Monday, December 31, 2018

Anybody Home?

 Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, December 30 2018

Luke is the only gospel author to grant us a glimpse of what happened during Jesus’ life from the time of His birth until He commenced His ministry in Galilee. He offers us a picture of a boy who is growing in wisdom and stature and who has a peculiar attachment to the temple in Jerusalem which He describes as "His Father's house."

By the age of 12 Jesus seemed to have an awareness of His identity that many people go through their whole lives never truly getting a hold of. Who He was could not be defined by the Family He belonged to, the job that He did, the company He kept or a whole host of other things. His life was defined by His relationship to God whom He knew was His heavenly Father.

Where do we find our true selves?
How do we define our identities?
Who are we?

We're here in a service of worship. The lights are on. But are we at home in our Father’s House? Is this a moment that is shaping who we are or, are we just sitting through another church service.

Let's think about some of the things that make us who we are.

One thing is our families. We are all somebody's son or daughter. We are defined by a family name. We are so-and-so's child or "Whatshisname’s" eldest or "Mr. Somebody's" youngest. When we're sitting in the waiting room and somebody calls out our name everybody knows who we are and in a small community like this also whose we are.

When we moved to the USA from Great Britain my kids only had to open their mouths and their accent gave them away. People knew they were mine. The way we look gives us away. I used to hate it when I was a kid and people would come up to me and say, "Oh you're just like your mother" and tap me on the head (in the way only great aunts can), but there isn't a thing anyone of us can do about it. As soon as we come into life we are defined by the families that we grow up in. Whether they are our natural parents, our adopted parents, our step-parents, whoever it is - they are part of the way other people see us.

We inherit certain gifts and characteristics and mannerisms from our physical parents. There's all that D.N.A. and chromosomes and genes that cause us to look and act in certain ways. We learn to live by imitation so our patterns of speech, our ways of looking at the world are all shaped by the home environment that we are reared in.

It is not just our homes that define us. It's also our occupations. "What do you do?" people will ask us. How we answer will often determine whether the conversation goes any further. At various times in my life, I have worked at different things. It's always been the same me, but I have observed how people have treated me in different ways, according to what they thought a person who did what I was doing at that time should be treated.

For a while I was the guy in the supermarket who put the boxes on the shelf and collected the karts that people had left out in the parking lot. Later I became the Assistant Warehouse manager which meant that the boss, who previously never spoke to me, would invite me for a drink on Christmas Eve. I worked for a while in an office. I was the voice on the other end of the telephone, "Hello, enquiries can I help you?" I commuted to the city on a train with thousands of others carrying a briefcase that had not a lot more in it than sandwiches and a flask of coffee.

For a while I worked on a government scheme out in the countryside doing conservation work. Some of the people I worked with then had been in a bit of trouble with the law. When I was with them, it was guilt by association. When I was in their company there were places I wasn't welcome.

When I lived on Merseyside, an employment blackspot, like so many others for a time I wore the label of being "Unemployed" and became a Welfare recipient, a social case to be investigated and in some people’s eyes a burden on their taxes. I played for a while in a Rock group. I went to college and became a student. People have their own images of how the unemployed or students or people who play in rock and roll bands behave.

Throughout it all it was still just little old me. I say "little old me" because there's another factor that can affect the way people see us. I don't mean size, (Though that is also a factor). I mean age. We hear about young people, old people, middle aged people, generation X'ers, Baby Boomers, Tots, Teens, Toddlers and so it goes. Yet it has been said that age is a state of mind. I've met ninety years old folk who have a child like twinkle in their eye that defies their years and I've come across eighteen year olds who treat themselves so seriously that you'd think they were ninety.

We are characterized by the things we see as desirable, what we aim for. Even our idea of "heaven" makes us who we are. By being here today there are those who will point the finger at us and say, "Oh, you're the religious sort!" I hate that. Particularly when the harshest words in the gospel are directed by Jesus at those who were the religious sort; the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Teachers of the law. Who wants to be associated with that bunch of hypocrites? I know in school many of our youth come up against negative peer pressure all the time. "Church?" It's just not cool.

I've come up with an answer to confound those who disapprovingly call me "The religious sort." I just look them in the eye and say, "Religious sort? I'll have you know that I belong to Presbyterians! The only denomination whose name is an anagram of “Britney Spears.” That's no kind of answer but it sure shuts them up for a while. How easy it is to label each other, even fellow Christians. He's Baptist. She's Catholic. They're Pentecostal and all of that.

Which all brings me right back to our Bible story about Jesus in the temple. The place He called "His Father's house." One of the most startling things about His life, is that by the age of twelve, He had a sense of identity that was rooted in who He was in God. The defining factor in His life was not that he was a teenager about to become a young adult when he reached the age of thirteen, not that He was an apprentice carpenter, nor that He was of the family of Joseph and Mary but that He was a child of His Father God.

Throughout His life He refused to be defined by family or occupation or age or religion or social class or nationality. The rich would invite him for dinner, the poor were equally at home in His company. The young thronged around Him and the old made Him welcome. He was a friend to the rich young ruler and the poorest leper, who made a prostitute feel as welcome as a sister, one recognized by both Samaritan and Jew as a wise teacher. He identified with none yet was identified by most as a friend.

That was one of the things that made Him such a threat. It wasn't such a great leap for everybody's friend to suddenly become everyone's enemy. The accusation "Of course He's not really one of us" was easily made against Him. When He refused to be labeled, to be classified, to be contained, then His presence became dangerous and subversive, something that those who held the keys of power recognized right from the start of His ministry.

Throughout His life, the times of blessing and the time of persecution, Jesus remained true to Himself as a Child of His Father God, at home with who He was. I gave this message the title of "Anybody Home?" because it's a question we need to ask ourselves. Are we at home with ourselves, with our God, with our life the way it is right now? Anybody home?

Ultimately we will depart this life in much the same way as we arrived. We brought nothing in with us and can't take anything out with us. So on the last day what is going to define who we are or what we become? Ultimately it has to be our relationship with God. Everything else is in transit. Everything else is like the flowers that today blossom and grow but tomorrow are faded and return to dust.

It's not a question of who we are, it's a question of whose we are. "I am in my Father's house" declared Jesus at the age of twelve. He states He is a child of God. His life will be defined, in all its changing seasons, by His relationship with God. The things He was asked to do by His Father were the things that His life displayed. Because He knew whose He was, He knew who He was. He was at home in the Father's love.

