Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week

Of the many seasons that the church celebrates Holy Week has a particular significance. It is during this week that our particular focus becomes the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This past Sunday we recalled Jesus entering into Jersualem (Sermon here).

 In a religious context the timing of Easter is linked to that of the Jewish festival of Passover. On Maundy Thursday we recall how Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples and instituted what has become a central act of Christian worship; the sacrament of Holy Communion.

On Good Friday the terrifying events of the crucifixion are recalled. Some traditions mark the day by participating in a 'Stations of the Cross' service or by attending a service in which the 'Passion Narrative' from one of the gospels is read. Growing up in the U.K. I recall it being a day of great solemnity. There was a sense of sadness in the air that was not easy to define. Even those who had nothing to do with church seemed to respect it. Those days have long gone and for most people 'Good Friday' is just another day.

Easter itself is a curious mix of both Christian and other religious symbolism. The coming of Spring. The Egg that symbolizes new birth. The Easter bunny associated with fertility and new beginnings. Rather like Christmas, Easter is  an eclectic mixture of myths and traditions. Every culture adds it's own variations to the theme. I suspect it has always been that way.

So we will all celebrate this season in our own way. For some it may simply mark the passing of one season into another. For others it will hold deep spiritual significance and become a time of personal renewal.

For myself it will be my first Easter as the pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church. I am in the process of discovering how this particular church and community marks the season.  I am grateful to God for the opportunity to be here and look forward to many other celebrations in the future!

On Easter Sunday I will have the privilege of declaring the ancient, yet ever new, message that 'Christ is Risen – He is risen indeed!'  I consider this to be the greatest news we can ever hear. Life defeats death. Hope defeats despair. Love triumphs over hate. New beginnings are always possible. The most desolate places (like the Cross) can become doorways into unexpected, unfathomable, inexplicable possibilities (like an empty tomb).

However you mark this Easter may your celebrations grace your life with hope. May you personally enjoy a truly holy week.

 6:00 pm on Maundy Thursday (April 2) we meet for a meal, followed by a Maundy Thursday Service of Communion at 7:00 pm.

 Easter Sunday (April 5) we have a service at 10:00 am. All are welcome.

For some music... one of my favorite Easter hymns (sadly absent from most US hymnals)... "Led like Lamb" by Graham Kendrick.

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Donkey Story

Our journey through Lent is drawing to a close. We looked last Sunday at a passage from Jeremiah in which he talked about the covenant of the heart. (Sermon here). This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday and we'll be thinking about the way Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. (Mark 1:1-11) There are many tales of donkeys, both in scripture and popular culture. Somebody passed this one along to me in an email, and it is worth sharing.

“One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway, it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well.

At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing.

He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off!”

Life has a habit of dumping dirt on us. Like it or not we all have those 'not so good days'. For the donkey the trick to getting out of the well was to shake off the dirt and take a step up. It is not always easy to see our troubles as stepping stones, but when we can embrace that perspective, it helps us move onward and upward.

Palm Sunday is linked in the lectionary to Passion Sunday. It is a day full of contrasts. Jesus the King rides into town, not on a great white horse, but a humble donkey. The crowds who shout 'Hosanna', eventually change their cry to 'Crucify'. The triumphant entry turns out to be a journey to the dark side when Jesus is crucified outside the walls of the city.

Every step of the journey that Jesus makes throughout Holy Week is fraught with meaning. Much of what He faces is troubling beyond words. Betrayal. Torture. Violence. Yet even these lead toward Easter Day and cries of hope, 'Hallelujah' and resurrection.

It can be hard to see the negative moments in our lives as steps leading us towards more positive days. Like the donkey in our story, maybe with God's help, even our troubles can lead us to triumphs. Such a message seems to lay at the heart of the Easter narrative.

For some music, a song by Lauren Daigle: Trust In You.

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unhelpful Assumptions

Vanessa Van Doren is a young American student studying in Germany. One of the challenges she has faced is navigating her way around the culture and dealing with her own assumptions.

'A few months into my time in Leipzig, I started really feeling like I had the hang of things. I knew my way around, I was pretty well set-up at work and home, and most importantly, I felt like I had the German attitude figured out. One morning, I was biking to a conference and felt like it was unusually difficult to keep the bike moving. 'Darn, I’m out of shape,' I thought, heaving my shaking legs around the wheels as I tottered slowly down the street.

While I was waiting at a red light, a man on the sidewalk flagged me down. 'Ich spreche kein Deutsch,' I hissed, tired and irritated.'Your tire is flat,' he said in perfect, clipped English, gesturing at my pitiful heap of a bike.' I know that,' I lied, aggravated by this typical German statement-of-the-obvious. I tensed my foot on the pedal, ready to hurl myself forward as soon as the light turned.

The man paused and looked at me for a moment, unsure of whether to continue. 'It’s just that, I have a pump,' he finally stammered, waving his hand almost apologetically at his backpack. 'I could pump your tire for you.'

When ever we are out of our comfort zone and dealing with new situations or people it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. What was seen as an unwelcome intrusion turned out to be a genuine offer of help and concern!

