Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, September 30, 2013

Stewardship Sermon #1: Beware of the Money Trap

Stewardship Sermon #1: Don’t Get Caught in Money Trap (Luke 16:19-31)
Sermon by Fred Vergara. St. James church, Elmhurst, New York, 09/29.2013

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21) A story is told of a man who died. As was the custom in that place, the body would be embalmed to allow for a wake before burial. As the embalmers were doing the procedures, they noticed that the man had no heart. His breast was empty. So they set out an investigation and tried to look for a possible place by which the heart had gone into. Alas, they found a chest of silver and gold, and on top of that treasure was found the heart of the man. Brothers and sisters, where is your heart?

The gospel this morning(Luke 16:19-31)  tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This is a story in contrast: the rich man and the beggar; the selfish and the needy; the extreme abundance and the extreme scarcity; Lazarus was not only poor, but sick and unable to lift himself. He was laid at the gates of the rich man’s house. The dogs which licked his sores probably also stole the little bread he got for himself. Enduring the torment of these dogs only added to the poor man’s misery.

The rich man treated the beggar with indifference. He did not lift a finger to help. He did not share a portion of his vast wealth to alleviate the plight of the poor man. But alas, when both of them died, there was a reversal of fortunes. Lazarus went to heaven but the rich man went to hell. It seems that in God’s economy, those who hold on to their earthly possessions without sharing them, will eventually lose their wealth but those who give generously of their possession will eventually be rewarded in the afterlife.

There are three lessons we can learn from this parable:

First lesson is that wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor. Neither is poverty a sign of God’s disfavor. That some people are rich and others poor is simply a matter of fact. Some get rich by hard work, others by inheritance; some by honest gains others by dishonest means; some by earning and saving and others by sheer luck.

The Bible says that God will “supply all our needs according to his riches in glory.” This promise must be understood in the context of “seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” You give your heart to God as God supplies all your needs based on the gifts He has given you: wisdom, knowledge, blessings. God will indeed supply your need but you must be careful about your greed or else you will fall on the money trap, like this rich man in this parable.

In Africa, one of the ways by which the hunters trap the monkeys in the jungle is by putting peanuts in a jar. The jar has an opening which is just enough for the hand of the monkey to go through. When the monkey sees the peanuts in the jar, it inserts its hand into the jar and grabs a fistful of peanuts. But when it lifts up its closed hand, it gets trapped in jar. Now what the monkey should do to liberate itself is to let go of the peanuts, but it won’t, so the hunters are able to catch the monkey. The rich man in this parable was trapped into hell because when he was on earth, he was not able to let go of his possessions. His possessions possessed him.

Second lesson is that it is not necessarily money itself but the love of money that is the root of all evil. God delights that we will prosper and be of good health even as our souls prosper. Everything that is good is God’s gift but let us be careful not to be obsessed with the gifts to the point that we forget the Giver. Jesus said that a servant cannot serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve both God and money. But you can use money to love and serve God.

The late Cardinal Jaime Sin, one of the most loved Roman Catholic archbishops of Manila once said, “money is the manure of the devil but in the kingdom of God, it can be a good fertilizer.”The church ministry is enhanced when there is fund to do it. Today, we start our campaign for annual pledge.Let us respond with grateful hearts for what God has given to us, but supporting the ministry of the church.

I often equate managing a church with managing a city. The city must provide services but in order to do so, it must have revenues. That is why it is necessary to pay taxes. In the church we have no taxes; we have no IRS to enforce the income tax return. What we have is a moral and spiritual persuasion. What we have is an ethical volunteerism to pledge our support for the work of the church. It is not forced upon us, it is however incumbent upon us to give thanks to God for the blessings that we receive. Here at St. James, I encourage you to pledge for the support of the ministries by giving a portion of your blessings.

