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July 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Making A Mark On the World" — July 7
"God Has Other Ideas"
— July 14
"Who Is Christ for You?" — July 21
"Asking, Seeking, Knocking" — July 28


“Making A Mark On the World”
July 7, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Galatians 6:7-10
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Jesus calls seventy ordinary people and sends them out into the world, “To go and teach in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But He warns them that they may be rejected. Is this any way to recruit volunteers?

Would you volunteer to be like a sheep in the midst of ravenous wolves? How would you feel about inviting yourself into strangers’ homes? Would you sign up to wander on dirt roads, without a penny to your name? But, remember, Jesus isn’t a recruiter, and they aren’t volunteers. He’s the Lord, after all. He appoints and sends the seventy. But why is He sending them so unprepared, and so dependent on the kindness of strangers?

We put a high value on self-sufficiency in our society—a much higher value than these ancients did. I’m talking about the illusion of self-sufficiency that possessions can give you. We feel secure because we have enough stuff to tide us over in any emergency. If your car is like mine, you have a spare tire, flashlight, blanket, rain poncho, road maps, scraper, CD’s to listen to, anything you might need on the road. I will never be without a book to read, between my office and home libraries. All this preparedness is supposed to keep me from wasting a single moment.

These seventy missionaries are forced to travel light. I really wonder if I could do that. Jesus tells them not to take any possessions, not even a spare outfit or a pair of sandals, and no suitcases are allowed. They must leave behind their money and their jobs and their pride and ask for what they need for God’s work. Jesus sends them with no weapons to protect themselves. Go on your way, He tells them. Leave behind your fears, your security. He sends them with no way to take care of themselves. Instead, He tells them to enter the homes of strangers, wish them peace, and hope they get an invitation to dinner and a couch to sleep on. They carry treasure, because Jesus gives them the good news of the Kingdom to share. He makes sure they go out in twos, for safety and support. Their hands will get dirty. But their hearts will be changed.

Chapters nine and ten of the gospel of Luke are the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. His triumphant miracle-working in Galilee is over. He’s on His way to Jerusalem for a showdown with the forces of evil. And so Jesus sends this second wave of disciples to reverse Israel’s flight into ruin. The only chance for the Jewish people to survive, is to accept God’s way of peace. And so He says, proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, to everyone you meet. Don’t waste time or resources. Don’t get distracted. Eat what’s set before you. If people ignore your message, or turn you away, just move on to the next town.

His expectations are high. So much for the strict marching orders. Jesus encourages these people, too—for he is the greatest teacher who ever lived. And it works! When the seventy missionaries report back to Him, they are excited about the things they have been able to do. Their joy is a direct result of how God has used them. They’ve experienced things they never could have known from the sidelines.

Being a disciple means working to make life better for others. What we do as Christians, matters a great deal. It’s the way God gets the world God wants—by sending ordinary people out to complete Christ’s mission, and empowering us with His power. The Latin word for “sent” is mission. It’s where we get the verb, “to commission.” To be on a mission doesn’t have to mean we have to book a flight to some faraway place of need, although it can mean that. Mission means that you are doing what you are doing, because you have been sent to do it.

In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul writes, "Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those in the family of faith." Paul says that when it comes to what we do with our lives, God is watching us. Paul writes, "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow." What does this mean? Simply put: What we do matters to God, and we will be held accountable for we’ve done with our lives. If we stay in our comfort zones, we will risk missing the Kingdom of God that has already come near to us in Christ. Do you feel like you’ve made your mark on the world yet?

By ourselves alone, we can’t do a great deal to further that Kingdom. If we play it safe, we won’t accomplish much. But as we allow God’s Spirit to move in our lives, we discover opportunities to make a difference – in our families, in our schools, where we work, and in our communities. Paul tells the Galatians that he expects them to do good in the world because God is doing good that, in the end, will reap a harvest of redemption for the whole creation.

In the next two weeks, our Vacation Bible School staff will be witnessing to young people for Christ. Shania is going to Indiana to learn how to be a disciple for the Lord in a changed world. They need our support to do these things. They aren’t being called to argue people into faith. We know that can’t be done. Jesus doesn’t expect His missionaries to do work that only the Holy Spirit can do, in people’s hearts. The role that these volunteers will play, is to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that shows they care, and that God cares. The Spirit will do the rest.

