Organized or Disorganized Religion

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts
Pentecost XX – Reformation Sunday – 30 October 2011

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

From the Book of the Prophet, Micah:
The prophet wrote, But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might to declare to Jacob his transgressions and to Israel his sin.

From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
Addressing the faithful in Thessalonica to encourage them in the face of persecution, he wrote, And we also thank God constantly…that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it…which is at work in you believers.

And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Teaching the people about the sins of hypocrisy and arrogance, Jesus said, He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

I have entitled this morning’s sermon for Reformation Sunday – Organized or Disorganized Religion because of the many ongoing conversations that I have with non-church people. Perhaps not so surprisingly, these conversations are very similar and have been so over the years. A commonality of mind seems to characterize those who opposed organized religion.

Now, most of these people believe in God – some even in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour of the world – but do not believe in the church. Actually, they believe in Jesus Christ as the Saviour but not the Lord. Lord implies obedience to His authority. They want the salvation part so that everyone can go to heaven when he dies, but not the Lord part that makes demands for goodness in this life.

And they will say those stereotypical words, I just don’t believe in organized religion. Since they do not believe in organized religion, one can conclude that they must then believe in disorganized religion. Hence, this morning’s sermon title. More on this in a few minutes.

When they comment on organized religion, particularly Christianity, the first thing that they criticize is the hypocrisy of the church. Now, for Christians, that’s the easiest criticism to make. The church of Jesus Christ is filled with hypocrites. It is now and always has been. And it always will be – until the kingdom comes.

There’s a reason for that – a good reason; in fact a great reason. And the reason is just this. Christianity proclaims the highest and most holy moral and ethical standard of any religion – organized or disorganized – in the world. Proclaiming the highest and most holy moral / ethical standard, none of us ever, under any circumstances can perfectly live up to that standard.

We can never perfectly practice what we preach, to quote St. Paul. Christians live in continual, perpetual reformation, both as individuals and as a church – reforming ourselves to become better people, more faithful to God so that we can serve more effectively as our Lord’s disciples. We practice what we preach only to the extent that our human nature allows.

Although we can never serve perfectly, we can serve very well indeed. Christians have done so from the beginning and continue to do so today however much perfection may elude us.

Those who dislike organized religion usually fail to take the church’s successes into account. If they did, they would have to concede that organized Christianity works for the betterment of mankind. It always has when practiced faithfully. History bears witness.

An example. We must always remember that wherever Christian missionaries have gone anywhere in the world, they have brought the Gospel of God’s redeeming mercy and saving love. Preached powerfully and effectively, these missionaries throughout history have successfully put an end to human sacrifice. From the ancient Romans Empire to the cultures of Africa, North and South America, and the Pacific Islands, human sacrifice was eradicated. Human sacrifice has always been a part of pagan practice. (It still is among those who endorse abortion.) Ending it has been one of he church’s great successes.

True Christians do not seek to kill – they seek to live in the fullness of life that Jesus promised. When people believe in Him and practice His teachings, goodness prevails – peace and prosperity increase. Christianity uniquely builds up, lifts up and raises up. At the center of this faith and religion is the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the defeat of death – the victory of life and eternal life. No other religion has this glorious reality at it center. Simple as that. In fact, resurrection power not only lives at the center of the faith – resurrection power is the beginning and the end as well. Obviously, disorganized religion accomplishes absolutely nothing compared to Christianity.

Imperfect service to God has always been the case even before God took on human nature in Jesus Christ. It applied to His chosen people as well. He had called them into a covenanted relationship with Him – no other people had such a relationship -and that covenant had its demands. Under the old covenant of the Law, the legal requirements were higher and more demanding than any of any other religion.

But, the history of God’s chosen people was the history of a people who failed to keep their part of the agreement – to keep the divine Law and exclusively worship and serve the One True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In their unfaithfulness, God continually sent to them prophets to recall them to faithfulness. Such was the case with the prophet Micah sent by God some 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

God had commissioned him to recall His chosen people who had abandoned their organized religion and fallen into the ease and indulgence of the disorganized religions of the pagan Gentiles. Filled with the spirit of the Lord, Micah declared the sin and transgression of the people in the hope that they would repent and return to the merciful covenant with the One True God.

We must not think that the other religions of the ancient world were entirely disorganized. Over time, they had developed an organization that had priests, temples, prescribed worship, rituals, and prayers as well as the various systems of animal and human sacrifice.

But the rules and regulations, the moral and ethical codes never equaled that of God’s chosen people. Disorganized – or even organized – paganism was then – as it is now – so much easier – so much more self-indulgent.

Disorganized religion had and has no checks and balances – a standard against which one can measure oneself. It allows for unrestricted self-fulfillment in unrestricted self-gratification. And the only judgment is one’s own failure to get what one wants when one wants it.

