July 2016 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
"Reaping What We Sow" — July 3
"Who Are You in This Story?" — July 10
"A Tale of Two Sisters" — July 17
"Never At A Loss For Words" — July 24
"Rich Toward God" — July 31
“Reaping What We Sow”
July 3, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
Galatians 6: (1-6), 7-16
As Americans, we are truly blessed. We have a responsibility to
share our blessings. Someone gave us the opportunity to live in a
free society, and to share God’s grace. But we live in difficult times.
It seems that everywhere we go, we find fellow Americans saying
hateful things on the Internet about people who hold different
positions from their own. It takes self-control not to return the same
level of rage. In the past two weeks, there has been a fight among Presbyterians in the Lehigh Valley, and it has come to a head in
angry words and deeds. There is great hurt on both sides.
How do you deal with frustration? Whether it's a health issue, a
family situation, or disappointment in the outcome of a project --
whatever the source of your discouragement, how do you cope? Is it
enough to tell yourself to get out there and try? Or do you
sometimes need a break? Take a hot bath, get a good night's sleep,
pray, keep a journal, exercise, work on a hobby -- all these things
can help. But, for Christians, is there a more spiritual way to deal
with the challenges we face?
Toward the end of his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul
addresses this issue. At the beginning of chapter 6, he instructs his
readers to work for the good of their community -- resisting
temptation, acting responsibly, and taking care of one another. Paul
encourages these new Christians to persevere in good works and
stay above the conflict.
Beginning in Galatians 6:7 and following, Paul cheers them on. In effect, he says, if you're tempted to give up -- don't! Keep on
doing good. Paul predicts that one day there will be a harvest of
eternal life. Instead of feeling defeated by pettiness, we need to take
a longer view. There’s hope beyond ourselves.
The rhythm of sowing and reaping was a familiar one in the
ancient world, and the Old Testament uses farming images quite
often. Paul quotes the Hebrew Bible with the saying about sowing
and reaping. To gain a harvest requires the hard work of sowing,
the careful work of weeding, the patient work of waiting, and finally
the joyfully tiring work of the harvest. Here, Paul applies this
familiar process to the spiritual realm: if you sow the Spirit, you will
reap eternal life. He writes, "whenever we have an opportunity, let
us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of
faith.” That's why Paul adds the special note about "the family of
faith" -- to heal their divisions, the Galatians needed to work for the
good of their own community.
Paul interrupts himself in verse 11: "See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!" His words remind us
that he is writing a personal letter addressed to a church in need of
support. In Paul’s time, people would sometimes have a scribe write
a letter for them, and then at some point they would switch to their
own handwriting to make it more personal, and to show that the
letter was genuine. Here, in Galatians, it seems that Paul takes over
from his scribe and writes the end of the letter himself. Paul may
have done this to emphasize its importance, the way we might write
something all in capital letters. The heart of our passage is verse 15:
"For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a
new creation is everything!"
For the Galatians, one of the key issues in this letter was that
some people in their region were pushing them to follow the Jewish
law. They were Gentiles and didn’t know those traditions. For
observant Jewish people, circumcision was the sign of God's
covenant with them, and with future generations. The Galatian
Christians believed that the cross of Christ was enough.
Paul writes in large letters to be very clear: In Christ, there is a
new order of things. The Galatians are free of old religious laws.
Paul writes earlier in Galatians 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or
Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Worldly distinctions,
such as circumcision, no longer matter because there is a new
creation. God's creation in Christ is radically different from the
world we know now. It's like planting a tulip bulb and seeing a
mountain grow from that bulb, instead of tulips. Jewish tradition
and law no longer prevailed for Paul or the Galatian Christians. For
us today, what counts is being a new creation!
In my own strength, I can never do enough.
