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July/August 2012 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Interruptions" — July 1
"Why Does God Give Us Limitations?"
— July 8
"The Most Difficult Commandment"
— July 22
"A Formula for Fellowship" — August 5
"A Beachside Breakfast" — August 12
"What Do You Most Want?" — August 19
"God Has the Last Word" — August 26

July 1, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 5: 21-43

Do you know what the most wonderful thing about preaching is? I can talk for ten, even fifteen, minutes into this microphone without being interrupted. This gift you give me is really remarkable. It’s great when you listen to me every Sunday morning. It’s even better when I get a laugh from the congregation. It doesn’t even bother me when I see somebody nodding off.

I want to be “interruptible” during office hours. That’s why I always write my sermons at home on weekends. I spend a lot of time writing. To write a sermon, you need to hear the words in your head before you type. If I lose my train of thought, it sets me back as much as an hour sometimes. I jump out of my seat when the phone rings in the middle of writing a sermon. How do you feel when a telemarketer, or (heaven forbid) a recorded voice, interrupts your train of thought? Annoying, isn’t it? John and the cats know better than to walk in the room when I’m typing.

One of the great things about worship is that we hardly ever get interrupted here. You’re good about turning off your phones. Isn’t it nice to sit in peace and quiet, in the pew, until ten a.m.? I remember how I loved sitting in church every Sunday, when I was the mother of a toddler. It was the highlight of my week. That was even in the days before I had a cell phone. A calm, peaceful place to pray! Our lives are so frantic the rest of the time.

In the gospel passage from Mark, Jesus is going about His ministry in Galilee. Jairus stops Jesus and asks Him to heal his little daughter who’s dying, at his home out in the suburbs. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue of greater Galilee—something like a ruling elder in our church. Jesus agrees to visit the sick child.

But while Jesus is walking toward Jairus’ house, a woman on the street reaches out and touches His robe. She’s been sick for twelve years and she’s heard that touching the robe of a healer will make her well. Jesus could get annoyed, but He doesn’t snarl. Instead, He stops and talks with her. Then He heals her. This is a major interruption, if you think about it. It distracts Him from His life-saving mission to help Jairus’ little girl. He’s patient, but we’re not sure if He should be. Would you have stopped?

It would be easy for Jesus to brush this woman off. She’s a social outcast. The people of Jerusalem believe that sin has made her sick. She really has nerve, touching Jesus and speaking to Him. According to Jewish law, this pushy woman is a nobody. He has every reason to ignore her. But, to Jesus, she’s not a nuisance. She’s a woman of faith. He pronounces her cured, and then goes on to Jairus’ house.

But now, it seems He’s too late. Rumor has it that the little girl has already died. And yet, Jesus knows she can be saved. He completes His journey and brings Jairus’ daughter back to life.

Why did Mark, the gospel writer, combine these stories? Both are about faith and healing. The woman’s been ill for twelve years and the daughter is twelve years old. Women and girls in that society were nobodies, no matter how wealthy or important their families were. Jesus calls both women “daughter.”

When I first read this story, it put me on edge because of the two interruptions. I hate interruptions. I would have a hard time being as patient as Jesus. He doesn’t snarl or get angry. In fact, He seems to welcome any chance to help the people around Him. Jairus’ request to Jesus is the first interruption in this story. The second interruption comes from the woman on the street.

What if you were Jairus? Let’s imagine a modern setting for this story. Your child is gravely injured, and you’re riding with her in an ambulance to LVH Cedar Crest. On the way to the emergency room, the driver makes a detour to center city Allentown to pick up a man with arthritis. He takes both patients to the E.R. at the same time. When you arrive at the hospital, your daughter has died. Wouldn’t you be angry?

Notice, as you read this story, how your attention stays with Jairus’ daughter, and how it distracts you during Jesus’ conversation with the older woman on the street. You’re thinking of that poor kid, waiting for Jesus to help her out in the suburbs. Do you find yourself getting annoyed with Jesus, for being such pushover for the woman? It’s not fair for her to monopolize Him the way she does. But don’t forget we aren’t dealing with human power here. Jesus has the power of God. He can handle complications. No problem is too small for Him.

I used to struggle with interruptions in ministry. It finally dawned on me that interruptions ARE my ministry. I had to be open to the needs of others, especially on Sunday morning. Interruptions are part of being a neighbor, a parent, a teacher, a nurse, a driver, a supervisor. Being willing to lay down your life for your neighbor doesn’t mean you have to be willing to die. You set everything aside to help people when they need it—like the Good Samaritan, and like Jesus in today’s story. Today we’ll encounter Jesus when we touch the bread and the cup. We’ve already met Him in prayer, and in the Word proclaimed. He is here to help.

We tend to be self-absorbed, and from time to time we need to be pulled out of our own lives. Sometimes the only way to overcome grief or depression is to connect with another person who’s in more pain than you are.

