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February 2012 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"What Is A Church Worth?" — February 5
"Choices of the Heart"
— February 19
"When All Else Fails"
— February 22
"Confronting Our Wild Beasts" — February 26

“What Is A Church Worth?”
February 5, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Corinthians 9:16-23

The Apostle Paul tells his congregation in Corinth that Christians need to be all things to all people. Did you know that expression came from the New Testament? Paul’s words have become a cliché. And we know it’s impossible to be all things to all people! Even a big church can’t do that. But Paul makes a good point. God calls Christ’s disciples to share their faith as widely as they can. We may have to step outside our comfort zones to do it.

A church isn’t a business, it’s true. But reaching out to others, to share our faith, is something like advertising. We can’t just say, “We’re open every Sunday at ten; take it or leave it!” like many churches have done for years. Fast food restaurants can teach us about meeting people where they are! Burger King holds the pickles and the lettuce because their slogan says, “Have it your way!” Subway offers all kinds of bread, dressings and cheese. McDonald’s keeps their drive- in windows open until midnight. I’m not suggesting that we stay open until midnight. But we can do more to accommodate people’s needs. Remember the slogan, “Have it your way?” We have a product to sell—our faith.

Churches offer real economic value. Last summer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a research group based in Philadelphia searched for a dollars-and-cents answer to the question, “How much are churches worth to the communities they serve?” They investigated the ministries of a dozen congregations, and came up with a total figure of fifty million dollars in economic benefits offered by these churches. These cost-effective services include counseling, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, field trips, choirs, weddings, funerals, support of local charities, and preschool classes. When a church serves its neighbors well, God is glorified.

Churches operate in a competitive environment. Advertisers get paid to keep their clients in the public eye. Watch the commercials on the Super Bowl tonight. Surveys show that more men than women will watch the game, and more young people will watch than older people. So we’ll be seeing ads for beer, cars, and electronics, aimed at men, and plenty of animation because young people like it. We all love to laugh, and advertisers know that. So we’ll see some talking animals and babies saying funny things.

Political advertising targets groups, too. Just before the Florida Republican primary, the big candidates aimed television advertising at Florida’s senior citizens and Cuban-Americans. Unfortunately, some of it was un-Christian. We don’t want to follow those examples. But we can learn a great deal from the targeting techniques advertisers use, and from their successes and their failures. The lessons we learn won’t cost us anything.

Some of you are wonderful telephone evangelists. One member of our church, who’s in her thirties now, told me about how good Lila has been at calling her on a regular basis. I’m shy, and making phone calls is hard for me. But I am a big user of Facebook. Young people guard their cell phone numbers like Fort Knox. They rarely use e-mail, but they all use Facebook. I go on Facebook to chat with church members and other friends from sixteen to sixty-seven. Young people may not come to church often, but because of Facebook I know when they’re accepted at college, and I know when they break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends. I can usually tell when there’s trouble at home. I don’t advertise the church’s worship services or programs from my Facebook page. I just read and respond to members’ comments—which are startlingly honest. I learned about quite a few pastoral emergencies in the past year from Facebook friends. I recommend social media to Sunday School teachers, parents and grandparents.

Paul wasn’t shy about sharing the gospel. If it hadn’t been for early Jewish Christians like him, we wouldn’t be here today. He didn’t have access to social media, or even telephones, but he had a lot of nerve. It was easy for him to talk to Jews, because he had been a Jew. But he did something riskier than that. He went to the Gentiles and the idol-worshipers and preached to them, too. Paul explained the importance of Jesus Christ, in a way that they could understand. We need to communicate it in a way that makes sense to them. Jesus knew this. He told parables to the crowds, using situations from ordinary life. When He wanted to teach about God's forgiveness, he told about the prodigal son who returned home and was welcomed by his father. When Jesus wanted to teach about what it means to love other people, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

When we teach theology, we expect that everybody will understand. For example, we worship the Trinity and celebrate the Transfiguration. We talk about the atoning value of the crucifixion. But to people who are new Christians, those concepts mean nothing. For example, in one congregation, I met a Chinese-American woman. She got the idea that Presbyterians had three Gods, because she heard a sermon in our church about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. She had been raised as a Buddhist and didn’t understand the Trinity. For that woman, trying to understand a sermon on God’s three persons was like trying to master trigonometry before she’d had Algebra I. She attended a new member class and finally understood the Trinity. We want to give our visitors enough to get them interested, so they come back again to learn more.

