First Place

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost XVII – 23 September 2012

Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13 – 4:3, Mark 9:30-37

From the Book of the Prophet, Jeremiah:
Jeremiah laments, thou didst show me their evil deeds, But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter….let me see thy vengeance upon them, for to thee have I committee my cause.

From the Letter of St. James:
Continuing in his discussion of faith and works using the example of Abraham, he wrote, You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works…. faith apart from works is dead. And Who is wise among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in humility…

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Jesus asked his disciples what they were discussing as they traveled to Capernaum saying, What were you discussing on the way? But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. Jesus said, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.

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 know that I am stating the obvious when I say that often, it’s often really hard to understand the Scriptures. That’s why we have theologians and Biblical scholars in endless debate over the centuries, why we need a properly educated clergy trained in Scripture, the history of interpretation – the fancy word for that is hermeneutics – and in church history to see how previous generations of Christians have applied Biblical teaching to the various circumstances of their lives.

It’s why all of us must study our Bibles – both alone and in groups – to learn as much as we can about our faith and religion as well as check our interpretation over and against those who hold a different viewpoint. We may be convinced of our understanding only to discover that someone else, from a different perspective opens to us another level of meaning and appreciation bringing us closer to the Truth.

One thing that we must always remember when we read the Bible is that we need to approach the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New – for the New fulfills the Old as the Old bears witness to the New – and then understand the New Testament from the perspective of the Gospels – and all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is, of course, the Spirit of Truth.

The danger is always to interpret according to own wants and needs, adapting the Scriptures to a preconceived faith – a faith formed not by divine revelation but by the popular culture and self-interest.

Jesus challenged this tendency in the Sermon on the Mount – the highest and best instruction given anywhere by anyone regarding authentic holiness and true righteousness. The sermon sets holiness over self interest – counterintuitive to human nature.

From the earliest days of the church, the faithful have debated our Lord’s teachings found in that greatest of all sermons. Jesus instructs us that we should bless those who persecute us. Instead of the Old Testament admonition of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and even a life for a life, Jesus calls us to the higher righteousness. St. Paul continues in that righteousness when he wrote, repay no man evil for evil.

St. Paul lived most of his adult life under some kind of persecution. He practiced what he preached. He never gave in to his critics. Jesus said, Blessed are the peace makers. The temptation is not to make peace on God’s terms but to keep the peace by giving in to the loudest voice, the most popular notion or to the one who makes the strongest threat. St. Paul never did that. He always stood his ground, keeping the faith as he attempted to make the peace – not keep the peace. A big difference.

St. James set the same example. He, Like Paul, most certainly had his critics. He would have been more popular had he gone along with the notion that so long as you claimed faith in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord and savior who died for your sins, then you could do anything you wanted to do be that living a licentious life or indulging in the cultural religion of the times – Roman paganism – or simply living selfishly without concern for those in need.

St. James continually challenged the prevailing wisdom, sometimes called the conventional wisdom or the spirit of the times or the spirit of the age. Never does that wisdom – regardless of how we identify it – come from above. Generally, it comes from precisely the opposite direction.

He told his people – and tells us – that faith was – and is – essential but unless it shows in how we live, in good works including service to others in legitimate need and in another category of good works – acts of authentic piety – then the faith is just a show of pietism. He instructed, Faith without works is dead.

He underscored our Lord’s teaching when Jesus questioned His disciples regarding their conversation on the road to Capernaum. They were debating who would hold first place in the coming kingdom – an obvious example of self-interest.

But Jesus instructed them that in the kingdom, if anyone would be first, he must be last – and the servant of all. This calls for humility, for transcending our self-interest and for looking at our lives – what we say – what we do and who we are – from God’s perspective rather than our own. Not easy. Again, counter-intuitive. But when God holds first place in our loves as demonstrated by humble obedience to His will, and then the issue of first place falls away in importance. We share in His kingdom and that’s more than enough.

Good works are not just acts of genuine charity but also include honoring the Lord in what we say, in dedicated worship on the Lord’s Day – even f it’s inconvenient, in continual prayer as well as in the aforementioned helpfulness to others.
Keep this in mind as we shift gears for a moment.

In our generation when we, as Christians, as well as Jews are being persecuted in the Middle East, many seem to think, that being faithful to our Lord somehow means giving in, apologizing for our faith and values, or somehow accommodating the evil being perpetuated as if by so doing, they will like us and be good to us.

Although Jesus calls us to the higher righteousness, He never allows us to accommodate, compromise with, surrender to, honor or glorify evil.

