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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bartimaeus


When I was writing last weeks blog, which talked about persecution and the church community, the terrible events that unfolded in Charleston, SC, had yet to happen. The racist murder of nine good folk, gathered together for bible study, reminds us that acts of violence towards people of faith are not just things that happen to people overseas or part of history, but are a reality in our society. (Sermon from Sunday here)

We continue to focus this week on some of the characters we'll be introducing the kids to during Vacation Bible School. This week, it's Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, who finds a new vision for his life when Jesus comes to town. (Mark10:46-52). It is a hope filled story.

The message of hope in this story is that people's blindness can be healed when love invades their personal space. We all have blind spots. The perpetrator of the violence in South Carolina had a world view that was blind to the value of all human life and the constitutional notion that all are created equal. That wasn't how he saw the world. His blindness led him to horrendous and evil actions.

In our Bible story Bartimaeus is a hopeless case. He shouts out for help only to be told that he needs to be quiet. He is an embarrassment. Nobody cares. He keeps on shouting into the void, but nobody is listening. Then Jesus enters the picture. Jesus acknowledges his presence and asks him an odd question. 'What do you want me to do for you?'

An unusual question to ask a person who has no sight! Surely his need was obvious. As is the way of love, Jesus is concerned with the whole person. Physical sight was a crippling disability, yet there were other things in the life of Bartimaeus that needed to radically change.

As a nation struggles to understand the events in South Carolina, it is clear that no single solution is going to bring wholeness. There are many elements to this tragedy. How is it, that so many years after slavery has been abolished and the rights of people of all colors to participate equally in the freedoms our society enjoys, it is still possible for a young person to grow up thinking that their skin color makes them superior?

How many more massacres, shootings, and homicides have to take place before the realization dawns, that having a society saturated in firearms increases the likelihood of gun violence, rather than prevents it? How long will people continue looking for somebody to blame, be it the government, or a particular segment of society, or race, or parents, or schooling, or authority, or a thousand other targets, before we take a look in the mirror and realize that part of the problem is our own misconceptions and prejudices?

It has been said, 'It takes a village to raise a child'. Expanding that notion, we are all responsible for the kind of society we live in. We are all responsible for making sure those pushed aside, those like Bartimaeus, have their voices heard and the full extent of their problems dealt with. We are all part of the conversation and decision making process that shapes the values of the society in which we live.

So think about what Jesus did for Bartimaeus. He didn't treat him as a problem or an embarrassment. He heard him. He opened him up. He exposed his hurt. He healed him. He gave him new vision. He gave him a radically different perspective. He graced his life with new possibilities and yet to be explored horizons. Can we do that for each other? Can we allow the love of God to that for us?

The message of hope in this story is that, through the action of God's Spirit, change can happen. Radical change. Lasting change. Maybe, right now, that's a message we need to hear! “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!”

For some music, 'Third Day' singing 'Cry out to Jesus' The lines "There is hope for the helpless, rest for the weary, love for the broken heart, there is grace and forgiveness, mercy and healing, He'll meet you wherever you are, cry out to Jesus' certainly seem to reflect the story of Bartimaeus!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego


We continue this Sunday to look at some of the characters that will feature in our Vacation Bible School program. Last week we talked about the wisdom of Deborah. This week we focus on three Old Testament youths, Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. Their tale is found in Daniel3:13-28 where we are told that because of their refusal to bow down and worship a huge statue of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, they are thrown into a fiery furnace. Whilst there, a fourth figure, a 'son of god' is seen in the fire with them, and they are removed from the fire unharmed.

To the earliest Christian Church Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego were characters of great significance. A fresco from the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome pictures them with their hands in song amid the flames of the fiery furnace. The 'son of god' mentioned in Daniel's text is identified as being the pre-incarnate Jesus, who always stood with His loved ones. As a church that had passed through periods of great persecution and seen many of it's leaders martyred for their faith, this notion of Jesus traveling with them amidst the fiery trials of their lives was a strong image to hold onto.

Within the cozy confines of our Western Christian tradition we easily forget, until we are affronted by some horrific image of ISIS terrorists murdering their prisoners, that in many parts of the world, to embrace the Christian faith, carries the risk of being ostracized by our families and society, the risk of imprisonment, torture and even death.

As I write two pastors, Rev. Yat Michael and the Rev. Peter Yen Reith of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, have been detained without charge since the beginning of this year. A full description of their situation can be found on thePC(USA) national website. To quote: “The pastors face multiple charges, some of which are deemed crimes against the state. As such, if convicted, they could face life imprisonment or the death penalty, or lesser punishments including a jail sentence, a fine, or 40 lashes.” Crimes against the state? That was exactly the charge made against Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego.

Christians in Sudan and South Sudan have asked others to pray for:
  • Peace and protection for the pastors and their families.
  • The court proceedings to result in the charges being dropped.
  • Wisdom and guidance for church leaders in Sudan in the face of continuing pressures .
  • All officials involved to act justly, love mercy, learn about Jesus and follow Him.
Organizations such as 'Open Doors' and 'Amnesty International' seek to monitor and keep in the public eye the situations of those whose beliefs truly are a matter of life and death. These accounts, like the tale of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, challenge us as to the reality of our own faith. When we are tempted to complain about things in church life that really are not that significant, remembering those who face persecution can recall us to a more graceful state of mind.

We enjoy many freedoms that we so often take for granted. Let us not forget those who are not in such a fortunate position. It is hard to find any music to go along with such a topic, but here is Sara Groves' song "When the Saints". Photos are from a variety of sources and were chosen to represent the church worldwide, particularly those in countries where Christianity is outlawed, restricted, and persecuted.

