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October 2012 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"A Test of Faith" — October 7
"Jesus' First Sermon"
— October 14
"Blind Spots"
— October 21
"Funny About Money" — October 28

“A Test of Faith”
October 7, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Job 1:1 and 2:1-10

Did you know that people who attend worship regularly, live longer than people who don’t? Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found, in a study conducted in 2008, that weekly attendance at religious services is associated with two to three additional years of life. Those are the kinds of reports we like. They reassure us that if we’re faithful to God, God will take care of us. On this World Communion Sunday, we have gathered with Christians from every corner of creation to worship a just and forgiving God.

But when we hear today’s Old Testament reading from Job, our hope that God rewards believers with happy lives, is challenged. These opening chapters of Job may be the oldest writings in the Bible. We think they were written at the time of Abraham, in 2400 B.C.E. As the book begins, God and Satan have a conversation. God says, "Hey, Satan, have you seen Job down there on earth? What a good man he is! He’s decent and faithful. Job never even thinks about sinning, and I know he will never turn away from me." 

But, in so many words, Satan answers, "Get real, God. Job has been living a good life, because you do nice things for him. You’ve blessed him with a big family, a lot of land, and honor among his people. Job is only faithful to you, God, because you keep giving him rewards for it." 

So God says, "Well, let’s see about that. Satan, I give you my permission to go to earth and take away the good things that I’ve given to Job. I bet he’ll stay faithful to me." And so Satan creates a series of disasters in Job’s life. The poor man loses all his servants, livestock, and wealth. And then to top it off, Satan causes a huge wind to blow. The wind knocks down Job’s house and kills his seven sons and three daughters. Even after his children die and his farm has to close down, Job stays faithful to God. He says, "The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." 

And that’s where we pick up the story, with the passage Debbie read from the second chapter of Job. God and Satan meet up again. God says, "I told you so, Satan. In spite of all that you did to him, Job is faithful!" 

But Satan says, "Wait a minute! Job hasn’t been put to the test yet. It’s one thing to lose wealth. It’s another thing to see your loved ones die. But if Job, himself, had to suffer in a physical way, I bet he’d change his tune!" And so God gives Satan permission to make Job contract a terrible skin disease. The Israelites were terrified of people who had sores all over their bodies, because they thought every skin problem was a sign of leprosy.

As Job lies there covered with sores, his grieving wife implores him to curse God and die. Can anyone blame her? Yet somehow, Job finds it in himself to affirm his faith in God.

The rest of the book is mostly a conversation between Job and his three friends. These men mean well. They travel a long way to care for their friend. But they have the wrong attitude about suffering. They tell Job he must have done something terrible in his life to deserve all these punishments. Job’s friends say that Job needs to confess his sin to God and accept misfortune like a man. But Job insists he has done nothing wrong, and we know that’s true.

Here’s the problem we struggle with: If God is all-powerful and good, why do good people experience tragedy?   Terrible things happen to faithful folks who have done nothing wrong. If God can do whatever God wants to do, and God is good, why won’t God use His power to make sure that innocent people never suffer? 

But all too often, good, innocent people do suffer. Take, for instance, what happened to five little girls, six years ago this week, on October second, 2006. A man decided that he was mad at God because his baby daughter had died, and so he barged into a schoolhouse and killed six Amish children in their classroom. And, last July, a student who was failing in graduate school, killed twelve people in a movie theater in Colorado. He injured fifty-eight others in that theater. The victims just went to see a Batman movie at midnight. They’d done nothing wrong. A little girl was killed in the theater, and a few days later her mom lost her unborn baby from all the shock of that night. We can’t help but wonder: Where was God in the theater?  Where was God in that Amish schoolhouse?

There are no easy answers. Sometimes people mistakenly think that since the book of Job is about an innocent man who suffered, that if they read the book of Job they’ll find some kind of explanation for why that sort of thing happens. But if you read all the way to the end of the book, God finally shows up and speaks to Job. And when He does, God doesn’t give a simple answer. He says, “You don’t have the ability to understand why things happen as they do, or how I use my power. I am God, you are not. But trust in me anyway!" Can we worship God even when nothing seems to make sense to us? 

Willingness to trust God, is at the heart of the Amish faith. They use the German word, Gelassenheit, which means willingness to yield to God. The Amish believe we should set aside our own ideas, and accept instead the life that God wants us to have – trusting that good and bad things happen for a purpose, even if that purpose is known only to God. 

