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September 2016 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Fearful and Wonderful" — September 4
"Losing, Finding, Rejoicing" — September 11
"Creative Management" — September 18
"Last Things First" — September 25


“Fearful and Wonderful”
September 4, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Psalm 139

There's something special about being with a person who knows you well. Sit across the table from your spouse of thirty years, or your best friend, or a sibling close to your age. It's amazing to look into the eyes of that person and know that they know how old you are. They remember the natural color of your hair. They have an idea of how many speeding violations you have, and they might even recall your SAT scores. With a person like this, all the facades you have created for yourself seem to disappear. The little lies you tell yourself, and the most flattering photos you post on Facebook, don’t tell the whole story when you’re with a person you know this well.

All of us try to conceal our true feelings and motives from others—at work, at social gatherings, and with our parents and our children. When we are known completely, we don’t have to try to be what we are not. There’s nothing to hide. We’re free to be who we are.  And that’s mostly a good thing.

On the other hand, having no secrets feels creepy. We aren’t sure we want anyone to know everything about us—even God. We know that cameras record us, when we go to the bank to deposit checks, but it seems odd to be preserved on film when we don’t plan to rob the bank. High school reunions can make us feel self-conscious, too. We think competitive thoughts, like:  How cool is my car and how do my wrinkles compare to those of my classmates? We still want to put our best face forward all the time.

This God who knows us so well, is impossible to comprehend. Thoughts like this, as Psalm 139 says, are "too weighty" for us. They are more numerous and vast than the sand. God knows far more about us than our spouses, siblings, and former classmates know. There is no place to flee from our heavenly father. We cannot lose ourselves in the crowd. God knows all our thoughts. God knows who we were created to be, even if we haven’t figured that out yet. As the psalm says so powerfully, God knows what we want to say, even before the words come out of our mouths. God even knows, and cares, when we sit down and when we stand up.

The psalmist uses yada, the Greek verb for “to know”, to describe the relationship between God and us, no fewer than seven times. We can be sure that God is more interested in the content of our character than how we look when we go to the bank, how much is in our checking account, or whether we made the cheerleading squad fifty years ago. In the dark night of the soul, God brings us light. And that is a reason to be thankful.

When God made you, He threw away the mold. You are unique, right down to the thumbprint. You have a particular purpose that sets you apart. But what is it? When I was in high school, all the teen magazines told us readers, “Just relax and be yourself,” but this advice puzzled me because I didn’t have any idea of who “myself” was yet. It’s the challenge of a lifetime—it’s one of those questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” and it has stumped the greatest minds since time began. We wrestle with questions like this every day.

Once, the great Hassidic rabbi, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear. Someone asked him, "Zusia, what's the matter? You look frightened!"

The rabbi answered, "The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life." The followers were puzzled. "Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'" His followers persisted. "So, what will they ask you?"

"And I have learned," Zusia sighed, "that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'" One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia's shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, "But what will they ask you?" He responded, "They will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.' They will say, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'"  

Because God created us, He will know us into eternity. God will guide our going out, as well as our coming in. In verse eight of Psalm 139, the psalmist affirms that God’s presence extends far beyond death. There is a cemetery in the Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California. It is dedicated to the unknown dead of World War II, where soldiers’ remains have been interred. No one knows exactly who is buried there. No one knows what birth date or death date to inscribe on any of the headstones. But there is one who knows: our God, who sees the sacrifices and sufferings of all of us. Across each gravestone in that cemetery in the Channel Islands are inscribed the words “Known by God.”

Maybe your parents never said the words you have been longing to hear—or perhaps they said negative things that still ring in your ears. My mother once said to me, “Joyce, you have no interests!” (“No interests?”) Maybe your spouse rejected you. Don’t let what another human being does, define who you are. Don’t draw conclusions about yourself, based on other people’s opinions. Nothing can separate you from the love of God the Father, who knows you and wants you. You matter so much to God that He sent His Son to save you. And Jesus said, “I will be with you always.”

How wonderful it is to know that you’ll be known by God, and watched over and cared for, both now and forevermore.


Let us pray. Creator God, we thank you that you made all of us. You shape our lives into something beautiful, and you continue to work on us. Even when we don’t see it, you’re working in our lives, making us more and more like you. Help us to work with you on all that you do. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


“Losing, Finding, Rejoicing”
September 11, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 15:1-10

In most public places, you can find a "Lost and Found." The Lost and Found might be a box or a drawer, with a jumble of trinkets that once mattered to someone. And yet, each one got left behind. What's the story behind the pair of eyeglasses, the single earring, the little toy truck, and the photo of an unknown family?

Each item was lost, and then found -- by someone who cared enough to turn it in. We say the objects in the box have been "found" -- but they haven't really been found. They are trinkets to us, but were treasures to someone else. The person who owned them hasn’t come back to claim them. Perhaps they never will.