Paul writes that there are several ways to be Christian. But that doesn’t mean that Christians are free to believe in anything. At the heart of the Christian faith, there must be trust in Jesus Christ, and a strong conviction that He is the Son of God. We believe that, by knowing Christ, we share in eternal life.

Our church should offer something for everyone. Some people enjoy traditional worship music, while others like contemporary hymns, and they’re both just fine. Some people feel comfortable visiting nursing homes, while others prefer to work with young people. Some people like Bible study groups, while others would rather pray with the pastor. There are people who do crafts and cooking, but don’t sing or chime and vice versa. The more choices we offer, the more likely people are to feel at home here.

You are volunteers, and yet you’re much more than that. You are evangelists. Evangelists are patient and persistent. They don’t worry about personal convenience. Remember that Paul walked from Palestine to Rome on dirt roads, wearing sandals. I’m a paid evangelist, and I don’t have a choice. I might have to preach on Saturdays instead of staying home to write my sermons. I may need to learn to like electric guitar music in worship—or even snare drums! Be all things to all people, Paul writes. We won’t succeed with everybody. Even Jesus was rejected! But we must share our faith. God expects nothing more than that we will try. But He also expects nothing less.

Let us pray. Almighty God, as we worship you today, keep us from the temptation to think that we have a franchise on the truth and that our way is the only way. Stir up true brotherly love for one another that we may indeed fulfill the prayer of our blessed Lord by sharing our faith with the rest of the world. AMEN.

“Choices of the Heart”
February 19, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

II Corinthians 4:3-6

Do you remember this story? Each year we read it on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. It’s Transfiguration Sunday, and today we celebrate the glory that shone on Christ’s face when He climbed the mountain. My favorite characters in this story are His disciples. They had been following Jesus around for three years. They finally understood that they were best friends with the world’s greatest man. They wanted to stay on top of that mountain forever.

We’d like to stay on the mountaintop with Jesus, too, but we’re headed for some valleys---Ash Wednesday, six weeks of Lent, and Christ’s crucifixion before the glory of Easter. This is a gloomy time—not only weather-wise, but economically and socially, too. A big concern of our church leaders, is that Christ’s glory is hidden from so many people. Christians have lost their sense of urgency about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a great deal at stake. Churches are losing out, to what the Apostle Paul calls, “the god of this world.” (2 Cor. 4:4) The resources of smaller congregations are drained. People aren’t being saved. Christendom, as we knew it as children, is disappearing.

I have been wondering if Brides magazine is starting to have more influence in our society than the Bible. My friend, Cheryl, who is a good Christian, has a twenty-nine-year-old daughter. Cheryl’s daughter got engaged last fall. Cheryl and her husband paid ten thousand dollars to rent a hall and cater a banquet—not for the wedding, or even for the rehearsal dinner, but just for their daughter’s bridal shower. I’m talking about a shower, not a wedding banquet.

No sooner had the shower gifts had been wrapped, and the wines selected, and the place cards printed, than Cheryl’s daughter’s fiancé broke off the engagement. He backed out, only three days before the shower. Cheryl and her husband couldn’t cancel the party. It was impossible to get a refund from the banquet hall. The contract said, in fine print, “no cancellations without sufficient notice.” So the family went ahead with the shower, not wanting to forfeit ten thousand dollars. Friends went to the party---not a shower any more---to comfort Cheryl’s daughter. The “ex-bride-to-be” probably didn’t even want to see anybody three days after her engagement had ended. But she was the guest of honor and went anyway. Not a tragic story, but a sad one.

I used to think that the cost of attending a high school prom was outrageous. But the “per-couple” cost of a wedding far exceeds that of a prom. Young men throw bachelor parties in Paris and on the West Coast and expect their friends to pay their own way. A young woman I know spent seven thousand dollars for a bridesmaid’s dress and travel expenses to Nevada, and it wasn’t even her wedding.

Costly social events have become the focus of the lives of middle-class people. We want big weddings for our kids. I’m afraid we have lost sight of faith and family love and companionship—the real reasons for marriage. Fewer young adults are getting married these days. Are they afraid of the costs? Do they notice that half of American marriages don’t last?

