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October 2011 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Backyards and Vineyards" — October 2
"R.S.V.P."
— October 9
"Heads or Tails?"
— October 16
"Love is Spoken Here" — October 23


“Backyards and Vineyards”
October 2, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 21:33-46

I see a former member of our congregation at various places around town, pretty often. I just saw him last Monday, in fact. He grew up in this church. We’ve gotten to be friends. And yet, I’ve never seen him at a Sunday morning worship service here. When we talk, he asks me, “How are they doing over at the church?” I always say, “We’re doing fine at our church.” I feel like part of the “We” now. I wish he’d come back and be part of us, too.

All through our history, Christians have talked about “they.” Who were “they”? Sometimes, “they” were the chief priests and the Pharisees. In the gospel lesson for today, temple officials are “they.” But the Biblical list of “they” has also included Samaritans, sinners, Barbarians, lepers, Egyptians, and women. All through the ages, people have had a tendency to distance themselves from the “they.” It’s easier to deplore groups of people than individuals. But aren’t we sometimes “they”?

We get very turf-conscious with our possessions and our property. Don’t you assume your backyard belongs to you? After all, you’ve mowed it hundreds of times. We all have our own little patches of earth. The neighbors are “they,” and we get annoyed if “they” let their grass and their weeds grow. But our land isn’t really ours, it’s God’s! We forget that we are stewards for the landlord of all the earth.

Jesus tells a lot of judgment stories, particularly at the end of the gospel of Matthew. He knew His audience. In Jesus’ day, tenant farmers worked much of the land in Palestine. Jesus’ followers would have understood this story. Many of them were poor sharecroppers, themselves. Today’s lesson from Matthew is about some selfish tenants who were given a plot of land to tend. The owner set up a watch tower, a fence, and a wine press, then left it for the tenants to farm. In the parable, the tenants not only failed to take care of the vineyard, but they also abused the owner’s representatives who came to collect His share of the harvest.

Jesus told this story to the chief priests and Pharisees, in the last week of His life, when He was already in deep trouble with temple officials. It was a risky move. The owners in the story were the Pharisees, and the owner was God, and you can figure out who the owner’s son was. The Pharisees got the point that Jesus was talking about them. What He said was true, and they knew it. He had tricked them into pronouncing judgment on themselves. Many of the chief priests had been glorifying their own piety instead of worshiping God. They had ignored prophet after prophet, and allowed money changers and all kinds of corruption to go on in the temple. Jesus was warning them that they would be replaced.

In this nasty parable, Jesus predicts His crucifixion in the week to come. The tenants finally kill the landlord’s Son. Is it possible that we have done the same thing the tenants do? God has left the world, and the church, in our hands! But like the Pharisees, we sometimes forget that this world doesn’t belong to us. You could almost say that we put ourselves in the place of God. We’ve let our vineyard deteriorate into a jungle. We see oil spills, economic disaster, crumbling cities, fear and pessimism, and twisted values all around us. And so we say, it’s not our fault. We are not they. We blame the decline of God’s vineyard on the tenants who came before us. We blame it on the President and the government and the pervasive influence of the Internet and huge corporations and the decline of the Presbyterian church. Generation X blames it on the baby boomers, and so on.

The darkest times in the life of the church were sixty or seventy years ago, when Christians in Western Europe punished the Jews, using chapter and verse from this parable of the wicked tenants. We have to be careful not to blame all the Jews for the sins of the Pharisees against Jesus. This parable isn’t an anti-Semitic story. Jesus, who told it, was a Jew Himself. He was talking about a particular group of powerful men, not all Jewish people.

The story has a larger meaning than that. It’s a warning to all religious groups who read it. God left the church to us, after all. We are currently God’s tenants on this land. Be careful to listen to the servants our landlord sends, the story tells us. Don’t destroy the faithful prophets. Listen to them. Serve God, not yourselves. Be careful when the owner sends His son and don’t crucify Him again and again.

The church is struggling to survive— not just Presbyterian churches, but all Christian congregations. The days of powerful Christendom are over, and we don’t know how to fix it. We disagree over the hymns we sing, the need for social change, and the best ways to get young people and former members back to worship on Sundays. Our problem may be the same as that of the Pharisees. We forget that we are only the tenants. We forget that the owner of the vineyard will return someday. His Son will come back to check on His vineyard, and He will expect us to be accountable.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers. Maybe it’s not the conservatives or the liberals who are to blame. Maybe it isn’t our parents, or the immigrants who don’t have green cards, or the governor, or the school administrators, or the younger generation. We are they. God expects us to tend the vineyard we have been given. Let’s welcome the people God sends our way. Let’s make sure that when God comes down Lehigh Street and heads up the hill and stops here, that we don’t miss Him.

