More Judgment (Give Us a Break!)

20 November 2011
The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost XXIII – Thanksgiving Sunday – Stewardship Sunday

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

From the Book of the Prophet, Zephaniah:
The prophet wrote, The great day of the Lord is near…. A day of wrath…a day of darkness and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom….

From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
The apostle instructed them and instructs us regarding the coming Day of Judgment saying; Put on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation…. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us…. therefore encourage one another and build one another up….

From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Speaking words of harsh judgment on the man who had buried his money in the ground, the Master said, you wicked and slothful servant…you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming, I should have received what was my own with interest…cast the worthless servant 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,

This inspiration for many of my sermons comes from conversations that I have with various people – some of them church people but most of them only casually involved with church life, if involved at all. This is most certainly a part of the evangelical mission entrusted to every clergyman – and to every Christian as well. Proclaiming the crucified and risen Christ is our job.

Now, most of the people with whom I discuss the Christian faith and religion participate in church life only on special occasions – the occasional baptism, confirmation, wedding or funeral. Some may attend at either Christmas or Easter but for the most part, these most important Christian holy days have become for them secular holidays. So even Christmas and Easter do not automatically get honored.

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday. We remember our faithful Pilgrim founders who came to this new world to establish a new life in a new land where they could practice their style of Christianity free from governmental harassment or interference.

When they arrived on these shores after so many years of such struggle, persecution and suffering, the first thing that they did was to kneel on the beach and give thanks to God for His providential care and for their new life in this new land.

We follow the Pilgrim example of gratitude as we observe Thanksgiving Day – a national holiday established for the specific purpose of giving thanks to God for the blessings of our lives and for this free country. Gratitude to God functions as part of the faith foundation for the practicing Christian – gratitude for salvation in and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as for every other good thing that comes to us.

But for the casual Christian or for the committed secularist, thanksgiving to God holds little or no meaning. It has no importance. In the unredeemed faith of the secularized mind, every good thing that we see as a blessing is for them an entitlement. And when they fail to get what they want when they want it – usually at someone else’s expense – their response is anger. Anger instead of gratitude functions as the motivating force in life.

Any perceived injustice is God’s fault. They will say to me, If there is a God and if He’s good, then He would not let this kind of thing happen. In other words, they pass judgment on God. And they punish Him by not believing in Him. Then they spend the rest of their lives promoting and defending their belief in the non-existence of God. But that’s another sermon entirely. Ironic for sure, but nonetheless the way it is for so many angry people.

In these many conversations, whenever I even hint at the divine judgment let alone of the wrath of God of which the Bible speaks frequently, they will most certainly say, Give me a break!!!! Like, how could you be so stupid to think that there’s some kind of divine judgment. (And stupid is the most frequently used word. They assume that some one who believes in God is stupid.) Of course, if you believe as they do, well then you’re smart. Do you see my point? Although they pass judgment on God, the idea that God will pass judgment on them – well, that’s ridiculous – and stupid.

So much of the current disbelief in God and the fashionable disdain for Christianity especially in the realm of the pseudo-intellectual academic elites is intimately linked to modern socialism. Modern socialists demonize successful people, see financial profit as a grievous evil and condemn anyone who works hard, makes money and supports himself and his family. Link financial success to Christian commitment, and you have the greatest of all evils in their eyes.

It’s interesting how the socialists will use scripture and some part of our Christian history to claim justification for their cause. For instance, the very first church – the church in Jerusalem – was a socialist – indeed, a communist community. All the members had to sell all that they had, put the money into common wealth in support of the community and own no private property. Any money earned had to be put into the common wealth used to support the members of the church.

The problem was that others who worked for a living – not full church members – had to continually contribute as the commonly held wealth created no other wealth for the sake of ongoing support. Now, this was not perceived as a problem since they expected the return of the Lord on the Day of Judgment at any moment. They would have no need for money, houses or land. But when the Lord did not return as soon as they expected, all kinds of problems resulted.

Perhaps they should have learned from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. The servants who capitalized on their monetary trust received praise from the master. But the unworthy servant who failed to capitalize his money lost it all. And in the process, he incurred the divine judgment.

Truly, a small socialist / communist community can survive – witness the many monasteries and convents throughout church history – but only on the gifts of the capitalists. A capitalist is here defined simply as one who works and carefully invests his money so as to create more money. If the capitalists fail to make money and offer support to the community, the socialist / communist community dies – even the Christian socialist / communist community. Despite our Lord’s clear instruction to create wealth and share it properly – as charity but not as entitlement – some people just do not get it. They demonize financial success and glorify financial failure.

