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April 2011 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Blinded By the Light" — April 3
"A Promise We Can Count On"
— April 10
"One Shining Moment'"
— April 17
"Love Takes Time"
— April 21
"The Blame Game" — April 22
"We Have Seen the Lord" — April 24


“Blinded By the Light”
April 3, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 9:1-41

Jesus said, “I came into the world for judgment, so that those who do not see, may see, and those who DO see, may become blind.” What does Jesus mean? He’s talking about different ways of seeing. A person can see perfectly well and still have vision problems.

The disciples who walked with Jesus that day were able to see. They saw the blind man, just as Jesus did. But their vision had been distorted by lessons they had been taught all their lives. When they looked at the blind man, they had no empathy. Here was a man blind from birth, who had begged at the city gate all his adult life. They didn’t try to understand how it felt for a blind person to know the world through touch and sound, but without sight. They felt no joy when Jesus helped that man to see for the first time. Instead, they just argued about what had caused the poor man’s blindness in the first place. I would call that, spiritual astigmatism.

The disciples believed that sin was the reason for his blindness. They’d learned at the synagogue that disability was God’s punishment. Jesus tried to broaden their view. He said to His followers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Cause-and-effect thinking is still with us, when we call an earthquake or a tsunami an “act of God.” That kind of thinking persists when people are diagnosed with lung cancer, and their friends make comments like, “Oh, I told him for years that he ought to stop smoking.” We want simple explanations. People sin, and God punishes them—or their children. “If I do what I should, nothing bad will happen to me,” we think. We feel safe then. We feel better about ourselves. But the world is more complicated than that. Our spiritual vision needs correcting.

The blind man’s neighbors had a different kind of vision problem. They saw the man who had had his sight miraculously restored. But they were wearing the dark glasses of disbelief. Today we’d call these people cynical. They didn’t celebrate with the man who had been healed. Instead, they sneered. Was this a trick? Had he really been blind in the first place?

It’s only human to have blind spots. We all do! The disciples had spiritual astigmatism and needed corrective lenses. The man’s neighbors were wearing dark glasses. But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had even more serious vision problems. They were supposed to have had the best spiritual vision of all. They should have known.

The Pharisees were blinded by their rules. They didn’t care whether or not the man could see. All they could see was Jesus, breaking the Law of Moses about the Sabbath. And this was not the first time! Jesus had healed the blind man on a day when Jews were forbidden to do any work. Only in the most life-threatening situations was a Jew supposed to heal a person, or even an animal, on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees weren’t nasty people. They just believed in following the Law of Moses under all circumstances. Rules mattered more than people. Jesus said to these leaders, in effect: "You have serious vision problems. You say you can see perfectly well. Perhaps you can, when you look at the eye chart. But your rules are blinding you to spiritual things. Take off your blindfold!”

There’s still another vision problem in our Scripture story—the behavior of the blind man’s parents. They could see that their son had been born blind, and they could see that Jesus had healed him. There was no doubt about either of those facts. But the parents were afraid to face their fears. They had good reason to fear. If the Pharisees accused them of believing that Jesus was the Messiah, they’d be thrown out of the synagogue. This meant they would lose all their friends. What’s more, God would shut them off. Salvation would be lost to them. The man’s parents were afraid to see that Jesus was the Son of God. Many people today are afraid to see Jesus clearly, because they fear the consequences.

The formerly blind man was the only person in that community who had 20/20 vision. He showed everybody what it was like to take your hands off your eyes and to face your fears. He stood firm in the face of the Pharisees’ questions. He knew now that Jesus was the light of the world. He made the religious authorities angry, so they banished him from the synagogue.

What does this have to do with you, and with me? Most of us, here, have enough spiritual vision to see Jesus for who He is. That’s why we’re here today. We know that there are different ways of seeing. We know that a person can see perfectly well and be spiritually blind. But, before we get annoyed at the Pharisees, we need to confess that sometimes, we can be like them.

