Monday, June 25, 2018

Mark My Words - With Jesus in the Boat...

Readings: Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on June 24 2018

Many of my childhood holidays when I was growing up were spent on the Bonnie, Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland. My late father's parents were from Alexandria, near Glasgow, and my dad had spent a lot of time in his childhood exploring the area, an experience he wanted to share with his family.

One of the joys of the “Bread and Breakfast” we used to stay in, was that the lodging included access to a small motorized boat that enabled us to pack up for the day, sail out on the Loch and picnic on one of the many islands that the Loch contains. Dad even had friends that lived on one of the islands, Inchtavannach, and we would often be invited for a sumptuous dinner.

Scottish weather is unpredictable. Raincoats were never optional but considered essential supplies. One of the things you had to take note of, when out sailing on the Loch, was how suddenly and unexpectedly, the weather could change. One moment, a blue sky with a few clouds, the next a storm would roll in from the mountains, and it was much safer to be on the land, then out at sea. Thankfully, Dad knew the climate and knew the Loch, so we were never caught out.

However, unpredictable weather, is... well... unpredictable. And even the most professional of sailors can be caught out by unexpected storms. That seems to be what is happening to the seasoned fishermen, out on the Galilean Lake with Jesus, that is pictured in our Bible reading from Marks gospel. We read that “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

It's not just boat trips that can be unpredictable. Life itself is full of unexpected and unwelcome twists and turns. One moment we are going along smoothly, the next, out of nowhere can come occurrences that shake us to our core and change everything. Illness. Accident. Disaster. Loss. Most of the time we sail along quite happily, but there are those other times that leave us afraid, confused and wondering what we are going to do next.

This morning I want to think about a number of things.
  • Firstly, I want to say that fear is normal. It is a natural reaction to our losing control.
  • Secondly, I want to say that one of our greatest fears, is that of abandonment, in particular as people of faith, the fear that God doesn't care.
  • Finally, I want us to see how, in this passage, the action of Jesus brings peace into the situation, and creates a great sense of awe at God's ability to effect change in our lives and our world.
Fear is Normal

Our Old Testament passage came from near the end of the book of Job. The story of Job is all about a man who, through no fault of his own, loses everything he held dear in a series of cataclysmic events. Though people seek to understand why all this is happening to him,and he himself is exasperated and fearful, by the end of the book we discover that no reasons for his plight are going to be given. Instead he is reminded that our lives, for better for worse, are in the hands of a God whose actions defy our understanding.

God's word to Job is Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5) People will ask us, “Why is this happening to me?” Often we have to say, in all honesty, “God only knows” and we are not in on the secret. We acknowledge that even if we had an explanation, it would not help. When the boat is sinking, you don't care why it is sinking, you just want to know where the life boat is.

We have heard verses like 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear and feel that, somehow, expressing our loss of control, expressing our deepest fears is unfaithful and not honoring to God. That an admission of fear is evidence of unfaithfulness.

Job had no such problem. He gets angry at God for the predicament in which he had been placed. The disciples had no such reservations. As the storm envelops their lives, in verse 38 they cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Fear is normal. When everything spirals out of control it is the right emotion to experience. It's a natural part of our defense mechanism. Of course we also have those irrational fears that nobody can explain, but that's just part of what reminds we are all unique... and we all a little bit crazy, we are all beautiful human individuals, but in each of us the image of God is tarnished by our sin.

Because of our imperfection, we are needy people. We need each other. We need God. And one of our deepest fears is of being alone. Which brings us to a second thing we see in this passage.

Fear of Abandonment.

Jesus is asleep in the boat. The disciples are terrified. Jesus sleeps. The boat is filling with water. Jesus sleeps on. They shake Him awake. They yell at Him. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

We are His disciples, right? Isn't God supposed to take care of us? Isn't God being neglectful of God's duties when things don't work out for us? No.. wait a minute, what if God isn't really that interested in what we are going though? What if God doesn't really care? What if God has gone AWOL? What if God is sleeping in today and has missed this tragedy that we are living in the middle of?

