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November 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Back in the Good Old Days" — November 10
"A Life of Joy"
— November 17
"Be Still and Know" — November 24


“Back in the Good Old Days”
November 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Haggai 1: 15b- 2:9

We are supposedly living in “The Post-Christian Era.” The Presbyterian Church USA had a net loss of a hundred thousand members last year. Other Protestant denominations are experiencing similar membership losses.  Churches aren’t what they used to be.
     
Religion holds a less-honored place in our society than ever before. The decline of Christianity hasn’t happened only in the United States, or just among mainline Protestants.  Things are worse in Europe. Only one out of twenty people attends church there. The number of British-born Christians fell by fifteen percent between 2001 and 2011.

         In the time of the prophet Haggai, worship seemed also to be in decline.  Since Haggai is not the best-known book in the Bible, let’s take a moment to put our Old Testament reading into context.  In the year 587 B.C. the Babylonian army had come from the East and invaded Israel.  The Babylonians had captured Jerusalem, burned the temple down and taken the surviving Jews as prisoners. Those who had survived the attack, had been enslaved by King Nebuchadnezzar. Fifty years later, the Persians came to power in that region, and their king, Cyrus, decreed that Jews could return to Israel.

     A few years after they started returning home, Haggai came along and said, “What’s wrong with you people?  We’ve been back in Jerusalem for a decade and a half, and we haven’t even started rebuilding God’s temple.  Let’s get to work!” They knew that Haggai was right, so they began work on the foundation.  But some of the older people remembered the temple King Solomon had constructed four hundred years before. They came to watch the new building going up.  Those older folks remembered how glorious the temple had once been.  They remembered the gold that adorned the pillars, and the cedar and cypress wood panels that covered the walls. 
  
    When the older people looked at the new temple under construction, they cried, because they knew they couldn’t duplicate Solomon’s temple.  When the younger people heard the laments of their parents and grandparents, they felt like giving up.  Haggai preached to a discouraged and apathetic people. They believed that their glory days had ended with the destruction of Jerusalem. They were struggling with famine and poverty. Meanwhile, their military leaders were fighting off attacks by Samaritan forces. God inspired Haggai to increase their faith with four powerful sermons. Those sermons are the entire book of the prophet Haggai.

We often speak of the good old days in the church.  But we need to remember that they weren’t always good.  In 1900, 165 out of every thousand babies in this country died before their first birthday. Today, American children are twenty-four times as likely to live past their first birthday.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the American man lived forty-six years. Thirty years ago, men in the US could expect to live to age 74. Life expectancy is climbing fast! Government statistics show that the average man lived to be 78, as of 2008.   In 1900, the average American woman lived to be forty-eight.  Today the life expectancy for women in this country is eighty years, and by the year 2020 it will be 82 years.  In 1900, only one in eight American adults graduated from high school.  Today, nine out of ten adults in the U.S. have at least a high school education.

We can’t let good memories paralyze us.  We older folks can’t help feeling more comfortable in the world of the past. By contrast, our children and our grandchildren are better at surfing the Internet than at making their own breakfasts. The latest changes in computer technology are bigger than anything that’s happened in the past 500 years.  Five-year-olds know how to Google. Seventy-two percent of teens are text-messagers, with one in every three high school students texting at least a hundred messages every day. 

The last time something this big hit the church was when the printing press was invented in the late Middle Ages.  Imagine all the monks, back then, asking each other, “Should we go on hand lettering and decorating the Bible?”
 
Visionary Christian leaders discovered that the printing press could spread the word of the Lord. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the language of the people and had copies printed with movable type, so every German could read it. John Calvin created the first congregational hymnal and put multiple copies in the pews for his Geneva congregation. Imagine our church with no Bibles or hymnals in the pews! Those books were the newest Reformation technology. Now every church has computers and copiers and printers.

Christianity is two thousand years older than the Internet. Jesus and His disciples had no books, as we know them. They memorized God’s word and passed it on orally. Paul wrote letters on papyrus scrolls. It’s a miracle that the Bible has survived. In fact, no ancient New Testament manuscript that survives today, is exactly like any other.