I’m going to tell you a true healing story, from the last century. We can judge that story in two different ways. We can see the rules as the most important thing to care about, or we can put the people first. During World War II, there was a Navy pharmacist’s mate, named Wheeler Lipes, who performed a successful appendectomy on a fellow sailor in a submarine beneath enemy waters. The sailor survived. Without the surgery, he would have died. The Naval medical officers were angry that the pharmacist’s mate had gone beyond Navy regulations, even though he had done so to save a life. The Navy never officially recognized the pharmacist’s mate until two months before his death, in April 2005. Here’s an Associated Press account of this incident. It happened on the U.S.S. Seadragon in the Pacific Ocean, sixty-five years ago.

“Lipes, then 22 years old, relied on makeshift instruments—bent spoons for retractors and alcohol from torpedoes for sterilization. He and an assistant wore pajamas, rather than operating room gowns. The surgical environment was less than ideal—the patient…was too tall to lie on the makeshift operating table, so a nearby cabinet was opened and Lipes put the patient’s feet in the drawer. Lipes had to stand with his knees bent, all through the operation, because there was no room to stand up straight. After nearly two hours, Lipes removed a swollen five-inch appendix that had several inches of blackened tissue.”

The reaction of the Naval community was very angry. One doctor said it would have been better to let the patient die. Others in the medical community spread rumors that the surgery had not really taken place, that Lipes had lied about the removal of the ruptured appendix. How could they have been so blind?

We may be in danger when we think we see. Even for people who see, there is no 20/20 vision, even in the church pews. We all have areas of our lives in which we can’t see clearly. Lent is the time when God calls us into His presence for a spiritual eye examination. We are like the Pharisees, like the people in the crowd, like the blind man’s parents. We sometimes stand with our hands over our eyes when we are afraid.

Lent is the time to take our blindness to Jesus, for healing. Jesus is the light of the world. He brought the blind man into the light, and He will do the same for us. We don’t need to have a referral from a primary care physician in order to see the Great Ophthalmologist. There’s no need to call ahead for an appointment. Walk-ins are welcome twenty-four hours a day. Sometime we need to admit that even though we see, the bottom lines on the spiritual eye chart are getting fuzzy for us. Then Jesus will touch our eyes and open them to deeper insights. Jesus is the only one who can really correct our eyesight. May Jesus fill our fields of vision so that we can see nothing else but Him, this Lenten season.

Let us pray.

Help us, O God, to live in the light. We thank you for the compassion of your Son, Jesus Christ. May we be people of light. Show us the dark places inside of us, and help us to illuminate them. May we reflect your light to the world. AMEN

John 9:39.
John 9:3.
Steve Hartsoe, Associated Press, The North Carolina News, February 21, 2005.
National Public Radio, February 19, 2005.

 


“A Promise We Can Count On”
April 10, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Thessalonians 4
John 11:1-45

This is a story of strong emotions. Here’s how I would have written this great miracle as a screenplay. Imagine that our first scene opened with Martha in the kitchen. Martha’s brother, Lazarus, had just died. But she figured, what was the use of crying? Martha was annoyed that Jesus hadn’t come sooner to help. But Martha was a realist. What was done, was done. She’d decided to keep a stiff upper lip and put this tragedy behind her.

When Jesus arrived, Martha went out to greet him. Jesus said to her: "You know, your brother will rise from the dead." She answered him, saying: "Yes, Jesus, I know that God will bring him out of that tomb, some day. On that distant day in the future, I believe that God will make him alive again!"

Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe in me?" And very calmly, Martha replied: "Yes, Jesus. I believe that you are the Son of God, that you are the Christ, the one whom God has sent into the world. I thank you for coming to comfort my family. But if you’d excuse me, I need to serve some of these other guests. You know, it’s not easy to be a good hostess. And I’m not getting any help from my sister Mary. She’s in the living room, crying her eyes out. Please go in and talk sense to her. The last thing that people want to see when they come to a funeral is tears." And Martha walked offstage to call her sister.

Maybe you’ve known mourners who acted like Martha. They didn’t cry at all. Instead, they said things like, "It was the time for God to take him." Or, “She lived a good life and a long life.” Or, "Her death really was a blessing." Some people believe clichés like that are comforting. But more often than not, people say them to cover up their pain and to keep others at a distance. I think Martha was trying to bury her grief with the body of her brother.