But it’s easier to point fingers at the Pharisees or those other folks over there. It’s harder to think about the question: What does it mean to be a tenant on God’s land in the year 2011? What does faithfulness look like? Billy Graham has shown us faithfulness. Martin Luther King, Jr, showed it, too. Mother Theresa also showed us how to be faithful.

Tending the vineyard starts right here in our backyard. God is calling us to be faithful. Our plot of land was in good shape when God gave it to Adam and Eve. We’re called to leave it better than we found it. It will take every single one of us, to leave this vineyard—which isn’t ours, and never was--- green and productive. On this World Communion Sunday, let us reach out and join hands and hearts with our brothers and sisters. Let’s stay on good terms with co-workers. Let’s learn about religious groups and their holy days. Let’s not laugh at jokes that put people down.

That’s what the Lord’s Supper is all about—a congregation of different people becomes the Body of Christ. And what better way to celebrate our differences, within the body, than to contribute to peace? Let’s make this the kind of world we want to leave for those who follow us.

Let us pray.

O God, thank you for trusting us to care for your vineyard. Thank you for sending your Son to jolt us into hearing the truth. Help us to be fair and loving to other people, and to all your creatures. In Christ’s name, AMEN

M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), Vol. 8, 414-415.

Ibid.

 


“R.S.V.P.”
October 9, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 22:1-14

Twenty years ago, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota noticed that girls in his church youth group weren’t getting invited to the high school prom. Only the most popular girls went, and the others felt like losers. The less-wealthy high school guys were skipping the prom, too. It cost them too much to rent a tux and a limo. A dance, that was supposed to be happy for everyone, was stressful and sad for many students.

The pastor wanted to help, so he threw a party in the church fellowship hall for the kids who didn’t have dates for the prom, or couldn’t afford to go. He called it the “reject prom.” More than a hundred students came to this event at the church. It was held the same night as the high school prom. It was such a blast, that the next year the popular kids skipped the prom to go to the Lutheran church. After the second year, it caught the attention of the national press. Life magazine did a big spread about the party, with photos. Fortune 500 companies began to send gifts to kids who went to the reject prom. Timex Corporation donated watches to every student who attended the Lutheran event.

If only the afterlife would be like that “reject prom,” or let’s call it the “alternative,” prom. Who, exactly, does Jesus save? That’s one of the toughest questions the church has had to face, over the centuries. The parable of the wedding banquet, that Jesus tells the Pharisees, is not a happy story. We’d like to think that all Christians will be as welcome in heaven, as those teenagers were at their alternative prom. Nobody wants to hear about judgment for sinners. We’d rather not think about God’s standards of holiness, because we tend to fall short of those standards sometimes. We’d prefer that Jesus give us happy parables.

God’s grace is free, BUT not every person accepts, or even acts on, it. Doesn’t the book of Revelation say that God will wipe away every tear from every eye? Well, yes. But that verse isn’t saying that God will always be a soothing parent. In this parable, Jesus is telling the temple officials what God expects of them, and in today’s language we might translate that message into this simple one: God wants us to grow up. Part of being grown up is learning that actions have consequences. The Bible says there’s a limit to how often we can say we’re sorry and start over.

Jesus told this grim story in the last week of His life, when temple officials had been challenging His authority as a rabbi and a preacher. He was popular with the common people. But He was in deep trouble, and knew it.

This is an allegory. The party and all its guests represent something else. The wedding feast symbolizes the kingdom of heaven. In ancient Palestine, a wedding party for a King’s son was a tremendously important event. Thousands would be invited. A party like this one lasted a week or more—until the wine ran out. It was like going to heaven, to be invited to such a wedding feast!

Everything has a meaning in this parable. The wedding feast is supposed to represent God’s welcoming party for the Messiah. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day represent the people first invited to the party. But the leaders of the temple are refusing to accept that Jesus is God’s Son. Israel had killed the prophets who predicted the coming of Jesus. And they’re getting ready to kill Jesus, too.

Let’s take another look at this improbable story about the King’s party. No, it’s not realistic, but allegorical stories rarely are. It would be the height of rudeness to refuse to go to a royal wedding banquet, at the last minute. It would dishonor the wedding couple, not to have a crowd of guests there. No wonder the King was angry. The king represents God, of course. And the first invitees, who reject their invitations, represent the Pharisees.