In your own
strength, you can never do enough. In this world, there will always
be challenges. Even when we learn from our failures, there is
another disappointment around the corner! When our world seems
to be spinning out of control, we can feel encouraged by Paul’s words. Do not grow weary in doing good, for you are a new
In some way, great or small, let us agree to be the change we
need in this country. We need to do the right thing and keep on
doing it, and turn away from the narrow and hurtful path. We need
to do whatever might be healing. Keeping up appearances, being
anxious about what others might think, triumphing with our
comments, over the remarks that offend us -- these things are all
part of the world that has been crucified with Christ! As Americans,
I believe we have been given God’s grace freely in order to share it
So when we grow weary of doing what is right - we must
remember that good work is never wasted. Paul had once been Saul.
He had killed Christians by throwing rocks. His letter to the
Galatians is an invitation to trade rock-throwing for the Balm of
Early this morning, I read an article from a magazine called
PAPERBACK THEOLOGY, called “Ten Ways to Impact Our
Culture that Don’t Involve Presidential Politics.” They include
“Stop watching cable news” and “Get off facebook.” Here is the
eighth way the author suggests: “Join a small church and live in
fidelity.” I quote: “There is no version of healthy that does not
involve learning to live in fidelity to a small community of people
over long periods of time. With our culture’s constant mobility,
finding rootedness and stability is a challenge. How can you do it?
Join a small faith community and worship with them every single
week. Don’t let anything deter you from that commitment—not kids
sports, not grown children who join a nearby congregation, not
disappointment with the pastor, not conflict with other members,
not the quest for doctrinal purity, not the need to be part of a
winning team, not anything. My one caveat is this: don’t join a
church that seems intent on being upwardly mobile, or one that
treats you like a customer to which they want to provide religious goods and services. Find a small congregation and give the next
three decades of your life to living in fidelity to these people.”
Let's remember that we belong to Christ. We are all God’s
children. As people who are blessed, in Paul’s words, “let us work
for the good of all.”
Let us pray: O God of new creation, re-create your faith and hope in us. Where there is failure, let us sow forgiveness and
the restoration of community. Where there is temptation, let us sow perseverance in doing what is right. Where there is
pain, comfort. Where there is discouragement, hope. We rest in your peace and mercy. Amen.
“Who Are You in This Story?”
July 10, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
From time to time I’ve seen newspaper stories about people who have died in their own homes, and who haven't been discovered for several days. This happened to one of my librarian colleagues, a middle-aged bachelor who lived alone without any pets. He had a stroke in his living room while watching television.
One of the common reactions to these sad stories is shock and guilt from the neighbors. Typically, they hadn't noticed the person's absence at all. If they had noticed it, they’d assumed that person had gone away, or was at work.
Stories like this make me feel guilty, too. I don't see my neighbors much. I have no idea what cars they drive, or what sports teams they like. Most of the time I have no idea whether the people next door are at home or away.
Years ago, everyone in the suburbs knew his or her neighbors. It was common to live in the same neighborhood all your life. John and I have moved six times in three states. Both of us worked full time for almost forty years, so we’ve rarely seen our neighbors. We’ve found “communities” elsewhere--- in workplaces, book clubs, volleyball teams, choirs, and congregations. And yes, even facebook. Co-workers were my neighbors. I recognized their cars and saw photos of their kids growing up.
Neighbors are virtual strangers to each other these days. People in our neighborhood go on several vacations a year, and they usually go away on weekends. Adults work five or six days a week. Neighbors are virtual strangers to each other. How responsible am I for their well-being? Am I my brother or sister's keeper? That’s not a simple question to answer.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus widens the whole concept of the neighbor. From being a friend, or a close acquaintance, or a kinsman, or a fellow countryman, Jesus enlarges the concept to include anyone who’s in need, even an enemy.
This story seems straightforward. The priest and the Levite, who ought to show concern, simply pass by a man who is half-dead by the side of the road. The Samaritan, regarded by Galilean Jews as not much better than a dog, stops to offer what help he can. Then he goes the extra mile by taking the injured man to an inn and paying the innkeeper for lodging this total stranger -while he recovers. The Samaritan treats the victim the way he would want to be treated himself, if he were in the same predicament.