Once I was on a shut-in visit for my church in New Jersey. I had several stops to make, so I planned to stay twenty minutes in each home. I was a real-clock-watcher that day. When the 98-year-old woman whom I was visiting fell asleep on the sofa, I started to put on my coat. Then I noticed that Natasha, my shut-in’s caregiver, was crying. I couldn’t understand her words too well, because she had an accent. She asked me to watch a video before I left. I had no idea what this video was, and, frankly, it was the last thing I wanted to do. But she insisted. “I can stay a few minutes,” I said. She brought out cookies and coffee, and I sat down to watch. People stood in a cemetery in the snow. I saw a casket being lowered into a grave. As she pointed out her mother and sister, her face contorted in pain.

I saw a date on the screen. The film had been made two weeks before. Natasha’s family had mailed her the video from Moscow because she hadn’t been able to go back to Russia for her dad’s funeral. We watched the entire movie and prayed together. Then I visited two other shut-ins, calling them from the car to explain my delay. They were fine with it. I headed for the office to outline the next worship bulletin. My paperwork seemed trivial, compared to Natasha’s sorrow. Interruptions can throw you off-track—or put you on track. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray. We open our hands, O God, & we open our hearts and lives to you. Reach out and touch us today, we pray. Find the place deep within us, where we most need your healing. Bring us new life. In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN

“Why Does God Give Us Limitations?”
July 8, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

2 Corinthians 12: 1-10
Mark 6:1-13

This is a painful story. I’ve never wanted to preach about it before, because it makes me feel bad for Jesus. The people of Nazareth are pretty rough on their hometown boy.

We want people to think we’re perfect. It must be hard to live in the same town all your life. People who knew you in kindergarten, or in middle school, know your faults. Have you ever noticed that people who look older than they are, or weren’t successful, stay away from class reunions? Only the classmates who have done well, have the courage to show up. When a federal judge meets up with his teenage buddies forty years later, they remember the braces he wore in eighth grade and they know he didn’t make National Honor Society. At the reunion, he gets to feel proud of the ways he’s changed. On the other hand, the former cheerleader who’s gained seventy-five pounds stays away. Sad, but true! Inside every adult, there’s a sixteen-year-old hiding.

People who know our faults may not take us seriously. The British royal family works hard to keep their private lives from getting in the papers. They’re afraid that they won’t be effective in representing the British Commonwealth if people know they’ve had a lot of affairs, or that they eat Pop-Tarts for breakfast. Queen Elizabeth calls that struggle for privacy, "not letting too much sunlight into the magic." She lost her battle with the news media at the end of the last century. And yet, the Queen endures. She seems to have strong Christian faith.

When Jesus preaches to His former neighbors, they grumble, "What is this wisdom that has been given him? Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?"

Do you notice that Jesus can’t perform His usual miracles in Nazareth? All He can do is to lay His hands on a few sick people and heal them. Too much sunlight has been let into His magic. We all know how that feels. If, in your childhood, you had a teacher who didn’t like you, you probably didn’t do well in his or her classroom. Imagine how the disciples feel when they see Jesus being bullied by people who knew Him “when.” This is their first taste of the trouble ahead.

But there is a lot more to this gospel story of rejection. It’s a story about our unwillingness to be helped by God, or by anybody else. The people of Nazareth may be afraid to ask this rabbi, who knew THEM “when,” to help them out now. They are proud and insecure. So are we. We think we know what’s best. It’s tough to admit our weaknesses and let God exercise His power in us.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous probably understand the gospel better than most theologians. They will tell you that the key to turning their lives around was to admit that they were, and are, and always will be, powerless over alcohol. Listen to the first three of the twelve steps of the AA program: “We admitted that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God...” The Twelve Steps of A.A. urge its members not to depend on themselves.

Until we admit our weaknesses, we can't find the help we need. The Apostle Paul was imperfect, like the rest of us. We don’t know what Paul’s weakness was, but we’re pretty sure it was physical. He had what he called “a thorn in his flesh.” Some think he may have been epileptic. Others guess that Paul had cataracts or severe migraine headaches. He tells us that he prayed, three times, that this weakness might be removed. Whatever it was, it was a major handicap. Paul was so disabled at the end of his life that a certain physician named Luke traveled with him around the Mediterranean. That’s why there’s so much detail about Paul’s ministry in the book of Acts. Luke wrote it.

On the third occasion when Paul prayed, God answered him and said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul responded, "So I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For whenever I am weak for the sake of Christ, then I am strong."

To the ancient Corinthians, and to most people today, this makes no sense. Our society worships power and strength. We hide our inadequacies with a façade of self-assurance. The world teaches us that we can do what we need to do on our own, and that the answers we need can be found within ourselves.

This is the wisdom of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve, not the wisdom of God. Every alcoholic who is still taking secret drinks tells us he or she can quit. Every person with an unhealthy habit tells us that he or she has the situation under control.

