Monday, February 25, 2019

The Impossible Dream



Epiphany 7
Readings: Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, Genesis 45:3-11, 15, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 24 2019

Our reading from Luke's has been described as the “Most quoted, least acted upon sermon, ever preached.” So much that is radical about the Christian message is here. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Be forgiving. Be merciful. Do unto others as you'd like them to do unto you.

Our world teaches us; Avenge yourself upon your enemies, never forget who has wronged you and repay them in kind. Don't give an inch, because they'll take a mile. Hit first, hit hardest. And whatever you do, show no sign of vulnerability or weakness because they will walk all over you.

Think for a moment of the highest note you can sing. I'm not going to ask you to sing it. You know you have your limits. This scripture is like a score of music that has notes two octaves higher than you will ever reach, and suddenly you are expected to sing it. Some suggest that these words are an impossible dream. So what can they teach us?

The way we are doing things isn't working.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results. Have we learnt anything in the 2000 or so years since they were first spoken? Responding to hate with hate just creates more hate. Responding to violence with violent retaliation creates more violence. Refusing to forgive not only creates a circle that cannot be broken, but harms us far more than the one who offended us. Judging others is a futile exercise in self righteousness that isolates us from our communities and makes monsters out of neighbors. Jesus offers us an alternative solution. It's a solution that can have amazing results.

The only way to end hate is love. The only way to break a circle of violence is non-violence. The only way to mend broken fences is through forgiveness. The way to build community is to lay aside self righteousness and practice acceptance.

There have been some who have tried to embrace such principles. Ghandi in the face of British Imperialism. Nelson Mandella in response to the apertheid of South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. Mother Teresa. We know their names. They would be the first to say that there efforts were at the best imperfect. Yet impossible dreams were inspired through their actions.

But what about us? We're not heroes. We're not saints. We can barely get though a morning commute without cussing out that idiot who just cut in front of us. Let's ask ourselves some questions.

Who are the enemies in our lives, and what would it mean to love them? Where are we putting up barriers that we could be building bridges? Who are we not forgiving so much that it's chewing us up? Who do we need to quit judging and recognize that, just like us, they are a broken human being? As Michael Jackson once sang it all starts with the man in the mirror.

Think about that exercise in singing a higher note. There are ways we can increase our vocal range. There are breathing exercises we can do, there are practices we can take on board, there are lessons to learn. Two octaves? Probably not. But we are capable of being more in tune and squeezing out a few higher notes. That's not an impossible dream.

In thinking about this passage ... Recognize the Dynamics

Any given piece of music, be it a pop song or a concerto, has dynamics. It has a setting.It has a score and a framework. If you take the notes out of their context, they don't work. They need the other notes, and the silences, and the phrases around them.

Turn the other cheek” doesn't mean “Be a doormat.” “Giving to everyone who begs from you.” does not mean “Neglect your personal needs and those of your family.” “Bless those who curse you” does not mean “Never speak out when you are falsely accused or mocked.” The context of this sermon is that Jesus is talking to people who are oppressed, who are powerless, who have no recourse to the kind of justice that we enjoy. They were fearful and anxious about their lives and what may be coming down the road.

New Testament scholar Walter Wink sees Jesus' words as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression. “Turn the other cheek.” In the culture of first century Palestine, if you were going to strike somebody you used your right hand. Why? Because ... unpleasant as this is... the left hand was the one you used for what, we might call, “your bathroom functions.” It just wasn't done to strike somebody with your left hand!

Their society also had a pecking order. A superior would always strike an inferior with the back of their hand, never the palm. As He often does, Jesus paints a picture with His words. It's almost comical. He pictures a person, an inferior being bullied by a superior, being struck on the cheek... obviously by the back of a right hand stroke.

Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek... offer the other also.” (v29). What happens when they offered the other cheek? They were inviting the superior to hit them with an open palm. As a superior that was not an action you wanted to make, because it acknowledged the victim as an equal. It was a disarming moment for the oppressor.

Likewise the instruction that if somebody takes your coat, give them your shirt. In Jewish law there was an injunction that, while you could indeed accept somebodies coat as a repayment of a debt, you would not leave a debtor naked at sunset. You would be revealed to be nothing more than a heartless bully.

