Monday, June 17, 2019

Scottish Sunday "Our Scots Confession"

Readings: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 16 2019

Today we gather to celebrate our Scottish heritage as a congregation of the P.C.(USA). Like this nation itself, our denomination owes a lot to Scots-Irish immigrants who emigrated in vast numbers to the New World. They brought with them many aspects of their culture, including their religion.

Scotland was a unique nation among all the lands in Europe, for it became one in which the national church became Presbyterian. The State Church of England was Episcopalian, likewise in Wales until the early 20th century, the state church was Episcopalian. But in Scotland, the state church became and still remains, Presbyterian. This is largely due to the work of one man; John Knox.

John was originally a catholic, but converted to Protestantism and was educated under some of the most esteemed teachers of the reformation, most notably of all the Reformer John Calvin. The split with the Catholic church was not just about religion, but about nationhood and politics.

The 16 century in Scotland was a time of great division. Henry the Eight (of the many wives) had declared England a Protestant nation. In Scotland, Mary of Guise, a catholic, had refused the hand of Henry in marriage (after all she was aware what had happened to his other wives) and married instead, a Frenchman, and a catholic, King James the Fifth. Well, as Brexit reveals, British relationships with mainland Europe have always been... well.. complicated.

When Elizabeth the First came to the throne, she desired that all of Great Britain became Protestant. She had an ally in the fiery preacher John Knox. Throw in the fact the her own sister Mary, was Catholic and what you have is an unholy mess. All makes Game of Thrones look kind of boring!

To cut a long and complicated story way too short, things came to a crossroads, when Mary Guise (the one who married the French King) also known as the “Queen Regent of Scotland” died, in her sleep, in 1560. Under John Knox's influence the Scottish nobility rose up and secured recognition of Scottish Sovereignty in a document called “The Treaty of Edinburgh.” To the Scots, who had been in a civil war with Mary's French supported forces, this was seen as a deliverance by the hand of God. It took a while longer before they shared a King and parliament with England... but that's yet another story.

The Scottish Parliament, having declared Scotland a Protestant Nation, asked the clergy to frame a confession of faith. Six ministers, including John Knox, completed their work in four days. In 1560 the document was ratified by the Scottish Parliament as “Doctrine grounded upon the Infallible Word of God.”

When as a Presbyterian Church, we install or ordain a minister of Word and Sacrament, a ruling elder or a deacon, one of the questions we ask them is “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” And they say, “I will and I do”

Part of our church order is something we call the “Book of Confessions” that contains a number of historic creeds that have been affirmed by the church across the centuries. We use one of the creeds, “The Apostles Creed” almost every Sunday we gather for worship.

Another of the Confessions in there, is that very one written in 1560 by John Knox and his 5 fellow clergymen, and it is called “The Scots Confession.” This confession has been an important part of our history and remains part of our understanding of who we are as a church. We invite everybody who is ordained to office here in the 21st century to affirm it. It's like a strand in our D.N.A. Scottish Sunday is a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about our Scots Confession.

Like many creeds that are written, the Scots Confession was composed during a time of great struggle and conflict. The antagonism between Catholics and Protestants was no mere difference of opinion, but a matter of life and death. If you were found with the wrong side, at the wrong time, then that could be it. Game over. You could be imprisoned, tortured, and put to death.

This divide was not some trifling disagreement over theology. It was nation forming and life defining. To our minds, it maybe seems crazy that a religion based on love, could fall to such depths. Yet, as one who grew up near Liverpool, with Northern Ireland just across the sea, sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants was a religious, cultural and political reality even in my childhood.

The Scots Confession wrestled with some of the huge questions the religious community back at the time of the Reformation faced. What was a true church? What was the church, or Kirk as it was known in Scotland, supposed to be doing? And how could the Kirk prevent itself from being led astray?

To answer those questions the Confession speaks of three distinguishing marks of a true Church.

Firstly, a true Church is one where the Word of God is faithfully preached.
Secondly, a true Church is one where the sacraments are rightly administered.
Thirdly, in a true Church, discipline is observed and maintained.

Firstly, a true Church is one where the Word of God is faithfully preached.

To quote directly from the confession;“The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed Himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare,”
In our beautiful sanctuary we have recently hung banners celebrating the “Six Great Ends of the Church.” The first of those banners, picturing a dove over a bible, against the background of a Cross, tells us that the first great end of the church is, “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Preaching the Good News of the Gospel, in a way that honors the instruction and teaching of the 66 books of the Bible, is what the Church has always been about. Jesus was known firstly as a preacher and proclaimer of the Kingdom of God. His miracles were seen as signs to authenticate His words, things that were done to show that He really was who He claimed to be.

Of course as a church we do a lot more than just preach sermons. Just as Jesus did. Our lives are the only sermon a lot of people who never involve themselves with a church, will ever hear. As a wise men has said, “Preach the gospel, and if you have too … use words”

Yet none of that takes away from the fact, that the churches primary purpose is to preach and teach the Word of God in a way that transforms the world. It is as we gather for worship we discover what God wants us to do and as we gather, God promises to empower us through the Holy Spirit, so we can do what God wants us to do.

Churches can mutate into all sorts of things. Political enclaves of like minded people. Social clubs whose membership is governed by unspoken expectations. Self help groups gathered around a charismatic leader who promises them the earth. Institutions that only exist for the institutions sake. Somehow preaching the gospel can get lost in the middle of all of that. “A true Church” the Scots Confession reminds us “Is one where the Word of God is faithfully preached.” Closely aligned to that, is what follows.

Secondly, a true Church is one where the sacraments are rightly administered.