We too shall be restless until we discover our true selves in the love of Jesus Christ. We too must say to God, "Whoever I am, Wherever I am, Whatever I am, Lord… I am Yours." One of the hymns puts it this way:
"Take my life and Let it be
Consecrated Lord to thee
Take my moments and my days
Let them flow in ceaseless praise"

The parents of Jesus came to Him, anxiously, with a question. "Where have you been, what are you doing here?" Jesus replied that they should have expected to find Him in the place of God, after all, didn't they realize that was where He was at home? "This is my Father's house."

Our lives will be an empty, anxious search until our hearts find their home in God. It is said that home is where the heart is. Do you know where your heart is? Anybody home? May we, through faith, find our hearts are at home in our Father’s love, at home with the things of His Kingdom, at home with the ways of the Spirit and the grace and peace and wholeness of Jesus Christ. Any other home will never satisfy the deepest needs of our lives.

The home God offers is a home for people of all nations, a home of healing, a prosperous place, a safe place, a home filled with hope, a place where tears come to an end and grief turns into laughter. Sounds like the sort of place we would do well to be a part of. There really is no place like home!

"In my Father’s house,"says Jesus,
"There are many mansions.
I go there on purpose
to prepare a place for you."

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent 4 "Wow!"

Readings: Psalm 89, Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:37-55
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 23 2018

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth it was one of those “Wow!” moments. Ever had those? When everything comes together and seems to make sense and you really feel that simply being alive is just about the most amazing thing that can happen to anybody?

We read that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, “The babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women”. Wow! It got to Mary as well. She starts singing out, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior!” This didn’t normally happen when they came together for morning coffee to exchange baby stories.

It’s medically impossible for many of us to have a baby leaping in our stomach but many of us have experienced what we’d call in England ‘having butterflies in your tummy.” A sense of expectation and excitement.

As a kid it always used to get me on Christmas Eve night. I never knew if Santa Claus would be bringing me what I really, really, wanted. I kind of thought that he would, but mum said that it all depended on if I’d been a good boy or not (which of course I knew I hadn’t) and that in any case Santa wouldn’t come till I went to sleep. Boy, did I have a hard time snoozing with all those butterflies flying around inside. Wow!

How about going for your first interview, or maybe starting your first job? Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best of jobs, but suddenly you had money coming in! Wow! Not pocket money, but real money, that you’d worked for and it was yours. (Except for the bit the taxman wanted).

Did you get excited about your first car? You always have these dreams as a kid; about what car you’ll have when you’re older. Ferrari. Porsche. Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Something red with a big engine. Then the realization breaks in that working at MacDonald’s doesn’t pay that well and you’ll settle for just about anything as long as it moves.

My first vehicle? A Bedford Van. The water came through the roof when it rained. The engine cover used to fly off when it hit 50 miles an hour. It was an unusual shade of 'greens' and had parts held on with duct tape. But – “Wow!” – it was all mine. No –correction it was all ours – because I was dating Yvonne by then.

How about that for a “Wow!” experience? Falling in love. Now there’s a mystery for you! If you’re lucky enough, you find that special person and somewhere along the way, it all gets gooey and warm and the birds sing louder and the bees buzz better and the world is such a wonderful place, just as long as you can be together.
What about the birth of a child? That’s part of what Christmas is all about. That’s the excitement that was there in our bible reading. Mary and Elizabeth looking forward to the birth of their special children. There’s a sense for all of us, that our children are special. Mostly because - Wow! - they are ours!

Did you ever watch those shows on one of the T.V. channels, "A makeover story", “A dating Story”, “A Wedding Story”, “A baby Story”? They attract a lot of viewers. I was trying to imagine them doing a ‘Christmas Special’ on the Nativity story. Mary dating this older guy. The strange tales of angels and babies. The wedding. The unexpected journey. The birth in a stable. Now that’d make for an interesting few episodes!

I can think of some other, maybe less dramatic, “Wow!” experiences. I remember the first time I saw one of those 3D pictures. All those shapes and colors. Took me a while to figure it out. Then you stare and stare and “Wow” there it is! Well, look at that! A trio of ducks flying over an open field!

I remember when I first got my glasses. I didn’t know, until I took driving lessons, that I was near-sighted. The instructor said, “Read that sign over there”. I said, “What sign?” When I got my first glasses, I was amazed. Trees had leaves on then that weren’t just little blurry green shapes. There were all these things written high up on buildings that I’d never seen before. “Wow!”

But the biggest 'Wow!" experience of my life, (and of all days today, the day before Christmas Eve, is the time to talk about it), was the discovery that Jesus Christ was not some historical figure, confined to the pages of dusty old history books, but one whose living, loving, Holy Spirit could be born into the midst of our everyday lives.

That's why I enjoy Christmas so much! I enjoy the trimmings, the food, the carols, the gifts, the goodwill, and all the rest of it. But over and above all of that, for me, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of hope into a world where love appears to be rationed; a birth of joy into a world where gloom and misery can be overwhelming.

That birthing of Christ into the womb of my every day experience has not been an overnight happening. I look back over my life, so far, and see a series of "Wow!" encounters, points of contact between my own limited life and the eternal life that is God. Moments when the Grace of God, unmerited and unexpected, just broke in on my experience and a doorway was opened up and an opportunity was given either to follow or to walk away.

I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ because I believe it is the most exciting Good News that will ever come to this world. And so much of my understanding of this fantastic, almost unbelievable message, focuses on what happened in Bethlehem.

The theologians call it the Incarnation. God, In Christ, redeeming creation. Jesus, born, to be Savior of the world. "Wow!" Those theological terms roll off the tongue so easily, the words sound so familiar, but are we any nearer to grasping their significance?

I remember the first time I sang the Christmas carols and their meaning actually came home to me. I had sung them for years and to me they were just good tunes with high-sounding words. But one time, whilst I was out carol singing as a young person, the Spirit of God got on my case. Big Time!

I could hardly sing them! Every word suddenly came alive. I had tears welling up. The beauty and the truths that were being expressed in some of those carols choked me. "Convicted by the Holy Ghost" - was what the old Welsh Presbyterian Founding Fathers would call it! The Grace of God being born into a human heart. Wow!

