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June 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Is Jesus the Boss, or Isn’t He?" — June 2
"Do Nice Guys Finish Last?"
— June 16
"One in Christ" — June 23
"Excuses, Excuses" — June 30


“Is Jesus the Boss, or Isn’t He?”
June 2, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 7:1-10

“Say the word, and it’s done!” That’s exactly what happens in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is asked, by the local rabbis and the centurion’s friends, to save a slave from death. He says the word, and a man he doesn’t even know, is instantly healed. Jesus never meets this man, before or after the healing takes place. He never even meets the slave owner either. So great is Jesus’s power, that He can heal by remote control.

What happens in this gospel story is something like what we do on Sunday mornings when we pray for people we love, who aren’t with us. Faith in Jesus gives us great power. Our intercessory prayers make us important agents of healing for our families and friends. Our cards, our calls, our prayers and our love really matter.

Dr. Harold Koenig, associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the scientific study of the potential of spiritual healing. After studying thousands of hospital patients over the past thirty years, he has found that religious faith not only promotes good health, but also aids in recovery from serious illness. “By praying to God,” Koenig has said, religious patients “acquire an indirect form of control over their illnesses.” The patients he has studied, believe that they are not alone in their struggle and that God is personally watching over them.

We have authority figures all around us. Most of the time we take them for granted. The Bible tells us to respect civil authority. Our society needs stability, now more than ever. We obey stop signs most of the time----not just so we won’t get a ticket, but so we can avoid accidents. We pull over when an ambulance has its lights flashing. We pay our income taxes. We carry out our boss’s instructions in the workplace. We make sure our children do their homework and that they don’t skip school. We respect the U.S. Constitution. In our churches and our community, we follow decisions of our leaders, even if we don’t personally agree with them. We take the medication our doctors prescribe for us. Very few people want to run for mayor or the chair of the school board. We can’t do everything. Life is complicated, and we want to stay several steps away from chaos. So, we let others lead us.

Sometimes we make the mistake of giving our community and civic leaders more authority than God. Why do we do this? I think it’s because our religious faith is weak. We don’t need faith to know that we will probably get stopped for driving sixty miles an hour in a school zone. But in order to really understand that we have sinned, and that God is unhappy about it, we need strong faith in God’s sovereignty. How strong is your faith? Do you believe that God’s love and grace are constantly renewing the world He created? Do you believe that God has delegated all authority on earth and in heaven to His Son, Jesus Christ?

The centurion of our story is a military officer of middle rank. He’s been sent to an occupied country under Imperial Rome’s domination. Galilee, is the setting of this story, is a hotbed of revolutionary Jewish zealots. In Jesus’ time, there was bitter hostility between Israel and the Empire. This Roman officer happens to be one of the most powerful men in Judea. He has more than five hundred soldiers reporting to him. Most officers in the Roman Army had very little respect for the local population, but this officer obviously loves them. He’s donated a huge amount of money to build the local synagogue. Not only is this centurion a good man, but he is also an unprejudiced one.

This story shows us the generous spirit of Jesus, too. The Son of God doesn’t help only Jewish people. He helps Roman slaves and their masters, too. Jesus doesn’t seem to have any problems dealing with a Roman soldier. He is surprised—even delighted-- by the centurion’s faith—this man who actually addresses Him as “Master.” As a Galilean Jew, Jesus is HIS subject. This is the kind of reversal we often find in the gospel of Luke. The centurion seems very sure that, when Jesus commands that something must be done, it WILL be done. If Jesus says that someone should get healed, even slaves, the least powerful people in society, they will be! It’s that simple.

Where a Roman soldier has learned to have so much faith, we’ll never know. If he’s lived in Capernaum for awhile, he’s heard of Jesus and the healing miracles He has performed. Clearly, the centurion believes that Jesus has dominion over disease and death. What is the gospel writer telling us here? Why would Jesus praise a Gentile so highly? Luke, the physician, was himself a Christian of Gentile origin. In this story, Luke depicts the centurion as a model of faith for non-Jews. The focus of Luke’s entire gospel is God’s blessing of healing and salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Compare the centurion’s healing request with our own, often wishy-washy, prayers. “Lord,” we might pray, “I might perhaps like you to do this, but I’m concerned that you may not want to help me, or it might be too difficult!” Then we go on our way, puzzled, not sure whether we have really asked God for something or not. Where is our faith in the power of prayer? And even if our faith is strong, do we really believe we deserve God’s blessing? Does our fear of being rebuffed by the Almighty, keep us from asking Christ to help?

