Climbing to See Jesus

Readings for the day (Lectionary 31 – Sunday, October 30, 2016):

Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32: 1-7

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

 

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

 

As of today, we are one year and a day away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.  499 years ago tomorrow is when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther took out a sheet of paper, a nail and a hammer, and proceeded to nail his 95 theses to the outer door of the castle church in Wittenburg Germany.  At that time, the exterior doors of churches were really bulletin boards for the church and the community as a whole.  The church was usually the center point of town.  Luther’s 95 theses, or statements, named 95 issues that he wanted to see resolved within the Roman Catholic Church.  He never intended to break away from the Catholic Church, start a new denomination, or set the framework for countless other denominations to form.  All Luther wanted to do was to see some changes made to the church that he was serving.

Of course, the Catholic Church did not see it that way at all.  They took Luther’s suggestions as threats; his comments as attacks.  Sound anything like today?  As a whole, wouldn’t you say that our society is very on edge?  For every statement that is made, a reaction is made and offense is taken.  It is getting so bad that I bet if I said that the sky is blue, I’m sure someone, somewhere would take that statement as offensive.  We have rather thin skins today.

The story of Zacchaeus is no different.  Jesus takes note of Zacchaeus, picks him out of the crowd, actually a tree, and all who saw it began to grumble and complained loudly.  They thought that is was offensive that this respected teacher of God’s Law would voluntarily be the guest of a sinner.  How dare he go and eat with a tax collector?  Do you know how corrupt this tax collector is?  The crowd saw Zacchaeus as someone who because of his occupation and social status, doesn’t deserve to have anything nice; especially important guests over at his house.  People still think like that today.  Does it really matter what a person’s occupation or social status is?  If they choose to use their money to get something nice isn’t that their choice?

Now since Zacchaeus was short, he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  There was too large of a crowd for him to be able to see over them.  Have you ever had someone taller than you blocking your sight?  A sycamore tree is a really good climbing tree with lots of low branches.  So Zacchaeus climbs the tree because there was something blocking him from seeing Jesus.  For Martin Luther, the issues that he saw with the Catholic Church were preventing him from seeing Jesus.  He couldn’t see how this God that we believe in could possibly be filled with grace and actually love his children when everyone has to remain in a waiting period after they die called purgatory.  And their time in purgatory is dependent on how many sins they committed in this life.  But if you bought an indulgence (aka donated more money to the church), you could decrease the length of time you or a loved one will spend in purgatory.  For Luther, he couldn’t see God’s grace in any of that.  These and other issues prevented him from seeing Jesus.  What is preventing you from seeing Jesus?  Maybe it’s a person, an object, an activity, a habit that is blocking you and prevents you from seeing Jesus clearly.

For as long as I can remember, Lutherans and Catholics have been in tension with one another.  We don’t want our worship service to look too much like the Catholics because we’re Lutheran after all, not Catholic.  Some churches even change the wording of the creed to read “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.”  That way they aren’t saying, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  When I was little I remember even saying, “one, holy, Lutheran, and apostolic church,” because you know, I wasn’t catholic.  Except the word catholic means universal, as in the whole universal church; meaning all of those Christian churches that believe in Jesus and want to see Jesus.  Catholic with a capital C refers to the Roman Catholic Church.

So for Luther, the Roman Catholic tree that he was perched in prevented him from seeing the gracious out pouring of God’s love and grace.  For some people the ELCA tree prevents them from seeing God’s grace.  And that’s okay, because there is one thing in common between the Catholic tree and the Lutheran tree, they both help people see Jesus.  And as a huge testament to that truth, tomorrow, on the 499th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church will be holding a joint commemoration service in Lund, Sweden where the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation is at.  And as a way of showing the healing our church bodies have been and will continue to do, Pope Francis himself will be attending this joint service tomorrow (beginning at 8:30 am our time).

The crowd began to grumble and upset that Jesus was picking Zacchaeus over any of them.  Often we compare ourselves to each other and grumble when things don’t happen just the way we want or expect them to be.  So we complain and grumble about this and that.  We compare ourselves to what the Catholic Church is or isn’t doing and we grumble about it.  We think that our tree is better, it’s taller, it’s brighter, it’s fuller.  Except that’s not what matters.  Zacchaeus didn’t climb that tree to be better.  He climbed it to see Jesus.  That’s my responsibility as your pastor – to show you Jesus.  That’s our responsibility as the body of Christ – to help people see Jesus.  That’s also the responsibility that our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ have been called to do.  That’s why nearly 500 years later, Lutherans and Catholics will be having a joint commemoration service.