Whenever I've heard the story, I've always identified with the Samaritan, and felt shocked by the behavior of the Levite and the priest. I would hope that any of us who saw someone lying injured in the road, would go out of our way to help. So why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side?
People who have been mugged in broad daylight have often reported how others passed by, with their heads averted. Fear can paralyze us -- especially when it comes to reaching out and helping others -- because we are so preoccupied with ensuring our own safety. It's not easy to be a Good Samaritan, as it seems.
If I were in center city Allentown around midnight, and I saw a man with dirty clothes, holding an empty bottle of spirits, lying in the gutter, would I stop? Should I, a woman alone, stop for a stranger at night? If I saw someone being mugged by a gang, should I attempt to intervene? If I saw an elderly person trip on the sidewalk, I'd have no hesitation in rushing to assist. I remember a time, many years ago, when I ran after a mugger in Manhattan who stole my friend’s purse. He gave it back to me. It was just a teenage kid. But I’d never do that again.
Perhaps the priest and the Levite were frightened of being mugged themselves, if the robbers were hiding by the side of the road. That Jericho road was extremely dangerous. People avoided it if they could. Was the man by the side of the road, really injured, or was he a decoy? There were Jewish laws that prohibited temple officials from having contact with unclean bodies, and with someone else’s blood. If a priest touched the injured man he would be considered unclean for a week. He would have to go back to Jerusalem for a ritual bath. But we think the Samaritan had probably been taught the same rules.
Who is my neighbor? It’s easier to be neighborly at a distance—to wave at the man next door when he’s mowing the lawn, or to go to his yard sale, than to offer personal assistance when he falls on his driveway. I'm happy to give a donation to PCUSA offerings. But the closer to home the more risky it seems, the more difficult it is to make the decision to help. It's easy to be neighborly to people who present no threat, and who won’t ask you to do anything hard to help them. It's pleasant to be neighborly with people who are grateful. On the other hand, it’s scary when strange men who come to the church door want instant hospitality. Sometimes they behave in an aggressive way. Sometimes they look like they slept on the Ironton Trail. I can’t help thinking, “If I open the door to help this man or woman, what will happen to me?” And so I clutch my cell phone and open the door just a crack. Or I don’t open it at all, if I don’t know the person.
Before I came here, I had read a news story about a church employee who was murdered when she was in the building alone. It happened in a small church in the Poconos, just eight years ago. How can we be everybody’s neighbor and protect ourselves, too?
What does it take, to live a life that pleases God? Everybody is your neighbor, said Jesus. There are no exceptions. All people far away. All people near at hand, both pleasant and unpleasant, both easy and demanding. Even the ethnic and religious groups who seem most different from us, and the ones we may see as threatening. We know that Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of this story to shock His listeners. Galileans hated Samaritans. But God sees all people as His children, Jesus tells us. We need to think less about extraordinary situations and to practice being a neighbor to everyone in the ordinary, mundane actions of our lives.
Jesus told this story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question: 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' "You must love your neighbors,” said Jesus. He never let fear paralyze Him. We must prepare to put needs of others before our own. That’s what Christian love is. Jesus said: "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”
Our schedules are full. Who needs more misery? Who wants inconvenience? But we are called to give to those in need. Jesus says this clearly. Christians help neighbors with their hearts, their hands and their feet. Even strangers! The Samaritan did.
Almighty God, pour out your Spirit on us. Give us strength to go into regions of grief and pain and illness and offer neighborly love. Amen.
“A Tale of Two Sisters”
July 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
This isn’t our favorite Bible story. Women, in particular, tend not to like it. Few of us feel we can take the time to sit at the feet of our Lord and Savior. We live in a culture that drives us to distraction with busyness. The biggest source of our identity is our work. Some of us, literally, work ourselves to death, to prove our value as human beings. At parties, the first thing people ask is, “What do you do?” If work is the only way to a strong self-image, then sitting around must show we are weak.
