Grace Episcopal Church

Reaching the world for Jesus Christ beginning in Casanova

Matthew 25:14-30      1 Thess 5:1-11                                    Grace                                                  11/19/2017


The day of the Lord and of the Lord’s return is the theme of the NT reading in 1 Thessalonians.  What is most clear about this reading is that we do not know when the day will be.  Because it has not come yet, we are tempted to think that it will not be in our lifetime but we should not be lulled into such thinking.  Paul writes to the Thessalonians to keep awake and sober also indicating that the day of the Lord is near.  How near, we do not know but it is nearer than ever before. 


Such a reading raises questions for us about what that day will be like and where we will be when that day arrives.  Sometimes we wonder about what it will be like if we go to be with the Lord before Jesus returns.  For some, such thoughts are comforting while for others they may be disturbing.  It may have a lot to do with how one has lived or not lived and whether or not we are ready to meet our Maker.


In the Thessalonians reading, the Greek word used is “Gregoromen” (γρήγορώμέν) which is a plural, indirect command form of the word gregoreo.  Rather than "let us keep awake" gregoromen is better translated "let us be prepared, let us be ready."   Every year this reading comes up, it always seems to me that it would be better in a few weeks later because it has such an Advent feel to it.  And yet, here it is.


During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with this story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives:

“One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand.  Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not.  If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment.  If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty.  Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.”


Col. Davenport, whose story I really like and which I know I have used here several times before, had a really good attitude and understanding of his life as ministry.  That’s why I like his story.  Rather than fearing what is to come, we are to be faithful till Christ returns.  Faithful in what we believe, faithful in how we live, faithful in what we do with all that God has given to us.  Thus we see the story Jesus tells in the gospel about the master going away on a journey.  He entrusts his property to his servants (slaves) and gives them talents to each, according to their ability.  Now a talent is weight measure of 66 or 132 lbs. depending upon whether it is a light or heavy scale of measure.  Relating to money, gold or silver, it is 66 or 132 lbs of gold or silver.  For the purposes of Matthew’s gospel a talent can simply be understood as a whole lot of money.   


Since today is our Ingathering Sunday you would expect that today’s topic will be money and giving.  So here it is!  Bring your pledge in a few minutes.  Make a pledge if you haven’t in the past since it helps us plan for the year.  And make the tithe, 10%, the basis for your pledge as you have heard many times before.  The money thing is certainly important and we will continue to need the full support of every member of Grace Church in all aspects of our stewardship: time and talent as well as treasure in order to do the work of the Kingdom and not merely survive as a church.  OK.  There it is.  That’s what I plan to say about money today! 


Having said that, let’s look at stewardship by looking at this parable in more broad, sweeping, general terms.  The servants were entrusted with something of their masters and expected to use it wisely, responsibly.  THAT is what it means to be a good steward.  Managing someone else’s assets in a wise and responsible manner.  From the results at the end of the story we can see that the servants were to use it wisely for the master’s gain.  Two did so and were praised for their good work.  The third servant was afraid of his master and afraid of losing what the master entrusted to him so he did nothing except hide the talent.  That would be bad stewardship.  Upon the master’s return, this third servant was reprimanded for being irresponsible and unwise in his management of the assets he had been given..  


This text has been used to for pledge campaigns for churches for so long that it may be hard to see past the money thing.  While the parable does speak about money it really isn’t about money.  Better said, it’s about a whole lot more than just money.  It is about utilizing well, wisely, responsibly what God entrusts to us.  THAT is stewardship!  Let me say it again: stewardship is utilizing well, wisely, responsibly what God entrusts to us.  What has God entrusted to us?  Everything!  Everything we have and are.


I love the story of the thirty-eight-year-old scrubwoman who would go to the movies and sigh, "If only I had her looks." She would listen to a singer and moan, "If only I had her voice." Then one day someone gave her a copy of the book, "The Magic of Believing." She stopped comparing herself with actresses and singers. She stopped crying about what she didn't have and started concentrating on what she did have. She took inventory of herself and remembered that in high school she had a reputation for being the funniest girl around. She began to turn her liabilities into assets. When she was at the top of her career Phyllis Diller made over $1 million a year. In the 1960's that was a great deal of money. She wasn't good-looking and she had a scratchy voice, but she could make people laugh.


Well, maybe God is saying something like that to us. Maybe when we complain that we wish that we had more, if only we were like someone other than ourselves, if only... He says to us: Use the gifts I have given you. Stop wishing for what you do not have and start concentrating on and utilizing what you do have.


We could measurably strengthen this church if we, all of us, simply reached out to reactivate some of our lapsed, inactive members, even as we bring in new ones!  We could start using some of our unused gifts, start giving some of our one talent sums of money and one talent abilities rather than hiding and burying them. We simply stir up what we already have.  Not so much for our gain as for God’s gain.  And His gain is about the growing of His Kingdom so that when He returns, many, not just some, will be able and ready to go with Him.


So what does God entrust to us?  He gives to each of us life.  He gives us talents and abilities.  Gifts from the Spirit for the common good of the body of Christ.  You may recognize these words as from the 1 Cor. 12 passage on spiritual gifts when Paul writes: “To some He gives” and then goes on to list many gifts of the Spirit.  So we say today, “to some He gives”:  Great wealth while to others, lesser wealth.  To some, power or influence.  To some He gives freedom of time.  To some He gives compassion, while to others the ability to organize, while to yet others he gives vision.  All these He entrusts to us.  He doesn’t give all these to everyone.  And to those He does give them He does not give them equally, at least not according to the parable.  He gives to each according to their ability.  What He expects in return is that we will use what He gives us to the best of our ability for His purposes and not just for our own. 


