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June 2016 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"An Act of Grace" — June 12
"Seeking God In All Things" — June 26


“An Act of Grace”
June 12, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

Today's gospel story is very short, and not well-known. You may never have read it. But, in this story, Jesus raises a widow's son from the dead. Jesus shows what His ministry is really all about, in doing this miracle. Some disciples had hoped that Jesus would get rid of the Roman government. But bringing a dead man back to life puts political ambitions to shame! Jesus reminds us that power isn't found in the ability to force others to do your will. True power is the power to restore life and to create hope. First, Jesus shows His followers this power. Then He gives it to them. He gives it to us, too.

Jesus has just arrived in a town called Nain, twenty-five miles south of Capernaum where He has been teaching. A crowd has followed Him here. Jesus is just outside the town gate, when a funeral procession goes by. At that time all funeral processions were large. In ancient Judea, everyone in the small towns knew everyone else. Many people would have been standing along the road to pay their respects. There would have been professional mourners, playing musical instruments and working the crowd up into a frenzy. The women mourners would be crying loudly.

The dead man is the only son of a widow. Luke writes, "When (Jesus) saw her, He had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep'”. On the spur of the moment, Jesus' heart goes out to this woman. Jesus knows that she has lost her sole means of support in her old age, not to mention her only child.

As the funeral procession passes by, Jesus is so moved that He touches the long basket, upon which the bearers carry the corpse. This is a shocking thing to do. He risks ritual contamination according to Jewish law. But Jesus doesn’t care if He becomes unclean. Jesus says to the corpse, loudly, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" and the dead man sits up and begins to speak.

Compared with Jesus’ other miraculous healings, what's different, here, is that it doesn’t mention faith as a requirement. Jesus has no idea whether the widow or her son have had faith. In Capernaum, Jesus has healed the slave of a Roman centurion, apparently because of the trust the Roman officer has placed in Jesus. "Not even in Israel have I found such faith," Jesus has said. But in the story of the widow’s son, the dead man is brought back to life simply because Jesus has compassion for his mother.

In this story, thankfulness is nor mentioned either. We have only a mother’s tears and a son’s unrecorded words. We are left, then, with one thing—grace. Jesus doesn’t revive the son because of the mother’s pleading, or even because the man deserves a second chance at life. He performs a miracle because His heart has gone out to the widow. This is undeserved, unasked-for grace. Perhaps the mother is very faithful, and maybe the son had been a righteous man. But this story says more about Jesus than about either the widow or her son. It tells us that when we are given grace, we only have to decide whether or not to accept it. We don’t have to do anything to deserve it.

This story in Luke is quite a bit like the Elijah stories in the Old Testament. If there was one person Jesus patterned His ministry after, that person would be Elijah. But it’s not a rerun of the Old Testament tale Carol just read. Jesus seems definitely to be a prophet of the order of Elijah, but He's much more than that.

In First Kings, Elijah restores a widow's son. In this story, the mother is quite distraught. She accuses Elijah of somehow having a part in the death of her son. After all, she has welcomed the prophet into her home, and through the power of God, Elijah has given them enough to eat. But now that her son has died, she wonders if Elijah could have caused her son’s death. She says, "What have you against me, O Man of God? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Upon hearing this, Elijah is confused. He proceeds to revive the boy through the power of God. But first, Elijah himself has a few words with God about the unfairness of what has happened. In an act of what appears to be the transferring of vital life force from his body to the body of the young man, Elijah stretches himself out over the boy's body three times and cries, "O Lord, my God, let this child's life come into him again.” The Lord hears Elijah's prayer, and the boy comes back to life.

With Jesus, matters are simpler. The word is spoken, and the deed is done. The son is returned to his mother. She doesn’t even have to ask Jesus for her son's life. It all takes place simply because, "When the Lord saw her, He had compassion.” The word for compassion Luke uses is the strongest word for sympathy in the Bible. In English, compassion literally means "with passion." Empathy is perhaps the word that comes closest. With divine power behind it, compassion brings life to the dead.

I recall a story I heard a long time ago. A prominent businessman was walking down the street of a large city. It was night, and it wasn’t safe to be on the streets of that city alone. At that hour, there were derelicts sleeping in the streets. As he was walking by, the businessman looked down and saw a man curled up in the gutter, trying to stay warm. The night air was getting chilly. Something about this man made the businessman take another look at him. He stopped. Finally, he walked over to get a good look.

When he saw the man, and the look in his eyes, the businessman instinctively did what Jesus did with the widow who had lost her only son at Nain. The businessman's heart went out to the man in the gutter. He bent down to him and said, "Whoever you are, you don't belong here!" The businessman took the man home with him to see if he could help him.

As it turned out, the businessman was right. This man didn't belong there. He was a family doctor who had become addicted to alcohol. Just as Jesus had seen that the young man deserved to live, so the businessman saw that this man didn't belong in the gutter. This story has a happy ending. The businessman arranged for the doctor to be admitted to a rehab facility, and he later turned his life around. All because of compassion.

Compassion can do more than you may think. Especially if it's straight from the heart of Jesus. When we stop to help people in need, then we too are disciples of Jesus. With God, our context is always grace—undeserved mercy. The story of the widow’s son reminds us that, where Jesus is concerned, a parade can break out anywhere—even during a funeral procession. Let us celebrate with the people of Nain and cry out, “God has looked favorably on His people!”


