16th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 26) – Sunday, September 28, 2014

Readings for the day:

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Psalm 25:1-10

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus has entered Jerusalem riding a donkey (but we won’t actually hear that story until Palm Sunday).  And after his triumphant entry into the holy city, Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers in the temple.  And after that is where our story picks up today; the chief priests and the elders question Jesus by what authority does he have to do such things as turning over the tables of the money changers.  Jesus leaves them confused, so he tells them a parable.

In this parable, Jesus compares the words and actions of two sons.  The father says to his two sons, “Go and work in the vineyard today.”  The first son tells his father “No”, but then later does go.  The second son tells his father “I will go sir”, but never actually goes to the vineyard.  Jesus tells this parable as a way to tell the chief priests and the Pharisees that they are all like the second son – people who say that they believe, but never actually do God’s will.  Jesus says that the tax collectors, prostitutes and all other sinners are like the first son – people who may say that they don’t believe at first, but eventually do believe and do God’s will.

Now for those of us gathered here this morning, it is very easy for us to say that we fall into the description of the first son – those who actually do God’s will (even though sometimes we say no).  I can’t remember how many times I said no to following this calling to be a pastor.  Or can you remember how many times you have said no I really don’t feel like going to church today, but yet you still go?  We are the ones here today after all.  I would say that we here meet the criteria for the first son rather than the second son and so why don’t I just end the sermon here?

But now are you one to make sure that other people know that you are the first son and certainly not the second son?  We may not do it out loud, but we think it don’t we?  When we see other people at the grocery store, or at the ball game, or just driving around town, a thought comes to mind, “At least I’m going to church more than that person.”  “I’m a better Christian than they are.”

But don’t get me wrong, we certainly want others to be coming to church, don’t we?  We just want them coming for the wrong reasons – we want them to come so that there are more butts in the pews.  So that there’s more money in the offering plate; which means more money for the budget.  We want more people coming so that we look like a “successful” church, rather than a dying one.  Aren’t these some of the reasons why we truly want these people coming to church on Sunday mornings?  For us, it’s not about Jesus or their faith or even their spiritual well-being.  No, we want more people coming so that WE feel good and so that we don’t have to do as much work around here.  But you know, if this honestly describes your thinking, then you probably fit the description of the second son better than the first son.  And you are no better than the chief priests and the Pharisees that Jesus talks about in this parable.

As the church, our success is not determined based on how many people we have attending worship, or how many children we have in our church.  Our success is determined by if the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, the reality that Jesus died for your sins…if that Gospel news is proclaimed and told in and around this church.  If we are doing that, we are a successful church.

Money should never be the reason why we want more people coming to this church.  If we trust that God provides for his children’s needs, then we can trust that God will provide for this church’s needs (including money for the budget).

Getting more butts in the pews is also not a good reason for wanting more people coming to our church.  Hearing God’s Word and receiving Christ’s body and blood at the sacrament should be the only reason why we want more people coming to our church.

You see, the reason why you indeed are like the first son that Jesus talks about, is because you come into this place week after week to hear God’s Word…this word of forgiveness, hope, and promised eternal life.  And you come here believing that what you hear is indeed true.  This is why you come, this is why you are the first son who might say no occasionally, but in the end does indeed do the will of the Father; you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he died on the cross in order to save you from your sin, and he was raised from the dead so that you too might believe that one day you will have a resurrection like his.

You indeed are the first son, the one that Jesus says is going into the kingdom of God, but it’s not because of what you have done.  It’s because of whose you are and what you believe.  You are God’s children and you believe that all of this church stuff actually matters.  After all, this church stuff is a matter of life and death; it is serious stuff.  Jesus has promised us that all of those who are baptized and believe that Jesus in fact did die on the cross to forgive all of our sins, that those who believe will have a resurrection like his and we will be with God in paradise.  Believing in God and having faith in Jesus Christ is an urgent matter that is a real life or death reality for all of us.  But you are the first son, the one who Jesus says is going into the kingdom of God.  Jesus is the reason why we gather each week.  Jesus is the reason why we put money in the offering plate.  And Jesus is the reason why we want more people coming to our church (because it truly is a matter of life and death for everyone).  Jesus has promised you life.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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15th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 25) – Sunday, September 21, 2014

Readings for the day:

Jonah 3:10—4:11

Psalm 145:1-8

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

So I have a brother who is four years younger than me and a brother who is ten years younger than me.  I think that my parents did the best they could in raising us three boys and more importantly (as I’m learning with having two boys of my own) that they strived to keep things as fair as they could.  But things really aren’t that fair.  I got my very first cell phone a month before graduating high school.  My youngest brother is already into his second contract and second phone (which is a smartphone).  I got my very first car at the end of my junior year of high school (right before I turned 17).  My youngest brother got his first car before he turned 16; before he could even drive.  Plus the car that he got has a sunroof.  Stephanie and I had to replace our car this summer and the new car that we have now actually has a sunroof.  We were so excited.  It took me over a decade to finally get a car with a sunroof in it.  My brother got a sunroof with his very first car.  Would you consider any of this to be fair?  The cell phone, the car, the sunroof?  No, I’m the oldest after all!  I should have had these perks!

I’d guess that some of you can relate to this same feeling of injustice in your family either with you and your siblings or with your children.  This is how the laborers feel in the parable that Jesus tells.  They are upset, they are angry, they feel cheated.  Why should someone who worked only one hour get paid the same amount as someone who worked all day?  We’d probably be upset too if someone working beside us, doing the same work, sweating the same amount, but works for a fraction of the time that we do, and still gets paid the exact same amount.  That’s not fair!  That’s not just!  We want the pay to be equal to the amount that each person works.  So we grumble about it; we complain about it; we get angry.

Jonah got angry with God when he saved the entire city of Ninevah from destruction.  Jonah didn’t think it was fair that even though these people turned from their evil ways that God should forgive them.  But God asks Jonah why he shouldn’t be concerned about 120,000 people who are seriously lacking faith and are in need of saving.  Jonah was angry with God because he did not see God’s actions, God’s mercy as fair and just.  The laborers in the vineyard were upset with the owner because they didn’t think that the wages were fair and just.  Many times we look at others (like my brother) and think that this isn’t fair or just.  But God isn’t concerned about fairness between you and me.  God isn’t concerned about the fairness of wages between the vineyard workers.  And God certainly isn’t concerned about the fairness of when two siblings get cell phones, a car or even a sunroof in a car.  God’s not curtained about this kind of justice because this parable isn’t about a financial wage that the laborers are receiving.

The payment that God is actually talking about is eternal life.  That’s why the amount of wage doesn’t matter.  Any laborer called to work in the vineyard will receive the wage of eternal life.  Any child called by God to serve in God’s kingdom and be part of God’s family, the body of Christ, will receive eternal life.  I know this to be true because of the last verse in this parable, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[1]  Sometimes we will use this phrase jokingly among ourselves “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  I’ve also heard this phrase used many times as a way to guilt people into humbling themselves to be last at things so that others can be first.  That’s certainly a nice gesture to make towards others, but if that is what Jesus meant then the laborers in the vineyard could not be getting an equal wage that is the greatest wage, the greatest reward of all…eternal life.

So who is last?  Who is first?  Because of your sin, because of your strong desire to be fair and just in everything that you do, you are the one who is last.  Your sin puts you into last place.  Who then is in first?  Well Jesus Christ after all.  Jesus, who was first in all of creation, who was in the beginning when God created the world.  Jesus is first, and we are last.  So Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  But we should continue reading beyond the appointed text to get a full understanding of this phrase…

“While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”[2]

Jesus who was first before creation, made himself last, taking on all of your sins and bringing them to the cross; so that you, who were last, would be made first in the eyes of God – seeing you, not your sin.  So yes, the last will be first, and the first will be last.  You were last, but are now first because of the cross of Christ.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] Matthew 20:16, NRSV

[2] Matthew 20:17-20, NRSV

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 24) – Sunday, September 14, 2014

Readings for the day:

Genesis 50:15-21

Psalm 103:1-13

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

In December 2012, Josh Brent, an offensive linemen with the Dallas Cowboys, got into his car after a night of drinking and was involved in a one car accident.  His passenger, Jerry Brown, Jr., a teammate and Josh’s best friend, was killed in the crash.  At the time of the accident, Josh’s blood alcohol level was .018 – twice the legal limit.  He was eventually convicted of intoxicated manslaughter and served 180 days in jail and was sentenced to 10 years of probation.  In June 2014, Josh was released from jail and in early September, he was conditionally reinstated by the National Football League and given a 10 game suspension.  If all goes as planned, Josh will return to the football field a mere two years after his deadly accident.