If we really understand this and take it seriously, then ministry is not what we do in or around or for the church, all of life is ministry.  Work isn’t just about making money, it is about reflecting the Kingdom that is within us by doing things well, honestly, responsibly and in so doing glorifying God.  School isn’t just something to be endured so that you can get out and play or get a job when you’re older.  It is a time to learn how to do certain things, to learn about oneself and to learn how to not just keep the faith but give it away as well.  To raise a child as a parent isn’t just a responsibility or a tax write-off, it is a sacred trust. 


Whatever God has entrusted to us is what we have to make the most of in His name.  Will you utilize what God has given you, not just for yourself but for Him?  Let us go and live such that on the day we meet God face to face He may say, “Well done good and trustworthy servant … enter into the joy of your Master.”                   Amen

Matthew 23:1-12        “My role is strictly advisory.”                       Grace              11/5/2017


Last Tuesday was Halloween.  Not so many kids coming around for candy out here in the boonies but when they do, some of them wear masks to go along with their costumed character.  The mask is not who they are, it’s just who they are pretending to be.  And if you watched TV last Tuesday, you once again saw that Linus did not see the Great Pumpkin in the patch.  Poor Linus.  Switching to other Peanuts characters we come to Lucy and good ole Charlie Brown.


In one “Peanuts” cartoon strip, Lucy, who is known to be ever-ready with unsolicited advice, is playing right-field in a baseball game.  Charlie Brown is pitching.  “Let's win one for a change Charlie Brown,” Lucy cries out.  Charlie Brown then throws his first pitch and the batter hits the ball to right-field.  But Lucy makes no attempt to catch it.  She just stands there and does nothing.  Charlie Brown yells out at her, “If you're so interested in winning, why didn't you try to catch the ball?”  To which a defiant Lucy replies, “My role is strictly advisory.”


The Scribes and the Pharisees, whom Jesus castigates in today's Gospel Lesson, seem to be in that kind of “Lucy” mode. They're ever-ready to act in an advisory capacity. They're ever-ready to teach the law of God about right-living, as they understand it.  But they find legalistic ways to avoid having to do much of what they teach.  Yet Jesus endorses the Pharisees’ teachings, but warns against their practices.  Jesus warns His disciples ... “You must do what they tell you and listen to what they say, but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”   


The obvious and practical application here is to practice what you preach.  I have a small bumper sticker size poster in my office that says, “The Best sermon is a good example.”

I am also reminded here of two quotes attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“Preach the Gospel to all the world … and if necessary, use words.” 

“Be special. You may be the only Gospel your neighbor will ever read.”

 Of course, if we don’t use at least a few words somewhere along the line who will know for sure that we believe in and follow Jesus?  But the point is well made about living the life of God not just talking about it. 


This stinging statement by Jesus is of course pointed at the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day.  They were hypocrites.  The English word, “hypocrite,” comes from the Greek word, “hypocresis” which is the Greek word for “actor.” A good “hypocresis” is a good actor.   A good actor is good at playing a part, playing a role, playing a character.  In those ancient Greek plays, all of the actors wore masks to highlight the part they were playing.  The mask made them a better “hypocresis.”


The truth of the matter is that all of us wear masks from time to time.  On occasion we all play the hypocrite.  I’m conscious of that in my life, at least sometimes anyway.  Every time I talk about taking up the cross and following Christ, I am confronted with the question of how much my faith costs me and whether I am giving my all to serve the Master.  You understand that.  It’s true of you as well.  The critics are right.  The church is full of hypocrites.  The more conscious you are of Christ’s call, the more you are aware of how inadequate your own witness is.


In an interview in the magazine The Door, famed American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck tells about the first time he went to hear the Swiss physician Paul Tournier, one of the most influential Christians in the world some years back.


Following Tournier’s lecture there was a time of questions and dialogue, at which point a man stood up and asked, “Dr. Tournier, what do you think about all the hypocrites in the churches of America?”


Stumbling over the English words, Tournier apologized and said he did not understand the meaning of the word “hypocrite.” Several people offered definitions. “Phony, pretending to be something that they’re not, unauthentic, false.”


Suddenly the doctor’s eyes lit up.  “Ah, hypocrites, now I understand . . . C’est moi!  C’est moi.  I am the hypocrite.”


The closer you are to Jesus, the more you measure your life by His life, the more aware you are of your shortcomings.  We cry out with Paul Tournier, “C’est moi!  It’s me!  I am the hypocrite.”


There is an expression which says, “If a hypocrite is standing between you and God, it just means the hypocrite is closer to God than you are.”  There is some truth to this expression.  We are all hypocrites.  We all wear masks at times.  Some people, however, take it to the extreme.  Like the ancient Greek actors, those peoples mask of hypocrisy is exaggerated  This is what Jesus disliked about the Pharisees.  We talk about “wearing your religion on your sleeve.”  The Pharisees literally wore their religion on their foreheads and arms for everyone to see.  They wore phylacteries, little leather boxes, on their foreheads.  These boxes contained verses from the Old Testament.  They also liked to wear long tassels.  Both of these actions are based on obscure references in the Old Testament.  Their only practical purpose was to show how religious and devout the Pharisees were.  Common people like shepherds and fishermen did not wear them.


