20th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 30) – Sunday, October 26, 2014

Readings for the day:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Psalm 1

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Mathew 22:34-46

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

Today we remember, celebrate and honor the work that Martin Luther and the other reformers did nearly 500 years ago.  As you remember, the reformation movement all started with Martin Luther on October 31st (Halloween) when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church that we was serving as their priest in Germany.  As a way of celebrating the reformation, Stephanie and I will be continuing our tradition of watching the Luther movie on Friday as we hand out candy to trick or treaters.

Luther’s motivation for posting his 95 theses was not to start a new church or denomination, but rather to make changes to the Roman Catholic Church.  Among other things, he believed that the Word of God was intended for all of God’s children to hear, read, and interpret.  He believed this because the God that we worship is not a god of the dead, but a God of the living.  And since our God is a living God, that means that God’s Word continually speaks to ALL of his children (when it was written, during Luther’s time, and even today).  God’s Word still speaks to us.

So when we have a Bible reading like the Gospel reading today, we may question and wonder what else could be said about the Greatest and second Greatest Commandments.  We hear this teaching from Jesus each and every year and many of us know this teaching by heart: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[1]  Love God, and love your neighbor.  What more could be said about these two commandments?

Well, how are you doing on following these commandments?  Are you loving God with ALL your heart, and with ALL your soul, and with ALL your mind?  No, none of us can because this is an impossible commandment to fulfill.  None of us are able to completely love God because let’s face it, there are other things in life that we like to put ahead of God.  We also probably don’t love our neighbors as much as we should, but we’re trying.  The food shelf challenge is part of that.  By bringing food in, you are giving out of your abundance to others in need; that is loving your neighbor.

But now how well do you practice the last part?  Did you know that there was a last part?  The second greatest commandment is not just about loving your neighbor; it is about loving your neighbor AS YOURSELF.  And actually, let’s take the neighbor out of it for a minute.  As a church we spend quite a bit of time talking about the neighbor and helping our neighbors.  What about you?  Are you loving yourself?  Are you loving yourself as much as you are loving your neighbor?  Or are you spending so much time caring for others that you forget about yourself?

In our world today, we have gone to one extreme or the other of loving ourselves.  On the one extreme, we have people who love themselves so much that they think that they can do anything and everything.  Take American Idol or America’s Got Talent for example.  Some of the people that audition to get on the show actually believe that they have a beautiful voice or that the talent they are showing is actually a talent.  And the only way that these people could have gotten to this point of believing that they are great is because people lied to them and told them so.  No one was honest with them and told them that they actually weren’t that good.  So instead they end up on national television where they get completely humiliated and laughed at in front of millions of viewers.  I wouldn’t call this loving your neighbor.

On the other extreme, we have people who think that they have to be so humble, thinking and caring for others, that they forget to care for and love themselves.  Instead of thinking that they can do anything and everything, these types of people continually say that they aren’t good at anything; that there is certainly someone better out there to plan the party, to play on the basketball team, to serve on church council.  So we never get to find out how good the party really could have been had John been the one who planned the party.  We also never get to find out how good the basketball team would have been had Sally been on the team this year.  And we never get to find out how the church could have benefitted from Chris’ leadership on church council.

You see, neither extreme is helpful for you or for others.  So if you think that you are great at everything, I have a message for you, “There are some things that you are not good at and you should stop doing them.”  If you think that you aren’t good at anything, I have a message for you, “There are some things that you really are good at, so start doing them.”

Instead of thinking that you are great at every little thing that you do (because no one is perfect at everything), only do the things that you are good at.  But this is going to be hard to do because everyone has trained you to think that you are great at everything.  So guess what?  We (as a congregation) need to gently tell people what they aren’t good at while also telling them what they are good at.

Instead of thinking that you aren’t good at anything (because God blessed everyone with certain gifts), pray for guidance and wisdom to find the gifts that God has given you.  Again this is going to be hard because you have trained yourself to think that you aren’t good at anything.  So guess what?  We (as a congregation) need to highlight what they are good at and tell them and encourage them in continuing to strengthen that gift.

