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February 2015 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"A Wild Place to Be on Sunday" — February 1
"Avoiding Burnout" — February 8
"It's A Mystery" — February 15
"Return to the Lord" — February 18, Ash Wednesday
"Safety in Numbers" — February 22


“A Wild Place to Be on Sunday”
February 1, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 1:21-28

Here we are, in the spirit world of the gospel of Mark. It’s a scary place to be! More than any other gospel writer, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ power to heal. There are eighteen miracles recorded in Mark. Thirteen of these miracles have to do with healing. Four of those thirteen have to do with exorcisms. You may have noticed that there’s a certain word that Mark uses over and over. That word is: “immediately.” English translators leave it out, in order to make Mark’s language easier on our ears.

But this word, “immediately,” creates a drumbeat through this story. Mark wants to make sure we know that time is marching on. Jesus is marching through ministry, with no time to dillydally. When we hear Mark say that something happens “immediately,” it tells us that following Jesus isn’t something we can put off. If we’re going to be people who fish for people, we have to start right now.

The new disciples have just left their nets by the shore when, immediately, they follow Jesus to Capernaum. This isn’t a big commute for them. Capernaum is a little town, about a hundred yards inland from the Sea of Galilee. John and I visited the ruins of Capernaum, in the Holy Land, a week ago yesterday morning. This little fishing town became Jesus’ home base during His ministry, as well as the Apostle Peter’s home.

John and I saw the foundation of Peter’s house there. On the same morning, we walked over the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached His earliest sermons on the Sabbath—the same place where He is believed to have healed this man of his unclean spirit.

Jesus wasn’t the called and installed rabbi at the Capernaum synagogue. Synagogues didn’t work that way, back in the first century. These community worship centers just used pulpit supply preachers every week and Jesus was one of their regulars. Evidently he had built up a big following at the Capernaum synagogue in his first year of ministry.

In the beginning of today’s gospel story, Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches. In the middle of His sermon, immediately, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts the service. A voice coming from this man, shouts: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” This man with the unclean spirit is not evil. He is ill and in need of help.

I’ve avoided preaching on this story for years. I had had trouble relating to the idea of an unclean spirit. It’s an ancient concept and our scientific age rejects that kind of terminology. We hear it as irrational. But the people of first-century Palestine believed in a spirit world. It was as real to them as the physical world. What happened in the spirit world affected the physical world and vice versa. Spirits—uncontrollable by human will—acted on people’s minds. The people who had evil spirits, weren’t to blame at all. Unclean spirits simply had greater power than humans did. Epilepsy, bipolar behavior, even migraine headaches, were seen as evil spirits that invaded the human mind. The only way to get rid of them was to go to a healer with spiritual authority. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is shown to have total control over good and evil spirits. He was connected to the greatest power source of all—God. People flocked to Him. He was the greatest healer ever known.

Remember what already happened in this first chapter of the gospel—the heavens were torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descended, until it landed on Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan River. We looked at that story three weeks ago. So, Jesus, the man who HAS the Holy Spirit, is already working to heal a man who has an unclean Spirit—right after He has been baptized. Immediately!

The heavens have been opened! A cosmic battle is going on in that synagogue in Capernaum. From the beginning of Mark’s gospel, we hear that unclean spirits are on their way out. Their authority in the world is coming to an end since Jesus Christ has arrived! When He is present, evil cannot remain.

When the possessed man in the synagogue speaks to Jesus, listen to what the evil spirit says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” So the first voice in Mark’s gospel who proclaims Jesus’ identity is God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism. The second voice to proclaim Jesus’ identity is an unclean spirit. Even the demonic world knows who Jesus is! The disciples won’t figure that out until the end of Mark’s gospel.

Jesus silences the unclean spirit and commands it to leave the man in the synagogue. He stops yelling. The congregation is astonished and very impressed! This is a scary story with a happy ending. When you are possessed by unclean spirits, you aren’t free to live the life to which you have been called by God. Jesus calls this man to freedom and to new life. These demons know Jesus. They know He has come to earth to defeat the power of evil.