Closing Prayer: Loving God, who watches over us in our life and in our death, help us to trust in your care. Teach us how much you love us and help us to share that love with everyone we see. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.


“Seeking God In All Things”
June 26, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 9:51-62

This marks the beginning of Jesus’ great journey to Jerusalem. His long walk from Galilee is a frame for the next ten chapters of the gospel of Luke. It’s a travel story, but much more than that. Time is short for the Son of God. The shadow of the cross is looming for Him.

If you are like me, you work most effectively when there’s no time to spare. Pressure is the best motivator. Here’s a travel story that happened several years ago, in rural Indiana, to an 81-year- old passenger who was flying to Indianapolis. He was 5,000 feet in the air in a two-seat Cessna when suddenly his friend, the 52-year- old pilot, slumped over. When the pilot unexpectedly died, the elder passenger realized he knew nothing about flying and even less about landing! In the next twenty minutes he gave his total attention to the voices on the radio, giving him instructions. A pilot, flying nearby, coached him and gave him a "crash course" (pardon the pun) in flying a two-seat Cessna and most importantly in landing. The 81- year-old man circled the airport three times and came in, bounced a few times, and landed in a soggy field. The only damage was a bent propeller. God had been with him, helping him to focus under pressure. It was a miracle.

If that near-crash had happened to you, it wouldn’t have been hard to determine your number one priority, would it? You wouldn’t even think about calling out for pizza, or taking a power nap, or reading a book, from the cockpit of that plane. The main thing, and the only thing, would have been to land and not crash!

Stephen Covey in his book, First Things First, says the biggest issue in life is just that -- first things first! So the compelling question is this: How do WE focus? People around us are in desperate need. We are called to bring the kingdom of God to earth. Which people do we focus on serving?

One day, right after Jesus has been rejected by the people in a Samaritan village, someone comes up to Him and promises, "I will follow you wherever you go." Later, Jesus says to another person, "Follow me." But the person excuses himself, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus turns to another, "Follow me." But he answers, "Excuse me, Jesus, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family." Jesus' response is uncompromising: "Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God ... no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Most of us have never plowed, but Jesus knows His audience has plowed many a furrow. They all realize that a farmer who looks back when plowing, and doesn’t look forward at the chosen guidepost, will plow a crooked furrow. Jesus’s words sound harsh to us. He was shocking His listeners to make His point, as rabbis often did. His point—FOCUS.

Jesus heard many excuses in his three-year ministry. Some were frivolous. Many were admirable. We make choices about the way we spend our time. Some might sound like excuses. If we’re not here every Sunday morning, are our reasons, excuses? What could be a more admirable task than to care for one's family?

It started at the end of 2012. I had worked fulltime for 44 years. I began struggling with urgent family needs that were making it harder to minister full-time. I am still working that out, a little each day. I believe it is possible to fulfill God’s calling by focusing on your family. I don’t think this contradicts Jesus’ words.

There are legitimate conflicts between going to your child’s playoff game and seeing him recognized in worship on a Sunday morning. There are painful issues with attending a six hour Presbytery meeting in Reading and leaving your husband at home. There are urgent issues with living five hundred miles away from your mother when she is dying. God is able to use us, if we focus on the real issues God wants us to handle. Supporting your child, caring for your mate’s well-being or visiting your parents are ways to serve God. You have supported me in all these things.

Are you making excuses? Or are you struggling for a workable solution? Consider the story of a little boy playing hide and seek. He ran quickly and found a remote cabinet in the house. This ought to be the best place of all, he thought, as he climbed in and closed the door. He remained absolutely quiet. But his sister saw his shoelace sticking out under the closed cabinet door, followed it, and found her brother. Excuses are like shoelaces. Find and follow them, and eventually they will take you to the real issue.

A woman I knew in my first church, didn’t attend worship, even on Christmas. I learned, one day, that she had been hurt by someone in the congregation. The insult had happened many years before. She had developed a mental block about going back to that church, even after the person was long gone. We need to search our hearts about the excuses we make, and to set the irrational excuses aside. A bruised ego is an excuse. Family needs are not excuses! Pray and ask God to help you make the choices you need to make.

Discipleship is made manifest in many ways. For me it is easy to confess I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I have a comfortable home in a safe neighborhood. I’m not going hungry. Am I following Jesus, as much as I should, when I take a day off to shop and to read a book? Am I following Jesus when I deplete the earth's resources by using plastic shopping bags? Am I following Jesus if I am not washing my neighbors' feet in compassion? Am I following Jesus if I guide my mother and brother and husband and daughter through life crises? My training has 6 taught me how to help people. How can I use it best to follow Jesus? Those questions aren’t easy to answer.

"Come follow me," Jesus says. "Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God...." Jesus commands us to put Him first. He’s not just suggesting. What is standing in YOUR way of following Christ? Time is short.

One practical way to put Jesus first is to begin to live by the compass, not the clock. We use our watches to manage our time. When we overschedule ourselves, the clock becomes a tyrant. The compass represents our direction. Our call is to proclaim the kingdom in the best way we can-- -not to go off in two or three directions.

Jesus says, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Focus! Let God help you decide what should come first.


Lord Jesus, may we walk with you on the road to Jerusalem. In following your humble way, may we be worthy to be called your disciples. With your hand on ours, with the strength of your grace, may we put our hands to the plow, looking forward with hope to the planting of your reign in our own time and place. AMEN


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