Too many women and men are like Martha. Our lives are filled with reminders to do things. We feel the pressure to go here, go there, finish this, and check this off. It used to be that only doctors wore pagers in case of emergencies, but look at us now! Getting robo-calls to confirm our appointments, getting kids in and out of the house, filling out paperwork, feeding pets, answering email—all these jobs take priority on a normal day. Society rewards the Type-A personality.
Imagine the pressure you’d feel, if you were in charge of a dinner party for Jesus. Mary and Martha are excited about hosting the Lord in their home. Jesus and twelve other guests will be there for the evening. They’ll need to be fed, given drinks, and shown a good time. But this hosting gig is turning into a nightmare for Martha. She seems to feel she has to do all the work.
Martha rushes, fusses, cooks and cleans. The Greek word that is used to describe how Martha welcomes Jesus is hypedexato. It refers to the kind of hospitality that hosts were expected to extend in the ancient Middle East. It seems as though Mary is head of the household, and probably the older sister. As Jesus’ host, she has a moral duty to welcome and serve everyone who shows up at his or her door. This custom goes back to the time when the Hebrews were nomads in the desert. But there’s a difference from the social expectations of our own time. In those days, the responsibility of the hostess didn’t necessarily include talking to the guests. And so, it’s not surprising when Jesus enters Martha’s home and she falls into cleaning and cooking and baking—so much so that she loses sight of her relationship to their guest of honor.
However, her sister, Mary, doesn’t forget. All that Mary wants to do is be near her teacher for as long as He is there. She’s out in the living room, having a theological conversation with Jesus. She’s chosen to leave Martha in the kitchen to deal with the pots and pans. Mary’s teacher and Lord has a lot to say about life’s meaning, and she is caught up in their conversation.
Understandably, Martha is a little indignant. Both sisters had agreed to host Jesus, and both are trying to love Jesus in the way they know best. But Martha’s doing all the work.
Martha goes into the living room and tries to break into the conversation. Frustrated and tired, she interrupts, and instead of addressing her sister, she speaks to Jesus. “Master, Mary is not doing what a hostess is supposed to do! She’s just sitting there on the floor talking when there’s work to be done. What do you have to say about that?”
This is where the story takes one of those twists we find so often in the gospels. Jesus surprises both women by responding, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What a surprise! Jesus doesn’t smile politely and let Mary go to the kitchen to wash dishes. And He certainly doesn’t go in to pick up a towel and help dry them! Instead, He tries to get Martha to stay in the living room with them. Jesus wants both sisters to sit at His feet, have a conversation, and contemplate the Word of God. I can picture Jesus in that room, saying, “Martha, please don’t worry about the dishes; they will get done later. Do not be distracted. The important thing is to listen to God.”
Life is full of routine jobs that need to be done. None of us can escape them. Even in the church, where our relationship with Jesus is the most important concern for us, we become so distracted with getting little jobs done perfectly FOR Him, that we neglect our relationship WITH Him. Jesus wants us to take a few moments for ourselves with our Lord and Savior each day.
Jesus has seen right into Martha’s inner self—into that part of her, deep within, that is like a frightened child. The world rarely sees that side of a take-charge person like Martha. But Jesus sees and knows everything. He resets her priorities.
God has made every one of us and desires to be in conversation with us. The message of this story is to find the balance in life. Don’t let your sense of responsibility make you crazy. Find the true meaning of life in Jesus, and then work to serve Him in joy.
It is not an either-or situation. For Martha, there’s time later to get the house cleaned, and she can enlist Mary to help her do it. But first, both sisters need to listen to their Savior. So it is with us. There is time to do all the things that are important, but putting things in perspective with our Lord has to come first. If we don’t make it a habit to sit at the Lord’s feet, it’s easy just to forget about Jesus entirely.
Although all the little jobs make us feel useful, too often they get in the way of God. Meetings, overtime, family obligations, cleaning the house and mowing the lawn distract us from the work of prayer and worship. When we neglect our relationship with Jesus we risk becoming cantankerous complainers about all the work that needs to be done and all the people who aren’t helping us do it.