By the time we have reached adulthood, most of us have learned, from experience, that God is not a vending machine. Sometimes we pray, and God’s answer is no. But we should never hesitate to ask God for what we need. The power of the Word accomplishes great things. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, from chapter 55, verse 11: “So shall my word be, that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Through Jesus, God repairs our broken bodies, minds, and spirits. God’s Son can turn the world upside down and inside out. We can’t explain why, any more than we can explain the presence of Christ in the bread and the cup we will share today. Healing, Holy Communion, and baptism, are the greatest mysteries of faith. Even if our faith is strong, we may not heal in the way we had hoped. And yet, where Jesus walks, salvation is available to all. That’s the good news of the gospel—that He comes with open arms when we pray. Is He the Lord of the world, or isn’t He?

Let’s pray. Almighty God, you have all the power in this world. We turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care. Draw us together, we pray. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith can be found, in this world, where we least expect it. In the name of Christ, we pray. AMEN


“Do Nice Guys Finish Last?”
June 16, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Proverbs 23:22-25 & 24:3-5

“Imagine what our neighborhoods would be like if, every day, we said a kind word to just one person.” A Christian proverb, if there ever was one. Who said it? Mr. Rogers, of course. Fred Rogers was creator and host of the beloved PBS television series, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He started producing children’s shows, in 1953, because he hated the sight of “The Three Stooges” throwing pies at each other. Because Mr. Rogers had been overweight as a boy, and neighborhood bullies had called him “Fat Freddie,” as he stepped on the school bus, he knew that cruelty is never funny. Violence on children’s shows disgusted him. Right from the beginning, he saw the power of the media for teaching young people how to live. He knew that every moment in the life of a child is a teachable moment.

Earlier this week, I attended a series of workshops on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers in all stages of life. It was held at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he earned his degree in Divinity. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and father to two sons. To millions of children, he was an honorary father. He read every piece of fan mail he received, and usually he answered those letters himself. One little boy wrote to him, “When I watch your show, I feel like I have little hearts coming out of my head.”

Education has always been an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s why we’re called the “people of the book.” Many of us became faithful Christians on the shoulders of grownups who taught us to read the Bible and taught us to live holy lives. Today’s reading from Proverbs says that a house should be built on wisdom; knowledge is more powerful than strength; children should respect their parents and make them proud; and so on. Those sayings have been good lessons for living, for three thousand years. Ancient Hebrew fathers shared them with their sons. Solomon, the eldest son of King David, is believed to have written many of these sayings. Girls were taught by their moms. There are quite a few proverbs for women in the Bible. However, because few women were literate, if they heard the proverbs at all, they heard them secondhand.

Unlike Ben Franklin’s sayings, such as “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” most Biblical proverbs don’t rhyme. But in the original Hebrew, they have a strong rhythm that gets lost in translation. Proverbs aren’t great ethical laws like the Ten Commandments. They are simple tips about manners and food and family life.

In gospel stories, Jesus says many sayings that sound like proverbs. As a devout Jew, Jesus probably learned proverbs from His earthy dad, Joseph. One of Jesus’ sayings I especially like is, “If you are faithful in the little things, you will be master over the great things.” That’s good advice for Father’s Day and every day.

Proverbs show us how to be nice, in the best sense—that is, both moral and good. The word, “nice,” has a wishy-washy connotation for us today. Jesus tells parables about nice people: the Good Samaritan, the father of the Prodigal Son. Jesus is not always nice in the gospels. I’m thinking of the story of the money changers He throws out of the Jerusalem Temple. However, He is always moral and good. Love comes first for Him. He is compassionate toward others, even when it means he has to break the Old Testament laws—such as the one against healing on the Sabbath.

What attracted people to Jesus was not His “meek and mild” niceness, but His focus on mission. We can never settle for simply being “nice” -- but believing that love conquers all, is a good thing. That’s one of the messages children learned from “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood”—to be a friend to everyone.

