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March 2012 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Cross Words From Jesus" — March 4
"Real Rest"
— March 11
"Investing Our Gifts"
— March 18
"Life Lived in Glory" — March 25


“Cross Words From Jesus”
March 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 8:31-38

When pastors get together, they talk about four of the scariest realities of church life: (1) People are free to choose their churches, and there are plenty of churches to choose from; (2) People choose to join churches where they will enjoy worship; (3) Lenten scripture readings aren’t very enjoyable; and (4) Pastors get worried when church attendance is low. These facts are all absolutely true. With these realities in mind, I’m tempted to ignore gloomy Lenten scripture passages and hymns. I’m tempted to preach sermons like, "How to Be Happy," “Happy Children, Happy Families,” and "How to Raise Happy Children Who Will Have Happy Families.” I know there are worshipers who like sermons that start with jokes and end with tear-jerking stories. But this kind of preaching feels wrong for me, as a worship leader, during Lent.

Jesus preached truths that nobody wanted to hear. He never tried to keep the public happy. In fact, Jesus ended up with only twelve men in His own congregation, and those twelve transferred their membership----for a while—until He met up with them again in the upper room. And yet, His ministry ended up changing the world.

For three years, ministry had gone smoothly for the disciples. The crowds had gotten bigger and bigger as Jesus had healed the sick and fed the hungry. Peter and James and John had loved the public attention. They were exhausted, but they still hoped Jesus’ popularity would last forever. Then they could retire, fat and happy.

Peter was annoyed—even alarmed. What a strange time for Jesus to announce that the success of His ministry would end with rejection! The disciples hadn’t wanted to hear it. The ministry had been going great, but now Jesus was starting to mess everything up! Peter tapped Jesus on the shoulder and motioned for a word in private.

“Jesus, your popularity is skyrocketing. Don’t talk about being rejected and dying,” we can imagine Peter saying. These men had expected Jesus to keep on acting like a King and defeat the Romans. Now, not only does Jesus announce that He expects to suffer, but He also predicts suffering for the disciples! Three times in Mark's gospel, Jesus speaks of His death. Every time, the disciples make it clear that they don't want to hear anymore.

We don’t either. Ministries and churches don’t die. Not after all the time and talent and treasure we’ve invested, and our parents before us. That’s not the way the world is supposed to work. We live in a selfish world. We’re encouraged to be self-absorbed, self-assured, self-fulfilled, self-made, self-improved, self-interested, self-realized, self-respecting, and self-righteous. We expect to live our best lives now. That’s the reward we deserve.

I have struggled with this question: "What does it mean for me to take up a cross?" I have a good life. John and I have been married for 43 years. I love our daughter very much, in spite of the fact that she often acts like me. My family is healthy and secure. We are proud of our home. I enjoy being the pastor of this church. Although I have occasional worries, I am a relatively happy person. I don’t want to end my working life with failure.

So what does it mean for me as a happy person to deny myself and take up a cross? I've been thinking about that. I have no final answers, but I've decided that it means that when I preach I can’t say only those things that will lead people to say "enjoyed your sermon" as they leave. I love hearing people tell me, "Enjoyed your sermon!" and I will answer, "Thank you very much!", and I will mean it sincerely. But I preach what the Bible says, even if it means that no one wants to hear Jesus predicting His death.

What does it mean to bear a cross? Life’s petty annoyances—like the paper delivery man who keeps pitching your Morning Call into the bushes-- are not crosses to bear. Domestic abuse is not a burden we have to bear; Jesus wouldn’t expect us to take up such a cross, not at all! Taking up a cross means thinking about church in terms of its mission, not only its survival. We have to care as much about feeding hungry people as about balancing the budget. We have to reach out to the people who need our church, as well as the people who support it.

Taking up a cross means I must tell you what faith means when I would rather be silent. I must give my money away when I’d rather keep it. I must do good for people who can’t, and won’t, do good for me in return. Carrying a cross takes a variety of forms: turning the other cheek, loving people who lack connections, helping losers, treating discarded people as children of God, sitting in a home where someone has died, listening to patients describe their medical procedures when I’d rather be taking a nap, and praying for the courage to do the hard thing when it’s the right thing.