Our weaknesses aren’t blessings. They’re problems. We fear rejection. But when we ask for God’s help, instead of relying on our own strength, we discover that God's power is made perfect in our weakness. Many of us perform best when we’re under pressure to strive.

The flaws we’ve lived with all our lives never completely disappear. The thorn in Paul's side stayed with him. But God's power can transform flaws into strengths, in our own mind and in the minds of others. There was a librarian I once knew, who was not neat in her work habits. This is a Mary and Martha story, and I am the Martha. Let’s call this librarian, “Mary.” Mary had papers all over her desk. She arrived late, forgot where she had parked, and never got reports done on time. I prayed to God to help me accept her sloppy habits. Then it dawned on me that there were things I appreciated about Mary. She didn’t start the day by making lists. Instead, she let life happen to her. She didn’t mind being put in charge of the building on Saturdays, when other supervisors wanted time off. She didn’t complain when construction workers drilled outside, or when a borrower asked her for help one minute after the library closed. Her relaxed ways made her stand out among all the librarians. I complimented her for her flexibility. She began to blossom. Mary never organized her life, hard as she tried. As her supervisor, I got to love her anyway. I believe God loved her, too. She died happy, at age 80, last year.

We all need help. One day a small boy was trying to lift a stone that was much too heavy for him. His father walked by. Seeing his son’s struggles, he asked, "Are you using all your strength?" The boy replied, “Yes, I am.” But the father answered him, "No son, you aren't. Why haven't you asked me to help?”

Do you hide your weaknesses, because you’re afraid people will discover what God knows about you? God doesn’t always heal us, but He stands by us in our pain. God was with Jesus and stood by Him when His old friends jeered at Him. Pray for Him, who knew failure, to help with your challenges. God can do for us what we can’t do ourselves.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you promised that there would be a cross for each of us to bear. Teach us your power that is manifest in our weakness, so that we might show the world the light of your love. AMEN

“The Most Difficult Commandment”
July 22, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Jesus has been really busy in today's gospel lesson. He’s worked day and night. Listen to Mark’s account of one day, earlier in Jesus' ministry:

"That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there He prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, "Everyone is searching for you." 

If Jesus walked into our church right now, would He have a Smartphone? Would it ring during our worship service? I can just see Peter calling Jesus’s cell and saying:  "Lord, everyone is looking for you, can you call us back right away?” Would Jesus put His phone on “vibrate”? Or, would He pick it up, and then leave to find Peter?

We struggle with God’s commandment to rest on the Sabbath. Even God, Himself, rested after creating the world. If even God needs to rest, why do we believe that we don’t?

Look again at how quickly Jesus and His followers get sidetracked from their r and r. The twelve have gathered around Jesus to tell Him about their week. They are exhausted. Jesus can see it. He says, "Come away to a deserted place with me and rest awhile."

Jesus is a good boss. He gives His workers permission to keep some holy time. So they all hop in the boat and sail down the shore. There’s a wilderness ahead—just what they need. Peace and quiet.

But what happens? Mark’s account tells us, "Many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them."

Great! Has this happened to you? You’re going to the Jersey shore to swim and relax. You’re on your way down the Garden State Parkway, and your family is looking forward to stopping in an antique store on Long Beach Island. But before you get there, you discover that dozens of people from your church have stopped at the same rest stop, and they all recognize you!

What does Jesus do when He sees the crowd pursuing Him? Does He say, “It looks to me like you aren’t remembering to keep Sabbath?” Of course not! He has compassion on those people, because they are "like sheep without a shepherd." He teaches them, right then and there. People begin "rush[ing] about the whole region" and bringing sick people to Jesus, and He heals them.

Even if it’s your day off, if someone needs you, you do whatever is necessary, and your rest will have to wait. That’s the life of a pastor.

Rules are made to be stretched—but not broken. Jesus made it very clear that the fourth of the Ten Commandments isn’t negotiable. It can be reframed, but still must be honored. We have a hard time taking that commandment seriously. It seems like a quaint custom. Some of us remember the Blue Laws that kept stores closed on Sunday. That’s unheard of in the Lehigh Valley today—unless there’s a snowstorm or power outage on a Sunday. Our society doesn’t honor the human need to rest. The expression, “24/7” is part of everyone’s vocabulary. People sit and text at wedding banquets. They chat with their bosses on the phone in the Giant and in the doctor’s office.

Work is important, to be sure, but it’s not the reason for our existence. Now, the way I’ve talked about this so far assumes that we have some degree of choice about the hours we work, and our opportunities for rest. Most of us do. But we need to recognize that our culture has made Sabbath-keeping difficult for many of our sisters and brothers.

I don’t just mean stores being open on Sundays, and sporting events scheduled for Sunday mornings. I’m talking about the ways in which our society demands more of our time and energy than God expects us to have to give.