When Jesus went in to see Mary, He found her grieving in the opposite way from her sister. While Martha had been calm and composed, Mary was highly emotional. As soon as she saw Jesus, she screamed at Him and said: "Why weren’t you here? How could you let this happen? You loved Lazarus. How could you just let him die?" Mary was wild with grief. She was crying uncontrollably. And what did Jesus do when Mary began to weep? He didn’t walk away. He didn’t yell back at her. He didn’t make excuses for getting there so late. He began to cry, too.

So often when are grieving, we feel like we have to hurry up and get over it. No one wants us to cry. It’s too embarrassing for everyone concerned. I overheard someone saying about me, a week after my father died, “Why is she so sad? He was 93 years old. He was an old guy.” And what about those common words, “So sorry for your loss!”? I say them at funerals, almost automatically, but I know how shallow they sound to a person in pain.

When Jesus wept, He showed He knew the pain of grief and loss. Lazarus had been his beloved friend. The Son of God didn’t scold Mary to quit whining and to get on with her life. Jesus did His grief work, and He set an example for us to do the same.

We live in a “death-denying” culture. Our society has phased out all the nineteenth-century grief customs—black clothes, a black wreath on the front door, and a year of mourning. The world doesn’t offer many places where it’s safe to grieve in public. Funeral homes and cemeteries are the only ones I know of. Did you ever notice how few homes have boxes of Kleenex in every room? We believe that Christians are supposed to be above the power of our emotions. We attend funerals of our loved ones on Friday or Saturday, but our employers expect us to be back at work on Monday. It’s inappropriate to take our grief into the workplace. And there you have it. I can remember only two exceptions in my lifetime—9/11 and the day of President Kennedy’s assassination.

And yet—Jesus wept. That’s the shortest verse in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, talks about our need to accept the reality of grief in our lives. We shouldn’t deny our pain, Kushner writes. Death is part of life. It doesn’t do any good for us to pretend we are not grieving. We need to cry when we hurt. The more we keep a stiff upper lip, like Martha tried to do, the harder it becomes for us to heal.

Finally, when Mary stopped crying, she said to Jesus: "Come and see the tomb where they have put my brother." When they got to the cemetery, Jesus told the people to roll away the stone in front of the entrance. They looked at Jesus as if He were crazy. Didn’t He understand that Lazarus was DEAD? Did Jesus have any idea of the smell that would come out of that tomb if they took away the stone? Good old bossy Martha was quick to remind Him about how much the body of his friend would stink. Didn’t Jesus realize that it was too late? But He insisted.

Then, with a loud voice, Jesus said: "Lazarus, come out!" And a few moments later, Lazarus walked out of his tomb, wrapped in bandages--but alive and well. And then Jesus kept walking down the road. This miracle would not set well with the Pharisees. He would be crucified in a matter of days and He knew it.

So often, we find ourselves trapped in tombs of grief and loss. When we lose the dearest ones of our hearts, when we are let go from our jobs, when we are betrayed by people we love, we feel buried among the dead. That’s when Jesus calls to us to come out. Lazarus heard the voice of Jesus and followed it into the light. In that light, he found himself surrounded by his family and friends.

It’s not Lazarus Jesus is calling today. It’s you and me. Resurrection is a person, and Jesus is that person. Life is hard, and we all crash emotionally once in a while—especially when we feel entombed in grief and darkness. But Jesus gives us hope.

When the Apostle Paul says we shouldn’t grieve like people who have no hope, he doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grieve at all. He’s making a distinction between hopeless grief and hopeful grief. I like the way the twenty-eighth verse of today’s gospel lesson from John is translated in the King James Version of the Bible. Martha tells Mary, “The Master is come. He calleth for thee!” Even as we lie in the tombs of our sadness, Jesus is calling to all of us-- saying: Come out! Come out of your tombs and live!