Pagan influence has been a problem throughout the church’s history as well. St. Paul found himself preaching the Gospel around the ancient world with great success only to discover that soon after he left any given city, some or many of the people either abandoned their Christian faith entirely or compromised it with the prevailing paganism.

Such was the case in Thessalonica. A bustling seaport city on a major trade route, Thessalonica enjoyed significant wealth. Roman paganism and other diverse philosophies and religions competed for adherents. Most of these philosophies and religions were intolerant of the Christians who would not participate in the pagan practice. St. Paul, sadden that many members of the church either left the faith or compromised with the prevailing culture, wrote to encourage the faithful to remain steadfast in their devotion as he reprimanded those who compromised.

Whenever the prevailing paganism becomes organized, those who practice disorganized religion will fall victim. Since no other world religion holds as high standard as Christianity – that being the First and Great Commandment – to love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself – and its extension, to love even your enemy – well, without that Great Commandment, cruelty – even brutality results. It did in the ancient world. It does today in those places where the Christian Church is designated as the Great Satan.

St. Paul’s admonition to remain faithful applies to our churches today just as much as it did to the congregations of the first century world. Casual Christians who do not believe in organized religion – who fail to do their part in the advancement of the Saving Truth revealed in the birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of the one Lord Jesus Christ may very well find themselves victims of the highly organized and brutal implementation of a religion that does not love them. Such is the case in many parts of the world.

In other places, weak resignation to deplorable evil is allowing that evil to grow. Evil can only succeed when good people fail to confront it. Bad religion flourishes when otherwise good people abandon the One True Faith.

Our job is the same as that of those first Christians who faced such adversity in the ancient world. Keeping our Lord’s saving sacrifice at the center of our faith, obeying His commandments and remembering that the Lord will lift up the humble and bring down the arrogant – then, as we practice our faith in authentic humility seeking not our own glory but rather the glory of God, we will contribute to a better world, advance all that’s good and right and true as we await his return to establish the perfection of His kingdom.

Until then, true believers, organized into faithful churches, must both keep and advance the faith celebrating the joy of our salvation given exclusively in Jesus Christ the Lord.

With this in mind, let us pray.

Heavenly Father, bless your church with a full measure of your Holy Spirit. Enliven every heart with your saving Truth. Deliver those who claim your name from the temptation to compromise the faith or adapt to the prevailing deception. And grant your people success in proclaiming Christ crucified and risen, uplifting sin sick souls and offering your living hope to those brought down, cast down, broken down, put down and held down by bad faith and evil religion. Grant the full realization of the resurrection faith and make of us your joyful disciples.
We ask this in the name of and for the sake of
your Son, Jesus Christ,
the crucified and risen Saviour
of the whole world,


Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
October 23, 2011 Pentecost XIX

Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 1, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

From the Book of Deuteronomy:
And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.

From the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians:
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, to test Him.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
Amen. †

Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry He was tempted and questioned. Sometimes the questions were sincere and other times there was evil intent. But part of Jesus’ mission was to help mankind understand God and His expectations. Quite often Jesus would talk in parables or stories to help people understand. When Jesus answered peoples’ questions, they were astounded, especially the religious leaders, of Jesus’ wisdom and understanding of the scriptures.

How fortunate the people of Jesus’ day were, that they were able to talk to Jesus directly and get an immediate answer. Today we pray to God for guidance, direction and answers to questions that we feel important. What is hard for us to accept is that God always answers our questions or prayers, but we don’t always know or hear the answer. The answer might be yes or no or not yet. He might answer us by speaking directly to us; He might answer us through a friend; or He might answer us when we meditate on His Holy Word.
Last week’s gospel reading had a Sadducee ask Jesus a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This silenced them and they went away. Even the crowds were astonished and amazed at His answer.

There was another question that day by the Sadducees about the resurrection. Jesus answered that God was not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).

The Pharisees probably enjoyed the embarrassment of the Sadducees, their enemy. One of the Pharisees admired Jesus’ answer and showed respect for the Lord and asked a question of his own: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” We have every reason to believe that he asked the question in sincerity and with a humble attitude.

This was not a new question, for the scribes had been debating it for centuries. They had documented 613 commandments in the Law, 248 positive and 365 negative. No person could ever hope to know and fully obey all of these commandments. So, to make it easier, the experts divided the commandments into “heavy” (important) and “light” (unimportant). A person could major on the “heavy commandments” and not worry about the trivial ones.

The fallacy behind this approach is obvious: You need only break one law, heavy or light, to be guilty before God. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Jesus quoted the “Shema” (Deut. 6:4), a statement of faith that was recited daily by every orthodox Jew. (The word Shema comes from the Hebrew word which means “to hear.” The confession of faith begins with, “Hear, O Israel.”) The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are and have – heart, soul, mind, strength, possessions, and service. To love God is not to “have good feelings about Him,” for true love involves the will as well as the heart. Where there is love, there will be service and obedience.

