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May 2016 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"A Scary Place" — May 1
"Spirited Speech" — May 15
"Messages From God" — May 22
"Choosing A God" — May 29


“A Scary Place”
May 1, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Rev. 21:10; 21:22 to 22:5

Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the Bible. It’s well known for its weird mixture of battles and lakes of burning sulfur and strange creatures. It scares people who try to read it. Unlike Leviticus and Numbers, Revelation is far from boring. There are dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, and mouths with swords in them. Lord, have mercy!

People who see Shakespeare plays for the first time, say, “Why do “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” have so many clichés?” It’s really the 1 other way around. Shakespeare wrote many of the expressions we hear every day. They were new with him, but now everyone uses them. Words and phrases from Shakespeare plays are all around us—like ‘eaten out of house and home” and “knit up the raveled sleeve of care.” The same thing is true of the book of Revelation. This last book of the Bible has had a huge impact on the way we think and speak.

If you read the book aloud, it takes about two hours. As you read, you will hear, in your mind, choruses from Handel's Messiah. In the war scenes, you will hear echoes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Those words came from Revelation.

The book of Revelation has inspired rock and roll. Singer Pat Boone had a hit in the 1950’s, “Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There,” about its vision of heaven. Hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” were inspired by scenes from the last book of the New Testament. Why has Revelation provoked so much curiosity? Why do we sing about its vision of heaven so often?

The world today is a scary place, but it was in 70 AD too. Exiled Christian leader John of Patmos composed Revelation as a letter to give hope to persecuted Christians in seven churches on the west coast of Asia Minor. It’s based on an amazing dream he had. The Roman conquerors had outlawed Christianity because believers refused to worship the emperor. Christians were forced to pretend to worship Caesar and stay away from church. Their belief in Jesus as Savior was falling away. John had been separated from the Christian flocks and exiled to a deserted Greek island, because his preaching so angered the Roman conquerors.

We live in a frightening time; that’s no surprise to any of you. God’s very creation is in danger. Basic services like clean water are breaking down. Two hundred species of plants and animals are becoming extinct every day. We see the evidence of decline all around us in the Lehigh Valley. Although the best-known cases of lead poisoning in drinking water have been in Flint, Michigan, we hear that the tap water in center city Allentown is severely polluted, too. A dozen young people in Lehigh and Northampton counties, perhaps more, died of heroin overdoses this year. Why should young people, so beautiful and energetic and full of life, be in such despair that they need chemical highs? In large part because companies have gone overseas leaving few employment opportunities. So many kids graduate with no hope of getting a job better than bussing dirty dishes and trash in diners. They grow up without knowing Jesus and thinking religion is for old people.

The frightening news goes on and on. If ever there was a time when the world needs the healing grace of Jesus Christ, it is now. Sometimes we wonder if this is the end of the world. Perhaps this is why the book of Revelation appeals to us. It brings out our deepest longings for healing. You might be asking the same question Jesus asks in today’s gospel reading: “Do we want to be made well?”

The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD seemed like the end of the world to John’s congregations. For them, it had been the home of God. To give them hope, the author of Revelation invites those seven churches in Asia Minor to move out of Babylon (the symbol of the Roman Empire’s domination) and into the grace of the city of God in heaven.

And what a city it is, this new Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation! It’s much better than angels and harps at the pearly gates! The streets are paved with gold in the heaven that John of Patmos describes. There's no need for a temple because God is everywhere around them. The gates are always open and the gifts of creation are abundant for all nations of the earth.

The Tree of Life is planted on each side of the river of the water of life and produces twelve kinds of fruit. Why was this so exciting? We buy fruit at the supermarket—fresh, frozen, inside donuts and parfaits, on top of cheesecakes and made into jelly. But remember that the poor Christians in the cities of Asia Minor didn’t see—much less eat—fresh fruit! They lived on home-baked bread and water they carried in jars from the wells.

I think of heaven in Revelation, every time we pray the Lord's Prayer together: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Those of us who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ need to live out our belief that God intends to restore the life of all creation to the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die. This vision is about life in God's presence now, a life that keeps God's commandment to love one another and mirrors God's glory today and every day!