That is a lot of what the story from today’s gospel is about.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the symbol of hypocrisy, the symbol of phoniness, the symbol of pretense.  Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others…”  Where else do we hear similar words as words of warning of what not to be or do?  Matthew 6.  The Gospel reading for Ash Wed. each year where Jesus uses the word hypocrites of those who do good, religious type things, but not out of love for God but rather in order to be seen by men.  Jesus is speaking here to the crowds and His disciples and He is telling them NOT to be or act like these scribes and Pharisees because they say one thing and do another so they are hypocrites.  Now if you think I am making too much of this read the rest of this chapter in Matthew.  Jesus goes on to begin 6 of 7 paragraphs with the following words.


  1. Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
  2. Woe to you … for you shut the kingdom of heaven. You do not enter the kingdom and you prevent others from entering it.
  3. Woe to you … you blind guides, you blind men.
  4. Woe to you … for you tithe on the trivia but you neglect the weightier issues of law, justice, mercy and faith.
  5. Woe to you … for outwardly you appear beautiful but inwardly you are full of dead men’s bones.
  6. Woe to you … You are the sons of those who have murdered the prophets.


That does not feel like the Jesus of our imaginations, Jesus meek and mild, gentle Jesus who would never say anything harsh to anyone.  Think again.  Jesus was deeply offended by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  And so he warns the crowds who have gathered to hear Him speak AND He warns His disciples – do what they say because they teach correctly but do not follow their example.  The greatest among you is not the one who gets the best seats at dinners and in church.  The greatest among you is the one who is the servant.  Not just when folks are watching, but when no one is watching as well.  It is they who are the humble ones.  Is that you?  I know I have work to do there myself.


Sometimes I get to thinking like Lucy from Peanuts.  “My role is strictly advisory.”  It’s all too easy for clergy to do.  But no.  In reality, if I will be a good leader, I think it will be as a servant.  And if you will be a good follower of Jesus, it also will be as a servant.  Those who serve others with humility tend to be those who exhibit less hypocrisy.  And the higher on the chain of command, the chain of leadership, them more important it is to live out that leadership as a humble servant.  That’s where the greatness is in the kingdom of God – in serving.


What kind of church would this be if we all tried to out do one another in serving one another?  Not proudly, but humbly.  And what kind of witness to Jesus would we have in the world if we served the world, locally and globally, more than we serve ourselves?   Well, it would be fabulous I think.  Maybe we should try and see.              Amen

Matthew 22:34-46                  The Law of Love                    Grace              October 29, 2017


Before we moved to Buckingham, PA, the location of my last parish, I was the chaplain for 6 years for the Chester County, PA FOP – Fraternal Order of Police.  In that position, I came in contact with a great number of law enforcement officers and became good friends with a few.  For a couple of years, I worked out in a gym lifting weights with these guys and some folk is thought I was a cop.  I was in a deli in my collar getting lunch one day and a guy who also worked out at the same gym and apparently thought I was a cop saw my collar and asked me quietly if I was under cover.  I said, “Undercover?  What do you mean?”  “Well I see you’re wearing a clergy collar so I figure you must be undercover.”  He was still whispering.  No. I’m a priest.”  “You mean you’re not a cop?” “No. I am a priest not a cop.”  He was flabbergasted.  I thought it was pretty funny.  Once folks at the gym realized I was a priest and not a cop, they thought that a priest lifting weights with cops was pretty odd.  I just explained that we represented the whole picture.  They said “What? What do you mean?”  I said, “They’re law and I’m grace.”


It is often said that we no longer live under the law but rather grace.  This is true if by under grace one means that we are saved by grace not law.  It is not true if one means we no longer have to live by the law.  The law of the OT, by which I mean the 10 commandments, not the 602 additions made later, still applies to our lives.  Jesus doesn’t set them aside here, but rather re-focuses our approach to them.  Rather than approaching the law as rules to keep, Jesus encapsulates the law as love offered.


The Law (big 10) is set in relationship.  The purpose of the law is to make boundaries FOR relationship.  BEFORE the Fall – there was no need for such boundaries.   AFTER the fall, we needed ways to define boundaries for community and relationship because our internal guidelines have been colored by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin.  Sin = Self Inflicted Narcissism.   


We often dismiss our need for such boundaries, saying that we don’t need such law, as I mentioned earlier.  I read on someone’s Facebook page, “Stay away from me with your law.  I live by grace.”  That’s a nice sentiment but it’s a poor understanding of Jesus’ teaching on law and grace.  And the world around us cries out that this person’s statement is false or at least only ½ true.  The last century gave us 2 WW’s where someone wanted more than their share.  September 11th, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, any number of school shootings and other shooting incidents, the recent turmoil in Charlottesville, all show that we DO need these boundaries, even though we sometimes ignore them.


What Jesus does in today’s Gospel is summarize the law in two succinct statements:

Love God. 

Then love your neighbor as yourself.

He still states them as law, but He focuses them around love.  And it seems that He does so in order to help us to look past the law and on toward something deeper and more meaningful than mere obedience.  His re-focus takes us back to before the fall when Adam and Eve were able to live in harmony with God and one another.  What a world it would be, if we could live in such harmony!


There are shining examples of such love that we see from time to time. We would do well to imitate the barber who noticed one week that there was a good increase in his business. When he tried to find out why, he discovered that his competitor, another barber in the village, was ill. When the week ended, he took all that he had made above his average earnings and carried it to his competitor with his Christian love and sympathy.  Now there was no law which compelled him to do this.  He was responding to something deeper than the law.  He had an obvious love for God which was lived out in part by responding with love and grace to his competitor.  The Epistle of James calls this “the law of love”.  It’s hard to imagine seeing that on Wall St.