So by saying “Give them your shirt as well,” again, Jesus paints a word picture. In this scenario, a bully demands the coat off somebodies back. The person smiles .. and in full view of everybody.. says “You know, if you are that needy, maybe you should take my shirt as well.” As the sun sets., the man is revealed to have transcended that law about not leaving anybody to go through the night naked.. The whole situation is reversed.

Jesus is not telling people to remain victims, but to find new ways of resisting evil. One of the ordination promises that we ask Presbyterian elders and ministers to make is that they serve God, with “Energy, imagination and love.” Jesus encourages us to allow God's Holy Spirit to create imaginative ways to love our enemies. To allow God to create opportunities, in the face of evil, that are truly “Out of the box” and disarm those who seek to do wrong.

Does that make sense? Not entirely. Is that the way the world works? No. Does it answer the question, “Well what about wars? And crime? As I said, recognize the dynamics. Because elsewhere Jesus says things like, “There will be wars and rumors of wars.” Elsewhere He speaks about resisting evil and throws tables around in the temple. Elsewhere He says that if someone leads a child astray it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck and be drowned in the sea. Not so much “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” in those passages! Context and dynamics are important. But not the most important thing. With Jesus, you know what the most important thing is.

LOVE

Rumbling along behind this sermon is the love of God. “AGAPE” love. Sacrificial, self-giving love. The love that we see on the Cross. The love that blazes out of the empty tomb. It isn't natural. It's supernatural. It's miraculous. Luke's gospel is full of miracles. People are delivered. People are healed. Storms are calmed. Yet maybe the greatest miracle in Luke is this sermon. Love, Bless, Pray, Give, Be Kind, Forgive.

I can't think of any better way to illustrate this principle of imagination and love that destroys hate than the poem “White Flour” by David LaMotte. On May 26 2007 the Ku Klux clan held a rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were greeted by an unusual act of resistance. Clowns.

The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
A dozen men put on their suits and quickly took their places
In white robes and those tall and pointed hoods that hid their faces.

Their feet fell down in rhythm as they started their parade
They raised their fists into the air, they bellowed and they brayed
They loved to stir the people up, they loved when they were taunted
They didn’t mind the anger, it’s exactly what they wanted

As they came around the corner, sure enough the people roared
But they couldn’t quite believe their ears, it seemed to be support!
Had Knoxville finally seen the light? Were people coming ‘round?
The men thought for a moment that they’d found their kind of town

But then they turned their eyes to where the cheering had its source
As one their shoulders crumpled when they saw the mighty force
The crowd had painted faces and some had tacky clothes
Their hair and hats outrageous, each had a bright red nose

The clowns had come in numbers to enjoy the grand parade
They laughed and danced that other clowns had come to town that day
And then the marchers shouted, and the clowns all strained to hear
Each one tuned in intently with a hand cupped to an ear

White power!” screamed the marchers, and they raised their fisted hands
The clowns leaned in and listened like they couldn’t understand
Then one held up his finger and helped all the others see
The point of all this yelling, and they joined right in with glee

White flour!” the clowns shouted, and they reached inside their clothes
They pulled out bags and tore them and huge clouds of powder rose
They poured it on each other and they threw it in the air
It got all over baggy clothes and multi-colored hair

Now all but just a few of them were joining in the jokes
You could almost see the marchers turning red beneath white cloaks
They wanted to look scary! They wanted to look tough!
One rushed right at the clowns in rage and was hauled away in cuffs

But the others chanted louder, marching on around the bend
The clowns all marched on too, of course, supporting their new friends
“White power!” came the marchers’ cry, they were not amused
The clowns grew still and thoughtful—well, perhaps they’d been confused…?

They huddled and consulted, this bright and silly crowd
They listened quite intently, then one said “I’ve got it now!”
“White flowers!” screamed the happy clown, and all the rest joined in
The air was filled with flowers, and they laughed and danced again

Everyone loves flowers, and white’s a pretty sort
I can’t think of a better cause for people to support!”
Green flower stems went flying like small arrows from bad archers
White petals covered everything, including the mad marchers

And then a very tall clown called the others to attention
He choked down all his chuckles and said “Friends I have to mention
That what with all this mirth and fun it’s sort of hard to hear
But now I know the cause that these paraders hold so dear!”