Jesus calls us to become people who fish for people. So that means that when we encounter people who are burdened by mental distress, or by homelessness and poverty, we greet them as children of God and show God’s love in Christ. If we take seriously Jesus’ command to “follow me, and I will make you fishers of people,” we must sometimes walk into risky situations to help people who want to be freed from mental distress. Jesus took risks to befriend people to whom the scribes in the synagogue wouldn’t give the time of day. He never avoided pain. He entered into suffering, destroying the demons that caused it. It was what Jesus did, more than what He said, that left the crowds in Galilee astounded. “What is this?” the crowds ask. “A new teaching—with authority!”

While words do matter, our actions speak even more loudly. One of my favorite quotations is by St. Francis of Assisi. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In other words, Christians should treat each person as a child of God.

The news of Jesus’ actions immediately spread throughout the region of Galilee. That news is still spreading, two thousand years later. We live in a community that needs to hear that news. Not because we need our church to be bigger—even though we do! Not because we think we can save every needy person. But we have good news to share because we know that, when Jesus acts, things happen. The realm of evil no longer has the final say. When we have a close relationship with God, we will be able to teach with authority because of the fruit God will produce in us. It won’t be our own doing, but God’s doing.

Sometimes God heals us by providing us with good friends who listen. By speaking words of compassion, these good friends lift us up in ways we cannot lift ourselves. The power of God is in them, and with God’s grace it enters into us. In this broken world, the Spirit gives us courage to share our hope—by living the way Christ taught us to live. Immediately! Amen.

Let us pray. Come among us, Lord Jesus. Deliver us from the demons of fear that hold us back. Heal us of the wounds we cannot heal by ourselves. Touch our pain with your strong compassion, so that we might be made whole through your grace. AMEN




“Avoiding Burnout”
February 8, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 40: 21-31

All of us are too busy. There is an urgency in the air we breathe. We can see this in the church. People have to cut back on volunteer time because of all the pressures in their lives. When our members leave worship, they always have miles to go before they sleep. Weekends are packed with housework and activities. Young people go to school full-time while they work full-time at their jobs. I don’t know how they can do that. Pushing yourself, around the clock, is not only stressful, but downright dangerous—what if we fall asleep at the wheel? We talk about how the Internet saves time, but somehow it increases the urgency we feel, to send and open and read and print documents, to answer email, just because we can.

Stress-related diseases are on the rise. People speak of being burned out, or, as we call in it in the caring professions, having “compassion fatigue.” I remember working five hours a day on the reference desk at the library. Everyone wanted information immediately. What does my dream mean? Where has the Jersey Devil been seen in Ocean County? Can you get varicose veins in your nose? Where can I get a summary of Moby Dick so I don’t have to read the book? There was no world wide web yet. By my fifth hour on the desk, I was praying for the phone not to ring anymore, at least until I could get off desk duty. It was hard to be pleasant when I was so tired.

Our society has “bought into” the Protestant work ethic. We evaluate people’s character by the number of tasks they get done. When strangers meet you, what do they ask? Do they ask what pizza toppings you like best, or what you’ve been reading? I hardly ever get asked those questions. They ask me what I do; in other words, do I have a job? If they aren’t curious about religion, they lose interest in me. The ones who do care about faith matters, decide they’d better not swear in my presence. This “what do you do?” line of questioning is especially rough on stay-at-home parents—who do a lot, but not necessarily for a salary. And I’m sure it’s hard for retired people, too.

Our crazed work ethic didn’t start in contemporary America. Christians first encountered this as a heresy called Pelagianism, in the fourth century, more than a thousand years before John Calvin was born. A British monk named Pelagius preached that humans could earn their own salvation, without God’s grace, by working harder and harder. Church leaders in the Dark Ages, especially St. Augustine, took issue with this. They called Pelagius a heretic.