And so that’s why, in the aftermath of those schoolchildren being killed, the Amish people didn’t want revenge. Even though these senseless murders broke their hearts, the Amish people believed that in good times and bad, the only thing you can really do is remain faithful to God. And so, the first words out of those Amish people’s mouths were forgiving. And they didn’t just talk about forgiveness. Not only did they set up an account to accept donations for the families of those slain little girls, but they also set up an account to accept donations for the killer’s family. What if your life were permanently changed, in one instant, for the worse? Last year a Washington, D.C. television station did a feature on an Army officer, a quadruple amputee at Walter Reed hospital. He had been so enthusiastic about serving his country, and his men had had great confidence in him as their leader. He had an outstanding service record. Then, in Afghanistan, a hidden bomb blew his arms and legs away. He approached his rehabilitation at the veterans’ hospital, saying, “This is the story I have been given to live.” How can this brave officer make sense of that story? We demand to know why bad things happen to good people. God doesn’t tell us why. But what He offers, instead, is a promise-- that He will see us through the disasters in our lives. Trusting God for the little things in life, we learn to trust that God will help us with bigger things.

When Jesus was on the cross, this was one of His final prayers: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In that prayer Jesus was saying, "God, I don’t understand what’s happening to me. But even so, God, I trust you, and so I put myself into your hands."  Why do bad things happen to good people? When we turn to God for answers, so often we find that no answer comes. Do we give up? Or will we trust God to see us through?

God challenged Job, and He challenges our faith, too. We find ourselves suffering for no apparent reason, and wonder why. Here’s the big question that Job ends up asking: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” He’s angry, but he manages to stay in touch with God no matter what disaster Satan throws at him. And he finds peace. I pray that we can do the same.

Let us pray. Almighty God, give us the imagination to conceive of you as you ARE, rather than as we would have you be. Help us, in good times and in bad, to keep on loving you no matter what Satan throws at us. Fill us with gratitude for all the blessings you have bestowed on us. Remove our resentment at feeling the pain and the limits of your having created us to be human beings instead of angels or gods. AMEN

“Jesus' First Sermon”
October 14, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 4:14-30

There are two kinds of sermons that turn people off: good sermons and bad sermons. Bad sermons are long. They ramble all over the place. They may put us to sleep. At the very least, a bad sermon makes us look at our watches. But good sermons make congregations uncomfortable in a different way. It's an occupational hazard of being a pastor, to afflict the comfortable. People expect the worship services at their church to be positive and upbeat, except during Holy Week.

Last Thursday night, our new Bible study group discussed this story of Jesus’ first sermon. They’ve looking forward to hearing a sermon about the first time the new Rabbi, Jesus bar Joseph, proclaimed the Word of God. It happened on a Sabbath morning when Jesus was around twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old.

Isn’t it amazing to see young people we knew as children, growing up to be leaders? There is one little boy whom I remember behaving badly in my story hour many years ago. Now he’s a successful stockbroker in California now. Other kids I told stories to, at my library, have grown up to be doctors and lawyers and teachers. Our Sunday School teachers who have taught for many years, have seen success stories, like Jay Gilbert and Matt Millen and Karen Cocca and Dan Kramlich. Barbara Quigg told me how well the Reverend Craig Kerewich preached here for the first time. Craig had grown up in this church and attended our Sunday School. After graduating from seminary, he was ordained as a PCUSA pastor. Craig is a pastor in Cape May, New Jersey, well into a successful ministry.

Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth started out fine. He anchored His message in his Jewish roots, and His friends and relatives loved that. They were so proud that He was the latest religious sensation! But then, unlike the Reverend Kerewich, our hometown pastor from Hokey, Jesus went out on a limb and made people mad. Here’s what happened.

The leaders of the Nazareth synagogue had heard about the miracles Jesus had performed at the beginning of His Galilean ministry. They invited Him to read and preach at a worship service. A crowd formed outside the temple. They looked forward to witnessing the hometown boy healing the sick. People couldn’t wait to hear Him preach.

Jesus got up and read from the scroll of Isaiah. The congregation knew this passage by heart, just like we know the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. Then He preached a sermon that was short, but not sweet. They were impressed with the way He spoke—with authority. He was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and it showed. But they didn’t like what He said. As He talked on, they got more and more agitated. By the time Jesus had left the pulpit, there was a mob outside the synagogue, getting ready to throw Him off a cliff. 

What did Jesus say, that so upset His friends and neighbors? Here, again, is the passage He read:  "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus was reading His own job description as the Messiah. He said, right out, that He had been sent in God’s name to give hope to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives and liberation to the oppressed.  “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” He announced. Then the trouble began.

You can imagine people mumbling, “The nerve of Jesus, talking about Himself, almost as if He were King David. He used to play on these streets with our sons and daughters when they were growing up. He’s Joseph the carpenter’s son, not the Son of God.”