But love for God cannot be divorced from love for one’s neighbor; so Jesus also quoted Leviticus 19:18 and put it on the same level as the Shema. All the Law and the Prophets hang on both of these commandments. We might add that the teachings of the Epistles in the New Testament agree with this statement. If a man really loves God, he must also love his brother and his neighbor (1 John 3:10-18; 4:7-21).

If we have a right relationship with God, we will have no problems with His commandments. Love is the basis for obedience. In fact, all of the Law is summed up in love (Rom. 13:8-10). If we love God, we will love our neighbor; and if we love our neighbor, we will not do anything to harm him.

But Jesus had a deeper meaning to convey in this marvelous answer. The Jews were afraid of idolatry. When Jesus claimed to be God, they opposed Him because they could not believe it was right to worship a creature. Jesus received worship and did not rebuke those who honored Him. Was this idolatry? No, because He is God! But if the Law commands us to love God and our neighbor, then it would not be wrong for the Jews to love Jesus. Instead, they were plotting to kill Him. He had said one day, “If God were your Father, you would love Me (John 8:42). They accepted the authority of the Law, yet they refused to obey it in their lives.

The scribe who had asked the original question seemed to be an honest and sincere man. Not all of the Pharisees were hypocrites. He publicly agreed with Jesus (Mark 12:32-33). This must have given his fellow Pharisees a fright. Jesus discerned that the man’s heart was sincere, and He commended him for his intelligence and honesty.

Jesus had now answered three difficult questions. He had dealt with the relationship between religion and government, between this life and the next life, and between God and our neighbors. These are fundamental relationships, and we cannot ignore our Lord’s teachings.

What better way to show our love for our neighbor than to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as God uses people to bring the Gospel to the lost, so He uses people to nurture the babes in Christ and help lead them to maturity. The church at Thessalonica was born through the faithful preaching of the apostle Paul and his helpers, and the church was nurtured through the faithful pasturing that Paul and his friends gave to the infant church. This helped them stand strong in the midst of persecution.

The message of the Gospel is a treasure God has entrusted to us. We must not bury it; we must invest it so that it will multiply and produce “spiritual dividends” to God’s glory. Some Christians think that the church’s only responsibility is to protect the Gospel from those who would change it (Gal. 1:6-9). But we must also share the Gospel; otherwise, we are protecting it in vain. We sometimes spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how we are going to pay the bills and maintaining this building, and forget about what’s really important: Loving God and neighbor.

Paul and Silas had been beaten and humiliated at Philippi; yet they came to Thessalonica and preached. Most of us would have given up at the first sign of trouble, but Paul was courageous – he was not a quitter. He preached a “holy boldness” that was born of a love and dedication to God. Like the other Apostles before him, Paul boldly proclaimed the Good News (Acts 4:13, 29, 31).

There were times when Moses complained to God because his work was difficult and more than once he was ready to quit; but in spite of these very human weaknesses, Moses was a faithful servant.

Moses was faithful to walk with God, and he spoke to God as a man speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11; Num. 12:7-8). The secret of his life wasn’t his own abilities – he claimed he had none – or even his education in Egypt (Acts 7:22), but his humble walk with the Lord. He spent time with God, he listened to God’s Word, he loved God and he followed God’s orders.
Another exemplary thing about Moses was his devotion to his people. On two occasions, God offered to wipe out the Jewish people and begin a new nation with Moses, and Moses rejected the offer each time (Ex. 32:9-14; Num. 14:10-25). Moses was a true shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep (Ex. 32:30-35). “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

There was a question that Jesus asked of His enemies. He did not phrase it the same way when He asked His disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) These men who had been arguing with Him were not sympathetic with His cause, nor were they honest in their assessment of His credentials. Jesus had to take an indirect approach with His enemies. He made this sound like another theological question, when in reality it was the most important personal question they would ever face.

“Whose Son is the Messiah?” He asked them. As trained experts in the Law, they knew the answer: “He is the Son of David.” Once they had given this answer, Jesus asked a second question, this time quoting from Psalm 110:1 – “The Lord [Jehovah] said unto my Lord, “Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.’”

Every orthodox Jewish scholar interpreted this to refer to the Messiah. Only the Messiah could sit at the right hand of Jehovah God. Jesus believed in the inspiration and accuracy of the Old Testament Scriptures, for He said that David spoke these words “in the Spirit” (Matt. 22:43). Nobody dared to question the accuracy or the authority of the text.

“If the Messiah is David’s Son,” Jesus asked, “then how could Messiah also be David’s Lord?” There is only one answer to this question. As God, Messiah is David’s Lord; as man, He is David’s Son. He is both “the root and the offspring of David” (Rev. 22:16). Psalm 110:1 teaches the deity and the humanity of Messiah. He is David’s Lord and He is David’s Son.

When He was ministering on earth, Jesus often accepted the messianic title “Son of David” (Matt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31). The rulers had heard the multitudes proclaim Him as “Son of David” when He rode into Jerusalem. The fact that He accepted this title is evidence that Jesus knew Himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God. As God, He was David’s Lord; but as man, He was David’s Son, for He was born into the family of David (Matt. 1:1, 20).