How often have we been there? Yes, we know, we believe, that God is real. We believe that God is with us. Or at least, at times we have believed that. But now? Now this has happened? Now the unthinkable just became the reality? What's the deal God? Sleeping on the job? “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

Teacher, do You not care how hard life is right now? Teacher, Do you not care about what is happening to my family? Teacher do you not care about that illness that is attacking that person? Teacher do you not care about the violence and the school shootings and the climate of mistrust that is evident in this nation? Teacher, do You not care that Your church is struggling to make sense of the world it deals with day by day? Teacher, wake up! Help us, wake up!

We read in verse 9 “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” It reads all so matter of fact. We don't read that He shook Himself, and cried out “Oh my goodness. I can't believe I was sleeping through this! Why didn't you wake me earlier?” We don't read, “And Jesus said, “Get out the life jackets, swim for the shore, there's nothing we can do, every man for himself!” We read “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” As the Word of God is spoken, faith is restored.

Faith Restored

Yes, the storm is rebuked and peace is restored. Dead calm. But something else happens. The disciples take on a different kind of fear. An experience of awe and incredulity comes upon them. While Jesus is comforting and challenging them, saying “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They are saying “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It is as though our faith is not just about recognizing that the Word of God can make a difference, but that we also need to get out of the mindset that limits what God can and is able to do, in our lives, in our churches and in our world. This story takes us from a position of life crippling fear for survival and invites us to embrace visions of incredible possibility. It invites us to trust God, not just for the immediate crisis we are facing, but to open up to God's love in a new way that causes us to rethink the way we see the world.

It is this sense of overwhelming awe, this sense of, “Wow! Not only was God not sleeping, but God is control of … well... everything,” that brings peace flowing into the situation. It is here that this story once again intersects with the Old Testament story of Job. Job is put in a position where he sees that, even though he cannot change or explain the events that have befallen him, God is more in control than he could ever be. Job and the disciples reach a position where they understand that God cares about them more deeply than they could ever dare imagine.

It is as though life is cast into a totally different framework. We see everything in a linear fashion. Life goes smooth. A crisis comes along. We panic. God gets us through. We get back to normal. Then another crisis comes along and we hit the “repeat” button.

This passage places our lives into an eternal frame. Good things will happen to bad people and bad things will happen to good people, but at the end of all things... God has it all under control. God is not sleeping on the job. Storms of life will come and go, but the Word of the Lord will endure for ever.

A church I used to attend sang a chorus that said “Peace is flowing like a river.” That was always a mixed image in my mind. When you witness the power that a river in full flood can create, that's both a challenging and a comforting image. Challenging because it reminds us that we are not in control. Comforting, because when we accept that God is in control, that's when the peace floods in.

That is also the sentiment behind the chorus I shared during Children's time. It is a recognition that we are all at sea. And we all sometimes become afraid. While probably the last thing that occurs to us in the middle of the storms of life is “Smile”, if we can embrace the hope that God is not asleep, embrace the hope that God has placed an eternal framework around our lives, embrace the hope that God is able to deal with our lives in a way that is more abundant, more precious and more expansive than we could ever dream is possible, then the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ will come flowing into the situation.

With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
Smile at the storm, smile at the storm
With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
As we go sailing home.

Sailing, sailing home. Sailing, sailing home.
With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
As we go sailing home.”

To God be all glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Mark My Words - Seeds of Faith

Readings: Psalm 46; 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6–17, Mark 4:26-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 17 2018

Our New Testament reading this morning had Jesus talking about seeds. Little things that grow into things that are much greater. About how we play only a small part in it, we plant it and we harvest it, but God takes care of the rest. Like the process of growth, from a seed to a tree, Jesus pictures the Kingdom of God growing mysteriously from small beginnings into something majestic.