Generous God, you do care for us, and we rejoice in that today. As Jesus cried over Lazarus’ death, He cries with us when we suffer loss, too. Call us out of our tombs and revive our weary bones, we pray. Teach us to live in your Spirit, as new people in Christ. We rejoice in your promise of resurrection for us. In the name of the Christ, who calls us to come forth and live new lives, AMEN

John 11:35.
Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for A Life That Matters (New York: Fireside, 2002).
I Thessalonians 4:13.


“One Shining Moment”
April 17, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

By this time, people knew about Jesus—or at least, they thought they did! Hundreds had heard Him teach. Thousands had witnessed His healings. Although He had visited the capital city of Judea a few times, Jesus had stayed around the Sea of Galilee for most of his three-year ministry. But He and His followers were about to hit the big city.

According to Matthew’s telling of the story, it was Passover in Jerusalem, and pilgrims from all over the world were streaming in to celebrate. For the Jewish people, Passover was Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, all rolled into one. The streets were as crowded as Times Square gets on New Year’s Eve today.

At Passover, Jewish people remembered how God had delivered Moses and their ancestors from slavery. Passover was the holiday when they dreamed about what God would do for them in the future. But, politically, the time of Jesus was the worst of times. Herod was their king and Caesar was their lord. Jews were persecuted by the Roman soldiers every day. Hardly anyone in Palestine had escaped being pushed around by the Roman conquerors.

Five hundred years earlier, the prophet Zechariah had said that one day there would be a great parade. God would lift up a new Moses who would gallop into town and deliver the Jews from the cruelty of the Romans. Some believed that the Messiah would come as a warrior king. Others expected their leader to cleanse the Temple and get rid of the money-changers, so their worship would be holy again. Poor people prayed that their Messiah would come to save them from starving. Jerusalem was full of people on tip-toes of expectation. They had been hoping and waiting and wishing for centuries.

Although it was the custom for pilgrims to enter Jerusalem on foot, great kings and rules always rode into the city. On the day after the Sabbath, a few days before Passover, Jesus rode on a donkey down into the Kidron Valley and up again to the streets near the Temple. The people’s hopes and dreams just exploded on Jesus. Hundreds of people stood by the road. They put their cloaks down for His donkey to walk on. This was a big sacrifice, because most poor people in Jerusalem had just one cloak, and they used their cloaks as sleeping bags. Others cut down palm branches from the trees and littered the road with them, or waved them as He rode by. They were sure their Messiah had come to them at last!

Imagine the scene: two mountains with a deep valley between them, a man on a donkey walking through the valley, and the people shouting: "The king is coming, blessed be the king! Hosanna to the Son of David." David, the warrior king, had been their greatest leader. In Jerusalem, it was a joyful day. David’s son, here at last.

Now let’s have some fun. We are going to try to re-create the uproar of the first Palm Sunday. The people on this half of the sanctuary are going to say, "Hosanna to the son of David," together. Can you say that? Hosanna to the son of David! Those of you on the other side of the sanctuary will say, "Hosanna in the highest.” Hosanna in the highest! The choir is going to say, “Hallelujah.” Hallelujah! You are all going to say these things at the same time. You have to put some “oomph” in it or it won’t work. Are you ready to practice? Let’s start over here. "Hosanna to the son of David. Hosanna in the highest. Hallelujah! Hosanna to the son of David. Hosanna in the highest. Hallelujah! LOUDER. Hosanna to the son of David. Hosanna in the highest. Hallelujah! LOUDER. Hosanna to the son of David. Hosanna in the highest. Hallelujah!" Ten times louder than that, that’s what it sounded like.

And the prophet came down the center aisle, you might say, with the cloaks and the palm branches. Everyone wanted Him as their new king. But I doubt they realized who He really was. He came on His own terms, not on theirs. The cheering crowds had no idea what His ministry would mean to the world.

Half a lifetime later, the Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, said of Jesus, "He is the one to whom every knee will bow, on earth and in heaven, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Jesus is the king. But here’s the twist to the gospel story—He is a servant, too. Our king is one who didn’t lord it over others. He took up the basin and towel and washed the dirt of the road off His disciples’ feet. Our king is the one who never saw another person’s needs without reaching out somehow to respond in grace and mercy and love. Our king ruled, not from a throne, but from a cross. He lost Himself in love for us. Instead of asserting his power, He chose to obey God. He chose death on a cross—the most shameful kind of death in the ancient world. Jesus invites us to lay down our crowns of pride.