Again, from the confession, “Secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to confirm them in our hearts;

One of John Knox's convictions was that the sacraments, in particular communion, had become something they were never intended to be. The simplicity of the first Lord's Supper had become replaced with rituals that were overlaid with superstition and given a meaning and significance that they were never meant to have.

The Confession recognizes the importance of the Sacraments of baptism and communion. While affirming the vital role these sacraments had to play in Christian life, the Confession counsels that they not be given any role or significance that was contrary to the scriptures teaching.

It's always been to me, a source of immense sadness, that in the church we have these two wonderful rites, baptism and communion. They are both designed to proclaim our unity as children of God in Christ. Baptism brings us into the One family of God. During communion we sit as one family around a single table.

Yet these sacraments have been a source of division within the Church almost ever since it first started. “If you are not baptized in the way we say you should be baptized then you are not a proper Christian.” “If you don't believe exactly what we believe is happening when we take the bread and wine then you can't be at the same table as us.” I'm convinced this was not what Jesus had in mind when He said, “Baptize people in my name” or “Remember me in this way.”

He didn't say “See how these Christians argue with each other.” It is supposed to be our love for God and each other the world was to know the truth. And it's there that we see both the Confessions strength and it's failing. It's strength is that it questions the way sacraments had been implemented. It's weakness is that it then creates its own barriers to understanding.

All of which leads to the third and maybe most difficult statement about the nature of the Church that we find in the Scots confession.

In a true Church, discipline is observed and maintained.

And lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God's Word proscribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.

I 'm sure we see the implication in those words. A church where anything goes and no standards exist just could not survive. There have to be mechanisms in place that help us to know what to do when things go wrong.

It's not accidental that the largest section of our Presbyterian Book of Order has to do with Church Discipline. Thankfully it's also the least used and referenced part of our constitution, but it's good to know that it is there and can be a guide when we are working through difficult situations of misconduct or misunderstanding.

The problem with ecclesiastical discipline became that it placed a great deal of power in the hands of folk who then had the power to decide exactly what vice looked like. Vice could be playing games on a Sunday afternoon, or being a single parent, or even a woman speaking out of turn in a gathering of men.

Over time in Presbyterian history the idea of “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered” came to mean that we, at all levels of our church, seek to do things decently and in order. If you wondered where that phrase came from, it's a legacy of the Scots Confession.

In our lectionary reading for today, (which is also Trinity Sunday) we heard Jesus telling His disciples “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, across the centuries the Church has sought to understand who they were and what God was calling them to do.

The Scots Confession came at a time when the Scottish people felt they had received a wonderful deliverance from God, a historical milestone in the development of their nation and their religion. The Confession captures some of that intensity and their need to state what they stood for and stood against!

It was some of their descendants that came across the ocean in search of a New World and sought to bring to bear upon the life of this nation their understanding of what it meant to be a people of God. Their influence remains in the land and of course, within in the Presbyterian Churches. It is a part of the history that we celebrate this day.

The true church. According to the Scots confession...
  • A true Church is one where the Word of God is faithfully preached.
  • A true Church is one where the sacraments are rightly administered.
  • In a true Church, discipline is observed and maintained.
It's a good thing to remind ourselves that the story neither began nor will end with us. Our lives are in the hands of One God, who has blessed us... in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To God's name be the glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B'D.

Monday, June 10, 2019

PENTECOST "Tune in, Turn On"

Readings: Psalm 104:24-34, Ezekial 37:1-14, John 15:26-27, 16:4-15, Acts 2:1-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 9, 2019

Sometimes, when a storm hits...
the power goes out.
It can be a little annoying.
For some folks it can be really annoying;
because the power can be out for days!

Today, Pentecost Sunday, celebrates the day the power came back on. Not electric power but the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples had seen Jesus crucified. They had seen Him alive again. He had taught them, and made promises to them.

"I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you." (John14:18)
"I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper,
that He may be with you forever" (John 14:16).

Christ ascended to be with the Father and instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for a promise to be fulfilled, for the Helper to come. On the day of Pentecost, as we read in Acts Chapter 2, the personal presence of God, came upon them in a new and powerful way. As they tuned in to God, so they became turned on to the power that was God equipping them with to take His message into all the world.

So my message for this Pentecost morning is ... “Tune in and Turn on.”

1. Tune in to Jesus and be turned on to following Him.

The church that was born in Jerusalem was a mixture of the many different strains of Christianity that would emerge from it. It was charismatic and evangelistic. It practiced both a social gospel and preached a gospel of personal salvation. They worshipped. They studied. They prayed. They served. They shared.

They were activists, working for the rights of the widows and orphans. They were reformers, working to bring social change. They were preachers and teachers and healers. They were carers and communicators.They were worshippers and servers. They were works in progress seeking to transform each others lives.

They were Catholics. They believed in one universal church. They were Orthodox. They defined orthodox belief. They were Methodists. They methodically ordered their life together. Baptists, in the sense that they called people to evidence their commitment to Jesus Christ through public baptism. They were Pentecostals. They believed in the supernatural power of God to work signs and wonders. And of course, they were also Presbyterians, for everything was done with decency and in order.

Over and above everything else, the disciples were people who were tuned into God to such a degree that their lives turned on Jesus teachings. One of Jesus invitations was "Follow me." They treated that invitation with the utmost seriousness.

They left their homes, as He did, took on voluntary poverty, as He did, taught in villages and cities, as He did, and tried to heal the sick and cast out demons as He had done. They were not always successful. They were at times amazed and shocked by the things Jesus taught and did. At times they were afraid of where following Him might lead them.