But Jesus didn't stop there, and things got worse. He went on to remind His listeners of a time when there had been a great famine in Israel. God had sent the prophet Elijah to a poor widow in Zarephath in the faraway land of Sidon. God had used this generous widow as the means by which to restore food and water and oil and wine to the people of Israel. Out of faith, this widow spent her last drop of oil and her last handful of meal to feed the prophet, Elijah. God had redeemed Israel through her kindness.  

The people didn’t like to be reminded of that story, because that widow had been a foreigner and a pagan. In their minds, if anyone deserved to be singled out for faithfulness, it should have been a good Jew from Nazareth, not some woman from another country. And Jesus didn't stop there. He reminded them of a story in the Hebrew Bible, concerning a Syrian general named Naaman. Naaman had contracted leprosy. He had been cleansed by the power of God. Elijah, who helped to perform that miracle, had left all the Hebrew lepers unclean. Naaman had been a Gentile and an outsider from an enemy nation. Why had Elisha helped a stranger like that? Why was Jesus preaching about that miracle and not bothering to heal any of the Jews of Nazareth? The mob wanted a crowd pleaser. He wasn’t giving them what they had expected.

By the time Jesus had finished speaking, the scribes and teachers of the law were furious. They dragged Him from the synagogue and took Him to the edge of a cliff, ready to throw Him to His death. Jesus somehow escaped, just by walking through the crowd. And, of course, there’s that scene later in the gospel of Luke, that tells how He escaped the grave, as well. Jesus never returned to Nazareth.  But His ministry went on, and it still goes on. Given what we know about Jesus, what does His first sermon tell His followers today?

Who are the people our congregation ought to be most concerned about – the powerful or the powerless? What are our priorities? How do we feel about sacrificing resources—including our time--that we’d rather have for ourselves? What are we entitled to keep, and what belongs to God? These are hard questions that Jesus’ first sermon raised for our Bible study group.

Jesus made it clear: the Good News of the gospel calls us to live a life of service. The more you're able to identify with the poor, the more likely you'll appreciate the Good News of the Gospel. To put it differently, the more you're able to see yourself standing among the ranks of people unworthy to receive God's love, the more likely it is that you'll stand in the company of Jesus.

When Jesus told the truth, it put people on edge, and they pushed Him to the edge of His life. That’s where Christians are called to live today. Let’s follow the real Jesus, not the Jesus most people want Him to be.

O God, Help us to take every opportunity to listen to your Word of truth. Help us to hear and see your Son, Jesus Christ, clearly, without judgment or fear. Awaken our hearts and minds to the power of your Holy Spirit, and stir our souls with the compassion of Jesus, in whose name we pray. AMEN

“Blind Spots”
October 21, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 10:46-52

Can you remember someone you have misjudged? A person you didn’t like at first, who became your best friend? Maybe there was a person who worked for you in the office, and didn’t seem at all competent, and that person proved to be an outstanding employee. We make the mistake of believing the people around us are better than they are, too. How many times have you heard about some tragic person who has gone off the deep end and shot somebody, and nobody noticed anything odd before it happened, other than that he or she was a loner and didn’t have friends. What a thing not to notice! We all have blind spots.

There are quite a few famous people who were misjudged when they were young. A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he thought the artist “lacked imagination and didn’t have any good ideas.” Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Katie Couric was fired from her first broadcasting job on a local television station. Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four, so his parents thought he wasn’t intelligent. One of Thomas Edison’s teachers told his parents that their son would never amount to anything. And Bruce Springsteen did poorly in high school because he sneaked off to play his guitar in the music room during class. I knew his homeroom teacher well; she was a member of my church. She considered him very unpromising and was stunned when he became famous.

No one expected poor, blind Bartimaeus to end up being a model of Christian faith. He was a beggar, and an annoying one at that. He sat by the side of the road every day, his robe tattered and torn, begging, “Alms for the poor, alms for the poor” day after day.

But one day Bartimaeus’ life was changed. A crowd came down the road to Jericho. Their leader was Jesus, the rabbi who worked miracles. The beggar called out something new and different that day, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The townspeople tried to get him to pipe down. They probably said something like, “Be quiet, Bartimaeus. What makes you think Jesus would have time to heal you?”