What really mattered to Jesus, and what really matters for us as Christians, is knowing what we’re about in this life. That’s the kind of knowledge the Bible gives us. We’re called to challenge the shallow values of the majority, to work for peace, feed the hungry, and to reach out to the stranger. If we’re truly following Christ, then being nice to one another is good, but it’s not enough. Fred Rogers had something to say about this, too. He said, “Human life is deep, but our lifestyle is not. Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” Rogers was ordained by the PCUSA to a television ministry, which was controversial in the early sixties. It was unheard of, for a pastor to be called to something OTHER than to lead a church. Now the controversy seems silly to us because many of us ended up being part of his neighborhood, consisting of millions of families.

In the anxious times we live in, Christians need to move beyond niceness, into the passion of Christ. It was God’s passion for all of us that brought Christ into the Roman Empire—a world dominated by force. What are you passionate about? Are you using your gifts to serve others with the passion of a disciple of Christ? Nice people don’t finish last. “Fat Freddie,” the young Mr. Rogers, grew up to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Passionate people, faithful people, committed people, servant people finish first. It’s not nice of me to say this, but I hope those bullies learned a lesson.

Fred Rogers said, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” He was fortunate in the parents and grandparents he had. His mother told him, when he felt sad about tragedies in the news, “Look for the helpers. In a disaster, you will always find people helping. Be one of those people.” His grandfather told him, “There’s only one person like you, Freddie. I like you just as you are.” The adults in young Mr. Rogers’ life had a mission—to help him feel how precious he was, to them and to God.

Jesus saw the potential for greatness in everyone. Jesus showed children unconditional love, when other adults ignored them. He advocated for the needy, instead of being their accuser. Jesus never said to anyone, “You can’t play with us!” Don’t live to be a hero for your children. Live to be wise. Live to be nice! This is what it means to build the kingdom. The kingdom will come when His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Be guided by Jesus’ rule of love, and by the wisdom of the Proverbs. Remember what we learned from that nice Mr. Rogers about how to live—even though he never mentioned God or Jesus on the air, not one single time.


Let us pray. Almighty God, we call you Father. Help us to remember that we are never alone, because you are always ready to help us. Teach us every day. Make us thoughtful of others, and ready to share your love with them. AMEN

 


“One in Christ”
June 23, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Galatians 3:23-29

Everyone needs to belong. That's one reason why we join clubs, fraternities, sororities, sports teams, book discussion groups, and even churches. God created us to be with others in community.

God put Adam and Eve together so they wouldn't be alone. Even Jesus needed a support network. The first thing He did when He began His ministry was to gather a small circle of friends. Jesus asked His disciples for advice from time to time. He told them all at the Last Supper, "I no longer call you servants ... now I call you friends." The disciples needed that sense of belonging, too. When He told His disciples that He was going away, Jesus reassured them, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you."

United Press International covered a sad story last week. The photograph that went with it, caused a major controversy on the lnternet. It shows a grinning seven-year-old boy, awkwardly separated from his classmates. Second-grader Miles Ambridge is straining his neck to appear closer to other children who are sitting on the bleachers. The boy, who lives in British Columbia, has a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which attacks spinal nerve cells. He is the only one in a wheelchair, and it’s placed almost two feet away from the other students in the class.

His parents were shocked when they saw the photo. "It broke my heart," said his father, Don Ambridge. "My son is leaning in, and that shows he wants to be included." Miles’ dad chose not to share it with the boy. Instead, he wrote a letter to his son’s teacher. It said, 'I find this photo disgusting. Please throw it out. I don’t want it in my house. For a parent, this is very painful.” Miles' mother, Anne, said of the photograph, "This was not a malicious act. I don’t think it was done on purpose. I just don’t think there was any rational thinking behind it." In protest, his mom posted her son’s class picture on her Facebook account early last week. The school principal immediately called Miles’ parents and apologized. The photo was retaken on Wednesday, and a new class picture appeared in newspapers all over North America this morning. Miles’ parents still don’t want to show their son the original photograph. “It would hurt him too much,” said his father.

Belonging gives us a sense of self-worth. As a woman pastor, I’m so glad Paul says, “There is no male and female. We are all one in Christ Jesus.” Women were first ordained in the PC(USA) in 1954. The first Presbyterian woman pastor, Margaret Towner, started out as an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown. Now nearly one fourth of Presbyterian pastors are women. Half the student body at every Presbyterian seminary is female. But some denominations still won’t ordain clergywomen.