While some people were outraged that Josh didn’t serve more time in jail and other people were surprised that the NFL would allow him to return to the field at all, Stacey Jackson, the mother of Jerry Brown, Jr., announced that she was “very happy Josh has been reinstated with the Dallas Cowboys!”  Shortly after the accident, Jackson publicly stated that she had forgiven Josh and that she hoped others, including the Dallas Cowboys would do the same.  At Josh’s sentencing, she asked the court for leniency saying, Josh is “still responsible, but you can’t go on in life holding a grudge.  We all make mistakes.”  When the news of his reinstatement was made public, she affirmed her forgiveness and her hope that Josh would be given the opportunity to rebuild his life. “My beautiful son”, she said, “is in Heaven now, and Josh has to be given a chance to live his life and do something for someone else! We all make mistakes, and we all have an entrance date and an exit day. Although I miss Jerry every day, I know he would be very happy that Josh has another chance to play football!”[1] Currently there are two NFL stars in the spotlight right now but not because of their performances on the field – Ray Rice for punching his fiancé and Adrian Peterson for how he disciplined his child.

How easy it is for you to forgive someone?  When was the last time that you said the words, “I…forgive…you”?  It is a very small phrase to say, but it is a very powerful one that can be quite challenging to actually say to each other.  Because if you say the words, “I forgive you” and you actually mean it; then that means that you can’t hold what they did against them anymore.  You actually have to move on with a slate cleaned.  But isn’t it fun to hold things over people, that way we can get even with them someday?  We like revenge because this world teaches us that we have to win at everything.  We have to keep score at everything we do.  It seems like kids’ sports begin keeping score younger and younger each year.  Whatever happened to just playing for fun?  Why does everything have to be a competition where there is a winner and a loser?  We are taught, from a very young age, that sometimes you do whatever you have to do to win and be the best.  But sometimes that hurts others and when we hurt others we should ask for forgiveness.

Now Peter thinks that he is asking a valid question here.  Peter asks how many times he is obligated to forgive someone.  The acceptable amount of times in his day would have been four times.  So Peter asks if forgiving someone seven times would be enough.  But Jesus tells this parable, there was a servant that owed 10,000 talents.  Now 10,000 was the highest number that their vocabulary would go at that time.  And a talent was the heaviest weight for monetary measure.  So 10,000 talents for these disciples would have been the most money they could ever imagine.  I don’t even know what that number would be today (probably in the trillions).  There is no way that an individual would be able to pay back a debt that is in the trillions.  So the king has pity and compassion for this servant and does the unthinkable, forgives all of that debt.  Can you even imagine what they would feel like?  For me I would think that it would be like someone completely forgiving all of my student loan debt, plus a lot more.

Then this servant who just received an unthinkable forgiveness of his entire debt turns around and seeks out a fellow servant and demands that his debt be paid in full and will not forgive his small amount of debt.  The amount of this servant’s debt was 100 denarii or about 4 months of work.  Compare 4 months of work that is not forgiven to the largest sum of money possible that is forgiven.

Remember Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive someone?  He thought that he only needed to forgive someone seven times and if this person wronged him an eighth time, then he wouldn’t have to forgive him.  But Jesus corrects Peter and says that he should forgive someone not seven times but 77 times (some translations will say 70 times 7, but the number really doesn’t matter).  77 or 70 times 7 are both large numbers.  The point is that we should never stop forgiving.  Why?  Because you are that servant who owed the king 10,000 talents, and God is the king who forgave your entire debt, all of your sins that were forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  And now just as you have been forgiven greatly, you also should forgive one another.  For the debts that are owed to you are pennies compared to the debt that you have been forgiven of.

