. He accuses them of leading many astray. Their response is to plan His death, an act they, in cooperation with others whose cages Jesus rattled and lives He exposed, managed to achieve. Being a follower of Jesus is hard.

Hard, but not impossible. It means we dare to be different. That we are sold on the idea that hearts can be changed, that hope can blossom in hopeless places and that love will always find a way.

The best thing we can do right now is recommit ourselves to being a community where love can be found. What the events in Charlottesville reveal to us is that what we believe, really, really, really matters. That if we operate on the level of “hand washing”, of constantly becoming obsessed with things that matter to nobody but ourselves and fail to practice the radical hospitality and belief and audacious love demonstrated in scripture, then we are just playing at religion, not living for the Kingdom.

Did you catch those words from the reading from Isaiah? “Thus says the Lord, 'Maintain justice and do what is right.' ” Or those words from Psalm 133; “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live in unity.

Evil has raised it’s voice in the heart of this nation. The kind of evil that truly believes the way to greatness is through violence, domination and oppression. That unless you get with the program you are a threat that doesn’t deserve to live. That’s the message of Adolf Hitler a participant in a demonstration in Charlottesville proudly displayed. “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this eternal struggle, do not deserve to live. ” In other words, “Get with our program or you deserve to die!”

Removing Confederate monuments seems like a good idea when they are so offensive to many citizens of this country. Then again Welsh castles are seen by some Welsh folk as signs of English oppression. There’s usually more than one side to every argument.

But it would be naive to think that what happened in Charlottesville had much to do with monuments. It was about ideology, about belief, about a group of dangerous Nazi, white supremacist thugs who feel that the current political and religious climate allows them to spew their racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, self promoting violent form of hate into the mainstream of American society. That is not acceptable and needs to be called out and named for the evil that it is.

This could be a defining moment in the nations history. The only way to combat evil is with love. Love that isn’t afraid to call out evil as evil. Love that is expressed at a local level through community and care. Love that refuses to become bogged down in debates about “hand washing” and takes seriously the possibility of “heart changing” that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s the challenge this scripture in the light of recent events seems to throw down before us. What is it going to be? Hand washing or Heart Changing? When Jesus put that challenge before the disciples it was clear where the process began. With the man (or the woman) in the mirror. As a well known song declares, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Let us take a personal inventory, using maybe the sermon on the mount or Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians as our guide, and let us ask God to show us where change needs to be made and how we can make the change from being hand washers to heart changers.

Let us commit ourselves to prayer. To pray for those who are blinded by hate. To pray for those who are hurt by their actions. To pray for justice to be tempered by peace and peace be the aim of our justice. To pray against all those who see violence as the way to get things done, be that violence physical, verbal, online or in the community.

Then come back next week and worship God and seek God and lift each other up in prayer for the living of these days! We need Jesus. We need His Spirit to move us and strengthen us. We need each other. And most of all we need the love and grace of God to lift us above our limitations and expectations.

We are not alone. To quote a letter from our General Presbyter Jackie Taylor “A broadcaster asked the question, "Who is our moral compass"? The answer? We are - The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. represented by the congregations and entities of the Presbytery of Baltimore and our wider denomination. Our statements are in our sermons, when we denounce and defy those in our country that embrace and act on violent racist values. Our statements are evident in our activism when we march and pray and sing. Our statements are in our communication toward one another and the people of God when we speak truth and we speak peace.

Above all, our statements are in our actions demonstrating our unwavering faith in Jesus the Christ, who placed righteousness over rhetoric and love over law. Friends, it may get worse before it gets better. But we are a people of light, faith and hope "And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." (Romans 5:5). May that same Spirit comfort, sustain and empower us in the days to come.” To God be the glory. Amen

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.