Yes, Jesus said that we need to love God and love our neighbor, but we can only truly love our neighbor as much as we are loving ourselves.  If you are so focused on yourself, then you won’t be able to care for your neighbor at all.  If you are so focused on your neighbor, then you won’t be able to care for yourself at all.  Jesus went to and died on the cross for all, not just for you and not just for your neighbor; he died for all.  And because he died for all, follow these commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  You do this not to earn your salvation or reserve your spot in heaven by doing good works.  No, you strive to follow these two commandments because by doing so you prove your faith in God to others.  Through your actions you are showing others that through Christ’s death and resurrection you have been saved, not by works, but by faith.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV

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19th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 29) – Sunday, October 19, 2014

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 45:1-7

Psalm 96

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

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

How do people know what belongs to you?  When going to camp, I remember having to put my initials on the tags of all of my clothes; so that way by the end of the week my clothes could be returned to me if they got mixed up with someone else’s.  Some of you put your name on your cake pans so that you get YOUR pan back after the meal is all over.  Some of you farmers put your name or the name of your farm on your trucks (part of that is advertising, but it is also to take claim of what belongs to you).  And of course we all know how dogs mark their territory and take claim of what belongs to them.

Nicholas has now learned the word MINE.  So one night we had a little blanket that we wrapped David up in and Nicholas came running up to it and said MINE.  Now we did use that blanket with Nicholas as well, so he insisted that it was his.  From a very young age we learn what does and does not belong to us.

The Pharisees and the Herodians think they know exactly how the system works, and after the last couple parables with the tenants and the vineyard as well as the wedding banquet, these two groups are bound and determined to trap Jesus and finally put an end to his teaching.  The Pharisees and the Herodians certainly don’t like each other.  In fact, probably the only thing they have in common is their dislike towards Jesus.  The Pharisees are Jewish religious leaders and the Herodians are the loyal followers of King Herod who helps keep the Roman authority in and around Jerusalem.  The Jews don’t like Rome, King Herod, or his followers.

So these two groups come together to take care of the one thing they can agree on, getting rid of Jesus.  So they figure that they can trap him by talking about money; specifically paying taxes.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes?”  We can probably even come up with an answer that we’d like to hear from Jesus about having to pay taxes or not.  If Jesus would say yes, you need to pay your taxes, then he would be upsetting the Pharisees and the people.  They all disagree with this “flat-rate” tax that everyone has to pay regardless of how much money you make.  Plus this tax is imposed on the Jews by Rome; so no one likes the Roman authority.  But if Jesus would say no, you don’t have to pay your taxes, then he probably would have been arrested on the spot by the Herodians who think that King Herod and the whole Roman authority is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But now, Jesus gets out of this trap by simply asking about the coin that is required to be used in paying the tax.  He asks who the coin belongs to.  Of course the answer is Caesar, the Emperor.  So Jesus tells them to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s.  That was such a wonderful answer because neither the Herodians nor the Pharisees could get mad at what Jesus said.  Because he honored the Roman tax (satisfying the Herodians) and honored the religious understanding of giving (satisfying the Pharisees).  So their trap just backfired on themn.

Caesar required his image on every coin, so that everyone would know that those coins actually belong to him.  Therefore, through the tax that he imposes on everyone, they end up giving him back what belongs to him.  We have a lot of things that belong to us, don’t we?  And we usually desire to keep what belongs to us.  We put our initials on it, we put our name on it, or we put some other identifying marker on everything.  We want everyone to know that our clothing, our pans, our trucks, our pets, our animals belong to us and no one else.

But who then do you belong to?  Don’t you belong to someone as well?  All of your stuff belongs to you, but you belong to someone too…maybe your parents, your boss, your country.  Or maybe you’re thinking, “I’m no slave or servant, I belong to no one.”  But remember what Jesus says, “Give to Caesar (or the government) what belongs to the government, and give to God the things that are God’s.”  You aren’t anywhere in that equation.  Or are you?

Caesar chose a coin to reflect his image on it.  But God chose humans to reflect his image, his glory.  When you look around at what belongs to you, you will see that everything has come from God.  All of this is part of God’s creation, and that includes you.  You belong to God.  God put his name on you when you were baptized.  A sign of the cross was made on your forehead as God put his mark on you, claiming you as his.  So let’s go through that equation again.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God the things that are God’s.”  You belong to God, so therefore, you are to give yourself to God.  And you do this by being a hearer and a doer of God’s Word.  You come, worship, study, and hear God’s Word proclaimed and God tells you something that is anything but complicated.  God simply says, “All you really need to know is that I am your God, and you are my people.”

We belong to God, so what?  Well, God does things for us that we can’t do ourselves; nor can anyone else do for us.  God continually forgives you even when others refuse to forgive you for a little mistake you made.  God loves you unconditionally even when others refuse to truly love you.  God promises to give you eternal life even when it looks like death is all there is, that death is the end.