Here is a thought about this Matthew text borrowed from the Rev. Elijah Attungana from Point Hope on the extreme northwest corner of Alaska (where just about everyone is Episcopalian).  Imagine you are in an umiak (that’s a walrus skin boat).  One oar is Love God.  The other oar is Love your neighbor.  If you row with just one oar or just the other, you simply spin in circles.  In order to get anywhere, you have to pull with both oars.


It is interesting to note that Jesus is again being tested in this passage, this time by the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees.  He responds to their question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” with a clear answer.  Then He gives a little more than asked.  Jesus’ answer reflects the Shema from Deut. 6:4 when Moses says to Israel – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  And you shall love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength.  These commandments I give you today are to be upon your hearts.”


This law shall be upon your hearts, the place of love.  You see, it’s not about legalism that Jesus speaks but about what is deep within us by the grace and Spirit of God.


Listen to a quote from St. Augustine.  “Love God and do as thou wilt” or as a friend of mine puts it, “Love God and do as you please.”  If we love God with ALL our heart, soul, and strength, we would only want to do and therefore only DO those things which please God – to the point that what pleases us would be only those things which please God.  Loving our neighbor as we would ourselves naturally (or perhaps supernaturally) follows.  And all of this, as I said in the beginning, is in the context of relationships and community.


Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question has two dimensions involved which demonstrate ultimately the fullness of love.  The first is horizontal (motion b) and has to do with our relationship to God and His with us.  The second is vertical (motion «) and has to do with our relationship with one another.   Together, these make up the greatest symbol of love ever known – the Cross.  God’s ultimate law of love. 


A young man who had committed a crime was sent to prison without his parents knowing about it.  When he finally wrote and told them where he was, they hastened to the distant city to see him.  Sullen and stony-faced, he greeted them in the visiting room.  Braced for their recriminations and anger, he was completely unprepared for their loving concern.  "I thought you would never forgive me-that you would disown me!" he cried.  "Why should we do that?" asked his father.  "You're our son, and we only want to help you."  The fact that their love toward him had not changed was the beginning of that young man's redemption.


Whose life might you begin to change today or tomorrow or this week by following Jesus’ words– not as a duty – but from the heart?                Amen

Matthew 22:15-22                     All He Wants Is You!                          Grace               10/22/2017


In the previous two weeks, you have heard read two gospels which were parables of Jesus.  At the end of one of them, but not read in the lectionary, it says, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest Him, they feared the multitudes who held him to be a prophet.”  So we cut in a week and a parable later and we get, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what He said.”


On the one hand, you have the Pharisees, a relatively small group of extremely pious and spiritual Jews, who are dedicated to following individually the letter of the law, the 10 commandments. Tithing, that is giving 10% of money or crops or whatever commodity one may deal in, among these people was an absolute must. They wouldn't buy food from or go into the home of anyone who did not tithe as they did. For the Pharisees, Jesus presented a huge problem because he came proclaiming change and even a change in the law. The law says, "you shall not murder," but Jesus comes proclaiming, "if you are even angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment." This was too much for the Pharisees to hear. They wanted to be rid of Jesus. They wanted to trick him so that he could be charged with sedition and then sentenced under Roman law, but at this point Jesus was way ahead of their game.


Then on the other hand, you have the Herodians who come with the Pharisees to attempt to trick Jesus. The Herodians were followers of the Jewish ruler of Palestine Herod Antipas and the family of Herod the Great.  He was the Jewish ruler who had all the male children killed in hopes that Jesus would be killed as an infant and never be a threat to his power and kingship.  It didn’t work, so here is one family not too happy with Jesus and his following.


Now these guys, the Pharisees, are the lawyers of their day.  Since they meticulously keep the law, they decide to ask Jesus if paying taxes to Caesar is lawful. In their minds, their question was exceptionally clever.  As a black and white question for the time and place that Jesus was in, it was a hard one to beat. The Pharisees know quite well that if he says NO - then the Roman authorities will arrest Him, and that if he says YES - then many of the people will reject Him, not only because they hate paying taxes, but because a Yes answer would imply that He believed that Caesar had the right to rule Israel.  Tough spot they’ve put Jesus in because they are sure He must give a yes or no answer.


So, knowing that they are setting Jesus up, they begin their trap with flattery, all of which happened to be true.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”  So far so good.  Too bad they didn’t just stop there.  It would have been so much better for them.  But they go on, “Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” 


Jesus does not answer but asks them to show Him the coin used for the tax.  It was a denarius, a simple silver coin (hold up silver dollar).  The literal translation of the Greek is “Show me the money for the tribute.”  Today we read it, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And when they give it to Him, and I look again to the Greek here, He says, “Whose image (έίκον = icon) and inscription is this?”  “The emperor’s”, they respond.  “Αποδοτε unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and to God what is God’s!”  Αποδοτε = give, pay, render; give back, repay, return.  So Jesus says, give, pay, render; give back, repay, return to Caesar what’s his – and to God what is His. 


So if one is going to give, pay or render to God what is Gods, one must first answer the question, What IS God’s?  (ask for responses) [[creation, earth, trees, rivers, rocks, lakes and oceans, animals, Ps 50:10-11 says even the cattle on a thousand hills belong to God, the environment, manmade stuff belongs to God – we made it with His materials, even money – because He gave us the means to earn it!]]  It’s ALL His!  And God has made us stewards over it all, managers of that which is His.  And what He asks in return monetarily is 10% - a tithe.  He allows us to use the other 90%, yet His desire is for us to use it, not just for ourselves but also for the good others and for His glory.  So, as you consider your pledge for a month from now, keep that 10% amount in mind as what God wants us to give, pay, render back to Him monetarily.


