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August 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Wise Up!" — August 4
"Belief Is Not Enough"
— August 11
"The Yoke Is On Us!" — August 18
"Being Set Free" — August 25


“Wise Up!”
August 4, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 12:13-21

One day a little girl said to her mother, “Today in school, we talked about what we would do if we have five million dollars and one year to live. Emily said she would move to Disney World and Jeremy said that he would get himself a good set of drums and play in a rock band. What would you do?” The mother answered, “I would spend more time with you and the rest of the family. I would take early morning walks and watch the sunrise. I would spend time with my friends. And I would spend more time in prayer with God.” When the mother finished speaking, the girl said, “But, Mom! You haven’t said how you would spend any of your money.” And the mother replied, “As far as I’m concerned, the problem is not how to spend the five million dollars. The problem is how to spend the year.” I would agree.

This is a wise woman and a good mom. She sees how her daughter is being influenced by her friends and by advertising. Most kids are. Many adults are, too. She’s using this teaching moment to talk about Christian values with her.

Why is it so hard for us to loosen our grip on all our stuff? It has to do with the ever-increasing expectation of success. All around us, there are pressures to spend more, have more, and use more. We rent storage facilities to keep our possessions out of sight when we aren’t using them. Some people even hire clutter counselors to remodel their homes so they can store more stuff in their closets. Some of these professional organizers charge a hundred dollars an hour, or more! Stuff can help us feel secure, but too much of it is more trouble than it’s worth. Try taking three big suitcases on a trip sometime.

In Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, a farmer is thrilled when his land gives him a bumper crop of grain. By the way, this farmer isn’t a drug dealer or a slumlord. He’s an honest man and he’s gained all his wealth honestly. But he’s not wise. He believes he has full control of his life and his wealth. In fact, he has no thought for anyone but himself. He has his old barns torn down and he builds BIGGER barns for the extra food. He figures his future is secure. And what’s wrong with that?, most people would ask. Everyone needs a savings plan. We need a nest egg for the future, a hedge against inflation! And then, just out of the blue, God takes his life.

My mother died in May. Her passing was not unexpected. She was a good Christian, and not greedy at all. But she and her sisters had grown up in the Depression, when they each had only two dresses to wear to school. As an adult, she hated to throw anything away. Ninety-five years of life is a lot of time to collect stuff, and she had plenty. Just her Christmas decorations alone, filled a walk-in closet! It took me three days to get just the things I wanted out of My mom’s apartment after she passed away. We threw away a lot, and gave most of the furniture to the Salvation Army. It was a huge job, and a sad one.

The message of the parable of the rich fool, is not that God doesn’t like people who are successful. Jesus doesn’t call this man a fool because he is wealthy. He isn’t condemning wealth in general. The story is a simple observation of how life is, for all of us. God created the land, and the crops raised on it are God’s handiwork, not ours. Death is a fact of life, and no matter how much wealth we can accumulate, we won’t live forever.

Jesus tells this parable in response to a dispute between two brothers. They are arguing about how to divide the wealth of their parents, who have recently died. In Jesus’ time, the older brother usually got twice what the other siblings inherited. In certain cases, he could keep it all to himself. This seems unfair to us today. We expect Jesus to stand up for his younger brother, who feels cheated, but this isn’t what happens. Jesus says the real problem is greed. He tries to get the whole crowd to see that the day will come when their possessions will no longer be theirs. In fact, nothing we have is permanently ours. We are temporary caretakers of it.

Let’s look again at the man who builds bigger barns for his harvest. Although the barns and grain and land cannot save him, they do survive him. Whose will they be? Well, perhaps they’ll go to his sons. And perhaps they, too, will find themselves unable to share together, work together, or even just be together. All they are about is Dad’s stuff, and they may be sick of each other because of this petty dispute. Perhaps, like all too many tragedies, this story of the rich fool will end with a family fight, too. What parent would ever want to leave a legacy of conflict like that?

Jesus says, “Life does not consist of in the abundance of your possessions.” It is more than property settlements—more than big barns and fruit and grain and silver and gold. Life, at its best, is relationships. It is making time for people and making room for love. It is sharing the stuff we have with the needy and sharing fellowship with the lonely. It is spending time with our families and friends.

I read about an unusual project in Miami, Florida. An Episcopalian congregation fills huge containers with everything they want to throw out—from old clothes to broken electronics. Twice a year, they give it to a priest from one of the poorest regions of Central America, when he visits the city with a giant U-Haul van. The priest distributes the stuff and it sustains his congregation and the neighboring town. They go through all the trash, and fix or recycle everything in the containers. Nothing ever gets thrown out.