We burn out because we work too much, and because we don’t play enough. We burn out because, too often, work takes precedence over relationships. But, for the most part, we burn out because we try to carry burdens that are not ours to assume. We expect to personally fix all the world’s problems. We are way off base.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” cries the prophet Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading. “Has it not been told to you from the beginning?” God is in charge, not us. God “sits above the circle of the earth,” and “makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” We can’t, and we shouldn’t, try to be in charge of the world.

And yet we are a society of control freaks. Mass media and advertising play to our insecurities—for example, a slogan like, “only six more days until Christmas” puts pressure on us to get our shopping done. Ads for “curing wrinkles” make senior citizens feel embarrassed to be old. So we buy wrinkle cream that doesn’t work. People plan their wedding parties as much as two years in advance. We sacrifice our own well-being, and the well-being of others, if we try to be completely on top of life changes all the time.

Our faith in God should alert us to what’s really going on here. God is in the driver’s seat. We have little control. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t accountable for the way we behave. It doesn’t give us a free pass to ignore social and political concerns. We are still accountable to God for the way we spend this gift of days on earth. Good works, compassion and righteousness are expected of Christians. But the outcome of every single thing is not in our hands. The more we maneuver to shape the world, the more we stray from God. Taking on all the burdens of the world is a surefire way for a human being to burn out.

An old saying says that we should “work as though everything depends on us, and pray knowing that everything depends on God!” This is difficult—of course! How can you put your heart and soul into something and then not be concerned with the outcome?

The prophet Isaiah knew how difficult it is to keep steady when life’s challenges come at us relentlessly and we feel like the world is spinning out of control. Isaiah was writing to the people of Israel after their exile from their homeland. His friends had been through terrible adversity. They were so beaten down that they had forgotten that God was still with them. He knew their hearts. He knew how to challenge their forgetfulness. Isaiah said to his people, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow faint or weary.” Isaiah believed that the people would regain their perspective on life if they lifted their eyes to the heavens. And he was right.

It is only when we give our burdens over to God that we learn to live our lives in God’s way. We are humble humans. God is God. God doesn’t burn out. God has a plan, and God goes the distance. God gives power to us in our weakness. If we wait on the Lord, focus on the things that we can control, and put our trust in God, we won’t feel exhausted. Our strength will be renewed. We will be able to see the trees, in the middle of a seemingly dark and endless forest. We’ll soar like eagles, and we’ll walk and not grow faint.

This, I believe, is why God gave us the gift of Christian community. For it is in the church, together, in struggle and in ministry, that we strive to give it over to God. In partnership with each other and with the Holy Spirit, we move forward in faith. Our ministries call us into closer connection with one another.

So there it is—a lesson from the greatest Hebrew prophet. We are called to give our lives in faith, and to let God handle the outcome. We are called to offer our spirits in love, without trying to control where love will lead us. We are called into lives of wonder and power, as we wait for the Lord, as Christ’s people, in this place. We are small and God is big. God is holding us all in the palm of His hand. He will give us what we need.

Let us pray. O God, allow us to receive your strength, not to fight to find our own. Give us eyes to see the ways we can reach out to others in our weakness. You have not left us, and you are not disappointed in our weariness. You alone are our strength. Amen.



“It's A Mystery”
February 15, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

2 Kings 2:1-12

Now you know where the title, “Chariots of Fire,” came from—if you noticed it in the Old Testament lesson Melody read for us today. Great movie! It’s one of my favorites. But the prophets, EliJAH and EliSHA, may still be mysterious names to you. Their names sound alike, and occasionally I get them mixed up.

This is one of those passages that has its roots deep in the mythology of ancient Israel. It’s the first time the expression, “passing on the mantle of leadership,” occurs in the Bible. It features one of the earliest uses of the term, “Father,” as a title for a religious leader.