Tight showers!” the clown blurted, as he hit his head in wonder
He held up a camp shower and the others all got under
Or at least they tried to get beneath, they strained but couldn’t quite
There wasn’t room for all of them, they pushed, but it was tight!

White Power!” came the mad refrain, quite carefully pronounced
The clowns consulted once again, then a woman clown announced
“I’ve got it! I’m embarrassed that it took so long to see,
But what these marchers march for is a cause quite dear to me!”

Wife power!” she exclaimed, and all the other clowns joined in
They shook their heads and laughed at how erroneous they’d been
The women clowns were hoisted up on shoulders of the others
Some pulled on wedding dresses, chanting “Here’s to wives and mothers!”

The men in robes were sullen, they knew they’d been defeated
They yelled a few more times and then they finally retreated
And when they’d gone a kind policeman turned to all the clowns
And offered them an escort through the center of the town

The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
People joined the new parade, the crowd stretched out for miles
The clowns passed out more flowers and made everybody smile

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use!
So here’s to those who march on in their big red floppy shoes

(based on true events of May 26, 2007 – ©2007 David LaMotte)

An impossible dream?
The “Most quoted, least acted upon sermon, ever preached.”
Not always. Sometimes, we get it right.
To God be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Wish to purchase a copy of “White Flour?”

Monday, February 18, 2019

Inside Out, Upside Down

Epiphany 6
Readings:Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10,1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 17 2019

Inside out and upside down. What on earth was Jesus talking about in today’s lesson. Blessed are the poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful? I have yet to meet those happy, contented poor people. I never heard anybody say, “Isn’t this great, I’m starving!” I have never seen a person sobbing their heart out with a smile of joy on their face. Have you?

It makes me uneasy the way Jesus speaks about rich folk who enjoy a good time and are well respected in the eyes of almost everybody. “Woe to you!” says Jesus and implies that whatever you have now, you better enjoy it while you can, because when tomorrow comes you’re going to have to pay for it. Big Time. Woe to you rich.

These statements makes me uneasy because I live in a very rich country. On a worldwide scale the U.S. is a very rich place. And Jesus says, “Woe to you rich.” This nation is way, way, way up there in terms of Gross National product, income, life expectancy, health care, educational opportunity, and military might. In terms of what this world calls rich, if you live in the United States, you are rich.

This is not Swaziland, where the average life expectancy is just 31 years, where the majority of all deaths in the country are caused by HIV/Aid's, leaving behind an incalculable number of orphans, some carrying the virus themselves.

It’s not the Congo, where the GDP, (Gross Domestic Product) one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country's economy, is $409 a year... (compared to $62,000 in the US).

It's not Afganhistan where, despite all of the measures undertaken, insurgency clashes and Taliban attacks continue to persist. Civilian lives, many of them women and children, continue to be claimed through bombings, crossfires, assassinations, and improvised explosive devices. For sure as a nation the U.S .has it's problems, but not on that sort of level.

Blessed are the Poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful?
Everything is inside out and upside down and back to front.
Jesus described His intentions, His desire to turn everything “inside out and upside down” at the beginning of His ministry. He proclaims in His first sermon in Nazareth; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind.”
Do you remember what happened shortly afterwards? Some people tried to throw Him off a cliff! Understandable when you think He’s been predicting the downfall of the rich and powerful. He wasn’t “Mr Popular” with them!

Reading the gospels, you could suggest that Jesus only got what was coming to Him when they crucified Him. I mean what did He expect? Insulting the religious authorities, trampling on their traditions, speaking words they would interpret as blasphemous and suggesting even that most sacred of all institutions, the temple, would come tumbling down? Proclaiming himself a King in the process of building a Kingdom?

To the eyes of the rich and powerful, how could He not appear as a threat? “Woe to you rich!” is not a comforting statement. As they saw the devotion and power He had among the outcasts and the dispossessed and the poor, how could they not be fearful for their positions in society? To them Jesus was not Good News, but Bad News.

If they didn’t take action, their whole world
could be turned upside down and inside out.