Having said that, I want to look again at today’s gospel.  You may or may not have caught it in the little Greek lesson.  The word for likeness or image in Greek is icon (έίκον).  The Latin is imago.  Whose imago / icon / image was stamped on the coin?  Caesar’s as the Imago Romana = the image of Rome and so the coin for the tax is given to him.  The image is the criteria for what is given, payed, rendered as belonging to the emperor because his image was on it. 


Where is the Imago Dei, the image of God stamped? - - - (wait for any response!) - - -  On you and me!  WE are created in the imago Dei – the image of God.  If God’s likeness is on us, then what we render, give or give back unto God is ourselves.  You see, we really get off easy by giving 10% of the money we have to God because it’s all ultimately His.  Yet really, all He wants is you.  The money is an external indicator of our willingness to give ourselves to God. 


Sure, the church receives the money and yes, it is used to pay me and fund ministry that we carry out but most of all, it is an indicator of our commitment to God.  If we would be honest with ourselves deep within, we would admit that we are often, maybe mostly, more committed to our money than we are to God.  But we know that one cannot serve two masters , so we must ultimately choose – God or mammon?  That being said, giving money to God, in the way God asks of us, is a spiritual thing.  It’s not just paying the bills, it’s a means of commitment to God.  


Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s!  God is pleased with our worship of Him, He is pleased by our giving of 10%, He is pleased when we reach out to help others but in the final analysis, all He wants is you!


Here are the lyrics to a short song by the same name:


All He wants Is me, unreservedly.
Not just apart, He wants all of my heart.
All He wants Is all of me;
All He wants Is me.


All He wants Is you, No one else will do.
Not just a part, He wants all of your heart.
All He wants Is all of you;
All He wants Is you.

What will you do with the simple truth that All He Wants Is You? Amen


Matthew 21:33-46                  Rebellion in the Vineyard                  Grace              10/8/2017


There is a fictitious story about two men from Mars who decide to do a little sightseeing on Earth. They realize that to avoid causing a panic they must appear as inconspicuous as possible. They obtain American clothing, learn the language, and in general make themselves as ordinary as possible.

During their first day on Earth nobody notices a thing unusual about them. At the end of the day they celebrate their successful foray at an exclusive restaurant. As they are paying their check, they are astonished to hear the waiter say, “You guys must be from Mars!”

“What?” asked the dumbfounded Martians. “How can you tell?”

“Well,” replied the waiter, “you’re the first customers to pay cash since I’ve been working here.”

There were times when Jesus tried to communicate profound truths to those around him and they acted as if He was from Mars. He would say something and He could watch their eyes glaze over. Particularly He had difficulty getting through to the religious officials of his day. They wanted nothing to do with Him or His teachings. They condemned Him without even listening to Him. They were so sure of themselves and their standing in the community that they were impervious to everything He did or said.


What would you do in that situation? You are trying to communicate something important, but they just don’t get it. You’re not getting through. That was the situation Jesus found himself in.  So he did what he often did, he told a story.  Actually, as we have seen over the last few weeks, He told a number of stories in succession.  In this one, He told a story of rebellion that communicates some key information about His kingdom and our role in that kingdom. We are to remember that it is His kingdom, and that we have a responsibility to be good stewards.

So in this story there is rebellion in the vineyard.  We just heard the story Jesus told so I won’t repeat it.  He uses it precisely because it’s not a new theme and folks listening should get it.

Rebellion is an ongoing theme in the Bible. It is the story of Adam and Eve. It is the story of the tower of Babel. It is the story of the children of Israel during the Exodus, the story of the time of the judges, the story of the prophets. And the result is always the same alienation, heartbreak and tragedy.  It was the story of the chief priests and Pharisees about whom this, and the last few week’s worth of parables are directed.  We would do well to see it as our story as well. 


Sure.  After the story is told, the chief priests and Pharisees realized that these parables, not just this last one, were directed at them.  And instead of being convicted to change by what was said, they look for a way to preserve the system so important to them.  They wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid of the crowds because He was popular with them and the crowds regarded Him as a prophet. 


In a perfect world, we would be perhaps the obedient servant/slaves in the first part of the story doing the master’s bidding or perhaps the second set of tenants who we assume comply with the next harvest.  But maybe we would do well to see it as our story as well with us as the first set of tenants.


A story was making the rounds during the presidential campaign of 2000.  It’s bad theology but it makes a good point. An asteroid hits the speaker’s platform at a Seattle conference center, and Al Gore, George W. Bush and Bill Gates all arrive in heaven at the same time. They are greeted by the Almighty, who is sitting on His golden throne. First, the Lord speaks to Al Gore, asking what he believes in. “I believe in the Internet and a clean environment,” Gore replies. “Very good,” the Almighty says. “Come sit near me. “Then he asks George W. Bush the same question. “I believe in cutting taxes and taking good care of the military,” Bush replies. “Excellent,” says the Almighty. “Come sit near me. “ Then God asks Bill Gates what he believes. “I believe,” Gates replies, “you’re sitting in my chair."

There are times when all of us try to put ourselves in God’s seat. There are times when all of us act, and some who act at all times, as if the world is our fiefdom and we are supreme over all we survey. We forget that everything we have is on loan to us from God. We are but temporary tenants. We don’t truly own anything, even though we sometimes act as if we own it all. Everything ultimately belongs to God.

There was a church located next door to a supermarket. Since the church was short on parking spaces and the supermarket was closed on Sundays, the church leaders asked the owner of the supermarket for permission to park in his lot. The owner’s response was “Fine. You are welcome to use it 51 weeks a year.” “What about the other week?” the church leaders asked. “That week,” said the owner of the market, “I’ll chain off the lot so you will always remember that the lot belongs to me, and not to the church.”