Take a hymn like Phillip Brooks', "O Little town of Bethlehem". The third verse;
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” That's so right! Amidst all the noise, the clamor of Bethlehem then and of our world today, quietly, God's love catches up with us. But we're so busy, and we don't always hear it. We're so full of ourselves we don't always see it!

And Christmas gifts! How feeble are attempts at gift exchanges compared to God giving the gift of Jesus Christ. Giving a life. Living a life that we may know God's love! Dying that we may taste the salvation of God. Wondrous, amazing, a "Wow!" of a thing!

"So God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of His heaven." 'Heaven, Lord? ‘Heaven in my heart? You would bless me, here and now, today, with things, not having the fading glory of this world, but tingling with the joy of heaven… eternal… everlasting... holy… wonderful... pure? Lord, you would do such things in my life?

"No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him, the dear Christ enters in!" You got that right Mr. Brooks when you wrote this one. A sinful world that isn't even listening, yet alone hearing the voice of God. But… Lord… you still come where your voice is welcomed. "Wow!" Here we are singing carols, and half the time we're not expecting, or listening, or prepared to welcome your love… no, not even at Christmastime... but you’re breaking in… breaking down even our hard and cold hearts!

It's Christmas. Our bible readings gave us the story of Mary and Elizabeth, who were pregnant, not just with children, but also with hope. Who looked to the birth, not just of a couple of beautiful baby boys, but of a whole new world.

And it happened. It happened in Bethlehem. Jesus was born. He lived. He died. He rose again. Do you have that faith? Can the love of Jesus be born into the womb of your everyday lives? I believe it to be so! That’s why I celebrate Christmas! That's why I'm here today, and will be here tomorrow, singing and worshiping, with a smile as broad as a Cheshire cat. "Wow!"

Christ the Savior is born!!!!!!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent 2 "Outlasting The Energizer Bunny"

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11, Isaiah 40:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 9, 2018

Bunny Rabbits at Christmas Time? Well… not just any bunny. Not good old Bugs Bunny asking “What’s up Doc?”… or even those cute little wabbits in Watership Down, “Bright eyes, burning like fire”… but the annoying little rabbit banging incessantly on the drum that used to walk across your television screen, the Energizer Bunny.

My adapted version of Isaiah 40 verse 8 this morning reads; “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.”

There is not a lot in life that lasts forever. Though in songs and poems artists speak of everlasting love, though there are those who suggest that hope springs eternal, though sermons can seem unbearably long if you have a table booked for Sunday lunch, science and scripture tell us that… eventually… the earth and the heavens will pass away.

But the Word, not just the words of the Bible or any other words, the living Word that is Jesus Christ, the Word through whom according to John’s gospel, God created all things, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory… if we allow our lives to be absorbed by that sort of Word, then I tell you, we have something more than snowy scenes and St Nicholas to celebrate at Christmas Time.

What this text does for us is call us to consider, not why we celebrate Christmas, but why we are on this planet in the first place. Is there a purpose? Is there a meaning? Or have we just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution?

This text is a Good News text. It affirms that life can have direction and purpose and meaning because the God who gave us life is a permanent fixture… a God beyond the limitations of human or earthly existence, a God who is all the things those grand theological words like immutable, immortal, and incarnational seek to convey to us.

Let’s take my adapted text phrase by phrase.

The Grass Withers, the flower fades”

Every second of our life that passes brings us one second closer to our demise. If you want to get into a business where you never have to be out of work… become an undertaker. Writer Steve Turner has a poem about death in which he writes;

Boxers can’t punch it, Nor critics dismiss it,
Don’t knows can’t not know, The lazy can’t miss it,
Capitalists can’t bribe it, Socialists can’t share it,
Terrorists can’t jump it, The Third World aren’t spared it,

Scientists can’t quell it, Nor can they disprove it,
Doctors can’t cure it, Surgeons can’t move it,
Einstein can’t halve it, Guevara can’t free it,
The thing about dead, is we’re all gonna be it.
(Steve Turner in “Nice and Nasty” Razor Books -ISBN 0551008652)

The Grass withers, the flowers fade, from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Whatever you are today… eventually… you will not be it. In fact you won’t be anything. The time for being anything will have reached its inevitable conclusion.

Cheerful thoughts as we travel through Advent aren’t they? But that’s the point. Isaiah’s words come in the midst of a book that features a lot of gloom and doom and futility. It is partly about the way people waste their lives and live… well… for nothing but themselves and at the end of the day their selves breathe their last… and what’s left? Nothing but a huge funeral bill for the relatives to take care of. The thing about dead is we’re all going to be it. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, and...

The Energizer Bunny eventually runs out of Gumption”

How do we cope with the inevitability of our mortality? Not so well a lot of the time. Young folks live like there was no tomorrow. Old folks keep looking back to yesterdays. And those who can’t work out if they are young or old, they just keep working for whatever it is they are working for!

Folks, we are the energizer bunny. We just keep going, going, going, banging on the same old drum. Have you seen that advertising campaign where you think that you are watching a different advert and then suddenly bang, bang, bang, in comes that bunny again. That’s us. The circumstances may change around us but we go on year after year with the same unresolved issues, accumulating more and more baggage, evading our problems rather than dealing with them.

The energizer bunny of course runs on battery power. It is powered by something that is man made and manufactured. Eventually the battery dies. Eventually the bunny runs out of gumption. A battery powered life is no guarantee of immortality.

In our lives we can accumulate a lot of stuff that we hope will keep us powered up. We pin a lot of our hopes on our stuff. Stuff is the battery that keeps us going. If we get a better job, a better car, a better house, a better neighborhood, a job with better prospects, sometimes a better husband or wife, sometimes a better church or let’s drop church altogether… then we will attain happiness and we will live more contentedly and therefore live longer and be better and life will be more fulfilled.

If that stuff doesn’t work then people turn to other stuff. Drink, drugs, endless fruitless relationships, escapism on the Internet, the shopping channel, lottery tickets. Dangerous stuff. Stuff that doesn’t tell the truth. Stuff that tells you that this is what you need. You try it and for a little while it feels just like what you need. But when you come down you are lower than where you started from. The kind of stuff that gets its teeth into you so deeply that you just can’t live without it. Addictive stuff.

