Monday, October 15, 2018

Camels and Needles

Readings: Psalm 22:1-15, Deuteronomy 28:1-9, Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:17-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian, MD, October 14 2018

Mark 10, verse 25;
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God"

Alice the Camel had a hump. At least one hump. As you know (of course) that's what made her different from a horse. Humps could get in the way. Particularly if you filled your hump with provisions that you were saving for a rain-less day. You never knew when you were going to have to go trundling through the desert wastelands. "I shall be prepared" she said. A hump was also handy for hanging things on. It was surprising just how much stuff the back of a camel could store. "I never go nowhere without me hump" she had a habit of saying.

Humps also slow you down a bit. Alice never jumped out of bed with anything on her face other than a "Hummppff". It's not so easy to embrace the morning with a smile when you can hardly get to your feet. She didn't usually like going places at all. If you asked her to come to your place and spend some time with you she had a habit of being so busy keeping her hump and the things she packed around it in order that she would refuse.

Mind you, having a hump had it's h'advantages. Self-sufficiency brought with it independence. When everyone else had to go to the store every day to stock up, she only had to make a trip to the nearest oasis once a month. Nibble on a few palm leaves, nice tasty fig here and there, and you didn't have to bother with no one and no one had to bother with you.

One day, Alice the camel had to go to the city. It was a real busy day and most of the Gateways in the city wall were blocked with traffic. On the way in to Jerusalem she met a horse, a donkey and a dog who were heading in a different direction. She thought "I think I'll follow those fellows".

They led her to a gate in the walls that was known as the "Needle Gate", on account of it being rather slim and low. "Woof" the dog went through. "Hee-Haw" the donkey went through. "Clippity Clop" and Mr. Ed was through to the other side.

Now it was her turn. She put her head through, but then all the stuff she had stuffed on her back became stuck. So they had to shove her back. "Lighten the load" said Mr. Ed. So she shed some stuff and tried again. "Hee-Haw' said the donkey (Which she understood as meaning take some more things off your back). So she shed more stuff and tried to stuff herself through the gap. Nothing doing. "Woof" said the dog (As dogs have a habit of doing) and she dropped everything she was carrying and tried to sqeeeee - eee - zzze through the gap. But .. no. Her hump couldn't handle it.

"Humppff" she said. "How am I going to do this?" The dog, the donkey and the horse suggested that if they tied a rope around her neck, maybe they could pull her through. So they tied, they pulled, they tugged with all their strength. "Your strannngggling me' she spluttered. The rope snapped followed by a "Woof," "Hee-Haw" and an "Ouch" as the animals catapulted backwards onto the floor.

"We'll have to push her from behind' suggested Mr. Ed. So they all stood at her rear and pushed and shoved with their shoulders and their backs and their legs and their arms. Alice squeee- ee- ee- ezed slowly through the gap. The dog, the donkey and the horse pushed and pushed and pushed. Alice squee-ee-ee-zed and squee-ee-zed until suddenly, with an almighty PLOP, she shot through the Needle Gate and they all landed on the other side of the wall in a heap.

By laying aside all her possessions and with a little help from some passing friends she had managed to squeeze on through to the other side.

After they had picked themselves up off the floor and dusted themselves down, a man who had been watching from a distance approached them. "Now" he said, "That was quite impressive." He reached into his pocket. He pulled out a shiny, tiny, needle which sparkled in the sunlight. "For a real challenge" he said, holding up the needle in the air, you try and squeeze yourselves through that little hole, the eye, that we put the thread through."

The dog, the donkey, the horse and Alice the camel all laughed and laughed and laughed They were all in agreement. "Woof, Hee-Haw, Don't be stupid, That's impossible" they said!

Meanwhile, in another place, at another time and this time not in fantasy but in reality, Jesus told His disciples, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

He had spoken those words because a very rich young man had come running up to Him and said, "Good Teacher, I have kept the commandments all my life, What must I do to gain eternal life?"

Jesus had looked him in the eye and said, "Why do you call me good? No-ones good except God." Then he had told the young man, "There's one thing you need to do to find salvation. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor." Because the young man was loaded he had walked away like a sad puppy with his tail between his legs.

After seeing what had happened the disciples were thrown into confusion. They had always had the impression that if you kept the commandments and God blessed you with health, wealth and prosperity then you were heaven bound with no questions asked. They themselves had left everything, family, friends and possessions. Surely that was worth a bit in the eyes of the Almighty? They were therefore astonished at His answer to the rich man and even more astonished when He told them, "Children, How hard it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God!"

They were worried. "Well look if that man who kept the commandments can't be saved, if we who have left everything to follow you can't be saved, what's the deal here?"
And Jesus replied, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God." He implies that by the grace of God, camels can fit through the eyes of needles, and people can find salvation.

When Alice the camel shed her possessions she was acting a little like the rich young ruler. She needed to squee-ee-zze through the gate. How could she? Well by a process of reorganization, follow a few simple rules, then no problem, she'd be through. Likewise, the young ruler believed that if he could make himself good enough by observing the commandments of God, then that's all there was to it. Eternal life was in the bag.