We can tune in to Jesus. Following Him we will encounter the unexpected, the surprising and the shocking. We cannot follow and stay the same. He will ask much of us, in fact everything. That is because He gave everything for us. Tune in to Jesus, who tells us that life is a matter of the heart. A heart in tune with His Fathers will, a life empowered by His Spirit will change not just our self but those whom we share our life with.

2. Tune in to your church and be turned on to loving each other.

Jesus only ever gave one commandment. "Love one another as I have loved you." We are called to love people of flesh and blood, not abstract theological concepts or distant ideals. "By this shall all men know you are my disciples" says Jesus, "If you have love one for another".

The community where that love is to be expressed is within the church, and for many of us here that means this church and this body of people we are seated with today. Remember that old disco hit... "We are Family, Brothers, Sisters, together are we..." (or something like that). That's our calling. To be concerned with each other, to be like a family, a community. That's how it went at Pentecost.

"I don't have to be involved with a church to be a Christian" some will tell me. "I've made a decision for Jesus Christ... that's it, I'm saved." Yes, it is important to decide to be a follower, and to realize in a personal way what Jesus has done for us, but that's not where it ends! The gospel is not about individuals being saved... it's about people together working out what it means to be a salvation community.

It's easy to say "I love you" to a vacuum. (That's an empty space.. not a vacuum cleaner! If you go around saying "I love you" to vacuum cleaners they will probably lock you up). It's easy to say "I love you" to something faceless and nameless. It's not so easy to love those whom you don't always see eye to eye with, or those who have different views of life and standards for living by… but that is our calling. To be a diverse group of people, who through the love of God, see each other as those for whom Jesus died and love each other with the love His Holy Spirit puts in our hearts.

Be tuned in to all that the church here is trying to do. The worship services, Next weeks Scottish service, the outdoor concert featuring Mark Cable that takes place in September, the Sunday School, the music and the choir, the Bible studies, Youth Meetings, Service opportunities, Nursery School, the way we try and make our facilities available to different groups in the community... get excited about these things, commit yourselves to these things... they are the tangible, physical ways we fulfill the command of Jesus to love one another as He has loved us.

Get excited… tell your friends, bring them along so they can be a part of it. Turn yourself on to the nitty gritty of church life. Don't listen to the unscriptural, unhistorical, illogical voice that will tell you.. "You don't have to go church to be a Christian." Fact is… there is not one scripture in the whole Bible that gives one single indication that you can be a Christian without involving yourself in the lives of other Christians... that you can follow Jesus as a lone ranger.

Of course there are times when health or schedule or work or other unavoidable things makes it impossible to come to church. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm saying that to be faithful to God, the scriptures insist you be faithful in loving your brothers and sisters in Christ. And the place that should be happening is within a local congregation. Tune in to your church and be turned on to loving one another.

The Christian life is not an easy option. In fact in our own strength it's an impossibility. That's why we need to…

3. Tune in to the Holy Spirit and be turned on to possibility.

The disciples had to wait for a baptism of the Holy Spirit before they could get on with the business God was calling them to. It is no different for us present day disciples. We to have to wait on God to be powered up for service. We need regularly to recharge our spiritual batteries through worship, study and prayer. We need to ask God to turn the power on.

Think about the way God works in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

"God has poured out His love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit." When we accept the call of Jesus Christ to be His followers, He doesn't just leave us to it. As He promised His disciples, He comes to us, in a new way... as the Holy Spirit, to equip us for the task. Until He comes we are a barren tree. But when He comes He works in our lives to produce good things. "The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control".

A hymn we sometimes sings has the line ; "Open my eyes that I may see the wonderful truths in your word." It was the theologian John Calvin who spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit being like a pair of spectacles, interpreting to our hearts the written word of God so that it becomes the Living Word of our lives. The Spirit tunes us in, so we can turn our lives on, to serving God.

After all, what is there more positive than the scriptures testimony regarding Jesus Christ. A death that was turned into a resurrection, a defeat turned into a victory, a hopeless situation becoming a cause for rejoicing, a powerless group of disciples in an upper room, by the Holy Spirit, becoming fearless proclaimers of a gospel that has changed... is changing... and will change the world.

Tune in.
Turn on.
Tune in to Jesus and be turned on to following Him.
Tune in to your church and be turned on to loving your Christian family.
Tune in to the Holy Spirit and be turned on to possibility.

On this Pentecost Sunday,
may the power come back on in our lives
and the life of this church of God !
AMEN!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Unity And Community


EASTER 7/COMMUNION SERVICE
Readings: Psalm 97, Acts 16:16-34 , Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 2, 2019

As a teenager, when I first started attending church, there were songs we used to sing about unity, such as “We are One in the Spirit” and “They'll know we are Christians By our Love.” The church I attended took part in a number of ecumenical services at Christmas and Easter Time. Every year we took part in a week of prayer for Christian Unity. We joined together, across the denominations, for an annual fund raiser for a charitable organization that was called “Christian Aid.”

I recall traveling down to the Greenbelt festival, a weekend of Christian teaching that reflected numerous different faith traditions, the one common factor that we liked listening to the Christian contemporary music bands that were starting to appear back then. I remember driving to the Builth Wells Showgrounds in Wales to attend “Teulu Duw” the Welsh words for “God's Family” and joining with thousands of others to hear Bishop Desmond Tutu, visiting from South Africa, speak about the role the churches united played in dismantling the oppressive regime of apartheid that denied so many of his people their rights in his homelands.

The landscape has changed. The body of people known as Christians are more divided than they have ever been. While numerically the largest religion on the planet, the fact is that large groups of those who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ do not recognize others as being people they can worship and serve alongside. There has been a huge growth in the number of denominations and independent bodies claiming to have no denominational affiliation, yet in reality often being part of networks that essentially act like denominations. Mega churches, house churches... the list goes on.