Albert Schweitzer was the kind of disciple I would like to be, but never will be. My mom took me to a documentary film about him, when I was in third grade, when he was a missionary in Africa. I saw footage of him treating children with terrible skin diseases. He devoted the second half of his life to mission, but didn’t have to do that. You may not know much about the first half of his life. As a young man, Schweitzer was considered one of the best organists in Europe. He could have worked as the organ master at any cathedral. He was ranked as a great 20th century theologian, besides. His biography of Jesus is considered one of the best books on Christ. Schweitzer could have been appointed president of any theological seminary in the world and commanded a high salary. But he didn’t base his career on his musical or theological gifts. Instead, he went to medical school and helped people who were nobodies, by starting a little hospital in the middle of nowhere. His patients knew him as Dr. Schweitzer, if they even knew his name at all.

It would be nice if Jesus promised His disciples money, fame and happiness, but this is the only promise He makes: "For those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." Peace, love, joy, and life are gifts from God given to those who give themselves.

Listen to what Jesus says to Peter, "Get in step behind me." As long as we try to be our own masters, we’ll head toward death. But if we bear the cross, we’ll receive the gift of life eternal.

Lord Jesus, we do not wish to bear a cross. We pray that you would keep pain from us. Yet, if it is your will that suffering should come our way, we ask that—by the power of your Spirit---we may discover your powerful presence beside us. We know that you don’t promise to lift all our burdens, but you do promise to help us bear them. AMEN


Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910).

John Indermark, ed. The Minister’s Annual Manual (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos, 2011), 282.

Mark 8:35.
Mark 8:33.


“Real Rest”
March 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

These words from Matthew’s gospel have been called “the great invitation.” I’ve never found a more comforting passage anywhere in the Bible than the last three sentences. Jesus knows how hard our lives are. But then, why wouldn’t He know?

Here’s how Jesus’ invitation reads, in a new translation by a Presbyterian pastor. You may like this contemporary version even better than the one we all know so well. Here it is, and I quote: “Are you tired? Worn out? …..Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me. Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me, and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

In the new version, Jesus doesn’t say the word, “yoke.” We don’t hear much about yokes anymore, do we? I’m not talking about egg yolks, of course. Jesus used the symbol of the yoke because wanted the crowd to understand His sermon, and He knew that a lot of them were farmers. So He compared the work of discipleship to a yoke. A yoke was a long piece of curved wood. Jesus was a carpenter, so He had probably made and sold hundreds of yokes to farmers. Yokes rested on the necks and shoulders of two oxen and kept them from rubbing against each other as they plowed fields in pairs. These oxen worked hard, after all, they were “beasts of burden.” But with well-made yokes, the work was never more than they could bear, because they didn’t have to pull their loads alone. The farmer guided them in their work. Jesus is promising that He will act as the farmer for us. He will care for us and pull us gently behind Him.

Is He promising every Christian an easy life? Absolutely not. Jesus doesn’t say we can do whatever we want, nor does He want us to have whatever we want. He’s offering to share our burdens. He’s promising not to pull us to work harder or faster than we can go.

Jesus describes the restless generation of people He’s trying to reach, in verses sixteen and seventeen. Unfortunately, we aren’t a lot different from the ancient people He talks about. It’s human nature to want fame, fortune, diplomas, promotions, possessions—even vacations that will never end! God knows we need relief from the pressure to achieve and control and win. In spite of our high standard of living in America, we suffer from disease, accidents, the aging process, unemployment, a sluggish economy, and the high cost of health care. And how about the little things that wear us down, like trying to drive somewhere in Whitehall without trying to cross bridges that are closed for construction, and sitting in single lane traffic? Why do they have to schedule all the construction in a small town, to happen at once?

Of course we look for quick fixes for our problems. We want answers that will work for us. Maybe you’ve gotten answers on the Internet, or from a magazine or a doctor on television, but you still feel you’ve had no relief from your burdens. Jesus offers real REST. When death robs us of a loved one, or when disappointment ends a relationship, Jesus is the only one who can bring us rest. Nothing can take the place of a heart-to-heart connection with God.

How do we accept the wonderful gift of rest in the Lord? Not by earning it--- just by taking Jesus’ burdens on ourselves, and accepting His support in pulling ourselves forward from day to day. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus tells the crowd, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:29).

What does Jesus mean when He says, “my yoke is easy?” The word, “easy,” in the original Greek of the New Testament, is “crestos.” “Crestos” means three things—good, fitting, and kind. A good yoke is kind to the shoulders that carry it. Jesus is calling us to slow down, to stick together, to lean on him, and to let God work in us. He is calling us to be good, to notice when the people around us are in need of hugs, and to fit ourselves to their needs. He calls us to give comfort, just as He gives it to us.