People get lost, too. Sometimes, we feel like objects in the Lost and Found box. There are seasons in our lives when we need someone to find us and to share our pain—at the sudden loss of a job, the pain of a broken marriage, a long illness, our sorrow for a child or grandchild who has made a huge mistake, a debt we wonder if we can ever repay. The Gospel of Luke passes on to us two little stories that Jesus told about lost things: a lost sheep and a lost coin.

A man who has a hundred sheep, notices that one is missing. His concern for the lost one causes him to leave the ninety-nine and to search until he finds it. When he does find it, he is so happy that he calls his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.

A woman has ten coins. When she loses one of them, she carefully sweeps out her entire house until she finds it on the floor. It’s a drachma, worth one tenth of a cent, but she spends all day looking for it. Would you hunt for a penny on the floor, as if it were your wedding ring?

These short parables come just before the more famous parable of the Prodigal Son. All three stories in Luke, Chapter Fifteen, are about lostness. But did you notice? The emphasis in the two parables isn’t on the lost sheep, or on the lost coin. The focus is on the shepherd and the woman. They are both the losers and the finders. Do you see the symbolism? These stories are primarily about God, and not about the lost things. God, the owner, is both a loser and a finder. We all belong to God. And so when even one person is missing, God doesn’t shrug His shoulders and say, "Oh well, I've still got ninety-nine." God cares very much that one sheep is missing.

In the Old Testament, the shepherd had often been a symbol for God. But in the lost coin story, Jesus shocks the crowd by using a woman as the symbol for God. This was very unusual in Judaism. Jesus respected women and refused to follow the social custom of seeing females as the most inferior class. Luke, the Gospel writer, felt the same way.

Luke tells us that the sinners and the tax collectors -- the lost ones -- had been hanging around Jesus, and the Pharisees—the pious and powerful-- were annoyed to see Him doing this. They grumbled and griped that Jesus was taking these untouchables out to lunch. People in those days believed that God favored the righteous with prosperity and punished sinners with poverty. So Jesus tells these stories to underline the fact that He is trying to bring the sinners and tax collectors into the kingdom of heaven.

Has God been looking for you? Are you lost in busyness, moving so quickly through obligations that you no longer know who you are? Or lost in depression, feeling stuck? Or lost in power, seeking to dominate others? Or lost in selfishness, unaware of all the needs all around you?

As many times as you have heard this story of the Lost Sheep, has it ever struck you as strange that a shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness to go off in a risky search for one sheep? Jesus tells the story as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do that. "Which one of you," Jesus asks, "if you were a shepherd, wouldn't do the same?" I don't think most of us would.

Leaving ninety-nine sheep to look for one lost sheep makes no sense. Any shepherd could recoup the loss of one sheep, but the potential loss of ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, would almost certainly mean economic disaster for the shepherd. God's love for the lost ones is amazing. And that is the point!

Jesus came to save the lost: lost sheep, lost coins, lost brothers, lost tax collectors, lost drug dealers, lost politicians, kids who have made a lifetime’s worth of mistakes even before they grow up. The very people you and I might see as less righteous than we are, probably not worth our time—those are the people that Jesus is turning the world upside down to find and to save.

That is Jesus’ amazing word of grace to you and me, who are, of course, sinners. We have all been lost, at one time or another. God never writes anyone off! Remember Jesus' conclusion for each parable? "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

These stories show us a God who does not simply wait passively for lost ones to repent. In both parables, God actively goes out after them. Repentance in these stories isn’t bitter and painful. Instead it becomes something to celebrate. It’s not only about looking back, but it’s also about stepping into the present with a new way of doing things.

The shepherd rejoices when he finds the lost sheep. When the woman finds the lost coin, she calls her neighbors to celebrate with her. Grace is a gift that we cannot earn, no matter how hard we try. Grace is the persistent love of God…our owner and our finder.


Let us pray. Almighty and ever-loving God, we thank you for coming out to seek us, to find us, and to take us home. AMEN


“Creative Management”
September 18, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 16:1-13

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward, has my vote as the most difficult in all of scripture. The hero of today’s parable is crooked! So, why on earth does Jesus speak of this man with admiration, before advising His listeners, "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth"?

This is a trickster story—a popular type in Jewish folklore. You will remember, from the book of Genesis, the story of Jacob cheating his older brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. This is the kind of story that belongs to the real world. Unjust managers are all around us. There are plenty of things done by people in authority today that fall into an ethical gray area: behavior not exactly illegal, but certainly shady.

The unjust manager -- in the tradition of con artists from way back -- will do nearly anything to hang onto a lucrative deal. Most of us are not so bold. We want to be sure before we take any action. "Be bold!" the Lord is saying to us -- "Not in the accumulation of dishonest wealth, but in promoting God's interests!"