For the first few years of their life in Plymouth the Pilgrims operated on a socialist economy. Like the Jerusalem church, they found that the lazy took advantage of the hard workers and the hard workers had no motivation to work as they fruits of their labors were taken to support the freeloaders. Eventually, quoting St. Paul when he said of the freeloaders in the various churches in the ancient world, He who does not work, does not eat, the Pilgrims changed their way of life.

The socialist model had failed, in Plymouth as it had in Jerusalem – and as it does everywhere it’s tried. So in 1623, houses with garden plots were established. Private property and self-sufficiency replaced the failed socialism and the settlement prospered. Over the next several decades, with more and more settlers arriving, the Massachusetts Bay Colony became one of the most successful and prosperous parts of the British Empire. And eventually, with the full exercise of free-market capitalism, this nation became the richest in the whole world and in all of human history.

Although much of Scripture glorifies those who give up everything in this life including material comfort and wealth in order to properly serve God as a part of their Christian walk, they voluntarily give that up. For them material well-being functions a barrier to their understanding of their vocation.

But the Bible also bears witness to those who capitalize on their divinely given gifts and maximize their material condition for the sake of faithfulness to the same God who may call others to renunciation. For the rich young ruler, for whom his wealth is barrier to a good relationship with God, He says, Sell all that you have give the money to the poor and come follow me. Following Jesus Christ is the most important part of the account. But the rich young man who valued his wealth more than his relationship with God – well you get the point.

Judgment falls on the wealthy who love their wealth more than they love God or who make money in an immoral or unethical manner. But the same judgment falls on those who being blessed, fail to maximize their blessing. For the rich young ruler, giving up his wealth would honor and glorify God. For the unfaithful servant, increasing his wealth would have offered the same divine honor and glory.

Today is for us at Trinity Church, Stewardship Sunday as well as Thanksgiving Sunday. The two really do go hand in hand. Without a doubt, the proper motivation for supporting the church of Jesus Christ is the gratitude in our hearts for the great gift of salvation. I use those words every Sunday as we dedicate the offering. We should give, as St. Paul recommends, cheerfully and not by force. We should be glad to do so, finding deep spiritual satisfaction as we give of our material substance.

And substance is the key word here.
We give out of our substance – not out of our excess or give to God our leftovers. No. We give to God in support of His church first – we take the Biblically established tithe – 10% – and dedicate it to Christ. Then we work out the rest of our budgets. God first. In our finances as well as in any other part of our lives, if we put the Lord first, everything else begins to fall into place.

As God instructs us through His prophet, Malachi, saying, Bring the full tithe…and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. so we should set this principle first in our lives.

And one last word about judgment. No one knows when the day of the Lord will arrive. Scripture bears consistent witness to it as a dreadful day when anything evil will experience the wrath of God. But as St. Paul tells us – and I paraphrase, we are not destined for that wrath but for salvation in and through Jesus Christ who died for us. Thus we can live our lives in faith, in hope and in love – not in anger or fear like the secularists and other non-believers. And he tells us to encourage one another building each other up in greater faithfulness.

And that’s our job until He comes again.

You will be receiving a stewardship letter in the next few days. Think about and most importantly, pray about your pledge. We will dedicate our tithes and pledges on Sunday, December 11th – the 3rd Sunday in Advent.

And one more one last word about judgment. We may say, More judgment! Give us a break! Well, God has given us a break. But not only a break, He gave us THE break. The break is the broken body of Jesus Christ. In His sacrifice, He breaks the power of the wrath of God – and breaks open the gates of heaven and the Kingdom of God.

With this in mind, let us pray.

Heavenly Father, bless us with truly grateful hearts. Defend us from the assaults of the secularists who subvert from within and our enemies who terrorize from without. Deliver us from deception, false hope and bad faith. Restore this nation to the greatness that you intend. And cause us to be agents of your Truth, living our lives in your
hope, in holy love and in true faith that we may honor and glorify your Son,
the crucified and risen Saviour of the whole world,
Jesus Christ the King,


The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Remembrance of the Faithful Departed – Memorial Sunday – Pentecost XXI

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, I John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

From the Revelation to St. John:
[A]nd behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and crying out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb!

From St. John’s First Letter:
Beloved, we are God’s children now.… And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ spoke these words, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful…. [and] Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

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.