One of the problems is that we know how to be the church. We love our traditions. When God calls us to head out in new directions, we struggle.  Fifteen or twenty years ago, we adults had a hard time using computers. It was only natural for us to compare word processing programs to typewriters. We had to forget how typewriters work, in order to create computer documents. No more “white-out,” carriage wheels, or carbon copies. Now, flip phones are obsolete. I felt dumb, when I brought my smartphone home yesterday and couldn’t unlock it. I had to call Verizon on our land line to help me. I’ll need to practice a lot before I can give out my new cell number.
 
Today, toddlers can figure out how to make phone calls. That’s why cell phones have locking capability—so three-year-olds won’t place calls to Shanghai or Cape Town. It’s not that our kids are smarter than we were. It’s just that they don’t have to unlearn anything. I’m not saying that a high-tech church will automatically be a faithful church.  But if we don’t master new communication tools, we will be like monks who ignored the printing press.

What will the future look like, for God’s faithful?  That’s what people asked Haggai.  And all he knew, was that the future would be different. God will be with us! That was Haggai’s message. Listen to the prophet’s words: “My spirit abides among you. Do not fear!” Creative ideas originate with God, who made us all. In a few moments you will vote on a change in our congregation’s by-laws that will enable the Session to vote by email. We hope to make our meetings more productive, and shorter. Haggai’s word offers hope for us: “‘The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.  In this place I will give prosperity,’ says the Lord of Hosts.’”


Almighty God, Give us the desire and the faith to be your willing witnesses, your helping hands. Continue the great heritage of faith through our children and our children's children. Work through us and through them so that many may come to know the power of your love. We pray through Jesus Christ, Amen.


“A Life of Joy”
November 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 12:32-40

Has anyone ever given you a gift that was so generous, it just took your breath away? Twenty years ago, I met another mom at a PTA meeting, and she told me this story. She had worked and saved all of her money to be able to fly to audition at a famous music school. The day came for her audition. She drove to the airport and flew to the city where the school was. She hired a cab that cost too much, got to the music school on time, and had a successful audition. After her audition she took a cab back to the airport. Bad news! There had been a mix-up concerning her return ticket. The airline was charging her an extra fee for the ticket. Mostly because of the expensive cab rides, she no longer had enough money to fly home. She asked the people at the airline desk if she could fly home first, and then meet her parents who had the money. Couldn’t she pay back the airline at her home airport? This happened in the days before students had credit or debit cards. It was several decades before cell phones! When this first suggestion didn’t work, she promised to mail the money to the airline when she got home. The people at the airline desk said no. They wouldn’t let her get on the plane.

She left the counter, sat on a bench and started to cry. A man she didn’t know, asked her what was wrong. When she told him her predicament, he simply handed her the cash to fly home. She was accepted into the music school, got the scholarship, and earned her college degree there. She still remembers the generous stranger at the airport who gave her enough money to fly home from her audition.

Have you ever experienced generosity like that? When someone gives you an extravagant gift, what do you do? When I have been overwhelmed by generosity, I have tried to “pay it forward,” by sharing that gift with others.

Have you ever been extravagantly generous? Jesus says our hearts and our treasures are in the same place, in today’s reading from Luke. It warms your heart to be able to give exactly what a person needs. People of faith love to be generous. I have heard some stories of incredible generosity in this congregation. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, we emphasize caring for the needy.

In this day and age, Christians don’t give as much. Sacrificial giving may feel foolhardy. The economic recession has put financial stress on so many households. People have lost jobs. Young people can’t find jobs in the first place. The suicide rate is as high as it’s ever been in this country. More people die by suicide than in motor vehicle accidents. It’s only natural to want to hold on to the money we need to survive in this economy. Jesus would tell us to be generous, anyway. If we tend to hold back, and we’ve been burned by the economic downturn, we can still develop generosity as a habit.