Evil never turns good. It deserves no honor. But powerfully, unapologetic, unashamed – and good – men and women of true faith, believing in and living God’s Truth can change the lives of many caught up in evil but who, deep down inside, seek the good. Trust me when I say, evil itself never changes. But presented with the Good News of our salvation, people can – and do change when they see the alternative clearly. This requires that the True Gospel – unadulterated by the spirit of the times – must be proclaimed – powerfully.

A personal note. As I draw closer to my retirement, I have become increasingly reflective. I look back, especially at the earlier days of my ministry and wish that I had been bolder in my proclamation of the Gospel.

There was a time when I accommodated the erroneous belief that all religions share in a spiritual and moral equivalence and that all lead to the same God. I speak about this frequently because I encounter it all the time. I fear that far too many of us either endorse it or fail to challenge it with the exceptional uniqueness of Christianity over and above all other religions.

We do this because we want the approval of others, we want acceptance and we like to think of ourselves – and have others think of us – that we are open minded, tolerant and inclusive. We put their approval in first place.

Any serious study of the various faiths and religions popular today – or in any other day and age – will demonstrate the unique holiness of Christianity as the one true faith. It’s not that we as Christian are superior – we are not. We remain sinners just like everyone else. But we worship a superior God.

How can anyone say that everyone worships the same God when some honor and glorify their god by beheading those of other religions – and do it in obedience to the will of that god. They believe that such horrendous brutality – pure evil – constitutes holiness. In so doing, they get a reward from their false god. They by-pass judgment and go directly to paradise. Christ forbids anything like this vicious behavior. And Jesus Christ is God.
We all know the account of Abraham, whom St. James references in his letter, who fully believed that God wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of his own faith. He was willing to do so if God had commanded. But the One True God said Do not kill the boy.

Abraham became the father of many nations for his faithfulness – a faithfulness that always held God in first place. Yet another religion claims that God allows for or even demands the stoning of a disobedient wife, mother, sister or daughter – as well as an errant son. So help me God, we do not worship the same God!

Well, how do we our Lord’s teachings when we find ourselves in a hostile situation when someone may be threatening the lives of our children, our wives or husbands, our mothers or fathers, our closest friends or of anyone whom we hold dear – or even our own life? Under those circumstances, how do we bless someone who has killed a loved one – or an enemy as in war – that threatens everything including our faith and religion?

The church has historically taught that when in a situation of self-defense, we both can and should do just that – defend ourselves even if it means taking another life. In no way, though, are we to seek or take vengeance. God lays claim to vengeance. Scripture is clear on this – vengeance is mine saith the Lord. That means that if someone murders your child, you do not then murder his; a common practice in ancient times.

That’s why Christian societies – underline Christian – have always sought over the ages to establish a fair system of justice recognizing the right that anyone accused deserves a fair trial. Justice must be served – but vengeance must not take hold.

When it does, we put ourselves in God’s place. He forbids that. First place belongs to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and to no one and to nothing else. If the Truth be told, all the evil in the world arises when we put ourselves or some else or something else in first place – the place belonging exclusively to God.

First place means that in all conditions of life, we give to God all the honor – all the glory and all the power. We know that He has the power. Yet the way He uses that power may frustrate us. We may want Him to use it on our terms. But as our Lord said to His Father in the garden, Not my will but thine be done.

The prophet, Jeremiah, who lived under constant derision, rejection and threat to his life, often lamented his plight. In bouts of self-pity, he wanted vengeance. He was an angry man – as were all the prophets who could see the evil in this world from God’s perspective. Yet even in his lamentable condition, he adjusted his attitude and his behavior to fulfill his divine vocation. He never gave in to that evil. God held first place in Jeremiah’s life.

All of this comes together in and on the cross of our salvation. There, God Made Man sacrificed His own life for the lives of sinners. That’s how He used His power. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would have had no redeeming power. Only God Himself can redeem. And he did so in His broken body and in His shed blood. The cross fulfills the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament and ushers in the New. The cross demonstrates the perfection of the higher righteousness. Taking abject injustice onto Himself in His sacrifice – as He took all sin unto Himself – He establishes the perfection of justice in God’s mercy.

Our job, as men and women of the cross is to boldly proclaim the unique holiness of our Lord’s sacrifice without apology or shame – with no accommodation of evil and in the humility of self as we bear witness to the first place held exclusively by God.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with necessary courage to bear a faithful witness to your holiness. Deliver us from self interest. Establish within us the desire to hold you and you alone as the one who holds first place in our lives. And grant, by your grace that we may so live our lives that we may show, in all that we say, in all that we do and in all that we are, the priority of Your will revealed so perfectly on the cross of our salvation. We ask this in the name of your Son, our only Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord,


The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost XVI – 16 September 2012

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-9, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
…the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint and I know I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.