Closely related to the act of giving comfort is the act of giving encouragement. Encouragement is the active form of comfort. When was the last time you needed a hug, but you were afraid to even ask your best friend for encouragement? A person who knows how to encourage, might say, “Keep on keeping on. You can do it. You don’t think you can do it, but you can.” He or she might say to you, “You are feeling too weak to carry on. But, through my love for Jesus, I can give you a little more heart, so you can keep going. I am going to loan you some of my heart.” That’s Jesus’ gift of encouragement that our faith in Him makes possible.

A wise pastor once said that when we begin to follow Jesus, we enroll in the School of Christ. We’ll never graduate, just like we’ll never graduate from the school of Hard Knocks. But that’s ok. We’re lifelong learners in the Christian journey. Learning is an important part of being a disciple, especially in the gospel of Matthew.

Time and time again, I’ve seen experiences of suffering bring good people closer to Jesus. In fact, I’ve found this in my own life of hard knocks. Trouble has a way of testing us. In fact, sometimes trouble even blesses us! Bearing the yoke of Jesus can bring out the best in every Christian, over a period of time. When the One who loved us, all the way to the Cross, becomes the One we trust, we find real rest for our souls. I commend Him to you today—the Lord of life, the Lord of love, the Lord of All.

Let us pray. Lord, just when we feel like we might collapse under the pressures of life, you invite us to come to you for rest. Help us to trust your promise and grant us grace to let you shoulder our loads. AMEN


The Bible.

The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, tr. Eugene H. Peterson (Colorado Springs, CO: Alive Communications, 2003), 1785.

Craig Barnes, “The Easy Yoke.” Sermon preached on February 21, 2007 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA. www.shadysidepres.org.


“Investing Our Gifts”
March 18, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 25:14-30

Recently I read a true story about a pastor. He had served the same church, in the coal region of Pennsylvania, for more than fifty years. The first wedding ceremony he performed was for a wealthy young couple. The bride was the daughter of the owner of the local coal mine. The bride’s family gave the pastor a pair of kid gloves, as a thank-you gift for officiating at his daughter’s wedding. The pastor never bothered to wear fancy kid gloves. So he put his new gloves away and forgot about them for many years. A half-century later, he found those gloves and put them on for the very first time. He found a ten dollar bill rolled up in each finger. Imagine how surprised he was!

During the Depression, when that wedding had taken place, ten dollars had been a lot of money. The pastor could have fed and clothed his own family for several months with a hundred dollars, if he had taken the money from the fingers of those gloves. Fifty years later, when he found the bills, the generous giver and his daughter and son-in-law had passed on. The retired pastor couldn’t thank the family that gave him the gloves in person. But at least he got a good sermon story out of it.

People constantly surprise us with their hidden talents. Even discovering our OWN talents can be surprising and delightful. Did you know that a member of this church danced every day on American Bandstand? Did you ever find out that your former boss can do a great stand-up comedy act? Or that your daughter handles people well on the telephone? Or that your eight-year-old grandson sits down at the piano and plays like Gershwin without sheet music? Or that you work best under pressure? Do you know what all your God-given gifts are? Do you notice the talents of other people and encourage them to use their gifts? Our discoveries of hidden talents are like visits from Jesus. Jesus enjoyed surprising His followers. His whole life was a high-risk venture. Jesus keeps surprising me all the time. He shows up and performs little miracles in my life.

A talent was a type of ancient coin – like our word “dollar.” It weighed several hundred pounds. Our use of the word, “talent,” to mean a God-given ability, came into our language from this parable. Jesus describes three slaves getting huge amounts of money from their Master to care for, each one according to ability. Imagine giving five talents (the equivalent of seventy-five years of wages for a full-time laborer) to one of your employees to invest. One talent would amount to several hundred thousand dollars in our economy. Then, imagine going away for months at a time, without even leaving them your cell phone number! You might call it reckless. It reminds me of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep wandering on the hillside to find the one who is lost. Jesus knew He was telling a challenging story. He wanted to get people’s attention, and He did.