Revelation is so powerful to faithful folks like us, not only because it makes us think of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Stairway to Heaven.” In the midst of our fears, our dreams for a future life with God break into the present. Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of the afterlife—a world of unending joy where we will hunger no more.

If you decide you want to read Revelation, start with Chapter 21 and 22. Let John’s vision of heaven give you hope, and let that vision prepare you for reading the most frightening parts of the book-- chapters six through nineteen.

Does God's glory shine out from you, from your house, and from our church? We must choose every day to demonstrate our love for Christ and for our brothers and sisters. Those people in the churches of Asia Minor, who never got to eat fruit, and who expected to live less than thirty-five years, held onto their visions of heaven’s glory. They preached their visions to their poor neighbors, who lived in fear of the Roman soldiers. What those brave early Christians did to spread their hope for heaven, is one of the reasons why we can worship together today. Let’s show this fallen world that Christians live in the grace of the city of God.


God, help us move into the city of grace where we embody your love and hope and healing for ourselves and for the whole world. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.


“Spirited Speech”
May 15, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Acts 2:1-21

Once upon a time, as the Genesis story tells us, the entire population of the world spoke the same language. The people had heard God's command to fill the earth and spread out over the land. But some people thought they knew better than God. They didn't want to scatter over the earth, so they built a city with a high tower. They thought they were powerful enough to defy God's command. They wanted to be praised as the world’s greatest people.

Because the tower builders were rebelling against God’s will, God punished them. He confused their language so that they could no longer understand one another. Work on the tower became impossible. In the end, the people scattered, the way God had wanted them to do in the first place. The unfinished tower came to be called Babel, which actually meant "gate of God.” “Babel” was an early version of the name Babylon, but it sounded much like the Hebrew word balal, which means "confuse." Because of the Genesis story, the word “Babel” came to mean confusion. So, at the tower of Babel, the Lord made babblers out of the people by confusing their language.

That old story is probably a myth. Those ancient people may have made it up, to explain why we don’t all speak the same language. Or maybe they were trying to figure out why the foundation of a tower was still standing in the desert. But did you notice that those pre-historic folks seem to have imagined the world, before the tower of Babel, as a society that spoke one language? God meant the world to be a place where His children could communicate without confusion.

When you think about it, God’s plan was a good one. Consider how much trouble poor communication can cause-- even between people who speak the same language. How many marriages, for example, have problems because the partners don’t share their real concerns? When they do talk, one partner doesn't really listen to the other. Sometimes, when both parties are trying to communicate, powerful feelings-- like exhaustion, jealousy, and resentment-- - get in the way. And we know that communication difficulties are not limited to marriage.

Today’s reading from Acts is the account of Pentecost—the birthday of the church. This is the day to celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. It’s one of the big three celebrations of Christianity, second only to Easter. In the Middle Ages, Pentecost was a more holy day than Christmas. Not so today. Have you ever seen a rack of Pentecost cards in a drugstore? Have you ever baked Pentecost cookies? Not likely, and it’s not a problem. The church will never have to issue a call to “KEEP THE HOLY SPIRIT IN PENTECOST.” This holiday is ours alone.

The major miracle of Pentecost was one of communication. After the Holy Spirit fired up those followers of Jesus in the upper room in Jerusalem, they rushed out into the streets and began preaching. Because Pentecost was a major festival for the Jews, the celebration of the grain harvest, the city was filled with thousands of people from every corner of the Roman Empire. They had very little in common, other than the fact that they were all Jews. The reading from Acts helps us understand how diverse this crowd was---“Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs...." and so on. Only the rabbis understood Hebrew. Each group spoke its own language, but when the disciples of Jesus started preaching, all speaking Aramaic, everybody understood. It was amazing! God had reversed the punishment of the people at the tower of Babel.

At Babel, the people had started out with the ability to understand one another in a common language. They had lost that ability when communication ended. Their attempt to build the tower had to stop. In contrast, at Pentecost, people who spoke many different languages understood the gospel message clearly. The Bible says they were all together in one place—and that is true in more ways than one. They were united by the Holy Spirit.