You put your initials on your clothes and pans, you put your name on pens and grain trucks, but before you could do any of this, God put his name on you.  God claimed you as his own.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  You belong to God!  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 28) – Sunday, October 12, 2014

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 25:1-9

Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1-9

Matthew 22:1-14

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

This coming January, Stephanie and I will have been married for 6 years.  As I have been working with couples over this past year in preparing them for marriage and planning their wedding service, I have realized just how much has changed in just 6 years.  I have been amazed at how much people are spending on their wedding days.  I think that some of them forget that it is just one day!  When Stephanie and I got married, our wedding had a total cost of around $7,000 (including her wedding dress).  Now, it is the norm (even in this area) to spend $20,000 to $30,000 on the wedding day alone.

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel is comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet, or what today we would call a reception.  Weddings and wedding receptions are a big deal in our culture today and they were a big deal in Jesus’ time as well.  During His time, wedding banquets or celebrations would last for days.  Weddings are certainly a joyous time in which people want to celebrate two people coming together as one.

So in the parable, the king sends out the invitations, inviting people to come as his guests to this wedding banquet.  There is one problem though, none of the invited guests come.  They are too busy with work or school activities or whatever excuse they could come up with.  The point, is that they make light of the kings invitation and don’t come.  They ignore the king and they tell the groom and the bride that their celebration is not that important.  And we know people who are like that don’t we?  Someone who, even though they are invited they will never come.  You may even have someone like that in your family.  Some people are just going to ignore any invitation that they receive.

So, since all of the king’s originally invited guests refused to attend, the king tells his slaves to go and invite every single person that they see and bring them to the wedding banquet.  After all, the point of a wedding reception is to celebrate and party, but it is kind of hard to do that if it is only the king, and the bride and groom present.  The king wants everyone at the wedding banquet to celebrate with.

And now, when these newly invited guests come to the wedding hall, there is one who stands out from the rest; because he is not wearing the correct attire for a celebration like this.  One could argue that this man just didn’t have the proper attire or couldn’t afford it, but more than likely the king would have provided the proper attire to every one of his guests.  So since this man still doesn’t have the proper clothing on, he is deliberately refusing to do as the host requested.  This is a slap in the face to not only the king but also the bride and groom as well.

Now throughout scripture, Jesus refers to himself as the bride-groom and Paul likes to refer to the church as the bride.  So an ancient understanding of the bride and groom in stories such as this would be that the bride and groom are really the church and Jesus.  Therefore, refusing to do as the host requested is a slap in the face to Jesus and the church.

This man was not fully prepared for the banquet; he refused to be fully prepared.  He was invited, but he probably figured that this invitation was his ticket to getting a free meal.  But he was wrong.  He took this invitation for granted.  After all, the king went to a great expense in preparing this banquet for his invited guests.  He had his oxen and fatted calf slaughtered, prepared and ready for feasting.  The least this man could do would be to show a little bit of respect and honor the wishes of the king by putting the wedding robe on.  But no, he refused.

There are times when we take our faith, the invitation to God’s banquet for granted don’t we?  Sometimes we decide that we want to do our own thing instead of doing what God wants us to do.  Other times we want to ignore Jesus or the church.  And anyway, we know that Jesus died for our sins, we have been baptized, and therefore what more do we need to do?

But this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.  Sometimes we forget that this gift of grace is only free because of the costly sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.  Grace may be freely given to us by our Heavenly Father, but God’s grace is anything but cheap.  Jesus made quite the sacrifice in going to the cross to bear the sins of the world.  And once this costly grace is received, our lives are never the same.  God’s grace changes us.  The new guests who were invited to the king’s wedding banquet were all given a wedding robe to wear, but the man that wasn’t wearing one was refusing to let God’s grace change him.  You can deny that it is happening, but the reality is that your life changed the moment a pastor poured some water over your head.  When you were claimed by God, welcomed into God’s family, and invited to God’s wedding banquet – your life changed.  Some people try to avoid it or deny it by coming to church for their hour a week, but as soon as they leave the church they go back to living their normal lives – without a changed attitude towards how they live their life, or without a change of heart for their neighbors.

Just as I tell all of the couples that I marry, being married is different than dating or being engaged.  You don’t try to change each other, but your lives will be changed.  And God’s grace continually changes our lives to live in a manner that he would prefer that we live; one that puts Him first, and everything else second instead of giving God whatever we have left over.  God’s grace changes our lives and this grace compels us to love God above anything else and to serve our neighbors.