What’s it like to lose yourself in your work? Many of you know how that feels. To make music, to write well, to spend all day Saturday on your hobby, is to lose yourself. To play well as part of a team is to lose yourself, too. We have basketball fans here. Did you ever lose yourself in playing basketball? William Placher, a theologian who was a big basketball fan, wrote that a Christ-like Christian can be compared to the best kind of basketball player. The mediocre players, who keep asking themselves, “How am I doing? Am I getting my share of the shots?” never reach their full potential, Placher writes. They fail because they get caught up in the glory and pride and competition of the game.

It’s the basketball players who lose themselves, the way Jesus did in His work, who end up as strong leaders. In other words, it’s self-forgetfulness that makes the best players.” And the best Christians, too!

How can we prepare the way of the Lord? If there ever was a week to shape ourselves into the likeness of Christ, this is that week. Make room for Jesus in your heart. Offer forgiveness, freely and sincerely. Be a peacemaker. Honor all people as children of God. As we walk with Jesus, and we witness His passion and death this Holy Week, may we bear on our shoulders the cross of justice and love.

Let us pray. Humble Jesus, you are drawing near to us as you ride in triumph through the city. We, too, rise to shout our hosannas. For you are our compassionate ruler and our loving friend. But in some far corner of our being, we fear your arrival. Like the people of Jerusalem, we discover you are more than we had first thought you were. Beyond loud hosannas, you ask our obedience. Give us the mind that was in you, that we might empty ourselves and be filled with the glory of God. Amen.

Zechariah 9:9.
Jay Cormier, Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: New City Press, 2010), 67.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part II (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 66.
Philippians 2:10-11a.
William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

 

“Love Takes Time”
April 21, 2011
Maundy Thursday
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

What does “Maundy” mean? People always ask. The word comes from the Latin term, mandatum novum, which means “new commandment.” Jesus’ commandment to love one another wasn’t new to any of the disciples. It appears in the Bible as early as the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. WHY IS IT NEW, then? Listen to the part Jesus adds at the end of the sentence-- the words, “as I have loved you.” The theme of tonight’s worship is God’s love. This sermon is about the ways Jesus expressed God’s love on the night of the Last Supper.

There was plenty of tension in the air that night. Love wasn’t the first thing on the disciples’ mind. They had discovered the betrayal of Judas and they were probably horrified. Jesus Himself was surely scared to death. He knew He was headed down a dangerous road. He would have to walk that road alone. It was time to say farewell to the people He loved best. There were only minutes left—at most, an hour to say good-bye. What would He say to His friends? “Can I tell you how scared I am to die?” OR, “Let’s hurry up and get this over with?” OR, “Leave me alone to talk to God my Father?” No, He said none of these. He wasn’t thinking of His own needs at all. For Him, it was a great teaching moment. He took time to pray with His followers. Then, He said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another."

There are certain things we can’t do anything about. One of them is the shortness of time. We aren’t as much under the gun as Jesus was on the night of the Last Supper, but we know we won’t live forever. In the time we have, Jesus calls us to love others as He loved us. Sometimes we have to make split second decisions. Sometimes there simply isn’t time to think things over. What does it look like to give your life for love, under unbearable pressure? Could you make a split second decision to love someone with all your heart and soul and mind? Could you decide in five minutes to give your life for another person?

On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. One person in that plane survived: a four-year-old girl named Cecelia. Rescuers found Cecelia by the side of the road. Investigators first assumed the little girl had come from one of the cars on the highway damaged by the crash. But when they checked the passenger register, they found Cecelia’s name. The child survived because, even as the plane suddenly descended, Cecelia’s mother had unbuckled her own seat belt. Her mom had gotten down on her knees in front of her daughter and wrapped her arms and body around her. Cecelia’s mother, father and brother died in the crash, but the girl lived—with burns over thirty percent of her body. Nothing separated that child from her mother’s love — neither height nor depth, neither life nor death. That little girl is alive today. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle after the crash. Cecelia recently graduated from the University of Alabama with a Master’s degree in Psychology. She is a lovely young woman of 28 years, and she writes to the families of the crash victims every anniversary of the tragedy. From the example of her mother’s love and faith, Cecilia has learned about self-giving love.