One of the goals of Christianity is to help us understand one another. But that is only part of the story. Jesus told us that we need to love our neighbor, and even to love our enemies. It's possible to clearly understand someone, but to disagree profoundly with him or her. I suspect that the Israelis and the Palestinians each have a clear understanding of what the other side wants, but they cannot find common ground-- literally.

How did this story happen? After His resurrection, Christ had told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until he could give them His Holy Spirit. This group of people, so frightened, huddled in the upper room, knew that they couldn’t get the Holy Spirit on their own. They waited until Jesus kept His promise, and God gave them a future. And that’s what happened at Pentecost.

The Pentecost story is strange to us. We have a tough time trying to imagine the barriers between us disappearing. Life, as we experience it, is a lot more like the Babel story than the Pentecost account. Israelis vs. Palestinians, parents vs. children, husband vs. wife, employer vs. employee, student vs. teacher, liberal versus conservative, and on and on. Even in churches, people can't agree with one another and there are strong disagreements within congregations. The Internet brings the people of the world together, electronically, but the messages we write and speak online, seem to divide us more than they unite us—especially in the U.S. in an election year.

But what a great story this lesson from the Book of Acts is, for a world where so many people are paralyzed by fear and overwhelmed by chaos. Pentecost is the event that started the Christian church, more than two thousand years ago. Suddenly, people not only understood one another, but they were also brought together with a common goal. Acts tells us that more than three thousand people became baptized Christians that day.

And so, though we have all too much experience with misunderstandings and disagreements, we also have the hope that Christianity holds out before us-- -that the love of Christ can break through any barrier. If there is one thing that will be different in eternity, it will be that we will all understand each other.

It's no coincidence that the day the church was born was the day people discovered they could communicate with anyone. The need for us to speak about our faith is stronger than ever in this post-Christian age, when cultural pressure against witnessing is so strong. Our friends and neighbors need the joy and peace that can come only from Christ. God will help you find moments to tell them about what you have seen and heard. And when the Holy Spirit gives you the words to speak of your faith, those words will be a gift to your hearers.


Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit, and teach us to say things we would never have said by ourselves. Breathe upon us, Holy Spirit of God, and prepare us to serve. AMEN


“Message From God”
May 22, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Romans 5:1-5

There’s a “Peanuts” comic strip that shows Lucy, walking with a sign that reads, “Jesus is the answer.” Along comes Snoopy holding his own sign, “What’s the question?” And what IS the question for us on Trinity Sunday? I think it might be, “How can we understand the Trinity?” This morning I want to talk about ways the triune God works in our world, and in us.

Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the church year that is based on an abstract theological concept. People don’t understand it, and pastors avoid preaching on it. Some say the doctrine of the Triune God came from the Dark Ages and should have stayed there. I disagree.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In my sermon on the second chapter of Acts, I talked about the coming of the Spirit and what he or she (not IT) means for us. The Trinity is three persons of God. It’s not just up in heaven, it’s living in us: God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer.

For centuries, Christians have worshiped the Trinity. St. Patrick was one of its greatest proponents. In the fourth century A.D., St. Patrick held up the shamrock, when he was preaching to the ancient people of Ireland, to explain the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. He used the three parts of the shamrock to show how Christianity was different from other beliefs that dominated the world in the final days of the Roman Empire. People all over the world still believed that the Emperor was God. People in the Empire were told that they existed to serve the Empire under his command. Patrick, who had been a Roman citizen all his life, didn’t buy this. He saw the Emperor as a false god. Patrick understood the triune God to be God with us and for us. The shamrock became his tool for evangelism—and it worked! Ireland became Christian within a century, because of his skillful teaching.

Five centuries earlier, the Apostle Paul had written his letter to the Romans. In Romans, Paul doesn’t use the word, Trinity; in fact, you won’t find the word, “Trinity,” anywhere in the Bible. But Paul does explain what life in the triune God offers.

For Paul, the nature of the Trinity is the idea of community. From the beginning, God has wanted a relationship with those He created. Despite our best efforts, we cannot live up to the standards necessary to be in communion with our perfect God—in other words, we can’t be perfect like Jesus because we are born to sin. Paul begins the fifth chapter of Romans by saying, “it is only because we are justified by faith that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Only through Jesus are we able to be in a restored relationship with God. Through Jesus that we discover that God has been relentlessly pursuing us all along.