And yet, women have come a long way since Paul’s time. Jewish men of his day, thanked God every morning that they hadn’t been born women. Women of the middle and lower classes in the Roman Empire had little more social standing than slaves. Many parents abandoned their female babies and exposed them to the elements. They kept only their male children. Imagine how good Paul’s liberating words sounded to those Galatian women—and to the slaves, too.

There is an even bigger reason why Paul's words were good news. Listen again to verse 28 of today’s epistle reading: “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.” Paul is telling Gentiles that they, too, are the spiritual descendants of Abraham through their faith in Christ.

Paul has written this letter to address a specific problem in the church. The Galatian churches, in Asia Minor, were being told, by a false teacher, that they had to adopt the Jewish law in order to be loved by God. Paul was horrified, and you can tell how angry he was if you read the first two chapters. He skips all the nice formalities that appear in all his other letters. The Torah was the cause of deep division among God’s people, but now faith in Christ unites Christians. When God sent Jesus, His sacrifices did away with the need to obey the laws of Moses in every detail.

Paul had come a long way, in order to be able to write a letter like this one. He had once persecuted Christians for disobeying the law, and had seen them put to death by stoning.

Here’s a true story that I like because it reminds me of God’s love. A Sunday school superintendent was registering children for different classes. She asked two brothers their ages and birthdays. One of the two boys said, "We're both seven. My birthday is April eighth and my brother's is April twentieth." The superintendent said, "But that's impossible!" The other brother answered, "No, it's not. One of us is adopted." Without thinking, the superintendent asked, "Which one?" The boys looked at each other and smiled. Then one boy said, "We asked Dad that question once, but he said he loved us both so much that he couldn't remember any more which one was adopted."

Through our faith in Christ we have equal access to God, as Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Paul is saying that God can no longer remember which of us are “adopted” (Gentiles, that is) and which of us had been the sons and daughters of Abraham. We can hold our heads high. We are heirs to the promises of the Old Testament; promises like these:

Genesis 12:2 “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Exodus 6:7: "I will take you as my people, and I will be your God."

Joshua 1:5: "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Our faith alone has made us right with God. But not just OUR faith! The faith of Christ is critically important to our salvation. His resurrection brought God’s love into the center of human life. We say “yes” to what God has done by putting our trust in Jesus. Sometimes it’s easy to listen to the Holy Spirit and grow in faith. Other times, we ignore the Spirit, especially if we get distracted by the world around us. But God continues to tell us we are heirs in Christ. Although we fail, God never does.

In God’s eyes, being His family doesn’t have to mean we are all the same. It doesn’t matter if you live in a good neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if English is your first or second or third language. It doesn’t matter if you have a police record. It doesn’t matter if you have a high school diploma or went to college. It doesn’t matter if you have a job or a spouse or a car or a house. The labels society has placed on us, make no difference to God. What matters is faith. Every believer is a child of God. Through our faith we are joint heirs with God’s Son. What better news could there be?


Gracious God, All of us here today are here to listen for your voice. We are here to touch and be touched by you. Listen to the prayers of our hearts at this time and help us to listen for your voice as we pray. AMEN


“One in Christ”
June 30, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 9:51-62

Summer is the time for travel, and we love it. Families in our congregation have been to England, to Arizona, to North Carolina, and to Texas this month. Today’s gospel reading from Luke is a travelogue, but it’s not a happy one. It tells of the turning point in Jesus’s ministry. He asks His followers to give up everything to follow Him--- safety, security, control, and even their families. The disciples are afraid.

Traveling with Jesus takes us out of our comfort zone. It seems strange to preach on a tough scripture reading like this in early summer, doesn’t it? The focus, this holiday week, is on fun and adventure. And yet, Jesus and his band of followers are about to run into some fireworks that have nothing to do with the Fourth of July! Here, in Luke, Chapter Nine, Jesus lays out, in no uncertain terms, the cost of discipleship.

Jesus is on a journey away from popularity in His hometown of Galilee, turning toward Jerusalem and to His death. The word, “Jerusalem,” means “peace,” in Hebrew, but that name won’t mean “peace,” for Jesus. He will never see Galilee again. Luke tells us that Jesus’ face is "set" – that He is determined to obey God, no matter what.