By the time Jesus visits Mary and Martha, He’s near the end of His journey to Jerusalem, and He has so little time to proclaim the message He’s been sent to give. We are called to listen to Jesus too, while there is time. God has a hard time entering a mind that’s caught up in taking care of business. Put aside your to-do list when our Savior is near. Be ready to engage with God at the right moments, even if it means you can’t meet the expectations of others immediately. Sit at Jesus’ feet and worship, and the rest will eventually get done. We may even find that, as we listen and seek out a spiritual perspective on our lives, we are freed to do more.
Are both Mary and Martha inside you? That’s good—celebrate both. And keep your priorities straight. Don’t let the good, get in the way of the best!
Let us pray. God of our busy days, God of our quiet hearts, come to us and speak your word of peace. Make yourself known to us, so that we may be your faithful witnesses. Amen.
“Never At A Loss For Words”
July 24, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
We pastors have an unfair advantage when it comes to prayer. Our work requires us to pray, so we do it constantly. We pray at the beginning and end of every church meeting. We pray with people who stop in the office for appointments—usually at the end, because then we know what to ask God to do, to help them. We pray beside hospital beds. We pray at the start of a meal, and sometimes we even pray on the telephone. Often we are the recipients of prayer, too. Prayer becomes routine for us. And the Lord’s Prayer, we too often say automatically.
We forget how hard it is for many people to pray. I believe the human race is not inclined to prayer. It doesn’t come naturally, because it’s centered on God and not on ourselves. Most folks don’t see prayer as an ongoing conversation with God. Instead, it’s a “foxhole” kind of thing that they save for emergencies. If the weather channel forecasts a blizzard, people race to the Giant to buy milk and bottled water and paper towels, long before they think of praying for their family’s safety. I don’t think it’s a natural human tendency to want to talk to God throughout the day.
And yet, prayer is essential element of the Christian life. We have to learn how to pray. Some people give up when they can’t think of fancy, flowery things to say to God—especially if they have to do it in front of other people. When I began as a pastor, I felt awkward praying in public. It’s easier now, I still think it’s weird when families pray together loudly in Burger King. It seems more like showing off their Christianity than like real praying. To me, prayer is a quiet, private thing to do. And yet I respect the fact that people have different says they like to speak with God.
Jesus lived His life in daily fellowship with His heavenly Father. He prayed in public on special occasions—like when He was baptized in the Jordan River. But mostly He prayed alone. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed as He struggled with His call to go to the cross. As He prayed, the disciples slept. They were prayerless, while Jesus was prayerful. There is no mention in the Gospels, of the prayer habits of Jesus’ twelve followers at all, outside of this passage from Luke, chapter 11.
Of the four Gospels, Luke gives the greatest emphasis to Jesus as a man of prayer. He prays almost constantly in Luke. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just finished praying when the disciples ask Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The prayer that Jesus taught, “The Lord’s Prayer,” isn’t a magic formula for getting what we want. But it is a simple outline, to guide us into a meaningful relationship with God. And because most Christians who speak English, know the words, it brings us together as a faith community when we say it together. We have variations, like “debts” and “trespasses,” but we use basically the same version from the Gospel of Matthew, the one from the Sermon on the Mount.
I think the magic in the Lord’s Prayer, is the way it brings us together, as the body of Christ. The best example of unifying prayer, in my life, happened in the summer of 2004 when I served as a chaplain in a community hospital in Edison, New Jersey, as part of a seminary internship. At the hospital I found my best prayer partner of all time—a woman who was a patient there.
A young woman named Mary had lain there all summer in a coma, in the Brain Trauma Unit. She had “gone under” anesthetic for a simple foot operation to straighten out a hammer toe, and she hadn’t come out of it after a month. I had visited Mary once a day, and she had been completely unresponsive. She never opened her eyes when I was with her. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer TO Mary—not WITH her, every single day, saying it right into her ear as she lay there. I have to admit my praying with her was getting kind of automatic after eight weeks of no response. Then one day, my last day at the hospital, Mary began to say each word of the prayer. Her mouth moved as she spoke it in a hoarse whisper—right along with me. I was stunned. So were the nurses. Her mother, who happened to be visiting that day, was ecstatic when the nurses told her what had happened. I never found out whether Mary recovered, but the Lord’s Prayer seemed to have worked a miracle for her that day.