It is a fool’s game to believe that we can purchase the future for ourselves. It is a fool’s game to believe that we can demonstrate our love through what we possess, and just leave it at that. It is a fool’s game to believe that our possessions can stand against death.

I believe God wants us to enjoy all that this life has to offer—and to enjoy all that the life to come has to offer. Possessions cause problems if we focus all our energy on saving and protecting them, because somewhere, deep inside, we expect our stuff to save us. That is a foolish—even sinful—assumption. Our stuff is not a security blanket. Ask anyone who has ever had his house burn down. Ask anyone who has been given less than a year to live.

We are called to live in a way that robs death of its power to have the last word. Do you want peace? Do justice. Do you want true security for yourself, for your children and grandchildren, and for your neighborhood? The wealth we have brings responsibility. Micah, the Old Testament prophet, said it well: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” In Jesus’ words, let us live a life rich toward God.


Let us pray. Gracious God, you have blessed us with so much! We are truly grateful. May we use everything you have given us, to be a blessing to others. Help us not to want so many things that we lose sight of you. AMEN


“Belief Is Not Enough”
August 11, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

President Calvin Coolidge was a man of few words. One Sunday, Coolidge attended a church service near the White House. Afterward, when his wife asked him what the sermon had been about, he answered, "Sin." She wanted to hear more about it, so she asked the President, "What did the pastor say about sin?" Coolidge replied, "He said he was against it."

If you go home from church today and someone asks you what this morning’s sermon was about, you can say, “faith.” And if someone asks you what the pastor said about faith, you can tell that person that your pastor is in favor of it.

We don’t create our faith. It’s a gift from God. There’s a part of faith that lives inside our hearts. Whether we know it or not, we express how much faith we have been given in the way we live. The Letter to the Hebrews isn’t familiar to most Christians, but you know Hebrews 11, verse one. It’s one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Eileen just read it. I can picture it on a billboard. Here’s the NIV translation: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

We don’t know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, but it seems to have been created as a sermon for Christians who were being persecuted. The writer knows his Old Testament. That’s why historians think he was born Jewish, and wrote the letter to teach new followers of Christ. He describes Abraham and Sarah as heroes who stepped forward in faith. God had called them to travel to Canaan and start a great nation of descendants—and they went, even though they were ninety years old and had no children. They had no clue where they might end up. They had to live in tents all the rest of their lives. They faced savage enemies on the desert. Imagine a ninety-year-old couple doing those things! When they finally had a son in their old age, and named him Isaac, God asked Abraham to trust Him and sacrifice Isaac. It was a test of Abraham’s faith. As it turned out, that terrible sacrifice was never necessary, but Abraham and Sarah lived and died as nomads, never settling down. They had no idea that they were the founders of three of the world’s great religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

We tend to play it safe and secure, especially as we get older. The heroes of the Old Testament were like us. Change was probably difficult for them, but they still stepped out in faith. For instance, Moses had gotten comfortable working as a shepherd in the wilderness. He was up in years when he saw God at that burning bush. God called him to return to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves and lead them to the Promised Land. The journey took forty years. Two thousand years later, Jesus walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and met Peter and Andrew and James and John. He invited them to say goodbye to fishing for a living, so that they could set out in a new direction--as disciples. These men were not young. Imagine the courage it took for them to leave their homes and families and follow Jesus.

We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But God isn’t a big fan of straight lines. God might send us from point A to point B, by way of a route that we would have never imagined. Here in Whitehall Township, we wonder why there are so many lane closings, twists and turns, and detours between us and the places we want to go. We wonder if we will ever be able to cross the Hokey Bridge again! When we see all the orange cones on the road ahead, we’re tempted to say, “Let’s just go home." Imagine all the times Abraham and Moses and the disciples had thoughts like this! But if we trust that God has a plan, we can step forward in faith, even if our troubles continue for months or years.

When it comes to faith, that’s the challenge: do we continue when the going gets rough, or do we turn back? One big challenge to our faith is saying “good-bye.” Did you know that you’re saying a blessing when you say, “good-bye”? The expression, “Goodbye,” is a shortened version of, "God be with you." Parents will be saying “goodbye” to their college-age children in the next few days. I remember how hard that was! Saying goodbye, when we sign a parent into a nursing home, is just as hard. The hardest goodbye is when a loved one dies.

Abraham and Sarah stepped forward in faith because they believed that the future would be greater than anything they had ever known. Too often, we don’t have their sense of adventure. We assume that the way that things are is the way they will always be. It’s like a church I preached in, back in New Jersey that inherited some money. A member’s will, written before the First World War, left his church a large bequest to buy coal for the furnace in the manse. However, there is a problem. The church had sold its manse by the time that member had died, and nobody had used coal for heat for decades. The church is still unable to spend this money.

Charles Duell directed the United States Patent Office in 1899. He was not an adventurous man. He said: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." I can name at least two hundred things in our house, and at least fifty, here in this sanctuary, that were invented in the twentieth century. This microphone! Flourescent lights! Clavinovas! Air conditioners! Close-circuit television cameras! Even throat lozenges!

We live in a difficult time. In our world there is little understanding of faith in God, and little trust. Christianity is in a different kind of trouble than it faced in the first century. Then, Christians were persecuted. Now, we’re mostly ignored. In Hebrews, the real subject of the letter is Jesus as “pioneer and perfecter of the faith.” The Letter calls us to live with the kind of courage and faith Jesus showed.

A hundred and fifty years ago, many Americans lived on farms, made their clothes, and raised their own food. They depended on themselves, their families, and God. Stepping forward in faith was an everyday habit. The settlers of Hokendauqua depended on their faith when they came to work for the Thomas Iron Works. We think of ourselves today as self-sufficient individualists. But we must count on total strangers. We have to trust the cooks in the restaurant, the mechanics at the body shop, the teachers at school and the pilot of the plane. We don’t think of it as faith in God. We should! Everywhere we go, God is there. That’s the message of the Letter to the Hebrews. Think of life as an adventure, have faith, and keep your eyes on the kingdom of heaven.


Let us pray. Lord, we often talk about faith, but help us be more faithful. Remind us that faith is a gift from you. Give us the confidence to obey your call, even when you lead us into frightening new situations. Help us to persevere like Abraham and Sarah. Embolden us in Jesus’ name, especially when our courage falters. AMEN

 


“The Yoke Is On Us!”
August 18, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 11:25-30

Why is the Bible so difficult to understand? Because it’s two thousand years old. To Jesus’ listeners, the earth was flat. Illness was caused by sin, or by demon possession. The life expectancy was thirty years. As a preacher, my job is to make sense of Bible stories for our own day and time. We have a different world view from those ancient people. Jesus’ stories are challenging. That’s why I like them.

In the twenty-first century, ninety percent of the North American population lives in cities and suburbs. Only a century ago, the reverse was true: ninety percent of Americans were farmers. In Jesus’ time, there was political intrigue in Rome, and in Jerusalem, but the common people had nothing to do with the power struggles in the cities. They lived in villages. They made their living from the land. So, you could tell them parables about weeds and wheat, about sowing seeds, and about lost sheep, and your listeners would understand what you were talking about. Jesus’ parables shocked them. The people in His stories did such foolish things! Imagine sowing precious seeds among the rocks! Why would a shepherd leave ninety-nine sheep at risk, to go off and look for one lost sheep? How careless! Nobody in their right mind would do those things. His stories grabbed their attention because they were so strange.

But how many of us know about farming? How many of us have actually worked in the fields while riding a horse, or sheared a sheep? Who among us has ground corn or wheat on a rock? Found a lost sheep? Plowed a field using a yoke of oxen? For most of us, those things remind us of “The Little House on the Prairie.” We get our food from the Giant, and our clothes at Coldwater Creek or Macy’s. If we ride a horse at all, it’s probably just a fun thing we do with our grandkids at the county fair.

Not only do we preachers translate the New Testament from Aramaic to Greek to English, we also have to translate it from the first-century to the twenty-first century. We need to retell the stories to urban people, because they were originally told to country people who were so different from us. That’s why it isn’t always obvious what Jesus is saying. It’s even harder to make sense of the Old Testament.

When Jesus says "Take my yoke upon you," that sounds oppressive. Yokes are made of heavy wood. Farmers would attach one ox to another, across their withers, so they could pull a heavy load together. Does Jesus want us to be a beast of burden? If that’s true, we say, “No thanks.” We have enough burdens. Kids carry seventy-five-pound backpacks to school. Adults carry mortgages and credit card debt. Our idea of a yoke is a modern misunderstanding of Jesus’ words. Ancient farmers would have understood His words. A yoke was a blessing, not a curse.

To make sense of that verse in Matthew’s gospel, we have to remember what the purpose of a yoke was. It wasn’t to make the ox work hard. The ox was going to have to do that, anyway. The purpose of a yoke was to share the burden between two oxen. That’s one reason that biblical writers sometimes talked about marriage as a yoke. They were talking about working together to deal with difficulties that would be too much for one person. Jesus was a carpenter. I’m sure he made a few yokes. So He knew what He was talking about.

So, what is Jesus suggesting when He invites us to "take His yoke" upon ourselves? Is He begging for assistance in carrying the heavy load that God gave Him to carry? Jesus’ life had its share of defeat and disappointment. It had plenty of hard work, too. Jesus knew that God loved Him. Support from the Almighty was something He knew He could count on. And so can we!

Jesus talks about giving us rest when we choose to share His yoke. That sounds like the opposite of being yoked to someone or something. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," says Jesus. We are always going to be yoked to something. The only question is, what will we be yoked to? When Mackenzie is baptized today, she will become yoked to her Lord Jesus Christ, and to us.

So, it’s not a question of whether you will be yoked or "free," but rather, with what, or with whom, we yoke ourselves. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as "free.” But we depend on such networks as, say, the power company. For example, if our electrical power went out for a few weeks, we might be able to survive the heat, but what would happen once our food started to spoil? You can only eat out at Sam Owens or the City View Diner so many times. Your hamper can hold only so many dirty clothes.

We are yoked to the information that is “out there” about us on the World Wide Web. Look yourself up on “Google.” You may find addresses for yourself that are seven or eight years old. Long after you retire from your workplace, junk mail will be sent to your office, addressed to you. How do we feel about the yokes we share with our spouses? What habits have we yoked ourselves with, for better or worse? Are we yoked with colleagues at work, whom we wish would go away? Do we let the advertising industry yoke us to "stuff" we don’t need? How many of those yokes are easy?

Jesus’s yoke is a lightweight yoke. It’s easy. He made it Himself! That yoke allows us to share the burdens of our lives. Mackenzie will learn about Jesus here. She’ll find friends, young and old, and she’ll develop a relationship with God. Christian education will make her life better—and easier, too—I hope.

Jesus spent time with people He loved, yes, even sinners, and He eased their lives. However, He made demands on them. Any meaningful relationship makes demands. That’s why I will ask questions of Shannon today, on your behalf. Jesus’ yoke may scare us, because we know where He ended up. He chose to yoke Himself to us, and it took Him to the cross. Are you afraid to end up in the same place? Sometimes, I am.

Remember, though, that the cross wasn’t the end. Just as Jesus will never ask us to go to a place that He isn’t willing to go, there is no blessing or reward that He receives that we will not also receive. As Christians, we’re in this together! His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. If we want to be His people, the yoke is on us.


Almighty God, Thank you for your Son Jesus Christ, who gives us a yoke that is easy. Bless Mackenzie and her family and the yoke she is taking upon herself today. Help us to carry the water of life to a thirsty world, so that we may find rest for our souls, in you. AMEN



“Being Set Free”
August 25, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 13:10-17

Why do some people seek healing and never find it? Why doesn’t faith make us well? Bible stories about miracles seem so unrealistic. Healing rarely happens, in our lives, when we think it should happen. So we struggle with stories like the healing of the bent-over woman, even with their happy endings.

This story raises questions for me. Luke, the gospel writer, was a medical doctor, so you’d think he would have said more about this woman’s affliction. But we have to read between the lines. He tells us that she was bent over, almost double, for eighteen years. Was it osteoporosis, arthritis, back injury or none of the above? Did everyone in the village avoid her? Or did they just ignore her? Why was the woman in the synagogue that day? Did always show up on the Sabbath? Or, did she come because she had heard that Jesus would be there? And what, exactly, did Jesus do, to heal her?

The synagogue leader is a stuffy character. But, remember, he was in charge of the worship service, and he was only doing his job. I would mind quite a lot, if someone came in and interrupted this service—especially if it were another pastor. Jesus was a rabbi and He should have known better. To name just a few of the synagogue leader’s questions for Jesus: “Why heal her today, on the Sabbath when no work is supposed to be done? And why did you heal her in the middle of the sermon?”

But to Jesus, the bent-over woman shouldn’t have had to suffer one minute longer than necessary. Restoring her to health was more important than obeying the Sabbath commandment. I think He could imagine how it was for her--- having to look down at the ground every day. She must have felt so hopeless. The bent-over woman didn’t ask to be healed. We don’t even know if she had any faith. Jesus called out to her when He spotted her.

Luke’s Gospel lesson seems to say: Forget the questions. Don’t make this story more complicated. God’s amazing grace brought a miracle. The woman had no questions to ask of Jesus. She simply stood up and praised God. And the people cheered.  

The life and ministry of Jesus was a time when people were healed in great numbers. You might say it was like all the windows of heaven opened, and grace poured through. A word was spoken, a person was touched, and someone was made whole.  

If we look back in church history, we notice that there were times when the church was bursting with new life—times that, in our own lives, we might call “spiritual awakenings.” Congregations were healthy and whole. I remember the church as it was in the early sixties. To grow up in the church, back then, was a Camelot experience. It was one of those moments when the windows of heaven seemed to be open. Our church in upstate New York was bursting with energy and excitement. No one talked about denominational decline. Many of you can look back on the history of this church and identify happy times, when it seemed like the windows of grace were wide open. In 1955 some of you, sitting here today, were photographed for the church’s hundredth anniversary booklet. Reverend Anderson was pastor. This sanctuary was full of people every Sunday. On Easter 1954, there were two packed services. Yesterday I found a photograph of the twenty teenagers who were in the youth group. They met at the manse every Sunday night and slid down the banister. I saw another photo of women—or, at least, the backs of their heads--in their Easter bonnets. There were so many young people in the junior choir. More than a hundred children were enrolled in our Sunday School. People look back on the fifties and call that decade, “the Golden Age of the Hokey Church.”  

The message of the Gospel lesson is that healing happens because of God’s grace. People are touched, sometimes in ways we can’t fully understand, like a brush of the Spirit’s wing. People, once bent over under a load of disappointment, stand up and straighten their shoulders and praise God. They tell their stories about what God has done. And the church bursts its walls with newness of life and energy. It’s happened before. It will happen again!

We lost some wonderful people, pillars of our church, this year. But our numbers are starting to go up, in the Hokey Church. Last Sunday the offering was almost double the amount budgeted for a Sunday in August. We have five teens planning to take our confirmation class, and Carl Moran will be back to help teach it. There are three baptisms scheduled for this month. Yesterday, the Williams Room got re-organized in one hour by a team of dedicated church members. Together we figured out where to put the candles and chairs and seasonal decorations.  

Everywhere we look, people are bent over and weary with the burdens of living. Young families struggle to balance work and family, with two or three jobs and nobody to help. Young adults fight depression as they look at a future which no longer promises the American dream. People my age worry about Social Security, and we resist the pressure to stay electronically connected every second. Add the roller coaster ride of the stock market, school shootings, and natural disasters, and it’s enough to bend us all over double! People wonder what God will do at such a time as this, when evil spirits try to cripple us.  

The Bible promises, and history shows, that at times just like this, the windows of heaven open--- and grace and healing and wholeness pour through. There is nothing we can do, of course, to bring this on. In God’s good time, maybe at a time when we least expect it, He will throw open the windows of heaven once again to bring healing.  

The key, I believe, is in watching to see what God will do about our bent-over spirits. You probably noticed that it was the synagogue leader in our Gospel lesson who missed out on being healed—the one whose narrow-mindedness kept him so bent over in spirit that he didn’t see God’s amazing grace.  

It takes waiting and watching to see what God will do. We are so market-driven, so anxious, we’re like the ruler of the synagogue. The meaning of the Sabbath is a rhythm which God has built into each of us. The keeping of the Sabbath lies in finding that balance so that we might put ourselves into a position of being able to watch and wait.

Most Christians, today, aren’t sure what the Sabbath actually is. For us, going to church is one option among many. The late Kathryn Fogel, growing up in Coplay ninety years ago, spent all day in church. Keeping the Sabbath means noticing what God is doing. It means putting ourselves into moments of worship, prayer, Scripture reading, and Bible study. These spiritual practices can help us to watch for those times when God shows His glory. Friends, believe the Good News of the Gospel. We will be made whole. And all of us will straighten up our shoulders and praise God. Amen.


Healing God, may we ask for and accept the healing of our bodies, minds and spirits that you offer. Show us how to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest and healing. May your glorious kingdom of health and love be our vision for now and for the future. AMEN

 


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