Monday, July 30, 2018

5000 Thankful Folk

Readings: Psalm 14, 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 29 2018

A woman was hosting a dinner party and at the table she asked her six-year-old daughter to say grace. “But, I wouldn’t know what to say,” the girl responded. “Just say what you hear Mum say,” replied the mother. The little girl nodded, bowed her head, and prayed, “Dear Lord, why in the world did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Jesus must have felt that kind of pressure. Everywhere He went, crowds pressed in on Him, demanding His attention. Today’s passage tells the story of Jesus leaving the crowds behind to find some time alone. John 6:1-10 sets up the story for us. Jesus and His disciples are in the middle of their Galilean ministry. In the midst of this crazy, busy time, Jesus takes His disciples aside for a break. But the crowds begin to appear. “Then Jesus lifted His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him...” You can almost hear the disciples sigh. “We really need some time out right now...”

Jesus turns to Phillip.“Where shall we buy bread?” Phillip answers in despair, “How should I know? Even if we could find any stores out here, we couldn't afford to feed a multitude!” Andrew comes on the scene. Andrew has found this cute kid willing to share his lunch: five loaves and two fish. There is a hint of sarcasm in his voice as he says, good try kid, and nice of you to offer, but “What are these among so many?

Rumbling along below the story is the idea that Jesus actually knows what is going to happen. That the disciples are being set up to witness a miracle that will change the way they think about God's provision. Verse 6 tells us about Jesus words to Phillip, “He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He was going to do.

What is He going to do? First thing Jesus does is to tell everybody to sit down. I like that. How often have we been in a crisis situation and everybody is bustling around, “Oh no, what we going to do now, I'm so hungry, what's going to happen?” Jesus takes control. “Everybody, sit down, there's enough for everybody. Just settle down and listen.”

How often do we get so caught up in trying to fix everything and worry about very eventuality so much that we don't actually take the time to sit down and listen to how God sees the situation. It was only when they sat down and listened to Jesus that their hunger was met.

The crowd settles in the grass fixing their eyes on Jesus. Jesus took the loaves and did what? He gave thanks. At first glance this “Giving Thanks” seems like an insignificant detail. I would suggest that it is the most important thing in this passage. It is giving thanks that leads to 5000 folk being satisfied.

Later in John's gospel, in John 10:23 we read: “Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” It doesn't say “Near the place where the Lord miraculously fed 5000,” or “Near the place where the Lord worked a great wonder,” but “Near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” What was important to John about this event was not the miracle feeding, but the lesson that Jesus taught about being thankful.

In a nutshell (or maybe a bread basket) this lesson is about thanksgiving. Being thankful releases resources within our situations that meet the deepest need of our hearts and lives. Let me offer a few observations about this principle of thanksgiving.

First, be thankful for what you have. Jesus gives thanks for the five loaves and two fish. The miracle hasn’t happened. He offers thanksgiving for the blessing that is at hand. Jesus knows full well what is going to come, but His disciples and the watching crowd don’t. All they see is Jesus offering thanks, for a little bit of bread.

I bump into discontented people on a daily basis. You ask them how they’re doing and they say, “You won’t believe what happened to me. This person came right up behind me on the interstate...” And then they’re off on a twenty-minute tirade. You ask them if they like their meal, and they tell you about a place that did it better. You ask them about their work, and a complaint session begins on the folk they have to work with. Whatever the weather is they find something to complain about. “It's miserable” “So cold” “So hot.” “Can't wait for it to change.”

You are in the shops and they are shaking their head, “The prices. Can't believe how much everything is.” Seems like they best they can muster about anything is “Well. It's O.K. I guess.” And whatever you do, do not mention politics or religion, because you are going to be told in no uncertain terms where you are getting it all wrong.

The worst part about it, is that the discontent rubs off on me. I find myself succumbing the curse of the criticisms and infected with the “If only’s.” “If only I had this...” “If only they would do that...” “Why can't she do something about him or he do something about her?” This atmosphere of discontent is like a virus. The action of Jesus, in the face of peoples hunger and dissatisfaction is to lift up a little bread and give thanks.

We can be thankful that we have a roof over our head. We can be thankful for the people God has brought into our life. We don’t need to worry that they’re flawed because we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We can be thankful for the food on our plate each day. We can be thankful for the challenges that force us to grow. We can be thankful for the air we breathe. We can be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy. We can be thankful for the simple joys.