We are a consumer orientated society, driven by perceived needs. When we receive a person into membership, we invite them to make “promises” of commitment. What becomes of those “promises” if a person feels their personal needs, or needs of their family, are no longer being met? People move on. Sometimes it is after a heart wrenching struggle. I am sympathetic to that. In other cases, I'm left shaking my head and wondering how people can abandon commitments so easily. Fact is, there are multitudes of religious options out there and people exercise their right to choose.

The dividing lines used to be about theology. Particularly theological mysteries. Obvious things, you can't argue about. But mysteries? They are open to interpretation. What happens when we take the bread and wine? Well we say this is what happens... and if you don't agree, then you can't sit at table with us.

What happens when we are baptized? And when should we be baptized? And what does it mean if we are baptized more than once? Who is in and who is out? Who's in charge? The Bishop? The Senior Pastor? Can you name the hour, the date and time you were saved? Are you born again? What about confirmation? What about first communion? Oh... you don't do that. Well... you can't be properly a member of our community unless you do faith the way we say faith should be done!
Music and worship style. “I want a rock band and a big screen. I don't like all these ancient hymns with their complicated words and all this highbrow music so I'm going to a church where they use more relevant styles.” And on the other side, I had an elder tell me in a previous congregation, “The day you put a screen up in the sanctuary that's the day you'll never see me walk through the doors of this church again.”

In recent years it has been biblical interpretation of Christian ethics that has created the serious fractures. Where do you stand on abortion? Where do you stand on issues of gender? Should women be allowed to be preachers? Should those who identify as LGBTQ be allowed to participate in the life of the church? What about gay marriage? Such are issues that over the last thirty years have created a variety of differing Presbyterian denominations alone, and discussions that are right now causing tremendous division among our “United” Methodist sisters and brothers.

They'll know we are Christians by our Love, by our love, and they'll know we are Christians by our love.” “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord” One of the hymns in our blue book proclaims “Elect from every nation, yet one o'er all the earth, Her charter of salvation, One Lord, one faith, one birth, One holy name she blesses, Partakes one holy food.”

There is nothing new under the sun. “The Churches One Foundation,” was written in the 1860s by Samuel John Stone, an English poet, and priest in the Episcopalian Church, as a response to schism in the Church of South Africa, caused by a Bishop who claimed the Bible was a work of fiction that could not be relied upon to guide the church, so people should listen to him, instead.

Oh... and then there's politics. I will tell you what I know about politics. Whatever position you hold on any issue dear to your heart, if you post it on Facebook, you'll find somebody who contradicts you. Because everybody knows, we change the world by winning arguments on Facebook. That's what Jesus would do. Isn't it? Keeps things interesting doesn't it? Not really.

I'll tell you what is interesting. The prayer Jesus actually makes in John 17. Jesus is praying for people, like me and you, who have become believers. People who have seen in the gospel message, something worth taking on board their lives. This is what He, Jesus, prays... for people like us.

Verse 21 “That they may all be one. As You, Father, are in me and I am in You, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me.” And then down to verse 23 “I in them and You in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.

I have had people say to me about their prayers, “I keep praying, but I get the feeling that God is not listening to me.” Well turn it around. Jesus keeps praying, but we are not listening to Him!” It can go both ways, right?

I could go on and on at this point about the finer nuances of this particular passage. The unity of Father and Son. The essential imperative of love. The primacy of faith and community as a witness to the presence of God to an unbelieving world. It's all in there!
I'm going to just strip it down to this one thought. We need to see each other through the loving eyes of Jesus. We need to see each other the way Jesus sees us. Only then can we embrace the task of both unity and community.

Passages like this... they are like that time Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” or that time He spoke about forgiving others as much as God is prepared to forgive us. We know we may never get there. But that does not get us off the hook of trying. Just because we can never perfectly love anybody, does not get us off the hook of treating them in line with God's love for them. We are always a work in progress.

The song, “They'll know we are Christians by our love” contains the line, “And we pray that our unity will one day be restored”... which points us to the fact that, though here on earth our unity is fractured, in Christ it is complete.

Our reading from the book of Revelation reminded us that there is only one eternal destination. John offers to us the possibility that we can, by our rejection of God's love, miss out on arriving there, but by grace and by the faith that God has made a way that we cannot make for ourselves, we are assured we will be in good company the other side of the great divide.

You know the joke about the guy who goes to heaven and as St Peter shows him around, they pass a great high wall. “Shh” says Peter. “Why?” you ask. “St Peter replies “That's the (and you can insert there whatever denomination you have the hardest time identifying with)... they think they are the only ones up here!”

Remember the line Jesus threw in the Lord's Prayer; “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” That includes the unity of those who currently consider themselves separate from each other. “I in them and You in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.

I have a feeling that from an eternal perspective we will look at some of the things that consume our time and divide us with regret and conclude that we are often so busy with things that do not really matter, that we missed out on doing some good stuff that really counts in the Kingdom.

Usually it is the little things that make the big differences. When we all offer the little we have, like the boy who came to Jesus with just a few loaves and fish, then we sometimes get to see the miracles taking place. We may not feed 5000 … but Jesus can. It took Jesus earliest followers a while to catch on.

A small group. How did they got along? Not so well a lot of the time. Who's the greatest. “No, Lord, you shouldn't do that.” And one of them betrayed them all. As the church grew. Paul, Barnabas, headed different ways. Church history. Let's not go there. Oh my. What a mess.