Even as we celebrate God’s amazing grace, life makes it clear that our hope to share in God’s glory has not yet been fulfilled. People are hungry, children are dying, we experience failures every day, and life still hurts. It was no different in Paul’s day. But Paul goes on to say that we can boast in our suffering as well as in our hope for God’s glory.

Paul’s words don’t seem to offer much comfort. How can we be glad about suffering? If it is not the suffering, exactly, that brings us joy, what is it? Paul says it is the endurance, the understanding of others, and the hope that come from our sufferings that make us better people.

The contemporary Bible we gave our confirmands this year, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, translates Paul’s words like this: “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

If we weren’t part of a Christian community, if we didn’t live by Christian values, we would have a harder time finding those end results of suffering. We tend to focus on the causes of our pain, or on our feelings of bitterness. We want revenge. We become hopeless. We forget that the God we know through Jesus, is the God of hope. Only through the Holy Spirit can we find God’s presence and love in the midst of hardship.

Because God’s essence is communal, it is not surprising that hope is strongest in community. When we suffer alone, there is no one to share our burden. So often we hide behind a smile, because we don’t want others to see our pain or disappointment. When we do this, we rob ourselves of a source of comfort and we deny others the blessing of sharing in God’s work.

We are created in the image of God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three persons live in relationship with each other. We are made to live in relationship with God and with others. We can’t make it alone. When we enter into a Christian community, when we allow God’s grace, love, and peace to be restored in us, we can feel hope.

We are brought into God's presence simply by believing in Jesus. We don’t have to do everything right. We don't even have to have a huge amount of belief. In Jesus, we have peace with God. Once we've accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit within us quietly works on our behalf. And meanwhile, we're OK with God because of Jesus, and able to communicate with Him and hear Him through the Holy Spirit.

There is a satirical online magazine called The Onion that published a short news article about the Trinity on the Internet last month. I laughed out loud when I read it. I usually don’t like it when people make fun of religion. But this piece struck me as funny, because so many people live their lives never understanding what the Holy Spirit does. In its top headline, with the dateline, “Heaven,” the Onion article said God had announced plans to “downsize” the Trinity by phasing out the Holy Ghost, and leaving only God and Jesus in charge! I quote from the article, “Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision.”

But we don’t believe in only the Father and the Son. We believe in the Holy Spirit too. The Trinity promises a relationship with a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, with a Savior, and with an ever-present Spirit. God’s mission becomes our journey. There are times when we stray from the path. But we never walk alone.


Lord Jesus, we give you thanks that even though in our limitations and sin, we could not come to you, you loved us enough to come to us. You did not leave us in the dark. You revealed the way to eternal life. For your revelation to us and your presence among us, we give praise and thanks. AMEN


“Choosing A God”
May 29, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

Have you ever noticed, in the Bible, how often the underdog wins? For example, Moses triumphed over Pharaoh and his army. David won against the giant Goliath. And Daniel survived the lion’s den. Elijah stood up for Jehovah. And Jesus, the Son of God, has been the greatest witness of all.

Elijah was one of the first great prophets of the Old Testament. He preached God's message in Israel, after the death of King Solomon. He spoke boldly against Ahab, his earthly king. Ahab had married Jezebel, who worshiped Baal, a pagan god of water. During times of drought, the people and the royal couple had been praying earnestly to Baal to bring rain. Elijah knew their prayers were worthless. He knew that Baal was not God.

The people of Israel had been God’s people, but now they feared taking a stand against the king and queen. What’s more, the whole country blamed God—and Elijah-- for the dried-up earth. Elijah knew that he was right in defending his God against the false god Baal. He didn’t care if how unpopular he would become with Ahab and Jezebel. He understood his responsibility as God’s prophet.

In First Kings, Elijah confronts the priests of Baal to demonstrate the emptiness of their message. He mocks the 450 pagan priests. They respond to his mockery by slashing themselves and dancing around the altar they have constructed—asking Baal to bring the rain. He asks if their god is asleep or on a journey, chiding the priests to call out louder.