For working people, in this difficult economy, the pressure to be a workaholic comes on us in one of two ways. If you’re a salaried employee, you probably don’t work just forty hours a week. You’re expected to get your job done. If the company has downsized, with half as many salaried employees to do the same amount of work, you find yourself working twice as hard to stay employed. If your work doesn’t get done, there’s always someone who would be happy to take your job.

At the other end of the spectrum, are the hourly workers being paid minimum wage and given part-time hours, so that the employer doesn’t have to pay for benefits. If that’s you, you may have to hold down two jobs just to pay your rent and feed your family. There is no time for Sabbath. You devote your evenings and weekends to your second job.

How can we honor God’s commandment to rest on the Sabbath, in an economy that makes rest nearly impossible? Even people who are retired don’t rest much. I hear some folks in our congregation say that they’re so busy in retirement that they don’t know how they ever held down a paid job! Even if our work is unpaid, we still need to rest. If we don’t, we’ll get seriously out of whack in our relationship with God.

We’re limited in what we, as individuals, can do about this problem. That’s one reason the Christian community is important. If every Presbyterian observed the Sabbath on Sundays, we might be able to make changes in the way people rush around all weekend.

No, Jesus wouldn’t carry a Smartphone! He would refuse to be tied to His work. I believe He would ask his followers who do carry cells and laptop computers and iPods to put their electronic gadgets away and spend time alone with Him.

Keeping the Sabbath isn’t just about our choices with respect to our time. It’s also about helping to re-create a world in which workers don’t get exploited. People who work hard, need to rest. God has commanded us to recharge our bodies and minds once a week, or more. While we live, let’s enjoy the world God has given us, and the people with whom we share it. Come away and rest.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you called your disciples away from their labors in order to rest with you in the wilderness. Help us, Lord, to realize that we don’t run the world, and that it isn’t possible for us to fix what is wrong with ourselves and other people. Help us to remember that you are God, and that we are not. Give us the grace to enjoy your promised rest, now and always. AMEN


“A Formula for Fellowship”
August 5, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Ephesians 4:1-16

I just read a heart-warming story about a seven-year old girl who got lost one day. She was frantically running up and down the street when a police officer stopped to help her. He put her in his car and they drove around the neighborhood. She spotted a familiar building and told the driver to stop. With confidence, she said, “You can let me out here. That building is my church. I can always find my way home from my church.”

This is a feel-good story. We hope the children in our Vacation Bible School will feel good about Jesus, and good about our church, in the way that little girl felt---for years to come.

Today’s epistle lesson from Ephesians is a “feel-good” lesson. I like to preach on it. Last week I was reminded, during my study leave, that this book of the Bible is mysterious. Paul didn’t write it. Biblical scholars agree on that. This is one of the great letters of the early church. They agree on that, too. Who really wrote this letter? How did early Christians respond to these words? How much does the author’s identity matter? The writing style and vocabulary are different from the wording of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Thessalonians and Corinthians. This isn’t as much of a problem as it sounds. We know that Paul’s ideas were expanded by his students after he died. The ancient Christians didn’t see this as a forged letter. The letters that the students of the Apostle wrote, carried his authority, just like the great paintings of Peter Paul Rubens’ students do today.

Paul would approve of the Letter to the Ephesians. It’s a sermon on unity, written to be preached to the Christian congregation in the largest port city of Asia Minor. These people had joined up with a new faith called Christianity. They had started a house church from scratch, without the gospels to guide them, because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written a few years later. There was no Book of Order to follow. These folks were tempted by paganism. Emperor worship was required of them if they wanted to succeed in business and have a social life. Their leaders competed with each other to show off how holy they were. The writer, whoever he or she is, tells the Ephesian Christians how to live in unity, as Jesus would have them live. In verses six and seven, the author uses the word, ONE, no fewer than seven times.

Chapter 4 begins with these words: "I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called." The writer isn’t telling the Ephesians to clean up their act. What he’s describing is on-the-job training. You get hired before you actually know all you need to know, so you learn by doing. As you work, you improve your qualifications to be a good Christian.

Belonging to God is like that. The call comes first. Then, God helps us become worthy. It doesn’t work the other way around. God “qualifies the called”; God doesn’t “call the qualified.” Think of the Bible heroes who were called to do God’s work. Many of those people were unlikely choices, in my opinion.

Moses was a murderer. He had killed an Egyptian overseer and fled to the desert to avoid execution. At the burning bush, he got tongue-tied at the thought of speaking in public. If God wanted a dynamic leader to help free the people from slavery, Moses would not have seemed like the best choice to me. Yet God called Moses and gifted him with what he needed to get the job done.

What about King David, the shepherd boy? David was young and quiet. He wasn’t a warrior or a prince. Instead, he was a poet and musician. Not the usual resume for a head of state! Yet God called David. Despite his faults, he became the greatest king of Israel.

If you were trying to start a new church, would you call Peter as its leader—a man who spoke first and thought later? A man who lied to save his own skin and betrayed his best friend?