So we come to this table laid with bread and wine. Here we are. A little slice of humanity. Divided by age, by culture, by nationality, by background, by theology, by politics, by social status, by gender, by experience, by expectation. And Jesus is praying for each one of us. “That they may all be one. As You, Father, are in me and I am in You, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me.”

Jesus is praying that we will see each other through His Father's eyes. That we will recognize that, in this task of seeking to accept each other and love each other, as we are accepted and loved by Him, we are engaging in something beautiful and Kingdom spreading.

There can be unity without uniformity. We can agree to disagree on some matters as long as we recognize that what happened on that Cross happened for us all. We don't have to see eye to eye to see each other through the loving eyes of Jesus. We sit here and we remember. Who He was. What He said. What He prayed for. What He desires for our lives as individuals and as a community.

Not a bad place to be. But wait. There's more. We are invited to keep doing this until we feast with Him in His heavenly Kingdom. And that's just plain awesome. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Weakest Link

Readings: Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 26, 2019

Do any of you remember a show on television, a few years back now, around 2002, called “The Weakest Link?” Made a star of its presenter Anne Robinson. The original format featured nine contestants, who (in no particular order) took turns answering general knowledge questions. The objective of every round was to create a chain of nine correct answers in a row and earn an increasing amount of money within a time limit. One wrong answer broke the chain and lost any money earned within that particular chain.

I was not a regular watcher but remember one show that I did watch, had a contestant who was asked a biblical question. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and.. please give the name of the fourth gospel."

The contestant answered "Job." Matthew, Mark, Luke and Job? Now, I love the book of Job, but he was the guy tempted by Satan to give upon God, not the much loved disciple and companion of Jesus after whom the fourth Gospel is named.

Biblical knowledge, then and now is "The Weakest Link" in many people’s lives. This is bad news for our society. We are told that as we have grown more materialistic then the hunger for spirituality has increased. But people are turning to other places than the Christian scriptures to fill their spiritual wells.

The reading we heard today from the book of Acts gave the history of Paul’s outreach to Macedonia and the account of Lydia and her household becoming Christians. At first glance it seems nothing more than one of those “someone preaches, somebody gets saved, the gospel spreads, yadda. yadda, yadda, heard it all before” accounts. But there’s more to it than that.

Think about the struggle the early Jewish Church had in reaching out to the Gentiles. It was an action that went against everything their Jewish heritage taught them. It was 'unclean.' There were Jews and there were Gentiles. That's the way it was meant to be.

“Not anymore” Jesus had showed them. They struggled to comprehend what it meant to go into the entire world and make disciples. They became reliant on the action of God's Holy Spirit directing and leading them. They developed a proven system of doing things. They would set out on their journeys. When the opportunity arose, usually on the Sabbath, they would go to the synagogue and there in the synagogue relate the message that Jesus, the Messiah had come. Go to town. Go to synagogue. Preach the Good News.

Then Paul has a dream, of a man pleading "Come to Macedonia." It's one of those striking moments of insight that gets his soul bubbling. He just knows it's the right thing to do and convinces those with him to be a part of it. "C'mon guys, let's go!"

So they head for Macedonia and to the capital city, Phillipi. They had not visited Phillipi before, but they knew the drill. Go to the city. Go to the synagogue. Preach. But Phillipi was not like other places they had been. Phillipi was a little slice of Rome beyond Rome.

The people who lived there were Roman through and through. Like many ex-patriot communities, the Romans in Phillipi were more entranced with Rome than the Romans who actually lived in Rome. In fact they were so Roman, they didn't even have a synagogue in the whole city. Lot's of other temples to other gods, but no synagogue. Claudius, the emperor at that time, didn't particularly like the Jews, so in this Roman city beyond Rome, you could forget the synagogue.

I don't know if Paul was aware of that. You can almost picture him and those with him, getting into town. They’re wandering around and around. Of course, being guys, the last thing they are going to do is stop and ask for directions. "We'll get there, we'll find it, God's on our side." Eventually, in their frustration they stop a bystander... "Hey, Buddy, how about some directions to the synagogue."

The man just laughs. "Synagogue? You must be joking! Where you are guys from? A Phillipian Synagogue! Hey, That's a good one. You guys!! What next? A woman emperor? 'gods save the queen' As if!"

So there they are. “We go. We go to the town. We go to the synagogue. We preach. Lord, there's no synagogue here. Now what do we do?” What they do, as the Sabbath comes around is head down to the riverside. Sometimes a little walk by the river and a prayer can do wonders for the soul.

When they get there all they find is a bunch of women, who were probably washing clothes. Gentiles, remember, didn’t observe the Jewish Sabbath. For them it was just another day to get things done.

Later in his life Paul would write that in Christ male and female were one. But this Paul down by the river carried with him an upbringing and prejudice that made him see women as second-class citizens. Maybe it was one of these women that changed his views.

The disciples sit on the grass nearby and engage the ladies in conversation. One of them, by the name of Lydia, starts showing a real interest. This Lydia, far from being unimportant, is a prominent citizen within Phillipi’s community, a dealer in purple cloth, a trade which would bring in a significant income. Women in Roman society were not as restricted as those in Judaism.

God speaks to Lydia through Paul’s words. This Jesus he spoke of was, not so much the weakest link, but certainly the missing link in her spiritual journey. Lydia was no lame brain in the things of religion. But her beliefs, (and we don’t know exactly what they were) could not give her the life which Paul was explaining to her.

She accepts, along with her household, Paul’s invitation to be baptized and then insists that Paul and his companions stay at her house, as her guest. Their mission now has a center from which to expand.

The significance of this incident?