Good point. We act like owners when we are only tenants. These tenants in our story were greedy. They wanted everything for themselves and were unwilling to give the landowner his fair share. The landowner, on the other hand, was generous. He had given them control of his vast estate. They could have all of its abundance except for a portion of the produce from the estate. Sounds like you and me, doesn’t it? Sounds like every person who has ever walked this earth. God has provided for us so abundantly. All He asks is a small portion in return and the good and proper use of it all. But we are greedy. We want to withhold what is rightfully His and use it all for ourselves. How sad. Some of the happiest people who have ever lived are those who gratefully acknowledge the ownership of God and live accordingly.  Those people know it’s not about how much you have but rather what you do with what you do have.

Everything that we have is on loan. Someday it will be passed on to someone else or perhaps destroyed but wind, flood or fire. Don’t you see? No matter how rich we are, if we are not rich toward God, we don’t have anything! The vineyard belongs to Him. Happiness is found in recognizing our place as His tenants, His stewards. And that leads to the last thing to be said.

We have another important responsibility. Jesus asked the religious officials what the owner of the vineyard would do to the rebellious tenants. They had no difficulty responding, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Little did they know they were condemning themselves with their answer.  As I said earlier, the parable was about them. They had been entrusted with the spiritual care of God’s people. Unfortunately, many of them looked upon it only as a job, a way of earning a good living, a source of prestige and power.  They were so set in their ways that they stoned the prophets who threatened their comfortable life and eventually they crucified God’s own Son. That’s a warning to every one of us involved in religious work whether as clergy or as laity. We have a responsibility.  But as I also said earlier, we would do well to see it as our story as well and not just the story those in full time ministry.  And how we utilize what God has given to us, or loaned to us as tenants, is important for all.

Tony Campolo, sociologist, preacher and author, tells the story of a great oil refinery. This refinery was huge. It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering. It was an impressive structure that was very well kept up. The interior was bright and shining. The workers were proud to be part of such a company. They made sure that the plant was clean and everything was in perfect working order. In fact, the oil refinery soon gained a world-wide reputation. One day, some visitors asked to have a tour of the oil refinery. There was a reluctance at first to allow any guests. The visitors insisted. They had traveled a great distance and wanted to tour the facility. The plant manager contacted his boss who reluctantly gave permission for the visitors to tour the plant.

The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing of petroleum, the gleaming pipes that carried the petroleum products from place to place, and the extensive organizational system that had been set in place to keep the refinery going. The visitors were impressed. Near the close one of them asked the guide if they might be permitted to see the shipping department. “What shipping department?” asked the guide clearly confused.

“Why, the shipping department from whence you ship out all the gasoline and oil you process here,” said the tourists. “We don’t have any shipping department,” answered the guide. “You see, all the energy products produced in this refinery are used up keeping the refinery going.”


Could that be us? Is all our energy used up just keeping the church afloat? Could it be that we are no better than Jesus’ enemies? Could it be that we, too, confuse our mission with comfort and ease? Would Christ receive the same reception here that he received there?

This is not our world, it’s God’s. This is not our church, it’s God’s. We are only tenants. Stewards. We have a responsibility to return to Him a portion of what is His already, and to use that which we have received for His glory and the growth of His kingdom.  Amen

Philippians 2:1-13     Matthew 21:28-32      “Radio J-O-Y”            Grace          October 1, 2017


A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.  Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson.  "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, "Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait."   With that Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Hey Ryan, you be Jesus." 


Isn’t that the way it is with kids?   We’re always teaching them to share, right?   I mean, how many times have you ever had to teach a child to be selfish?   And when you stop and think about it, isn’t that really the American way of life – me first!?   Isn’t that what we see when someone rushes into a parking space that we have been waiting for patiently.   Isn’t that what we see when we plan a budget for our family and make sure we’ve taken care of all the expenses for groceries, housing, credit cards and so on and then say ‘O yeah, we should give something to God too’.   Then we proceed to give to Him what’s left over or a part of it, instead of the 10% He asks from us right off the top!   Actually, it’s the sin in all of us to think of ourselves first.   That’s really what sin is, me before others.   In the beginning it was me equal to God, but we generally put ourselves first there now as well.


Paul is reminding the Philippians of this in today’s reading.   In the middle portion Paul writes what is considered a hymn of praise regarding Jesus.   The Greek word used to describe it is kenosis– which means to empty.   Paul speaks of Jesus emptying Himself of any right and privilege he may have as God in the flesh, and instead being humble on behalf of others.  It’s a lesson for us all.


Paul begins the reading by saying if there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy … Be of the same mind… In full accord and of one mind.   The same mind, the mind of full accord would be the mind of Christ.  Thus, Paul states a few sentences later, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …


Then Paul goes on to say, in humility regard others as better than yourself – he doesn’t say they are better – he just says treat them that way…  look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.   It would seem then that what Paul is saying is not something just of noble ambition but rather a simple principle upon which to base how we live.   It’s the principle of joy.  J – O - Y.   Jesus – Others - Yourself!  Jesus first – Others second – Yourself last!   This is not the American way.   Yet uncomfortable as it may sound, it’s Jesus’ way for us.  And just so we wouldn’t miss it, Jesus led by example.  Except in His case it was God the Father first, others next and self last.  So when He said, If possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, but not my will but Thine be done, Jesus was putting God first because he was willing to subjugate His will to God the Father’s.  He was putting other’s second because his reason for going to the cross was for us not Himself.  And He put Himself last otherwise he would never have gone to the cross. 