The Good News we celebrate at Christmas Time has nothing to do with stuff that runs out, with batteries that die or bunnies that cease to be energized. The Good News of Christmas is contained in the last part of our text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but...

The Word of our God will stand for ever.

The Word of our God will stand for ever! The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the Word who was and is Jesus Christ, the Word to whom the words of our scriptures point us and direct us, the Word who comes to us in the person and the presence of the Holy Spirit… will stand for ever.

Not like the food at the store that has an expiration date. Not like the gas in your tank that keeps running out. Not like that account you had in the bank that because of having no funds in was terminated. Not like that series you were watching on Television that finally reached the concluding episode. Not like that game you were playing until GAME OVER illuminated the screen.

Not like that old radio you had for years and years, with glowing valves in the back, that picked up transmissions on every band from short wave to long wave and F.M and goodness knows where, but you turned it on one morning and it simply ceased to function… not like any of that. Not like anything that is not permanent or everlasting or eternal. The Word of God will stand for ever!

All the stuff that we build into our lives that is other than the Word of God, all that we put our hope in that is outside of the Word of God, is going to come to an end. But those things that are related to the Word of God will last for ever.

Ever wondered why us preacher types keep going on and on and on like the Energizer Bunny about how scripture reading and worship and private devotion and prayer and service to others are so important? Because somewhere along the way, we have been led by the grace of God to the understanding that everything else can’t hold us, everything else eventually goes kaputt, everything else just doesn’t cut it when it comes to eternity.

If we seek for our lives to be molded by the teaching of the One who came to us as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem all those centuries ago, then we are allowing principles and forces and dynamics with eternal reverberations to shape who we are and what our life will be and where our lives will take us.

God saw to it that we were born for a reason. Born to be people who know God’s love, who taste and see the salvation of the God in Jesus Christ, who are energized and recreated by the Holy Spirit. God did not put us on this planet to play ‘He who has the most toys wins’ but to dwell with one another in love and peace, in relationships that nurture and help each other to grow.

Yes, we have fallen and will fall again and again, but that’s why Jesus is known as the Savior. Outside of His love we have no hope. But when we dwell in His love and His love dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit we have everything to hope for, everything to live for and everything to die for.

We who believe in Jesus Christ know that we have not just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution. We know this because we seek to live our lives by and through His love. The love that came down at Christmas.

And so we look forward in this season of Advent. We look down the road to a day when those things we now see through the shadows will appear plain in the light of Christ. We look to what God can do and can enable us to do as we give our lives into God’s hands.

We look ahead to catch a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the Holy Spirit brings to us a sense of confidence in the Grace of God that whatever may come our way, God is able to carry us through.

Isaiah 40 verse 8. What a wonderful text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” Let us seek to build our lives on God’s Word. Let us not be energizer bunnies going on and on and on, oblivious to our surroundings until we eventually cease to function. Rather let us be disciples of Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith, looking to a better day.

To God’s name be the Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Advent 1 "Look Down The Road”

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10,1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 2 2018

I’d like to start this morning with a quote from Calvin. Not John Calvin the great reformer but Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip. In the particular one I’m thinking of, Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says: "Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got."

In the second frame he explains "You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you'd be sorry you put off your pleasures. That's what I say - live for the moment." And then he asks Hobbes: "What's your motto?"

Hobbes replies: "My motto is - Look down the road."

Look down the road.” Such is not a bad theme for the first Sunday in Advent. Our brief reading from Jeremiah was one that encouraged us to look ahead. Encouraged us to look beyond the present and to a future filled with possibilities.

Fact is that the situation in which Jeremiah wrote these words was anything but hopeful. The Babylonian army were laying siege to Jerusalem. Jehoichin, a King in the Davidic line had been replaced by a puppet king called Zedekiah. There was trouble within and without the nation and Jeremiah in previous chapters has warned that it was going to get worse before it ever got better.

Yet he doesn’t leave it there. He says, “Look down the Road.” Beyond these troubled times there will come a time when God makes things right again. It won’t be the same as it ever was. Though based upon what has past it will be something new. And it will be the Lords doing. Jeremiah 33:14 “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Look down the road. The promise will be fulfilled.

As we look down the road towards Christmas, expectations, particularly among the young ones, can run high. As an old English carol proclaims, “Tis the season to be jolly, Fa La La La Lah, La Lah Lah Lah.” The Christmas celebration provides a welcome break in the dark days of winter. It’s theme of “Joy to the world” is a message seldom proclaimed among the hullabaloo of every day endeavor.

It is easy to become cynical about the materialism and gross excess that seems to parody the genuine message of Christmas spirit, but as Charles Dickens marvelous character “Mr Scrooge” reveals to us, to not allow room in ones life for celebration, even when it takes place in circumstances of desperation, is a soul destroying attitude of life to adopt.

Look down the Road. Jeremiah 33:15” In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David”.

We know about King David. That whilst he wasn’t the perfect King, he nevertheless had one thing that set him apart. He had a heart for the things of God. Now before David ever came to the throne, before even his predecessor Saul had become Israel’s first King, the prophet Samuel had warned the people that having a King wasn’t necessarily a good thing. His words had proved sadly true.

Many of the kings had led the people into the destructive worship of foreign idols. Others used their positions for selfish gain and advantage, and had depended upon military strength rather that in trust in God to get them through. In all of Israel’s history after David, only five kings in the Southern Kingdom, and none in the Northern Kingdom were remembered as being even marginally faithful to God.

Some of the people began to yearn for one who would be a worthy successor to David. Hezekiah had looked promising, but then his son Manasseh had negated much of the good he achieved. Josiah had come along with his reforms and message of renewal, but he died a sudden death.

As the nation faced the calamity of defeat and destruction the longing for a righteous royal deliverer grew more intense. Though the people knew they had fallen from God, there was also the recognition that God was faithful, and that all those promises made to Abraham and Moses and David were promises that could not be erased by the sins of the people, but had a power that remained in force. Look down the road. God would redeem God’s people! God’s promises were solid as a rock. A righteous branch would spring up from David’s line.