Or Paul, for that matter! Would you want a traveling evangelist to serve as a minister, who had recently tried to round up and murder Christians? I doubt it. Or would you choose Mary, an illiterate, unmarried fourteen-year-old girl from a small town, to mother the savior of the world?

God called these people, and sent them out, and did great things through them. They weren’t better candidates for holiness than we are. They just lived two thousand years before we were born. But they set aside all their trivial concerns and followed God’s call. They made mistakes, but each one lived a life worthy of his or her calling.

What about us? To what have we been called? And what are we doing about it? Our response to the call of God determines whether we are worthy. The letter to the Ephesians suggests signs we can look for, to see if we are on the right track.

The worthy life, as he describes it, is one filled with humility and gentleness. Our world doesn’t encourage us to be humble or gentle. People warn us not to let ourselves be taken advantage of. But that’s not really what humility and gentleness are about. Humility means honesty about our gifts. We didn’t gift ourselves with the ability to be humble or patient. God did.

Patience and bearing with one another in love, go hand in hand. I’m not the best person in the world to talk about patience! But some of you are gifted with the ability to be patient. We’re all so different. Without patience, and forbearance, we wouldn’t last long enough in the same room together, and churches couldn’t continue to exist.

The last ingredients Paul describes are unity and peace. And it’s appropriate that those come last. We can’t get to these two until we have made progress on the other four. Unity doesn’t mean unanimity. We aren’t ever going to agree on everything. It does mean that we recognize our calling from God. It means that our "gifting" by the Spirit binds us together in ways that are much more important than the things that separate us.

The Christian church has always struggled with God’s command to unity. Christians weren’t united in Paul’s day, either. Here, the writer reminds them:"There is one body and one Spirit," he says, "just as you were called to the one hope of your calling." notice the letter doesn’t say that there is only one calling, just one hope that inspires and guides all of those callings. Are you an apostle? prophet? evangelist? pastor, or teacher? Equipper of the saints? Builder-up of the body of Christ? What are the Ephesian Christians being called to do? In summary, to cooperate with the will of God. God is at work to bring everyone back together--and back to God. Let that be the sermon we preach with our lives. Let’s show the world that our God is not just OUR God, but that our God is the one God whose love is for everyone.

Let us pray. Almighty God, you call us to a worthy life. You have given us Jesus and His word, and you have given us a congregation and its treasures. Remind us of your grace and providence. Right here, right now, there is enough to answer your call. AMEN

“A Beachside Breakfast”
August 12, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 21:1-14

Have you been fishing recently, and not caught any fish? We all have to “fish” to survive-- not necessarily in a boat, or with a net or even a pole. When you don’t catch anything for days or weeks or months, you lose hope.

You and your wife want to move to Florida soon. You’ve advertised your home for sale. You even dropped the asking price a couple of times in the past year. A handful of buyers have looked at it. Some of them seemed to like your hardwood floors. But still, you’ve had no reasonable offers.

You’ve graduated from a major university. You served in the U.S. Navy before that. The Navy paid for your education. For two years, you’ve been applying for jobs in your chosen field. You’ve had interview after interview, but not a single offer has been made. The employers are looking for people with more experience.

You have plenty of friends at school, and people say you’re nice-looking. And yet, for some reason, nobody has ever asked you out. It’s getting so you dread the weekends. Your junior year is starting, and you don’t expect to go out much this fall, either.

But now, suddenly, after years of despair, God brings you a miracle! Your fishing net is full; in fact, it feels too heavy to lift. A young couple offers to buy your home, paying the full asking price in cash. A job offer comes from the West Coast. You get asked to the Homecoming football game and dance, two months early. You feel so good, you feel like Christ has given your life back to you. Like Peter in this story, you want to jump into the water, and then out of the water, and shout hallelujah!

This is one of my favorite stories from the Bible. Seven of Jesus’ disciples had lost hope of ever seeing their Lord and Savior again. Suddenly, He shows up at the Sea of Tiberias. After a wonderful breakfast on the beach with Him, they have enough faith to go on. Now, they can trust God! The children in Vacation Bible School heard this story last Wednesday night at their final class. In the historical record of Jesus’ life, this story is really important. It’s an eyewitness account that proved to the early church fathers that Jesus came back to life. After all, how could a ghost have prepared a meal of broiled fish over an open fire, and then have eaten a piece of fish?

In your mind, go back two thousand years and picture yourself getting into that boat. Just three years ago, you’d given up your fishing business—not to mention your family-- to follow Jesus. You’d watched as He performed miracles. The feeding of the five thousand. Seven lepers healed. A blind man’s sight restored. A little girl and two grown men, raised from the dead.