The Apostle Paul, if he were alive today, would be amazed at all this spending. He was well along in years, and not a family man. There’s one big thing he’d understand, though. We all have blind spots. Paul writes, in this letter to the Corinthians, about how the world’s values blind people’s minds to the good news of Jesus. A Presbyterian friend of mine jokes that she would drive the getaway car if any of her daughters robbed a bank. She’s not completely serious, but I understand her blind love for her kids. I’m a mom. We want to give our children anything they ask for. I’ve often felt the same impulse. I drove for fifty miles and waited in line for hours to get a Cabbage Patch Doll for our daughter twenty-five years ago. The same blind love makes me feel tempted to rent the Taj Mahal for Laura’s wedding, when she decides to get married. But we won’t, of course.

The Corinthian Christians were a materialistic group of people. They lived in a cosmopolitan harbor city. Corinth was ridden with corruption. Paul knew that false prophets had taken over the church in his absence. They were preaching messages like “Have your best life now.” Paul, on the other hand, preached Christ crucified. For him, being Christ’s disciple meant sacrifice. Paul warned the Corinthian congregation that their false values were keeping them "from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). He pointed out the false idols the church was worshiping. He said he was seeing sin overtake them. Can you see parallels in our society? There is so much excess, so much waste of God’s treasure, and so much competition. It’s no wonder that The Guinness Book of World Records is the most popular reference book with younger kids. Hallmark gets us to buy ten dollar birthday cards by telling us to “care enough to send the very best.” We want to buy the best. We want to be the best… but the best what?

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of radical grace. Jesus can bring new life to dark places where hope is gone. The recent death of Whitney Houston, and the mental breakdown of Britney Spears, show that even young superstars live in darkness.

We see darkness, even when we’d rather not. Some of you will remember the blue station wagon parked in front of our church for a few weeks last fall. The people in the car were homeless. They lived in my parking space for those few days. Those folks needed the good news of Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s why they parked at our church. Maybe they expected God’s servants to help them; imagine that! I am God’s servant. I felt threatened by these strangers and their messy car and their broken windshield. Now I wish I had helped them. Instead of leaving a basket of food outside their car, I called the police to investigate. The police left them alone--but they finally drove away.

There are places in the Lehigh Valley where people have no peace or comfort. There are many who don’t know Christ. We have good news to share. Our building isn’t state of the art. We are an older congregation, and not a wealthy one. But we have the light and love of Christ! Rescue is what we’re all about, not just survival. It’s important for us to find creative ways to present the gospel so it will be heard.

We need to attract church members and keep them. Christ needs disciples even more than He needs church members. We need to walk through this neighborhood and invite people to join us in worship. We need to use our gifts from God wisely. That might mean challenging a daughter who asks for a ten-thousand-dollar bridal shower, or wants to rent the Taj Mahal. Jesus doesn’t want His disciples to stay on the mountain. He turned down a chance to be emperor of the world. Instead, He was crucified as an enemy of the state. But He lived on to change the world, and so can we.

Let us pray. Christ Jesus, you are the Light that illuminates our lives. Let your Word echo in our hearts that we may re-create the world in God’s compassion. Let your light shatter the darkness of sin. Let your love be the glory we seek, as we struggle to imitate your example of service to one another. AMEN

“When All Else Fails”
February 22, 2012, Ash Wednesday
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Men are stubborn when it comes to asking for help! Or, at least, that’s the stereotype. But it’s true of women, too. I hardly ever ask for directions--- unless I’m in running late for a meeting, or really in trouble! Under stress, I do what feels right and sometimes it turns out to be the wrong thing. The times when I’m in a rush and make mistakes are the times when I need God the most.

“Going with your gut” is a dangerous thing to do, but when we’re under pressure it’s tempting to give in to our baser impulses. That’s why we see so much road rage, and hear so much foul language, and see so much violence. There’s an expression, “God loves you just the way you are, but God loves you too much to leave you that way.” At the beginning of the Lenten season, the church offers us a way to repent of our sins and follow God’s direction.

The lyrics from second hymn for tonight, come from the fifty-first psalm. Did you know that Psalm 51 has a fascinating history? As the tradition goes, King David of Israel wrote it when he was middle aged. He probably sang it with a harp accompaniment. Yes, even the great David, anointed by God, was a sinner. He was overcome with guilt for having committed adultery and murder. Talk about giving in to baser impulses! He had had Uriah, the husband of the beautiful Bathsheba, killed, supposedly in battle. David was the father of Bathsheba’s baby. The baby was born and died within a week. This was the first in a series of tragedies in David’s family. His daughter was raped. Then his oldest son was killed in battle. You can read the sad story of David’s later life in the Second book of Samuel. David had to realize that God was angry.

