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February 2014 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"What God Really Wants" — February 2
"You Are Light"
— February 9
"Trying to Be Perfect" — February 23


“What God Really Wants”
February 2, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Micah 6:6-8

When was the last time you disappointed someone? All of us remember trying hard, but finding it impossible to please an adult we admired. Maybe it was a parent or a teacher or an older sibling, or all three! For some, it was a music teacher who didn’t want a student who couldn’t sing to be in the school chorus.

We felt we were doing the best we could, but our best still didn’t meet their standards. Perhaps that person embarrassed us in front of our parents or our peers. There we stood, holding our shoebox diorama, finishing an audition solo, or submitting a college application. A rejection. A grade of C minus. At the worst of those times, we felt that WE, as human beings, weren’t any good, either. When we saw our name was missing from the cheerleading squad list or the varsity team, our self-confidence wilted away. Do you remember asking yourself, “What do they really expect of me?”

We can just as well direct that question to God. Sometimes, when life disappoints us, we get frustrated with God. There are times we feel we don’t measure up in God’s eyes, and that we never will. We figure that’s the reason bad things happen to us. At such times, you and I may come to picture God as a stern taskmaster who is impossible to please. It makes us feel like helpless children. There’s been a lot written in recent years about the “inner child of the past.” What’s the “inner child”? It’s a complex of painful memories that everybody carries into adulthood.

The prophet Micah lived in the eighth century BC, around the same time as Isaiah. There had been a sad history of conflict between God and the Israelites. The power group in Judah had pretty much forgotten God entirely. They just gave expensive animal sacrifices at the temple once a year and then went on their way. Micah was a poor farmer from a small village. When he worked in the fields, he had a lot of time to think about what was important in life. He preached about the immorality of the times and God’s anger at his people. He feared for the future of his country. Samaria had fallen to the Assyrians in the North. Assyria was the superpower, the enemy of the Israelites. Judah would be the next to fall, if the people of Jerusalem didn’t start obeying God’s laws. Micah knew that justice would not come from the state or the power structure. He knew that most, if not all, of the leaders of Judah were preoccupied, caught up in matters of comfort, prosperity, and security. If Micah had been a Presbyterian, he might have been ordained as a ruling elder in the church. Because he was a prophet, he was a chosen man of God. He had a job to do.

Micah spoke these words: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” According to Micah, even the most extravagant acts of worship—thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil—seem to carry little or no weight with God. There is only one way for us to restore ourselves to a right relationship with the Lord. And that is,” to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah’s words are a prescription for faithful living--- more easily said than done.

Take the whole matter of “doing justice.” Being just is a lofty ideal--- how many of us are completely honest and fair? Life’s ethical choices are seldom clear-cut. There are so many pressures to compromise and conform. Students secretly share homework papers. All of us tell little white lies so we won’t get into trouble or hurt a friend’s feelings. No, that dress doesn’t make you look heavy. No, boss, you treat your employees very fairly! We react without thinking, with angry, hurtful words, to save face, or to get even. We rationalize our actions even if they’re not right.

It seems easier to love kindness than to do justice. The Hebrew word for kindness is hesed. It is the steadfast love Ruth feels for Naomi, her mother-in-law. It is the love God feels for Israel, even when the people seem to have turned away from Him to worship other Gods. True kindness is not a matter between equals. Rather, it belongs to an unequal relationship. It’s not really hesed to help someone who may someday help us. That’s just a quid pro quo. To truly love kindness, is to put loyalty and faithfulness at the heart of all relationships---to take risks to show love for another person.

True kindness is a gentle thing you do for a person who can’t pay you back. The word, “kindness” has the same root as the word, “kin,” which means family. Extending kindness to others is treating them like kinfolk. Real kindness is often far from our minds. We are in such a rush to get on the high honor roll of life. We take ourselves much too seriously. Even as we race around accomplishing more and more, we find ourselves glancing back over our shoulders to make sure failure hasn’t caught up with us. It’s difficult to make room for kindness.

With kindness not so easy to attain, now it seems that we are up to bat with two strikes against us. Micah has a third item on the list: “walk humbly with your God.” Walking humbly with God, and with His Son, Jesus Christ, in all we do—this is what ultimately saves us. We drive ourselves to burnout, trying to please authority figures who couldn’t care less, we lead from the lowest card in our moral deck, and we fall off the wagon into self-destructive behavior, but we can stop doing those things. We must admit to God who we are. That is humility, plain and simple. And when we admit who we are, we can walk with God.