Lydia and her household were the first Europeans to accept the gospel message. From this incident Christianity would grow to become the official religion of Rome and after the fall of Rome, the European continent. Many years later, some Christian folk undergoing persecution were motivated to settle in a New Land where they could express their beliefs freely. Their faith was the driving factor. Such were the first Europeans to settle in North America.

It might never have happened had not one lady, Lydia, accepted Christ as her Savior and welcomed one of Christ’s servants in her home. Had Paul put his vision of a Macedonian calling out for help being the result of too much cheese for supper, the message would not have spread in the way it would do in the centuries that followed. This story of Lydia is one of the links in the chain that forms our history and our heritage.

The passage also teaches us about the way that God can direct our lives by the Holy Spirit. If you read the verses before our text you’ll see that Paul has been having a difficult time. He’s set out on his mission with great enthusiasm and success, but right then, rather than opening before him, doors were closing wherever he went.

They wanted to go to Asia, but, as the scripture puts it, “The Holy Spirit forbade them.” They decide to go to Bithynia, “But the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” It’s as though they are waiting at the traffic light, it changes to green, they put their foot on the gas, then it jumps back to red again before they have a chance to move.

I remember going through that torturous process of seeking where God might be leading us that culminated in our family emigrating to this land. For a while I really didn’t know where we headed. I did know we weren’t meant to stay where we were.

I’d applied to a church down in Louisiana. Things were looking good. They flew me over for an interview. From the moment I stepped off the plane I bonded with them like they were family. The visit went really well. A couple of them even sent letters appreciating the good time we had.

For about two weeks afterward it seemed every time I turned on the T.V. or radio or picked up something to read it had to do with Louisiana. Turn on the radio, “Now here’s some Cajun music, from a Louisiana band called….. Here’s Louisiana’s rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis.” I put on the T.V. “Now the travel program, today we go to Mardi Gras.” No! Dallas comes on. There’s someone calling J.R. “J.R. we got a problem with one of our wells over the border in Louisiana.” It was weird. We even gave our dog Lucy the second name, Anna, just so we could shout down the road, “C’mon Lucy-Anna.”

“Lord,” I’d smile, “I guess we know where you’re leading us.”

Then one night the phone rang. It was Louisiana. “We’re sorry. You didn’t get the job.” Boy, were my navigation systems out of line? Wham. That door crashed to a close. I didn’t understand. Everything was falling into place then; “SLAM.” I went to bed thinking “Well, maybe I’m just restless. Maybe it is God’s way of saying I should stay in Wales.”

A few nights later I had a most vivid dream. If I shut my eyes I can still see it. It was of a minister, belonging to my old denomination, who had a picture on his wall of America. He pointed to it and said, “You’re not going to back out now are you?” It was only a dream, but it remains more vivid in my mind than some real life experiences I’ve had.

It was after that I sent off a couple more letters, and ended up in the unlikely setting of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Since then as a family we have experienced many other adventures and wonderful places and people. To have given up after receiving a “Don't go there” phone call about Louisiana would have created a huge missing link in our life journey.

So in closing I urge you, don’t let the things of God and your response to God’s love and leadings be the weakest link in your life. You can go and pursue your dreams, rise to the top of your chosen career, lay on your death bed as a millionaire, and remain completely outside the will of God.

The link you don’t want to miss, is linking your life to the love of God. Jesus has made that link possible through His death on the Cross. His Holy Spirit can guide you, His Word can direct your path. But you have to embrace it and allow yourself to be embraced by God.

A lady called Lydia became the first Christian in Europe and through her actions became a link to the expansion of the faith throughout the known world. Paul was faithful to the dream God planted in his soul. Inspired by such examples, may faith never become the weakest link in our hearts and our lives.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 20, 2019

By this they will know...

EASTER 5
Readings: Psalm 148, Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on May 19 2019

As a teenager in my church youth group we used to sing a folk song based on John 13:34-35.

A new Commandment, I give unto you,
That you love one another, as I have loved you,
That you love one another as I have loved you.
By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.
By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.

Based on the verses referenced in that passage, I want to make the following observations.

  • Firstly, that for a disciple, of Jesus Christ, love is a command, not an option.
  • Secondly, that our ability to love comes from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Thirdly, that love is the most compelling, urgent and challenging task of discipleship.

Firstly, Notice that for a disciple of Jesus Christ, love is a command, not an option. Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you ..." Not a new suggestion, not a new recommendation. Not a new option. A new commandment!

Moses gave 10 commandments. The Pharisees added a few thousand more. The Romans and Greeks added a whole lot more again. Jesus acknowledged all the commandments, but He suggested there was only one that made any sense. He calls it a new commandment; "Love one another as I have loved you."

Why a commandment? Because there is a part of every one of us which finds the idea of pure, unconditional love extremely disagreeable.

Love everybody. “Right... got it.”
No, love everybody. “What, even people I don't get along with?”
Love everybody. “You don't mean like people who interpret religion differently than I do, do you?”
Love everybody. “What, even those across the political aisle?”
Love everybody. “What, even those whose lifestyles don't fit with my idea of morality?”
Love everybody “Hey you just mean my neighbours and family, right?”
Did you not read the parable of the Good Samaritan. Love everybody.

What, like even ... people who oppose everything I stand for.”
Remember my mountain top sermon, the bit about 'Love your enemies?'
Now, hold on a minute... that's dangerous talk. That's not workable. That could cost me.”
Love everybody as I have loved you. As I have loved you. As I have loved you.

Challenging isn't it?

We are called to love others in the way that Christ has loved us. How deeply has He loved us? We hang a Cross in here to remind us how far God's love is prepared to go for us. We are called to love, as He loved us, without condition. To care for, and to pray for others; regardless of their attitude towards us, regardless of what we think they may or may not deserve, regardless of how they are related to us by blood, nationality or culture.