I believe this principle of J-O-Y is what Paul is talking about in the last part of this Philippians reading as well when he says, therefore, workout your own salvation we fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.   What this does not say is that your salvation will come by works.  A quick read of the gospel for today will show that it is by belief not works that one will enter the kingdom of heaven.  What Philippians does say is that once we do believe, it will or at least should impact the way we live.  Our belief in and love for God will lead us to living out His will in our lives.  The more we do so, the more we worship Him, the more we fall in love with Him, -- the more we will want to live for God and to live out His will in our lives.  I believe that is something of Paul’s meaning on working out our salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in us enabling us to will and work for His good pleasure, which we might see as for his glory and honor.


In the beginning story, when Kevin told Ryan that he could be Jesus, Kevin meant that in such a way that he, Kevin, would be first.  But in the light of what we’ve just heard, it would mean that Ryan would’ve been first if he was ‘being Jesus’ Jesus first – Others second – yourself last.  So, if Jesus wasn’t there then Ryan still would’ve still been first and his brother last. 


So how do we end this little sermon about the principle of J-O-Y?   Why don’t we end it with a children’s song that encapsulates the lesson succinctly?  


Sing the song – “Radio JOY”  


Put Jesus first – and Others second –  and then Yourself at the end of the line

And you will have true joy in your life through J-O-Y


Put Jesus first – and Others second –  and then Yourself at the end of the line

And you will have true joy in your life through J-O-Y



Sunday's Sermon by Fr. Jim Cirillo
9/24/17    Matthew 20:1-16                  God’s Lavish Grace

I will begin today with two rhetorical questions: What does fairness mean to you?    Why is it so important to us?


Fairness is one of if not the highest ethical stance of many in our culture.  Children see fairness as the standard.  They are especially keen on fairness if they believe that they have been treated unfairly.  All who are parents are familiar with the cry of outrage, "That's not fair!"   This may be accompanied by that other great ethical benchmark of children, "But all the other kids get to..."  And most parents have a set of responses to these statements that they heard from their parents.   However, children seldom raise the issue of fairness when they are being favored.  In fact, almost no one raises the issue of fairness when they are favored or privileged.


And we see that pretty clearly in today’s gospel.  The men who begin working at the beginning of the day and early in the day are angry at the landowner who paid the guys who only worked one or a few hours the same that he had paid them.  It was unfair.  How many of you would agree that it was unfair?  Now…how many of you would like to have been paid a whole days wage for only 1 or 3 hours of work?  I thought so.  When we are being favored we like it but when we think we are being treated in an unfair manner we get upset.


This parable which Jesus tells as a lesson about the kingdom of heaven seems to teach us that God is unfair.  At least that is how some people over time and history have taken it.  And there is truth to this.  However, rather than showing us that God is not fair, the parable shows us that God is gracious, perhaps even lavish.  I don’t know about you but I am so glad that God is not fair. If He was fair and gave me what I truly deserve because of my sin…I shudder to think.  Far better than being fair is being gracious and merciful. 


The landowner was perfectly just in the parable.  He gave the men who worked early exactly the wages they had agreed to work for that day.  Nothing wrong with that.  They earned the daily wage which would have been just enough to be able to feed his family for a day.  A hand to mouth existence that many, even in America, still experience.  But the landowner simply showed some compassion and mercy on those who began work late in the day.  Most likely they too had families to feed and their days wage was just enough to do it.  An hour’s wage would not be enough but because of his compassion and grace and lavish generosity of the landowner, their families ate that day.


You see this parable, and frankly the whole of God’s grace, is more about what we need than about what we deserve.  We pray it weekly when we say give us this day our daily bread.  It is the recognition that we live a hand to mouth existence in this world on a daily basis.  And if we are lucky enough to have more, let us not be tempted to depend upon the more as the place of our security.  Let us rather depend upon God as our security.  Now and forever.  Because the grace of God trumps the fairness of man or the security of stuff forever.


When Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his quilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court.


The judge asked, "Guilty, or not guilty?"When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, "That'll be ten dollars -- a dollar for every mile you went over the limit."


Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. "You have violated the law," he said. "The fine must be paid--but I am going to pay it for you." He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! "That," said Billy Graham, "is how God treats repentant sinners!"


We gather here today to celebrate with Brian and Gaby the life of Victor Aiden Borillo by way of his baptism.  Baptism for an adult is an outward act which publicly professes and inward faith and belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  For a young child, especially an infant, it is an act of faith in God’s grace.  Victor has no idea about what will happen to him in a few moments both physically and spiritually.  Hopefully he will respond well to the water on his head.  But more importantly, we will be placing Victor in God’s hands so that he may receive what he needs more than what he may deserve.  That has nothing to do with Victor’s response and everything to do with God’s grace.  Today we celebrate such grace.


Tell me, who would you like to have as your boss, one who paid out wages as deserved by work accomplished or one who was lavishly generous?  And tell me further, who would you rather have be the Lord of your life someone who in all justice holds you to every mistake you have ever made or one who looks for a way to be gracious and generous and finds a way to save you from the just rewards of your mistakes? 


