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May 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Perfect Love?" — May 12
"The Spirit's Way"
— May 19


“Perfect Love?”
May 12, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I John 4:7-21

An anthropologist once asked a member of the Hopi tribe why so many of their songs were about rain. This particular Hopi lived on a desert in Arizona. He answered, "We sing about rain, because water is so scarce where we live. Is that why so many of your people’s songs are about love?”

Today, on Mother’s Day, the heart of the matter is love. John, in his first letter to the churches of Asia Minor, seems to have known what they needed most. Early Christian congregations needed to hear that they were loved by God, and that they, in turn, were called to love one another. Their lives were not easy. They were persecuted. Jobs were lost and families were split. Worship was forced into hiding. They struggled with pressures, unimaginable to us today, to remain faithful to Jesus. What helped them to go on? Quite simply, God’s love.

Are we, as imperfect human beings, capable of it?  In the ancient Greek language, there were three main types of love; eros, philo, and agape. Eros is craving for physical things or for spiritual satisfaction.  Philo is personal affection for another person, or a beloved pet. Friendship falls in the category of philo.

Finally, we have agape.  The First Letter of John describes agape as the ideal Christian love. This is God’s love for us, the most perfect love that we can attain in this world. We know agape when we see it.  If our parents and grandparents showed unconditional love for us when we were growing up, we were fortunate. Many husbands and wives share agape. Unfortunately, some do not.

The Hopi man was right. American popular songs describe agape—“The Book of Love,” “The Chapel of Love,” and “Endless Love.” Television moms like Donna Reed and Claire Huxtable, Beaver Cleaver’s mom, and Edith Bunker, showed selfless love. When we watch these old shows today, we make fun of the high heels those actresses wore in the kitchen, but they did model agape. This world needed mother love then, and needs it even more now. What better reason for us, as Christians, to go out and tell the good news of the gospel?

Hear the words that open our New Testament passage today. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God, and whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”   John is asking his congregations to love others, so they can love themselves and, in turn, love God. His letter repeats the word agape, the highest kind of love, thirty-five times. “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.” It’s amazing, how often the words “love” and “fear” occur in the Bible together. To show agape, to model the love Jesus showed for us, is to put our fears aside for love.

Have you heard of “helicopter moms”? That’s a popular name, these days, for mothers who aren’t afraid to confront teachers about punitive behavior in the classroom, or to make phone calls to parents of playground bullies. Have you been that kind of mom? I have. If you had that kind of mom, you are fortunate, indeed. My mom took me out of a preschool tap dancing class when she heard the teacher yell at me. I was so glad!

Who loves perfectly, except for God? Isn’t there such a thing as “good enough” love? Does it have to be perfect all the time? The word, “perfect” bears closer examination. The Greek word is teleios. Literally, it means “finished,” or “complete.” When an artist, working on a statue, takes his last chisel stroke and lays down his tools, the statue is said to be perfect. In parliamentary procedure, when the people at a meeting “perfect” a motion, it means they have made all the changes they want to make to it.

When most of us use the word, “perfect,” we mean, “without flaw or blemish.” But that’s not the literal meaning of the word, “perfect” in the First Letter of John. The Greek word for “perfect,” teleios, means “ended.” When John writes that perfect love casts out fear, he is referring to completed actions. It’s more than a warm, wonderful feeling. It means courageous action. It means making a difference.

We live in a time of ruthless, impersonal forces and complicated ethical problems. Sacrificial love is difficult to pull off, in our individualistic society. Too often, we are encouraged by our non-Christian friends to try for what all that we can get.

Agape is freely given to other children of God. We may not want to sacrifice our love to people we don’t know, in this consumer-driven culture. It has to become a habit.  A friend of our family once said, “There are people who sit at tables and expect to be served. And there are people who wear aprons and serve the people sitting at the tables.  There are too many table-sitters in this world, and not enough apron-wearers.” 

To use a comparison from the world of sports, agape is like follow-through in tennis. A tennis player swings a racket, and can’t stop after she makes contact with the ball. The swing has to continue, until it has reached its conclusion. In other words, it continues until the swing has been perfected. Some tennis players try to focus on the follow-through, in an effort to improve their swing. It may not seem to make any logical sense to think about where the arm goes after making contact with the ball. However, wise tennis coaches teach that “following through” is the key to success. The same is true in life. In any situation in which love seems risky, we are called to take the swing—to complete the action, and to trust God to bless it. Agape presents risks worth taking. It begins as a feeling and goes on to action. John’s letter defines it once again:  “This is love; not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  God loved us perfectly, two thousand years before we were born. His love took the form of Jesus Christ. Listen to John’s words: “Beloved, since God so loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

It was God’s deliberate decision to sacrifice His one and only Son, for you and for me. Can you and I be as decisive as Jesus on the cross, in the sacrifices we make? It’s a tough call. We may never have to die for someone we love. But sometimes we must help when we least expect it. Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated the city of New Orleans a few years ago, brought out the best in many Christians. Students at Auburn University were told that people in the Gulf Coast had lost their shoes in the storm. During a Sunday morning worship service in the university chapel, several hundred students walked up the communion table, removed their shoes, and walked back to the dorm rooms barefooted.

The world needs to see us model agape. Christians are called to show brave, decisive love, not only to the children around us, but to all God’s children.