The first parable talked about the mystery of growth. The seed is planted.
It goes through changes. The stalk appears, then the head, then it blossoms.
When the grain is ripe it is harvested.

We know that sometimes the seeds we plant don't make it. We know that we have to prepare the ground. We know that a whole lot of conditions play a part. But most of it, just happens and as it happens we can do very little to change it. About the only thing we can do is stop it or ruin it.

It is much the same with spiritual growth. Seeds of faith are planted in people’s lives. Sometimes they take, sometimes they don't. At times people are prepared for growth, at times they're not. There are occasions when the storms of life cause the growth to be hindered. There are occasions when people won't go with the flow of it and the seeds do not come to anything.

But, by the Grace of God, sometimes things take root and we see people going through a process of changes and developments that show they are maturing and developing in their Christian life. And it is by the Grace of God. It is a thing that we can't explain. It is truly a miracle.

I've been reading recently some peoples accounts of their Christian journey. A common factor in them all is that somewhere along the way, somebody threw at them a seed of faith, not knowing whether it would take or not. Slowly that seed took a hold and as it did, things started to change.

Take for an example John's story. John was born into a Christian home in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where family values, right and wrong and the American way were the fabric of everyday life. As a teenager he played basketball. One day, visiting a neighboring community a non-Caucasian American started heaping abuse at him during a game. It planted a seed in him. A seed of racial hatred.

About the same time, things started to go wrong at home. His parents were splitting up. His school work was suffering. He had a lack of close friends. He was ripe for change.
He went to a rock concert and met a guy called Brian who suggested to him that the reason his family, his country and everything else around him was falling apart was because of racial integration and the disintegration of the white race. He didn't take much notice, until a few weeks later, after another concert, he was walking to his car when he was set upon. Some other guys came over and helped him and when he thanked them they said, "Anything to help a white brother out".

The next day, he decided to join his new "brothers". He went to the barbers, had a skinhead haircut and started getting into white supremacist and Nazi ideology in a big way. They were the most violent and radical group of people he had ever associated with. Their violence was all the more ferocious because they saw themselves on a moral crusade against non-whites, gays, Jews and anybody else who disagreed with them.

But then he had a chance encounter with an old school friend, Jill. She started to hang around with him. She sowed a different kind of seed. A seed of faith. She simply asked if he'd go to church with her one Sunday. He really liked her so reluctantly he went. During the service he started to feel that God was on his case. There was no dramatic conversion, he didn't immediately drop out of all the things he was involved in. But he did start reading his bible and praying to God and he saw that many of the things he'd started believing were the total opposite of what God said was right.

He went to talk to the pastor about it. The pastor prayed that he would find deliverance from his hatred - and so far he's doing good. He’s turning his life around. He's no longer part of any racist gang. He says, "If it were not for the Lord Jesus Christ, then I would either be dead or in jail." Slowly in his life, seeds of hate are being replaced by seeds of love. And guess what? He married Jill.

Now hearing a story like that you may be tempted to think, well I'm not a particularly bad person, I haven't gone off the road in that way. That's not the point! The point is that John is an example of a life, one of countless thousands upon thousands throughout history and in the present, that furnishes an example of how a seed of faith can be planted and grown. The Kingdom is working away today, just like Jesus said it would.

We have short memories. We don't know our history. We forget what advances have been made in our world through the growth of Christianity. William Barclay, writing in his commentary on Mark says;

"There is not the slightest doubt that the Kingdom is on the way if we compare, not today with yesterday, but this century with the ones that went before. When Elizabeth Fry went to Newgate Prison in 1817 she found in the women's quarters three hundred women and numberless children crammed into two small wards. They lived and cooked and ate and slept on the floor. They crowded, half naked, almost like beasts, begging for money which they spent on drink at a bar in the prison itself. She found there a boy of nine who was waiting to be hung. His crime? Poking a stick through a window and stealing some paints that were valued at two pennies.... Nowadays things like that are unthinkable. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is on the way. It may, like the growth of a plant be imperceptible from day to day; but over the years that growth is plain."