It's a story about a rich man who owns an estate. He’s almost never there, so he has a manager to look out for his interests. This manager is responsible for running the estate. His most important job is to collect the rents owed by the tenant farmers. The whole arrangement is a lot like a plantation of the Old South, in the sharecropper days following the Civil War. At the top of the economic pyramid is the absentee landlord, who rakes in enormous profits by doing nothing. At the bottom are the field workers -- supposedly free people, but actually little more than slaves. They labor long hours for very little profit (once the landowner's rent is taken off the top). It’s an unjust system. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in “Sixteen Tons,” "they owe their souls to the company store." The Gospel writer tells us how much they owe: one farmer owes a hundred jugs of olive oil, another a hundred containers of wheat.

Right in the middle of the whole shameful enterprise sits the estate manager. This man lives in luxury in his master's vacant house. The laborers can see him there as they return from the fields. He's dressed in expensive clothes. His feet are propped on the table. The manager behaves as though he's the master -- when, as all the field-workers know, he's no better than any of them.

There's a further wrinkle to this story. The estate manager has been robbing the landowner blind. He's been squandering the cash reserves of the estate. Finally, word reaches the master of what's been going on. A certified letter arrives on the manager's desk. In the letter, the manager reads that his boss is on his way home. His accountants will be coming along, to see how much the manager has stolen from the landlord. The jig is up! This manager knows he's got to think fast to save his own hide. He calls each tenant farmer in turn and asks how much they reckon they owe the boss. "A hundred jugs of olive oil," says one, hanging his head in shame. The manager extracts his fountain pen from his vest pocket, and with a triumphant flourish, draws a line through that figure in the ledger book. "Make it fifty," he says, flashing a smile.

The next farmer admits he owes a hundred measures of wheat. "Did I hear you say a hundred?" asks the manager, with a wink. "This book here says you only owe eighty." On and on he goes, reducing the debt of each tenant, one by one. They assume it's the landowner who gave them a break. When the lord of the manor finally does show up, a villageful of happy tenant farmers, forms a line to shake his hand. He has come out looking generous from the whole deal. How can he fire his manager now?

Instead, the estate owner congratulates his manager. "You're a promising businessman," he says, clapping him on the back. “I'm making you vice president of my company!" This is the part of the story that has shocked Christians for almost two thousand years. How could Jesus approve of this sneaky manager?

We think of parables as simple tales. But there's a lot going on beneath the surface of this story. The economy in first-century Palestine was built on personal relationships. The steward -- while not a member of the landowner’s family --is someone for whom he feels responsible. It's not easy to fire such a person.

Many of Jesus' listeners were peasants that were being exploited by landowners. In telling the parable, Jesus is not saying the manager is a paragon of virtue. The opposite is true. This is an example of what we could call a "so much more than" logical move. It goes like this: "If such is true of A, then so much more is the same thing true of B." That "thing" that is true of the unjust manager is boldness in risk taking. The disciples are being asked to be even bolder than the dishonest manager, not for a crook, but for God.

In ancient Palestine, the daily struggle for economic survival in the marketplace required a certain ethical ambiguity. In Jesus' parable, the dishonest manager ends up doing a lot of good, in spite of himself. He lifts a big load of debt from the shoulders of the tenant farmers. He does it for the wrong reasons. Even the very money he uses is stolen from his master. As sneaky as he is, the manager still knows that, in order to keep his ill-gotten gains, he's got to convert the wealth into good will. The way he handles this crisis is shrewd and decisive.

There's a story of Henry Ford, pioneer automaker, that's similar to this parable. In the 1930’s, Ford was visiting his family's ancestral village in Ireland. Two trustees of the local hospital found out he was there and went to meet him. They talked Ford into giving the hospital five thousand dollars (eighty-five years ago, five thousand dollars was a lot of money). The next morning, at breakfast, Henry Ford opened his daily newspaper, to read the banner headline: "American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital."

Ford wasted no time in summoning the two hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces. "What does this mean?" he demanded. The trustees apologized. "Dreadful error," they said. They promised to get the newspaper to print a retraction the next day, declaring that the great Henry Ford had given not fifty thousand, but only five. Hearing this, Ford offered them another forty-five thousand, under one condition: that the trustees would build a marble arch at the new hospital entrance with a plaque that read, "I walked among you and you took me in."

The work of God’s kingdom will go on, with or without us. The kingdom of God is coming among us. Christ beckons us to take notice. He calls us to respond with appropriate shrewdness of “the children of light,” because the time is now.