The scholars in that day were confused about the Messiah. They saw two pictures of Messiah in the Old Testament and could not reconcile them. One picture showed a Suffering Servant, the other a conquering and reigning Monarch. Were there two Messiah’s? How could God’s servant suffer and die?

If the people had listened to what Jesus said, they would have learned that there was only one Messiah, but that He would be both human and divine. He would suffer and die as a sacrifice for sins. He would then rise from the dead in triumph, and one day return to defeat His enemies. However, these religious leaders had their own ideas, and they did not want to change. If they had accepted His teaching, then they would also have to accept Him as the Messiah; and this they were unwilling to do.

The result of this day of dialogue was silence on the part of His enemies. They dared not ask Jesus any more questions, not because they had believed the truth, but because they were afraid to face the truth. “For they did not have courage to question Him any longer about anything” (Luke 20:40). But neither did they have courage to face the truth and act on it.

Making a decision about Jesus Christ is a matter of life or death. It will determine where you spend eternity. The evidence is there for all to examine. We can examine it defensively and miss the truth. Or we can examine it honestly and humbly, and discover the truth, believe, and be saved. The religious leaders were so blinded by tradition, position, and selfish pride that they could not – and would not – see the truth and receive it.

Dare we not make the same mistake today!

Let us pray:
O Lord, most merciful and gracious God, who art the strength of all who put their trust in thee. Help us to realize the answers to our questions, but realizing the most important answer is belief in your Son, Jesus Christ. May we love you with all our heart, mind, and soul. And may we love our neighbor too. Give us the courage to proclaim your saving grace which has been made possible in the broken body and blood of your only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name we live and pray.


In God’s Image

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts
Pentecost XVIII – 16 October 2011

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99:1-5, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

From the Book of Exodus:
As God gave Moses the Law, Moses asked that he might see God’s glory. The Lord responded, you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live….while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by…you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
The apostle wrote regarding the church’s faithfulness under duress saying, you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
When the Pharisees confronted Jesus regarding the payment of taxes, Jesus questioned them about the image on the Roman coin. The image on the coin was that of Caesar. He then said, Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

For better or for worse, God has either blessed me or burdened me with an analytical mind. When I say blessed or burdened, I know that I should have said blessed and burdened. I have learned that every blessing in this life also burdens the one so blessed and every burden that one has to bear, if he bears it faithfully, becomes a blessing. So be it. God set it up this way and He knows what He’s doing even if you or I do not understand. We walk by faith, not just by our own unreliable and seriously flawed understanding.

One of the things that I seek to understand is why our churches in New England and in so many parts of Europe as well, are failing while in other parts of the United States – and of the world – Christian churches are growing, indeed many are even flourishing.

So, I wonder why, right here in our own city of Waltham, the churches – both Protestant and Roman Catholic alike – just barely make it. And the situation is pretty much the same throughout New England and in Europe as well.

Having thought about, talked about it, read about, prayed about and studied this situation, I could speak for a couple of hours providing a complete and, I think, comprehensive and accurate analysis. We don’t have time for that. So I will be as concise as I can be in the few minutes that we do have.

But first we have to look at the lectionary lessons assigned for this morning. They give us part of the answer.

In Exodus, God had called Moses up to the mountaintop to give to him the Law that we know as the Ten Commandments. While on the mountain, Moses wanted to see God face to face. God said No because no human being could see the face of God and live. God’s face, being so ultimately powerful, would kill a mere mortal.

But God wanted Moses to know Him so He said that He would place Moses in a cleft in the rock, cover him up as He passed by thus allowing Moses to see His back but not His face. Hence, the prophet could see God and survive the experience.

Fast forward in human history some 1,500 years to the little town of Bethlehem on the first Christmas, two thousand years ago. Jesus Christ was born. As we all know, this little baby is not just any little baby – He’s the incarnation of God Himself – God made man.

God’s people throughout the ages have wanted – as did Moses – to see God’s face. And here, in the birth of this baby, who would grow up to be the man who crucified, would destroy sin and death and then, resurrected, would offer that victory to all who would believe – here, all mankind could see the human face of God. Only God Himself – God made man -could do this. Only God has the power. And only in the divine incarnation can mankind see God’s face and not only live but also live forever.

Everything had changed with the Incarnation. The problem was – and is – and will be until He comes again at the end of time to release the divine wrath on all the evil that contaminates this world – the problem was and is that, having seen the human face of God, many people do not like what they see. Simple as that. He’s not what they want.

Having been created in the image of God, many people seem to want, on a twisted kind of way, to return the favor – to create their own gods in their own images. God said, I am who I am. And we know that He is who He is. But many want Him to be what they want Him to be.