At the end of the day, all that truly matters is that Jesus called out to Zacchaeus to come down from that tree and dine with the savior of the world.  Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists alike all believe that Jesus is the Son of Man, God made flesh, dying for the sins of the world, and rising to new life for all of eternity.  Our sin tells us that other denominations are like this chief tax collector named Zacchaeus.  Someone we should avoid and hate.  But Jesus shows us that we all are God’s children, called to show Jesus to the world.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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Unjust Justice

Readings for the day (Lectionary 29 – Sunday, October 16, 2016):

Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 121

2 Timothy 3:14–4:5

Luke 18:1-8

 

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

 

As some of you may have heard, Waverly was broken into this past week.  In the darkness of the night, someone (or some people) came into the church and stole some of our electronics and other items – a TV, the video camera, some tools and quilting supplies, and cleaning products.  On Wednesday when I found out about the robbery, I felt defiled; I felt hurt.  All of the things that we have in our churches are not put here with the ultimate purpose for people to take whatever they want or need.  It is to support and enhance the ministry, education and outreach that we do as a church, all for the sake of proclaiming and sharing the Gospel message.

And yet, it doesn’t feel good that these items were stolen from us.  Remember the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal.”  Luther says that this commandment means that “We are to fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of making a living.”  I want to be upset, angry, and most of all, don’t you want justice?  And that is exactly what the woman in this parable wanted.  She wanted justice against her opponents.  She was a widow, and in that culture a widow had very low social status.  So she went to this judge; maybe she knew that he was an unjust judge, maybe she didn’t.  But regardless, she went seeking justice, seeking resolution to a problem.  And the judge ignores her; he wants nothing to do with her.  He doesn’t fear or respect God, meaning he doesn’t follow the Torah (God’s Law), nor does he have any respect for anyone.  All this judge cares about is himself.  Which is exactly what someone who steals from someone else is thinking about – only themselves.  Because if you actually cared about other people you wouldn’t take things that don’t belong to you.

Yet even though this judge is unjust and doesn’t have a care for anyone but himself, he grants the woman’s request for justice.  He does so because she was so persistent and irritating that in order to save his own reputation and quiet her down, he feels that it is necessary to do the right thing.

Then Jesus says to his disciples, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day or night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”  Now God’s justice doesn’t look the same as the kind of justice we are accustomed to seeing in this world.  Justice from our perspective would be that this criminal would see some jail time and hopefully Waverly would get their stuff back.  That’s justice.  That’s fair.  God’s justice is different though.

Wednesday morning is when I found out that things were stolen out of the church.  Then that night, I was teaching the children at Trinity about the story of Joseph.  You remember the story?  Jacob, the one in our first reading that wrestled with God and successfully persisted until daybreak.  And remember how Jacob had 12 sons, one of which was Joseph – the favorite.  So I told the children how Joseph’s brothers were jealous of what he had and how their father favored Joseph over his other siblings.  So they intended to do great harm to their brother.  And to make an extremely long story short, Joseph ends up in Egypt managing the food supply during the seven year famine.  Decades later, Joseph’s brothers hear that there is food in Egypt.  So they travel to find food and they run into their long lost brother (who they lost on purpose).  I asked the children, what do you think Joseph did when he saw his brothers again?  Remember, these brothers that tried to kill him and sold him into slavery.  I expected answers like: angry, mad, upset.  But none of those answers came up.  The first answer that was said, was, “Gave them a hug.”  Gave them a hug.  We can learn a lot from children.  They don’t hold grudges, or continually resent someone; they love them, they care for them, they forgive them.

Wednesday night, I learned from our children about what forgiveness looks like.  This is also what God’s justice looks like.  His justice is not one of holding grudges or continuing to resent someone because of doing something wrong.  Our God is an unjust judge, at least according to the world’s standards, to our standards.  Because our God willingly forgives and loves us unconditionally just like how our children show love and forgiveness.

Jesus then finishes the parable by saying, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  When Jesus comes, will he find forgiveness and love?  Or will he find grudges, resentment, and bantering tweets between people on Twitter?

I witnessed one other special moment in the midst of this awful situation.  The police were contacted in order to get a police report on file for insurance purposes and I was reminded how Paul tells the Christians in Rome that, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And Joseph tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”  At the conclusion of the police officer’s investigation, the ladies in the basement who were working on quilts asked if he needed any blankets or quilts for his car.  The officer responded that he typically does keep a blanket or two in his trunk just in case of an accident or fire in order to keep the victims warm when the weather is cold.  So the ladies gave him a couple handmade quilts.  Never mind that there was about $1,000 worth of property that was stolen from the church the night before.  You may have intended to do harm, but God intended it for good.

That’s what God’s justice looks like.  The woman that kept bothering the unjust judge, wasn’t seeking justice.  That word actually is justified.  She was wanted to be justified or seeking justification.  And where do we as Christians find justification?  Where are we made right in God’s sight?  No other place, but at the cross.  God’s justice looks different for us because our God is a different kind of judge.  In order for you to be justified and to find peace and justice in your life, the only way to accomplish this was for Jesus to die on the cross for you.  You may get frustrated with all of the injustice in the world and just long for things to be fair, but which is more important: justice in this world that is tainted with sin, or justice when the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the quick and the dead?  Our God certainly is an unjust judge, granting justice of forgiveness and love to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Faith is a Gift

Readings for the day (Lectionary 27 – Sunday, October 2, 2016):

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Psalm 37:1-9

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

 

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

 