This is a story of transition. EliJAH was the most important prophet of the Northern Kingdom in Israel during the time of Ahab and Jezebel. He was a great worker of miracles. You may remember how he outperformed the prophets of Baal. This story takes place more than 2500 years ago. EliJAH has gotten old. He’s ready to go on to his reward. EliSHA, his protégé, is about to take over. The narrator of this story does an excellent job of showing that EliSHA is a good successor for EliJAH.

Elijah and Elisha are traveling from Gilgal to Bethel—that is, walking away from the Jordan River. Twelve miles north of Jerusalem, they meet up with a group of prophets. These prophets ask Elisha, outside Elijah’s hearing, “Did you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?” Elisha has heard this before. He is not happy to be reminded of it. He says, in effect, “Yes, I did! Do me a favor and don’t mention it again!”

This is when Elijah offers his young follower a chance to say goodbye. He says, “Stay here, Elisha, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But Elijah won’t hear of this. So they go to Jericho together, where they meet up with another group of prophets. This new group pulls Elisha aside, and one of them asks the same question he’d been asked, back at Bethel. Elisha is even more annoyed at the second group. He tells them, in effect, “Yes, I did know my mentor is going to heaven. Please do me a favor and shut up about it!” Now, Elijah offers Elisha a second chance to say good-bye. “Stay here, Elisha, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan!” Again, Elisha refuses to leave his mentor, so the two press on to the river.

Now they have reached the Jordan. It seems that everyone knows what’s about to happen. All the prophets in Israel have been tagging along behind, about a quarter of a mile up the road from Elijah and Elisha. They want to see history in the making.

Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the waters of the Jordan. The waters part, just as they had for Moses at the Red Sea. Elijah and Elisha are able to cross the river on dry ground, just as the Israelites had done in Egypt. If this doesn’t show how powerful a prophet Elijah is, I don’t know what does.

Now, on the other side of the river, we find just Elijah and Elisha. The other prophets who are following them, can’t make it across the river. Elijah makes an incredible offer to Elisha: “Tell me, what can I do for you, before I am taken from you?” I am not sure I could trust my answer, if someone with that much power, asked me what I wanted.

Without batting an eye, Elisha responds, “Let me inherit a double portion of your Spirit.” This was the normal request of an older son in ancient Israel. The older son got twice as much inheritance from his father as the younger ones were given. Elijah acknowledges that, under the circumstances that this request will be tough to fill. He states his conditions for filling it: Elisha must SEE when Elijah’s departure takes place. To me, that indicates that Elijah’s disappearance will not be visible to the naked eye.

According to the story, the two men continue on their way, walking and chatting, until (and I quote) “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (end of quote). Elijah doesn’t die. He is just whisked away in a chariot. WOW!

Elisha is devastated. He cries, “Father, father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” When Elijah is gone from sight, he rips his clothes in two, a traditional symbolic act of grief.

Times of leadership transition can be painful. Loss of our parents and mentors even more painful. For most of us, change is difficult. But the truth is, change is happening every minute. Today we acknowledge the work of past officers and welcome new ones.

Fortunately, Elisha has opened his mind to God’s future. Soon Elisha will discover, for himself, what God is able to do. Right after Elijah is taken up into heaven in that whirlwind, Elisha walks back to the Jordan River, rolls up Elijah’s mantle, and parts the water with Elijah’s cloak, so that he can cross over on dry land. As he does that, Elisha calls out, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" But he already knows the answer. The God of Elijah is his God, too. The prophets who watch from the sidelines, now know that they have a new prophet in Israel. As time goes by, Elisha experiences God at work in his life as he heals a man from leprosy and raises a dead child to life.