From the Letter of St. James:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ said, …whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

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,

Of all the prophets I think that I love Isaiah the most. Practical in his prophecy and powerfully poetic in his expression, this man knew human nature better than any contemporary psychologist. He knew that human beings are at once created in the image of God and also fallen into the dreadful state of sinful disobedience to the very God who had created them in His own image.

He also knew, better than anyone else of his time, the divine nature as well. Although God was – and is – and will be forever unknowable other than to the extent that He chooses to reveal Himself -and His most perfect revelation being His Son our only Savior, Jesus Christ – nonetheless some 750 years before God became man in Jesus Christ, Isaiah knew God.

This prophet had been the beneficiary of a unique revelation when God called and commissioned him to a prophetic ministry. Unashamedly, Isaiah spent the rest of is life proclaiming the message entrusted to him.

For Isaiah, God was in no way a good buddy. The Lord was – dare I use the word – awesome in holiness beyond description. In his vision, presented in chapter 6, Isaiah described the Lord in some of the most beautiful and inspiring words of scripture – a testimony to God’s awesome nature. This passage is worthy of memorization. Isaiah wrote,

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, seated upon a throne, high and lifted up and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim: each had six wings. With twain he covered his face, with twain he covered his feet and with twain he did fly.

And one cried unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: The whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, Woe is me for I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Note that in his vision, he saw the Lord seated upon a throne in the heavenly temple. Isaiah was a priest, fully familiar with the great Jerusalem temple. As a priest, he knew God to be the King above all kings and that King’s throne room was the temple – the heavenly temple of which the glorious Jerusalem temple was but a faint imitation.

The vision continues to testify to the glory and awesomeness of God in that the seraphim – the highest order of angelic beings in the nine fold hierarchy of heavenly beings – stood above the throne to bear witness to the same divine glory. So intense was the divine presence, that these greatest of all angels covered their faces for even they could not gaze upon Him. So powerful was the divine presence that all they could say was, Holy! Holy! Holy!

God’s burningly intense presence is further veiled by the smoke of the incense burning as it always did in the earthly temple – so too in the heavenly temple – indicating ultimate divinity – God as both the great high priest and King.

The incense further denoted the burnt offering – the blood sacrifice offered in Jerusalem to God for the purification of sinful man – and prefiguring the sacrifice of God Himself in the form of His Son to whom frankincense was offered when the pagan kings worshipped the infant King. The infant King of the Jews would become the full, perfect and all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the all the people.

All of this fits together so magnificently telling us that this prophet was the real thing. And confirming that, Isaiah said, I am undone, for I am man of unclean lips…. Humility, the first and most important mark of any authentic man of God. Humble before God; yet bold and unashamed in his proclamation of God’s word.

All prophets – that is all authentic prophets – see life and the world from two perspectives at the same time – from our sinful human perspective and from the perfection of God’s holiness. Being thus blessed, they can see the whole picture; they can connect all the dots.

Most people cannot do that. Only true prophets can. And that is precisely what Isaiah did. He saw the whole picture of the time in which he lived -with all of its apostasy, with the people having fallen away from their God – indeed willfully turning away from their God as they assumed their own importance, indulged their own wills and grew arrogant in their own degradation. They gloried in their sins but were ashamed of God.

He saw the heavenly King but also the earthly kings. He knew five of Judah’s kings.
Uzziah a good king who sought to serve the Lord – Jotham who served faithfully as well fortifying the walls of the city and of the temple -
Ahaz a bad king who worshipped false gods, desecrated the temple and murdered his own son –
Hezekiah ardent in his devotion he purified the temple and called the people back to faithfulness to the law -
and Manasseh, a bad king who indulged idolatry.
Yet even the best of them remained imperfect and the worst of them were horribly corrupt, self-centered, self-important and self-consumed as well as idolatrous. Isaiah prophesied to all of them except, of course, Uzziah who died in the year of the prophet’s call.

The contrast between the divine perfection and the human corruption emboldened him to his unashamed words, as he always remained humble, knowing his own uncleanliness. His sin, purged as it had been by the burning coal from the alter fire as the seraph touched his lips, nonetheless, Isaiah remained fully human – fully human with a divine vocation but never divine himself.

Blessed with both human and divine perception, he might well have gone crazy – especially when his words from God judged the bad kings. Dangerous words. Yet he remained faithful. In the passage set for this morning, the third of his four Servant Songs, the prophet wrote, the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Unashamed.