Jesus chooses to travel south, through Samaritan territory. It’s a short cut to the Holy City, but a dangerous choice for Him. The Samaritans and the Jews have been bitter enemies for more than eight hundred years. Samaritans were in the habit of attacking travelers on their way to Jerusalem. When Jesus sends two of His followers ahead to a Samaritan village to find lodgings, they come back to report that no one will rent them a room. They’ve been rebuffed with words like, "Your kind isn’t welcome here. Go away."

The disciples want revenge against the Samaritans. Jesus doesn’t have time to waste, so He doesn’t let them get distracted with angry thoughts. Leave the Samaritans alone, He tells them. Following His own advice, He "shakes the dust off his sandals," And they push on. If His followers hadn’t already figured out that discipleship will be difficult, they’re getting a hint of that now. Jesus isn’t popular with everyone. If they obey His call to ministry, they won’t be, either.

South of Samaria, Jesus and His followers encounter three people who want to become disciples. Jesus doesn’t greet these well-intentioned folks with joy or encouragement. Instead, He confronts them with words that sound antagonistic to us.

To the first person, who has walked up and volunteered to join them, Jesus doesn’t say anything like "welcome aboard!" Instead, He responds that following Him will mean a life of wandering and homelessness. He reminds them all that "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

As the disciples walk on, they see a man who looks interested enough that Jesus initiates a call to him: "Come on; you look like you could be one of us; join us." But the man responds with an excuse: "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." In Jewish tradition, honoring father and mother was one of the greatest commandments. So, this isn’t an unreasonable request, especially in ancient Judea, where one of a son’s primary obligations was to make sure his parents were properly buried.

But Jesus responds harshly to the man on the road, telling him that the people who aren’t working now to bring about God’s kingdom are already dead spiritually. He says, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Then Luke’s story continues, and the travelers encounter another “wannabe” disciple. He or she walks up and says, "I’m yours, Jesus. I will follow you." But this one isn’t ready yet, either. "Will you let me go say good-bye to my family before I go with you?” the prospective disciple asks. Jesus responds: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Many of us like to get things neatly wrapped up, before we start on a new venture. Jesus knew that the cure for the craziness of life isn’t to wait until our ducks are lined up in a row. Following Jesus then – and now – is about unconditional commitment. In following Him, our lives begin to work and make sense. He calls us to reorder our priorities, putting God first. It may mean buying a cartload of groceries for someone who’s hungry. It may mean sitting up all night with a sick friend instead of getting seven hours of sleep, or spending a day in the emergency room with a relative. Given Jesus’ demands, it’s no wonder that discipleship wasn’t popular back then. It’s even less popular today. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religious Life, nonbelievers comprise more than one fifth of the adult population of America. Believers of all faiths live lives full of competing loyalties. It seems impossible to maintain the single-mindedness that Christ wants from His followers. Maybe that’s why so many people give up on Jesus.

I want to tell you a true story about a seventh-grade girl. She was on her school’s track team. A meet that had been scheduled for one Saturday, was postponed to the following Saturday, when her church youth group had put an all-day community service project on their calendar. She had signed up for it. She went to the coach and told him about the schedule conflict. He responded, “Your teammates are counting on you. Don’t let them down. I expect you to be here for the meet on Saturday. If you don’t show up, you’ll have to turn in your uniform.” After a sleepless night, she made her decision. The next day, she went to the coach’s office, handed him her uniform, and walked away. Even her parents were stunned, that their own teenage daughter had chosen God and the church over her track team. The girl said, simply, to her parents, “This is about God.”

Jesus knew that it was human nature to cherish our possessions and our families. He knows that we love our peace of mind. He said, your life may be long, and it may be good. But other people’s lives are not as good, and we need to do something about that. He calls His followers then, and He calls us now, to build God’s Kingdom on earth. Are we willing to go where Jesus leads us? My own best answer must be, "Yes, I’ll try." My own best hope is that all of us will try, together.


Let us pray. Christ Jesus, you have walked the path of life before us. You know the lonely road we travel. Guide our steps so that we might walk in your ways. Keep calling us to follow you, we pray. AMEN

 


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