Are we willing to open our minds to the future that God has planned for us? Our first reaction, though, might be: “I’m not special. Why should I lead? I’m not Homey Fink or Ev Tremblay or Joe Scheirer or Oliver Williams or Rachel Rodgers!" That’s the same kind of questioning that Elisha did. He felt he couldn’t measure up, no matter what he did. After Elijah was taken up into heaven and Elisha came back, the people sent out search parties. They hoped God had just sucked Elijah up in a whirlwind and that they could bring him back. They couldn’t find Elijah, but after awhile the people came to a wise conclusion. Even though EliSHA was not the same person as EliJAH, God would still do great things through him. Hundreds of years later, God would come to earth as a human being in Jesus Christ.

None of us is a powerful prophet in Elijah’s league; and yet, God does great things in our lives. A Christian missionary named William Carey told his congregation, "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God." In your life, are you attempting great things for God? If not, why not?

We could ask that same kind of question of our church. What kind of amazing things is God wanting to do with our congregation, through its leaders AND through its followers? Could it be that God has a new vision for our church?

Our future is a mystery. I trust that God has great things in mind for our new officers. God is just waiting to accomplish amazing things in all of your lives, as well.

Let us pray. Almighty God, we trust you to perform miracles. Help each of us to pass on a double measure of the Spirit of the Living God, so the world gets healed a little more each day. AMEN



“Return to the Lord”
February 18, 2015, Ash Wednesday
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Today is the beginning of Lent. Did you know that Lent doesn’t include Sundays? That’s why we refer to this coming Sunday as, “The First Sunday IN Lent,” not “The First Sunday OF Lent.” But if we are working on breaking bad habits, we can’t backslide on Sundays.

Lent is a time of spiritual discipline and self-denial. People, even people who aren’t practicing Christians, talk about giving something up for Lent. Some people look on Lent as six weeks of self-inflicted torture that takes all the fun out of life until Easter. That’s not how I see it. Everyone has some unhealthy habit that they like a little too much. Lots of people give up chocolate or soap operas or television. But returning to normal isn’t the point of Lent — the point of Lent is to change.

Tonight’s gospel reading is a familiar teaching of Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount. He talks about self-disciplines that were common among observant Jews of His time—but were done for the wrong reasons by some of the Pharisees. Jesus tells His followers to give generously, but not to let people know how much they give. He tells them to pray, but to do so quietly. He tells them to fast, but not to show off about it.

Lent is the time when we examine our unhealthy habits, and try to change. I’d like to suggest that you give up something significant—that is, something more important than Dunkin Donuts—a habit that keeps you from showing and feeling God’s love. Last year, as part of their lesson for the first Sunday in Lent, our Sunday School children drew pictures of habits they wanted to give up. They posted their pictures with a few words of commentary on the bulletin board downstairs. As I recall, a couple of them drew pictures of fast foods they would stop eating. But one child drew a “frowny” face and wrote, “I will give up being nasty!” We got plenty of chuckles from the congregation for that one.

Lent helps us to see how important it is that we act in ways that are pleasing to God. I watched a movie last night about P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. You may have seen it. It’s called, “Saving Mr. Banks.” There’s no mention of God in the film, but I find it inspirational. P.L. Travers isn’t a very pleasant person. She is unnecessarily nasty to everyone when she travels from London to Los Angeles in the movie, in 1961. The idea of having her books made into a Disney movie, makes her angry and fearful. Even people who are kind to her, feel the barbs of her sarcasm. A young mother on the same airplane gives up her own space, inviting Mrs. Travers to stow her carry-on luggage in the compartment above her seat. The children’s author isn’t grateful. Instead she responds by saying to the mother , “I hope your baby won’t be crying a lot. This is an 11-hour flight!”

As it turns out, the author’s gruff exterior hides sadness and pain. Walt Disney eventually helps Mrs. Travers shed her nastiness. He works hard at it. He listens to her life story and shows kindness to her. Her chauffeur, whom she treats like dirt at the beginning of the movie, does pretty much the same thing. The result of Mr. Disney’s kindness is a lasting friendship between Disney and Travers, as well as a hit movie.