Keep thin in mind as we fast-forward in time 3,700 years.

Last week, Neil Armstrong died. The media covered his accomplishment of having been the first human being to have walked on the moon and thus on anything other than planet earth.

But one thing that we did not hear about was reported in The Guardian, a British newspaper and testified to by Buzz Aldran who also walked on the moon on that same mission, was the fact that he had taken the Sacrament of Holy Communion to the moon and shared it on the moon. Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian and member of the Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, had been given – at his request – the elements of bread and wine to take with them. Upon landing on the moon, they took a moment to recite a passage from the Gospel of St. John and shared the consecrated elements.

[Correction - Buzz Aldrin, a member at Webster Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX., brought the sacrament and shared it with Neil Armstrong. Although Armstrong shared in the sacrament on the moon, he apparently was not an active churchman. Aldrin was most certainly unashamed of his faith. The nature and content of Armstrong’s faith is barely discussed on the Internet. I have included the correction in the original text of my sermon in parentheses.]

Armstrong (Aldrin) wanted to have this broadcast but NASA blacked it out due to the fact that the atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hara was suing the agency because Biblical passages had been read on other occasions. Due to the lawsuit, the sacrament remained unknown until months later.

Unashamed of the Gospel, (Aldrin) Armstrong made history, properly honoring God. A humble man as evidenced by his words, One small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind, he nonetheless honored and glorified God in his life. Part of The Westminster Confession, which we, as Congregationalists, affirm in our own document, The Savoy Declaration – almost identical to the Confession – proclaims that the purpose of life is to honor and glorify God. (Buzz Aldrin and) Neil Armstrong did just that.
Back in time some 2,000 years.
St James warned his followers that not too many of them should become teachers since God holds the teachers of the faith to a higher and stricter standard. People should be careful so that they, in their teaching, might not dishonor Christ or use the name of Jesus to glorify themselves.

Heeding that warning, all of us are, nonetheless, to some degree or another, teachers of the faith. (Buss Aldrin) Neil Armstrong was just such a teacher but, again in this adulterous and sinful generation, we apologize for the faith and fail to teach it even to own children. We now have a generation of young people the majority of whom have not been educated in the faith, know nothing of its saving truth, and who believe as the anti-Christian culture has taught, that Jesus was just one more religions figure among many. And worse yet, even our schools blame Christianity for all the evil in the world as they glorify secular culture and teach the moral equivalency of evil religions.)
All I need to say about that is just read about what is happening in the Middle East, in Egypt and Libya. Members of a militant religion are persecuting Christians and Jews. Yet the media never identifies this as a religious war and fails to cover the ongoing persecution.

Jesus told us that if we are ashamed of Him He will be ashamed of us as well when we stand before the judgment throne of God. The false teachers who currently lead most of our major denominations – including the Roman church as well as the various Protestant variations – teach that God automatically forgives everything, that there really is no such thing as sin and that there is – and never will be – a judgment. Truly, these false teachers will be surprised when they sand before that throne – the same throne that Isaiah saw in his glorious vision of God. Will their lips – the lips that proclaimed the disgrace of God – be purged?

The present generation honors and glorifies those who dishonor Christ and censor those who do. Even our government has attempted to force faithful Christians into sin by requiring, under the law, that the Roman Catholic Church provide insurance to cover birth control and abortion to those employed by that organization. And just as bad, the powers that be compromise with, speak honorably of and encourage those who seek to destroy us.

Sadly, we are reaping what we have sown. So many of my friends, as they had children, did not educate them in the church because they wanted their children not to be pressured into belief but left free to make up their own minds. If I have heard that once, I have heard it a thousand times. Lacking exposure to the true religion, the secularists in our schools and in the culture have educated – indoctrinated – them in anti-Christianity.

We have given in to the bad guys because we’re somehow embarrassed and ashamed of our faith and the truth it reveals. Given the blessed assurance of the divine mercy, those who abuse His saving grace and His redeeming power will not share in the blessing.

Following the example of those who, like Isaiah, like St. James and like all the other apostles and the countless Christian martyrs who, over the ages, unashamedly proclaimed the crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ – our job is to do the same. For He and He alone is our only hope. And this is most important as the powers of this world promise hope but deliver despair.

We have the blessed assurance. And unashamed of the Gospel, we must stand up and challenge those perverse powers. Victory will come, but only if we honor and glorify God, perfectly revealed in the one and only Savior of all mankind, Jesus Christ.