Love flows from an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude that we are greatly loved by God, as shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gratitude for the many blessings of life, of salvation and fellowship and answered prayer. Love flows as a response to what God has done, is doing and will do for us.

But ... Lord... I don't think I can do that.”

You are right. That's why God sends the Holy Spirit. The Enabler. The Counsellor. The Spirit of love. The Spirit of Christ to dwell in our hearts and our lives and remake us and remould us. The moment we realize we can not love, we are ready to move forward into love. Divine grace is a powerful thing! Some even say it is amazing. And sounds sweet.

So secondly, I want to say that our ability to love comes from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.

Love does not happen in a vacuum. Love is something that is passed from one person to another. It's a relationship thing. It's something that has to be a shared experience. Psychologists tell us, that a child who does not receive love, will struggle to be able to truly give love. There will always be a void there, a terrible void that they will struggle to fill. On the other hand, a child who has received the proper amount of nurturing as an infant and as a toddler will have a sense of security and trust that will last them all their lives.

This is also true with regard to Jesus commandment to love. If we try to keep Jesus commandment to love, without nurturing our relationship with Him whose name and nature is love, we are going to fail. We draw our ability to love others, in the way that Christ loves us, from our connection to God. We get it from the love that Christ is able to pour out upon us when we are in relationship with Him. God is love. Without that connection, without that love, our faith has no real power.

How?
How can we do that?
How do we open our lives to Christ?

We open our lives to Christ when we turn to God in repentance. When we come to God and say, “Look, I keep messing things up. I am not a loving person. Forgive me. Please. I'm desperate. Without Your intervention, I am lost.” We open our lives when we come before God and struggle and wrestle and reach that broken point where we say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” We open our lives to Christ when we sing “Here I am Lord,” and we mean it.

We open our lives to Christ when we pray. If we are not prayerful we are closing our hearts to His call. We open our lives to Christ when we immerse ourselves in His Word. If we are not reading and digesting His Word, whose words are we following? Not His. We open our lives to Christ when we gather together with others who believe that to worship Him, and to work together for Him in the world. If we will not gather together, we cannot demonstrate the power of love. We need each other to serve. And it is when we serve and worship together, it all starts coming together. Love is not a solo activity. It's a group activity. But it is so much more.

The third thing I want you to notice about today's Gospel text is that love is the most compelling, urgent and challenging task of discipleship. It is not how well we advertise our services. It is not how many programs we have going on in church. It is not how good the choir sounds. It is not how many youth, or how many families or how many seniors we have. It is not how Presbyterian or otherwise we may be. People will only know we are Christ's followers if we have love for one another.

By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.
By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.

Now we all know that things happen in church life that cause faction and dissension. There are always people in every congregation whom we don't see eye to eye with. That's true for every church. If we go searching for a church where that is not so, we will not find it. If we did find a perfect church, as soon as we walked through the door, we would ruin it! A perfect church requires perfect people and God's Word is crystal clear that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus, who loves us, let us know that we should concentrate on taking the tree branch out of our own eye, before trying to remove tiny splinters from the eyes of others.

The glory of the church is found when we, this incompatible, sometimes prickly, sometimes wrong, often hurt, bunch of frail and fragile, messed up, people find the love of Jesus in such a real way that we rise above our prejudices, our likes and dislikes and actually take the time to prayerfully, carefully and gently see each other through His loving eyes. The glory comes when we understand that the people we are called to love are actually each other. When we recognise the deep deep truth of “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”

Every church I have ever served has skeletons in their closets. Disagreements between people, with pastors, between families or different groups with different ideas of what the church should be, and should be doing, and who is in and who is out. It would be easy to sweep those things under the carpet and pretend they never happened. But they did.

How much more glorious to say, through the love of Jesus Christ, the past is the past. That through forgiveness and acceptance of the God given responsibility to love each other as we are loved by Christ, we are moving on. That we are not perfect, but we are growing in the things that matter, in faith and hope and love. “And the greatest of these,” writes Paul in his awesome Corinthian hymn, "is love."

Love is the most compelling, urgent and challenging task of discipleship. Love brings about change that nothing else can achieve. It is more than words. It is actions that build each other up in a world full of people who are hell bent on pulling each other down. It is granting to each other the dignity of children of God. It is recognizing each others lives as places of ongoing construction, imperfect yet full of possibilty, where grace is at work.

Real love has defining characteristics, the characteristics of Jesus Christ. It produces a fruit that cannot be mistaken; a fruit that keeps on growing and spreading and changing your life, changing your world; changing your church. According to Paul it produces ;

love
and joy
and peace
and patience
and faithfulness
and gentleness
and self-control.

A new Commandment, I give unto you,
That you love one another, as I have loved you,
That you love one another as I have loved you.
By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.
By this shall all men know you are my disciples,
If you have love, one for another.
  • For a disciple, of Jesus Christ, love is a command, not an option.
  • Our ability to love comes from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Love is the most compelling, urgent and challenging task of discipleship.
May we hear the one command of Jesus Christ, commit our lives to His guidance and rise above our personal limitations. May we be the sort of people whose lives are molded by love that is stronger than death. “Help us, Lord, to be the real thing.” Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 13, 2019

M.O.T.H.E.R.


Reading : Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 23, John 10:22-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on May 12 2019

 (Need: a bag, a map, an orange, a thermometer, and a toy house)

There once was a young minister in a Presbyterian Church who heard that the retired moderator of the General Assembly was coming to visit his congregation on a Sunday that just happened to be Mothers Day. Anxious as he was to make a good impression he began his sermon with the words.
Friends in the congregation, I have to tell you something. I need you to know that I have spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” There was a brief startled pause until he clarified the situation by telling them “My mother”.

