Monday, October 30, 2017

Father Riely's sermon from October 29, 2017

21 PENTECOST - PROPER XXV - A - 17    MATTHEW 22.34-46

“When the Pharisees heard that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees…”

Just last week the Pharisees and Herodians had come together in an attempt to trap Jesus in his response to their question whether to pay the Roman tax or not.

In the verses that immediately followed the Sadducees approached him with their own challenge concerning the resurrection, an idea they did not believe in. It was just another attempt to have Jesus say something they could bring against him at a later date.

Now the Pharisees are back for a second time. This time they move their question out of the political realm to the world of religion. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The Pharisees wanted to engage Jesus in a debate about which of the commandments of the law were great and which ones were of lesser consequence.

They had combed through the scriptures identifying 613 commandments and taught them to the people, causing many to realize they could never live up to the demands of God. Thus debating this very question was not an uncommon practice among the rabbis of Jesus’ day. Nor is it today.

I can recall on my last visit to Jerusalem to having wandered off into one of the many libraries that are adjacent to the Wailing Wall. There I witnessed rabbis and theological students doing this very thing in a highly spirited manner. The commandments were not simply among the things the Jews were supposed to do. They formed part of the prayer that every devout Jew prayed everyday, in a tradition that continues unbroken to the present day.

Matthew is not the only gospel writer to record the Sadducees’ challenge of Jesus. A similar encounter occurs in Mark and Luke. In Mark, the question is asked in a friendly manner, and Jesus commends the questioner. In Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan follows as an example of putting love of God and neighbor into action.

The question could be rephrased as “what kind of commandment is great in the law?” The answer is “a commandment of love.” In this the second is “like unto the first.” The great point is that love is not primarily a matter of emotion but of self-devotion.

Many would have agreed substantially with the answer Jesus gave. What was new was not the content of Jesus’ teaching on the subject but his redefinition of what the love of God was, how it manifested itself, and who a man’s neighbor is. In his answer to the Pharisee’s question Jesus welds together two fundamental commands, which had long been held apart. They are to Jesus pivotal points of the new religion.

To love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind was a prayer Jews recited twice a day. (Deut. 6.5) This, Jesus said, is the greatest commandment and the second is like unto it. Both of these commandments in their original meaning rest upon the special relation of God to Israel. Jesus’ response was meant to expand their horizon in terms of whom their neighbor was. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke was an expression of that expanded horizon.

While Israel was a people dwelling alone, and not reckoned among the nations their “neighborhood” was limited. However, when they took their place among the nations, and recognized that their God was “the God of the whole earth,” their sympathies should have expanded.

But their hatred of others, especially the Romans, and their pride in being God’s chosen people prevented them from fulfilling either of the two commandments Jesus is holding up to them as the answer to their question. The parable of the Good Samaritan was not enough for them to see the meaning behind Jesus’ having linked the two together. Thus, He fulfilled both on the cross.

Only in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, with the message of new life, do these commandments begin to become clear. Only when they are not seen as orders to be obeyed in our own strength, but as invitations and promises to a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind can love become a reality.

Unless the human heart is renewed by God’s love, we cannot produce words and deeds which reflect our love of God and our neighbor. When the heart is renewed, our outward actions will conform to the proper standard. Did the people actually keep all those commandments? Do we?

If we try and live our whole lives following Jesus and living by God’s grace and love, we all know there are still bits and pieces of darkness and impurity that lurk in its depths. It takes a lot of work and a lot of prayer to dig them out and replace them with the love, which we all agree should really be there. Thus we pray that God would increase in us the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love, so that we may obtain His promises by loving what He commands.

In the Christian life, two things need to be remembered: Though the love of God and the love of man are intimately connected, as Jesus has shown, we should think of them respectfully as well as together. Devotion to God, however real, in no way relieves us of the duty of serving our neighbor, and service to our neighbor, however devoted, in no way relieves us of the duty of loving God.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus answered. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The love of God comes first, since our debt to Him is far greater of the two. Moreover to love God, if we understand anything of His character, brings the love of neighbor into play.

Chapter XXII is a chapter of questions. The Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees all seek to trap Jesus by their questions spanning both the religious and the political realm. Yet it is Jesus who ends the chapter with a question to the Pharisees, a question they were unable to answer: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

His commentary could be viewed as a protest against the all too earthly Jewish idea of Messiah. In using the opening lines from Psalm 110 Jesus is offering no solution to the dilemma he proposed. Instead, he leaves them to ponder for themselves the true answer behind his question, as he does each of us. AMEN+