So don’t be confounded. Set your face like a flint and proclaim the Gospel – boldly and unashamedly -giving Him the honor and the glory.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, purge our lips with the burning coal of your sacred fire – the fire that burns and purifies but does not consume. Humble before your throne, bless us with boldness in the face of the prevailing evil. Deliver us, we pray, from that evil, and grant to us a new day of all that’s good and right and true – given to us in and through the sacrifice of our Son,
Our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the King.

A Surprising Healing

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost XV – 9 September 2012

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God shall come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

From the Letter of St. James:
The brother of our Lord admonished his readers saying, My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Having healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman as well as a deaf and dumb man, the people were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.

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 often said that the job of the preacher would be so much easier and yield such greater results if, when one confessed his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all his afflictions would be healed, his bank account would swell and his life filled with happiness. All of us want health, wealth and happiness with the first priority being health.

We know that any kind of automatic state of health, wealth and happiness that accompanies a conversion to Christ just does not happen. In fact, our Lord asks us to take up our crosses. His plan for our lives may be very different from ours. Yet we seek that health, wealth and happiness even though we know better.

How many times have you heard it said – or said it yourself, If you have your health, you have everything. The truth of this is obvious. An active, healthy life – pain free and fully energetic – cannot be underestimated. Health is a priceless treasure, for sure.

And yet, when we’re healthy we usually take it for granted and want – often passionately want, wealth believing that happiness will follow. Human nature fails to remember to offer gratitude for our blessings. We just want so much more forgetting what we already have. We appreciate health most when we are ill. And again, when we take our health for granted, we set wealth as the priority.

Well most of us know that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness. Even the most casual look at some the world’s wealthiest people proves that. Think of Howard Hughes – one of the wealthiest men in the world in his time – yet a miserable recluse in his senior years. Born to wealth, he increased his personal fortunes through his Hollywood production company as well as in aviation. He owned Trans World Airlines and eventually American Airlines.

But even as a young and wealthy man, Hughes never experienced the quality of life that anyone might call happiness. Some said of him that he was always a tormented man with that torment increasing with age.

We could attribute his misery to mental illness. Yet the point is well made – wealth does not necessarily bring either health or happiness. Unhappiness and mental illness, just like physical illness, is an equal opportunity affliction.

St. James, the brother of our Lord and the Bishop of Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church, took onto himself a state of perpetual poverty. Obviously not born to wealth, he nonetheless had as good a life as any of those who worked as craftsmen.

Not among the poorest, he nonetheless disavowed any form of worldly wealth and established the Jerusalem church with the same requirement. We need to remember that, in the chosen sate of perpetual poverty, the Jerusalem congregation relied on the gifts of the wealthy in order to survive. The nobleness of their poverty could not have happened if the wealthier churches in the ancient world did rise to the equally noble task of supporting that church.

In our generation, Mother Teresa, having chosen a life of poverty to minister to the health needs of the world’s poorest people, could have accomplished nothing whatsoever if the wealthy did not support her righteous ministry of good works. She lived her life for others. She obeyed our Lord’s commandment that as you minister to the least of these my brethren, you minister also unto me. But Mother Teresa’s righteousness depended upon the generous gifts of wealthy people. The healing she accomplished – or better expressed, that God accomplished through her, would not have been possible otherwise.

The Letter of St. James makes many important points and emphasizes his belief that just the word of faith are not enough. Speaking the words will have a hallow ring if good deeds do not result.

Our Lord’s brother makes a good point when he instructs us that we should show no partiality in our faithful good works. He is especially concerned that we not favor the rich over the poor. An almost natural part of human nature is to ingratiate oneself to the wealthy in order to gain some advantage, perhaps to share in their power and prestige. Yet St. James reminds us that poor people are every bit as worthy of friendship, affection, respect, honor, care and concern, as are the wealthy.

He also points out that God has chosen the poor to become wealthy in faith and heirs to the kingdom. He reminds us that the rich often oppress the poor and were among those least likely to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So in love with themselves, they did not love the Lord. The wealthier Pharisees opposed the Lord while the shepherds, peasants, servants, craftsmen and the ordinary people were among his brother’s most faithful followers.

But the issue with which he concerns himself in this letter – a sermon really reflecting the essence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – is not so much rich or poor but rather a faithfulness that shows no partiality to anyone.

His brother showed no partiality regarding one’s financial status when it came to healing. We see this dramatically manifested when He healed the daughter of the Greek, Syrophonecian woman. Her wealth or poverty is not mentioned in the account. She may have been poor – she may have been wealthy. We do not know. And our Lord did not ask.