The Lord doesn’t desire our sacrifices. He wants US. The eternally demanding parent isn’t quite as stern as we imagined. Most parents want to have good relationships with their children. In their heart of hearts, it’s not that important for their children to get a string of degrees after their name, or even to get into Who’s Who In America. They want to be loved and respected and cared for.

God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to walk alongside Him, knowing who WE are and knowing who GOD is. Every one of us stands empty-handed before God. There is nothing we can offer God except for ourselves. But that’s all we really need! Once we begin walking with God, He makes our rough places plain. Our God belongs to us. He walks with us every step of every day. He walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. He walks with us when we climb the highest mountains of life. If we walk humbly with Him, in lives of discipleship, we will discover God giving us the gifts of justice and kindness—and many more besides.


Holy God, there is within us a deep desire to know you. We are always searching, always hurrying, always left wanting and waiting. All the while, you wait patiently and quietly for us to return home. You have been with us all along. Thank you for this sacred time and space, and we ask that you make yourself known to us anew. For the sake of Christ we pray. Amen.


“You Are Light”
February 9, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 5:13-20

There’s a small statue in the lobby of the French cultural affairs office in New York. It’s not impressive at all, when you first see it. The statue is only three feet tall. It’s an unfinished figure of Cupid, with its lower legs missing. Both of its forearms are broken off, and it has a cracked nose. This work of art had been sold to the French government in 1952, along with the Fifth Avenue mansion in which it was located. The architect of that mansion had picked it up somewhere in Italy, back in 1905. He had assumed it was a Roman relic.

One evening in 1995, an art historian from the Metropolitan Museum of Art happened to glance through the window at the statue. Her office was located across the street from the old mansion. She had walked that sidewalk hundreds of times, without ever noticing the Cupid. But that evening was different. The embassy staff was getting ready for a party. They had focused bright spotlights on the statue.

The art expert stopped and peered through the window. For the first time, she studied the little Cupid. Later she was able to go inside and see it close-up. As she ran her fingers along the chisel-marks in the marble, she could feel the trace of a master's hand there. A short while later, she made an amazing claim: that this little Cupid statue is an original Michelangelo.

Many art critics agree that the art historian is right. The cupid isn’t one of the Italian master's finest works. It seems as though the artist abandoned it after making a bad mistake in the carving. But if her theory is correct, it is the only piece sculpted by Michelangelo in all of North America. For more than a century, the statue stood in the lobby of that Fifth Avenue building. For the past four years, it has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The importance and value of that little Cupid weren’t revealed until bright lights shone on it.

That's the assignment Jesus gives to you and me in the Sermon on the Mount--to reflect the light of God. If we shine with God’s light, others who get to know us may come to know God. You are the salt of the earth and light of the world, He proclaims to His disciples. We can understand the symbolism of salt and light. To be useful salt, capable of preserving food and making it taste better, salt has to remain salty. And for a light to do any good in the world, it must be visible to all.

What does Jesus mean about salt, remaining salty? To us, salt is salt! The table salt we know in North America is pure. It is very common and inexpensive. A box of Morton Salt costs a couple of dollars. But in the time of Jesus, salt was very precious. Ancient salt was a mixture of several compounds. If it was pure sodium chloride, it was extremely useful as a flavoring agent, a preservative, and a fertilizer. But the more “fillers” that were added to it, the less salty it would be. Salt, in the days before refrigeration, was vital to survival. Roman soldiers would often get paid with salt, instead of money. A Roman soldier “worth his salt” was a hard worker.

In modern times, to say that a person is “the salt of the earth” makes him or her sound solid and a little bit boring. Jesus means something entirely different with His blessing, “You are salt.” He is telling His followers to stay pure and not pollute their message to the world with “fillers.” He’s talking about righteousness.