This was far more than just being a promise that some earthly king would come along. To the people of Israel facing an immanent catastrophe, this was a promise to them, that no matter what, God would remain faithful. It is a message about God’s faithfulness in the face of failure and despair. It shows that God is committed to God’s people, in spite of their disobedience, in spite of their failure, in spite of their sinfulness.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent Wreath. The candle of hope. Let’s face it, these aren’t the brightest days. Violence and unrest stalk the land. The world is still a place of famine, war and suffering for many of it's inhabitants. Questions as to the future are perplexing.

On a personal level we can face family illness and troubles of many and various kinds. Some days are just plain difficult, and it takes a good dose of holy grace to carry us through. At such times it is hard to look down the road, because the crisis of the moment takes away our vision for the future.

Yet here’s the thing. If the Advent message has nothing to say to these situations life throws at us, it could be that the Christian Gospel is the emptiest hope of all. It seems to me that our belief does not make us immune to life’s troubles, rather that it is our faith that informs us and carries us through the hard times.

It is the nature of Christian faith that sometimes the road gets tough. Sometimes it’s not our fault, but often times it is. We mess up. We make bad decisions. We sin and are sinned against. We are offered the best way and we take the easiest. We know what’s right yet time and time again choose the wrong.

Furthermore, even when we are faced with the consequences of our actions, we are more likely to complain and plead innocence rather than admit defeat! Was this not the situation of the people of Jeremiah’s day? ‘Yes we’ve been unfaithful, yes, you told us that if we didn’t change our ways, trouble would be coming, and yes, we know it’s about to hit us hard, but you know Lord? We just couldn’t seem to help ourselves!’

What were Jeremiah’s words of hope to these hopeless ones?
Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safely.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD is our righteousness.
(Jeremiah 33:16)

Did you catch those last words? ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ I’ve heard it suggested that the way God justified people in the Old Testament era was different to the way God saved them in the New. That the old way was the way only of the law, whilst the New Testament is all about grace.

Not so with Jeremiah! Jeremiah’s only hope for the people of Israel and Judah was in the saving act of God. “Look down the Road.” You’ve tried again and again to save yourselves but it’s just not in you. The sky is dark and your enemies are at your door, but this is not the end of the story. God will redeem God’s people. Your salvation is in God’s hands. The Lord is your righteousness.

God did indeed raise up a righteous branch from the line of David. As we look to celebrating the birth of Jesus, in David’s town of Bethlehem, we see the birth of new hope into the worlds darkness, a hope we are called to make our own.

It is to Jesus Christ that we are called to turn for our salvation. He alone can be our righteousness. He alone has the power over sin and death and hell. He alone can renew life and restore life, lift up the fallen, forgive the sinner and bind up the wounds of those who need healing. His joy enriches the laughter of God’s faithful ones and His tears sanctify the tears of those who mourn.

When I’m faced with the hard times, it seems that the faith God offers to me as a gift, has a habit of rising up and taking control. It’s when I try and suppress that reliance upon God, when in my pride and foolishness I think I can get through on my own or could do better without God’s interference, then I fall.

I’m so thankful that I have a God who just won’t give up on me. I’m so thankful that my destiny is not dependent on my own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I’m so glad that I have a Savior who calls me to “Look down the road.” To see that, even in times that are not filled with light, there’s something good just a little further away than I can glimpse right now.

Living one day at a time’ is not the same thing as ‘Living without a care for tomorrow.’ Jesus encouraged us to live life in day-tight compartments, particularly as we never know what may be coming around the next corner. At the same time He also suggested that we “Watch and Pray.” That we dream dreams and envision possibilities. That we trust in God our Father to take care of those things we can’t fix for ourselves.

Look down the Road
For those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, There’s something good in store.

It kind of puts me in a Christmas frame of mind. Recapturing that feeling of not knowing exactly what Santa had left under the tree, but knowing it was something good.

I remember one Christmas years ago being taken to my Grandmothers. I had deep questions, like ‘Had my parents left Santa a forwarding address?’ We got there and I caught the measles. But it was O.K. I’d asked Santa for a cowboy suit, and on Christmas Day I put it on over my pajamas, and everything was fine. There had been something good down the road and it had given the nasty bits of the journey a new perspective.

Now didn’t Jesus say something about having the faith of a child?
Look down the Road.
Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 19, 2018

Faith In Changing Times

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 & 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-18, Mark 13:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 18th 2018

We are living today in an era of unprecedented change. When I consider the world that my grandparents grew up in, compared to the world that my grandchildren are growing up in today, it’s not just a different world it’s more like a different planet! How can we find faith in changing times?

Our Bible reading this morning pictures the disciples walking out of the temple in Jerusalem and taking the time to look back at it’s magnificent walls and structure. One of them is talking to Jesus. It’s almost like the disciple is a tourist walking through Manhattan. “Wow! Will you look at this place! Is this awesome or what? Look at the size of the stones. Look at the thickness of the walls. Look how tall the buildings are!”

Jesus gives that disciple an answer he hadn’t expected. After all this wasn’t just any old building in the city, it was the Holy Temple of God he was gazing at! "You see these great buildings?” says Jesus, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

The other disciples by now have their ears buzzing. But they are afraid to ask Jesus straight away what He means. Instead they wait till they are out of the city and up on the Mount of Olives before a group of them come and ask Him to explain. They want to know ‘how’ and ‘what’ and most of all ‘when’ such unimaginable things could happen.

Jesus will not be drawn into a discussion of dates and times or methods. Instead He offers them a strategy for holding onto faith in the midst of a world where things could go crazy at the drop of a hat.

One of my favorite bands of old "The Eagles" have a song that contains the refrain, “In a New York minute, everything can change.”  Having lived near New York City, I know how people are all too aware that even the tallest buildings in the world can be reduced to rubble. How in the midst of this rapidly changing, often frightening, often confusing world can ordinary people like ourselves hold on to faith?

Here’s the Mark 13 strategy.
  • Don’t be led astray.
  • Don’t be alarmed.
  • Do be alert!
Let’s think about each of those.
  1. Don’t be led astray. Verses 5-6 "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.
Faith is not just about trusting in the right things; it is also about rejecting the wrong things. It’s about discerning the real thing from the false thing. If we follow the wrong thing, then we go the wrong way. If we follow the right thing it sends us in the right direction. “Beware” cautions Jesus that “no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say “I am he’”

Notice Jesus says “In my Name”? The name Jesus means “Savior.” He is telling His disciples that many would come and offer to be their Savior in His place. He is making it plain to them that in a changing world there would no be shortage of voices calling for attention, inviting investment, asking us to side with them, promising to give us the real picture of what is going on.