If we see Lent as a season of positive change, we have the right idea. Our “giving up” should be balanced by “taking on.” But you might ask, where are we going to find the extra time to cram one more thing, even a Godly thing, into our schedule? The child in our Sunday School, who decided to be nice, instead of nasty, was onto something. Niceness and nastiness take the same amount of time! And they are free.

During Lent, we need to ask how and why we let the nonessentials take over our lives. How often do we want things we really don’t need? Meeting with friends over coffee is a good thing. But when we get to the point where we can’t function without a double mocha latte grande skinny with a touch of caramel java juice, at $7 a cup, we’ve gotten out of balance. Lent isn’t about suffering and sacrifice, as much as it’s about balance, and giving the highest priority to the most important people, and the things that matter.

How often do we lets things other than God control us? What about trying the spiritual discipline of reading and meditating? We worry so much about losing time, and yet we waste hours on silly things. Read the Bible a few minutes a day and give up responding to all the political rants on Facebook. You will life your spirit and lower your blood pressure. Donate the money you would have spent for a Starbucks breakfast to a good cause. Make a tuna sandwich at home for lunch every day. Brew your own pot of coffee.

To summarize Jesus’ words in our gospel lesson: Fast, but don’t let it show. Pray, but do so quietly in your own home. Give money, but don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Think of others in need, and balance what you have with what they don’t have. Show kindness to all of God’s children.

Most importantly, examine your habits. Why do you do what you do? Why do you fast? Why do you give money? Why do you pray? Only you can answer these things. Fasting and giving and reforming the way we treat others, don’t mean much, unless they lead to a deeper relationship with God.

Why do we let sins, large and small, take hold of us? How can we get unstuck from them, and experience the freedom that is ours in Christ Jesus?

If Jesus was powerful enough not to be stuck in the grave, then there is no bad habit that should be able to keep us stuck. Whatever it is—that favorite sin, that pet worry, that grudge we’ve held for several years that has us immobilized—if we let God help us release it, we will be freed from it. Christ wants us to let our bad habits go. The next six weeks are an opportunity for you to taste freedom! Open your fists from the death grip of anger or greed or self-pride and open your hands, and your heart, to Christ.

Let us pray. O God of our salvation, thank you for the good habits we have, that outnumber the bad habits. Help us to replace the bad with the good. Give us patience to go forward, and help us up when we fall. Through Jesus Christ who is the pathway homeward to you. AMEN



“Safety in Numbers”
February 22, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Peter 3:18-22

The earliest statement of Christian faith, long before the Apostle Creed, was a simple phrase: "Jesus Christ is Lord!" As we begin our Lenten journey together, let’s join with every Christian in saying what we believe, together.  Repeat after me: "Jesus Christ is Lord!"

There are places in the Middle East where you would face execution if you dared to say, "Jesus Christ is Lord." When John and I were in Israel last month, we heard about an Episcopal priest from Syria who had been executed by ISIS the day before. Twenty-one Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya by extremists a couple of weeks ago. Several of them died whispering, “Lord Jesus!”

It was equally dangerous for the hearers of the First Letter of Peter to say, "Jesus Christ is Lord.” It had been fifty years since Christ was crucified. Christian house churches were scattered over Roman-occupied Asia Minor. Believers had to meet in secret in order to worship. Because they refused to worship the Emperor, they never dared to attend political meetings or social gatherings with non-Christians. If discovered, they would be punished as outlaws.

Roman soldiers searched for Christians in the act of worshipping Christ, and forced them to say, "Caesar is Lord." Anyone who refused to say that the emperor was their God, was cruelly punished.  A man who failed to deny Christ might be forced to watch the execution of his family.  Imagine having to make a choice like that. I admit I’d have been willing to say, “Caesar is Lord” if my words would rescue my husband and daughter.