The Lord’s Supper is given to all of us today to remind us of the welcoming banquet we can expect in heaven. Gathering here, at the communion table, reminds us that none of us are alone in our mission. In Paul’s words from Galatians, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

On the mission trip of our lives, we have the best possible companion, and He will never leave us. “Our names are written in heaven,” by none other than Jesus Christ, whose name is above all names. You carry the Kingdom of God into this world. In fact, you ARE the Kingdom of God in this world. That’s worth celebrating.


Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we sometimes wonder why you choose ordinary people like us to be your messengers in the world. Help us to believe in ourselves, half as much as you believe in us, and to focus on serving you above all things. AMEN


“God Has Other Ideas”
July 14, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Amos 7:7-17
Luke 10:25-37

My father, my grandfather and my brother were good at working with wood. In fact, my dad built the house I grew up in. I never took “Wood Shop” in high school—only boys were allowed to take it in the sixties-- but I know what a plumb line is. My dad used one sometimes. It’s a weight with a string attached. When you’re building a wall, you can use a plumb line to determine if it’s straight—that is, not tipping to the side or sagging in the middle. A plumb line uses the principle of gravity, and gravity doesn’t lie. If the wall and the plumb line are parallel, the wall will stay straight. Why does this matter? A wall usually supports something, and it can pull apart or even collapse if it’s leaning sideways.

Do you know about Amos? He was a Judean farmer who preached as a prophet to the people of Israel, for just one day in his life, and then went back to the farm. He lived seven hundred and fifty years before Christ. A prophet is a person with the great privilege of speaking the Word of God with authority. I don’t think Amos knew much about carpentry, and I’m pretty sure he never took a class in “Wood Shop.”

God used the symbol of a plumb line to show Amos that the Northern Kingdom, ruled by King Jeroboam, was about to collapse. Amos may never have used a plumb line, but he knew a wall that was ready to fall down, when he saw it. The wall was a symbol for the society in Israel. Amos was told by God to rescue those people from falling into sin. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. It was the first sermon he preached, and it’s been in the Bible for 2500 years.

Amos’ sermon was not well-received by the powers-that-be. The court preacher to the king, whose name was Amaziah, was angry with Amos for taking over his job. Amaziah was good at politics but he never told the truth to power. Amaziah ordered Amos to leave town. And Amos did. He became a farmer again.

What do you do with a crooked wall? If it’s not fixed, everything will come tumbling down. Maybe the wall ought to come down anyway. That’s just what God was saying to Amos, and to Amaziah, and to the people of Israel. Without a sense of perspective, you wouldn’t know a society and its government were crooked. The upper classes had plenty of money, and they considered themselves devoutly religious. But only thirty years later the Assyrians destroyed their world as they knew it. The Northern Israelites were forced into exile and spent the rest of their lives as slaves in a foreign country.

Moses had told the Israelites: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Those words are easy to say. They weren’t easy to follow, in the days of Amos, and they’re hard to follow today. What does God’s plumb line say about us? Do we love the Lord? Is the Lord our God, or do we worship other gods, like work, money, possessions, prestige, or pleasure?

Amos asked the Israelites that question, but he never got a straight answer. The wealthy people brought their offerings to God in the Temple, but they also sold poor people into slavery. They listened to God’s prophets only when their words made them feel comfortable. That’s why they preferred Amaziah’s boring sermons to Amos’ prophetic one. Amos afflicted their self-pride. He told them that God would punish their insensitivity to their neighbors.

The Bible demands that we make moral decisions and yet we turn away from problems if they make us uneasy. Parents are our first prophets. The best parents are brave enough to teach us right from wrong. Many of us were fortunate to have prophetic parents. In our lifetimes, prophetic religious leaders have spoken challenges and been proven right. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke and acted against racism in America. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was another, who left his comfortable life, as a professor in America, to challenge the Nazi regime in Germany. Both men gave their lives to preach God’s Word.

Now let’s take a look at our gospel lesson. It’s like the story of Amos—it’s about turning our eyes from problems we would rather not see. The parable starts with a question. A man who has studied the law of Moses asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds with a question of His own. "What does the law say?" Jesus asks. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself," he replies. "That’s the right answer," Jesus responds. "Do this and you will live." That law student knows God’s plumb line. It measures not just what we say, but also what we do.