The third lesson we get from this parable is that there is life after death and then there is judgment. The Bible clearly says, “those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Some scholars believe that this parable is also a prophecy of the next life and those who have been comfortable on earth and remained blind to the suffering of their fellow human being will suffer judgment at the end.

The name Lazarus means God is my help. Despite a life of misfortune and suffering, Lazarus did not lose hope in God. His eyes were set on a treasure stored up for him in heaven. The rich man, on the other hand, could not see beyond his material wealth. He not only had every thing he needed, he selfishly spent only on himself and hoarded the treasures that could have helped people like Lazarus. He was too absorbed in what he possessed. He lost sight of God and  the treasure of heaven because he was preoccupied with seeking happiness in material things that are temporary and doomed. He served wealth rather than God and in the end the rich man became the beggar! As he was begging for a drop of water, he realized the evil and vanity of his ways, but it was too late. There was a wide gap that separate between him and Lazarus, the once poor Lazarus who is now the one experiencing the eternal bliss of heaven in the bosom of Abraham.

 Let us pray: Lord God, you are our joy, our treasure and our life. Make us rich in the things of heaven and give us generous heart that we may freely share your blessings. Set us free from selfishness and insecurity. Help us to understand that all good gifts come from you and that we are merely stewards of your bounties. Help us to use your gifts for the building of your kingdom that will not pass away. Deliver us from the money trap and lead into the fulfilling of your will.  Amen.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013


The Reverend (John) Robert Malthus (13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834 was a British cleric and scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography.
Prometheus, a titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment. A sculpture from the Louvre Museum.

MALTHUS AND PROMETHEUS: KNOWLEDGE IN MANAGING EARTH’S RESOURCES                                                                                                 
 (Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara at the Youth Sunday, 9/22/2013  at St. James Church,  Elmhurst, New York)
Introduction: Christian Tai-Chi
We have just returned from vacation in Spain and Portugal and it’s good to be back. I missed you all and I hope you miss me too. I often joke that vacationing in Europe always makes one feel very religious. Seeing magnificent cathedrals, fantastic palaces, and breathtaking views makes you exclaim “Oh My God!” But when you get the bill you say,  “Jesus Christ!” Well, actually it’s worth spending money to see the world, to know other people, and learn about their histories, arts and cultures. And we really had a good time.

Luke 16:1-13
Our gospel this morning, “the parable of the dishonest manager,” is one of the parables of Jesus that is hard to understand. For unlike the others where honesty is the best policy, this parable seems to favor what the dishonest manager did. He was shrewd and clever. When he learned that he was about to be fired for mismanagement, he went to all the clients and tried to ingratiate himself to them. He asked one, “how much do you owe my boss?” And when he said, “$8,000 dollars,” he said, “write down $400.” He went to another, and another, and another and did the same thing. He was thinking that when he would eventually be fired, he would go to these clients and ask a return for these favors, so he would be secured. The parable ended with the boss commending the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Jesus  then said: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you will be welcome into eternal dwellings.” 

Well, this parable makes your head spin and you are left wondering, “What is Jesus trying to say?” What the shrewd manager did was stealing and what he has asked his clients to do was bearing false witness! Both are contrary to the commandments. Was Jesus trying to make exceptions to the rule, and giving sanctions to graft and corruption? Good Lord, no;  it is certainly most uncharacteristic of Jesus who alone is worthy and without sin!

So this parable is cryptic: its meaning is hard to fathom and its implication is hard to understand. But while the parable is mysterious, the succeeding words of Jesus are worthy of learning. I am referring to verses 10-12, which say: 

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much; and whoever cannot be trusted with little; cannot also be trusted with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’ property, who will give you property of your own?”

It seems to me that trust is earned.  It is not given on a silver platter. It is earned through hard work, commitment, dedication and credibility. In a democracy, the public office is a public trust. When the official governs rightly,  she earns the trust of her people; when she governs wrongly, she would be voted out in the next election---or impeached.