Like the little boy with the loaves and fishes, they may not seem much in the light of the needs around us. Nevertheless, we can be thankful and offer what we have God. Be thankful.

Secondly, realize that gratitude is more action than emotion. Have you ever thought to yourself “I just don’t feel thankful.” So notice that Jesus didn’t talk about “feeling” thankful, He instructs us to practice a daily discipline of thankfulness. Be thankful. You prayed “Give us this day our daily bread.” Well, you know what? You got it. So be thankful!

When I was growing up my mother made me sit down and write thank-you notes in the days immediately after Christmas. I didn’t feel thankful, I wanted to play with my new toys. We only had a few more days before Christmas break was over. But my mum was trying to teach me that expressing gratitude is important, even if the gift was a pair of green socks!

Too often my prayers are characterized by requests, when they should be full of thanksgiving. The act of expressing thankfulness makes us more aware of blessings. When we are thankful, it shifts our perspective away from what we don't have and towards the abundant blessings we have received from God.

God’s abundance comes in unexpected ways. None of the gospel writers gives us any idea how this miracle happened. Did the food miraculously reconstitute itself as it was passed around? Did it stretch as each person tore off a hunk? Was it placed in baskets that suddenly filled to the rim? We don’t know. John isn't about to satisfy our curiosity, because that's not what the account is about. It's about thankfulness.

It was unexpected. The disciples didn’t see it coming. You see this same truth in the turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. We see it again when a whole town of Samaritans come out and believe on the testimony of a woman Jesus meets at a well.

When Jesus provides abundantly, He often does so through unexpected means. Our challenge, is to keep our minds open enough to receive the blessings when they come. And the way to unlock openness to blessing, is the path of thankfulness. So be thankful for what you have. Secondly, realize that gratitude is more action than emotion.

Thirdly, notice that thankfulness is never wasteful. In verse 12. Jesus tells His disciples to gather up the fragments, that nothing might be wasted. That is a fundamental principle of thankfulness, not wasting what you have. The United States is possibly the most wasteful nation on the planet. We throw away so much. I'm embarrassed by the amount I throw away. Wastefulness is an indication that we are taking our blessings for granted. It is in direct contrast to thankfulness.

In a world where millions go hungry I can think of few more disgusting sights than visiting an “All you can eat” restaurant, and watching people stack their plates high with food, and then throw half of it in the garbage. If ever there was a statement that says “We are blessed and we don't even know it” … there it is.

God has given us abundant life, and abundant possibilities and abundant time and abundant resources. For the majority of us who live in the developed world, life is an “All you can eat buffet.” But too often life is squandered and wasted and thrown away. Our wasteful actions betray our thankfulness. God calls us to be wise in our use of God's blessings, be it our time, our finances, or our abilities.

Thankfulness is not expressed through excess, but when we treasure our gifts and use them to their greatest impact in blessing others. Isn't that what happened with that little boy and his loaves and fishes? He was thankful. He had enough. He cared enough to share and God blessed everybody through His thankful action. Wastefulness is a direct contrast to thankfulness.

Neighbor, Hey neighbor, Be thankful for what you've got!
Neighbor, Hey neighbor, If you want to live at the right altitude,
                                        You got to have an attitude of gratitude.
Neighbor, Hey neighbor, If you want to live grateful,
                                       Then stop being wasteful.
  • Being thankful releases resources within our situations that meet the deepest need of our hearts and lives. Be thankful for what you have. Instead of focusing on other peoples circumstances, let us look into our own situations and wake up to just how blessed we really are.
  • Realize that gratitude is more action than emotion. When we focus on thankfulness, it releases good things in our lives and in the lives of those we share our lives with. Just as misery loves company, thankfulness can be a positive influence on those around us.
  • Notice that thankfulness is never wasteful. God never gives us blessings with the intention that we throw them away. The greatest gift of all is life itself. We honor God when we live with an attitude of gratitude.
5000 hungry folk went away satisfied when Jesus lifted up a little bit of bread and gave thanks. Lift up your life in thanksgiving for all the blessings God has showered upon you, and just maybe you will leave this place far more satisfied than when you entered!