We all love the great hymn, Just As I Am. We rejoice that God accepts us just as we are. But too many people do not accept Him just as He is. And today, especially in this area in which the so-called progressive religious thinkers predominate – they even want Him to be a her or some kind of bi-gendered or trans-gendered entity. Of course, this entity is of their own creation – an idol of their own making – but such a thing suits their purposes.

These religious progressives – like political progressives – are actually regressive. They are returning to pre-Christian belief systems. They’re regressing to the kinds of divinities that populated Roman pagan belief – gods and goddesses of varying degrees of power who, if you made them happy would give you what you wanted. Making them happy always involved some kind of blood sacrifice. Hence, the Roman gladiatorial games fought to the death all in honor of the Roman gods.

Faithfulness to the One True God or to Caesar was the test in the ancient Roman Empire. Every Christian was affected. Thus, St. Paul commended the church of the Thessalonians for their faithfulness. They lived under the pressure to worship Caesar. But they kept the true faith and refused to participate in the pagan religion. St. Paul wrote this letter fearful that some might depart from the faith. So he honored those who had kept the faith even under duress.

Well, the more things change the more they remain the same. We face now what they faced then.

A word about progress. We know that the only real progress ever experienced in this world comes in and through the one and only Saviour of the whole world. But He does not live to unconditionally give us what we want when we want it. He calls us into discipleship to Him. And He disdains any offering of blood sacrifice. He shed His blood – once and for all – to end all bloodshed in His name. He and He alone is the one full and all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. No other sacrifice is necessary, desired or accepted.

All of this gets linked – as it always has been – to temporal government, to worldly power. Always has. Always will – until His return. From the beginning of time, God’s power and worldly power conflict one with the other. Hence, two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, the issue of the day for most of the people was the issue of who held the power and how one should respond to that power.

The Pharisees asked Jesus an important but tricky question – a power question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Taxes then – as now – were a hot topic.

Jesus responded with His own question for them. He asked them to produce a Roman coin and they did. He then asked, Whose likeness and inscription is on the coin? They answered, Caesar’s. All Roman coins had Caesar’s image on them. And also the inscription, Caesar the divine. (Many inscriptions adorned Roman coins. One read, Caesar Augustus, Son of God, Father of the Country.) Furthermore, it’s important to remember that Roman coins because they had the graven image of Caesar as a god on them were not acceptable for Temple offering. Worshippers in the Temple had to exchange the Roman coins for Temple coins. Hence, the money changers in the Temple whom Jesus threw out.

So the Pharisees knew that under the divine law regarding graven images and idolatry – part of the same Law given to Moses on the mountain – the Roman coins were unlawful. But under Roman government, their usage was required to pay taxes. You can see the trap into which Jesus might have been ensnared.

In the contemporary church we have a similar issue. Many people will claim and believe in a disconnect between money and God – between temporal wealth and eternally valid offerings. This has resulted in the very weak and flimsy understanding that too many mainline Christian have regarding the proper stewardship of their temporal wealth.

There’s a direct connection. Our money, like everything that we own, including our own lives, belongs to God and should be used for His purposes. And furthermore, on American money we have no inscription regarding a divine president. Remember, we unlike Rome, were established as a Christian nation. Rather we have the inscription, In God we trust. You see, our founders knew that temporal money ultimately belongs to God. Yet the progressive regressive want to remove this inscription from our coins and currency.

Just a note – there seems to be a direct correlation between church commitment and tax rates. Where the church is strongest, the taxes are lowest. And where the church is weakest, the taxes are higher. Just an observation.

So here we are – living in the most secular and thus pagan part of the country facing the same problems, as did those Christian in Thessalonica – faithfulness under pagan duress. Too many of our congregations have come under regressive control. Too few have held to the true faith in the face of the regressives.

And hence our churches are failing. All too often there are not enough of the faithful to sustain vibrant and alive congregations. Some congregations manage as secular organizations – but success in secularism has nothing whatsoever to do with faithfulness to God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

The false gods have their appeal. You get what you want from them- or at least, you believe you do. But finally, you don’t get what you really want – if you want the perfection of all that’s good and right and true – if you want true love that is eternally true and genuine love. Only God in Christ offers and gives that.

And yes, His wrath will finally purify this world – when He comes again. Until that time, our job is to remain faithful – to stand up to the regressives even as they claim to be progressives, even as they do so much damage to our churches in some cases destroying them – and hold ourselves and those who govern us to accountability under God’s Law. Created in His image, we need to live our lives worthy of that image. And by His grace, we both can and will. That’s our job.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, empower your people to ever increasing faithfulness. Come again and lay claim to your world. Deliver us from progressive regression and establish your Truth in the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of all mankind. And keep us faithful until your return.
We ask this in the name of
and for the sake of your Son,
the only Saviour of the whole world,
Jesus Christ the king,

The Party Crasher

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost XVII – 9 October 2011

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-8, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

From the Book of Exodus:
Because the Lord, angry with His people who had turned away from Him to worship an idol, Moses pleaded with God saying, Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
The apostle instructs the congregation with these words, Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Jesus concluded the Parable of the Wedding Feast with this disturbing condemnation.
But when the King came in to look at the guests, he saw a man who had no wedding garment; and he said, Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness….