Loving one another isn’t just an option. It’s a commandment. Judas had already chosen not to love in that way. But Jesus had always obeyed His heavenly Father and now He was preparing to show the other eleven disciples the greatest love a person can express.

Do you ever wish time were endless? Remember the first day of summer, when you were in fourth grade, and you looked forward to endless bike rides and Monopoly games? Time is more limited for us now, of course. But the love Jesus Has for us is infinite like those fourth grade summers seemed to be. His love isn’t a commodity we have to stock up on. You can’t run out of God’s love; as you give it, it comes back, and it grows. The love of God has no limits. The ability to love unconditionally and spontaneously is within all of us.

I’m sure you remember seeing, on your television screen, the photograph from September 11, 2001, of a man and a woman jumping out of an upper-story window of a World Trade Center tower. What does that frightening picture have to do with love and faith? Quite a lot, author Brian Doyle said on a television documentary. "The man and the woman reached for each other, and their hands met, and they jumped.  I keep coming back to his hand in her hand.... It's the most powerful prayer I can imagine - the most eloquent, the most graceful.... It's what makes me believe that we're not fools to believe in God." Those two people, who had been having a normal work day just minutes before the crash, made a split second decision to help one another as they faced their deaths.

Do faithful people always put love first? We should, but I’m afraid we don’t. Even ministers and seminary students have too many distractions competing for their attention.

Twenty years ago, an ethics professor at Princeton Theological Seminary gave his students an extra-credit assignment. He divided the class into three groups. Then he instructed the first group to go immediately to a certain spot on the campus. If they didn’t show up there in fifteen minutes, he warned, they would get a low grade. A minute later he instructed the second group to cross the campus to the same spot, but that group was given forty-five minutes to get there. That group was told that they would get a low grade if they arrived late. After the second group left, the professor instructed the last group to go across the campus, and walk the same pathway as the other groups. That last group of students was given three hours to get to the same spot.

The teacher had secretly arranged with three actors to play helpless, needy people and station themselves along the way. The first actor covered his head with his hands and moaned. The second actor lay on some steps lying face down as if unconscious. The third acted out an epileptic seizure. Not one person in that first group of seminary students stopped. They were the ones under the greatest time constraints. In the second group only two students stopped. All five people in the third group stopped. That last group of students had been given three hours to get to their destination. What would you have done? Would you put the welfare of other people first, if time was short and very precious? Jesus did.

When Jesus commands us to love unconditionally, He’s telling us to put time pressures and competitiveness aside. He wants the best from us. That doesn’t necessarily mean all A’s or a promotion at the office. Aside from Judas, the other eleven disciples took the love commandment to heart. Then they went out from the upper room and changed the world. Shall we go out and do the same?

Servant Lord, in Scripture you teach us to love and serve, not just through words, but through your life of servanthood. Lord and Teacher, may we also follow your example. Show us how to wear a servant’s towel. When others serve us, may we accept their gifts with grace. We commit ourselves to your service, and ask all of these things in your name. Amen.

Gordon Timbers, “Love in Action,” The Minister’s Annual Manual for Preaching, 2010-2011 (Inver Grove Heights, MN, 2010), 325.

John 13:34a.

Doyle was quoted on a section of the PBS-TV website describing "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," a 2002 documentary.

This story can be found, in summary form, in many sources, but is best told in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference (Little Brown, 2000),163-166.

 


“The Blame Game”
April 22, 2011
Good Friday Meditation
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

If anyone had reason to blame someone, it was Jesus. And yet, Jesus had never uttered a word of anger toward His tormentors. He’d been executed as a death row inmate. But He had never committed a crime.