What is this parable of the friend at midnight, all about? Jesus is teaching us that we should be persistent in prayer. Ask, seek, and knock! The friend is outrageously pushy, waking up an entire family and all their animals, just to ask for a loaf of bread! We have to keep our praying. We have to be brave about it. We must focus our whole lives on it. The man keeps on knocking. Just like I kept on praying with Mary, the woman in a coma. It seemed hopeless. I could have seen other patients during that time. I truly don’t know why I didn’t stop, but I didn’t. The person praying, wasn’t really me. It was the Spirit in me.
What does Jesus mean, about the father and the egg and the scorpion? He is teaching that God, as our Father, showers us with gifts. To be one of God’s children is to be gifted. Gifts come in many forms—abilities, possessions, and just plain surprises! Matthew’s version just says, “good things,” but Luke says the greatest gift God gives us is the Holy Spirit.
I had an unexpected gift from the Holy Spirit, again this week. I was struggling to get started on a grant application for our church. Grant proposals are a lot harder to write than sermons. I was praying, not only to find the words to end the proposal, but also to know who to call. I had to find out what Whitehall/Coplay and Catasauqua are doing to keep kids safe from drugs. I was stuck on the last question on the application form. It asked about community contacts to help continue the program when the funding runs out. Out of the blue, on Wednesday morning I got a phone message from Denise Continenza. Denise is a state official who is working with the local public schools to educate families, as part of the Communities that Care program. She was extraordinarily helpful. I helped her, too, by giving her a phone number and an email address is Catasauqua. Her call came on the day our church needed it. The Holy Spirit made that conversation happen. All I did was to return her phone call.
This is what persistent prayer does. It pulls us closer to God. And as we move closer to God in prayer, we find that we don’t always get what we want from God. We get something better. We get what we need. We get what God wants. We begin to desire what God desires, so that what we ask for, knock for, and seek after becomes what God so desperately wants to give us.
Let us pray. We worship you, O God, for you are the one who seeks our good. You desire to give good things to all your children. Help us to trust in your goodness. Give us the courage to reach out to others as we act out your intentions to give blessing to all. Amen.
“Rich Toward God”
July 31, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
Luke 12: 13-21
I like to shop. I don’t need more stuff, but I feel a happy “buzz” when I bring home bargains. On Friday I saved $124.00 by buying seventy-eight dollars’ worth of sale merchandise at Bon Ton. My daughter and I call this a “score.” John always tells me I could have save even more, by not buying anything.
Shopping can be fun, and that’s how we end up accumulating material things. After a certain age, we start giving it away. Yard sales give us a chance to get rid of our stuff, but they also tempt us to buy more. My tendency to collect books that I might not ever read, and shoes I may never wear, helps me understand the greed of the rich man in Jesus’ parable. He has taken in a bountiful harvest and wants to keep every last kernel of grain. But just because I can understand how he feels, that doesn't mean that I believe it’s right to hold onto every shred of material wealth. Sometimes, I feel guilty about not sharing my stuff with those in need.
There is an old story about two brothers who inherited the family farm. It’s not in the Bible, but it’s a good story. The brothers believed that siblings should be treated equally. One brother was single and the other was married with three children. As the story goes, there were two houses on the farm, so each brother got one. There were two large barns and two smaller barns and the brothers got one of each. The animals were divided equally. The land was divided equally as well, acre by acre, pasture by pasture.
Some of the neighbors thought these brothers were taking this fairness thing to extremes. Every evening they would make certain that the animals were back to whichever brother they belonged and any grain left over was divided into sacks and taken to each one's barn. Absolutely everything was divided equally, just as their father had wanted it.