Here’s an example of extravagant generosity. In January 2006, United Methodist pastor Karen Onesti found out that her friend Rabbi Andrew Bossov’s kidneys were failing. He had been put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Rabbi Bossov, her colleague in ministry in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, had been on dialysis three days a week. He couldn’t get his work done at the synagogue, because he was spending so much time at the hospital. Reverend Onesti decided to give the rabbi one of her kidneys. She had to go through ten months of testing to be sure the transplant would work. The surgery to transplant her kidney into Rabbi Bossov’s body was successfully done at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. It took four hours. By that evening, both patients were awake and chatting with their families.

Describing the experience of donating her kidney to her friend, Reverend Onesti quoted Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28: “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” “This is not just our story,” Rabbi Bossov told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “This is the story for all those people who have been giving before us and for those who gave the day after us and those who will give in the future.” More than ninety-five thousand people in this country are awaiting organ transplants in order to stay alive.

The kingdom of God is a great gift, and it’s already been given to us. It came at a price. Most gifts do. The man who gave the money so my friend could buy the plane ticket, just on the spur of the moment, made a sacrifice. He probably earned that money himself. And he turned it over to a needy stranger! Reverend Onesti’s gift of a kidney, put her health in danger. Imagine all those medical tests she had to have. It took a huge amount of her time. She will live out her days with just one kidney. But the one she gave to her friend saved his life. Both the donor and the recipient of that kidney have testified to thousands of people about the need for organ donations.

Jesus tells us not to be overly possessive of the gifts of God. We simply must not guard our possessions with our very lives. Instead, we should be like the man at the airport. We must embrace every opportunity to give to others—when it comes up. Or, in the words of Luke, “Let us be ready and watching for the Son of Man to come at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus gave His greatest gift to us--His life. He dies so we could freely enjoy the kingdom of God. That was an act of loving generosity we don’t deserve. God nurtures, heals, and cares for us. When we share God’s gifts with others, we store up treasures in heaven. Instead of dreading the end of the world, we can look forward to the day we can all be together, when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Maintaining our image, and keeping up with the Joneses, matter to us. We want to be respected. We want the lawn to be mowed, and our clothes to be nice and our kids to fit in at school. But if a person’s good name is based on our appearances and our stuff, it can disappear. Instead of focusing on our own needs and desires, we must pay attention to the signs of God’s kingdom, all around us.

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist leader, said that “a man is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out, as well.” How we spend our time, how we use our wealth, tell the real story about our treasure. Where is your treasure? Look at your bank book and your calendar. Jesus said, “Wherever your treasure is, that is where your heart will be.” Life is short. Don’t give your heart to meaningless things. Most of the possessions we worry about, are superfluous; in other words, we can’t take them with us. Don’t leave yourself regretting kindnesses you wish you had done—after it’s too late. It’s never too late to “pay forward” God’s gifts. Answer the call to serve, to worship, and to sing God’s praises. Let us affirm that we worship and serve only the Lord, our God, by returning His gifts to us. Amen.


Gracious God, Help us to be, not only hearers of this Word, but doers as well, so that we may be rich toward you and invest our hearts in heaven. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. AMEN


“Be Still and Know”
November 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Psalm 46

Have you ever gone deep into the woods, where the only sounds were birds singing and leaves swirling in the breeze? Did you feel like you had entered another world? Quiet places are hard to find nowadays, even in the woods. I saw a cartoon, showing a family setting up a tent in the woods to camp out for the night. The children had brought along their iPads and video games. They even had a portable digital television with them. "It’s a good thing we’ve got all this stuff," one of them is saying, "or we wouldn’t be able to shut out the noise of the stream and the waterfall!"

Having preached at many memorial services for this congregation, I’ve noticed that older men in Hokendauqua loved the sport of fishing—almost to a man. I don’t think this is a coincidence. They grew up here, during the industrial heyday of the Lehigh Valley. As young adults, each one had heavy burdens to carry--like a demanding job and a big family to care for. One of these men had worked at Western Electric for more than ten years, without a single day off including weekends. You can understand how quiet moments in nature restored his soul.