But to the poor? He was a hero. Think of the situation of the poor in the crowd to whom Jesus was talking. They did not live in a democracy. They did not choose for the Romans to come and conquer their land. They had no vote. They were in this little troublesome corner of a vast empire, governed by incompetent puppet rulers desperate to impress the powerful people back in Rome.

They were poor, not only materially but also in terms of rights and expectations and almost every other area of life. They were the downtrodden. They were the imprisoned ones. Life was not smiling down good fortune upon them. Those who had once been described as God’s children, felt like God’s orphans

Consider also the corrupt state of religion. Jesus calls the Pharisees “Whitewashed tombstones.” He describes the temple as “A den of thieves.” He accuses the teachers of the Law and the intellectual Sadducee of not knowing the Scriptures.

Put yourself in the position of the poor. You go to hear Jesus speaking. He heals your cousin from something he’d been suffering from for years but could never afford to go to the doctors about. You see in the crowd that crazy guy everyone had written off as bad news, now looking calm and in his right mind. You hear all these stories about God looking for the lost, rejoicing over those who would come to Him in childlike faith.

A God who was not far off and remote but One whom you could call “Abba, Father.” You hear of a God who had an intense interest in the misfortunes and struggles of people who felt they were at the bottom of the pile. You are blessed. Glory to God you are blessed! Such a message would surely lift your heart. God can do wonders for you! God has a bias towards the poor!

But woe to you rich! By contrast God can do little for the self-satisfied, the self-seeking and the self-centered. Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” captures extremely well the flavor of the pronouncements of woe made by Jesus, speaking of them in terms of “trouble ahead.”

It’s trouble ahead for those who think they have it made,
What you have is all you’ll ever get.

It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself,
Your ‘self’ will not satisfy you for long.

It’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games,
There’s suffering to be met and you’re going to meet it.”

Just as there is nothing intrinsically wonderful about poverty or tears, there is nothing intrinsically evil in riches or laughter. The blessing the poor receive comes because they are in a situation of complete dependence upon God. In seeking God they find God.

The woe of riches is that they blind us to our need of God and create such a comfort zone around us that we forget that the hurting people out there are the ones God calls us to serve. We forget that privilege carries with it a corresponding responsibility. That to those to whom much is given, much is expected.

Jesus sets His face strongly against those who don’t take the time to care. Jesus is not with those who see others misfortunes as none of their business, those whom, like the priest and the teacher of the law in the parable of Good Samaritan, are so busy pursuing their personal agendas that they just walk on by when faced with the desperate needs of others. God is not on their side, for they are not on God’s side in raising up the fallen or healing the broken hearted.

Woe to you rich! To those who have everything they need, the gospel comes as a rebuke, that seeks to stir complacency and calls us to stop building our own little empires and get with God in the program of building the Kingdom.

Now you know and I know that if we rock the boat, then things won’t be so easy any more. Ask the poor! We suspect that if we speak out for Jesus we’ll make a nuisance of ourselves. We suspect that if we side ourselves with those that Jesus appears to, then some of their poverty, and their hunger and their tears might rub off on us.

That’s not what we want. Those are the things we are trying to shield ourselves from. We would like to have it all in this life and the next. So we need to remind ourselves that Jesus tells us, it’s not going to be that way. That if we think we have it all in this life, and are not prepared to pass that blessing along, then we are not acting as a child of God's Kingdom.

When Jesus elsewhere says that it was easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, He wasn’t pulling His punches. When He told the rich young man to go and sell everything he had and give it to the poor, He meant for that man to go and do it. Jesus knew, in a way we fail to understand, the destructive power of having all we need.

He knew because He faced that temptation in the desert after His baptism. The Devil offered Him it all. All the world. “All yours Jesus, if you’ll just get with my plan and kick this ‘justice for the poor’ nonsense out the door.” Jesus said “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

He came to turn it all inside out and upside down. Actually that’s not quite right. He came to put everything the right way around and the right way up. It’s just that we’re so used to doing it our way that we don’t see things God’s way.

This passage of scripture we’ve been looking at, isn’t meant to be easy listening. Unless we are the poor, or the hungry, or those in mourning, it’s meant to make us feel uneasy. It is Jesus’ call to get our priorities in line with the priorities of God’s Kingdom. It’s meant to make us search our hearts and challenges us to consider what we really believe the gospel to be.

