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.