Folks, the startling reality is that we worship a God who treats us very unfairly.  That is such good news!  He loves us always in spite of how we act toward Him, even when we ignore Him for long periods of time.  He comes to our aid when we ask Him, even though such times are often the only ones where some speak to Him privately.  He gives us eternal life even though the wages of sin is death.  How good it is for us that, as the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in great kindness.”  Thank God that He is.  Amen 

Sunday's Sermon by Fr. Jim Cirillo 

4/23/17     1 PETER 1:3-9     A LIVING HOPE

A middle-aged man was on a Caribbean cruise enjoying his first real vacation in years.  On the first day out to sea he noticed an attractive woman about his age who smiled at him in a friendly way as he passed her on the deck.  This pleased the man greatly.  That night he managed to get seated at the same table with her for dinner.  As the conversation developed, he commented that he had seen her on the deck that day and he had appreciated her friendly smile.  When she heard this, she smiled and commented, "Well, the reason I smiled was that when I saw you I was immediately struck by your strong resemblance to my third husband."

At this he perked up his ears and said, "Oh, how many times have you been married?"

She looked down at her plate, smiled modestly, and answered, "Twice."  Hope is the sustainer of life.  It's the motivator to action.  It's the promise of tomorrow.

We need the vision to see beyond what might appear to be there in front of us, to be able to see what could, quite possibly, be there.  As Robert Kennedy often said about himself, "Some people see things as they are and ask why?  I dream things that never were, and ask why not?"

Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child.  She took the boy's name and room number and was given instructions by the teacher.  "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now.  I'd be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn't fall behind the others."  It wasn't until the visiting teacher got outside the boy's room that she realized it was located in the hospital's burn unit.  No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain.  She felt that she couldn't just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, "I'm the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs."

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, "What did you do to that boy?"   Before she could finish the profusion of apologies that immediately came out of her mouth, the nurse interrupted her: "You don't understand.  We've been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He's fighting back, responding to treatment.  It's as though suddenly he's decided to live."  The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  With joyful tears he expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"

Hope can be taken from us when those things that contribute to living are taken from us. We can be discouraged, we can be desolate, we can be knocked down, but that doesn't mean we have lost hope.  As long as we have a breath of life left in us, we have a living hope.  And as long as we have our assignment for tomorrow, we continue to believe that tomorrow is a possibility.  Peter's letter to the "exiles in Dispersion," as he calls them, is a letter of hope and encouragement to the young church as they were facing desperate times.  He reminds these Christians that through the resurrection we have been given new birth in a living hope.  Jesus was not dead, but living. Despite all appearances, Jesus is alive, and as long as he is alive, we live in the same hope.  We live in the hope of a resurrection from the dead in the future and with a hope in truly living now in this world.

Although these people that Peter was addressing had not seen Jesus, they loved him.  And although they did not see him during this time of great trial and tribulation, they believed in him.  That is living hope.  It is hope that cannot be restrained by worldly powers.  It is hope that cannot be thwarted by things of the past.  It is hope that cannot be extinguished by fears that some great calamity might lie ahead.  Living hope does not die.  And for the followers of Jesus, not even physical death of the body will destroy our hope.

None of us walked the earth with Jesus, as did Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the rest.  And yet we love him.  None of us can see Jesus now, not like Mary and the other women saw him after the resurrection.  He doesn't appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus.  Yet we believe in him.  And we believe that even though we suffer the trials of this life, we will one day rejoice in all things.  We believe that through this enduring faith in Jesus Christ, the outcome will indeed be the salvation of our souls.

Could you imagine buying a car without taking it on a test drive, much less without seeing it?  Would you move to a house in a city where you've never been without checking it out and carefully selecting just the right house?  Would you marry someone without seeing him or her first?  Not on your life!

And yet we put our living hope in someone we've never seen.  We put our complete trust in a notion that says this man Jesus died on a cross for our sins and that God is able to forgive us everything because of him.  We believe that because of him, God is able to forgive and put away our shortcomings and promise us eternal life.  That because of Jesus, we live our lives differently, never losing hope for a better tomorrow and living today with appreciation for what it brings.

Hope, as the scriptures speak of it, is a very strong word.  Hope, as it is used in daily society around us, is a very weak word.  Someone says, “Oh I hope fill in the blank happens!”  What they are really saying is, “I wish that it happens.”  It’s “oh I hope, I hope, I hope!”  The Word of God on the other hand speaks of hope in a manner that shows or exhibits confidence.  In this way of thinking, “Oh I hope fill in the blank happens!”  turns out to mean, “I have a strong assurance that this will happen.”  Rather than “Oh I hope, I hope, I hope!” it’s more like “I know, I know, I know!”  So it is a confident hope rather than a hesitant hope.

The text from Peter tells us that we will be tested, and tested by fire at that.  Sometimes the testing is specifically because of our faith as the saints to whom Peter wrote were experiencing.  Sometimes the testing is just what we call life.  Everybody goes through it, and everybody endures… … as long as they have hope.  In Christ, however, the ending is always the same, regardless of what it took to get there.  The testing always ends, and the results are praise and glory and honor.  Sometimes in this life and sometimes only in the next.  That's living hope.  There's always a possibility.  There's always the strength to reach where you're heading.

Where there is life, there is hope.  Conversely, where there is hope, there is life.  When someone is in a position of being truly hopeless, life often ends – one way or another.  In living hope, there are always possibilities.  And we know and have heard many times before that with God, all things are possible.

We see in this morning’s Gospel reading that Thomas had pretty much given up hope.  He was down and out.  Seeing Jesus changed all of that!  He had his hope restored so that he was able to believe.  Jesus comments that Thomas believed because he saw.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  While Thomas was down and out, he was not yet truly hopeless in his thinking so there was room for some possibilities.  In living hope, there are always possibilities.

Peter knew this so he was able to write words of encouragement to those who were suffering.  I hope that his words will also give you a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus is alive, and in the living Jesus, we find living hope.  Amen?