And to God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Mark My Words - Not Accepted in the Homelands

Readings: Psalm 48, Ezekiel 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark: 6:1-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 8 2018

It's always a strange experience visiting your homelands after you’ve been away for a while. Things are so familiar, yet at the same time so different. Time moves on.  People move on. Things change. There’s a new building here.  An old landmark is no longer there. Who we are, is not who we were.

There is the awareness that you have moved onto other things, whilst some of those who stayed where they were are much the same as they have ever been.  You see them through different eyes, but often they see you as they always did.

I was reading of the Welsh singer Tom Jones, (who had hits like, "It's not unusual" and "The Green, Green, Grass of home"), and how, for him, visiting his home village was a unique experience.  In the eyes of the world he was perceived as a glitzy Las Vegas nightclub superstar.  In his hometown he was still 'Tom, y’know, Mrs. Jones's boy, who sings a bit and went off to America.'

He found it a liberating thing to walk around his town and be treated just the same as everybody else.  There’s something in being around folks who knew us when we were growing up that is a great leveler and which can be very accepting and comfortable.

The reverse side of it is that it can limit people’s expectations of us. It is almost as though the people who think they know you the best, feel a need to set limits on what you should and should not be able to achieve in life.

That’s seems to be what happened when Jesus went to his hometown after being on His first mission trip. People wouldn’t accept Him. “Why, He’s just Mary’s boy, the carpenter. We know his brothers and sisters! He’s nobody special.”

It could even be that the townsfolk thought He was dodging His responsibilities. As there is no mention of Mary’s husband Joseph in the account, the presumption is that he had died and left Jesus, as the oldest child, as the head of the household.  To walk out on the family and go on some crazy preaching tour was not the thing to do!

For whatever reasons, be it familiarity or just resistance because of actions He had taken that were socially out of line, Jesus is met with rejection when He returns to His hometown.  The people are offended by His teaching, viewing it as alien to their understanding of what should and shouldn’t happen in their locality.

Jesus marvels at their unbelief, quoting them a parable, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”.  A few receive Him.  A number receive healing, but these are a small number in comparison to the multitudes that were touched elsewhere.

When I lived near New York City I found myself singing along and feeling all homely when any of the classic New York songs come on the radio. 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, New York, New York...'

When I lived in West Virginia, I could whole-heartedly throw myself into singing, “Country Roads, Take me Home, To the place where I belong, West Virginia…” because back then that's where I lived.

It has been said that home is where the heart is. As one who has lived in a number of different situations, I take a lead from the phrase “Wherever I lay my hat, is my home”.  I know that, right now, where I grew up is not where I‘m meant to be.  Home for me, right now, is here in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Returning to our passage. Reflecting on the thought of Jesus not being welcome in His homelands, challenges me to ask the question, “How welcome is Jesus in my heartlands?” By that I mean, that there is no more familiar place to us than our own lives.  In our own experience we can easily become content with the way things are and not face the challenge of developing in our spirituality

We have heard the gospel message so many times that it has become familiar to us, so familiar that maybe we think we know what it’s all about and see no need for change or greater understanding.  We can become so satisfied with the status quo of church life that we lose the expectation of God’s Spirit breaking in on us, renewing us, and changing us.

Jesus could not do the work He wished to do in His homelands because the people were imprisoned by a view of life that allowed no room for the unexpected in the common daily life of their community. They knew the mighty works He had done, they recognized His teaching as having great depth, and they didn’t deny great things were taking place.

What they had a problem with was fathoming how a man from their little village had been anointed with such great wisdom and power. They found the thought that He had a divine work to do in their midst an offense.  Who was He to tell them how they should be living their lives?  Wasn’t He, after all just a carpenter, just a local boy? Things like that didn’t happen in their town!

In a similar way in our inner heartlands we can limit the work of God.  We find the thought that Jesus wants to do some divine work in our midst somehow unbelievable. After all, that’s not our daily experience. Of course we believe Jesus can do great things, and we know He gave great teaching, but does it really penetrate our hearts?

William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark, tells the story of the poet Thomas Campbell, a man of considerable talent.  His father had absolutely no sense of poetry whatsoever. When Thomas achieved his long time dream of having his poems published, he sent a copy to his father.  The old man looked at it.

At least he looked at the cover and the picture on it. He never actually opened the pages and read anything. His only comment was “Well, who would have thought our Tommy could have a book made with a nice picture on it?”