Today’s epistle reading was written to encourage ancient Christians to "keep the faith" under persecution. It’s unlikely that any of us will be forced to deny Jesus, and even less unlikely that we will have to pay with our lives for not doing so.  But all of us endure troubled times. When everything is going well, we tend to let our relationship with God move to the back burner. But when the time of trial comes, we turn our hearts and minds to the Lord. No matter how difficult our lives may become, the First Letter of Peter contains truths on which we can stand. At your times of trial, remember these verses.

Jesus Christ endured the worst possible suffering, and in that suffering bore our sins. How many times have you heard the phrase, "You can't understand until you've been there?"  When we encounter troubles, remember ---God has been there!  Christ endured suffering that He did not deserve.  It was a suffering, Peter says of "...the righteous for the unrighteous."

When the words of today’s Epistle reading were written, new Christians were asking why they had to endure so much torment, when they were simply trying to follow Christ.   It was the same question we ask sometimes: "Why do bad things happen to good people?  Of all people, Jesus should not have had to suffer punishment or humiliation.  He was innocent. And yet, Jesus suffered for human sins, once for all!  He took upon himself the troubles and trials of all who chose to follow Him. 

Jesus defeated death when He was raised from the dead. This was important to the Christians of Asia Minor who first received the First Letter of Peter. They had witnessed the execution of family and friends, and feared their own deaths.  They wondered, "What’s the point of following Christ and trying to live well, if it all comes to this?" Although our circumstances are different, we tend to see death as the end of our existence. But is it?

The words in Peter’s letter, "Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit..." gave encouragement and hope to the families and friends of Christian martyrs.   Death is not the end for us.  Christ’s resurrection is proof of that.

Where can we find hope when we are suffering, and feel we did nothing to deserve it? The message of First Peter reminds us that Jesus took our imperfections upon Himself in order to bring us to God.  His love for God kept Him alive in the Spirit.  Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God and will have the last word in history. When life is so painful that we wonder if anything makes sense, the Lordship of Christ is God's "Yes!" for us. His dying, and our baptism into the grace of God, enable the Holy Spirit to live in us. We are the communion of saints.

Mary Ann Bird is a writer and a retired elementary school teacher. She wrote a story about her own life as a child in school, titled "The Whispering Test." Ms. Bird said she grew up knowing that she was different and she hated it. She told how she was born with a cleft palate. When she started school her classmates constantly reminded her that she was not like them. She had a misshapen lip, a crooked nose, and lopsided teeth. Schoolmates would ask, "What happened to your lip?" Mary Ann would tell them that she had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. She said, "Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside of my family could love me."

There was a teacher in the second grade whom she adored. Mrs. Leonard was a round, cheerful lady. Every year, she would conduct a hearing test for each student. Students would go to the wall and cover one ear and listen for her to whisper a sentence, and the student would have to repeat it back to her. The teacher would say sentences like, "The sky is blue," or "Do you have new shoes?" Mary Ann said she went to the far wall and waited for those words that God must have put in her teacher's mouth. Mrs. Leonard whispered to her, "I wish you were my little girl."

Nothing really changed for Mary Ann Bird, in terms of her disabilities. She remained disfigured and her classmates kept on ridiculing her for her appearance. And yet, everything changed for this little girl, because she felt accepted by her teacher. She began to see her classmates’ remarks about her appearance as less important. Mary Ann began to see herself as lovable. She, herself, became a teacher, and is remembered for her compassion and kindness.

How can we endure unjust suffering? Knowing that we belong to Christ, through our baptism, can free us from suffering. At our baptism, God accepted us into the communion of saints. Our connections, to each other and to Jesus, stand before all time.  No abusive partner or parent, no harsh employer, no oppressive government, can define who we are.

“Jesus Christ is Lord!” As we move through this Lenten Season, may these words encourage us in good times, and, especially, in troubled times!

Let us pray. O God, help us not to fear persecution or death for our beliefs—or the ways we are different. May we proclaim you as Lord, with pride and reverence. AMEN




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