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Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

 1The word of the Lord came to me: 2“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

25“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”


Psalm 25:1-9

 1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 2Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. 3Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. 4Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 5Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 6Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. 7Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. 8He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. 9All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.


Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-18

1So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.


Gospel: Matthew 21:23-27 [28-32]

 23When {Jesus} entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. 28What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”


Seize the Day

Question: if you were told you only had a few weeks to live, where would you eat?  That was the subject of a 2019 UK newspaper article written by the paper’s food critic, Jay Rayner.  Back in May of that year, Jay received a letter from a reader named Hugh Paton.  Hugh had just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  Upon hearing the news from his doctor, he thought that the advice to “eat, drink and be merry” might be the best way to spend his remaining weeks or months, so he asked his favorite food critic to provide him with a “bucket list” of the top 10 meals he should experience around the UK before he died.

Rayner drew up his “best of” list and posted Hugh’s story and the list of restaurants on social media.  His post got an immediate reaction.  People wrote in with their recommendations for the best meals around England.  They discussed their favorite comfort foods, or stories of how a good meal lifted their spirits in hard times.  And many of the restaurants on the list offered Hugh and a guest, a free meal.  Encouraged, Hugh sent another email saying that he might postpone his dinner tour until after he completed his cancer treatment.  To this Rayner, having recently lost a friend to a similar cancer, encouraged him to visit these restaurants as soon as possible.

Raynor concluded his return correspondence with, “Carpe diem and all that”—which is Latin for, “Seize the day.”  Hugh wrote back, “OK, carpe diem it is.”  Hugh and his friend Anna only got to visit three restaurants in those last couple of months.  He passed away in July of that year.  But his desire for the simple pleasure of a good meal touched many people and inspired an outpouring of kindness from strangers.  In his article honoring Hugh’s life, Jay Rayner wrote, “We are, all of us, prone to dwell on the future: on the job, or a relationship, that will finally gift us the happiness we crave.  But if you can afford it, a good meal, in a restaurant engineered to feed rather than impress, forces us into the now.  And the now was exactly where Hugh needed to be.”

For the faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if there is any meal that forces us into the now, it’s the Lord’s Supper.  It’s truly been given to us to feed rather than to impress.  It feeds our deepest spiritual need to know our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—to carry His Spirit in us, to confirm our identity as children of God, and as members of the Body of Christ, it joins us to the one holy catholic and Apostolic church.  And just as Jay Rayner encouraged Hugh Paton to “carpe diem” or “seize the day”, the Lord’s Supper encourages us to “carpe nunc” or “seize the now!”

In the Holy Supper, we’re being encouraged to seize this moment to receive the gift of grace that Jesus offers in His body and blood.  Theologian William Barclay shares a touching story about the funeral of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who is considered to be the greatest officer in the history of the British Royal Navy.  Admiral Nelson was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  A group of sailors carried his coffin, draped in the Union Jack flag, to its final resting place.

An observer at his funeral wrote that as they lowered his coffin into the ground, the sailors reached down and tore off a part of the Union Jack flag.  They did this with great reverence, treasuring this piece of cloth that connected them to the greatest leader they had ever known.  That little scrap of cloth served as a tangible connection to him, as a reassurance that they always carried a piece of the great Admiral with them, and so, he would never be forgotten.

In an article I read this past week, today has been designated as World Communion Sunday, and as such, it’s an important and joyful day for the Christian Church.  I hope that for the next few minutes we can set aside our inner noise, and all the thoughts that burden us, and focus on the now, on the grace of God that is present in this moment, and available to us at our Lord’s table.  Luther, in his Small Catechism, taught that the parents should teach their children the benefits of participating in “The Sacrament of the Altar.

According to Luther, the parents should teach their children that “communion is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.  And the benefits of us receiving the body and blood of Christ are shown in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” and show us that in the Sacrament, we do indeed, receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

Certainly, it’s not simply in the eating and drinking that do these things, but in the words written here: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  These words, received in faith, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.  Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”  And who then, receives such Sacrament worthily?  Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.  But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.”

In taking the bread and wine, we humbly offer thanks for Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.  And in faith we receive the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life.  Additionally, we’re declaring our unity with believers all over the world, from every time, nation, language, and culture.  And more than this, we’re looking forward to the day when we will once again share in the eternal feast with Jesus after He returns.

As we recall Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s gospel, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29), we’re anticipating Jesus’ return someday in all His power and majesty, to justly judge the living and the dead.  Today is a foretaste of the kingdom of Heaven.  In St. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, he wants the believers to experience the unquenchable joy of knowing Jesus in all His fullness.

He too, wants them to carpe diem, or seize the day, as he writes, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”  Each time we take in the bread and the cup, we receive God’s unmerited grace, we’re strengthen physically and spiritually with the body and blood of Jesus, and we’re united with Christ, and with believers around the world.

We are united by the body and blood of Jesus, given and spilled out for us, by His sacrificial love for all humankind.  As we receive this gift, He dwells in us and enables us to “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12b-13).  When we come to the Altar to receive the Sacrement with humility and gratitude, we can be assured that it’s God’s good purpose to fill us with His life, to make us new creations in Christ, through His body and His blood.

Terry Waite once worked as an envoy for the Church of England.  In this capacity, he negotiated for the release of British citizens who were held hostage by foreign governments or rebel forces around the world.  In 1987, while negotiating the release of hostages in Beirut, Lebanon, Terry was himself taken hostage and confined to a Lebanese prison.  He was chained to the wall of a windowless cell for 23 hours and 50 minutes every day.  He was tortured and fed just enough to stay alive.  And he remained in captivity, for almost 5 years, until he was finally released and returned to England.

Terry reports that one of the ways he kept his sanity was to celebrate the Eucharist every day.  He saved a scrap of bread and water from his one meal.  And each day, he would recite the Prayer of Humble Access from the Book of Common Prayer.  It begins, “We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies.”  Later when interviewed, he said that as he said the prayer and took the bread and water, he imagined that he was taking Holy Communion with believers all over the world, in Africa and England and America.  From a dark prison cell in Beirut, he pictured the worldwide Church united in Christ in this Holy Sacrament.

Finally, when we take the bread and the cup, we anticipate Jesus’ coming again someday as Lord of all creation.  This is the hopeful vision the apostle Paul referred to when he wrote that someday all of creation would see the crucified Christ as he really is:

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

We live as a people united by the hope of Jesus’ return to establish the kingdom of God upon the earth, to overcome every power of oppression and evil and of injustice and death.  The bread and the cup we receive and share, are tangible reminders that we serve a living God who made the greatest sacrifice possible to save us from the power of sin and death, and restore a broken world.  Devout Jewish believers share a desire to one day celebrate the Passover meal in Jerusalem, the holy city.  So it’s a tradition, among many, that after a Passover meal, the participants will raise a cup and make the following toast: “Next year, in Jerusalem!”  A small church in Wisconsin has adapted this same tradition when they celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

This faithful congregation ends each service of Holy Communion by raising a cup and announcing, “Next time, with Christ!”  It’s their way of acknowledging that someday, all faithful believers will share this meal, as a heavenly banquet with Jesus, when we too are joined with Him in God’s coming kingdom.  Until that day, I urge you to humbly receive the bread and the cup with joy and thanksgiving, with penitent hearts, knowing that your sins are truly forgiven, and in joyful anticipation of the return of Jesus, when we will celebrate the unending feast in God’s eternal reign.  Today, and each time we come to the Altar, I urge you to focus on the now, on Jesus’ presence with us and in us, and on His promise of forgiveness and on His promise to return to us someday.


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