Sometimes” comments William Barclay, “when familiarity should breed a growing respect it breeds an increasing and easy going familiarity.  Sometimes we are too near people to see their greatness”. I would want to add; “Sometimes we are so familiar with our limitations that we fail to see the possibility of there being anything more.”

Yet there were some in Jesus hometown who were not content.  Though the majority reacted with an unbelief that Jesus marveled at, some were healed.  So there is a way to break beyond our familiarity barriers and expand our horizons! It may not be the way the majority takes, but has not that always been the case with those who desire to walk with God?

Consider Ezekiel, the prophet of our Old Testament reading.  God addresses him as ‘mortal man’ (for that’s what he was) yet identifies him as being a person of faith amongst a nation where many disbelieved. (Ezekiel 2:3) “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have turned against me.”

Consider how, after His rejection by most of His own folk, Jesus does not despair or change His plans, but rather carries on expanding His work, training His small band of twelve disciples by sending them out two by two to give them their first taste of preaching the Good News of the Kingdom.

Consider how, though initially rejected by His family, His mother Mary was one of the few who stood by Jesus to the end, when the rest of the disciples deserted Him. Consider how His brother James, after the resurrection, came to be regarded as the apostle and the leader of the Jerusalem church.  Though their familiarity was a stumbling block, it was one they eventually overcame.

We have stumbling blocks in our faith journeys.  We have problems that we don’t seem to be able to get over. We become content with our unbelief and our unfamiliarity of God’s ways. We give up on ourselves.  We give up on each other.  We give up on our churches.  We let hope pass us by. The familiarity of our heartlands causes us to feel nothing can change or will change. We become so hardened by our familiarity that we reject even the words of those who tell us change is possible.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t that way for Ezekiel.  It wasn’t that way for those in Jesus town who found healing that day.  It doesn’t have to be that way for us if we heed Christ’s words that we should seek the things of His Kingdom over and above all the other things we want in life.

This passage challenges us today, that though we are simply mortal women and men, it is in our lives, cluttered as they are with everyday concerns and mixed motives, that God wishes to work in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. It is for us to invite Jesus into our heartland, to see not the limitations that both ourselves and the world around us place upon us, but the vast possibilities that the Grace of God opens up to us.

Let us not be like those, whose familiarity with Jesus actually prevented His work taking place in their lives. Rather let us be those who, day by day, are being renewed and recreated by the love of God, found in Jesus Christ and known in our hearts through the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Mark My Words - Jesus The Healer

This morning our bible reading gave us an account of two acts of healing that Jesus performed. Firstly that of the daughter of Jairus. Secondly of a woman who had a hemorrhage. The two accounts have a number of things in common.

Consider firstly this. That both these people were outsiders.

They were not the sorts of people who normally thronged around preachers. Jairus was a part of the ruling minority that considered the likes of Jesus to be dangerous. Scripture describes him as a “synagogue official.” The unnamed woman, because of the nature of her illness, was not the sort to get out and about much. Her illness made her unclean in the eyes of Jewish law. Any person she came into physical contact with would also be considered unclean by the law. They were outsiders.

There was a song some years ago that said, “I’m in with the In-Crowd, I go where the In-Crowd goes.” One of the things I’ve never figured out in life is exactly who the “In Crowd” are. In fact if some of the people who suspect they are 'in' the 'in crowd' are anything to go by, then I’m certainly sure I don’t want to be in with them, what ever that may mean.

When it comes to the love of God, we are outsiders whom God wants to be insiders. We all fall short of being the sort of people we could or should be. We’re all misfits. Sometimes we may be foolish enough to believe other wise. Numerous religious and political groups will invite us to be a part of their thing, and suggest to us that every body else’s thing is the wrong thing. But the testimony of scripture is clear. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.

So remember this. Jesus healed these two outsiders. They were not outsiders in His eyes. Neither are we. He invites us, not to become part of the “In crowd” but to be part of a fellowship that meets around a common table. He invites us to be in His love. He invites us to be part of a community in which there are as many 'diverse' people as there are people.

The love of God invites outsiders to come inside. To taste and see that the Lord is good.

Notice secondly about this unclean woman and synagogue official, that though in the eyes of the world they were outsiders, in the eyes of God, they were insiders by virtue of being people of faith.

Faith is such a hard a thing to define. What makes it harder is that sometimes we seem to have it and some times we don’t.