Then, suddenly, Jesus was dead and your life seemed to be over. You and your companions locked yourselves in the upper room, feeling depressed and scared. But then, you learned that Jesus had appeared twice after the resurrection. His friend Mary Magdalene saw Him first. Thomas got to put His fingers through holes in Christ’s hand and side. Now Peter had decided to start over. Peter has never been able to sit around and feel depressed for very long. He’s a Type A personality, for sure! He still has a boat on the Sea of Tiberias, about a two day walk from Jerusalem. Now Peter’s decided to get on with his fishing business. “We need to get away to the shore,” Peter announces. You have nothing to lose, so you and the other six disciples step into Peter’s fishing boat and get ready for a successful catch.

At first, you’re disappointed. The fish aren’t biting. Your net is empty. How can that be? You know where the shoals of fish are, but where are they tonight? You are frustrated and hungry and wet. Your hope hasn’t returned. Then the dawn breaks, and you hear a voice calling from the shore. “Have you caught any fish?” a familiar voice calls. At first, you don’t realize Jesus is the man who’s speaking. He looks like another fisherman. He’s telling Peter to throw the nets from the other side of the boat. You and Peter and the others decide to do what the stranger tells you. Suddenly, your net feels heavy. It’s full to bursting, and yet it doesn’t break. In this miracle, you recognize the work of Jesus.

Peter is stunned, just like you are. He yells, “It is the Lord!!” Peter’s wearing a loincloth, like all fishermen wear. But now he puts on his sandals and robe, then jumps into the water and gets soaking wet. Why does Peter act so strangely? Jewish law has always required a man to be fully clothed before performing a religious act. Greeting a rabbi—especially a resurrected rabbi—is a religious act, for sure!

There’s a promise from God in today’s gospel lesson. It’s the same promise our students at Bible school heard. Wherever you go, and whatever happens to you, you can TRUST GOD! We go through weeks and months and years of not catching any fish—no job offers, no college acceptances, no prom date, no offer on the house, not even any let-up from the heat! But we must never give up. Christ won’t let our nets come up empty forever. He’s there, wherever two or three are gathered. He stands beside the sea, waiting to show us something new.

Every month, He shares a meal with us. He’s present in the water in the font, whenever a baby is baptized. Children in the Vacation Bible School have seen Him all summer. You can see their “God Sightings” on the wall in the big Sunday School room—the little clouds all around the big blue poster down there. Jesus is here now. We don’t have to climb up to heaven to find Him. If He tells us to lower our nets on the RIGHT side of the boat, instead of the left, I think that means it’s time to try some new things.

Sometimes we don’t see Jesus because we are looking for something, or somebody, different. Cary Grant, the movie star, used to tell about how he was walking down the street in Hollywood and met a man he didn’t know. The man’s eyes locked on his eyes, with excitement. “Wait a minute!” the man said. “I know who you are! You’re…don’t tell’re Rock Hudson. No, you’re not Rock Hudson, you’re…”

“Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant. “No, no!” said the man. “You’re not Cary Grant! Don’t tell me, I want to guess…”

Where shall we look for Him? (Jesus, not Cary Grant!) In our work, our school, our family and our friends—and even our enemies. Jesus revealed God at a breakfast on the beach, at a time when even His best friends had stopped looking. It is God’s nature to come to us, and He always will. So don’t YOU stop looking.

Let us pray. Gracious God, may we find in you a compelling vision that frees us from fear. No matter what happens, help us to place our trust in you. Send your Holy Spirit, we pray, to inspire us. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN

“What Do You Most Want?”
August 19, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Kings 2: 1-12, 3:3-14

Do you remember Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren? They were popular advice columnists fifty or sixty years ago. Did you know they were twin sisters, too? I liked to read “Dear Abby” in the local newspaper. She seemed to have a lot of common sense. Apparently, millions of Americans agreed with me. Here are a couple of my favorite letters to Abby:

DEAR ABBY: My husband hates to spend money! I cut my own hair and make my own clothes, and I have to account for every nickel I spend… He says he’s saving for a rainy day. Signed, Forty Years Hitched

Abby’s Response: Dear Hitched: Tell him it’s raining!

DEAR ABBY: I am 44 years old and I would like to meet a man my age with no bad habits. Signed, Rose.

Abby’s Response: Dear Rose: So would I!

We need wisdom to manage our finances, to keep our relationships healthy, and to do our jobs. People pay professional counselors to help them make decisions. They go to expensive seminars. They read self-help books. Sometimes people meet with me, and I’m free. However, I’m not always wise. I have had to seek out wisdom in the Bible, and from other people, many times. The wisest words I have ever heard, or read, are the words of Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament lesson Carol read to us today is a story about King Solomon of Israel. He’s just twenty years old in this reading. He was crowned almost a thousand years before Christ was born. I feel sorry for the “poor little rich” young man in this scripture reading. Solomon’s people are expecting him to fill the shoes of King David, his father. His mother is the beautiful, sneaky Bathsheba. She has managed to kill off most of her son’s competition. When many men his age are shepherding or doing carpentry—just as men of his age today are in college or working at McDonald’s—he has all this power and responsibility to deal with, not to mention the constant danger to his life.