It can seem like two steps forward, one step back. There have been reports in recent days of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border. Even conservative evangelical leader. Franklin Graham, has described the practice as 'disgraceful' and 'terrible'. One hopes that public outrage will cause those in power to care more about innocent children than their political aspirations.

Yet also in recent days we have seen seeds being sown that could lead to stability and peace between North and South Korea. These stories, and stories like them, will continue to dominate the headlines. Always have. Always will. That's the sort of world we live in. An age where people can be so cynical, so worldly-minded and so critical and so divided.

But how things are now, is not how things will be. How you are now is not how you will be in years to come. Where you are now on your spiritual journey is not where you are meant to stay. You have to grow, you have to move on. We are not at the end of the story. The story is still being written. The Kingdom, though we may not always see it, continues to grow.

The second parable talks of how the smallest of seeds grew to be a great tree,
providing not just a place for birds to shelter,
but fit for eagles to make their nests within it's branches.

The significance of both the mustard seed and the great tree would not be lost on the original hearers. The mustard seed stood for the smallest possible thing; the tree was a symbol of a great empire that encompassed many nations. So the Kingdom of God would grow from something embodied in the life of Jesus Christ to something that embraced the whole world.

Everything has a beginning. Nothing emerges full-grown. It can start out as an idea. It can originate with a prayer. It can begin as an idea that comes as you open your heart to God in a service of worship. Without the acorns there would never be Oak Trees. Never judge things by the initial size of the seed. Particularly the things of God and the things of His Kingdom.

Growth takes place, not in leaps and bounds, but by little steps. Seeds of faith are little things, everyday things that we pass on to others. The smile of hope when others are cast down. The phone call to express your concern. The few items or dollars given to a food kitchen. The volunteering to do that job or this task that no one else wants to do. The picking up of that piece of litter in the street because it's there and no one else has bothered. Little things that when put together grow to be big things.

Be patient with yourselves. Spiritual growth is also a progression of little things. Little insights. Gentle steps and gradual renewal. Why are we always in such a rush? You can't rush a seed. You can't go out into the garden and shout at the seed, "C'mon, grow, grow you little scoundrel, get up out of that earth and let's see what you're made of!"

The Kingdom is coming. But it takes time. It's taken all the generations that led to our birth and could take as many generations after our death. Sometimes it may feel like we take one step before taking two steps forward. If we can just trust that God knows how to handle time, then we'll be able trust Him to handle the times that our life is going through.

Our world is beset with many divisions. Divisions of race and color and culture. Divisions of wealth and poverty. Divisions of religion and class. Divisions of language and nationality. It shall not always be so. The Kingdom of God is growing from a small seed to a mighty empire. That is God's way. That is how Jesus said it would be. And we can be a part of it. Seeds of faith have been planted in our hearts. That's why we're here.

May God help us to nurture those seeds, to provide the right atmosphere of trust, prayer and worship for them to grow and to spread those faith seeds in the lives of others through our work and service and sharing of our gifts and talents.

Seeds of faith.
They take time to grow.
Be patient.
God hasn't finished with us yet.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, June 11, 2018

Drovers, Cowboys and Pilgrims

SCOTTISH HERITAGE SUNDAY (Outdoor Amphitheater Service)
Readings: Psalm 100, Deuteronomy 8:11-18, Mark 6:7-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 10 2018

When I was a young one, growing up near Liverpool, England, my Father, who identified strongly with his Scottish heritage, and loved no place more than the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond, always enjoyed cowboy films and series on the TV. There were some regulars. The Lone Ranger. Bonanza. The High Chaparral. I sometimes wondered. Why was a Scotsman so interested in cowboy films?