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

Several weeks ago, I talked about Charles Darwin in my sermon stating that one of the most frequent criticisms of the validity of Scripture is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He presented that theory in his book entitled The Origin of Species. Now, I mention him again because so many people today believe more in his theory than they do in the Bible.

People take his evolutionary theory as an absolute truth – a scientific truth that stands over and against – and, to their thinking, somehow nullifies – Biblical revelation. They forget that Darwin himself saw his own theory as flawed for lack of fossil evidence. And over time, so have so many other evolutionists who have revised his theory to accommodate new discoveries. Although Darwin never abandoned his theory, he knew that it was not definitive. The observable evidence just did not support a claim to absolute truth.

Furthermore, recent scientific discovery and theorizing has dramatically altered all evolutionary thinking. The Big Bang Theory of creation now enjoys tremendous popularity among the scientifically minded altering much of evolutionist speculation.

One thing that all of know for sure is this. Scientific truth changes with every new discovery. Science textbooks have to be continually revised and updated as these new discoveries are made and new evidence nullifies old truths now proven false. Science books change constantly but the Bible remains the same. The Bible offers divine revelation. Science books offer material discovery.

My point this morning is not to open a debate about evolution or about any aspect of science per se but to talk about Darwin as a man – a broken hearted man for whom life had lost its joy.

Raised in a Unitarian home, he went to Christ College Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry. Scientific questions led him away from those studies but he maintained an academic interest in theological issues. Yet full faith eluded him. He, like so many others who see scientific discovery as antithetical to divine revelation, somehow could not bridge the gap; a gap that many others do not even perceive as a gap.

Science cannot deal with spiritual concerns. Anyone who uses science to judge the spiritual dimensions of life violates both science and spirituality. Science cannot explain good and evil, right and wrong, sin and salvation, love and hatred, hope and despair. Science cannot offer a living hope of eternal life. Science cannot do anything to bind two people together in a lifelong commitment to love, honor and cherish each other in all conditions of life.

Science cannot explain the astounding joy that a mom or dad experiences upon the birth of a child. Science cannot tell us why someone who loves so much may, if necessary, lay down his own life so that his loved ones may live. Such a quality of love is high and holy – self-sacrificing, honorable, noble and eternal.

Religion alone deals with these spiritual realities, offers ultimate answers, reveals life’s essential meaning and provides a power that both transcends and transforms material existence. As science may view us as organisms, religion sees us as people. And among religions, only Christianity sees us as beloved children of God for whom God dies on a cross so that His children may live forever. Science ends in death. Christianity ends with the beginning of new, eternal and resurrected life.

In Darwin’s own life, the death of his beloved daughter, Annie, at age 10 hit him hard. Her death broke his heart. He never attended church again. And yes, he had been an occasional churchgoer. One might speculate that he was angry with the God in whom he placed only a limited and conditional belief. And although he did not consider himself an atheist, he was most certainly not true believer. But his daughter’s death ended his church involvement.

After Annie’s death, a prevailing, existential despair overshadowed the rest of his life. Joy escaped him. Happiness was fleeting. Anything akin to hopeful anticipation played almost no role in his living. His evolutionary laws of the survival of the fittest and natural selection – his only explanation for her death – offered cold comfort – actually no comfort at all.

Truly, throughout my 40 years of ministry have found that the people best equipped to deal with life in every aspect of life – to deal with all the heartache, heartbreak, trouble, trials and tribulations are those of as deep faith in God’s saving purpose.

Those who have internalized the full and true meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ have the greatest power not only to face the bad things that confront them, but also to find joy in living. I have seen it over and over again. And those of little or no faith all too often give up or give in, withdraw from life, look entirely inward in self-absorption, indulge endless pleasure seeking to ward off the prevailing despair – to ease the pain – or live cynical and angry lives with the same kind of overshadowing malaise that characterized Darwin’s life after Annie’s death.

Now, keep this in mind as we talk about this morning’s Gospel lesson. It’s the Parable of the Wedding Feast – one of Jesus’ most important teachings.

Perhaps the most important thing about the parable is that it concerns itself with one of life’s greatest joys – a wedding. Jesus uses this imagery to make a point about the Kingdom of God – about our relationship to God – that He loves us, binds Himself to us in a committed relationship and intends for us a life of perfect happiness and joy.

Now this is important. Science, as I have already said, cannot deal with this whatsoever. And other religions do not offer this revelation of divinely intended joy. Only Christianity reveals God’s intention – His ultimate will – that we should rejoice in His presence as a bride and groom rejoice in each other.