Jesus is describing the treasures God gives us. We’re supposed to invest our talents and make them grow. But we tend to be careful if we’re afraid. I can understand the third servant’s haste to bury a piece of metal weighing a couple of hundred pounds in the ground. People buried their money in those days, because there were no banks. There were no stock markets and no money market accounts either, in that ancient Mediterranean economy. The only way to make money grow was to buy something you could sell at a higher price, or lend it out to others with interest.

The first two slaves are fabulously successful, and the Master rewards them-- but the third one fails. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses the words, "wicked and lazy" to describe the third slave. That bothers me, maybe because I used to guard my play money—especially the five hundred dollar bills-- that way when I played Monopoly. I was a cautious investor, even as a kid. The description of this man in the original Greek would be translated as “timid” rather than “lazy.” The word, “timid,” seems better to me. Let’s assume that the Master is God. The third slave doesn’t trust God—you can tell because he calls his Master a “harsh man.” Because the slave is stuck in his journey of faith, he can’t invest his talent. God expects us to use what we’ve been given—but this poor fellow doesn’t understand that. Playing it safe, he fails the talent challenge and meets with one of the nastiest fates of any character in the New Testament! This would have shocked Jesus’ listeners.

We’re different from these slaves in one important way. When we invest our gifts, we don’t always see how well they turn out—although our Master does, of course. Education is the biggest gamble of all—and a costly investment. The United Methodist Church’s Board of Missions tells a wonderful story of a church member’s gift and what happened to it. This man, who had been wealthy in the Roaring Twenties, donated a hundred thousand dollars to build a college in Liberia. By the nineteen-forties, the college had grown and had several thousand young Africans enrolled. On the anniversary of the college’s founding, the college president wanted to thank its original benefactor. The Board of Missions helped the college find this man. They discovered that he had lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. He was not excited about going to Liberia for the ceremony. But he finally agreed, and was so glad he did. What he found was wonderful--- a campus full of students with smiles on their faces and a bright future. During the ceremony, the donor turned to the college president with these words, "The only thing I have kept, in this world, is the money I gave away."

The Lord has entrusted us with treasure in this life. It may take the form of money or ability. With the advances of medical science, God has given many of us ample time in our lives –a gift these ancient people didn’t have. What excuse do we have, not to use them for godly purposes? The only possible reason can be found deep within our hearts. It’s our tendency to be too careful and to think that a good life consists of avoiding bad things. A religion that consists only of doing nothing wrong, ignores God’s will for us. We’ve been entrusted with Jesus’ most precious possession—His church. As a congregation, we need to be braver in using our talents. The Session has prepared a talent challenge for all of us, and Sue will tell you about it after the sermon.

At the end of our lives, God doesn’t want those talents we have to be hidden, like the hundred-dollar bills inside the pastor’s kid gloves. God means for us to reach high and to care deeply. Let’s help each other to use our gifts with boldness.

Let us pray. Thank you for gifts and talents, O God. Help us to use what we have been given as stewards of your kingdom, and to remember that all gifts come from you. May we notice and affirm the people around us, as they use the gifts and abilities you have given them. And may we be ready to greet you when you surprise us by showing up. May we celebrate you with joy. AMEN

Jerry Schmalenberger, Lectionary Preaching Workbook (Lima, OH:CSS, 2001), 218.

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The New Testament (Downers Grove, IL:IVP, 1993), 117.

Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion Series. (Louisville: WJK,1997), 282-283.


“Life Lived in Glory”
March 25, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 12:20-33

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” “How can I make sense out of senseless tragedy?” We all want to understand the mysteries of life. The Greek strangers who came to Jerusalem, on that Palm Sunday afternoon, wondered about those mysteries, just like we do. They had certainly heard the stories about Jesus. I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of the kinds of things they expected Him to do. Miraculous things!

esus had been making a name for Himself as a miracle worker. He was the man who had been seen walking on water. No doubt, these Greeks had heard about how Jesus had turned water into wine at a wedding. They had probably heard about how He had made the blind man see, and had fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Of course they wanted to meet the miracle man from Galilee. He had the power to make all their dreams come true. But I doubt they were prepared for Jesus, the way He was in the last week of His life. He spoke hard and haunting words to those Greeks, words about losing one’s life and a parable about a seed. He spoke of Himself as the dying seed. The fruit from the seed of His life was supposed to be the Christian church. But the Greeks didn’t know what to make of this symbolic story. They didn’t expect to hear God announce that Jesus would die and be glorified though His death.