What about the high priest, Caiaphas? Was he the one to blame? Any temple official would have done what Caiaphas did. Jesus had claimed to be king. Rome would not have been pleased to hear that. Caesar is king, or at least that’s what the Jews were supposed to believe. The high priest had decided to protect his people from Roman punishment. He had had to get rid of Jesus. That prophet from Galilee was constantly stepping on the wrong toes. It was a shame. People said Jesus done some good, helping blind people to see, handing out food. But He was a dangerous rabble rouser, too. Something had to be done.

Was Pontius Pilate the one to blame? He hadn’t wanted to be bothered with Jesus, or any religious fanatics. He had been assigned to this Godforsaken outpost of the Roman Empire. He still hoped it might be a stepping stone to a promotion. This was a dangerous time of year. At Passover, there were always a few Jews calling for revolution. It was Pilate’s job to maintain order by getting rid of them. The Galilean’s behavior hadn't seemed like a big problem. The governor was supposed to eliminate all the Passover annoyances, before they got worse. Maybe he’d been heavy-handed with Jesus, but better safe than sorry. Pilate had never heard of him or His town. Who was the Galilean, anyway—and so what?

Was Peter to blame? The night had been dark and scary. Peter hadn’t been able to figure out what to do. Jesus had been arrested. The crowd was looking for scapegoats. Peter had been surrounded by police. There’d been no way to escape. "You're not one of this man's disciples, are you?" Peter had given a quick answer to the woman’s question: "I am not." He’d been protecting himself. Who wouldn’t have done that? If he had been executed with Jesus, what would be the point? Who wouldn’t have chosen life over death? Wouldn’t you?

Were the Roman legions to blame? The soldiers on duty at Golgotha had been following orders. The commander told them to rough up the prisoner, and that's what they had done. The way they always did with these criminals. That little trick of putting vinegar on a sponge to quench His thirst? No harm in giving Him a nasty surprise. The crowds loved it. And if a few soldiers had wagered for His scarlet cloak, what was the harm in that? It wouldn’t do this Jesus any good to have a coat now.

All in a day’s work! We protect ourselves, the way Caiphas and Pilate had done. We lie and we hide from making decisions, like Peter had done. We follow orders, like the Roman legions had done. We turn our backs on the people we love, like the former palm-wavers had done. All in a day’s work.

Jesus never played the blame game. He never accused anyone. He had been faithful, even when it seemed God had run from Him. He had endured a horrifying death, praising His Father all the while. For He known that His suffering would be the first step in healing this world.

Let us pray. O God, you have placed us here on earth for a reason. Teach us, by your indwelling Spirit, that when such dark hours come, we will have what we need to face them. Show us, as we contemplate the cross of Christ, that you have known this pain, too, and will bear us through it. AMEN

 


“We Have Seen the Lord”
April 24, 2011
Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

New experiences are scary. We all struggle with big changes in our lives. Remember when you moved to another part of the country, or had a baby? Starting a second career or going back to school was almost as frightening, wasn’t it? Your house, the people next door, even your phone number, had changed. All the signs had strange place names. Do I want to turn left, toward Alburtis and Breinigsville, or right, toward Emmaus and Quakertown? Or none of the above? Where can I get my car inspected here, and how often? With a baby, there were even bigger changes in your life--- now a helpless person needed you every minute and kept you from getting sleep. It was especially hard if you were all alone. Losing someone you loved—that was always the hardest change of all. Do we ever get over a shock like that?

In our gospel reading, Mary Magdalene was facing her loss all alone. First, she had lost Jesus. Now even His body was lost, or stolen, or missing from the cemetery. Another cruel shock for his followers! It seemed that grave robbers had taken Him. Jesus’ friendship had meant so much to Mary. He’d liked her, when no one else had been willing to give her the time of day. He had looked on her like she mattered. He had forgiven her sins. When she’d talked to Jesus, Mary felt important and wise. She’d been able to believe that God is good.

Yes, Jesus had died, and now His body was missing from His tomb. How could she face life? God had forsaken her. How was she supposed to go on living—let alone keep believing in God---with her friend and teacher gone forever?