What was important was that she was rich in faith. A pagan, she went to Jesus seeking His healing power for her afflicted daughter. She went to the right place – the right person. Initially, Jesus rebuked her saying that He had been sent to the children of Israel. Without a doubt, Jesus was partial – by His Father’s intention – to the Jews. The world’s salvation would come first to God’s chosen people and then, from them, to the rest of the world. Such was God’s plan for His Son’s life in this world.

Jesus’ words were sharp and cutting. He said, Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Wow! So much for Jesus meek and mild, kind and gentle – a surprising statement from our Lord for sure – and problematic for theologians throughout the centuries.

She retorted, Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Do these words sound even vaguely familiar? They should. We speak them whenever we partake in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy Table. This prayer is called The Prayer of Humble Access.

The issue here is not Hebrew or Greek heritage – or any other for that matter- not even one’s religion – but rather humility. Humility gives access. Simple as that. God had chosen the least important nation in the ancient world through which to reveal Himself. The church has always taught that even the chosen state of the chosen people stood over and against all those who, because they were rich and powerful believed themselves to be entitled to every blessing, that those who did not share in that state of blessing were somehow cursed by God and unworthy of His attention. Hence, many of the most prominent of the chosen saw themselves as superior and entitled.

Many of God’s chosen people became rich and powerful. They became arrogant taking on the aforementioned arrogant attitude of entitlement. The Syrophonecian woman’s humility – not her ethnic heritage – opened the door to her daughter’s healing – a surprising healing in so many ways.

Arrogant entitlement is always a sin – a sin for anyone regardless of his or her financial status. The arrogantly entitled poor are just as bad as the arrogantly entitled rich. We must not discriminate in favor the poor claiming entitlement at the expense of the generous – and often humble – rich. Remember, without the rich, the Jerusalem church would have failed long before it actually did. Without the rich, Mother Teresa would have failed. And without the generous gifts of the wealthy of this congregation, we would have closed years ago.

Looking at all of our Lord’s healing miracles, none of them mentions the financial status of those healed. When He made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak, He healed them without concern for their material condition. We can assume that some of those healed were rich and others poor. He never inquired of their financial status – never
did a means check. He simply healed. Again, wealth or poverty that’s not the issue. A humble faith is. St. James said, Show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ….

It is currently popular to condemn the rich and glorify the poor as if the poor automatically enjoyed a greater righteousness. In the political world, we see some of the world’s wealthiest people doing just that in an effort to gain for themselves even greater wealth and power. The test for goodness and righteousness is what they do with their immense wealth.

It’s hard to listen to multi-millionaire politicians tell us that we, who have so much less than they, should allow them to take our money through taxation to give it to the so-called righteous poor. It is especially so when the same politicians made their money through confiscation rather than through their own creative, hard work.

They often invoke references to the cultural legend of Robin Hood – a man who supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The actually story tells us that Robin Hood stole from the evil sheriff of Nottingham because the sheriff confiscated Robin’s estate through taxation. He stole Robin’s wealth through a legal transaction making himself wealthy and Robin – and all of Robin’s former employees – poor. Robin had been in the Holy Land fighting the crusades – at least in part a righteous cause. The sheriff raised the taxes on Robin’s father’s estate. He could not pay. So the sheriff took the property. Robin simply took back what had been stolen from him to support those who had once worked his estate.

If we take even a quick look at these power brokers and wealth confiscators, we will see a sheriff of Nottingham syndrome fully operative. As they take our money, ostensibly for the poor, they keep most of it for themselves and their friends. So much for any claim on their part to righteousness. The hypocrisy astounds. The wealthy – who have become so because they confiscated other’s people’s money – need to heed our Lord’s demand when He encountered the rich young ruler. He said, Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. And most importantly, He said, Come – follow me. My guess is that they will do neither.

We must admire and honor the wealthy who generously give of their wealth in honest and authentic charity. The make good things happen. They do the Lord’s work. They are the faithful stewards of the wealth with which they have been blessed. They, and we to the extent that we share our relative wealth – and share voluntarily as an exercise of our own free will – not through confiscation – for there’s no moral efficacy in being forced to share – thus obey our Lord’s command to minister to the least of these. But such good work cannot be forced. It must be chosen.

The injustice perpetrated by the arrogant wealthy – as well as that by the equally arrogant poor – will one day come to judgment. The prophet, Isaiah, said so almost three thousand years ago. This kind of social injustice – those words covering an evil attitude of arrogant entitlement of the wealthy rulers of his day – and of our day – and their friends – will be judged – and with divine vengeance.