But Bartimaeus didn’t know his place. He kept on shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped. He turned toward the blind man, and the crowd was stunned. “Call him here,” He said to the disciples. The disciples called out, “Get up, old man, Jesus is calling you.” Immediately, Bartimaeus sprang up and walked toward Jesus. Then Jesus looked at the blind man and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”

In Mark’s gospel, this story happened between the “Which one is the greatest?” argument among the disciples, and the Palm Sunday parade. That’s important. The crowd had just heard two of the disciples asking Jesus for the best place of honor beside Him in heaven. James and John believed it was well within their right to ask for that privilege. But Jesus explained that those who wanted to be first, would be last, and that those who were last would be first.

Bartimaeus was clearly one of the last, or so the people in the crowd thought. But here he was, begging Jesus for mercy, over and over. Now everyone was waiting to hear how the blind man would answer Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” “My teacher,” Bartimaeus asked, “let me see again.”

All eyes turned to Jesus. How would He respond? Jesus said, “Go! Your faith has made you well.” Instantly, Bartimaeus regained his sight. Then he left his cloak—his only worldly possession—by the side of the road and followed Jesus.

I’m sure the disciples were less than pleased to have Bartimaeus following them. After all, the beggar hadn’t been with Jesus for years, like they had. He was still an outsider, as far as they were concerned.

Sometimes Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand. And of all people, they should have. They had been following Jesus for three years. They had spiritual blind spots. They hadn’t yet figured out that stopping for a blind beggar is the sort of thing Jesus’ kingdom is all about. The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus came to heal them of their spiritual blindness. Jesus came to make the outsiders into insiders. They would have been shocked to hear that Bartimaeus was a model Christian because of his faith and persistence.

Faith is the ability to see beyond, below, beneath, above, around, and through the events of our lives. Faith restores our sight, so we can see who we are and whose we are. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus talks about blindness—not just physical blindness, but blindness of the heart. Jesus constantly urges those who have eyes to see, to notice the world around them. So often, we miss chances to serve God because we are looking at our watches, not completely living in the moment that we’re in.

One day last summer, I ran in and out of the Whitehall Post Office. I noticed a well-groomed woman, with a beehive hairdo, sitting on a bench by the door. She had two shopping bags on the bench beside her. The woman caught my eye because she was just sitting. She didn’t seem to have anything in particular to do. Normally, people don’t sit by the door of the post office. It’s not a fun place to hang out. I realized, on some level of consciousness, that the woman was homeless. I didn’t even smile at her or say hello. I was in a hurry. The next day, one of my co-workers, here, told me that she had seen the same woman on the same bench. She had stopped to give her a cold drink. She asked me for the phone number of an agency in the Lehigh Valley that could shelter a homeless woman. She was hoping to offer help to the lady at the Post Office before the cold weather set in.

Why hadn’t I spoken to the woman? Of all people, I should have. I had a blind spot. I was focused on something else. It’s a gift of God’s love when we notice our blind spots. We all have plenty. We resent the person who gets the prize we wanted. We cancel a lunch date with an old friend when we get an opportunity to go out with a more important person. We answer text messages at a wedding reception instead of talking to other guests. We need God’s grace and forgiveness for our blindness.

There is probably someone you will see today, who’d love to have five minutes of your time. Jesus calls us to notice those people and stop to listen, and then to tell them, "Jesus wants to heal you." That’s the good news that Jesus has commissioned us to tell the nations. And as a result of hearing that, the listener may say, "Jesus, have mercy on me." That prayer, He will always answer.

Lord, Help us to see how blessed we are. Let us see the world around us. Show us what you want us to see, not what we want to see. Teach us to share the joyful news of the gospel so that people who are spiritually blind may see Christ. AMEN

“Funny About Money”
October 28, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 7:36-50

You’ll notice the communion table has a green cloth on it, and that I’ve been wearing a green stole all summer and into the fall. What does the color mean? We’re in one of those “in-between” times of the church year. Those are the times I think we need to stop and consider how much we’ve been growing in our faith.

Green is the color of money. A good way to assess our growth as a congregation is to take a look at how we’re doing with giving. The news is better than last year. The offerings we take each week are important, but they aren’t collected just to cover our operating expenses. They’re a measure of our faith.

We’re all funny about money. I hear people say, “I want only enough money so I won’t have to get stressed over it. “ Is there a perfect amount of money that will save us from worry? I don’t think so. Our attitudes toward money aren’t rational. They’re highly emotional and spiritual. Some of us found out, back when we got married, that our spouses have money habits that are quite different from our own. They seemed funny to us at first. Maybe they still seem funny. If you’re single, you’ve probably noticed friends and traveling companions acting weird about money.

Sometimes, I have judgmental thoughts about people and money. For example, when our daughter was little, I started to lose patience with my co-workers who could afford the time and money to go to fancy restaurants and order expensive meals every weekend. Imagine that! In those years, I learned to multitask at the dinner table and in my car. Those habits haven’t gone away. The drive-in window staff at McDonald’s in Whitehall knows me by name. And yet, I have extravagances, like unworn pairs of shoes, in many colors, that I dust off every month.