We know the parable of the Good Samaritan by heart. A band of robbers leaves an injured man by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by the victim, without stopping to help. There are reasons why religious officials were not allowed to help injured people. Men who worked in the temple were forbidden to touch anyone who was bleeding or dead, because Jewish law would judge them unclean. There was “stranger danger,” to think about, too. Strangers can be dangerous to adults and to kids, too. My parents taught me never to hitchhike, or to pick up hitchhikers. Kids, there are good reasons why your parents say that.

For whatever reason, the priest and the Levite don’t help this man. How do their actions measure up to the plumb line? Not too well! We’ve heard this story many times, so we connect "Samaritan" with "good." In Jesus’ day, however, the words, "Samaritan" and "good" didn’t fit together for anyone who called himself a Jew. A Samaritan would have felt justified in not stopping to help a Jewish person. Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies. Jesus places a Samaritan at the center of the story. The Samaritan is the one in the story who stands straight, according to God’s plumb line.

Priests and Levites would not have liked the way Jesus portrayed them. Jesus told prophetic stories, and that’s one reason why the temple officials wanted Him to go away. Being a prophet can be dangerous. Remember the little boy who tells the truth in the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? The one who is brave enough to tell the Emperor he isn’t wearing anything at all? He’s a prophet.

Jesus asks the law student, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" What else can the student answer, but, "The one who showed him mercy." "Go and do likewise," Jesus replies.

Jesus was God’s plumb line. The law student knows all the answers. But Jesus gives him a powerful message: "Don’t just say the right thing! Go out and do it."


God of holy hospitality, you make the world your neighborhood. We discover neighbors, far and near, who are in great need, around the corner and around the world. We lift up those who are injured or sick, who long for your healing. Help us to live as neighbors to all people. Unite us with brothers and sisters everywhere. We pray in your name. Amen.

 


“Who Is Christ for You?”
July 21, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Colossians 1:15-20 and 28

Would you like to see the face of God? Few people, if any, have actually seen God and lived to tell about it. But we’ve “seen” Jesus. None of us have literally met the human Jesus, but we see Him in the Bible and on the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In Him, we get a glimpse of God. The church today is the face of Jesus. Sad to say, the world doesn’t take us seriously.

Our New Testament lesson for today is an old hymn about Jesus. The Apostle Paul sent it to the Colossian church in a letter. He was worried about them. He saw a big difference between the way Jesus had revealed God’s glory and the ways they were revealing that glory. In his opinion, the Colossian church was reflecting the light of God, but pretty dimly.

I don’t need to remind you that the world is full of death and despair. There are thieves and robbers. There is cruelty and selfishness. Christ was like a neon sign in a dark world. He’s the true image of the invisible God. At our best, we reflect His glory. At this time, when organized religion is declining, there is great need for us to reflect His light. We need to shine like neon signs.

Broken signs are all around us—signs of the world’s brokenness. On the New Jersey shore last fall, after Hurricane Sandy, signs were broken or missing on every street, from the Golden Arches to local mom-and-pop dry cleaning stores. Here in the Lehigh Valley we see signs that have one or two letters missing, because they’ve gotten blown off in thunderstorms or vandalized by fraternity pledges. Sometimes I wonder why businesses never fix or replace their signs. It seems to me that the sign for the Allentown Public Library is missing a different letter every year. Right, now, all the big brass letters are there, but I wonder how long the library letters will stick to the wall on Hamilton Street before another one goes missing.

It’s easy to laugh at the nonsense words that these broken signs spell. Did you do that when you were a kid? Do you laugh at signs now when you see words misspelled? That’s harmless fun, and we do need to lighten up sometimes. But it reminds me of the way sin comes into our lives. We absorb God’s light, but because one or two of our letters may be missing, we reflect the darkness in the places where the missing letters ought to be-- rather than God’s light. And when another person is missing a letter in his or her neon sign, too often we laugh or look the other way.

Martha is a character with a missing letter in her sign, so to speak. In our reading from the gospel of Luke, she complains about Mary, who isn’t helping her in the kitchen. Martha is determined to get the potatoes mashed and the turkey basted and the table set. Mary is listening to Jesus, their house guest. She’s not helping Martha get dinner ready. Martha is a responsible person, but she’s not a sensitive one. She complains to Jesus, even though the person with whom she is annoyed, is Mary. That isn’t fair. Jesus invites Martha to sit down at His feet and to listen with Mary. Mary seems to come out on top with Jesus in this story, but Mary isn’t perfect, either. She’s in the dark about what’s been going on. Jesus is kind to both of them. We don’t know how this story ends. One hopes the sisters might go into the kitchen and finish making dinner, after saying a prayer together.