It is not so hard to identify such voices around us. Despite the twentieth century being one in which mankind created such wonderful things as weapons of mass destruction, there are those who insist here in the twenty first century that only the scientific viewpoint will eventually reveal all truth. Some encourage us to abandon our childish beliefs in an almighty invisible friend and trust that the rational application of inquiring minds will make all things well.

There are other voices that suggest we need to abandon over 2000 years of tried and tested Christian belief and practice and discover more informed spiritual sources. There are many religious and non-religious ideas that offer us the secrets of the universe.

Within Christianity itself you don’t have to dig far to find those who parade their beliefs as the only absolute truth. The red flag should fly when we see how often they are associated with nationalistic ideologies, partisan politics, or ethnic identity. That and the usual claim that God is on there side alone!

I could go on… but it’s enough to offer again Jesus words: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' Many have come and many will come and suggest to us that we do not take seriously the teaching of Jesus Christ, but pay attention instead to them. Don’t be led astray.
  1. Don’t be alarmed.
Mark 13:7 “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”

Has there ever been an age in human history that has not had “wars and rumors of wars”? That’s the way it is. As Jesus says “Such things must happen.” Why? Reformed theology would suggest that it must happen because humankind is a fallen, sinful, self-seeking, power hungry race of creatures that never find their true relationship to each other until they are once more at One with God.

That the chaos and violence that is pandemic throughout all creation is the result of separation from God. In Jesus Christ God offers an opportunity to go against the tide, but until Christ’s Kingdom comes in all its glory then the chaos will continue. Mark 13: 8 “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.”

Our world continues to be a place of chaos and uncertainty. That should not surprise us. That’s the way Jesus said things would be. So when we pick up a newspaper or hear on the news of the latest tragedy that has rocked our world, maybe we should listen for the voice of Jesus telling us “Don’t be alarmed!

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how the words Jesus spoke to His disciples held incredible insight. In AD70 the army of Roman General Titus laid siege to city. The temple and much else were destroyed. They were terrible days, particularly for those who never fled to the hills and remained in Jerusalem. Elsewhere the Roman Empire was under attack around its borders. There were wars and rumor of wars. A great earthquake would devastate Laodecia and the volcano Vesuvius would erupt burying Pompeii in molten lava. In the days of Claudius a great famine did take hold in Rome.

Jesus told the disciples that events like these would continue to scar the ages. They were not to put their faith in human achievement and ingenuity, no matter how impressive. But more than that, they were not to be alarmed! God was in control.

Despite the seeming chaos and uncertainty and craziness God was in control and remained with them in the midst of these events. He would give them words to speak and the strength of His Holy Spirit to get through. As we put our faith in God we can make that promise our own. No matter what may come our way, God promises to travel with us, even, as Psalm 23 tells us, through the valley of the shadow of death.

We are not to be led astray. We are not to be alarmed. And thirdly (a positive, not a negative, this time) Jesus tells us;
  1. Do be alert
In Mark 13 verse 5 Jesus puts it so simply. “Watch out!” Be aware, be alert, be prepared for these things. Do not let them catch you out or catch you off your guard. If you have a worldview that only allows for the good things in life, then when the bad things come along your faith is going to be shaken to the core.

Tragedy, misfortune, disaster, disease, war and rumors of wars, persecution, famine and unrest, a constant cycle between belief and unbelief, a never ending parade of folks who offer a new view on things that they suggest will save us all, be they theists or atheists, theologians or philosophers, doctors or psychiatrists, sociologists or media superstars… “Watch out,” Jesus seems to say… "It’s all out there and unless you are aware of the things that can cause you to fall, they might just drag you down!"

For myself it’s a chapter that tells me that if I am going to put my faith in something then I had better put it in Jesus Christ. As He told His disciples…the greatest constructions of humankind eventually crumble into the dust. Nothing in life is certain other than somewhere along the way trouble will catch up with us. In a New York minute everything can change. An endless parade of folk seek for me to abandon my faith in Jesus Christ and trust in their views to be my truth, my reason for being and my salvation.

So I pray ‘Lord let me not be led astray, let me not be alarmed. Help me to be awake to all those things that would pull me away from Your love.’ There is, I believe, in the Christian gospel, hope for a hopeless world, good news for a society that is full of bad news and deep joy that awaits the transformation of sleeping souls.

Our world is constantly changing. But the love of God is solid as a rock. If we anchor our lives in the eternal reality of God’s love than we can discover that faith remains a glorious possibility in changing times. May God make it so for each of us here today. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Widows Mite

Readings: Psalms 127:1-5, Habakkuk 3:17-19, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 11 2018

A bible story about a widow and a rich man. Jesus challenges any who will listen, "Who gave the most?" The widow had nothing going for her. The rich man had everything going for him. He was in the position of being able to make a sizable offering, which it seems he did. But in the light of God’s economy, he never gave as much as the widow. The widow gave her all. It was upon the widow that God's favor shined.

Here's a sobering statistic. A recent survey concluded that the average Presbyterian gives more in tips and gratuities for the meals they eat out during the week than they put in the collection plate of their local church. I am thankful therefore that here in this church there are many who are well above average in the way that you support this church and its mission.

That being said I don’t know who gives the most and who gives the least. I don’t know how that all breaks down into percentages, whether some of you who have less income are proportionally giving a whole lot more of what you have than somebody who gets a lot more than you do. I don’t know.

But I do know that many of us are hoping and praying that this church can blossom and flourish and grow. We then need to acknowledge and act upon a basic principle in life. The harvest is always related to what is sown. You cannot grow anything without planting the seeds. You cannot grow programs and new opportunities and new ministries within a congregation without investing in them, with time and talents and, yes, with plain old cash!

Now you may be sitting there thinking, ‘Listen Preacher, I know it's Stewardship Season but I’ve made my pledge. Just typical of a preacher, all they want is more, more, more.” All I can say is that this was the lectionary text set for this Sunday and it’s hard to talk about this passge without mentioning money!

So… let’s take a different route. In the calendar year we are heading towards the celebration of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrim Fathers, who are celebrated at Thanksgiving, didn't have much to be thankful for. They had been hounded out of one country. They tried settling in another but that didn't work out.

