18th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 26) – Sunday, September 27, 2015

Readings for the day:

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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

Do you ever stumble?  Stumbling is actually part of who we are.  We learned how to walk by stumbling over our little legs.  Or if you have had a surgery or been laid up, it takes a while to learn how to walk again and many times you probably stumbled during that process.  Or we can even stumble by not paying attention to where we are going, such as looking at something other than the path in front of us, or texting and walking at the same time.  There are many things that cause us to stumble, so what causes you to stumble?

As with walking there are many things that cause us to stumble but not quite fall, there are also things and people in our lives that cause us to stumble in our faith.  We let the busyness of our lives cause us to stumble and temporarily look away from our faith.  When our priorities are unbalanced and don’t have God at the center, then whatever causes this imbalance causes us to stumble in our faith.  So what causes you to stumble in your faith?  What stumbling blocks are in your way of being a faithful disciple of Jesus?

In the Gospel reading today from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we put a stumbling block in front of someone else, then it would be better for us if a large, heavy stone were hung around our necks and we be thrown into the sea.  Luckily none of us here this morning are stumbling blocks for others.  We never get in the way of someone else growing in their faith, do we?  We never let our preferences and ways of doing things get in the way of someone else’s faith in God.  If you are true to yourself and aren’t going to lie to deceive yourself, then you know fully well that at times you indeed are a stumbling block for others.  You are a sinning stumbling block that is very comfortable with the way things are.  Maintaining the current state of the church is far easier than taking risks because the future is so uncertain.  Exploring new ideas to reach out to our neighbors who don’t go to church and may not even know God, is hard, scary and costly work.  It is a lot easier and safer to be a stumbling block that gets in the way of the church actively doing the ministry that God has called us to.

So preventing someone else from growing in their faith by not bringing our children or grandchildren to church, or by telling someone that they aren’t welcome in the church or not even noticing someone new at church, we become a stumbling block for those individuals.  And you know what the Gospel lesson told us today – the outlook for us stumbling blocks doesn’t look good.  It would be better for you if a large, heavy stone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Now that seems rather harsh, but when you really think of it, shouldn’t you deserve a harsh punishment for being a stumbling block and getting in the way of someone else growing in their faith.  That is a pretty harsh offense – getting in the way of someone’s relationship with God.  You are a stumbling block when you continue to enable bad behavior in yourself or someone else.  You are a stumbling block when you make excuses for people somehow justifying that it’s okay for their bad behavior to continue.  You are a stumbling block when you squander ideas within the church all because it might mean a little more work, money or time for you.  So aren’t you a stumbling block and don’t you get in the way of God’s mission?

And now the punishment gets even harsher, if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.  If we all received this punishment, we wouldn’t be able to do much for God because we all would have no hands, no feet, and no eyes.  And even though we all greatly deserve this punishment for being stumbling blocks, we haven’t received this punishment and we won’t receive this punishment – because Jesus received the punishment for us, taking our place.  The one who knew no sin, took on all of our sins.  His hands weren’t cut off, but they were pierced with nails.  His feet weren’t cut off, but they were pierced with a nail.  His eyes were torn out, but they were bloody from the crown of thorns that was on his head, just above his eyes.

You see, Jesus took all of your sins and the punishments that come with those sins, and he took them to the cross.  So you don’t have to be a stumbling block to help people.  You don’t have to be a stumbling block to prove that you have a certain level of control in this church.  You don’t have to be a stumbling block to cover up your own faults.  Because we all have faults and those faults were taken to the cross – and they were left there at the cross.

Stumbling blocks will continue to arise in our lives because we live in this sin infested, broken world, but you don’t have to be one of those stumbling blocks because you have a cornerstone in your life.  Jesus is your cornerstone.  Cornerstones are used to build up, not break down or stumble upon.  With Jesus as the cornerstone in your life and in the life of this church, we can live trusting that Jesus has our back.  When we are fully committed to God’s kingdom, we don’t need to put up stumbling blocks for others because our focus is on furthering God’s kingdom, not satisfying our own desires and wishes.