Next, the parable tells us that all kinds of people are invited to celebrate this great happiness. God offers the invitation. All the guest has to do is to accept it and come to the party. But the guest has to be properly dressed. As was the ancient wedding practice, the host – in this case, God – provides a wedding garment for each of his guests. And in the parable, the garment is not clothing – the garment is the righteousness of God available to all those who simply confess their sins, receive His mercy and rejoice in His presence. And then the party begins.

Those who do so take on a whole new life. Their priorities change. They begin to seek the things that St. Paul speaks of in is letter to the Philippians. They value and seek all that’s good and right and true – honorable, uplifting, pure, lovely gracious and excellent. No longer contend with mediocrity, excellence becomes the goal. And to maximize goodness becomes the purpose in life for the sake of a joyful happiness. All of this comes with the right relationship with God.

The parable also tells us that one cannot crash this party. The host recognizes the party crasher and throws him out. Yes, divine judgment prevails.

Four important but often overlooked words demand attention. When the host asks, Friend, how did you get in her without a wedding garment, the man has no response. The text says, And he was speechless. The host addressed him as Friend. That’s a good start. But he said nothing. Perhaps all he had to say, I crashed the party because I wanted to be here. I wanted to celebrate the wedding. The desire to be with God in joy is all that’s required.

And the choice is just this – the eternal party or eternal misery. One or the other. There’s no in-between. It’s all about the perfection of goodness with God or the extreme of misery with the other guy. God loves us. The other guy loves only our misery. And that misery is often called the wrath of God.

The Bible frequently talks about the wrath of God. When God delivers His people from slavery in Egypt and the people turn away from the One who delivered them; they kindle God’s anger. As God gives His law for the sake of His people, they yet turn away from Him. Moses pleads with God to turn away from his anger. He does even though the people deserve the punishment.

But they continue to turn away from Him over and over again throughout all of history. Yet, because He loves His people, He took the wrath properly directed towards them unto Himself. God the Father became God the Son and took His own wrath to the cross. There, as God the Son dies, the wrath of God the Father died as well. The Son pays the price for the unfaithfulness of the people. And that’s the glory of the cross and the essential truth about our eternal salvation. When we put on the cross of Christ, we’re properly dressed for the eternal party. Simple as that.

The church’s mission from the beginning has been to proclaim this great joy to the people – to all people. Sometimes the message falls like good seed on fertile soil and takes deep root. At other times, the good seed falls on the rocks and simply withers and dies before it can grow and flower.

Although the present generation has a lot of rocky minded, that is, hardheaded and hardhearted people, our job remains the same – to proclaim the Good News of eternal life to an otherwise miserable people. That’s all we can do; offer the invitation to God’s party. But also be honest enough to say that one cannot crash this party. And yet all we have to say is just this – I want to be here. The host will take care of everything else.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with the power to face these difficult times. Fill us to overflowing with the joy of our salvation that others will see it in us and believe. Make of us your devoted disciples that we may honor and glorify your Son,
the world’s only saviour,
Jesus Christ the Lord,

The Law – The Sacrament

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Exodus 20: 1-4, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-14, Philippians 3: 8-14, Mathew 21: 33-46

From the Book of Exodus:
As God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses, He said,
I am the Lord your God….you shall have no other gods before me….for I the Lord your God am a jealous God….

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
The apostle wrote, I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ….

And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Teaching the priests and elders in the Temple through parables, Jesus concluded with these words, The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner….Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
Amen. E

On Friday night, I saw the Northshore Music Theatre’s production of The King and I starring Lorenzo Lamas as the King and Kate Fisher as Anna. Good acting, astounding voices singing the great Rogers and Hammerstein songs, spectacular costumes and a compelling story line made for an evening of superb entertainment. The King and I has become an American musical classic. Songs including I Whistle a Happy Tune, Hello Young Lovers, Getting to Know You, ‘Tis A Puzzlement, We Kiss in a Shadow, Shall We Dance and the very moving Something Wonderful all have taken their places among the greatest show tunes ever written.

The 1951 stage play and the 1956 film starring Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr are based on the romanticized and highly fictionalized diary of Anna Leonowens, a British tutor whom the King brought to the court to teach his wives, concubines and children science and western literature. Internet accounts vary but the king had between 38 and 67 wives and concubines and as many as 69 children.

King Mongut, who reigned in the mid-19th century, already self-educated and fluent in six languages, wanted to bring Siam into the scientific age. Although fascinated by British culture and western scientific and technological advancement, he nonetheless did not want to compromise Siamese culture and especially the Buddhist religion. A great admirer of President Abraham Lincoln, he sought to incrementally eliminate slavery from his own country. His son would complete that process during his reign.

Having had much contact with highly educated Christian missionaries, he studied the Bible, read theology and faced the hard questions that emerging science posed to established religion – Christianity and Buddhism alike. Having been a monk for nearly 30 years before becoming Siam’s king, he had developed a close friendship with the Roman Catholic cardinal in Siam. One can only imagine the depth and quality of their conversations.