The King was both scared and sorry. He realized he had to stop telling lies and start being honest with himself and with God. Psalm 51 is his prayer of penitence (James Limburg, Psalms, Louisville: WJK, 2000, 172.) David hadn’t been following directions, and his broken spirit is the beginning of his return to holiness. Some people ask for forgiveness and then go right back to sinning, but David didn’t. He knew, all too well, that God’s path is the only right direction. The Ten Commandments spell out the rules to follow, and he knew those rules by heart. He returned to the right paths. That’s one reason why history judges David as a great king, if not a perfect one.

For Ash Wednesday, our tradition in this church has been a service of communion. At the beginning of Lent, we focus on internal cleansing instead of imposing ashes. Today’s scripture lessons call for changing our own hearts and cleansing our souls.

In this day and age, Ash Wednesday is hardly a blip on most people’s screens. I’m sure you’ve never seen an Ash Wednesday card. There are meetings scheduled as usual, in most public places tonight. If you’ve been in the dollar stores lately you’ll discover they’re already gearing up for Easter. We can’t really say that our culture lives only for the present moment. At least the big pharmacies and Walmart don’t! People haven’t taken down their Christmas lights yet, but they’re already stocking up on marshmallow Peeps and ducklings and chocolate Easter bunnies. I was amazed to see that seven or eight churches—including us—had announced their Ash Wednesday services on facebook.

How many people do you know, who give up one or more of the pleasures of life for forty days? I would encourage you to give up more than one small thing, like chocolate. What about praise and recognition? We all love to be recognized for our goodness. Jesus is suspicious of people who do the right things for the wrong reasons! In Matthew 6:1-18 He warns His disciples, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners." He goes on to say, "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret."

In the same way that carpet cleaning gets the stains out of carpets, Jesus wants us to get stains out of our lives. And we do, too—cleansing is good, and it feels good. We need to clean up our acts, both inwardly and outwardly. Just like David. Just like Peter, James and John.

The disciples hadn’t been following Jesus’ directions. Instead they were showing off by praying in public, the way they had seen the Pharisees doing. Jesus reminded them, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses." (Matt. 6:14) If we can’t forgive, then our religion, and the directions by which we live, mean nothing.

So, this evening you’ve chosen to start the Lenten season with us. We’re glad you’re here. We will take the bread and the cup, and pray to cleanse ourselves from sin. Our audience is God, not each other. When all else fails may we truly be able to say that we have followed directions-- God’s directions.

Let us pray. Almighty God, you created us, but sometimes we forget your love for us. Guide us on our journey through Lent. Forgive us and show us the way to live in Jesus Christ. May the lives we live, embody His love. AMEN

“Confronting Our Wild Beasts”
February 26, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 1:9-15

Churches in the 1600’s had stools like this. Sinners in each congregation had to sit where everybody could see them, right in front. They were expected to confess their sins to the whole church as they sat on these “stools of repentance.” This is just a kitchen stool that I keep in my office. I’m not planning to sit on it today to confess my sins. But today is the first Sunday of Lent, and the theme of the gospel reading is resisting temptation. This is the time of year when we we’re encouraged to take a look at our sins from the past year. During Lent, we think about how we can get right with God.

In Protestant churches of the seventeenth century, sinners had to sit on these stools of repentance, during the entire worship service—including a sermon that was three hours long! At the end of the sermon, these sinners were expected to confess what they had done, and to say they were sorry. The congregation would vote on how sincere they thought each sinner was. I used to imagine something like that old t.v. show, “Queen for a Day,” that used an applause meter for audience response to the candidates. But it was much more frightening than that, of course.

If the majority of church members felt that the sinners in their midst had repented, they would be welcomed back into the congregation. The forgiven members were permitted to take communion the following Sunday. But if a sinner wasn’t forgiven by the majority of the congregation, no one spoke to him or her until they had voted, on a later Sunday, to forgive that person. Sometimes, that never happened, and the sinner couldn’t return to his church. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2004), 578-79.)