Friday, October 27, 2017

All Saints' Day: November 1st, 2017, celebrated Sunday November 5th

All Saints' Day 2017 will be celebrated Sunday, November 5th at Christ Episcopal Church.  Following Episcopal guidance, All Saints' Day may also be celebrated on the Sunday following Nov. 1.  All Saints' Day commemorates all saints, known and unknown, on Nov. 1. All Saints' Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism.   Traditionally we remember our deceased family members on All Saints' Day by reading their names as part of the service.  You can include other saints you may have known who were not family members.  Please provide Father Riley or Jane Barnett the names of the saints you wish to be remembered prior to our service on November 5, 2017.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from October 22, 2017

20 PENTECOST - PROPER XXIV - A - 17   MATTHEW 22. 15-22

Today’s gospel passage follows three parables in succession in which Jesus has basically condemned the religious leaders of his day for failing to carry out their divine mission of being the light of God to the world. In doing so Christ implies that God was about to take the mission away from them and give it to the Gentiles unless they repented and recommitted themselves to the divine task that had been entrusted to them.

By the end of the second parable, the one of the vineyard, the Pharisees and scribes were conspiring against Jesus for they perceived that he was directing the parables towards them. The parable of the wedding feast, in last week’s gospel reading, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In today’s reading Matthew has the Pharisees and the Herodians, and unlikely duo, coming together to try and entrap Jesus into saying or doing something that they can use against him in a trail before the Sanhedrin or better yet before the Roman governor himself.

They begin the encounter with a compliment: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show difference to no one…” They then proceed to ask their question whether one should pay the Roman tax hoping to trap him with his answer.

However, Jesus knows what is in their heart and avoids the trap. He calls them hypocrites. They are carrying around in their pockets the hated coinage of a self-proclaimed god. The coin was hated by the Jews because of what was on it. It was stamped with the image of Caesar and the wording proclaiming him as “son of god…high priest.”

Any self- respecting first century Jew would have shuttered at the thought. Hundreds of years before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed to God’s anointed, King Cyrus, that there was only one true god. “I am the Lord, and there is no other: besides me there is no god…”

Rome, since 6 A.D., had imposed a head tax of about 25 cents per person on the population of Judea. It was regarded as a badge of servitude to Rome. The Pharisees objected to having to pay the tax. The Herodians favored the tax, for they were sympathetic with the family of Herod, who ruled the Jews as Rome’s puppet.

For Jesus to have sided with the Herodians would have alienated all who longed for Israel’s freedom; to have sided with the Pharisees would have laid Jesus open to charges of subversion. Jesus asks to see the coin and they produce it.

He out flanks them with his response. His answer has the effect of thrusting his answer back to his interrogators, for one must determine what is rightfully Caesar’s and what can be claimed by God alone.

Of course, the Pharisees answer the obvious when asked whose image is on the coin - Caesar’s. “Then you had better pay Caesar back in his own coin hadn’t you?” Meaning they should pay the tax. Then to their astonishment, he adds “and you had better pay God back in his own coin too!” More astonishment. What did Jesus really mean?

Was he saying that the kingdom of God is more important than the kingdom of Caesar?  He was not trying to give an answer for all time on the relationship between God and political authority. That wasn’t the point. He was countering the Pharisee’s challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return.

We can only fully understand what Jesus was doing when we see his answer in the light of the whole story. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, not by conventional means, but by the victory of God’s love and power over the even greater empire of death itself. However, that day was yet to come.

What Jesus is revealing in his response to us is who we are, what we are, and what we can be. Israel was chosen by God and entrusted with a divine mission. However, she had become corrupt and had lost focus. Maintaining the status quo was more important than proclaiming God’s kingdom and teaching how one is to enter it.

Thus, Jesus’ first sermon/ teaching was to echo John Baptist - “Repent, for the kingdom is near.” But they turned a deaf ear to his cry as they had done to John. The more Jesus taught, preached, healed and proclaimed the kingdom, the more they knew they had failed.

Instead of turning back to God and resuming the mission, they rejected him and sought a way to rid themselves of him so that things could go on as before. But God would have none of that, even if it meant His Son would have to die on the cross.

The coin, then, is symbolic. It is the symbol of what some work for, even slave for. The world has come to believe that the coin is a measure of our value, the symbol of our worth. However, the true measure of our value has to do with the likeness and the inscription born on our bodies and souls.

As Caesar has cast the denarius in his image, God has cast each of us in His own image. Our souls have been stamped with the divine image and inscribed with God’s name. At our baptisms we were reminded of this as the sign of the cross was traced on our foreheads with the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We may not be able to see that indelible mark as we stand before a mirror, but God sees it. It is there for all eternity. Neither can the world see the outline of the cross we bear. Our works testify to it. It is the things we say and do that are in accordance with God’s will that witness to the fact that we belong to Him and that our allegiance is to God and God alone.