Problem was he had a hump. Every commandment he kept, everything he was doing for his salvation was only for the benefit of one person in the world. Himself. He was the center of his own tiny universe and needed to be reminded that God's Salvation wasn't about him, it was something larger and grander than his cosy life. There were people out there who needed practical help. He had the means of supplying it. If he started to do that, then he would be starting to understand what the Kingdom was all about. So Jesus tells him, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor."

The disciples were more in the position of Alice the Camel who needed her friends help to squeeze them through the gate but then found themselves with the impossible task of now squeezing through the eye of a real needle. Peter complains to Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you." Through the things that He is saying Jesus is challenging the disciples to think. "Now, why did you leave everything to follow me? What is your motive? If you are only doing it to gain your own salvation then you are wasting your time."

They had gone further than the rich man. They had made it through one narrow gate and on the other side were with a company of friends. But now it was time for the real challenge of discipleship. A real needle. Could they leave everything, including their personal desires for comfort, for self advancement, their dreams for the future and hopes of how things might turn out when Jesus was crowned Messiah, could they leave all that behind?

They needed to. Because Jesus was not going to turn out to be the sort of Messiah they were expecting. His was not going to be a victory won by zapping the enemy with lightning bolts from beyond. His victory was to be won through loving the unlovely, through bringing dignity to those others looked down upon, through undeserved suffering, a death on a cross and a resurrection from an empty tomb.

What was impossible for man, God was working in their midst. He, Jesus Christ, was the bearer of salvation, the way, the truth and the life. Only through total reliance on Him, would they ever experience the salvation of the Kingdom.

The game play hasn't changed. There is still not a thing we can do to earn our salvation, other than throw our lives upon the grace and mercy of God. Being good at keeping the commandments won't do it, because none of us is that good. Leaving it all behind won't do it because none of us ever leaves everything behind.

We need to come to Jesus and ask "What must I do to gain eternal life?"

We may have to give up a lot. Our dreams. Our pride. Our self-sufficiency. In fact any activity that takes us away from the obligation and privilege of worshiping and serving God in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

To truly be a disciple we have to literally surrender to Christ in our hearts all that we are and all that we own We need to say to Jesus, "This is everything I am and everything I have, my time, my talents, my relationships, my stuff, and it's all Yours to do with as You please."

If we can do that then like the disciples we will be rewarded by so much more. Jesus tells Peter; "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields... with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life."

Strawberries and Cream, Love and Marriage, Horse and Carriage, they go together. Camels and Needles. They don't fit together. Go ask Alice. You just can't get a camel through the eye of a needle.

And we never truly will discover the Kingdom until we are prepared to offer up everything for it's sake. In the kingdom of God it is through abandonment that we find all things, it is when we are prepared to let go that we let God; it is when we give ourselves to others that we find our true selves.

Of course it is a daunting challenge. The noblest things in life have always been worth living and dieing for. May God help us to live as Kingdom people, not as camels who are trying to sqee-eee-eeze through the eyes of needles.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Who's In Charge?

Readings: Psalm 124 , Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, James 5:13-20 , Mark 9:38-50
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 30 2018

Church communities are fascinating institutions. Particularly Presbyterian ones. Our structure includes a lot of checks and balances. We have processes we follow through and sometimes we find it hard to make decisions. I sometimes find myself saying, “Well, I'd like to help with that, I think it is a great idea, but we'd have to run it past, the such and such team, and it will need to be approved by Session.

Sometimes people presume that because you are the pastor, that you have total control over every single thing that happens in the church. That has never been the Presbyterian way! We strive for democracy and community and hesitate to give any one person (or even any group of people) total authority in deciding what the mission of our church should be. We believe that discerning the way the Holy Spirit is leading us should be a group effort. We try and allow God to be in charge of what we do in Jesus name.

That kind of questioning “Who’s in charge when it comes to what goes on in Jesus name?” is the same kind of questioning that our bible reading from Mark places before us. Here’s the situation. The disciples have their heads full of questions. Questions about what sort of Messiah Jesus would turn out to be. Questions about what true greatness looked like.

John’s got all these question marks swirling around in his head, so he goes off for a walk on his own, to try and get focused. He turns a corner and encounters a group of people doing an exorcism for some poor tormented soul. John’s thinking, “I know about this stuff. Seen Jesus do it a few times.” He’s ready to offer his expert advice.

As he approaches he hears them praying. They are praying, “Help this person, In Jesus name… help him…Lord, in the name of Jesus.” And the person is responding. They are looking calmer. Something good is happening here!

This makes Johns’ blood boil. Who do these people think they are? He didn’t recognize any of them and they didn’t seem to realize just how important he was! “I’m a disciple of Jesus don’t you know!” So John gives them a mouthful of bad advice and then heads off to find Jesus. Jesus would put them right. How dare they!

The reply John receives from Jesus totally confounds him. "Do not forbid them; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.”