The first thing Solomon does is to make a thousand sacrifices to God at the shrine of Gibeon. Then he follows a strange old custom. He sleeps inside the shrine, so can hear God’s word in his dreams—and, sure enough, he does. God appears to Solomon and says, “What do you most want? Ask what I should give you!” If God said a thing like that to you, what would you ask for? A long and healthy life? A better job? A winning lottery ticket? Or a little peace and quiet?

Solomon gets an “A” for his answer. First, he thanks God for being good to King David, and then he thanks him for anointing him—that is, Solomon—to the throne. Here’s what Solomon asks for: “I am only a little child…your servant is in the midst of the people you have chosen…give your servant an understanding mind to discern between good and evil.”

Here’s how God responds: “Because you have asked this, and not asked for a long life or riches or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding…I give you a wise and discerning mind…I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life. No other king shall compare with you.”

And God does bless Solomon with wisdom, riches and honor, and, best of all, a listening mind. History tells us that Solomon’s early years went well, indeed. He prayed often to God. The young man had a great gift—the ability to get things done. He built the temple in Jerusalem. He wrote some of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. He expanded Israel’s territory through many military victories. The kingdom was always in the black, even though he spent plenty of money. But Solomon was best known for his wisdom.

Here’s a story I like, from those early years. There were two women who shared a house and both of them had babies at about the same time. But one night the one baby died in its sleep, and while the other mother was sleeping, the mother of the dead baby switched her dead child with the living baby. And so in the morning a huge fight broke out between them over whose baby had died and whose was alive. They went to King Solomon, looking to him to use his wisdom to settle the matter. Maybe you recall what Solomon did. He said, "Bring me a sword, and I will cut the living baby in two, and I’ll give half to each mother." And the one mother said, "That’s fine with me." But the other mother said, "No, if that’s what you’re going to do, then give the baby to her. I’d rather lose my child to her then to have it killed." And as soon as she said that, the king said, "Don’t lay a hand on the child. Now I know who the true mother is. Give the baby to her!”

People came from all nations to meet Solomon and to learn from him, as word spread about his wisdom. But—and there’s always a “but”—the king’s listening mind didn’t keep him out of trouble. God became less important to him, while absolute power corrupted him absolutely. He spent thirteen years building a palace for himself—twice as long as he spent building the Jerusalem temple. He made shady political decisions. What’s more, he married seven hundred women and acquired three hundred concubines.

For Solomon, wisdom wasn’t enough. It’s not enough for us, either. Self-help books and seminars can make us wise. Even our failures can teach us. But when our lives become as challenging as Solomon’s was, wisdom alone won’t get us through. We need the wisdom that we can find only in the words and deeds of Jesus. In Christ, we find enough hope, mercy, and forgiveness for a lifetime. Just as Solomon made a thousand sacrifices to God, Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, to redeem our sins.

Even though God gave Solomon riches and a long life, he still went astray and misused his power and wisdom. We aren’t kings or queens, but we have greater riches than Solomon ever had. In Christ, our greatest enemies—sin and death—are destroyed forever.

When Carol read from the Letter to the Ephesians, we heard caution in those words: “Be careful how you live, for the times are evil.” The letter challenges the people of Ephesus, who have been behaving foolishly, and forgetting to worship God. As Paul writes, a wise and faithful person knows the will of God and does that will. Solomon had begun to ignore God’s will. We cannot afford to do that. The times are evil, indeed.

We face many decisions in life that aren’t easy to make. Never forget the words God spoke to the young Solomon: “No one like you has been before you, and no one like you shall arise after you.” Isn’t that true of each one of us? God created us like snowflakes, with no two alike.

Seeking to become wise is a good thing, but it puts the focus on us. There’s a lesson to be learned from Solomon’s story. Let’s aim higher than he did. Let’s seek Christ and ask for what we need every step of the way. May we sit at Jesus’s feet, and may we listen to Him with our minds and hearts, as we live and learn and struggle every day.

Let us pray. Almighty God, show us how to focus on you, so that we may cease to live for ourselves and live for Him who died for us—Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN


“What Do You Most Want?”
August 26, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Revelation 21:1-7

Do you ever wonder if God has forgotten you? Samuel Morrison felt that way. He was a missionary who had served for twenty-five years in Africa. He returned to America when his health started to fail. President Theodore Roosevelt was on the same ocean liner, traveling home. The President had been in Africa for a three-week hunting expedition. As the ship pulled into New York harbor, it looked as if the entire city had come out to welcome Roosevelt. Music filled the air, banners flew in the wind, flashbulbs popped, and confetti streamed down like snow. The crowd applauded as the President stepped off the boat. While every eye was on Teddy Roosevelt, Morrison got off the ship and slipped through the crowd. Because of the crush of people there to welcome the President, Morrison couldn’t even find a cab. Nobody was there to welcome him home. His heart ached with the loneliness and the injustice of it all.