Because of those series, I always thought that cowboys came from places like Argentina and Mexico. There always seemed to be characters with names like Manilito and Pedro, rather than MacGregor or MacLeod! Yet historically there is a close connection between the drovers of the Scottish Highlands and the cowboys of the 18th Century. As today we celebrate the Scottish heritage of the nation and in particular the Presbyterian Church, I wanted to talk to you about “Drovers, Cowboys and Pilgrims.”

Up until the 19h Century, the biggest industry in the North of Scotland, it's islands and highlands, was cattle. It was considered there was no better beef on the planet than Scottish beef, nurtured on the rich pastures and waters of that stunning landscape. Locations like “The Isle of Skye” were strongholds of the industry.

But of course, the people who consumed most of this beef, were not in the North, but in the south and over the border in England and even further afield. So every year, the cattle had to be taken to market by hardy folk who took on the task of being drovers.

The biggest market was in a place called Falkirk, today a rather quiet town. But in its heyday Falkirk was the home of the largest cattle market on the planet, the Falkirk Tryst. To give you an idea of the scale of the market, some 150,000 cattle + 200,000 sheep would change hands every season. Sometimes the lines of animals trying to get into the town would stretch for 7 or 8 miles.

This is in the days before motorized transport, airplanes, interstates, and railways. So how did you get the cattle from the highland farm to the market, which could be 250 miles away? There was no easy way. You had to walk. Or rather, your cattle had to be driven. Hence the name drovers.

Cattle can't be rushed. They like mooing, plodding and eating. The absolute maximum anyone could expect to do was 15 miles a day. And there were rivers to cross. Mountains to get around. Over the centuries these formed what became known as “Drovers Roads,” which eventually became the highways that exist today in Scotland.

But the danger wasn't the traffic. There were highway robbers and cattle thieves and hostile clans who had old scores to settle. So you had to carry a sword or a gun to defend yourself. There were land owners who every year negotiated tariffs for the privilege of crossing their territory. You had to know how to strike a bargain. And every year the exercise had to be repeated. A hard life.

Come with me to ancient Israel. The earliest Hebrews were a nomadic people who, like the Scots, moved their animals from place to place. Only later in their history did they start to settle in towns and build cities. Our first reading today is from Deuteronomy 8:11-18 and it's a reminder to the Hebrew people, that once they were settled and wealthy and safe, not to forget their heritage.

Take care that You do not forget the LORD Your God, by failing to keep His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, so that He may confirm his covenant that He swore to your ancestors, as He is doing today.” (NRS)

Returning to the Scottish drovers and the cowboy connection. In the mid-eighteenth and into the 19th Century, a huge change came about in the Highlands. The Lairds who owned the land came to realize that greater profits could be found through raising sheep than rearing cattle. The woolen industry was about to boom, and so began one of the most desperate periods for the Scottish people, the Highland clearances.

By 1800 some 10,000 crofters had been driven from their homes by the desire for profit. The following years saw the end of the domination of the Scottish beef industry and while some fled to the lowlands, many former drovers emigrated to the new world.

They found their skills, of herding, of living in the wild, of husbandry and of gunmanship, were readily adapted to the growing cattle industry. Enterprising Scots were often to the fore in the build-up of huge North American cattle empires. Firms like the “Prairie Land & Cattle Company” were actually based in Edinburgh. The “Matador Land and Cattle Company” had headquarters in Dundee.

One way we know how strong that influence was, is through music. Brian McNeil,a scholar of Celtic music. He was surprised, when on a visit to a small Appalachian town, he visited a music evening and discovered the band were playing an old drovers tune, called “Cambell's Farewell to RedCastle.” When he asked the fiddler how he knew the song, the fiddler replied, “Oh, that's a traditional Appalachian tune called “Farewell to Red Gap.” It seems the drovers had carried their music as well as their herding skills, with them.

In the 20th Century legendary Scottish Americans like McTaggart, Quick Draw McGraw and the James Brothers, became the stars of a whole new culture, the Hollywood Western. A classic example is the movie “Red River” made in 1948, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, gives a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail, a trail named after a Scotsman.