They fled persecution and sailed across the ocean in that tiny ship they called the Mayflower. When they got here they were met with a land that needed to be tamed, a hostile environment, new diseases, inclement weather, starvation, challenges they had never dreamed of. How did they handle it? They gave thanks.

Our first reading this morning was from the book of Habakkuk. I'm glad Habakkuk wasn't a chef. What a mouthful it would be to go to the bookstore and ask, "Can I have a copy of Habakkuk's Cook Book, please?" He didn't have much to be thankful for. Why? Habakkuk didn't have a Cook Book because Habakkuk didn’t have anything to cook!

In verse 17 of Habakkuk, Chapter 3, the fig trees aren’t blossoming, there’s no fruit on the vines, no food in the field, no sheep or cows in the stalls to provide meat. "Yet" (and listen to this), he says “Yet, I will exult in the Lord, I will be thankful, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.” (Verses 18-19)

There's that crazy thing again. The widow thing. The Pilgrim thing. People who by the standards of this world wouldn’t appear to have a great deal to get excited about are overflowing with generosity and thanksgiving.

Some weeks I feel like I need some cheerleaders up here with me instead of just a choir and lay reader. (No offence to the choir. They do a fantastic job.) But you know, when our faith is under attack, a few cheers of "Dee-Fence, Dee-Fence" wouldn't come amiss.

What about when the collection plate goes around, “Put it in, Drop it in... Touch Down!” How about an; "Everybody in the pews, Come and stamp your Good News shoes," something along those lines to get us psyched up to the importance of what we're doing here as a church when the offering plate goes around.

We have a lot to be thankful about. For sure, disposable income is always at a premium, that’s the truth. The bills keep rising and the taxes always seem to one step ahead of them. But you know what? We’re alive and kicking. We have a beautiful facility for worship and service. We have people around us who love us and pray for us and care about us.

We are free to come here and worship. None of us are going to be imprisoned today because we came to church. We are not going to be considered enemies of the state or political subversives because we claim Christ as our King. That is not the case for many in our world today, nor has it been for many generations throughout history.

We have schools. And when our kids go to school they have books and computer labs and playing fields and sports coaches and heated classrooms and class sizes that are, well sometimes larger than we would like, but small in comparison to the one-room, all age school-houses of other nations, where kids share paper and often the only text book is a blackboard.

We have roofs over our heads, food in our bellies, if we get sick we have doctors we can go to and hospitals to be treated at. On a worldwide scale that puts us at the top of the food chain. We have transport, we have gadgets galore, we have entertainment and opportunities and advantages that most of the world doesn’t share.

Today is Veterans Day, and 100 years since the First World War ended. When we recall those who gave their lives for our freedoms, we are aware of the sacrifices and hardships of those who paved the way for so much we take for granted. How do we honor such a legacy?

I’m not trying to make us feel bad or feel guilty or feel unworthy. Friends, I want us to feel thankful. We need to embrace every new day that we have to enjoy, every day filled with all these blessings and acknowledge before God that we are truly, truly, truly blessed.

Genuine thanksgiving always produces an outpouring of generosity. It causes us to think about our responsibility towards God in terms of how we spend our time, how we use the talents and gifts that God has graced our lives with and to consider what we do with our treasures.

What do we sow? What do we invest in? How can the money that we earn be used to glorify God and grow God’s kingdom? How do we express our thankfulness in tangible ways that benefit folks other than ourselves, ways that grow our church and bless our community? Our giving should not be motivated by the fact that there is a bill to be paid but from a gushing out of thankfulness… a response of joy.

In that sense this story about the widow is not about money. It’s about who she was and the genuine nature of her relation to her God. The money she gave was just an indication of something far more important. She was thankful.

She challenges us through her actions to consider if we genuinely have a heart of thanksgiving. We are invited to take our spiritual temperature by considering our giving as a guide to gauge how committed we are to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, the grace of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The New Interpreters Bible Commentary offers this reflection. "The story of the widows mite poses the same challenge to readers today as it did in Jesus time. People usually think of giving to the church and to charities as an option. The money for charitable giving comes out of the surplus after personal expenses have been met. Those "necessary expenses" usually include many many extras in terms of entertainment, clothes, food and playthings"

Do we have the widows heart, prepared to give all, or the rich mans heart who just gives the left-overs? What is the nature of what we offer to God? Is it our first-fruits, the best that we can give or just what’s left after we’ve taken care of the rest? I know these are uncomfortable questions but I really don’t believe that Christian faith and experience were ever meant to be comfortable!

Notice how the widows act of dedication foreshadows the giving of Him-self that Jesus Christ revealed to us through His death on the Cross. He died that we may live, embraced poverty that we may enjoy God's prosperity. He took on the mantle of service that we may learn the joy of serving each other.

Giving is a spiritual practice and an expression of a life that knows itself touched by the Grace of God. It is not a duty but a delight. It is not a requirement but a heart response to the love of God that in Jesus Christ laid itself naked and bare on the cruel cross of Calvary to win our devotion. It’s not about “making a donation” but everything to do with “overflowing with thankfulness.”

A rich man and a poor widow. One gives because it seems that’s what is expected, the other brings an offering from a thankful heart. A group of pilgrims flee persecution to a hostile environment that will take years to tame. What do they do? They give thanks! An Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who doesn’t have a cook book, because there’s a famine in the land, proclaims “Yet, I will exult in the Lord, I will be thankful, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.

By the example of these faithful ones, through the action of the Holy Spirit upon our hearts, may God teach us how to live in ways that express true stewardship, stewardship that flows out of our thankfulness and overflows in blessings towards others. Stewardship that engages us passionately in the work of God’s kingdom, heart, mind, and soul, with our time, talents and treasures.

To God’s name be the Glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Most Important Thing

Readings; Psalm 146, Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12: 28-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 4 2018

If somebody asked you what was the most important thing in your life, how would you respond? (Asked the congregation for their responses - answers included "Love, God, Family and Friends")

I'm sure you know the account of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to a new land of freedom. As the people were beginning a new life together there needed to be some ground rules, some ideas that shaped them and made them who they were. In the Old Testament the Book of Deuteronomy tells us how, before they reached the promised land, Moses gave the people some commands.

Deuteronomy 6: Verses 4 and 5, we read these words... “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”... that became known as the 'Shema'.