He turned to God in prayer, and said: “Lord, the President has been in Africa for three weeks, killing animals, and the whole world turns out to welcome him home. I’ve given twenty-five years of my life to you in Africa, and no one cares I’ve come back.” Then, the missionary heard a voice from heaven say to him, “But I know, and you aren’t home yet!” That’s a message we can all find in the book of Revelation: that a grand homecoming awaits all the faithful children of God. God has the last word.

John Faisetty just read Revelation 21:1-7 for us. This famous passage is from the ending to the strangest book in the Bible. It describes the city of God as a place with golden streets and pearly gates, a place where suffering and death don’t exist.

Our Bible study group, from the Hokendauqua and Slatington Presbyterian churches, has been reading Revelation all summer. We’ll reach the end on the Thursday after Labor Day. Our meetings have been lively and even funny. We have two more to go. We just learned in the past week that Reformation leaders Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli didn’t believe Revelation should be in the Bible. John Calvin liked the book a lot better, but he got bogged down in the symbolism. If you’d like to join our group, we meet at seven each Thursday night here at the church, and there are study guides left. We’ve just about reached the end of the hardest part of Revelation.

Did you know that Revelation has wonderful hymns? “Holy Holy Holy,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” “Power in the Blood,” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, were inspired by the book.

Do you ever read the ending of a book first? I do that sometimes. Some of us skipped ahead to the happy ending of Revelation before reading the stories of gory battles in the middle. You’ve just heard the beginning of that happy ending. Revelation is written in ancient style called apocalyptic. It’s one of the forerunners of science fiction fantasy. Apocalyptic writing seems weird to us, but it was popular from the first century BCE through the second century A.D. Apocalyptic books tell scary stories of battles in heaven between God and the Devil. The poor people of Asia Minor loved these stories, because they saw themselves as the good guys and the Roman Empire as the bullies. They enjoyed hearing that the powerful bad guys had lost. It gave them hope. Hundreds of apocalyptic books were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Daniel and Revelation are the only two in the Bible.

Chapter 21 and 22 of Revelation are full of good news. Its author, John of Patmos, was sure that God had a better world in store for Christians. His book reminds us that a day will come when our journey will be over and we’ll find ourselves safe at home in God’s house. What’s more, God won’t be just in heaven. He will make the earth a place of welcome for the faithful.

The world was cruel for early Christians. They were being tortured and killed, for no other reason than their faith. When John wrote Revelation, he was in exile on a desert island off the coast of what is now Turkey. The Romans had sent him there to punish him for his rebellious attitude. The name, “John,” was common in the Middle East. This wasn’t the apostle John, but a later prophet. John considered himself both a Jew and a Christian. Coastal Turkey was a frightening place to be, at the end of the first century. Volcanoes had been erupting around the Mediterranean, killing thousands and burying cities in lava. The worst were Vesuvius, in Italy, and the entire neighboring island of Santorini. Around the same time, the Roman Army had destroyed Jerusalem and burned down Solomon’s great temple. Christ’s disciples were struggling to keep on believing in God when it seemed as if their world was ending.

John wrote this book as a sermon to be read to seven small churches in Asia. He was their favorite preacher but couldn’t visit them. A scroll containing the book was carried from church to church by a messenger on foot.

Revelation gave its listeners hope that they would meet God. Imagine how wonderful these words sounded to starving, tortured people. As they listened, they pictured a new earth, free from drought and torture and volcanic eruption, where they could worship as they pleased.

There isn’t a person here who has come this far in life’s journey untouched by trouble. Our lives have not gone as we planned. We all know about sorrow. According to the fourth verse of Revelation 21, troubles cannot follow us to heaven. When we die, there will be no more death or sorrow, crying or pain. We will see God face to face, as John tells us. We’ll see how he’s managed the universe, and we’ll have 20/20 hindsight. We’ll be able to say, “God, you did good!”

For people who are dying and have a few months to prepare, John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth is comforting. Faithful Christians like Samuel Morrison, the missionary who came on the boat with Teddy Roosevelt, could take heart, reading the last two books of Revelation and knowing they would be rewarded for their faithfulness.

Martin Luther King, Jr, preached on Revelation in his final sermon, “I See the Promised Land,” before being fatally wounded in Memphis in 1968. Dr. King challenged his hearers to help build a new earth. Here’s one of his last sentences. “It’s all right to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day, God’s preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, and the new Los Angeles.”

Think of God at work in center city Allentown, and in the community around us here. God is everywhere. Life is hard for so many people we know. We have our work cut out for us--to offer help as God brings about a new creation.  

Let us pray. Almighty God, you rescue us with your love and power. You give us the gift of new life, a fresh beginning. Bring us to your New Jerusalem, we pray. Show us how to take part in your transformation of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN


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