The passage from Colossians invites us to look at Jesus and get our missing letters replaced, so to speak-- so that we can reflect the glory of God the way He does. What are your missing letters? I think patience is one of mine and endurance is another. What about Mary and Martha? Obviously Mary needs to DO more and Martha needs to BE more. Mary is a talented, faithful listener. She isn’t a lazy slacker. Martha is a person in stress overload, who needs her sister’s help, but doesn’t know how to ask. God loves them both.

It’s hard for us to empathize with people who are really different from us. Think of a person who irritates you. You feel hurt, scared, threatened or shamed when you are with him or her. These feelings may arise from mysteries from your past. They may have little to do with the person’s behavior. For example, that person may look like somebody who rejected you in high school. He may act like the brother your mom loved best. Don’t wait for a crisis to see the image of God in that person.

It’s my job to celebrate people’s lives. At each of the funerals I have conducted, I preached a sermon. How do you write about a person you didn’t know well? I start with the belief that we are all created in the image of God. For some, that image has been easily recognized. For others, it’s been harder. But always, I have tried to find God reflected in that person’s life. Families and friends can evoke God’s image in that person pretty well—especially in funny stories—so it helps me to reminisce with the folks who loved them best.

I don’t hit it off with everyone. When I think of a person as the enemy, I can’t have an appreciation of him or her. On the other hand, if I see that person as the very image of God, it brings out the best in that person for me. It’s all in the way you see the world and the people in it. This is why Paul said of Jesus, "He is the very image of the invisible God." When we look at Jesus and see Him feeding the hungry, we see God in action. When we look at Jesus and see Him healing somebody, we see the creative work of God.

In Genesis, there is a wonderful story of two brothers who have hated and feared each other--- Jacob and Esau. Jacob is a scoundrel. He has cheated his older brother Esau out of the birthright and inheritance which were his. Then Jacob has gone off for many, many years, to become a wealthy man and raise a big family. He returns home to meet Esau. Jacob is frightened of Esau, the older brother, who is stronger and more powerful. The night before they meet, Jacob sends many gifts to his brother, hoping to soften him up a bit. Then Jacob lies down by the side of the Jabbok River, and he wrestles with the angel of God. The next morning, Jacob comes face to face with his brother. What does Esau do? Does he attack Jacob? No, Esau embraces him and welcomes him home. Jacob says to Esau, "Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God for with such favor have you received me."

We can only "see" God with our hearts. Even so, we know He is real. People see God reflected in what we do as the Body of Christ. Through history, we’ve seen see strange, even awful, things the church has done in the name of Jesus—such as the Salem Witch trials and the massacres during the Crusades. But overall, the accomplishments of Christians, in making life on this planet better, are remarkable. Jesus is the light of God. I pray that His light will be visible every day, in the lives of people like you and me.


Let us pray. Lord, we are all Marthas. I pray that we will take time to sit at your feet today, and that our insights into our brothers and sisters will be more profound, as a result. Amen



“Asking, Seeking, Knocking”
July 28, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 11:1-13

Suppose a friend rings your doorbell in the afternoon. She says, “We have no power in our house and I don’t want to miss ‘General Hospital’ today. May I come inside and watch your television for an hour?” Even though she’s your friend, you are angry about the interruption. You’ve tried to ignore her but she has kept on knocking. Your house is a mess. The cat has shed all over the rug, there’s a pile of dirty clothes on the floor and you’ve been in the shower. Soap is dripping from your hair to your bathrobe. So you state the obvious: “It’s a bad time. My hair is wet and I’m not dressed. You’ll need to go somewhere else.” You close the door, feeling angry.

Imagine that the friend who is interrupting your shower, is God. It’s a thought that shocks us—God, interrupting our lives and making a nuisance of Himself!—but Jesus liked to shock people. His parables usually aren’t deadly serious. Sometimes there’s humor in them. Jesus is telling this story to the disciples at a time when they feel awkward and embarrassed. He sees that they’re taking themselves much too seriously, as they try to learn to pray. So He tells them how to pray, then He follows the Lord’s Prayer with a funny story, to get His friends to lighten up.