There may be times when we are stubborn and refuse to let God change our lives because of the grace that we have been given, but you know, this man was still at the wedding banquet, he was still invited.  God doesn’t give up on us, even when we may try to give up on God.

Weddings today are expensive, but so is God’s grace.  Jesus didn’t have to go to the cross, but he did and paid greatly for it.  And because of the costly sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for us, God’s grace does change us for the better.  We can try to ignore it and act like nothing has changed, but the reality is that because Jesus died on the cross, forgiving all of your sins, your life will NEVER be the same again.  Your life has changed, because you have been freely forgiven of all of your sins.  You did not deserve it, just like the second round of guests invited to the wedding banquet – they didn’t deserve the invitation, but they received it anyway.  God freely gives out invitations and generously forgives, but beware, for your life will be changed…for the better.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 27) – Sunday, October 5, 2014

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

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

Are you an owner or are you a tenant?  Do you own your own home or do you rent?  Some of us are probably both an owner and a tenant.  You may own your own home, but you rent some farm land.  Or you own your own car, but you rent the house or apartment where you live.  But isn’t our desire to own rather than rent?  Isn’t that the American dream after all?  To own everything that we have and not be indebted to anyone?  We want to own our own home and own our own car and have some land that is ours (not rented nor owned by the bank, but ours)!

In our parable this morning, the tenants (also referred to as the wicked tenants) are not willing to give the landowner what is rightfully his – the harvest.  These wicked tenants weren’t satisfied with working for someone, they weren’t satisfied with what they had; they desired more.  When the landowner sent his own son to collect the harvest, these wicked tenants said, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”  These tenants didn’t even want part of the vineyard, they wanted ownership in the whole thing.  They wanted not only the vineyard but also the fencing around the vineyard, the winepress, and the watchtower.  They wanted everything!  They didn’t want to be tenants, they wanted to be owners.  And don’t we want to be owners too?

I lived in the twin cities for about 4 year and it is not cheap to live there.  I remember that it was always so painful to write that rent check each month; knowing full well that that money was not creating any equity for our family.  Rent in the twin cities for a 2 bedroom apartment starts at $1000 and goes up from there.  For those four years during seminary, I would have much rather been an owner than a tenant.

And now these wicked tenants not only desired to be owners rather than tenants, they wanted something that wasn’t theirs.  They not only coveted something that wasn’t theirs, they killed to get what wasn’t theirs.  And the thing with tenants is that they can always be replaced.  There are always new tenants waiting to work.

We are those tenants, called to work in God’s vineyard.  But don’t we want things that aren’t ours?  We desire vibrant youth ministry programs like the big churches have.  We want larger church membership so that we don’t have to do as much work.  We desire more people involved in our churches like what we see other churches having.  But we are called to not take what doesn’t belong to us, if we aren’t the owner then it isn’t ours.  We are called to care for God’s creation because everything in creation belongs to God.  And when our work is done, there will be more tenants that will continue the work that we have been doing.  And we can be faithful tenants rather than wicked tenants because unlike the wicked ones, we can be satisfied with the inheritance that we have been promised.  We don’t have to go around seeking someone else’s inheritance.  Something that isn’t ours.  For we know that we are promised an inheritance and that inheritance comes from God.

If our life is built on a solid cornerstone, then we don’t need to worry about seeking an inheritance that isn’t ours.  We don’t have to covet or kill or lie or steal to get something that doesn’t belong to us.  When our faith is grounded in Jesus, the cornerstone, then we can rely on the promise that we will receive an inheritance – an inheritance that isn’t ours, one that we don’t deserve, and one that will never be able to be earned…but it is freely given – eternal life.

So, because of this promise, we can continue to faithfully work in the vineyard fully knowing that nothing that we have belongs to us.  Everything that we have belongs to God.  We have no ownership in anything.  And that’s okay!  Because we have something greater than ownership of a vineyard or ownership of something in this world, we have Jesus who has promised us that we will be with God in a place where we don’t have to work, we don’t have to sweat, and we certainly don’t have to worry about our future.  For those who faithfully work in God’s vineyard, we know what our future is – life with God.  Our goal is not to see how much we can own.  Rather our goal is to spend eternity with God.  Don’t worry about collecting your inheritance – it will be giving to you.  God indeed is trustworthy enough to know fully well that our cornerstone, Jesus Christ, is a foundation we can rely on.  Jesus is your cornerstone, your sure foundation.  Amen.

© 2014 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.