Moving on from Drovers and Cowboys, what about pilgrims?

Scotland had always had a diverse religious history. Before the Reformation, and some time afterward, it was a Catholic nation. This was partly due to political affiliations with Europe, but also because the United Kingdom as a whole was divided after Henry 8th decided England was going to be Protestant. The history of his successors, of Mary Queen of Scots ( an ardent Catholic) and Elizabeth 1st (the first Protestant queen) is the stuff of legend.

Eventually, a man called John Knox, converted to the Protestant faith and, due to many, many historical factors, under his influence, Scotland became a Protestant nation and “The Presbyterian Church became “The Church of Scotland,” a position it continues to occupy today.

The Scots carried their Presbyterian religion with them when they came to the United States. One of the first places they brought it was to Maryland. Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, in Somerset County, Maryland, is the oldest continuously operated Presbyterian church in the United States. Francis Makemie, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, arrived there in 1683.

The first Presbyterian worship held within the the current bounds of the Presbytery of Baltimore occurred in 1713 at the home of Thomas Todd. Tradition holds that the Todd house church was the predecessor of the present Mt. Paran Church in Holbrook. We live in an area steeped in early Presbyterian history.

To be a person of faith means accepting the call to be, not a herdsman or cowboy, nor necessarily a Presbyterian, but a traveler, and a pilgrim. Hear this reading from Mark 6:7-12. Jesus sends His followers out on one of their first missionary journeys;

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

The early Hebrews were a nomadic people, who led their herds through the wilderness. There's a little scene in the show “Joseph and His Technicolor DreamCoat”, when the brothers, dressed as cowboys, sing “There's One More Angel in Heaven.” Something about that scene made me think of drovers and early Hebrews as pilgrims.

Jesus instructs His earliest disciples to be people on the move. For many Scottish people, after the decline of the cattle industry, they were moved, not by choice, but by necessity. Many turned their misfortune into a new beginning and helped shape the life of a new nation.

Isn't that part and parcel of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about? Are we not called to demonstrate the values of a New Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, in a way that enriches our own lives and the lives of our communities?

Discipleship is all about going on a journey. It may not be a geographical journey, but it is always a spiritual journey. We can never determine what life is going to bring our way, but we do choose how we deal with it and handle it. The drovers of Scotland never woke up one morning and said, “Hey let's go to the New World and be Cowboys.” Dour circumstances forced them into a situation where they had to move on.

The unwelcome and unexpected challenges of life, can often be the catalyst for life changing moments. When such come our way, we can trust God to guide us. We can trust God, because God sent Jesus Christ to be the model and inspiration for our lives and sends the Holy Spirit to inspire us and lead us. At the Cross God declared all barriers that may stand in our way are broken down through the love of Jesus, that we are welcomed and invited and encouraged to be pilgrim people, seeking for a better world to come into being.

We have a great heritage of faithful folk whose example can guide us. We heard in our Old Testament reading God telling the Hebrew people, “Don't forget your roots. When you are happy and settled, don't forget your God.”

Just as this land has been formed by folks of many traditions of many nations, including a whole host of Scots, our faith can be nurtured by many different streams of spirituality. We don't always make the connection. I could never understand as a kid why my Scottish heritaged Father enjoyed Cowboy films so much. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Drovers of the highlands were a part of his birthright.

Celebrate your heritage, whatever it may be. Celebrate your journey of faith, wherever it may lead. Above all be thankful for the grace of God that has blessed us with land and people, with challenges and opportunities, with hope and a future. To God be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mark my Words - Celebrate The Sabbath

Sermon Series: Mark My Words
Readings: Psalm 139:1-18,2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on June 3 2018

"Yvonne, I don't want to go to church!"
"Get up, you're late'
"But Yvonne, let me lie in bed, just this once!"
"Get out of that bed, now!"
"But Yvonne, I don't want to go to church!"
"Adrian, you've got to go.., You're the minister."

"Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy" (Deuteronomy 5:12)

There was a time when that commandment about keeping the Sabbath day was observed with a legalistic thoroughness that made the Pharisees look lax. Time was when about the only thing you were allowed to do on a Sunday was go to church.

Things started to change. The stress started to be put upon the bibles teaching about "Rest" rather than "Holiness.” Someone noticed that even God took a day off! So Sunday became recreation day. Take a walk in the countryside. Go out to eat. Do some stuff that will re-energize you for the week to come, and included in that was recharging your spiritual batteries in church.

Then someone noticed that a lot of people had time on their hands on a Sunday. Some of that time could be spent shopping. We could schedule a few sports events. In fact let's make it a really recreational day. Suddenly we find ourselves rushing around like mad folk and not only is the idea of holiness a forgotten echo but we've lost the restfulness as well. And church? Hmm. How does that fit in?

When you think of all the things you can do on a Sunday, when you try to figure out where your priorities lie, when you try to sort out, not just what has to be done, but what is the right thing to do, well, sometimes you could be tempted to say that a circus juggler has an easier task!

Our scripture reading from Marks gospel focused on two incidents where Jesus spoke about the Sabbath. In the first He explains that man wasn't made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for man. In the second Jesus exposes the diabolical double standard in the lives of the Pharisees. They affirmed it was right to do good on the Sabbath whilst plotting His murder. Let's look at those two stories and ask; "How can we best "Celebrate the Sabbath" and honor the fourth commandment in our lives?”

Plucking the grain

At the time Jesus disciples were accused of breaking the commandments there were complex laws surrounding the Sabbath. Doing work, preparing meals and plucking grain were not allowed. By walking through a field and eating corn the disciples broke the law.

Jesus defends their actions by quoting Samuel 21:1-6. In that passage David, the anointed one of God fleeing for his life, ran to the Tabernacle, the Holy Place where Abiathar was the High Priest. He demanded something to eat . There was no food available except "Shewbread," a weekly offering of 12 loaves meant to be eaten exclusively by the priests. It was all they had. So David took and ate the bread and so broke the law.

Interpreting that event Jesus explains; "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." The disciples were on an urgent mission to preach the Kingdom of God. Jesus, the anointed one of God, the "Son of Man" was in their midst. These were exceptional circumstances. They had done no wrong.

There were occasions when individual and human need took precedence over Sabbath laws. In Matthew's account of questions about the Sabbath, he recalls Jesus saying to his opponents, "Look, if one of you has a sheep that falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, you don't leave it there to die, you lift it out!" Doing the right thing was more essential than doing the prescribed thing. Mark develops this argument by giving us a second story.

The healing of the withered hand.

The opponents of Jesus are sitting in the synagogue waiting to catch Him out. He knows what's going on and confronts them by calling out of the congregation a man who has a withered hand. The man stands before them and Jesus puts it to them straight. "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?"

As His adversaries real motives are bought out into the open they are shamed into silence. The authority of Jesus in the situation is vividly illustrated as the man's hand is healed before their eyes. The issue was much larger than, "Is it right to do this or that on the Sabbath." It was about "Do we reject or do we believe the message of God's love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ?"

The irony in the situation was that those who claimed to be committed to keeping the law were there, on the Sabbath Day, plotting to break the law by murdering an innocent man. This plot so darkened their minds, that when a miraculous healing took place, right before their eyes, it was not seen as an occasion for rejoicing, but as another reason to condemn the healer.

How do we celebrate the Sabbath?

In the first story, Jesus answer to the Pharisees that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath," may appear to suggest that we have total freedom to do what we like and that His opponents were nothing more than narrow minded bigots. But then the verse continues with the words;"...the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

In the film "Chariots of Fire," British devout Christian athlete Eric Lidell is entered for the Olympic games. When one of the heats is on a Sunday he refuses to run. He is accused of being a traitor to his nation, of letting his team down and betraying those who had put there hope in him. He sticks to his principles, becomes entered in another race that wasn't his best, but goes ahead and wins all the same.