Is this the Jesus we want to see? A savior, headed for death on a cross? We feel more comfortable with the gentle Jesus in the beautiful window behind us. We’d prefer to associate with the triumphant Jesus, just risen from the dead. We’d rather look the other way, than see the tense and frightened Jesus we find in this gospel reading.

Are we willing to see and follow the real Jesus—not the Jesus of health, wealth and happiness, but the Jesus whose glory came from obedience unto death? Will you risk your life to follow the despised, rejected and crucified Jesus?

I recently heard a story of a congregation who followed the real Jesus. During the Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War, the Nazi Secret Police were looking for Jews in a small village. When they arrived there, they couldn’t find any of the Jewish families known to live there. The Nazis searched every home, and found no Jews, so they left town. Not long after that, the Secret Police made a surprise return visit, still hoping to find Jews. Still there were none to be found. That was their last effort; they never returned to that village.

What was odd was that there had been Jews in that village before the war. There were Jews there after the war. A newspaper correspondent got curious, after the war ended. He went to the village in search of a story, and got a good one. This is what he discovered. In the village is a Lutheran Church. For years, even prior to the Nazi invasion, the pastor would say to the congregation every Sunday, "Someday Jesus is going to ask you to do something very important." When the people of the village learned the Nazis were coming for the Jews, they took all of the Jews into their own homes and made them part of their Lutheran families. When the Secret Police came, there were no Jewish families to be found there.

The correspondent said to the people of the church, "That was dangerous. All of you could have been killed for such an act!" "Yes," a leader of the congregation answered. "But our pastor always told us that someday Jesus was going to ask us to do something very important and when that day came, we knew exactly what it was that He was asking us to do."

That’s the difference between just believing and following. Being a follower of Jesus is risky. That is what Jesus meant when he talked about picking up a cross and following Him. The cross that Jesus spoke of was not a cross of burdens like poor health, or a mental disability. One must bear those crosses, whether one wants to or not. The cross that Jesus spoke of, was a cross that we can live our whole lives and never have to pick up. The cross that Jesus told us about is a cross that we can step over. We can even ignore it. We’ve all seen crosses we ought to have carried, and didn’t pick up. We looked the other way instead, because we were afraid. I was afraid in 1967, when my sorority blackballed a girl of another race that a few of the sisters—including me—liked very much. I didn’t want to lose friends. So I didn’t speak up.

Those French villagers picked up a cross they could have avoided carrying. Just one of them could have chosen to act against God and betray the other villagers, to win favor with the Nazis. But none of them did. They protected their Jewish neighbors, as one faith community.

The word, “conscience,” comes from the Latin word, conscientia. The Latin prefix, “con,” means “together with,” while “scientia” means “to know.” So the word, “conscience,” actually means, “knowing together with.” Conscience isn’t just listening to the little individual voices in our own heads. Conscience is when we think with outside help—the help of others, and the help of Jesus. Jesus said: "If anyone serves me, that person must follow me; where I am, my servant will be. Whoever serves me will be honored by my God." The Christians in that French village honored God together.

Being a Christian was never meant to be easy. Where is Jesus leading you into a frightening new place—a new job or relationship or responsibility? Is He leading you to stand up for justice? Is He leading you to protect the helpless? Is He leading you into your own valley of the shadow of death?

We can’t possibly know where we’ll end up when we choose to follow Jesus. We don’t know what it might mean to lose our lives in order to be glorified by God. It’s hard for us to believe that the most difficult way can also be the most joyful. But that’s the contradiction in being Christian. We can only see the real Jesus if we walk with Him down the road of discipleship.

Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” The question for us, this Lenten season, is not, “Do we want to see Jesus?” Of course we want to see Him, just like those curious Greeks did. The question, really, is, “Are we willing to follow the Jesus we see?” The season of Lent is about sacrifice. Will we commit ourselves to walking into the unknown? Are we willing to grasp the holiness He is waiting to give to us?

The great statesman, Winston Churchill, once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” The life of a Christian is a life of testing. If we follow the real Jesus, we’ll walk with the One whom God has glorified. And in Him, we’ll find our own glory, as well.

Christ, our Redeemer, may we embrace the faith of a grain of wheat; that we may willingly die to our own wants, needs and fears, in order to experience the life of your resurrection in our families, homes, schools and communities. May we take up our own crosses in the spirit of selflessness and compassion, that we may transform our lives and the lives of those around us in the complete joy of Easter. AMEN

 


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