This story has GOOD news. God has sent out new messengers to the less wealthy parts of town, to round up replacement guests. Here’s the connection with the reject prom story. And so, the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the blind and the lame have come in droves, to drink the wine and eat the fatted calf. And the good news? The Messiah is coming for them, and for all of us.

God wants all of us at the party. But God has standards. We all want to hear that God loves us exactly the way we are. But there’s a problem with that. Think of the miracle stories in the gospels. When the blind came to Jesus, He didn’t say, “You’re all right, just as you are.” He healed them. When the prostitutes came, He didn’t say, “You’re all right as you are.” His love touched these women, and they didn’t stay as they were. God wants the best for, and from, the people He loves. That includes us.

God loves the ruthless financiers in this world, the crooked officials, and even the punitive parents who harm their children. But the point of God’s love is that He wants those people to change. He hates what they’re doing. If He’s a good God, He can’t allow their sin to continue. Jesus is saying that a sinner who doesn’t repent will get bounced from the kingdom of heaven. That is the point of the nastiest part of Jesus’ parable—the part about the man who’s dressed wrong for a wedding feast. It doesn’t seem realistic, does it? Where did the riffraff from the wrong parts of town, get their wedding clothes? If they came in right from the street, how did they have time to change into nice clothes? Why should this one guest get thrown out because he didn’t conform to a dress code? Isn’t that social exclusion? Why would Jesus do that?

God’s kingdom is a place where love and justice and truth and mercy will reign. They are the clothes one must wear for the wedding feast. The doors are open. But don’t forget—the kingdom of heaven has a powerful king. If you won’t put on love or justice or truth or mercy, you aren’t dressed appropriately for the King’s banquet. It’s that simple.

The kingdom of God is the most important party venue of our lives. We’ve been given the good news of salvation. This parable is our invitation. We can come as we are—BUT we’re responsible for what we do. Christians are called to model the kingdom of heaven. Stewardship of our resources--- time, money, talents and gifts-- is like eating, talking and dancing at the party. It’s not just a fun time. Everything we do at this party is a life or death matter. How will you respond to God’s invitation? Will you accept, not just with your lips, but with your life?

Lord Jesus, thank you for inviting us to the heavenly banquet. We are ready to join the feast, and to face the challenges, of our lives. Make us thankful, responsible guests. In Christ’s name, AMEN

Tony Campolo, The Kingdom of God is a Party (Dallas: Word, 1990), 39-40.

Revelation 21:4

Daniel E. Hale, “Pastoral Implications of Matthew 22:1-14,” www.goodpreacher.com, Oct. 7, 2011.

Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL:Intervarsity Press, 1994), 105.

 


“Heads or Tail?”
October 16, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus was the greatest of all debaters. He’s just given the perfect answer to a hostile question from the Pharisees: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" If this argument had happened in 2011, it would have made a great "sound byte" for the six o'clock news.

Jesus and His followers are in Jerusalem for the final part of the revelation of God's grace for His people. The Pharisees are displeased with this upstart from Galilee. They’re about to spring a trap, to embarrass Him. They start by buttering Him up. Then they ask Him a question about taxes. This question is no accident. Some official in the temple has probably spent hours thinking it up. The idea behind this
whole thing is to corner Jesus into taking an unpopular position. Their question, to Jesus, is the ancient equivalent of: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

Taxes have been wildly unpopular, through the ages. People want government to provide good services for them, but they don’t want to pay for those services. There have always been certain taxes people resented more than others. The Head Tax was the most hated of all Roman taxes. In this scene, the Pharisees are asking Jesus about the Head Tax, and whether it is lawful. To a Jew, THE law is the Torah. The scripture has always taken precedence over any other law. The people of Israel believed they should never submit to any authority but God’s. That’s why the Jews were in constant conflict with the Romans; they despised the Emperor and the idea of paying tribute to him. The Emperor imposed the Head Tax on every male member of society from age thirteen to age sixty-five, to pay for military service. From the time you were considered a man, you had to pay that Tax every year.

This same tax forced Joseph and Mary to journey to Bethlehem before Jesus was born. You couldn’t mail in your Head Tax return, and you couldn’t pay it online. The hardship of travel was one of the worst parts of this Roman tax law….especially if your wife was pregnant and had to ride to Jerusalem on a donkey. But the issue of payment in coin was the biggest focus of the controversy. The Roman tax could be paid only with certain coins. Here’s the biggest difficulty the Jews had. The Jews believed it was a sacrilege to carry the Roman coin into the temple, because of the graven image of Caesar on it. The inscription on the coin said that Caesar was God. To a Jew, carrying a coin like that was blasphemy. Notice that Jesus doesn’t even hold one coin. The Pharisees, on the other hand, apparently have coins in their pockets. Score one for Jesus.