I’m not a person who has tremendous confidence in air travel. The smaller the plane, the more angst-y I become. I remember being on a flight from Atlanta, GA to Charleston, WV, that was one of those tiny commuter planes with noisy propellers and engines that seem to splutter.

The pilot didn’t actually increase my confidence. He kept coming on the loudspeakers saying things like, “Duh, this your pilot… erm. There might be some bad weather ahead. I guess… erm.. we’ll go round it some way. Erm.. Don’t know what time we’ll be getting in tonight… but hey, I think we got a lot of fuel on board!”

Of course everything went fine. There were no problems. Statistically I knew I was safer in a plane than crossing the road, but.. well faith.. it’s a strange thing. Some times we seem to have it. Some times it eludes us.

In our bible passage, the woman and Jairus the synagogue official have it. Big time. “If I just touch His garments,” says the woman. Jairus says about his daughter “Lay your hands on her so that she will get well and live.” If they have any doubts in their minds about the ability of Jesus to heal, their words certainly don’t express them. They have complete confidence in Jesus.

That sort of confident faith is elsewhere described in Scripture as a gift of the Holy Spirit. An experience that God grants to us through God’s grace. Faith is not something that we can artificially manufacture or achieve through the power of positive thinking. It’s a gift to be received.

But there are things we can do to be in a better position to be more receptive. We can be regular in our worship and personal walk with Christ. We can nourish our lives through scripture and prayer. We can be more trusting in God and less trusting in our selves. These things don’t guarantee instant abundant faith experiences, but they do pave the way to recognizing a gift when God is offering it to us.

How much faith is necessary? Jesus said a little less than a mustard seed is quite sufficient! Just a grain. That’ll do it. Just a whisper worth that tells you God loves you in spite of everything!

The love of God invites outsiders to come inside.
The love of God invites us to come with the faith we have, and trust God for the rest!

Finally, notice this about these two people of faith. They didn’t care what anybody else thought about them.
So many people worry endlessly about what others think of them whilst considering so little how their lives may look in God’s eyes. Jairus had reached a point where he couldn’t give two hoots what his influential friends made of him. His little daughter was sick. He believed Jesus could change things. So he went to Jesus.

The woman with the hemorrhage didn’t care that the law branded her unclean. She didn’t care that she’d seen this doctor and that physician and they’d all declared her condition incurable. She didn’t care about the social customs and niceties that every society inherits. She needed a touch from Jesus to be made well. Forget everything else. She went for it.

Sometimes, like the two in our story, we have to reach rock bottom before we stop wondering what other people think of us and start reaching out to God. But that does not have to be so.

If we can simply recapture the idea that God loves us, simply because we are God's children and precious in God's sight, that God sent Jesus into our world not to condemn the world, but that the world might through Him be saved, then we understand how outsiders become insiders. We recognize that it's the work of the Holy Spirit, a work of grace that accepts us, not what we can do or what others think of us.

Somebody asked me the other day, why they should bother attending a worship service, when there are so many other things they could do on a Sunday.

For me, it's like this. Every time we come to a worship service we are putting ourselves in a place that where God's healing and freedom and joy can break through into our hurting and needy lives. That what we can discover through worship is something this world cannot even put into words. It is through opening our hearts in worship that Jesus invites to experience His touch .

It is through opening our hearts to God in worship that we discover, like Jairus and the woman in our scripture reading, that we are outsiders that God wants to make insiders.

It is through opening our hearts to God in worship that we discover that however anybody else perceives us, God sees us as children in need of spiritual nurture and grace

It is as we open our hearts to God in worship, not with the faith we would like to posses but with the little faith we do have, that we become aware that if it we only have as much faith as a mustard seeds worth ...that is absolutely enough.

It is as we open our hearts to God in worship, we remember that what others think of us does not matter as much as how God sees us. And we discover God is the only One who truly sees us, who knows the real needs of our lives, and only God, through the Holy Spirit, can meet us at the deepest point of our need. Such was the experience of Jairus, whose daughter found healing, and of a unknown woman, known to God by name, but for us just another example of how God's love, can take what is broken and create something new.

Whatever our need this day... be it for healing, for direction, for hope, for comfort, for peace... may we lift that need to God, trusting that God alone can fulfill God's Word and seeking for God's healing love to be a reality in our own lives and the lives of those who we carry in our prayers. There is no better place to do that than around a table laid with bread and wine.

For to God's name be all honor, glory and praise. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.