Do you see what’s going on here? It’s a control issue. John thinks he should be in control. He’s not, so he calls on Jesus to control the situation. Jesus, in effect tells him that there was nothing to control… because God was already in control of the whole situation. In fact Jesus sees possibilities where John could only problems! Jesus suggests that wherever loving service is being expressed then people are opening up for themselves a real possibility of encountering God’s love.

This wasn’t something to get mad about but something to be glad about. “John, don’t you get it?” “He that is not against us is for us.” Anything other than outright opposition to the Kingdom was something that favored the growth of the Kingdom.

Such did nothing for John’s personal rewards account or enhance his reputation as being the greatest disciple whoever walked on the planet, but “John, do you see… it’s not about you…”, it’s not even about Jesus… it’s about God’s will being done, about God’s love not just being spoken about but acted upon. “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.

Who’s in charge? You know that very statement is all about issues of control. That’s what this passage is about. And you know what? I don't mind being in control when things go well. I don't mind taking the credit when something good happens. When I meet other pastors and they say, “How are things going?” I can say, “Pretty well actually, I” (meaning probably some of you) “just finished this project or took this action.” If I needed a resume, then I would welcome things that would look good on my resume.

I’d meet Saint Peter at the gates of glory and he’d smile and say “C’mon on in Saint Adrian of Mount Hebron, here are the keys to your mansion... We are so pleased and privileged to have you grace heaven with your presence.”

You see I think that’s what John was expecting from Jesus. That as he had rebuked those ignorant disciples for using Jesus name, Jesus was going to slap him on the back and say, “Good job. You can sit with me at supper tonight. I’ll reserve a special table just for us!”

Instead Jesus turns the whole thing around and calls us to examine our own personal control issues. First off he chastises John for the potential damage he had done to those who were taking their first steps in discovering the power of His name. To discourage those who were just starting out on the road of discipleship was a terrible thing. Verse 42: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

It’s a harsh picture, but a necessary one. It is important that we realize how damaging our proud and unfaithful actions can be to those who are just starting out to find faith. I’ve heard too many stories of folk who started to go to churches and then, when they tried to suggest something or sought to understand something, some “know it all” church member cut them down and belittled them so completely that they never came through the door again.

We can be so proud. So insensitive. So judgmental. So controlling of others and not in control of ourselves. Jesus then turns the spotlight on our darkness with a glaring intensity. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,”

When people look at this verse they invariably pick on the wrong things. Cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes, what kind of talk is that? We need to come at it from a different angle. It’s a verse about sin and the avenues through which sin comes into our lives. Remember what has just happened? John is standing there before Jesus feeling as tiny as an ant at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He thought he was doing right and he was shown to have been doing everything wrong because of his misplaced pride.

Here’s Jesus saying, “John, if you want to control something, then work on controlling yourself.” Sin, in these verses, is attached to hands, feet and eyes. Hands, feet and eyes have to do with what we touch, where we travel and what we see.

Remember as a kid going shopping and your mum or dad would say, “You can look but don’t touch.” “But mum I want too”… crash… “I thought I told you!” Remember somebody said “Listen, you don’t want to go there. If you do there will be trouble!” and you went there and you got into trouble! You know how temptation gets at us. We look. We desire. We want it. We can’t live without it. Next minute we’re in deeper than we can handle.

Another way of phrasing “Cut it Off” is to say “Cut it Out.” It is as though we are complaining to God that we have a problem with this or that sin and God tells us loud and clear “So don’t touch it, so don’t go there, so don’t look at that! So don't do that! Cut it out!” Cut it out. Change the way you are doing things and you won’t be in the situation that causes you to fall. Refocus. Redirect your path. Get some hands on experience of something that causes you to be a positive influence rather than something that causes you to sin.

Better that than to be thrown into hell “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Did you notice the worm in that verse? Or rather to whom the worm belongs? Listen again, verse 47, ‘their worm does not die’. Whose worm? The person who insists on carrying with their destructive habits and fails to deal with the sin that’s eating them alive.

Sin is like a tape worm. It clings inside us. The more we feed it the more it grows. It ruins our appetite. It saps our vitality. It takes away our taste. It makes us sick and unable to function in the way we were created to. Tape worms are personal. They don’t eat some body else. If you want to get rid of them, you take care of it. You get it removed and you are careful to watch what you consume.

Jesus concludes His talk with a word of encouragement. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." In the context of His conversation with John He is saying, “John you messed up, learn from your mistake. You are like salt in the world. You are, by your actions bringing my Kingdom to others. Don’t lose that. Let me burn away what’s bad, and let’s all move on… together… in peace… being who we are meant to be.

Who's in charge? Our Presbyterian system, with it's checks and balances, seeks to ensure that God is in charge, seeks to allow God's Spirit to works through us as a community. We try to recognize that everybody have something to offer and even if things are not being done in precisely the way we have always done them, if the name of Jesus is being honored, then we are on the right track!

Our calling as individuals, as the Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, as part of the a worldwide community of Presbyterian Churches (and churches of all denominations) is to lay our lives before Jesus Christ as a response to the tremendous love He has shown by laying down His life on the Cross, to seek daily to live as disciples of the Kingdom and seek to be a means of resurrection life to others, all in Jesus name.

To God's name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.