Let us pray. Lord, we confess that, too often, we are people of fear. We wish we could always be people of love. You have the power to make us so. Take away our fears, we pray, for they are a burden. Free us to risk reaching out, for the sake of Christ. AMEN


“The Spirit's Way”
May 19, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17

Did you think Frank Sinatra wrote the song, “My Way”? Many people think so. But, actually, “My Way” was written by a French composer most Americans have never heard of. The English lyrics to the song were written by Paul Anka, several years later. The words tell the story of an older man who looks back on his life with very few regrets. He takes responsibility for successes and failures, and, as you’ll recall, he admits to having had a lot of self-confidence. A perfect theme song for Sinatra, “My Way” also expresses the way many older Americans feel about their lives.

To be self-confident is a good thing. Frank Sinatra certainly had a strong sense of who he was. Children with healthy self-esteem aren’t bullied, and they are less likely to become bullies. The saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t from the Bible, by the way. Instead, that proverb was written by Benjamin Franklin and first published in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Parents and teachers all want children to grow up feeling good about themselves. In Barnes and Noble, you’ll find a huge section of books and recordings on self-help topics.

It’s ironic that Franklin wrote a proverb about self-help, because he lived in colonial Pennsylvania, where a sense of community was vitally important. Community wasn’t valued ONLY by the Amish and the Quakers in the early days of our country. A pioneer family could be healthy and strong and hard-working in Franklin’s time, but they couldn’t get along in the wilderness by themselves. Families needed each other for survival. Even settlers with eight or ten grown children needed neighbors to help with barn-raising and crop harvesting.

In America today, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and individualism seems valued more than community. There has been a dramatic trend from a broader look at life to a more self-centered focus. Have you noticed the shift in magazine titles over the years? There was Life magazine. Then came People, and Us, and now there is magazine called Self. Advertising promotes self-sufficiency. Buy our product and do it yourself. Families don’t stay in the same community; they move all over the globe. My family, for example, lives in Seattle, Boston, Knoxville, Atlanta, Princeton, Ecuador and Allentown.

We cut ourselves off from others when we try to “have it all” and to “do it all.” We don’t get to know our neighbors, and we may not even visit people in our own families. Christian community seems to have no place in our alienated society. “DIY” is a popular acronym for “Do It Yourself.”

Can we find the same concept of individualism in the Bible? Sure. It’s in Genesis, chapters two and three. The serpent in the garden put the idea of self-centeredness in the minds of Adam and Eve, and he was wrong, big time. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” said the serpent as it tempted them with the fruit of the tree. “You don’t need God. You can run the world and make your own decisions. God placed the tree at the center of the garden, and now you can place yourself at the center by eating the forbidden fruit.” Later, the people who built the tower of Babel declared, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” Adam and Eve fell, as so did the Tower of Babel.

What is sin? Check out the unhealthy patterns in those stories! All the way back in the Old Testament, we find the same theme of disobedience. We see self-centeredness replacing caring for others; “self-help” winning out over trust in God; and pride getting in the way of community. We want to do it our way. We want to help ourselves.

But God is in control. Jesus and the Father are one! Today is Pentecost Sunday, and we are celebrating the day Jesus made His ministry known in the form of the Holy Spirit. From the quiet village of Bethlehem to the crowds on the hillsides in Galilee; from the people seeking to be healed to the masses seeking God’s Word from the carpenter of Nazareth, the whole world of the ancient Near East has seen Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

On Good Friday, God suffered with us on the cross of Jesus and died for our sins. Easter was our day of resurrection. And in the story from Acts, which John read for us this morning, the Holy Spirit came to stay with the disciples forever. In the Upper Room, they had been self-centered and afraid. But on Pentecost, the birthday of the church, their faith was transformed, and the power of the Holy Spirit brought the church to life. It’s as if Christianity was a battery, recharged with jumper cables. With the rush of a violent wind, the Christian community was united in ministry for all time. Nobody was more changed than Peter. He had been a coward and a weakling on Good Friday, but now he was transformed by the Spirit, enough to preach to the crowd in Jerusalem, and then to baptize three thousand people.

After Jesus departed from His disciples, He had promised to be with them forever. The gift of the Holy Spirit had given them the power to witness to the ends of the earth. Today we get the gift of the Spirit all over again. If we tap into that gift, we are enabled—like Peter—to serve our communities with faith and passion.

During World War II, in the town square of a small French village, a bomb struck too close to a statue of Christ. It dismembered the statue—that is, it blew off Jesus’ hands and feet. Following the bombing, the villagers decided to reassemble the statue. They could find every piece that had fallen off, except for the hands. “A Christ without hands is no Christ at all,” some citizens of the village lamented. Then someone suggested that a brass plaque be attached to the base of the statue, which would read, “I HAVE NO HANDS BUT YOUR HANDS!” That plaque is still there today.

On the first Pentecost, A timid group of disciples became the hands and the feet of Christ. The Holy Spirit is here. It is the presence of Jesus, “God With Us.” Think of the Spirit as a set of jumper cables helping you to charge up your battery today and do some good in the name of Jesus. Let us go and be the hands of Christ, and change the world, “His way.”


Let us pray. Lord Jesus, be patient with our confusion and unbelief when we try to hide in the Upper Room. Challenge our individualistic way of living. By your Holy Spirit, give us faith to follow you and be your hands. AMEN

 


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