For all of us – in any generation – who experience this kind of injustice – we need to heed Isaiah’s words. Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God shall come with vengeance…. The Lord our God will deal with this – and harshly. Eternal salvation depends upon it. Arrogant entitlement on the part of anyone – rich or poor – shall meet with condemnation on the last day.

In the meantime, our job is to keep our Lord’s commandments – If you love me you will keep my commandments – and follow Him in all things as we fearlessly advance our Lord’s cause. St. Paul’s tell us to be bold in our faith. And that boldness is required just as much now as it was two thousand years ago – or three thousand years ago in Isaiah’s time. Then all kinds of healings – surprising healings – will happen.

One last thought. We shall all be healed with a surprising healing when God opens our graves on the last day and raises us up – in our bodies – perfectly healed of any affliction and presented as He originally intended. And what a great surprise that will be!

With this in mind, let us pray.

Heavenly Father, bless us with the ability to discern the evil that surrounds us. Deliver us from the deceptions of – and the temptations to – arrogant attitudes of entitlement. Create in us an attitude of gratitude and, we pray, heal us that by faith we may do well – and do good – to the honor and glory of your Holy Name –

the Name of your Son, our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord.

Commandments Versus Traditions

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

The Sacrament of Holy Communion
Pentecost XIV – 2 September 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8

From the Book of Deuteronomy:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the statues and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them…You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it…make them known to your children and our children’s children….

From the Letter of St. James:
The brother of our Lord admonished the congregations with these words, Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Challenged by the Pharisees regarding religious traditions, Jesus returned the challenge saying, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. You leave the commandments of God and hold fast to the traditions of men.

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,

In packing up some of my books, in anticipation of my eventual move to Florida, I came across my father’s Bible – one he bought in 1937 – a King James Version – which he kept on the shelf near his chair for most of the time that I can remember. It didn’t just rest on the shelf. He used it- often.

Thumbing through the pages, I came across several bits and pieces of paper with various notations written on them. What surprised me was the number of the notes that I found in the Letter of James.

The letter itself is only about four pages long – in Bible size pages. His notation sheet listed several versus not the least of which is the most famous from this letter, Faith without works is dead and the second most famous, Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

His interest in St. James’ letter comes as no real surprise to me. My dad was a practical man – an engineer. He liked straightforward speaking, clear messages – nothing nuanced or open to interpretation according to how one might feel. Open to interpretation usually meant open to deception.

He saw – and I think properly perceived – that so much of what passes as interpretation is actual distortion – deception – in an effort to make the passage mean what you want it to mean. Dad often said, Mean what you say and say what you mean. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. And, A man’s word is his bond. Words were important to him – and deeds just as important – or even more so.

I would guess that St. James was that kind of man – a man for whom actions always spoke louder than words but also a man for whom words were sacred – not to be necessarily poetic, but to communicate truth – the Truth entrusted to him – as well as to the other apostles – that his brother, Jesus, was the Son of God and the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind. Believe that and your life will change. Believe that and show it not only in how you speak but also in what you do. Jesus died for you. The least that you can do is live for him.

I think that these words would be a fair summary of St. James’ message. Hear it. Believe it. Do it. Simple as that.

St. James was an interesting man. He is distinguished from the three other James of the Gospels being identified as the brother of our Lord – meaning that Mary was their mother as many Protestants would have it, but Joseph only was father to James – hence, half brothers; or that James was Joseph’s son from a previous marriage, making them step brothers; or that they were more like cousins rather than brothers or half brothers or step brothers. Various traditions. Various doctrines.

Whatever the case, this St. James is also known as St. James the Less. The apostle James, brother to St. John the beloved disciple is known as St. James the Great. Tradition tells us that St. James the great journeyed to Spain where he converted thousands. So successful had been his missionary effort – and so wealthy was the Spanish church – that St. Paul planned to travel to Spain to collect money to support the failing, troubled and severely impoverish Jerusalem church of which – yes – St. James the Less was Pastor – in fact, he held the title of Bishop of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, St. James the Less often called St. James the Just. He enjoyed tremendous respect for his keen discernment, his integrity in both speech and deed, and for his devotion to the Christ. You may recall references to James as not believing in his brother early on in our Lord’s ministry. But after the resurrection Jesus appeared to him and he believed. From that moment on, James proclaimed Jesus as the crucified and risen savior.

He presided over the Jerusalem Council in AD 50 in which the key issues related to what was God’s law versus what was man’s tradition were discussed. Perhaps this is when he became known as James the Just. Gentile converts to Christianity were required to undergo circumcision – an abomination to them as much as it was a requirement for the Hebrews. Otherwise faithful and fully devoted gentile men refused complete conversion.