Some would say that the mother of that NFL player that was killed in the car accident certainly did not have to forgive the driver, but as Christians we believe that she did have to forgive.  Plus she did not see how holding a grudge about this mistake the rest of her life would help the situation or bring her son back to life.  We all have made and will continue to make mistakes (because we are human), but instead of holding grudges for years and continually bringing up things of the past – let’s forgive one another and move on with life.  After all, the forgiveness that you have received from God by Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead is the greatest thing that you could have ever received.  Don’t spoil this wonderful gift!  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/blogs/FaithLens/260#sthash.weqQ1tZh.dpuf

13th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 23) – Sunday, September 7, 2014

Readings for the day:

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

In your life do you have people that annoy you?  You know, people who just get on your nerves.  You just can’t stand being around these people.  Can you think of anyone?  In any community or group of people, we more than likely won’t get along with everyone.  We’re bound to have someone that we just can’t stand.  Whether it is at work, in 4-H or whatever social organizations you are part of.  There’s probably someone in your family that fits this criteria.  And believe it or not, this also happens in the church.

Now what do you do when people annoy you, they get on your nerves or they wrong you in some way?  I think most of us are guilty of internally complaining about them.  We get upset and let it eat away at us, but we don’t do anything about it.  In small towns we are also really good about bringing our complaint to other people just to spread some gossip around town about the person.  Sometimes it’s just not easy working with others, but with over 7 billion people in the world, guess what, we have to work with others.  We have no choice.

Jesus knew that it’s not easy working with others.  That’s why he gave us some guidelines to live by.  He says, “If someone sins against you, go directly to this person and point out what happened.  And when you do this, go somewhere the two of you can be alone.”[1]  So if someone wrongs you in some way, they upset you, go directly to that person and tell them that they upset you.  If this person listens to you, they will ask for forgiveness and Jesus says that you will have regained that one.  This is how we are to live with each other, by forgiving one another and sticking with the church even when conflict and problems arise.  We shouldn’t just run out at the first sign of problems.  Leaving the church just because someone looks at you the wrong way, or we sang a hymn that you didn’t like, or something got changed, or even whatever comes out of our church’s headquarters in Chicago.  Running or internalizing something that upsets us doesn’t help anyone.  It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help the church.  And Jesus knew this.  That’s why we have the Gospel reading we do for today.  He knew that we weren’t going to agree with everyone.

But sometimes aren’t WE those people that are considered the annoying person by other people?  Sometimes we are the ones who are causing the problems and conflicts in our organization, in our families, and in our church.  It’s not always the other person.  Sometimes when we can’t find someone to blame, that’s probably because we are the ones to blame.

Now there is a difference though between our families or social organizations like the Lion’s Club, Legion, 4-H or FFA, and the church.  Let’s be clear here, the church is not a social organization.  Yes the church does similar things to a social organization.  As a church we have a common interest.  Social organization are formed because of common interests.  We work on specific projects just like social organizations do.  We serve our larger community and social organizations strive to do the same.  But the church is the church, the body of Christ.  It is not a social organization.

There is one big difference between us and social organizations and the Gospel reading today touches on that difference.  What do people do when conflict or trouble arises in a social organization?  Typically they say “forget you” and leave the organization.  People are quick to leave an organization at the first sign of trouble because they are missing something that is able to hold their organization together through troubled times…JESUS.  The church is able to overcome and ride through the troubled waters that arise in any organization because we have Jesus.  The church has survived millions of problems for nearly 2000 years.  We have Jesus and he is more important than anything else.  Jesus gives us life, gives us hope, gives us peace.  Can any of your social organizations do that?

Jesus gives us guidelines on how to live with each other, knowing that we will not always get along.  He says we are first to directly talk to the person that is causing problems.  Then if that doesn’t work, take one or two people with you to talk to that person.  If that doesn’t work, then have the church talk to that person.  And if they won’t even listen to the entire church, then it’s probably better that they leave the church.  This is how we are to live with each other, not gossiping and talking or complaining about people behind their back.  Problems, conflicts, and disagreements are bound to arise within the church.  Where two or three are gathered, there will be disagreements.  And Claire, this is the church that you have just been baptized into.  A church with broken people, who make mistakes, who argue about the dumbest things, who don’t have a problem with change except when it comes to the way things have been done at the church.  But even with all of their problems, your brothers and sisters in Christ are the greatest people you will ever know.  Because we all have one thing in common with each other, we all are in need of a savior and Jesus Christ has saved us and has promised to always be there for us.

So yes, wherever two or three are gathered there will be disagreements, but Jesus adds, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  As a church, we will have our disagreements with one another, but we know that Jesus also promises that wherever two or three brothers and sisters in Christ are gathered, there he will be also; even in the midst of conflict or problems.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] Matthew 18:15, NRSV