I like to think of the natural world as the outer garment of God. God’s garment has healing power when we touch it. Men of our church felt a strong pull toward God, along the rivers, away from offices and factories. I think it tells us a lot, that Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, too.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” we read in Psalm 46. This may be the most powerful statement of assurance in the Bible. Today’s Old Testament reading was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” In this crazy world, God’s fortress of love protects us. The words of Psalm 46 assure us not to worry. God makes wars to cease, bows to break, spears to shatter, and shields to burn. We hear this assurance: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

The symphony of our lives is composed of doorbells, telephones, dishwashers, snow blowers, lawnmowers, laundry buzzers, and car horns. The people who live near Lehigh Street hear banging and drilling all day long from the bridge construction. I don’t know how they can stand it. The effects of this noise on our bodies and minds are profound, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Too much noise makes us irritable and aggressive. It sparks road rage. It can cause sleep loss and hearing loss and heart attacks.

Last Sunday I stopped in at a small convenience store in Northampton to buy groceries. Two radio talk shows were blaring at full volume while I waited in the deli section. I couldn’t hear what the radio announcers were saying, and didn’t want to. I just wanted to leave, and I did. What a relief! Last month, I had a dentist appointment and expressed a little bit of personal road rage in the office. With others in the waiting room, I had listened to two television talk show hosts, gossiping about a movie star’s plastic surgery for twenty minutes. The entire studio audience was shrieking with laughter. I got up and turned the television off. The other patients in the room cheered.

"Be still, and know that I am God." How many places are silent anymore? Psalm forty-six talks about a city. I don’t picture God’s world of silence as a city. It’s a world of quiet healing, where our wounds are repaired and life grows over the broken places. We need those places in our souls where God speaks to us—be they rivers or cities or covered bridges or dirt roads in the country. Or churches!

I get so busy in my own working life as a pastor that I don’t see or hear God. In our neighborhood we hear fireworks every Friday and Saturday night in the summer—sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing a sermon. “Robocalls” constantly interrupt our meals. Earlier this fall, I talked to another pastor about all the noise. "Here I am, trying to point people to the abundant life," I said, "and I can’t feel simple joy the way I used to, with this bombardment of sounds." I had had enough of loud interruptions. John and I decided to stay off the Internet when we were on vacation in China. We avoided the public access computers in the lobbies of our hotels. We didn’t take our cell phones along, even though everyone else on the tour did. What a Sabbath it was for us! I even forgot my email password and had to look it up when we got home.

Two weeks ago, we rediscovered the joys of being back in America--blue skies; clean tap water; family, friends and cats; and not having to crowd into buses and trains and planes. I have recovered my sense of wonder. I appreciate the gift of God’s work in my life.

Grace and beauty are all around, whether we see them or not. But the very least we can do is to try to see them. "Be still," said the Lord, "and know that I am God." When we wait and listen and watch, we can hear His voice. It’s as simple as that. The fishermen in the gospels, and the fishermen in our congregation, knew this. God is closer than the Ironton Trail. He is closer, even, than our stained glass windows, closer than our worship bulletins. He is as close as the breath we take. God reveals Himself to the eye that can see and the ear that can hear. Our secular world, with its bangs and booms and blares and deafening radios and loud music, does everything it can to drown God out. We must seek our shelter in His holiness, even if it means disconnecting from beeps and the ringtones.

Our lives begin in water—both our physical lives and our Christian lives. Yes, Psalm 46 relates to our baptisms. We were first invited into the city of God when we were baptized. Because God has claimed us in baptism, we were, and are, saved in Jesus Christ. The church is the body of Christ. Today, the Holy Spirit has called Chase to be a child of God. And what’s more, God calls us to be this little boy’s Christian family as he grows, and to help keep him safe. We shall not fear, for the Lord of Hosts is with him—and with us. I believe that, little by little, God is transforming our noisy world into a place a little bit more like heaven. Turn the volume down, and turn up the voice of God. His kingdom is forever.


Let us pray. O God, we drink in your powerful silence. We find shelter in your Son, Jesus Christ. He is our source of promise. Though the earth be changed and the waters rise up, we will not fear, for you have transformed us and set us free. AMEN



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