Knowing that some of these devoted men had been martyred for their faith, St. James led the Council to the decision that gentile Christians did not have to undergo the procedure. Other Jewish traditions were abandoned as well. Hence, his wise and just leadership discerned between a commandment of God – which must be obeyed – and a tradition of man which can be set aside – just as the Lord had said when He spoke of those who honor God with their lips but not with their hearts – who hold fast to the traditions of men while they ignore the commandments of God.

Now the controversy regarding what are true commandments and what constitutes mere human tradition continues in the church to this day. Even the importance of commandments – such obvious commandments and the Ten Commandments – remains variable. In some churches, God’s saving grace is so heavily emphasized that people ignore the commandments almost entirely – seeing them as recommendations only.

Hence, the admonition from Deuteronomy has little or no meaning for them – not to add or take away a word from them so as not to distort their meaning ands to teach them to future generations. In face, interpretation of the wrong sort is precisely what they do.

Jesus said, If you love me you will keep my commandments. And in the Great Commission charges us with these words, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you… No ambiguity here – a direct commandment worthy of obedience.

Our Lord does give us a frame of reference for understanding – He sets as a priority the first and Great Commandment – Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. And then He adds, And a second is like unto it – thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself – on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Yet, although Jesus gives us the priority for understanding, we still interpret according to our own wills rather than to the will of God. The same applies to traditions as well. Until He comes again, the problem will continue. But all of us need to do our best to discern His will and avoid self-serving interpretations.

This morning, we share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Generally in congregational churches, we pass the elements from one to another to emphasize the priesthood of all believers. That’s part of our tradition.

In other parts of the church, only the priest himself is even allowed to touch the elements and only the bread is given to the communicant who comes forward to receive it. Some stand – others kneel. Some denominations give both the bread and the wine – and offer only wine – no grape juice – for the sake of complete authenticity. Many use grape juice for the sake of those who do not drink wine.

And in most cases, unleavened bread is used because the Sacrament recreates the Last Supper, a Passover meal. But our tradition uses risen bread to symbolize the resurrection.

All varieties of traditions – taken as doctrine – continue. Sadly these traditions have separated believers rather than united them in Christ. Sometimes, to keep the sacramental tradition, churches have even violated the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, battles have been fought over the various traditions of interpretation. Blood has been shed over the shed Blood of Christ.

But just because something is a tradition – rather than a commandment – does not mean that the tradition is necessarily bad. Sometimes, one tradition is as good as another and sometimes different traditions bear witness to different angle of the same great Truth.

Jesus was challenged for His failure to wash His hands before eating. But just because, on this occasion Jesus did not wash His hands, on most occasions He and His disciples did. The issue here is that keeping the tradition is not required for salvation – but keeping the commandments is most certainly a part of salvation.

And when I say a part of salvation, I do not mean a works righteousness. We are saved by God’s grace operating through our faith. But manifesting that grace and that faith in good works is necessary to show the world what God has done. So that they will believe us in our claim to be Christian.

But I do want to conclude this message with an emphasis on the importance of keeping the Commandments. Deuteronomy instructs us to keep them for the sake of the nation – that by keeping the commandments, the nation will prosper.

There’s truth in that. Surly as the Ten Commandments have been abused – even ridiculed – in this nation, the very quality of life that we once enjoyed in this country has diminished.

Breaking God’s commandments has consequences. Keeping them brings the blessing of a better, more peaceful and prosperous life – with the possibility for the achievement of excellence in all human endeavors. Without the Ten Commandments, we slowly but surely sink into pagan barbarism. We have already seen this happen.

Our Lord commanded us to make disciples of all nations, baptize them in His name and teach them all that he has commanded. To the extent that we do this – and such obedience requires that we abandon all belief in the deceptions of spiritual equivalence between world religions – and abandon the erroneous celebration of spiritual diversity – to the extent that we faithfully obey our Lord and do what He has commanded, well to that extent all that’s good and right and true will prosper. If we fail, all that’s bad and wrong and deceptive will rule the day – and the nation.

As we keep the commandment and the tradition of this most sacred Sacrament, we must recommit ourselves to obedience – that taking His broken body and shed blood nurture us in ever increasing faithfulness so that we can – and will – be better people as we serve as His disciples, keeping His commandments.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us and all who claim your name with the desire to obey you on all things. Deliver us from the popular deceptions of this world and keep us in your perfect Truth. And make of us we pray, instruments of your grace, your mercy and your peace that we may always honor and glorify your name –
the most holy name of your Son,
our only savior, Jesus Christ the Lord,