That’s a question we may never find a complete answer to this side of eternity. But we do have a simple rule to follow. It’s called love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul” and “Love your neighbor as much as you love your self”.

May God help us not to compromise our commitment to serving others, because our comforts shield us from their cries. May we heed this warning of Jesus regarding the seductive power of materialism to sap our spiritual energy.

May we allow God’s Holy Spirit to turn our lives inside out and upside down so that we can be part of the process of making things the right way around and the right way up, the way of God’s Kingdom.

This passage is a reminder of our call to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves… to embrace their suffering and hear their cries and to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem

May God help us so to do. And do so in Jesus name, in the power of His Holy Spirit and to the glory of God our Father. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Fishy Business

 Epiphany 5
Readings: Psalm 138, Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13), 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 10 2019
 
Today, or at least for the next 10 minutes or so, I may look and sound exactly like your normal preacher, but indulge me a little and use your imagination and call me Simon. For a short while I want to play the part of the Simon who became Peter and played such a large part in our Gospel lesson. The Fisherman who became the disciple. So say “Good Morning Simon.”

Good Morning. My name is Simon, (also known as Peter) and I am here to tell you about how I became a disciple on the shores beside the lake of Gennesaret. I used to have a fishing business there, me and my brother Andrew, along with two of Zebedee’s sons, James and John.

We’d just had the most unfruitful night, ever, and we were resting up on the shore washing the nets. We’d dragged the boats up onto the beach. In every job there’s bad days, and then there’s really bad days. We’d just reached the end of the worst of the very, very, bad days. There were fish out there. Swimming around. Swimming around our nets. Ignoring our bait. I’m pretty sure they were laughing at us!

Nyer, nyer, Call yourselves fishermen, you couldn’t catch a cold!”

I was not in the best of moods. That mood became increasingly dark when a preacher man arrived with a crowd of people on the shore, just down from where we were working. Religion. Preachers. A fishy business. Wouldn’t trust most of them further than I could throw an anchor. Why can’t they get a proper job like the rest of us?

This one seems pretty popular. The crowd just keeps on growing. “Hey, Hey” says me little brother Andrew, “That preacher there, that’s y’know, the carpenter guy, the one who made ‘em all mad in the synagogue and then cast out a demon or something, y’know, what’s is name?”

Oh” I said, doing little to hide my intense disinterest, “The Prophet Whatisname – there’s a novelty.” I was thinking ‘what’s so impressive about casting out demons. I cast out nets every day.’

I was kind of listening with one ear to what he was saying. Talking about the ‘Kingdom of God’, and ‘Justice for the Poor’ and ‘The year of Jubilee being proclaimed.’ Radical stuff. And he was telling some stories, that, well, made you smile. Y’know, “Hear the one about the shepherd who lost his sheep. Goes and leaves 99 and sets off looking for it!”

Actually this guy wasn’t a total stranger to us. He’d been a carpenter in town and we were all more than a little surprised when he got the religion bug. Seemed like quite a genuine sort of guy, but that’s the thing with religion… let it get to you and you don’t know where it could lead you. The crowd was continuing to grow, pushing him down to the water’s edge.

Hey, Hey,” says me little brother Andrew, “Look, he’s getting into your boat!”
What” I says. “He’s getting into your boat” little Andrew says.

Gaw!” I say, throwing down my net. “They don’t half take some liberties these preachers. Think that because they know a little about God they can do whatever they please. That’s rich. Probably put a hole in the bottom of the thing stamping his feet at some moral outrage.”

So I pick up my nets and start pushing my way through the crowd. “Excuse me, there’s a Rabbi in my boat.” Coming through… Rabbi in the boat, mind your back. Look out lady I'm carrying a net and I know how to use it!”

To this day, I don’t know what I intended to do. Andrew had already cautioned me, “Hey, Hey, now you just watch your temper. Punching Rabbi’s in front of crowds who think the sun shines out of them would not be a good idea.” I had no intention of punching his lights out. To be honest I had no intention - whatsoever.

So I climb into the boat, throw down my nets, He turns and looks at me, as though He’d been waiting for me to arrive, and says, “Put out a little way from the shore.” I’ve been on my feet for hours!” and sits himself down. I smiled at him, in a rather sarcastic way, but thought, “I just got to humor this guy. Maybe then he’ll go away." I went to the front and rowed Him out on the lake.