Let us pray. Creator God, send us your spirit of wisdom, that we may be able to judge between what is right and wrong. Help us to understand that you have gifted us so that we may in turn be givers; offering up the treasures of this world in love and service to you. AMEN


“Last Things First”
September 25, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Timothy 6:6-19

In July, 1975, the Nashville Banner ran an article about David Burroughs, an art collector who just happened to stop by a garage sale. He couldn’t believe his eyes at what he saw displayed there, with a price tag of five dollars. It was a small black and white lithograph. A young woman was selling everything she owned to join a commune. He bought the lithograph from the woman for $5. Burroughs suspected he knew what it was, but when he got home, he found he’d been right. It was an original Picasso. For next to nothing, the woman had sold an art work that was worth many thousands of dollars. Not knowing its true value, she had practically given it away.

We have this precious gift from God called life. And yet, because we don’t recognize its true value, we practically throw it away. The letters to Timothy were written by the Apostle Paul to his young apprentice. They are pastoral pep talks. Paul challenges Timothy to "take hold of the life that is really life.”

How do you measure the gift of life? Some feel that the amount, and the monetary value, of stuff we have is a measure of our godliness. Paul disagrees. He writes that our greed actually gets in the way of being good. "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Paul is writing from prison. Can one be any more powerless than to be in prison? But he has contentment! In another letter, writes to the Philippian Christians from prison: "I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances."

Paul isn’t saying that, in order to be godly, you have to accept your circumstances and not try to better them. Contentment isn’t an excuse for laziness. It wasn’t an excuse for Paul, any more than it is for us. The Apostle continued to fight his way through the Roman court system with determination. He wrote some of the greatest writings in the New Testament while he was imprisoned.

In chapter 6 of the letter to Timothy, Paul writes, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.”

Here the Apostle is telling Timothy what a good life can be. It is a "godliness combined with contentment,” that is, a life that is centered on God. It isn’t ruined by trying to get what one doesn’t have. In the choices we make, our lives honor, or dishonor, God.

When I visited Marie Lychak on Thursday, she told me about the good life she and her brothers and sisters had, growing up in Hokendauqua in the late forties and early fifties. “We were kind of poor,” she told me, “but we didn’t notice that at all. We were good kids. We met at the corner of Lehigh and Second Street and just stood around talking. We played games on the football field and we always went to church. Our church was in the middle of everything. Those were good times,” Marie remembers.

Paul exhorts young Timothy to put all his hope in God, who will provide him with everything he needs for a good life. It is the same sentiment stated in the Jewish Talmud, which says, "In the world to come, each of us will be called to account for all the good things God put on earth which we refused to enjoy!"

Happiness isn’t the same thing as contentment. Jesus didn’t die to make us happy. Happiness is an emotion. Contentment, on the other hand, is a state of being—a gift from God. Paul gives Timothy, and us, instructions on what not to do if we wish to accept the gift of contentment. We should reject the common belief that we are what we own. We should remember that Americans are in the top five percent of wealthy people on the planet.

We think that money will fill every empty space in our lives. Paul describes, for his young protégé, some attributes of character that we should cultivate instead of trying to get more money. “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.”

Since God already has put us right with Him, we should do what is right. We should allow God to love through us. We should show endurance through the inevitable trials of life. Kindness to others will produce contentment and result in generosity. We can read to a child. We can go on a mission trip. We can go without a meal and give the money to feed the poor. We can bring someone to church. We can give something away. We can simplify our lives. We can filter out the voices that influence us to waste our money. Paul is not preaching that wealth, in itself, is evil. He is saying to give thanks for whatever gifts we’ve been given, and to use them for godly purposes. 

I disagree with Paul when he states that “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it." I believe that there are some intangible things we take with us to heaven. We take a good reputation. We take the faith that we have placed in Christ and put into action. We take with us everything that we do in Jesus' name and spirit.

A man in Bainbridge, Georgia, was working in his yard when he heard screams from a home nearby. He raced across the yards to discover the screams coming from an eleven-year-old boy, being terrorized by an intruder with a shotgun. When the neighbor started toward the boy to help him, the intruder turned and shot the man at close range in the legs and chest. After months of painful recovery, the man learned to walk again. When he speaks of the incident, he says, "I will never forget the look on that boy's face when he finally knew that I was going to help him." He was asked if he would do it again, knowing how much it would cost him. He said, "Yes, I would. Our neighbor is the next person that we meet.”

Contentment comes from taking hold of the life that really is life—the fun those kids had here in Hokendauqua, just playing games and talking together after school. When you walk in the light of God's Word, you will always find peace and joy.  With God’s help, I pray that your lives will be blessed as you offer yourselves gladly in the service of our common Lord.


Let us pray. Gracious God, we give you thanks for the wonders of life. We thank you for the presence of your Spirit in our lives, and for the guidance you give us so that we may find meaning and joy in all of life.  AMEN


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