So Jesus’ enemies were pushing Him to comment on the Head Tax. They were hoping He’d give them “sound bytes,” that could be quoted. Jesus was damned if He said He approved the tax, and damned if He didn’t. If He endorsed Roman taxes, He’d be tarred and feathered by the revolutionaries. But if He even hinted at not paying the Head Tax, the Emperor’s officials would punish Him.

The Pharisees underestimated Jesus. No one could make Him do anything that He didn’t want to do. From the time when the crowd took Him out to stone Him and He walked away from them, to the court scene with Pilate, Jesus constantly amazed everyone. He had no problem resisting political and social pressures.

Think about how our lives are controlled by social rules that are unnecessary. In fact, some of them are silly. I wore slacks in the pulpit—covered with a robe-- for the first time in my life last Sunday morning. My mother would never have approved of my dressing like that, so I won’t tell her. Did you ever skip sending out your Christmas cards? Card-sending is the same kind of social custom, and it’s powerful. To break it can make you feel guilty. That’s why I’ve never broken it. But I’m sure Jesus would let us off the hook, if we don’t feel up to mailing out cards after a bad year.

Jesus lived His life in obedience to God. He cared little for what people thought, and even less for His own safety. Instead, He lived to fulfill the will and purpose of God.

How are Christians to draw the line between the legitimate requirements of society, like taxation, and obedience to God? We sometimes misinterpret this story. We think it’s about separating church and state. Jesus isn’t talking about that. Besides, we can’t do that! There is no separation of church and state in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God, or we don’t. What belongs to God is your entire life! The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. God created us in His image. If the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, the image of God belongs to God. That image is you and me. That’s what Jesus is saying. Worthless metal is stamped with the picture of Caesar. God has stamped us with His own image.

Kingdoms rise and fall. We don’t need a dictator like Caesar, but we do need politics. We need a mayor and council, a police force, a strong military, a school system, a local public library and somebody to collect the garbage. But where do we draw the line when society’s rules interfere with our allegiance to God? Jesus reminds us to obey God above all things.

On the other hand, sometimes we get so caught up in being faithful to God that we ignore the society around us. On Election Day I’ve come to work in the church office, but haven’t bothered to go out and vote after work. My mother-in-law was an officer in the League of Women Voters in Bethlehem. My husband reminds me to support good government. But I have yet to register to vote in Pennsylvania. Pastors aren’t perfect.

We get so preoccupied with our lives, from day to day, that we forget to obey God. And yet, in our baptisms, we gave ourselves to God. Are we really the people of God, set free in Jesus Christ—or are we the people of the coin? Whenever there is conflict, God’s authority is greater. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.” We must ask ourselves: In whose image are we stamped?

Let us pray.

Almighty God, in the many challenges of our lives, may your Spirit of wisdom and compassion be the light by which we make our way, the measure by which we weigh our choices, and the start by which we set our course. AMEN

Douglas R.A. Hare, “The Tribute Question,” Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009),254.

Thomas Long, “The Tax Question,” Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 250.

Psalm 24:1.
Matthew 6:24.

 


“Love is Spoken Here”
October 23, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 22:34-46

How many balls can you juggle without dropping any? I’m sure you’ve seen clowns, juggling six balls at a time. Most of us can juggle two, or even three balls at once, if we put our minds to it. I can juggle two balls for a minute, or maybe two. But I’d never try to juggle fresh eggs or hot water balloons.

When we tackle too many jobs in our lives, we feel like we’re juggling. Keeping up with our families, our work, our commitments at church and school, sporting events, and parties—all of these things compete with each other for our time.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day had to juggle, too. They had to work hard to obey every one of the 613 laws of Moses. Three hundred and sixty-five of these commandments were things you weren’t supposed to do. Two hundred and forty eight of them were things you were supposed to do. The temple officials struggled to be perfectly obedient. Keeping the laws of the Torah was their first priority, but it wasn’t easy! Imagine trying to avoid stepping on 613 legal cracks in the sidewalk, so to speak, every single day.

Nowadays, we look for quick summaries of everything on the Internet, or Cliff’s Notes in bookstores. The Pharisees wouldn’t dare to simplify the law. There was no such thing as God’s Greatest Commandments for Dummies. In fact, it was considered sacrilegious for a rabbi to teach that a single law of the Torah was more important than any other. In their view, all God’s laws were equally important. That’s why the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into saying that 612 laws didn’t matter. They had heard this Galilean, telling stories to peasants and helping them understand what the kingdom of heaven was like, in simple language. In their view, this kind of simple teaching was very wrong. So they found a lawyer to ask Jesus this question: “Which law is most important?” It was a trap.