Mary isn’t the only person who’s wondered how to keep trusting God when life has taken a turn for the worse. Who of us hasn’t known the shock of sudden loss? Even if the change may be a good change, we want to hold onto old ways of life, and never let go.

Suddenly, to her amazement, Mary is standing face to face with Jesus, the risen Lord. He looks so different, she thinks He’s the gardener at first. Jesus tells Mary: "Do not hold on to me." Isn’t that a harsh-sounding thing for Jesus to say to poor Mary? Do not hold on? Mary sees Jesus! He is alive! Standing right in front of her is the teacher she had been sure was dead. Of course she tries to hold on to Him.

But, Jesus says: "Do not hold on to me." Mary wants to hold on to the good times before the cross. Even though it makes perfect sense for Mary to hold on tight, Jesus says, "Do not hold on."

"Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father." God isn’t done yet! Things are happening, but there is more to be worked out. If Mary holds on too tightly to the way she used to know Jesus, she might miss seeing God doing something new. If she holds on too tightly to the way life used to be, she might miss the joy of His resurrection. Here, out of this graveyard, God is doing something new that Mary can’t understand. He seems different now. This is the spiritual body she sees. He’s the risen Christ! Jesus says: “Mary, tell the others this good news. Go tell them that God’s doing something new, and you have seen it."

God is somehow taking Jesus’ crucifixion----and using it to bring about new life for the whole world. Mary, you are supposed to go out into that world, and act like God really is shaping this crucifixion disaster and making it into a good thing. God is taking the pain and death that all people face in their lives, and blessing their wounds. Mary, you have seen God right in the middle of this terrifying week—even in your own grievous loss.

If we can’t relate to Mary’s shock and loss, what about a modern Christian who lived in our own lifetime? I want to tell you a true story of a woman known as the African Violet Lady. You know people like her. The African Violet Lady was lonely and quite elderly. She had been a pillar of her church in Chicago, as a young mother, fifty years ago. Now she couldn’t drive or stand up straight. All she was able to do was to take care of the African violet plants on her back porch. She wanted to do her part for the church, but she couldn’t teach Sunday School or cook ham and scalloped potatoes, the way she did in the olden days. What could the African Violet Lady do to praise God? With the help of her pastor, she came up with a plan. She started replanting her violets into little pots. Youth group leaders picked them up and took them to church and gave pots of flowers to new members, to parents of newly-baptized children, and to couples getting married. The African violets would be given to people having a rough time. They would be sold at the church yard sale. Every time a pot of African violets went out of that woman’s house, that little pot was a witness to the new things God is doing in the world, and a link between the old days and the new days. Twenty years have passed, and the lady who grew the flowers has gone onto her heavenly reward. But her church still raises and gives out pots of violets. The African Violet Lady lives on!

We can find God working in our life changes—even the hardest ones when life seems to be going downhill forever. We can be like the woman I know in New Jersey, who is losing her husband to Alzheimer’s Disease. She misses the way it used to be, when they could be together in the house he built, all by himself, for them to live in. And yet, she and her husband are together all the time. She visits his nursing home every day. When she arrives, she and the other regular visitors get together with a cooler of lemonade in the gazebo outside the nursing home. They laugh and play cards. You can tell by watching them that they’re having a good time. When other visitors pass, they call out: "Hey, come, have a drink of lemonade with us!" In a way, they are saying to the world: "Hey, even here we’re laughing. Even here we’re enjoying each other and this beautiful day. Even here, we have seen the Lord, and He’s doing something good!"

Can you live as if God has taken all the frightening newness in your life and transformed it into a blessing? You have seen the Lord! That’s the resurrection promise God gives us today. Like Mary, let’s go and tell the world that the new things God is doing are VERY good.

Let us pray. Almighty God, on this Easter Sunday, we come to the empty tomb with our own sense of wonder. We pray that we may be like the first disciples, and be able to declare that Jesus is alive in a new and wonderful way—and, by your grace, so are we! We praise you, God, because Jesus lives, and now we know that nothing can ever separate us from your love, as made known in Jesus Christ. AMEN

Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

 


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