This worked just fine, until one day when the younger brother began to think about this arrangement. "This is not fair ... not fair at all. My brother has a wife and three children while I am single. He has more mouths to feed than I. We have to even things out!" And that evening, under cover of darkness, the younger brother took a sack of grain from his own granary and took it to his brother's barn and left it there. He continued to do this every night after that.
That same day the older brother thought to himself, "This isn’t fair at all. We must change this arrangement. My brother is single while I have a wife and three children. They will take care of me when I am old and can no longer work on the farm. My brother will have no one to care for him." And that evening, the older brother took a sack of grain from his barn and carried it to his brother's granary. He continued to do this night after night.
One very dark night, as the story goes, when each of them was moving grain from their barn to the other barn, the brothers smacked into each other. When they realized what the other had been doing, they embraced as brothers. I'm told that they continued their practice until they were too old to carry the sacks of grain anymore. To this day, their children and their children's children carry sacks of grain each day to help them remember their grandparents’ unselfishness.
As the legend goes, the spot where they met, where they collided with each other, on that dark night, was the very spot that God declared that his temple would be built. For nowhere, on the entire earth, was there a place where a better example of unselfish love could be found than in that spot.
How different this story is, from the parable of Jesus! So completely different is this story, that it’s tough to get our minds around it. The degree to which these two brothers loved each other goes far beyond simple unselfishness.
People who “want it all” and want it now, are like the rich man in Jesus' parable. Instead of finding a way to give some of his wealth away, he tears down his barns, builds larger ones, and stores everything he owns in the bigger barns. Then he sits back to relax. Little does he realize that he will die the next day.
Before we get too smug about how we would behave if we were to harvest a bumper crop, let's be honest with ourselves. Would you or I give any of it away? How different are we from the rich man in today's parable? Are we ever satisfied with what we have?
This parable reminds me of an English folktale about a poor woodcutter. When I worked in the library, we performed it as a puppet show for children. The woodcutter went to the forest to cut down some wood so he could earn enough money to feed himself and his wife to survive for another day. He found a tree in the forest that he could sell for a good price. But as he raised his ax to cut it down, a forest fairy stopped him. Because the tree was older than he was, the fairy asked him to spare its life. The man answered that without the money that the tree would bring him, he and his wife would starve. "Then," the fairy said, "If you spare the tree I'll give you three wishes.” The man promised never to cut down the big old trees in the forest. And so, the fairy gave the woodcutter three wishes.
The woodcutter ran to his wife, rejoicing that they were going to be rich. His wife wasn’t so sure. But the woodcutter explained about the forest fairy and how he had promised never to cut down old trees and had then been granted three wishes.
They began to argue about what to wish for. "A house," he said. "No, a palace," she replied. "A bag of gold, to pay for the servants we'll need," he said. "Why wish for only a bag when we could have a wagon made of gold?" she countered.
Finally they were worn out from arguing. The woodcutter said, "I'm hungry for some sausage." You know what happened. His wife scolded him since he had so foolishly wasted a wish on sausages for dinner. The wood cutter angrily responded, "I wish those sausages were attached to your nose." And so they were!
Sobbing, the wife sat on the floor and her husband said, "I suppose there's only one thing to do now." And so he wished that the sausages were off of his wife's nose. Immediately, they were gone, and so was the third wish. The wood cutter and his wife sat down for dinner. What a fine dinner it was!
Jesus’ parable asks His listeners: How much do we really need, and what will we do with extra stuff we don't need? We will be rich toward God if we invest in things that have eternal value.
When you have had an abundant "crop"--- an inheritance, a promotion or a generous bonus, do you build “barns” by purchasing stocks and bonds? That’s financial planning. We all want to do that if we can. Do you save $124.00 by using coupons at the biggest sale of the year, in order to spend $78.00 on marked-down items you don’t need—it’s fun, but do you really need new stuff?
When you invest your wealth, and when you spend it, do you first thank God, from whom all good things come? Then do you give, from your abundance, to help others? Amen.
Let us pray. Almighty God, help us to see our lives as dependent upon you. Lord Jesus, make us wise in the ways we live and use our gifts. AMEN