This morning’s sermon is actually two sermons in one. The first deals with church architecture and the second with the salvation of the soul. The two are interrelated and I will demonstrate that. But half way through, we will switch gears. But by the end the two will be brought together. So in the immortal words of Betty Davis, Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

One of the most distressing aspects of contemporary church life in these United States as well as in Europe is the dreadful – dare I say ghastly, inhumane, profane, brutal and most certainly ungodly architecture of modern church buildings. A church building is supposed to be a sermon in stone, brick or wood – at least an inspiration to those who both look at it and enter into it – and at best, an taste of heaven by virtue of its inspiring beauty.

Currently, we see two trends. First, many people seem to want the church building to be an extension of their living room – a place to flop down, chill out, relax and be entertained – a come as you are kind of place so that you can leave as you were.

This stands over and against the true purpose of a church which is to lift up the heart, mind, body and soul of the worshipper to the very gates of heaven – that no matter how you are when you come in, you will leave having come at least a little bit closer to God. The church building should touch a worshipper’s soul – and change that soul, lifting it up to a higher righteousness. The gap between that higher righteousness and the sin sick soul can be gigantic. But God in Christ bridges that gap. His house of worship should facilitate crossing that bridge.

The second trend is that of abject ugliness. Now, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But there remain standards that distinguish beauty and ugliness.

Ugliness has no place in church architecture although it plays the major role in so many of our contemporary buildings designed by architects either angry with God if they believe in Him at all or out to make a name for themselves by being as absurd as possible in their designs. If you cannot get recognition for beauty, get it for ugliness.

Many of them are part of what is called the brutal minimalist school of architecture currently at the so-called cutting edge of the discipline. Witness the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, and both the Roman and the Episcopal Cathedrals in Vermont – prime examples of the brutal minimalism that represents the degradation of the current state of our religion – a degradation of heaven’s beauty.

Scripture provides us with a dramatically different vision of heaven, of the eternal kingdom or the courts of the Lord. Biblical descriptions ranging from Isaiah’s to St. John’s in the Book of Revelation, speak of a place of astounding beauty – in fact, the perfection of the beauty of holiness.

The Biblical inspiration and the working of the Holy Spirit throughout the Christian ages, has resulted in the long history of inspiring sacred architecture with examples of divinely inspired churches ranging from huge and magnificent cathedrals to simple but beautiful chapels and meeting houses. This both honor and glorify God – the purpose not only of church architecture but also of the Christian life as well.

Now, here’s where we shift gears from architecture to soul salvation.

One of the best examples is the chapel at Stanford University called Memorial Church – a stunning exercise in holiness executed in a Byzantine – Romanesque style and laden with mosaics, frescos and astounding stained glass.

Although a non-denominational church, this building is one of the most glorious sermons in architecture in the entire world. It boldly proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour of all mankind. The front façade of the building depicts the risen Christ welcoming the righteous into the kingdom of heaven. The central stained glass window over the high alter shows the crucifixion. The mosaics preach the life of Christ performing healing miracles, teaching the Sermon on the Mount and glorifying every aspect of his conception, birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and ascension.

Now, why am I so interested in Stanford University’s Memorial Church? I came across it as I researched the memorial service held for Steve Jobs about whom I spoke in my October 9th sermon – a self-proclaimed Buddhist – yet whose funeral was held in one of the world’s most magnificent Christian churches.

You see, I find this man’s life and accomplishments compelling. His contribution to the world has dramatically changed – for the better – the lives of billions of people. Furthermore, his intense and astoundingly creative intelligence, his passionate love for life, for his family and especially for his son, Reed – and his devotion to beauty – something not often noted about his great man – speak of a man upon whom the Holy Spirit has most certainly worked – a man blessed in his genetic makeup by God the creator and a man for whom, like all of us who have ever lived – one for whom Christ hung on the cross to expiate our sins – yours – mine – and Steve’s.

I know that salvation depends upon our reception of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Saviour of all mankind. But I also know that many otherwise good and truly wonderful, kind, creative, loving and self-sacrificing people who miss the point here and there in their lives – as do you and I who claim the cross – nonetheless, these good people for whatever reason never place their faith in the One True God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Yet we love these people. And we hope – and pray – that by God’s grace, they may yet arrive in the beautiful courts of the Lord. If we, who are sinners, can love them so much how much more does God, who has no sin but loves in perfection – how much more does He love them? Jesus bears witness to this holy love in both His teachings and in His sacrifice. It’s full application remains somewhat of a mystery – the holy mystery of salvation.