The important word in Jesus’ response is “render,” it means more than just to give, but give back. Our dues to God and to man are alike for values received. To God we owe all and must pay all; though there are many things which are not Caesar’s, there are none which are not God’s. AMEN+

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from October 8, 2017

18 PENTECOST - PROPER XXII - A - 17    MATTHEW 21. 33-46


While serving with the Army in Germany many years ago now, I was fortunate enough to travel through the Rhine Valley. If you are not familiar with that part of Germany, it is Germany’s wine producing region. Vineyards dot the countryside much like the Napa valley in California.
In ancient Palestine for one to own a vineyard was a sign of wealth. It was not uncommon for the owner to be an absentee. Thus, the vineyard was rented to tenants who were responsible for keeping it up and producing the fruit the true owner expected to receive when he sent his servants to collect.
Today’s gospel along with the first lesson and psalm speak to the image of vineyards. In the first lesson, God is reacting to his disappointment in the house of Israel, which is His vineyard. She has not produced the fruit God was expecting. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.
The Psalmist is crying to the Lord in time of distress. Israel sees herself as God’s vineyard; God’s planting, but now it is as if the protecting walls of God’s presence are gone, and enemies crowd in to strip the vine of its fruit and to up root it like wild hogs. The psalmist prays for the return of God’s saving presence.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling a second parable; one of a vineyard that has been lent to tenants. He is speaking once again to the chief priests and elders as he stands in the Temple. It is a follow on to last week’s parable of the two sons.
You may recall that when they were asked which son had done the will of the father, the religious leaders had answered correctly and thus convicted themselves. They do so again in today’s parable by giving Jesus the correct answer when asked what the landowner will do to the wicked tenants who dealt violently with his messengers and killed the heir.
Their answer is no sooner out of their mouths when they perceive that Jesus is speaking about them. They become angry and would like nothing more than to lay hands on him but are afraid of the crowd who regards him as a prophet.
God regards Israel as his vineyard, as his own planting and has now sent His Son to Jerusalem to confront the ones God has left in charge with His demand that they repent and turn from their refusing to follow Him and become at last what God has called Israel to be, the light of God’s world.
Unfortunately, it is a story of how Israel is going to refuse God’s demand. It is a story that shows the hard-heartedness or sinfulness of the people. It is a story that reveals that God’s Son will receive the same treatment as the prophets who preceded him. To the degree that the prophets are heard, they are rejected.
Jesus’ story, however, has a different ending. The rejected one becomes the chief cornerstone of the new foundation. In the first lesson, the prophet Isaiah makes it perfectly clear what God wanted, justice. In addition, he makes it clear what God received, violence. In the gospel lesson, not much has changed. Injustice and violence mark the response of the tenants.
When we stop and think about it, not much has changed in our own culture today. Injustice and violence seem to be our characteristic response in contrast to God’s overtures of care and love. Both Matthew and Isaiah are teaching us about hardness of heart and ingratitude to God. Both have to do with the choices we make in response to God.
God has made us in His image but some choose to present themselves in this world as anything but by the choices they make and by the things, they do and say. That’s why we have injustice and violence today. Evil exists. Not because God created it but because with the God-given gift of choice, some choose to rebel against God and to go their own way without any compassion or concern for others.
Las Vegas is an example of one man’s choosing to conduct evil. The secular press, the irreligious, the liberal minded can all claim that he acted out of this or that reason, but the bottom line is he chose to kill, wound and maim and in the end, he chose to kill himself.
No one made him do it. He made the choice. How sad. How unfortunate. How unnecessary. One man’s evil caused scores of lives to be lost and countless lives to be scarred forever, and for what.
Jesus confronts the leaders of God’s chosen people in his telling of these two parables as a means of waking them up, shaking them out of their lethargy, and re-orienting them to their divine calling. However, they chose to reject his demand that they become what God created them to be. In addition, they chose to reject Him whom God has sent and will eventually hand Him over to be crucified.
It is easy for us to stand back after hearing the parable and comment why God’s chosen would do that. Likewise, it is easy for us to listen to the reports coming out of Las Vegas and ask why anyone would choose to do something like that. None of us likes to think that Jesus is telling the parable against us, we are not like that. Yet the truth is we have all been guilty of acting without justice.
We are all capable of becoming violent, of living a life void of compassion, of focusing entirely on self based on the choices we make. Compassion keeps us human. To choose to be compassionate is dangerous, because it means we choose to live our lives in response to God’s overtures of care and love, instead of acting out of our own human will and emotions.
It is dangerous because to live with compassion runs crosscurrent with today’s society where it seems to be every man for himself. God, the compassionate one, longs for us to see things as God sees them. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day lacked compassion and Jesus called them on it.
They became defensive and their anger moved them to seek a violent way in which they could rid themselves of Him. Lack of compassion allows us to slip into evil; to contemplate and commit such violent acts as Jesus describes in the parable, and which befell Him on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and most recently occurred in Las Vegas.
However, the world does not have to be like that. In God’s eyes, we are his vineyard. We are His planting in the world. Like Israel, God expects from us a certain fruit: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6.8), in other words to live a righteous life.
Righteousness is God’s gift based on our faith in Christ. It is a gift given in response to our choosing to live our lives in accordance with God’s will and in response to His Divine Love manifested most perfectly in His Son, Jesus.
To live a righteous life is to shun evil, injustice and violence and forgetting all  which may have been part of our former lives “strain forward to what lies ahead; to press on,” as St. Paul says, “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” -  to share in His glory. AMEN+