But Jesus answered that lawyer brilliantly. In an instant, He wove two famous passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus together. He combined them into this statement: Love God will all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus put all those laws into a nutshell. The entire law of God is based on love of God and neighbor. Even the strictest Pharisees couldn’t find anything wrong with His answer. They were amazed. Score another point for Jesus.

What Jesus says, makes sense. The whole point of the law is love, not rules. Think of the Ten Commandments. Have no other gods, don’t take God’s name in vain, honor the sabbath—these are all ways of loving God. Honor your parents, don’t murder, steal, lie, commit adultery—these are ways to love your neighbor.

It also makes sense when we remember that "God is love." It’s not only written in the book of First John, it’s all over the Bible. God is love. Love is Jesus’ statement to the world. Love is the force behind the Holy Spirit’s power. Religion is about love, more than anything else.

The source of our love is God’s love for the whole world. If love is the basic rule of our lives, it should affect every decision we make. If we wonder whether or not something is right, we should use the rule of love to determine what to do. But love has to be more than a principle. Being made in God’s image, we are compelled to love because God created us to love. Even though the sin in us fights against it, we want to love. We were born to love. So this should make our lives simpler. We don’t have to juggle worry and obligation and judgment with our duty to love. We have only these two. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love other people as much as you love yourself.

Simple? Yes. Easy? Well, it’s not really easy. Simple and easy aren’t the same, and love is more than a feeling in the New Testament. When the Old Testament spoke of “loving your neighbor,” it meant loving people in your own community—in other words, fellow Jews. But Jesus changed all that. Jesus said that to really love your neighbor involves doing good for people who are nothing like you.

Loving others usually involves a choice. I don’t have to think about loving people when they’re nice to me. But sometimes they’re crabby or cruel or neglectful. They make rude gestures on the highway, or write tasteless things on Facebook, or say things behind my back. Then I have to choose to love them. If I want to get back at them for being petty, then I pick up another ball, the ball of resentment. Now I’m juggling too many balls. I have to choose to drop the ball of resentment.

It’s easy to love God when we think of Jesus dying for us. But how do we feel about God when someone we love dies? What if we lose our homes in a hurricane? What if we find out we have cancer? Then it’s tempting to pick up the ball of anger. But we have to love God and leave the anger alone. Love shows itself in doing good, sacrificing our own time and effort for someone else’s sake. Love sometimes means sacrificing our pride. Pride can be a pretty heavy ball to juggle. But there are times when we’d rather keep juggling pride than go to someone and apologize. But love requires us to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. Love is a choice and an action. It puts us in places where we feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s like trying to speak a foreign language.

But that’s why God gave us the Holy Spirit. This Spirit living inside us is powerful and loving. God’s Spirit helps us to love, and to give God control of our lives so we can make hard choices –choices like reaching out to others and giving them the things we’d rather keep for ourselves. God’s Spirit of love lives in us.

What are you juggling? Have you got your hands full, juggling pride and hurt and anger? Jesus wants us to drop the extra burdens and just love. That is more than we can decide to do by ourselves. That’s where God’s grace comes in. Jesus is the master of love. He loved enough for all of us when he died on the cross.

I want to tell you a story about a child who modeled the love of Jesus. An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia. His parents explained to him that she needed a blood transfusion, and that his blood was compatible with hers. Then they asked the boy if he would give his sister a pint of blood. They told him that it could be her only chance at living. He asked if he could think about it overnight.

The next day, he told his parents he was willing to donate blood to his sister. So they took him to a hospital, where he was put on a gurney beside her. Both children were hooked up to IV’s. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put into his sister’s IV. The boy lay quietly watching his own blood drip into his sister. The doctor came over to see how he was doing. The boy asked the doctor, “How soon until I start to die?” He didn’t of course, but this is one of the best true stories of selfish giving I have ever heard.

So Jesus calls us to follow His command to love. Love those you like, and those you don’t. Love those who deserve it, and those who don’t. Love the lovely and the unlovable. Love the warmonger and these peacemaker. Love the truth teller and the liar. Love the meek and love the obnoxious. Love those you agree with, and those you oppose. Love is all you need.

O God, help us to love each other, and then move us out into the world to love and serve others. We pray today that you will show us how to love the unlovely—the people who exasperate us, the people who will never be our best friends, and will never support the church, or even appreciate our love. In the name of Christ, who loved us from the cross, we pray. AMEN

Thomas Long, “The Greatest Commandment Question,” Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 254.

I John 4:7-21.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 205.


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