Imagine you are the man in the house in this parable, and your angry feelings about at this interruption. You are ashamed because you don’t want to open the door. “Why me?,” you ask. The man in Jesus’ parable must have felt this way too, when he refused to open his door at midnight.

Would you open the door for anyone at midnight? The police? A family member? There are good reasons why we don’t let people push themselves into our homes at all hours. This ancient audience lived very differently from the way we live now. In the small villages of Palestine, everyone was involved in everyone else’s business. First-century society in the ancient Near East demanded hospitality. Life was hard. If neighbors came to your door and wanted food, they were usually hungry, not just wanting to watch a television show. Poor folks and travelers needed bread. Sometimes they had traveled long distances to reach your village. There were no stores open at midnight--- in fact, there were no stores at all. There weren’t enough inns where you could stay overnight. The folks in Jesus’ time thought it shameful to turn people away when they knocked at the door. If people found out that one of their neighbors had refused to help a person in need, it would reflect badly on their whole town.

In Palestine, in those days, women baked their bread together, so each family knew who was likely to have bread left over. Because everyone knew how much food everyone else had, the friend who had bread in his house would be expected to feed this man when he knocked and asked for help.

But the friend did not want to open the door at midnight. He had good reason. Families slept together in one big room. This man’s children were in bed and he didn’t want to wake them up. His family would never get back to sleep if he answered the door and gave bread to his friend.

It was common, in Jesus’ time, for the farm animals to be kept inside the house overnight, in the same big room. If the family was wealthy, there might be a spare room for the goats, but this was rare in those days. Can you imagine the racket, if the man had agreed to open the door? Not only would the kids be crying, but the animals would roam around the house making sounds of their own. The man of the house had plenty of good reasons not to open his front door. But, on the other hand, if he didn’t help his friend, people would talk. I believe it was his fear of public shame that pushed him to open the door, as well as the persistence of the knocking.

The Greek word translated as “persistence” in our pew Bibles, also means “shamelessness.” The visitor persists shamelessly in his request, so the friend inside the house is shamed into eventually opening his front door. Imagine yourself trying to wash your hair with your friend standing at the door. Wouldn’t you feel bad, knowing that you are turning away a friend in need? How much worse would you feel if that friend were God?

How often does God knock at our door and we are too ashamed of the state we are in, to let Him inside? We may resent the interruption. We may not want God to know the deep, dark, awful mess behind our door. We say to ourselves, “God doesn’t want to know that,” or “God wouldn’t like me if God knew.”

But God does know. God knows everything. Our God is persistent and knocks on our door over and over again, even if we try to ignore him. He interrupts us shamelessly, the way the closest of our friends might feel confident enough to do. God is our friend, and this parable shows a love that will never go away. Why do we treat God worse than we’d treat a stranger? Why do we say to God, “Leave me alone, this is a bad time”? God acts in our lives, all the time—not just at times that are the most convenient. All of His knocks are little wake-up calls. God knows what kind of mess lies behind the door of each of our houses, but He continues to knock shamelessly. He’s calling for us to open up, and offering His blessing on our lives.

Do you know what it is to have a friend? What’s that like? A friend is someone you can just enjoy being with. Someone you can talk to. Someone you can be silent with. A friend is someone who can share your hopes, your dreams, and your fears. When you’re with a friend talking about your hopes, those dreams seem more possible than ever. When you talk about your fears they don’t seem as dark and awful as they did before. Isn’t that the way it is with a friend? With a friend you feel—how can I say it?—more yourself. You feel better about yourself. You remember who you really are. Alone you forget so many things and so many things confuse you and cause you to lose your way. With a friend you remember who you are and why you are and where you’re going and why it all matters. Being with friends reminds you of things like that. Praying to God should be like talking to your best friend.

God is our friend. He wants to be in relationship with us. Look through the peephole of your front door and see Him there. Then, open the door and talk to Him in prayer, and allow the grace of God to walk into your life. God already knows you aren’t perfect, and, believe me, He doesn’t care. God loves you. He’s waiting at that door for you to let Him in.

Let us pray. Father, hear our prayers—prayers that you know before you ask them, prayers you inspire us to ask. Let our prayers to you transform us, making us more grateful, more forgiving, more caring of one another. In your goodness, give us the grace and trust to work to make what WE ask of YOU a reality. AMEN

 

 


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