Last week we were thinking about the people of Israel grumbling in the desert (Sermon can be found here). In our service this coming week we'll be thinking about a verse from Jeremiah 31:33 “This is the new covenant which I will make with the house of Israel... I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it, and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people

This idea of religion being an inward principle, rather than obeying external laws, was something new for the people to consider. In the past it had been all about 'Do this and I'll bless you, do that... and you'll be in trouble'. When Jesus began to teach the people about God's Kingdom He spoke about how everything started in the heart. Such teaching wasn't always understood or welcomed.

Rather like the young American student receiving unexpected help, we can assume the worse, even about our relationship with God. Jeremiah's perspective invites us to think again. God desires to enter into a deep relationship with us based, not upon obedience to rules, but on love. We see that love displayed through the Cross of Jesus Christ and shining from His empty tomb.

As we continue to travel through Lent may our lives be kept free from unhelpful assumptions about each other and about God. Let us dare to believe that God wants nothing but the best for our lives and trust that God's Spirit can grant us the inward strength to deal with whatever life may being our way. 

For some music... a classic from Keith Green, "Create in me a clean heart"

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Snakes and Sticks

Last week in our service of worship we took a look at the 10 commandments. Our sermon from the day can be found here. This week we stay with Moses. Our Old Testament Lectionary reading (Numbers 21:4-9) offers us an unusual account of the people of Israel being troubled by snakes (or in older translations 'Fiery Serpents') that appear in their midst because of their constant complaining against God. Moses is instructed by God to make a 'serpent of bronze' upon a long pole. Whenever those who have been bitten by the snakes look upon the serpent on the pole they find healing.

This 'serpent on a stick' became known in Hebrew as the Nehushtan. It is sometimes linked to the 'Rod of Asclepius' that appears in Greek mythology. The Rod of Asclepius took its name from the Greek god, Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology.

Cornutus, a Greek philosopher in the first century AD, writes of the significance of snake and staff: “Asclepius derived his name from healing soothingly and from deferring the withering that comes with death. For this reason, therefore, they give him a serpent as an attribute, indicating that those who avail themselves of medical science undergo a process similar to the serpent in that they, as it were, grow young again after illnesses and slough off old age; also because the serpent is a sign of attention, much of which is required in medical treatments.

The original 'Hippocratic Oath', taken by medical practitioners, began with the invocation, 'I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ...' The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, and is associated with medicine and health care.

According to 2 Kings18:4 the copper serpent of Moses remained in existence for nearly 700 years, but King Hezekiah had it destroyed because people were turning to it as an object of worship. As a symbol the Nehushtan may well have been forgotten among many other Old Testament stories were it not for a passage in John 3:14–15, where in conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus tells him; 'Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.

The significance of this verse is, of course, that it comes right before possibly the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life'

Theologians have made the connection between the Cross on which Christ is crucified, as healing for the world, and the 'Stick bearing the Snake' that offered healing to the people in the wilderness. Some have also pointed to Christ's death as reversing the curse that came through the serpent that bewitched Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

A preacher of old, C.H. Spurgeon, suggested the message for the Israelites and the people of his day was exactly the same; “Look up and Live!

For some music, something very traditional... Northside Baptist Church Men's Choir sing "Look and Live" . If that version doesn't rock your boat try this gospel version from a choir in Memphis TN. (Some great  keyboard and rhythm work in this last one... and check out the 'Hallelujah' breaks near the end)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Ten Commandments

A humanist organization took upon themselves the task of creating a set of 10 commandments for atheists. They gathered together numerous peoples responses as to what should be in such a list, and crafted their top ten 'principles'. This is how it came out;
  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  4. Every person has the right to control over their body.
  5. Belief in God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  9. There is no one right way to live.
  10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
As a Christian raised within a liberal Presbyterian tradition, I would have no problem endorsing most of the above. I couldn't help noticing how much they reflect teaching attributed to Scripture. I think particularly of words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:12; "In everything, do to others what you would want them to do to you. This is what is written in the Law and in the Prophets.” (See number 7)

I would question the observation that 'the scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world', if it means that insights of other disciplines, particularly spirituality, should never be taken into account. That would seem to contradict the first two injunctions about being open minded and striving to understand uncomfortable truths. I have real difficulty with the ninth observation. It just seems odd to suggest 10 right ways to live and include an injunction that says 'There is no one right way to live.'

Continuing with a series on 'Covenants of Grace' (last weeks sermon can be found here) this coming Sunday we'll be reflecting on the original 'Big Ten' that Moses brought down from the mountain (Exodus20:1-17). They have served humanity well for over 4000 years and if the example above is the best that folk in our generation can come up with, then the first draft are worth taking another look at.

And it does seem ironical that, when it comes to some of the ethical imperatives in the list above, the best these particular atheists can do is echo commands a person of faith would say were given by God! I know many of them wouldn't see it that way, but I try and keep an open mind :-)

Hard to find a song to go with this theme... but 'Mercy Me' have a quirky little offering called 'Ten Simple Rules'. Enjoy! And if you happen to be in the Ellicott City area hope to see some of you Sunday.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.