Therefore, lay aside those stumbling blocks in your life and in the life of this congregation, and cling to your cornerstone – the one who took away your sins, washing you clean of your imperfections and giving you life with God for all of eternity.  Praise God for giving us life in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Readings for the day:

Mark 4:1-20

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

So in this parable, the sower (God) scatters seeds of His Word, hoping that these seeds take root in us and grow.  We are the soil.  But in this parable, the sower is not a very good farmer.  Who would scatter seed on the sidewalk or where there are a lot of weeds and thistles or rocks?  Is God really a terrible, incompetent farmer?  He must be a pretty carefree farmer to just take seed and scatter it wherever he so well pleases.  God does actually freely and fairly disperses the seeds broadly over the field, knowing that not all of the seeds will produce fruit, but you won’t know until you try.

Now as I said before, we are the soil. And as the skit showed us, we often have hindrances that get in the way of those seeds of faith to grow properly.  Some of us are like the soil by the roadside, and when the seed of God’s Word falls by the roadside birds come in a snatch the seed.  We hear God’s Word, but we don’t really listen to it.  We hear it and by the time we are in the car or bus driving home from church, we have already forgotten God’s Word.

Or some of us are like the soil with lots of rocks, and it’s hard to grab hold of anything.  We hear God’s Word and we have joy from hearing it.  It is exciting to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time, but because of all of the other things in our lives (we’ll call them rocks), we are not able to get a good root system established.  So when trouble arises in our lives, we fall away from God because we have too many rocks in our lives.

And then some of us are like the soil with thorns and weeds growing.  We hear God’s Word, but the things of this world take higher priority.  The desire for wealth and other things in this world get in the way of God’s Word.  Like a thorny weed, these distractions choke the Word of God out of us and we yield nothing for God.

Finally, Jesus says that the good soil is those who hear God’s Word, accept it, and bear fruit.  So which soil do you think you are?  You’re right, you’re the good soil.  But don’t get too comfortable because any good farmer will tell you that come spring, that good soil will have lots of rocks in it that need to be picked out.  And any good gardener will tell you that the garden starts with good soil in the spring, with fresh seeds in the ground.  But it doesn’t take long for those thorny weeds to appear and begin choking the seeds that are trying to grow.

You indeed are good soil but, do you hang out by the roadside, just barely in the field, not fully committed to God?  Do you allow rocks to get in the way of you establishing a strong faith based root system?  Do  you allow thorns and weeds to take over your life and choke your faith and God’s Word out of you?

Good soil takes work.  With God help, seeds by the roadside can flourish, with maybe the help of a sprinkler system that Pastor Eric can install (when he’s not preaching he’s installing sprinkler systems).  With God’s help the rocky ground can turn into tillable soil.  And with God’s help the thorns can be plucked up.

Remember, God is the sower, the farmer, and just like the farmer in our skit who was constantly checking his iPad for current and future weather conditions and tracking the progress of the seeds that were planted – God–is constantly working on those seeds that were planted in you when you were baptized.  He does all of this to ensure that these seeds of faith produce fruit for His kingdom.

So if you are one who easily forgets God’s Word by the time you are in the parking lot of the church, even though you are forgetful, God never forgets about you.  If you have lots of rocks in your life right now that make it difficult for you to establish a good root system with God, know that God is constantly working the field to pick the rocks out, so that those seeds of faith may flourish.  And if you are like many of us who desire more wealth or other things that aren’t ours, know that God is a really good gardener and He is constantly walking through the garden and picking the weeds and thorns that get in the way of you having a strong, healthy relationship with Him.

Since we could not enter God’s kingdom because our sins had shut the door to us, He came out to us by becoming flesh and living among us.  God came to till and take care of the earth and to sow the word of compassion in all of us.  You indeed are good soil with surface issues like pavement, rocks and thorns!  But through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, He has promised to take all of your faults, all of your desires, and all of your sins away.  And when all of those earthly obstacles are taken away from you, all that will remain is you, good fertile soil, able to grow in your relationship with God, producing 30, 60 and 100 fold fruit for God.  But not because of who you are, but because of whose you are.  You are good soil because you belong to God.  He is your farmer.  And with God as your farmer, you will be cared for, nourished, and loved.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 24) – Sunday, September 13, 2015

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

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

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  We are right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel and up until now, Jesus has been calling and telling people to follow him – turning away from the political and spiritual leaders of their time.  Now in today’s text, Jesus finally describes what following him really means, which is self-denial and cross-bearing.  You can’t be a follower of Jesus unless you give your whole life to following him and that includes bearing your own cross.