My father was stingy with money. He grew up during the Depression, and he brought hundreds of little hotel soaps from business trips. I wondered why we had a bathroom closet full of soap. I liked the big, floating cakes of Ivory better than little bars with foreign names on them. Dad’s penny pinching paid off. My parents were able to afford college tuition for four of us all at once.

Everyone, it seems, is funny about money. Some women in the Lehigh Valley drive twenty miles to New Jersey so they don’t have to pump gas—but have no problem paying the bridge tolls and wasting gas to get across the river. I admit to being one of them.

We’re all funny about money. Someone once said to me, “A twenty dollar bill looks pretty large in the offering plate, but so small at the supermarket.” Here’s a story I like. A torn and ragged one-dollar bill discovered that it was about to be retired from circulation. As it moved along the conveyor belt to the shredder, it struck up a conversation with a fifty-dollar bill, about to be destroyed in the same way. The fifty dollar bill began to reminisce. “Life has been good for me,” the fifty exclaimed. “Why, I’ve been to Las Vegas, to the finest restaurants, and some big political fund raisers.” Golly,” said the one-dollar bill, “you’re lucky to have visited those places.”

“Where all have you been in your lifetime, my little friend?” asked the fifty dollar bill. “Well,” the one dollar bill answered, “I’ve been to the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Christ.” “Excuse me,” says the fifty dollar bill, “but what’s a church?

There is a saying on Wall Street that greed and fear drive the stock market. I’d like to think that fear motivates Christians more than greed—fear of losing our church, and fear of losing a secure future. And in the face of all that fear (and it is RATIONAL fear), God calls us to respond with trust. There’s another name for trust in God. It is faith.

Most of us are cautious by nature. It’s hard for us to give in a joyful way. We feel overwhelmed with the burdens we carry. The economy has been bad for four years. Every good cause wants our money. In response to all the pressure, we feel like holding back. And yet, God needs our money and our lives. We can’t give one without the other.

Judging by the beginning of my sermon, you may be thinking right now, “I didn’t come here to be reminded that the church needs money. I came to hear about the Bible and spirituality.” I believe that giving away money is Biblical and spiritual. Jesus spoke of money even more than He talked about prayer.

Today’s gospel reading doesn’t mention money at all. Jesus doesn’t ask for money from the woman who anoints His feet, or from anyone in the story. That’s why I picked it; it’s not one of the same old stewardship stories we hear every year. Some of you know that we talked about Luke, chapter seven, verses 36 through 50 in our Bible group last Thursday night. The woman from the city is grateful because Jesus has forgiven her sins. She gets emotional in front of a lot of strangers. Her behavior in this story, washing his feet and getting perfume in her hair, may embarrass us at first. I’m sure Jesus’ feet were covered with dirt from the road. Washing another person’s dirty feet seems disgusting to us today.

Notice how she risks her life in order to show her appreciation of Jesus, by crashing an all-male banquet. Women were normally not allowed to go near a group of Pharisees eating dinner together. He respects that. He’s not embarrassed at all. In fact, Jesus shows appreciation for her faith. On the other hand, Jesus puts down His Pharisee host. Simon comes across as stingy and selfish because he shows little hospitality in comparison to the woman. He makes things so complicated. When he hears Jesus’ parable about the creditor, Simon grudgingly concedes that the debtor who has experienced the greater cancellation of debt will love God more. And yet, this holy man who is hosting the banquet seems unable to express love from Jesus. Simon symbolizes the rational human mind, and the woman, the human heart. Giving from the heart is hard—for all of us. We live what we learn. Unfortunately, some of us have been taught, by life, to be more like Simon than like the woman with the alabaster jar.

Church is the best place for young people to learn about stewardship. They learn by seeing generous adults take joy in giving. As you know, our Sunday school does a monthly offering called “Joyful Noise.” This year we’re giving to Juvenile Diabetes. It’s a mission project, unique to our church, and it teaches kids a valuable lesson. They see us dropping coins into little cans. They get to help collect the coins. The Talent Challenge, and Music to Light the Night have given us the opportunity to give joyously. Today, I encourage you to forget the nasty election and the bad economy and Hurricane Sandy and the stresses we will carry all next week. Let’s follow the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar, and open our lives to the light of Christ’s love, and feel His overwhelming blessing.

Dear God, open our eyes to the needs around us and accept our offerings as our praise and thanks. Use them, we pray, to help others. AMEN

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