Jesus uses light as His symbol for truth. In his day, light was as precious as salt. Lamps were small. Yet, in a dark, one-room home in Palestine, even a small lamp gave light to the entire house. He calls His followers to serve as beacons of light, communicating God’s truth to all people. Sometimes “being a light” means trying to solve the problems of a corrupt society. Sometimes “being a light” means taking a good, hard look at our own sins and seeking God’s forgiveness. We light the world when we do good deeds. It happens in our church, in many ways you may not notice. A knowledgeable person in the congregation helps us when computer problems bring our work to a standstill. A neighbor in our church offers to babysit for a single parent who’s been juggling two jobs with parental responsibilities. A nurse in the congregation reassures her friend after a scary medical diagnosis. When we experience these kindnesses, we praise our Father in heaven—the source of all light. We notice how like a family we are in this church.

Jesus is telling us that we are salty and shiny. Here’s an important point. He’s speaking in the present tense. He doesn’t invite us to become light. He doesn’t tell us we must be light sometime in the future. He doesn’t tell us that God’s light is given to us for our personal enjoyment. He simply states that we are light. And He is speaking in the plural. He’s talking about a group of people, not one person who is salt and light alone. It is not a matter of who YOU are, or who I am. It is a matter of who WE are, as the church of Jesus Christ.

To be the light of the world, we don't need to be able to speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels. We must go into dark places to exercise the gifts we have been given. There is risk, even danger, in that. Christ calls us to do no less than to humanize life on earth.

Jesus knew that He was light. He knew that He was salt. He lived a life that was luminous and pure. The church is called to be salt and light for the whole earth. There was a time when Christians didn’t have to do as much teaching as we do now. Fifty years ago, we had a Christianized culture in our country. I grew up in that culture. We sang carols in public school concerts and gave oral reports on Christmas customs from around the world. Our faith was, pretty much, the only game in town in the fifties and sixties.

This isn’t true anymore. Christians find themselves swimming upstream in our society. Congregations are smaller. Denominations have lost social power. This is the time to teach our faith—and I’m not just talking about pastors, or Sunday School teachers, but all Christians. Jesus lived in a dark time. And so do we.

Churches where members glorify God are salt and light for the world. Hold nothing back, Jesus tells the disciples in today’s gospel reading. We are to teach others as we have been taught. We are to show justice and mercy to all. Jesus blesses the meek and the lowly in the Sermon on the Mount. He blesses us, but He also calls us. Outside the doors of this church, there is physical suffering, emotional emptiness, and spiritual hunger.

Did you come here today, to worship the light of the world, only to hear that Jesus is telling YOU to be the light of the world? I am sure that God put you here in this congregation. Our lives are not our own. The direction of your life is not up to you. It’s up to the God who created you. You may be the only light of Christ that someone in a dark world will ever see. Let your light shine! The world is waiting.


Let us pray. LORD JESUS, YOU HAVE CALLED US TO LIVE THE SORTS OF LIVES WHEREBY OTHERS MIGHT SEE SOME OF YOUR RADIANT LIGHT THROUGH US. HELP US TO SHARE THE LOVE YOU GIVE US. ENABLE US TO SHOW FORTH YOUR LIGHT. HELP US TO SHINE. AMEN


“Trying to Be Perfect”
February 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 5:38-48

The phrases of the Sermon on the Mount are so familiar that we almost forget how demanding they are. Love our enemies? Turn the other cheek? Go the second mile? Pray for our persecutors? Jesus seems to give His final commandment as an afterthought: Oh, yes, and BE PERFECT.

That’s right. Today’s gospel reading ends with the command: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Why would He command an impossible thing like that? Our lives are hard enough without having to feel pressure to perform perfectly. Is it impossible to be perfect, or does God really make all things possible? Jesus knew a great deal about human nature. Why is His commandment so unrealistic? What do we do about it? Should we give up trying to be Christians?

Think of how the people of Jesus’ time might have responded to His commandment. It’s easier to understand the Sermon on the Mount if we remember how Jesus’ followers lived. The Jews were under savage persecution. Imagine yourself as a Galilean peasant. Think about the Roman soldiers with the power of life or death over you, commandeering your labor. To the disciples, bullying and abuse were everyday realities. Imagine yourself, responding by doing twice as much as the Roman occupiers ask. Imagine a Roman, striking you on the cheek. You are helpless. You just have to take it. The Romans really commanded peasants to walk long distances, to give away the only coats they had, to work for nothing, and to accept punishment for no apparent reason.