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Our Maryland/Scottish/Presbyterian Heritage




This Sunday at Mount Hebron Presbyterian we are meeting outdoors to celebrate our denominations Scottish heritage.(Last weeks sermon on David can be found here).  Presbyterianism was a widespread movement throughout Europe influenced by the theology of John Calvin. It was one of Calvin's Scottish students, John Knox, who eventually helped establish Presbyterianism as the Church of Scotland through the Scottish Reformation of 1560.

These were turbulent times. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was extensive persecution of Presbyterians in Ulster and Scotland. Many Scottish folk fled to Ireland and became known as the Scots/Irish. Some emigrated and settled, mostly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.

Among them was one Rev. Francis Makamie, often described as 'The Father of American Presbyterianism'. Makamie was born to Scottish parents, in Ramelton, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1658. In February 1676, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow. He was ordained in Northern Ireland in 1682 by the Presbytery of Laggan at the call of Col. William Stevens from Rehobeth, Maryland. Col. Stevens had issued the call to the Presbyterian church to send a missionary. Makamie answered that call.

By 1683, Makamie had established four Presbyterian congregations, located in Rehobeth, Snow Hill, Princess Anne (Manokin Church) and Salisbury (Wicomico), Maryland. These churches are often claimed to be the first Presbyterian churches in America.

There were earlier churches established on Long Island under the Dutch colony's jurisdiction during the 1640s. These churches were founded by Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers and members. Many became Presbyterian in reputation and later became part of the Presbyterian Church. In 1705 the first American Presbytery was organized, along the lines of Scottish Presbyterianism, by Francis Makamie near (or in) Philadelphia. There were seven minsters and 'certain elders' present.

Between 1705 and 1775 at least 500,000 Scots-Irish came to the United States. They became the backbone of the Presbyterian Church.. The first 'General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America' took place in Philadelphia on May 21,1789. By this time, swelled by other European protestants who had emigrated to the New World, there were 177 Presbyterian ministers, 431 churches and about 20,000 members.

Presbyterians had a large part in the American revolution. The historian Bancroft, wrote that 'The first voice publicly raised in America to dissolve all connection with Great Britain came not from the puritans of New England, nor the Dutch of New York, not the planters of Virginia, but from the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.” That is hardly surprising given the treatment they historically had received from the British crown!

It is fitting that here in Maryland, where the Scots/Irish Father of American Presbyterianism, Rev. Francis Makamie, began his ministry, we should celebrate his... and our... Scottish heritage. We'll also be taking a brief look at a lady hero of Scottish history and comparing her to the prophetess of Israel, Deborah.  Intrigued? Then come and join us at 10:00 a.m. this Sunday. Let the piping commence!

And how better to get in the mood than some pipers and Celtic Woman singing 'Amazing Grace' 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Life of David (Rated 'R')

The Life of David (Rated 'R')

Next month here at Mount Hebron our Vacation Bible School program kicks off. It will be my first experience of the way this congregation does Bible School. I'm looking forward to it! When I looked at the curriculum I saw the name of a Biblical character I was very familiar with. David. But then there are others! The prophetess Deborah. Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. Bartimaeus. Ananias.

For the next few weeks I'm abandoning the set lectionary readings for the given Sundays and we'll be taking a look at some of those less familiar folk. (Last weeks sermon from Trinity Sunday can be found here). Hopefully those who will be leading and teaching V.B.S. can gain a better grasp of the characters so as to share their story with the youngsters who will be in attendance.

Our first character is a hero of both Old and New Testaments. David, the young shepherd boy who became Israels' greatest king, and according to Matthew's genealogy, a significant person in the ancestral history of Jesus. At V.B.S. we'll take a look at his confrontation with a giant called Goliath, a tale many of us remember from Sunday School days.

We will, of course, be offering the sanitized version of the story. A great deal of the Old Testament narrative is really not suitable for children. The fact that David carries the giants decapitated head with him as they carry out systematic slaughtering of the Philistine army, taking all that they could lay their hands on as plunder... does not provide the kind of image we wish to send kids home with on the first day of V.B.S!

If we were to continue with David's story we would find his tactics are often cruel and violent towards those he regards as enemies, how he marries multiple wives and arranges for the murder of a man whose wife he took as his own, how his unfaithfulness in taking a census causes God to send a pestilence that results in the deaths of thousands.

Not that there aren't tender passages in the midst of it all. He does on occasion act with great mercy and outlandish faith. He is capable of awesome reflections on the grace and forgiveness of God. We attribute to David the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm. We will this coming Sunday be focusing on one of his positive qualities – his courage.

But as we see the violence and unrest in the Middle East, as we witness atrocities committed by nation upon nation across the centuries of human history, this subtext... of striving and compromise, and violence and conquest, being realities among those who believe God is on their side, can provide a whole other dimension to our reflecting and discerning.

Such things highlight the radical nature of Jesus teaching. We are to 'Love our enemies'. His embracing of non-violence and self sacrifice as being the genuine marks of God's Kingdom are a challenge our world has yet to truly take on board. 

We see hints of grace and mercy in the life of David. Without them he would never have been the leader he was. Yet there is much about his life that we today would not consider as acceptable behavior. That was then and this is now. One positive thing we observe is him praying for peace.

Thankfully that's one thing we can all do! We can work and pray for peace in the midst of what remains a violent world.  In our Bible Studies we have been looking at the Sermon on the Mount from Matthews Gospel. One of the principles Jesus teaches is 'Blessed are the Peacemakers for they will be called children of God'' (Matthew 5:9). 

A song I recall from my youth group days is "Let there Be Peace on earth". (This version by Vince Gill.)  I have always found the line "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me" to be particularly challenging. To sing that - and act upon it - takes all the courage David exemplified through his confident faith, that God's purposes can actually be achieved, even if there do seem to be giant obstacles in the way!

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt. B.D.