The world which God created, offers us tremendous resources to use. How should we manage these resources? Recently, I have been following a debate on the issue of population and resources as they affect the future of the world. 

There are two schools of thought. One school of thought is called the Malthusian Theory. This theory comes from Robert Malthus, an economist in the 19th century who claimed that the population of the world grows geometrically but the food supply grows arithmetically. In other words, starvation is inevitable because there will not be enough food available to supply the needs of an increasing population. Malthus believed that wars, natural calamities and birth control are needed to check the growth of the population. Recent movies like World War Z and the new novel by Dan Brown, Inferno, speak about this Malthusian theory. 

The other school of thought is called the Promethean Discourse Theory. This discourse is derived from a Greek mythical hero by the name of Prometheus. According to  Greek mythology,  Prometheus saw the sufferings in the world and was moved with compassion. So he decided to steal fire from heaven and gave it to humankind. 

Because of what he did, Prometheus was punished by the Greek god, Zeus. He was shackled on a rock at the edge of the earth with his liver being eaten by an eagle, as it continues to regenerate, so his suffering was endless. But as a result of his deeds, there came unprecedented and unparalleled progress of humankind.

The Promethean theory proposes that there is no limit to human progress. While the Malthusian theory says earth has limits to growth, Promethean theory says there is no limit to growth because the human mind is capable of progressive thought and creativity. The name Prometheus means “foreknowledge,” meaning that he  always thinks ahead, and not Epimetheus, his brother, who was dull, because he always thinks late.

Now which theory would you subscribe? Which worldview of view would you take? What you believe would dictate how you behave.

If you are Malthusian, then you will be stingy and limit yourself. You will view the world in scarcity mode. You will desire to preserve what you have and maybe hoard your goods. You will see the world as a sea of sinking ships and you will try to prevent people from coming to your ship. You will be fearful and wary of strangers as they might take from your resources that you believe are not enough.

On the other hand, if you are Promethean, you will always believe that there is abundance. That in every problem, there is a solution, that there is an inexhaustible treasure and creativity and human knowledge. Industrialization, technology, computer age, there is an unlimited frontier for progress. If you are Promethean, you will be generous because there is always enough that the world provides. 
Do you know the difference between a Western Dinner and a Chinese dinner? In the Western dinner you are given a  big plate with everything in it, maybe steak, potato and broccoli. If you are a small eater, you are content with a Western dinner plate. But if you are a big eater, you will not be content with the Western dinner plate.  In Chinese dinner, however, you are given a small plate. But whether you are a big eater or a small eater, you are not worried with having a small plate. Why? Because at the center of the table are huge plates filled with food. You take only a few morsels of meat to put in your small plate, knowing that you can always take some more from the big plates at the center of the table. Malthusian theory is Western dinner while Promethean theory is Chinese dinner.
I believe, I am basically Promethean.  I have faith that there is nothing impossible under the sun. Jesus said that the first commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you mind” The mind is God’s tremendous gift to human beings so that we will be able unlock the mysteries of the world. A gift is a tool and a tool is useful only to the extent that it is used. That is why we must always endeavor to obtain knowledge, to gain wisdom, to obtain education. 

Along with hard work and discipline, education is the greatest equalizer in society. When I was a child, I hated going to school but my Mother would always encourage me to it. And when I became stubborn, she would spank me with a broom and follow me up into the classroom. I remember her words, “Son, we are poor and we will always be poor unless you obtain education. You can be what God want you to be, if you obtain education.” That words from my Mom never left me. When I finished Grade School and cannot go to high School because of poverty, I ventured in the city as a stow-away and worked as a janitor in order to finish high school and then college. Those were hard times but today I have two Bachelor degrees, two master’s degrees and two doctorate degrees. I am not yet rich financially, but I know I am much better than I was before. 

Today is Youth Sunday in our Church and I would like to give the advice given me by my Mom to you young people: “You can be what God wants you to be if you obtain education.” Study, study, study and finish school. God bless you.