I’m glad we keep transgressions private in congregations today. That’s one thing that is better than in the old days! Confidentiality is a good thing. But nothing we do is secret from God. What do you think of, when you hear the word, "sin”? Most people think of sin as the things that we’re not supposed to do, like lying, stealing, and swearing. The Ten Commandments spell them out pretty well. But in the Hebrew Bible, the word "sin" literally means "to miss the mark." The word comes from the sport of archery, which was as common a sport in Old Testament days as golf is today. When we ignore the agenda for our lives that God has set before us and pursue our own agenda instead, we’ve made a bad choice that can result in disaster.

Here’s an example of a sinful choice that a public official made on the Caribbean island of Martinique. In May of 1902, Election Day was coming up. But at the same time, the deadly volcano on the island, Mount Pelee, was getting ready to erupt. The governor of Martinique, Luis Mouttet, was so focused on his plan to get re-elected that he couldn’t be bothered to try to keep his people safe from the volcano. Danger signs were everywhere, but he ignored them.

The governor did something even worse. He used his influence to get the local newspaper to downplay the threat, even though all the geologists in Central America agreed that Mount Pelee was ready to erupt. The governor didn’t want the people to panic and flee. He wanted them around to vote for him on Election Day. But, two days before the election, at 8:00 in the morning, Mount Pelee erupted. In less than two minutes the hot lava and ash buried thirty thousand people, including the governor and his wife. By missing the mark, by thinking only of himself, the governor got all but two people in the city of St. Pierre, on Martinique Island, killed. (Rick Beyer, The Greatest Stories Never Told (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 130.)

In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, we learn that Jesus was tested by the devil for forty days in the wilderness. We can think of this as something like boot camp for Jesus, before He began his public ministry…the time that God purified His soul. Mark tells us that Jesus was surrounded by wild beasts as He wandered through the desert.

Mark’s was the first gospel to be written. Historians believe it was preached in Rome during the persecutions of the first Christians, the ones who met to worship in the Catacombs. Those people were being mauled by lions in the Coliseum around 64 A.D. They must have been comforted to hear that Jesus was protected by angels when He encountered the wild animals and the Tempter himself.

We can think of our temptations as our own personal wild beasts. When we’re tested, that basically means that we’re put in situations in which we need to choose between God’s agenda and our own personal goals. Jesus walked in the wilderness, tempted by the Devil and followed by wild animals, and He survived without sinning. But what about us? Maybe you’re thinking to yourself: "How surprising is this? God wants me to choose what’s good. It’s not that complicated!" But, unfortunately, it is. We know the right thing, but we don’t choose it. Instead of doing right, we point ourselves in another direction and that’s how we sin.

The reason for that problem is what we call "total depravity." That’s what the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, called it. I imagine you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not depraved." But in the Presbyterian tradition, we believe that yes, you are depraved—we’re all depraved. Now before you storm out of the sanctuary, you need to understand what "total depravity" means. To be totally depraved doesn’t mean that you’re immoral or blood-thirsty. No, as that term has been used throughout Christian history, to be totally depraved means that we can’t do what God wants us to do—if we’re left to ourselves--and we end up sinning. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that Jesus came into the world to save us from that problem. He’s still wandering in the wilderness with us. As we look to Jesus in faith, He gives us the power to make the right choices. As we look to Jesus in faith, we’re empowered to conquer our own sins.

But the struggle never seems to end. As we try to do good, the forces of evil are fighting against us. Left to ourselves, we’re no match for temptation. We are needy and broken. Here’s the good news -- that Jesus is on our side. He guides us toward the right choices, if we look to Him. We could never achieve such victory on our own. In the same way, Noah looked to God and obeyed Him. That’s how his family and his animal cargo were saved from destruction.

Life is full of choices, good and bad. The good news is that we don’t have to stay stuck in sin forever. The forty days of Lent commemorate Jesus’ wanderings in the desert for forty days. We have more than a month left to face down the wild beasts in our lives, before Easter morning. But God’s angels are with us too. Because as we look to Jesus—and I don’t mean just with a casual glance, but by setting the focus of our lives in His direction—Jesus gives us the power to defeat temptation so that we can become the people that God has created us to be.

Let us pray. Almighty God, guide our paths during Lent, so we won’t miss the mark. Still our rebellious spirits and bring peace to our hearts. Teach us to live in harmony with all your creatures in this beautiful world. In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we pray. AMEN


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