As I was thinking about these two things this week, self-denial and cross-bearing, I realized that we are really bad at one and we think that we are really good at the other.  The one that we are really bad at is self-denial.  In order to do this well, we must put aside our own interests and needs for God.  Don’t get me wrong, many of us are pretty good at doing this for others, but not for God.  Many times we do so much for our family members and our friends – bending over backwards to help in whatever way that we can – that we want something for ourselves as well, but then at the end of the day there isn’t anything left for God.  We have used everything up on our family, friends and ourselves.  Yes, we are good at self-denial or self-sacrifice for the sake of others, but not always very good about self-sacrifice for God.

Now the other attribute that Jesus says that we need in order to be good followers of him is cross-bearing.  Many times within Christianity, bearing one’s own cross is defined as being willingly inclined to endure suffering that comes as result of following Christ.  Basically, the thinking is that suffering is a consequence of being a follower of Jesus and if you suffer long enough in this life, then your reward will be greater in heaven.  So if you come to church on a Sunday morning instead of doing something you want to do, then you are suffering for Christ and therefore your reward will be greater in heaven.  Or if you serve on church council even though you really don’t want to, then you are suffering for Christ and your reward will be greater in heaven.

The problem with this thinking is that this is what is called the martyrdom complex.  It is something in which you actually desire to suffer to make others feel sorry for you.  Oh look at me, feel sorry for me because I don’t have a lot of money and I’m from a small, dying community that has no hope.  This has been a problem dating all the way back to the early centuries of the church, too.  Back then, people were actually physically hurting themselves and even seeking out persecutions and desiring to be martyrs because they saw that as the most fulfilling cross-bearing that one could do.  People figured that cross-bearing meant suffering and misery.

And you know what, we do the exact same thing!  We figure if we are miserable and tell people how bad we have it, that they will feel sorry for us and after all, we are called to be cross-bearing people.  So we might as well be miserable for the sake of the Gospel.  “I might as well continue serving on council because no one else will.” OR “I can’t hang out tonight because my parents are making me go to confirmation.”

The problem that we have is that too often we view our involvement with the church and being a follower of Jesus as an obligation – something that is forced upon us against our will.  It is the cross that we bear and so we suffer through it; no matter how miserable we are.

Although, true faith brings joy, not sorrow.  And ministry is supposed to be enjoyable, not miserable.  Instead of viewing your life as a follower of Jesus as a martyr’s life, try seeing it as a wonderful gift.  Instead of viewing our church’s ministry as a miserable, burden to bear (that evangelism and outreach is a burden to bear), try seeing the joy and excitement that comes with being a member of God’s church and God’s family.  All too often we get the “woe is us” going on, where we say that we can’t do anything because we are small, or because we don’t have a lot of money, or because we don’t have many kids.

There is a church in our synod that used to say the exact same things that we do.  But about 4 years ago this small congregation teamed up with the other church in this town of about 500-600 people and decided that they needed to do something different with their Sunday Schools – both had minimal numbers and struggled to get teachers.  So they decided to instead of sitting around and complaining about the cross that they had to bear (which was to educate and foster faith formation in their congregations), they actually did something about it.  The two churches were skeptical but yet partially supportive.  They teamed up anyway and began doing Sunday School and confirmation classes on Wednesday evenings together.  They begin by feeding the kids and then have a worship service, followed by faith formation time.  These churches are now in their fourth year of doing this and they are consistently getting over 100 kids showing up every week, plus volunteers for the food, worship, and education time.

This is just one of many examples that I could share about how we perceive the cross that Jesus tells us we are to bear.  We certainly have our share of moments when we are like Peter and rebuke our Lord for not being the Messiah that we want, but he is being the Messiah that we need.  Jesus calls us to set our minds and our actions on divine things rather than on human things.  Instead of doing the easy thing and putting faith in ourselves and faith in this broken world, Jesus calls us to put our faith in him, the one who went through great suffering, was rejected, killed and after three days rose again to overcome it all.

Our self-denial and cross-bearing we do with great joy and thanksgiving, not sorrow and misery.  It is an honor to bear our cross as a follower of Jesus Christ.  We joyfully and faithfully try our hardest at following Jesus, including self-denial and cross-bearing, because what else can we do?  As a child of God, whose sins have been wiped clean by the cross of Christ and through the waters of baptism, what more can you do?  Nothing except to lose your life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel.  Because then your life will be saved and the Son of Man will be proud of you when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.