In 2009, a movie called “Angels and Demons” was released, starring Tom Hanks.  This movie is based on a book written by Dan Brown; the same one who wrote the Da Vinci Code.  The premise of the story is that there is a group in Rome that has threatened the Vatican with killing their priests, except they have left clues behind.  So Robert Langdon, a symbologist, played by Tom Hanks, is called in to give his interpretation of the clues.  Langdon is a scientist who doesn’t practice any sort of religion.  At one point in the movie, a priest asks him, “Do you believe in God?”  Langdon responds, “I’m an academic.  My mind tells me I will never understand God.”  The priest asks, “And your heart?”  Langdon replies, “Tells me I’m not meant to.  Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”

“Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”  Surprisingly, that’s some pretty good theology coming from Hollywood!  Faith, a gift.  Something that can’t be earned, can’t be bought, can’t be traded – only received.  And received is exactly how we all came to this faith of believing and trusting in God alone.  If you think back to when you first remember believing that God existed, I’m going to guess that for most of you, that belief came from the influence of a parent or grandparent; maybe an aunt or uncle.  For many of us, this is exactly how we have received our faith in God; from our parents, who likewise received their faith from their parents.  And this is how the church has continued to be in existence for nearly 2,000 years, because people have been passing the faith on to the next generation.

That’s even noticeable all the way back to Paul’s letter to Timothy, where Paul reminds Timothy of where his faith came from.  His faith, Paul says, began with his grandmother Lois, and she passed it on to his mother Eunice, and then she passed it on to him.

Of course that is the ideal scenario: the older generations passing on the faith to the younger generations (grandparents to parents to children).  Just like the ideal scenario in life is that one gets married, lives together, and then has children.  But we don’t need to look far to realize that this life is anything but perfect.  Rarely does life follow an ideal scenario.  Parents don’t always do a good job of passing on the faith to their children.  Babies don’t always come when we want them to.  Because of this sinful world, things come up that mess with our ideal scenario.  Sin also messes up God’s ideal scenario for us.

The story of Noah and the flood is a perfect example of that.  God had an idea on how His creation was going to look, but the sinfulness of humanity changed that, which led God to flood the world and start over.  In life, we don’t have an undo button like we do on our computers.  So that means we have had to learn to adapt and change to what comes our way.  As the seasons change, we have to adapt.  We already are preparing ourselves for changing to winter.  As the features on our vehicles and machinery change, we have to learn and adapt.  As the faith practices of our community change, we as a church have to learn and adapt.

I’ve had to adapt.  With many now in our communities, both children and adults, who have not been raised in the faith, I have had to adapt in how I teach confirmation.  For some students, their first confirmation class is their first real exposure to Christianity.  Each year we continue to have students that enter confirmation without knowing the Lord’s Prayer, or what the Apostles’ Creed is, or how to look up a verse in the Bible.

So if we are going to continue passing on the faith, we need to be willing to adapt.  I met someone this past week who recently moved into one of our communities.  This individual I believe is unmarried with a couple kids and has a few piercings and some colored hair.  This individual doesn’t look like most of us – are you ready for that?  Are you ready for something other than the “ideal scenario”?  Because that’s what is waiting for us.  In our community, we have people who have fallen away from the church because of various disagreements with the church.  There are also people who have never been to church, except maybe for a wedding or funeral.  Are you ready to learn and adapt?

When His disciples ask for Jesus to “increase their faith,” or to “add to their faith,” His response is that faith is something that can’t be quantified.  It’s not like a bank account where you can deposit or withdraw a certain amount of faith.  Faith is not about how much you have or don’t have.  It’s about in whom you have faith.  So we cannot say that those who go to church more often or spend more time giving of their time to the church means that they have more faith than someone who has never been to church or who has fallen away from the church.

Faith is a gift.  And you either have it or you don’t.  In the movie, Robert Langdon said that faith is a gift that he has yet to receive.  But now, faith is a gift that is received at baptism.  So all of those who are baptized have the same amount of faith.  Those that faithfully come to church every week have the same amount of faith as those who haven’t been to church in years.  Those who go to Sunday School and Bible studies week after week have the same amount of faith as those who haven’t been raised in the church.  No matter if you have a piercing, tattoo, or colored hair – looks do not affect how much faith someone has.  Jesus says that, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  A small amount of faith is all that is needed.

We all are called to take this mustard seed sized faith and pass that on to the next generations.  So maybe that is leading or participating in a Bible study.  Maybe that is teaching Sunday School or being a confirmation mentor.  Maybe that is reaching out to your neighbors that you know who are not active followers of Jesus.  Remember, all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed, and you could command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Faith is a gift that you all have received at your baptism.  You already have everything that you need to be a faithful follower of Christ.  Or should I say, a faithful servant (or slave) of Christ.  Jesus asks the question, that if you had a servant who was working in your field and just came in the house, what would you say?  Would you tell your servant to sit down at the table?  Or to make you something first?  This gift that you have received is that Jesus invites you to come and rest; come sit at the table and dine with your Lord.  Our God loves us so much that He doesn’t treat us like slaves or servants, but as His own children.

No matter who walks through our doors or what their history with or without the church has been, God sees us all as His children; called to pass on the faith to the best of our abilities and adapt as we go.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.