It was a good move for someone in his business. The way his voice carried over the water made him easy to hear for all on the shore. Sitting with him there in the boat it was more like he was telling stories around the campfire than it was listening to some preacher in the synagogue. Despite myself, I found I was warming to this guy. The morning rolled on and as he told a few last tales the people began to disperse, leaving just the two of us in the boat.

He looked at me and smiled. ‘Fishy Business’ he said. “Well, let’s see. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Now all the crowds had gone I almost said a few words that Rabbi’s shouldn’t be subjected to. Right. Sure. A rabbi who knows about fishing. Knows my job better than I do? What next? A servant becoming a King?

But I was a picture of restraint. “Master”, I said, “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” I called Andrew over to help me. We threw the nets over the side.

"Hey, Hey" says me little brother Andrew, "This is a waste of time, isn't it? I mean we've just cleaned the nets, now we're going to have start all over again." "Just hold on a minute" I said, "Pull... pull... pull harder... woah… have we got some fish here or what?"

The net was absolutely teeming with the things. "James, John, Get over here. Now!" They came out in their boat and stared to haul in them fish. We were hauling them in and hauling them in. Fish. More fish than we had ever fished. Pulling them in. Drawing them in. Trawling them in. Fish after fish after fish after fish.

The boats were swimming in fish! Nope, the boats weren't swimming. They were sinking. Fish. Too many fish! The boats were going down! But the fish kept coming. There we were. Sinking to the bottom of the shallows. Fish jumping and wiggling everywhere. We're falling about, slipping and sliding and shouting. And the nets are tearing under the weight.

And I turned to look at Jesus - sitting there - half submerged - in water with fish flubbing about everywhere- quite calm. And there was something about him that just made me stop in my tracks. Spooked me really. You know how they say that just before you die your whole life flashes before you? Well it was kind of like that.

All at the same time, the four of us, me, little brother Andrew, (standing there saying “Hey, Hey’) and James and John all sensed it together. What was happening had gone beyond the normal. Our minds were acting strange. It was as though somebody had prised open my life and was staring right into my heart, reading every thought and judging every action I'd ever done. I was terrified. We all were.

And we knew it all had something to do with that preacher sitting in the boat with us. I dived over and threw myself at his feet. At his knees actually. His feet were under water. We were in a half submerged boat, fish everywhere to be seen, and I'm shaking in fear. I look up at Jesus and I blurt out, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." The others were equally confused and fearful.

Jesus just smiled. "Don't be afraid" He said, "From now on, you will be catching people." Right at that moment it all made sense. Looking back it was kind of impetuous, but at the time it all seemed to make sense. We hauled up the boats onto the shore, and left them. We left everything because we knew that what we had to do was follow that preacher man. Everybody believes in something. I believe in fishing. Fishing for people that is.

"Hey, Hey!" my little brother Andrew was pulling at my sleeve as we walked up the beach. "Jesus told me to tell you something" "What's that then?" I said. "Fishy Business" said Andrew. And I laughed all the way home!" End of story.

O.K. Simon has left the building. It's back to being your normal preacher now! Reflecting on that fabricated tale, I do want to ask you something. In that story about following Jesus, where are you?

Are you like Simon, sitting on the shore, cleaning the nets at a distance and feeling rather skeptical about the value of spiritual things? Are you listening, but not listening? Do you feel God may be calling you, but you really don't want to hear it?

Or are you like Simon, pushing through the crowd, annoyed that Jesus is in your boat? God's been on your case about some of the things you've been doing, you're concerned about how really following Him might cause you to have to make some changes in your life.

Maybe you're like Simon when he was frightened at the amount of fish. Life's all too much for you to cope with right now. Things just haven't worked out. Your boat’s sinking and you're running scared. You don't know what you’re going to do.

Or maybe where your life is right now with God is that you feel God's calling you to follow a particular way or to take on a particular task and you're ready to say, “Yes, Lord, I'm with you!"

Wherever you are in your walk with God today, hear the word of Jesus. "Do not be afraid." Take on His invitation and be somebody that catches others up in the challenges of His Kingdom.