The next week, the elderly moderator was preaching at a nearby congregation. “Dearly beloved”, he began “I want you to know that I have spent the best years of my life in the arms of another mans wife” There was again a pause… after which he said, “And to tell you the truth, right now, I can’t remember who it was!”

All of which is a timely reminder - never forget your mother!

I have bought some things along today to remind me about Mothers Day and the sorts of things mothers often do. When we put them all together they’ll make the word “Mother”.

My first thing begins with the letter M and it’s a map. This map reminds me that moms take you places. To school, to a friends house, out to the shops, even to church. Now you may not always want to go where moms going, but she’ll still take you with her. A map reminds us that moms spend a lot of time taking us places.

But a map does more than that. It guides us in the right direction. That’s another thing that mothers try to do for their children. .Guide them in the right way to go and teach them the right way to live their lives.

O = Orange = 2nd letter of Mother. How many will expect mother to have dinner ready when they get home from school? And what about breakfast when you get up? An Orange reminds us that it often falls on a moms shoulders to see the family are fed. A mother nourishes a family. So don’t forget to say thank you and I’m sure help with washing up or cooking is appreciated to whenever you offer it!

(Show thermometer and try it out)

T = Thermometer = 3rd letter in Mother.
If you’re sick it’s often mom who looks after you. She takes care of us and helps us to get well. A thermometer reminds us of the moms who look after us when we are down and help us get better again.

H = House = 4th letter in Mother.
When I lived at home, it usually fell on moms shoulders to keep the place tidy. I must confess, I didn’t always help the process much .Mother spent all day getting the place clean and I’d come home with my shoes all dirty. “Don’t you walk on that carpet with your muddy shoes!” Do things like that ever happen in your house?

Reminds me of the joke about the dad who looked out of the window and saw his son climbing on the roof. In panic he shouted out “If you fall off that roof and break both your legs don’t run crying to me!”

It’s not the roof, it’s the house that we’re thinking of and I’ve bought my little house to remind us that it’s usually left up to mums to keep the house tidy.

My bags empty. But I’m not suggesting E for ‘empty’. The last two things are things which you have brought with you. I’ll give you a clue about the first one. They (and there are 2 of them) begin with the fifth letter of Mother and are hanging on your head. Without them you wouldn’t hear a word.

Ears. Mums are usually people we expect to listen to us. We tell them our problems, and share our good times to. If their not to busy doing all the other thing they have to do they are ready with a listening ear. Ready to hear us and help us.

For our final letter, which is R, I want to reference a bible reading from Genesis 2, about the Garden of Eden. And I want us to think about verses 21 & 22.

Then the Lord God made the man fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, He took out one of the mans ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him

Do you know where your rib is? It’s a bone right near your heart. (Feel it). Near to your heart and close to your side. The Bible tells us that Eve was not only the first wife, she was also the first mother. We celebrate Mothers Day to remind us that mum is someone to be close by our side and close to our hearts.

M = Map = Someone who shows us the way.
O = Orange = Someone who feeds us
T = Thermometer = Someone who looks after us
H = House = Someone who makes our home special
E = Ear = Someone ready to listen to us.
R = Rib = Someone close to our side and near to our hearts.

One of the beautiful things about a good mom is that the way they treat us can remind us of the care that God has over our lives. God is like a Good shepherd. And a Good shephered is like a good mom!

God has given us the words of the Bible to guide us, God nourishes our spiritual lives through the Holy Spirit, lifts us up when we fall, makes us feel at home, is always ready to listen to us and is close by our side to bless our lives.

Somebody has said that God gave us mothers to teach us how to love.
So let us thank God for our moms.
One things for sure.
We couldn’t be here without them!
Because like all of you, I was born at an early age…
And although I don’t remember it…I know for certain that my mother was there.

And even though as we get older there comes a time when we lose our mothers to God’s nearer presence, it’s one of the great blessings God has given us that somehow they are always with us. We still hear their words. We are still carried on their prayers. We still heed their advice. And we even try to pass it on to others.

Preacher Song
©Adrian J Pratt 3/1/2019

Mother dear mother, I know you prayed for me,
Throughout those wild years... “Lord, what will that boy be?”
Wish you were here now, I could thank you for your words,
Not a single one was wasted , Someone must have heard

Father, dear father, Religion was never your thing,
Yet you taught me right and wrong, I never wanted for a thing
All those conversations,We'd set the world to rights
I still long for reassurance, That I've turned out alright .

Now on a Sunday, I try and play my part
I stand up there in a pulpit, And lay bare my heart
Words don't come easy, Phrases can't always be found
I just keeping praying the Spirit, Will spread the love around

Don't be a preacher, That's sound advice
To which I never listened, And so it became my life
Sometimes I wonder, What on earth I'd be
If it wasn't for the light, You're shining down on me

So keep shining your light on me
I need those words of advice
And sweet prayers to comfort me.
Oo-Oo, Oo-Oo

Now on a Sunday, I try and play my part
I stand up there in a pulpit, And lay bare my heart
Words don't come easy, Phrases can't always be found
I just keeping praying the Spirit, Will spread the love around

Father dear Father, Mother I still miss you
But as the years are passing by, I just keep doing what I do
Standing in a pulpit, Wondering what to say
The greatest gift you gave me
Was love to give away
Love to give away
Love to give away

Today we thank God for the gift of our parents… and to God’s name be the glory. AMEN.

(Outline adapted from the book “40 Object Sermons by J.E.Trull)