Yes I – and I know many of you – hope that somehow and in some way they receive another opportunity to receive the Saviour even after they depart from this world. Many parts of the church teach of this opportunity. Many say that you must accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour before you doe to this life. If not, you miss heaven and literally go to hell. Both positions justify themselves in the Biblical witness. Yet I, and you, hope. There is no sin in hope so long as it’s hope in the Lord.

Now I say I hope because Steve Jobs (and so many others) never confessed a faith in Jesus Christ. Yet I hope – there’s that word again – that deep down in the center of their souls, that there’s a genuine hunger and thirst for righteousness, a burring desire to see God face to face and a purity of motive and intention that will at least bring these otherwise non-believing people to the throne of the Most Holy God, to Jesus Christ the King of Heaven and the King of Angels, and see Him face to face, for the face of God the Father is the face of God the Son – and upon seeing His face, believe in Him – and in believing be saved for the one whom they now see is the one whom they so deeply loved but did not know it or could not receive it on this side of death.

Steve’s sister gave a eulogy – profoundly touching – in which she talked about how he changed her life by virtue of his kindness – of how he devoted himself to his work which was, for him, play – about his endless pursuit of beauty – eternal beauty – an astoundingly humble man of such great accomplishment who treasured happiness and who loved to love. He especially loved his wife and children.

His only son, Reed, held a special place in his father’s heart. (Steve, as a child, did not have a special place in his biological father’s heart.) Steve said, as his physical condition worsened, that he made a bargain with God – or with whatever – those are his words – that he wanted to live to see Reed graduate from high school. Now it’s important the he said God because in true Buddhism, there is no God let alone eternal life in heaven.

Perhaps, Steve had in his consciousness, a space for God. Maybe the bargain, (please note, we can make NO BARGAINS WITH GOD. We think we can, but we cannot) the terms of which remain undisclosed, had a hope for God – and in that hope the possibility of the purification of the righteousness that comes when we desire to see God face to face – and approach his heavenly throne upon which sits the Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world.

We know that people of all nations, tribes, tongues and races stand around His heavenly throne. In St. John’s vision, they proclaim that salvation belongs to the Lamb, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world – the Lamb of God who was and is and will be forever Jesus Christ the incarnate God. And, dressed in the white clothes righteousness, they sing His praise. We know that all are welcome, but will all make it?

Again, we’re saved by faith. I just hope that God offers another opportunity on the other side of death to this life so that those whom we love who do not now believe can believe and be saved.
Hope – St, John says that everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself in that hope. A holy hope purifies.

Steve Job’s last words before fading out of consciousness were simply – Oh wow! Oh wow!, Oh wow!
His sister said that he had gazed into the eyes of his wife and each of his children and then began his departure. No more words were spoken to them. She said that he then looked far beyond them and with a gentle smile simply said, Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow! Then he was gone.

I hope that what he saw was the face of God and in seeing believed. He loved beauty and spoke of eternal beauty. If one can see the face of God, what can be more beautiful? From what his sister said of him, Steve hungered and thirsted for righteousness. He had a purity of heart. I believe that counts for a lot.

I do not believe in coincidence. His funeral was held in that most magnificent building dedicated to Jesus Christ. He was memorialized in the beauty of holiness with every inch of that architectural masterpiece proclaiming that salvation belongs to the Lamb. And I hope that when he said, Oh wow!, it was because he saw the holiness of Christ, and as a child of God, found a welcome into the heart of the Father.

As we come to this sacred table of the Sacrament of Eternal Life, we come to taste here the feast of the banquet of haven. We remember the faithful departed. We’re united with them in communion as we share in the Sacrament called Holy Communion.

And we place our hope in Jesus Christ, in His broken Body and in His shed Blood. For He, and He alone, is the Lamb of God – the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. In Him only can we hope.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, as we give you thanks for the saving sacrifice of your Son our only Saviour, so we pray that in your grace and by your mercy, you will receive all the souls of those who love, of those who hunger and thirst for your righteousness and for all who seek the beauty of holiness. Grant to us who claim your name that we may bear a faithful witness to you -that other will believe as they see our witness and enter into heaven, to dwell in your courts forever.
We ask this in the name of
and for the sake of you Son,
Jesus Christ, the King of Heaven,