Everybody believes in something. I believe that God is calling us to take the next step. To go on a bit further. To deepen our trust and love for God. Do that and maybe we’ll witness things happening in our life we had never before dreamed were possible!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Misplaced Pride

Epiphany 4/Communion Service
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:l-13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 3 2019

When you have been away from your home town and you go back again, it can be an awkward experience. Sometimes you have changed and it seems that everything else is still the same as it ever was. The longer I have lived here in the United States the more unfamiliar my hometown and my homelands in Great Britain have become when I’ve made a visit.

I’ve noticed some people have reacted to me a little cautiously, in a few cases even critically. My accent… believe it or not… has changed. Some of my views and tastes have altered. When it comes to British culture I no longer know what is ‘in’ or ‘out’, what the latest thing is or the current fashion… so it can be more difficult to find common ground for conversation.

And sometimes, although people don’t come out and say it, you can tell that some folk, (thankfully the exception rather than being the rule), are thinking in a negative way about you. “Well, who do you think you are? Going off to America like that… don’t think you can come back here and tell us anything we need to know!”

Having been in that situation it has helped me gain a fresh insight into what happened when Jesus went to His hometown and started to preach the Good News. There was a familiarity about Him that caused the local folk to feel that they knew who He was and what He was capable of. By suggesting to them that He was more than they realized, it caused not rejoicing but offence. “Oh... for goodness sake, it’s only Joseph’s Son!”

A couple of times in Luke chapter 4 the Greek Word ‘dektos,’ meaning “Acceptable” but also translated as “Welcomed,’ is used. In Luke 4:19 Jesus states His purpose as being “to proclaim the acceptable (dektos) year of the Lord." In Luke 4:24 we read “He said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable (dektos) in his own country.”

Notice that the first instance is a positive one. ‘Today is an accepted time to participate in the work of the Lord, a day to welcome God, a day of God’s favor.’ The second is a negative. ‘This is not the time. You are not that person. You should not welcome this, because we certainly don’t!’

What I want to take out of this passage this morning has to do with spiritual growth. You can call spiritual growth by whatever term you wish. 'Growth in Grace’ 'Discipleship’‘Transformation’ ‘Your personal walk with Jesus’ ‘Growing into your baptism’; whatever term works best for you. No matter how you describe it, the fact is that two principles will be at work; a positive force and a negative force.

The positive principle is that we are capable of spiritual growth. Indeed if we are not growing spiritually we are either in a state of spiritual stagnation or we are spiritually dead. Spiritual growth is highly acceptable and to be truly welcomed.

The negative principle is that there are all sorts of forces in and around our life that are telling us that spiritual growth is not an option and that if we think we can become a better followers of Jesus Christ then we’ve got another thing coming.

Let’s look at both these principles.

Firstly: The Positive

Jesus comes to the folk of His hometown with an absolutely awesome proclamation. That the time for people like them, people who thought of themselves as people that God wasn’t very concerned about, to wake up and see that God had a huge desire to bless them right there and right then. That they were central to what God wanted to do in the world.

Behind His proclamation lies the custom (which I mentioned last week) of the year of Jubilee. During a Jubilee Year, servants were released from their obligations and were set free. Those who had debts that couldn’t be paid were released. Those who had been put into a situation where they had to mortgage their land had their land returned to them.

Jubilee was an amazing time for those who felt themselves unable to help themselves. A time of great grace and new beginning. Here is Jesus standing before His people and telling them “It’s Jubilee! You are free to be all that God wants you to be!”

We need to know that it is STILL Jubilee time. That today is the day of the Lord’s favor. That today is a day to welcome the presence of God into whatever we are doing. That today is the time to seek to grow in our faith and to believe that God can do amazing things in us and through us!

Why is it Jubilee time? Because Christ has died, Christ is Risen and Christ will come again. In Jesus Christ everything necessary for our spiritual growth has been accomplished. What it needs is the application.

Christ died for our sins. We can stop agonizing over them and using them as an excuse to step back from following. It’s Jubilee time. The debts are paid, we are slaves no more, what we had lost has been returned. Christ is Risen. Holy Spirit power is available here and now. The power to change. The power to bring about Kingdom change in our world. Christ will come again. The victory is assured. What is of Christ is eternal, what is of this world won’t last. It’s Jubilee time!