What the film doesn't show is the continuing story of his life. Lidell felt a call to be a missionary to China and during hostilities between Japan and China was placed in an internment camp. Before his life was cut untimely short by a brain hemorrhage, he took upon himself the job of keeping up the spirits of the children who were in the prison camp with him. He arranged athletic events during their free time. Guess what? Some of that free time was on a Sunday. And in those circumstances, he ran.

Did he betray his own principles? On the contrary he showed that his talents were something he harnessed to doing the will of God and the service of others. By making a public stand for God at the Olympic games, he reminded the world that there was a fourth commandment. By working to relieve the anxiety of a group of children in a death threatening situation he showed the compassion of Christ. Two totally different situations in which two different actions were appropriate. Both were valid celebrations of the Sabbath.

One commentator makes this observation; "Christians who acknowledge Jesus as Lord should keep the Sabbath in the same spirit as Christ." Not legalistically, but lovingly, not as something restrictive but as something to celebrate. As the second story of the healing of the man with the withered hand shows, the question of the Sabbath is a question about our intentions, of our whole system of values and priorities, of our acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ.

A group of eighth graders were shown a film about the life of Jesus. They were asked, "Who do you identify with in that film: the disciples, the Jews or the Romans?" None of them" said one, “They were all jerks just out for themselves. The only good person in the film was Jesus." The teacher challenged them to explain why the authorities had wanted to murder a person who was so clearly right. They were quiet for a while. Then one of them noticed that Jesus always insisted on the truth. "Truth" he volunteered, "Upsets people."

You know if you want to upset someone today, after church go to someone's house who could have been here this morning, hammer on their door and demand, "Why weren't you in church!" I can guarantee you won't get a warm reception. Then lay some judgmental lines on them.

"So, you had to do some shopping, I get it, being a consumer is more important than your Christianity!" "So, you felt like staying in bed, can't even be bothered to get out of the sheets and praise God, may God reward your idleness in the way it deserves." "So, it's a nice day and you felt like some time out, who gave you this day in the first place? Didn't your parents teach you to say thank You?"

I used to have a teacher in school. Every time he gave out homework, he gave us the same line. “I'll accept no excuses, only reasons.” Many times people have excuses why they don't go to church. But reasons?

Well there are some. For instance if you are physically or mentally unable to be in a service of worship then nobody expects you to be there. If there is some service you are doing for others that unavoidably means you can't be in church on a Sunday, then that service is in itself an act of worship. If you are involved in some endeavor which is essential for your health or well-being or peace of mind then there's no problem.

Then there's the real tricky ones. Time to take your kids to events that are increasingly scheduled on a Sunday... and if they are not there ,they are no longer able to participate. Time to spend with family members for whom Sunday is just another day and they don't even see the problem.
What about the rest? The bottom line? That's between you and your God. You need time to worship. You need time for recreation. You need time to be a family. And it can be real hard when commitments to family, or to your team or to your work, conflict with your commitment to be an active member of your church. It's not easy. But God knows that and God can help us work it out. Some days, like Eric Lidell, it's right to make a stand. On others it's more important to serve. Offer reasons, but don't give excuses. You know that God can tell the difference.

And remember that whilst the purpose of being a disciple isn't to fill a pew every Sunday, filling a pew every Sunday can help you become a better disciple! Jesus calls us to worship Him not as an obligation, nor out of a desire to keep a commandment, but out of joy, out of love for God and each other. Celebrate the day. Throw your hearts into worship of our wonderful God. Open your life to His glory. Open your mouths in praise. Be filled with His Spirit.

Be here when you can.
Be elsewhere when you must.
But in all things, give God the Glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.