One ancient law, from the eighteenth century before Christ, was called “lex talionis.” Judges in Judea followed this “eye for an eye” legal principle when dispensing justice. “Lex talionis” is quoted many times in the Torah. It sounds barbaric to us today, but actually was supposed to limit violence. According to the rule, a victim was allowed to take revenge, but to do nothing greater than the crime. If an enemy cut off your finger, you were entitled to retaliate toward that person by cutting off HIS finger, but not his entire hand. In other words, the law allowed you to inflict on that person the same harm he did to you—but no more. This was supposed to keep the fight from escalating to a higher level. Obviously, Jesus was preaching a much more civilized ethic than “lex talionis.” He wants us to break the cycle of violence. And yet, so many people today still live by that ancient “eye for an eye” rule.

Here’s the key to understanding that verse that challenges us to be perfect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is preaching to a GROUP, not individuals. This vision of the future doesn’t command each of us to seek perfection on our own. In a world that seems all about the individual and his or her rights, this is not about you or me. Instead, it’s about shaping an ideal society. Jesus is describing the Christian life as a conspiracy to overthrow the self-centered way of life. He’s calling us to stop glorifying selfishness. He’s commanding us to conspire to create a society in which everyone loves in the way Jesus, Himself, loves.

The word, “conspiracy,” has a negative meaning. We define “conspiracy,” as the political intent to overthrow the government. Clearly, Jesus did not advocate a violent conspiracy plot. He never tried to kill any Romans. Rather, He showed that the innocent people the Romans killed, would not stay dead. He subverted Roman power by creating a new kind of community, one in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last and the law of the land is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Therefore, the word, conspiracy, has a spiritual meaning. It literally means to be one of one spirit, one breath: in Latin, con-spiritus. To “be of one breath” is to pray and to work as one.

“Tamim,” the Aramaic word for “perfect,” which Jesus uses here, means “completely merciful.” The whole basis of Jesus’ ethic is to imitate God. This commandment didn’t originate with Jesus. It had been part of the Jewish law since the time of Moses. Jesus learned the perfection commandment from Deuteronomy 18, verse 13: “You shall be perfect before the Lord your God.”

And so, to be perfect as God is perfect doesn’t mean that we will never make mistakes. It doesn’t mean that we have to use the right fork at the dinner table. It doesn’t mean that we must have every hair in place. Instead, it means that our community conspires to treat each other with love, living in light of God’s ideal. This ideal isn’t just for holy people. It’s for everyone.

Jesus formed a community of followers that broke all the rules of power in the Roman Empire. The conquerors had a society based on wealth, social class and status. Jesus preached that all people were equal in the eyes of God. That is the kind of perfection Jesus is talking about. To love your enemies doesn’t mean that you let them abuse you; rather, it means that you invite them to join in something greater. Since the beginning of the church, people have scoffed at the Jesus conspiracy to conquer evil through love. It sounds nice, they say, but look at the real world! It’s nasty! Jesus lived in a nasty world, too. Powerful people tried to destroy His ministry. But Jesus stood up to evil. He claimed by faith that what is murdered will not stay dead.

To be perfect is to turn the other cheek because you believe in a greater good. To be perfect is to go the extra mile because you believe in a greater reward. To be perfect is to be a part of the Christian conspiracy that reveals God’s love to the world and changes the hearts of the oppressors. It is a sign the coming of God’s rule of peace and justice.

Perfect love is like what the Roman Catholic laywoman, Dorothy Day, once described, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” If we want to measure how far we’ve progressed in learning to love, then we need to take that measurement, not based on how we do at loving people we like, but based on how we do at loving the person we like the least. Our instinct for “fight or flight” is strong. But Jesus demands a loving response to aggression. Can you imagine a world in which everyone thinks of other people first?

Are we willing to be part of a Christian conspiracy of love? Can our congregation be as hopeful and as loving as God? Can we all walk just one more mile, listen just one more time, and speak a word of peace, one more time? Jesus has invited us to be the New Creation. With a heart full of courage, you have to give a person who sues you unjustly, the coat off your back, and then proceed to give that person everything else you are wearing. The challenge is enormous. Will you accept it?


Perfect God, thank you for showing us how to be perfect. We cannot live like Jesus through our power alone. We pray that you will per-fect the love we have for others, so that we love those who hurt and anger us, and become more and more like Jesus Christ. Amen.

 


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