The door to spiritual growth, as individuals, together as a church community is wide open. God invites us, “Ask and you will receive, Seek and you shall find.” It’s Jubilee time!” But no… hold on a minute… look around you… it’s just us… and it’s just me and you… it’s just the same old same old.

Already we’ve moved to the negative. Already, even as Jubilee is proclaimed we’re seating ourselves in the synagogue and saying, “Now hold on a minute, that’s just Joseph’s son isn’t it?”
And Jesus knows exactly what’s going through our minds. Here it is in Luke 4:23: And He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."

You hear what they are saying? “Listen, if you are so wonderful then show us some fancy stuff, like we’ve heard you did elsewhere, then we’ll believe.” Now why was Jesus able to work miracles elsewhere? It was because the people in those other places believed it was Jubilee time, but the people in His hometown couldn’t get beyond their limited narrow ‘nothing can ever happen here’ mindset. The most limiting factor for those folk in Nazareth was their Nazareth mind-set.

Secondly; the Negative

This was no ‘glass half empty’ pessimism; it was a deeply rooted misplaced pride that cut faith down before it could even flex its wings. To illustrate Jesus uses two stories that were well known to the listeners, one involving Elijah and a widow of Sidon, the other about Elisha and Naaman.

The first story is set in the middle of a drought and Elijah needs something to eat and drink. He goes to Zarephath in Sidon and encounters a widow about to make a final meal for herself and her son. He asks her to make him a meal as well, and tells her that 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.'" (1 Kings 17:14). Everything happens just as Elijah has said.

In the second story, Naaman, a great general in the command of the King of Aram, seeks to be healed from a leprous disease. He comes to Elisha, who instructs him to dip into the waters of the Jordan seven times, and eventually he receives his healing. (2 Kings 5)

In both accounts there is an initial reluctance to respond. Both the widow and the General are outsiders. Yet, in both cases, once they humble themselves before the prophet’s words, and act upon what they hear, miracles take place in their lives. They rise above their fears and overcome their misplaced pride.

Misplaced pride prevents God from working in our lives. Such pride grows out of our insecurity and fears. It expresses itself as a control issue. Those worshipers in Jesus hometown had a lot to be rightfully proud of. That was Joseph’s son up there preaching a blazing sermon. He was somebody that their town and their synagogues had nurtured and given a great start to. They had been gracious enough to give Him a platform from which to express His views.

But the offense came when He suggested that there was more to the Kingdom then they realized. That the message of God wasn’t all about them and their town, or even just their nation, but was something that wrapped its arms around strangers and outsiders and people whom they still considered beyond the boundaries of God’s Grace. In fact it was something so close to them, that they just couldn’t see it!

To recast this story into a contemporary mold. These were people familiar with the gospel story, but strangers to the gospel’s power. They were proud of their heritage, proud enough to defend it against anything they perceived as a threat, but that same pride prevented them from experiencing the love of God as something that could work miracles in their midst, something that could change and renew their lives and enable them to experience the Kingdom of God in a way they never had before.

As a Presbyterian Church we have a tremendous heritage. We have some great stories to tell and as a denomination have been instrumental in helping shape the history of nations. But that was then and this is now. Let us not fall prey to the familiarity of the hometown crowd. Let us rise to the challenges of the present, confident that the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands in the midst of His church, the same yesterday, today and forever, continues to lead us and guide us in unfamiliar ways and with fresh insights.

Let it not be said of us that we are people who knew the story of the gospel but not its power. We can grow. As individuals and as a church community God desires our growth. Let us be proud of where we have been but have the humility to recognize that we haven’t yet arrived. That the fields are once again ready for harvest and that we are called to ‘keep on keeping on’ building the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God!

Believe it! With God’s love as our incentive, with hearts and lives prepared to make positive investment in the things of God’s Kingdom, I believe that miracles still happen. And there is no better place to strengthen ourselves for service than around a table laid with bread and wine, these symbols that point us to the depth of God's love towards us and the lengths God was willing to go, that we may go and take the jubilee, good news message to our hurting world.

To God’s name be the glory!
 
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D