The traditions Moses began have been preserved to this day among our Jewish sisters and brothers. On the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!) you will often find a small case known as a 'Mezuzah' attached to the doorpost. Sometimes those entering the house will pause to touch it and offer a prayer. Inside the 'Mezuzah' is scroll with the words of the 'Shema' written upon it.

In you attended a local synagogue you might notice that when some of the men come to worship they have a leather pouch, known as a 'tefillin' or 'phylactery' strapped to their head or on their arm. In the pouch are the words of the 'shema'... 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'

They take quite literally the command of Moses that these laws were to written on the door frames of their houses and tied on their hands and bound on their foreheads. If every time you go in and out your house, there's the law on the door, then it helped you remember. If you have that law physically attached to you, then it's hard to ignore it. We were asking earlier, 'What's important?” That's how important the command of God is to them.

Our Bible reading from Mark's gospel had a very religious Jewish gentleman, a teacher of the law no less, coming to Jesus with a question. “Which is the most important commandment?” Jesus answers him with the 'shema'. 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'

But then Jesus adds something else. A second command that was just as important as the first one. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Jesus puts it out there! Loving God and loving our neighbor are the most important things. Jesus saw how even the most religious people could do one and sometimes forget about the other! They were so busy thinking about God that they forgot to think about other people!

That's a reminder for us as a church. Somebody once said, “The church is the only institution in the world whose main reason for existing is the benefit of those who are not its members!” We worship our God in order that we may go out and serve our neighbor. I've been in churches where they say or have printed in their bulletins at the end of the Sunday service something like “The worship is over, now the service begins.” or even, “The service is over, now the worship begins”... because worship is all about service, not just about saying prayers or singing hymns!

The teacher of the law in our account agrees with Jesus. He says to Jesus “You are right! 'Loving God' and 'Loving neighbor' is a whole lot more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The people in those days would have special offerings that helped them feel forgiven and acceptable to God. But sometimes they left it there. They got themselves right with God but then didn't do a whole lot about helping others to know about God's love!

It's been a strange few weeks. During October I took some time out for study leave and professional development. The first week I was away the ceiling fell down in Hebron House. Thank the Lord we have people here who take care of our property... a shout out to them. But this last week it's like the whole sky was falling.

Political figures receiving bombs in the mail. Jewish sisters and brothers being gunned down by a hate filled maniac as they met to celebrate worship. A couple of people being murdered because their skin wasn't white. People expressing fear over gender rights being taken away from them. A young person in one of our churhes on Facebook asked for prayer because a member of their community had just committed suicide.

There's an immanent mid-term election and all the ponitificating and pointing of fingers of blame that always seems part of the course. If your party or your position, does not come out victorious, then, I will offer you this. Just be thankful that at least you have an opportunity to vote and the freedom to let your voice be heard. Historically, that's a luxury most civilzations have not enjoyed and many across the globe still do not share.

I've also had some amazingly positive experiences over the last few weeks. Heard some truly inspiring life stories. Met some people committed to being the best they can be within their own particular callings to service. Celebrated with a new friend over Facebook that they were just declared cancer free. Heard and seen people in the midst of darkness declaring that the light will still continue shine. Learned of situations where people who are battered, brusied and bewildered have declared that despite what has happened, they are not finished.

And it all brings me back to asking... so what's really important? What really matters? Winning? Losing? Caring? Loving? Scripture reminds me that, as a minster of the gospel, it is my privelige, and my responsibilty, to place before us the words of Jesus Christ and to lift up before us all, what He said was most important. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." 
Our calling as Christians is to put God first and make the love of God the most important thing in our lives. Not politics. Not work. Not success or prosperity. Not Church. Not family. Not country. Not self. That's not easy! It takes time and effort and devotion. But it's so well worth it. Because as we focus on God we are reminded of the things God has done for us. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live. God sent Jesus to be our Savior, example and friend. God sends the Holy Spirit to let us know that we are free and forgiven and to give us the strength to love and serve our neighbors.

Worship is important. It reminds us that our lives are not our own and that every moment we spend on this planet is a gift. Like any gift, we choose how we use it. We can seek God's way or go our own way.

This morning is a communion service. We can take bread and wine and invite God to renew our lives so we can be faithful disciples. It is not our practice to write the law on our gateposts or wear pouches with the law on our heads or arms. Yet many of us may have pictures or plaques with bible verses on them in our homes or vehicles. Many of us may well wear a cross somewhere near our heart as a reminder of what we believe.

At the Cross the two things Jesus said were the most important came together. He died to show us that putting God first was most important. It's not meant to be easy. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus pleaded that there may be another way than the way of the Cross, but in the end He said, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” Each of us around the table is invited to engage in that struggle, the struggle to put God first.

Through dying on the Cross Jesus showed us that there were no places in life, however tragic or awful, that God is not prepared to go to that we may understand God's love and forgiveness. Jesus was betrayed, rejected, mocked, tortured and murdered. He faced pain, humiliation, and all this when His only crimes were loving the unlovable, accepting the outcast and blessing those others wanted to curse.

He went to the Cross for us, as Paul explains, 'He died that we may be forgiven.' Though people acted as though Jesus were their enemy, Jesus treated them like a neighbor and invites us to make our neighborhood the Kingdom of God.

As we take bread and wine and remember Him, we declare that God has first place and first claim on our lives. To know we are so loved brings a response of love from us! That's how God wants us to be. To know we are loved so we have the security and strength with which to love our neighbor. If we feel we lack it, then around the table is also the place to find it. We remember that Jesus promised to always be with us and to send to His disciples the Holy Spirit who would empower them to carry on the work of God's Kingdom in every generation and in every nation, until the end of all things!

Communion is important. The commandments are important. Our Scriptures are important. Our church is important. Our families are important. Our communities are important. Our politics is important. Our nations are important. Our friends are important. But what is the most important thing? Love.

Jesus tells us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

If we take those words to heart, we may also discover, as did the teacher of the law all those years ago, that, as Jesus says in verse 34 "You are not far from the kingdom of God." It is as we do the things Jesus invites us to do, that we realize His love is with us! Right now one of those things is to remember Him through the sharing of bread and wine, through prayer and song, through reflection and seeking renewal. My God help us to always be mindful of the most important things! Amen.

The Reverend. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.