Elijah is so daring because he believes that the priests of Baal are wrong and he knows that Jehovah is the one and only God. He has faith that God will answer as the prophet asks and will send fire to consume the holocaust. And that is exactly what happens!

Elijah courageously speaks God’s word, without counting the cost. We are called as Christians to do likewise. Our culture practices idolatry, not worshiping Baal, but placing too much importance on power, wealth, and prestige. We are commissioned, through our baptism, to preach that there is one God.

Jesus, before He begins His ministry, confronts these same false gods. He allows himself to be tempted by Satan in the desert. First, Satan offers Jesus power. He tells Jesus to command these stones to turn to bread. After forty days in the desert Jesus is obviously hungry, but He knows that humans do not live on bread alone. As Jesus reminds Satan, we are nourished through God's word. Next Satan entices Jesus with the sin of great wealth. He displays all the kingdoms of the earth before Him, saying that all earthly power can belong to Jesus if He will simply bow down and worship Satan. But Jesus insists on worshiping God alone. Lastly, Satan baits Jesus to demonstrate His status. Satan takes Him to the parapet of the Temple and challenges Him to throw himself down, promising that angels will come to rescue Him. But Jesus again resists because He is confident that the power, wealth, and prestige granted Him are to be used to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.

Power is a gift that is given in some measure to each of us. You think you have no power? You’re wrong. I’m not talking only about your right to vote, as an American citizen. You had the power to show up at church this morning and make us happy to see you. You have power to give us your new phone number, or your email address, if you sign the friendship pad in your pew. You have the power to get your friend on the prayer list if you fill out that little form in the bulletin insert.

If we use personal power judiciously to support the common good, then we have used it wisely. So many veterans of the military have put their lives on the line for the common good. That is a strong, sacrificial use of power.

Unfortunately, people who have power, use it to lord it over others. They won’t let up until they have achieved the outcome they expect, or the rise or fall of the person whom they seek to dominate. In the gospel of Luke, you’ll remember, Jesus warned against this problem. He instructed His apostles that they were not to seek the places of power, but rather to serve all people they were to meet. He reprimanded them for competing to be “the greatest.”

Wealth is a second false god that challenges us. We are influenced by others to think that the more stuff we have, the more acceptable we will be in society. We are bombarded with the message that wealth is the ticket to success. Many generous people give to charitable causes, educational institutions, and churches. Yet, too many people today spend huge amounts of money to enhance their images.

Our cultural obsession with celebrities is ridiculous. More than three hundred American and British newspapers reported that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, had chosen to wear a designer dress to her son’s baptism. Then she apparently wore THE SAME DRESS to a garden party the next week. She liked the dress! But there’s a subtle message there. People of high status don’t wear the same outfit twice in public. Remember, about fifteen years ago, when John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the bar exam in New York State? The headlines shouted, “The hunk flunks!” A feature editor wrote a nasty, catchy headline and got some laughs. Students got the message that failing an academic test is a disgrace.

Prestige is a third false god of today's world. All of us like to be recognized for achievements. However, there are people who live simply to win awards. These people worship the god of status. Unfortunately, some of them choose to associate only with people who (they feel) are intelligent, attractive, and influential. Labels matter to these people. That’s why knockoff designer handbags sell well. That’s why Ivy League colleges get more applications than state colleges, even though tuition costs are higher. People who worship prestige, may not want to associate with someone who can’t help them on their way up the ladder.

Obviously few, if any, Americans worship Baal, but do you have false gods you "worship?” Do you put your hobbies, or your career, or your home, or your children, or your status, at the top of your list of concerns? Those things are all somewhat important, but at times we come close to worshiping them.

Make a list of things that you value in life, and put them in order. Where does God come in that list? False gods and their prophets are everywhere. We are persuaded—even forced or shamed-- into accepting false priorities. Fortunately, people of faith choose to be prophets, like Elijah. They have the courage to speak God's truth.


LET US PRAY. Lord, teach us to number our days that we may fully appreciate the time we have. Let us honor those who taught us sound Christian beliefs, and who showed us the power of faith, hope and love: for mentors and teachers; for grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. Teach us to number our days so that we don’t strive for shallow goals. Grant us grace in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


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