Like Gandhi so many years later, King Mongut saw the Christian moral and ethical teachings as the highest and most demanding of all world religions. He admired Jesus as a great man and teacher but never believed in Him as the incarnation of God or the Savior of the whole world.

We must remember that the King believed – as did his subjects – that he was a kind of divine incarnation. We must not confuse our Lord’s incarnation with Buddhist incarnation and reincarnation; very different phenomenon. But suffice it to say that Siam’s King was the representative of the Buddha himself- a kind of reincarnation of Siddhartha. In fact, many of the Siamese kings bore the name of Buddha as a title.

Enamored with the Law of the Bible, especially as expressed in the Ten Commandments, the king implemented significant reforms in his country for the betterment of his people. Siam became one of the most advanced nations in Southeast Asia as it is today.

Although the law most impressed him, other parts of the Bible had their appeal as well, fitting in with his own Buddhist doctrine. The passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians in which the apostle declares, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse would have made sense to a man who had renounced all worldly things, pleasures and relationships as a monk. But the righteousness in Christ part would probably not have made any sense at all.

In fact, he said of Christianity that it suffered from a lack of rationality. He wanted something more scientific. This seems strange since Buddhism overflows with non-rational and unscientific teachings. But the mystery of the incarnation and the salvation of all mankind achieved through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not easily fit into Buddhist consciousness.

Well, the power of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection makes no sense from a mere rational or scientific perspective. God’s saving grace transcends human understanding – a mystery is just that – a mystery. It can only be experienced – not understood. It lives beyond the reach of science. Human intelligence, logic and rationality remain inadequate to comprehend what God has done.

But the Law has rational appeal. Without a doubt, the Ten Commandments make sense to any one who reads. And even our Lord’s expansion of them in His simple commandment to love one another and love thy neighbor as thyself – and even to love one’s enemy – well, that makes sense as well – at least the part about loving one’s neighbor. Loving one’s enemy may or may not resonate in the unredeemed mind.

And, if the truth be told, very few of us – even those of us who believe in it entirely – do all that well with the loving one’s enemy part. That’s why Christian doctrine is so very high and holy. It demands supernatural grace for it entirely escapes natural man. The Law can only do so much. Only God’s grace can save.

Well, that’s why God came to us – came into the world – in Jesus Christ. He came to fulfill the Law that He had given to Moses and begins the process of establishing His eternal kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And for those who believe in the Law, the grace part may be elusive.

Such was the case for the priests and elders with whom Jesus spoke in the Temple. Committed to the Law they found His teachings about the true nature of the kingdom difficult if not impossible to accept.

Instead of seeing how God’s grace fulfilled the divinely given Law, they saw that same grace as undermining the Law. Grace opposed the Law rather than fulfilled it. Hence, they rejected the personification of the divine grace – Jesus Christ Himself – and in that rejection lost the kingdom. Christ’s kingdom becomes available to a new nation – a nation – a kingdom – not of geographic or political boundaries – but of those who believe in Him.

The eternal kingdom can only be received by faith and not by obedience to the Law. Yet obedience remains essential as a manifestation – not as a pre-condition – as a manifestation – to salvation. Make sense? No. It’s a divine mystery received by faith and experienced rather than understood. And yet, when one believe, one understands but not by the normal means of rationality. Faith brings transcendent understanding.
God gives salvation. But it’s not just a gift in and of itself. It’s a gift of Himself. Salvation comes packaged in the incarnate Christ. The two are inseparable. To receive salvation and eternal life in the kingdom, one must receive the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, because only in and through Him is the kingdom available.
We experience this mystery when we, by faith, receive this Great Sacrament of Eternal Life, the Sacrament of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood. In, on, over, under, around and through these simple elements of bread and of wine, we take God’s grace into ourselves as He takes us into His kingdom. Alive in Him, we live forever.
So come to this sacred table. Receive the crucified and risen Christ. And feed on Him in thy hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
And one last word about those difficult words that God spoke when He gave the Ten Commandments – the ones about being a jealous God. Although definitions of marriage vary around the world and over time, almost every culture and religion recognize that breaking a marriage vow is a serious offense. It’s called adultery.
Such infidelity can break the human spirit and cause even a mild mannered individual to become enraged with jealousy. And in most places over most of human history, the penalty for adultery has been death. Such was the case in 19th century Siam. Such is the case in much of the non-Christian world today.
We, as believing members of Christ’s church, are the bride of Christ. Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life. If we depart from Him, we loose the kingdom of eternal life. Hence fidelity to Him who is always faithful to us remains essential.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, in great gratitude we come to your table. Deliver us from our pre-conditions for salvation and simply let us receive you in the power of your redeeming grace. Make of us gracious people, alive in you as you live in us and as you empower us to overcome the world so as to live in the kingdom.
In the name of and for the sake of
your Son our only Saviour, Jesus Christ
we offer this and all our prayers.
Amen. E