Thursday, October 12, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from October 1, 2017

17 PENTECOST - PROPER XXI - A - 17            MATTHEW 21.23-32


 In today’s gospel reading Jesus has re-entered the Temple a day after his having cleansed it by turning over the tables of the moneychangers and driving out the merchants. Now he appears to be calmly teaching when the chief priests and the elders of the people approach him and raise the question of by what authority he is acting the way he is.
“By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask, “and who gave you this authority?” What they really wanted to ask was “who do you think you are coming into the Temple and usurping our authority?” Only God or his Messiah could do that. Jesus does not answer them directly but rather he in turn asks them a question concerning John Baptist.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?” Both the elder’s question and Christ’ question require the same answer. If they were honest, it would lead them to confess that Jesus has come from heaven, as was John’s baptism. However, they waffle and respond that they do not know the answer to his question.
Jesus’ question, you see, would require them to take a stand on the role of John. They waffled because they were afraid to admit that perhaps they had been wrong about John. Maybe he was a prophet sent from God.
On the other hand, they were afraid to say John’s baptism was not God-sent for that would cause the people to rise against them. John had a good many followers and was quite popular with the man on the street.
Thus, Jesus’ question leaves them in a dilemma regarding the source of his authority. The religious leader’s ploy to judge Jesus ends up being one in which they are judged by their answer to his second question contained in the parable of the two sons.
Out of their own mouths, they condemn themselves when they answer correctly. Their own self-righteousness has blinded them to the continuity between John’s ministry and Jesus’.
God began a new thing with the coming of John and brought it to completion through Jesus. John had called them to repent; he promised the coming of the kingdom and the One who would baptize with the Spirit.
Now He had come and was standing in their very midst but they refused to acknowledge him as they had John. When they waffled and said, “We don’t know,” Jesus told the parable of the two sons. In the parable, Jesus is contrasting the chief priests and elders with the multitude of sinners who came to John to be baptized.
The religious leaders had every opportunity to know the will of God. They loudly professed that they did know it and said that they were forwarding their knowledge of it in preparing the people for the coming of the kingdom of God. Yet, they rejected God’s prophet (John) by refusing to cooperate with him as they would eventually reject God’s Son and crucify him.
But the sinners, who were open rebels against the laws of God, came and heard John, repented of their sins and were baptized. Even when the chief priests and elders had seen the positive effect of John’s teaching, they still refused to repent and believe.
Jesus’ response goes to the heart of the gospel message. What God calls for is repentance on the part of those who are in need of His grace and are willing to acknowledge their need. As God tells his people in the first lesson through the mouth of his prophet Ezekiel, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions… get a new heart and a new spirit…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” says the Lord God. “Turn, then, and live.”
The proud, the self-righteous, the holier than thou are blinded and ignorant to the fact that they need to repent, and thus remain in their sin condemning themselves. It goes without saying that each of us is responsible for our own actions.
Blaming others for what they have done or failed to do is no excuse for personal responsibility. As St. Paul reminded us just a few weeks ago, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and will have to give an account of ourselves.

There is a cure, however, for hardness of heart and that is the light of grace that opens our eyes to see that we are not perfect either in our relationship with God or with our neighbor. We are not always right.

There are things done and left undone in our lives that need to be remedied. There are certain aspects of our lifestyles that need to be changed along with certain of our attitudes.

Change is possible. We can repent and live! We can get a new heart and a new spirit. Jesus Christ is the source. As Christians, we need be doing more than just saying that we know what God’s will is, we need to be doing it.

We need to put our faith into practice outside of one hour of Sunday morning worship. We need to take to heart the words of the dismissal: “Go in peace to Love and Serve the Lord.” We need to be doing more than just keeping up appearances.

We need, as St. Paul says, to imitate him, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…being born in human likeness, humbling himself and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

The gospel challenge for us today, in light of Jesus’ teaching, is to make sure we are responding to Christ, allowing him to confront us at any point in our lives where we have been like the second son and said “yes” to God while in fact going off in the other direction.

Rather, we need to be like the first son, who turned from doing his own will to doing the will of the father. It is one thing to know the will of God and quite another thing to do it. To do it requires that we empty ourselves of self in order that we might be filled with the grace of God.

Then, as the collect says, “run to obtain His promises that we may become partakers of His heavenly treasure; through Him whom God has highly exalted and given the name that is above every name, even His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN+