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

Monday, January 30, 2017

Going Deeper

Going Deeper!

In our service this coming Sunday we are continuing our series titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the church). ” Last week our sermon was "Field of Fools." This week we are looking at 1 Corinthians 2:1-12. In verse 9 we read "The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God."

I recall as a youthful believer that such a verse would discourage me rather than encourage me. When you are in your late teens you want clear answers with no gray areas. I was attracted to a kind of certainty that I now regard as being unhelpful. The books of the Bible offer us answers. But I have often found they are not those that we expect. There is often ambiguity and tension.

In the previous section Paul makes great contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the gospel message. He begins this passage by speaking about his own inability to proclaim it. He implies that if they are receiving anything from him, than it's due to the work of God's Spirit, not his skills.

He launches into words about the mystery and 'un-knowabilty' of God's ways. 'What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived - the things God has prepared for those who love Him.' All of this is a far cry from the kind of religious certainty that we often crave.

I recall a preacher years ago saying; "The Holy Trinity is not Father, Son and Holy Scripture', but 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'." If we are expecting to be able to simply open up our bibles and find an instant answer to some pressing concern, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment.!

But if we are prepared to carefully and prayerfully approach scripture, aware that the whole process of revelation is depending upon the action of God's Holy Spirit, then maybe treasures from the deep will be revealed. Why limit that process to Scripture? That same attitude can color our approach to worship, to fellowship, to our work, our leisure, to our relationships... just about any area in our life.

Our passage closes with the words 'What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us." There is something wonderfully dynamic and experiential about Paul's view of the gospel. Something that blind insistence on regarding any text as being 'The last and only word on this' can obscure.

I love the Celtic image of the Holy Spirit as being 'The Wild Goose'. Unpredictable. Free. In Transit. I'm glad that there have been those alongside me in my spiritual journey who have had the patience to say, "Yes, you can look at it that way, but look, here's another perspective". I am glad for those who encouraged me to see that the depth of God was not something to be frustrated by, but rather something to dive deep into.And I hope that you may find those around your life who encourage you to do the same!

Some questions to ponder as Sunday approaches.
  • Why does Paul tell the church in Corinth "I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling"?
  • What would it mean to have a faith that didn't "Rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power"?
  • What role does 'mystery' play in our lives?
Finally, here's an enjoyable version of William Cowper's classic hymn "God moves in a mysterious way"

Monday, January 23, 2017

Foolish!

I wonder if you have seen the 2013 movie 'Saving Mr Banks'? It tells the story of how the classic movie "Mary Poppins" almost never made it to the screen.

Author P.L.Traver's had a great mistrust of corporate giants like the Disney studios. As the movie develops, details of her background reveal reasons for her reluctance, whilst Walt personally attempts to persuade her to allow him to make a Mary Poppins movie... something 20 years earlier, he had promised his daughters he would do as the books were his daughters favorite bedtime stories.

Here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian we are following a sermon series on “The Conundrums of Corinth (and their legacy in the church).” Last weeks sermon “Church United” can be found here.
My point of contact between the movie and this weeks scripture reading from 1 Corinthians1:18-31 comes through the word 'foolish'.

Some people would suggest that writing books for children may be a foolish endeavor. There were those who suggested such to P.L.Travers (and to J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.) Others suggested to young Walt that drawing cartoon mice wasn't exactly the best way to invest your time. Animation was just too time consuming and expensive. And the idea of mixing animation with real life characters, well, that would never work!

It took twenty years for Walt to persuade Mrs. Travers to allow him to make a movie of her book. She had very strict requirements and insisted in being involved in every detail of the movies development. Some suggested that Walt just gave up... it was never going to happen.

In our scripture reading we find Paul writing "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles". There were those in Paul's day who thought he had bitten off more than he could chew. People of different cultural, religious and philosophical understanding were not going to treat the message he proclaimed with any seriousness.

Today we find there are folk who belittle folks attempts to feed the hungry and bring justice to the poor. There are those who suggest that the church has had her day and that her message is nothing more than vain optimism and misguided superstition.

There were many in the time of Jesus who likewise treated His teaching as the utmost foolishness. Not only foolish. But dangerous nonsense that had to be stopped and needed to go away. The foolishness of His message continues to be an inspiration to countless numbers of people today.

So, dare to dream. Dare to dream that the little acts of kindness and gestures of love that reflect God's concern for us truly are making a Kingdom difference in today's hurting world. Embrace the foolishness of the gospel... and you may well confound those who think they are wise! Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 3:19 “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, "He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness." (New Living Testament)

Today my foolishness knows no bounds. It may not be your particular style of music, but the message fits nicely. Michael D'Aigle performs “Whose Fool Are You?

Rev Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Church United?

 
Here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church we began a journey last week titled “The Conundrums of Corinth” (and their legacy in the church). The first sermon “Even Good churches have bad days” can be found here. We are looking at passages that are from the First Book of Corinthians. We take a look this week at 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and the topic of church unity. Although it is an occasion that most churches in my current location do not seem to observe the 18th-25th January 2017 mark the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Personally I've always thought it was a total scandal that there even exists such things as denominations. What a glaring testimony to our intolerance and inability to be the people God called us to be! Jesus prayed that we may be One as He and His Father were one. End of story right there. In as much as we turn away from that ideal, we build our own little empires rather than build God's kingdom.

Of course that sounds idealistic and unrealistic. Yet... and here's the kicker... do we honestly believe that in eternity there is going to be a segregated heaven? Do we think there will be a Catholic enclave, a Presbyterian paddock and a big old building for Southern Baptists? Do we honestly believe that our different doctrinal understandings and emphasis, our structures and ways of worship, our books of order and decisions of church councils over who is 'in' and who is 'out'... are going to matter one iota?

If Jesus prayed that we may be united, and our destiny at the end of all things is to be united... shouldn't we be working towards such ends here on earth? Don't we even pray every Sunday that 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?"

Yes. We know this. But then it becomes difficult. We have so much invested in our history and our buildings and our heritage. We know people fought and died to establish some of our traditions. And... to be honest... we like the way WE do things. If we wanted to sing those songs, or worship in that way... then we'd go to that church.

Meantime the world looks on and says "See how these Christians love one another. What a joke!" Our witness is compromised. The prayer of Jesus that we may be 'One' goes largely unheard. Our eternal destiny as one people of God is something we are quite happy to put off till then and ignore in the present.

So some here are some questions related to the reading from Scripture. They give a clue to what I'll be preaching about this coming Sunday. (And if you are in the area you are welcome to join us at 10:00 am.)
  • Is Christ divided?
  • Why is Paul thankful that he didn't baptize anybody?
  • What will we do to promote unity among our fellow Christians?
I am so grateful to those who have not become so jaded by the disjointed church that they have lost the vision for us being together again. Some of my greatest experiences of worship have been at events where people forgot about their differences and focused on the unity they have in and through Jesus Christ. As a teenager, a memorable milestone in my own spiritual journey, was attending the Greenbelt festival in the U.K. way back in 1979. (Yes...I'm that old!)

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, here is one of the performances from way back then. Bryn Haworth, singing 'We're all One'. CLICK HERE. I love the optimism of his last verse "I know that God has saved me, saved me for the day, when I'll hear the people singing, and everyone will say, We're all one..."

And you just got to love that seventies fashion sense, the cars, the tents, the hair, the flared trousers...
Here's the lyrics in their totality. I pray that there may be other occasions in our discipleship journey when we get to move beyond our little boxes and into the reality of our unity in Jesus Christ.

"WE’RE ALL ONE" by Bryn Haworth

Listen to me children, Can't you hear the call
Can't you see the writing, That's written on the wall
It took so long to write it, Then they passed it through the age
Telling all creation, Everybody can be saved.
We’re all one...

Well I was riding on the railway, I took a look around
All the different people, Couldn't find no common ground
Well we've got one Maker, And we're under one roof
And if you've got love, Then you need no other proof
We’re all one...

Crazy people fighting, Fight in other lands
How you kill for Jesus, I just don't understand
I said tell me Lord tell me, What are you gonna do
He said when you point the finger, Then the finger points at you
You’re all one...

I like to play the music, It gets me on my feet
I need to play it loud, because I want to hear the beat
And I know that God has saved me, Saved me for the day
When I'll hear the people singing, And everyone will say
We're all one...

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Conundrums of Corinth.

According to the dictionary a 'conundrum' is “an intricate and difficult problem.” Corinth was a cosmopolitan city in which the apostle Paul founded a Christian congregation around 51 AD. In many ways it was an unusual place for the faith to gain a foothold. Corinth had a reputation of being a place where 'anything goes'. What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth.

As Corinth was a place where many different views received free expression, it should not surprise us that the church Paul had founded had a lot of questions about how to conduct themselves. So they wrote to him. The biblical letters of 1st and 2nd Corinthians give us his replies. Over the next few weeks, during morning worship here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, we are going to be taking a look at the first few chapters of 1st Corinthians.

My reason for doing so is that many of the dilemmas experienced by this earliest church are ones we struggle with today. The full title of the sermon series will be “The Conundrums of Corinth (and their legacy in the Church).” What are some of the things we are going to be talking about?

Disunity. Because the church in Corinth and been founded by different evangelists with a variety of gifts and abilities, people had their favorites. Paul wasn't always one of them, despite the fact he was the person they contacted when they needed advice. Though Christians claim to be all of one faith, the reality is we are a community divided by denominations and differences.

Pride. There were indeed some knowledgeable people in Corinth. The trouble was that it made them feel superior to everybody else. Paul takes them to task by talking about the “Foolishness” of the gospel message.

Shallowness. While some professed to know it all others seemed extremely content knowing very little. It was as though they just wanted to get by with as little commitment as they could, but still experience all the blessings God had to offer. Paul encourages them to go deeper.

Immaturity Paul really longs to teach them about the meatier things of the gospel, but along with their shallowness there was also an element of childishness about them. Jesus had taught the disciples to be childlike... not childish... and the church in Corinth seemed to be getting the two confused.

Identity The Church in Corinth seemed to struggle to know who they were really meant to be and how that translated into how they lived. Paul speaks to them of being “Temples of the Holy Spirit” and how if they gave themselves to service of others, then their identity wouldn't be such an issue.

As I've ministered in different churches, it is interesting how these themes often make an appearance. They are certainly not conundrums unique to Corinth. And as we go through a New Year and seek to restructure and reappraise the way we do things, we have lessons to learn from the struggles of the earliest church. Our first session, this coming Sunday will have the title; “Even Good churches have Bad Days.” All are welcome to join us.

Seemed like a good week to give an airing to the old Cole Porter classic “Anything Goes.” Though many of the references are to the politics and entertainment world of his day... they do not seem unrelated to many emotions and thoughts currently being given expression to! The personalities may change. The setting may be different. But the conundrums have a habit of showing up again and again!

Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Epiphany Stars

I remember hearing a sermon by a preacher (whose name I cannot recall) that was all about the evils of astrology. The speaker had become upset by the fact that people paid more attention to their daily horoscope in the newspaper than they did to the guidance that was available in the bible. I recall the punchline was something like... “Don't follow the Stars, follow the Son!” As I recall the preacher placed astrology... and numerous other ways of understanding life... that were not within the boundaries of their particular understanding of evangelical Christianity as being the “Work of the Devil.”

If I were still in contact with them it would be interesting to have a conversation with them about the story in Matthew 2:1-12 of the wise men, the “Magi,” following the star that led them to Bethlehem.

Over the centuries various theories have been developed as to who these characters, also known as“Kings,” may actually have been. Depending on which sources you take note of, their origin may have been in Persia, (associated with Zoroastrianism), in China (according to traditions in an ancient Syriac manuscript titled “Revelation of the Magi”) or maybe India (there are traditions that link the wise men's return with the disciple Thomas preaching in Central Asia.) And that's just mentioning a few.

One thing is clear. They did not receive their insights through the normal ways taught in the synagogues and temples of the Judaism of the day. They were culturally and religiously “Out of the box” when it came to characters you would expect to turn up to honor the birth of a Jewish messiah figure in an obscure town called Bethlehem.

We are told various things in the text. They are from the East. They are responding to a vision of a star that they had seen. They believe the star heralds the birth of a Jewish King who is worthy of worship. For most of their journey they are not guided by a star, the star re-appears as they get near to Bethlehem, an event that fills them with great joy. They bring three symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Not only do they return to their country “By another route” (Matthew 2:12) but their whole venture to recognize and welcome the Christ child was a whole different journey than that which was orthodox.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we should be careful not to condemn traditions we are unfamiliar with, or ways of understanding that are outside of our personal cultural or religious experience as being necessarily incorrect or even evil. Just because something is different and outside of our own limited vision, that does not make it invalid or wrong.

The congregation here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian holds an annual “Epiphany Star” service. Stars with attributes such as “sincerity” or “peace” or “empowering” are passed among the congregation and, rather like drawing names out of a hat, folk choose one, seemingly at random. What is fascinating is the conversation that follows... as people share how the “Star-Word” they received last year had somehow defined the kind of year they had experienced.

Maybe that's a little “Out-of-the box” for some folk. I'm sure the preacher I mentioned earlier would greatly disapprove. Personally, on the basis of many stories I encounter in the Bible, I hesitate to dictate the ways that God's Spirit can work and communicate God's purposes. There are many who travel through life “by another route.” Maybe, the most important thing for 2017, is simply to be sure we are on a journey of discovery and open to however God's Spirit may guide us.

For some music... an interesting juxtaposition of scenes of the wise men from “The Nativity” and the wonderful song by James Taylor “HomeBy Another Way.” Hope you don't find the subtitles (which relate to the movie rather than the song) distracting. For me they kind of added to the meditation rather than taking away. And a very happy and blessed New Year to all!

And of course, if you are in the area and want to experience “Epiphany Stars” for yourself, come and join us at 10:00 am :-)

Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.