What Are You Looking For?

Readings for the day (Christ the King – Sunday, November 24, 2019):

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

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

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  The final Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar.  And for this final Sunday of the church year, our Gospel reading takes us all the way back to Good Friday with Jesus hanging on the cross with a criminal hanging on either side of Him.  Now this might seem strange.  It is the final week of the church year.  It is Christ the King Sunday.  We should be celebrating Jesus as our King.  It is also the week of Thanksgiving.  Christmas music will be playing on the radio soon, if it hasn’t already.  And here today, not in the Spring during Holy week, we have the crucifixion text.

When you heard this text, what was your initial reaction?  What feelings came to mind when you heard this Gospel read?  Maybe feelings that made you sad or sorrowful or uncomfortable.  This text probably didn’t make you feel all that joyful or happy or excited.  And probably for good reason too.  We should not feel excited about someone getting crucified on a cross; especially someone who was innocent.  And this person was hanging on the cross because of our sins; not His own.

The crucifixion was an awful event that happened.  But the crucifixion of Jesus is actually a wonderful thing for us, because Jesus took our place on that cross.  We are supposed to be there, but Jesus traded places with us.  Now your feelings about the Gospel reading are probably a little more positive, right?  With any given circumstance, our attitude is all dependent on how we look at that circumstance.  If we look for the bad in something, we will certainly find it.  If we look for the good in something, then we’ll find that instead.

This year has been a rough one for many – loved ones have died unexpectedly.  Farming has been a challengingly year.  The weather has not cooperated.  For some, it feels like you just can’t catch a break.  While others are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And if we look for the bad and negative aspects of our present circumstance, we will find them and we will focus in on them.

The writer of Psalm 46 is experiencing something rather fierce.  Mountains are shaking and trembling.  The waters are raging.  Nations are in an uproar.  The earth is melting away.  The picture the Psalmist paints is not a pretty one.  There’s a lot of terrible, negative things going on in the Psalmist’s world.  And we have similar things that happen in our lives too.  We don’t live by mountains, but our lives can still get shaken up when a piece of equipment breaks down or that unexpected call is received early in the morning.  We don’t have to look very hard to see nations in an uproar with each other, let alone the turmoil these next twelve months will be for our country – it’s called the next presidential election.  There are always negative aspects to almost everything.  And we can choose to focus on the negative, but usually all that does is makes us more negative and crabbier.  If we look for the bad in the something, we will find it.

Stephanie loves to do craft projects and her new thing right now is making T-shirts.  One shirt she is working on says, “In a world full of grinches, be a Griswold.”  Because if we look and focus on the negative parts of why this year has been such a tough year, all we are doing is depriving ourselves of joy.  Which isn’t that what the Grinch does in that beloved Dr. Seuss story?  He chooses to look for the negative in the Who’s Christmas traditions and all it does is deprives himself of joy.  His action does nothing to deprive the people of their joy.

Now I don’t want to make it sound like this year wasn’t as bad as people think it was.  Please don’t take this as your circumstance is not valid.  It is.  Everyone’s situation is different.  But if you do find yourself having a rather challenging time lately, ask yourself if there is any good that has happened.

Remember the writer of Psalm 46 and all of the terrible things that were happening in the Psalmist’s life?  Before listing all of these terrible things, the Psalmist beings with, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”[1]  And then the writer concludes this short Psalm by reminding us that even if we can’t find any good in our current circumstance, we should listen to God who says, “Be still and know that I am God.”[2]  Basically, God says, “Shut up, I’m God and I’ll take care of this.”

And God does send help.  It just may not be what we are expecting.  The Jews were waiting and expecting a Messiah, someone who would be the King of all kings, someone who would resolve all of the issues and concerns that Psalm 46 raises.  So when a thirty year old, son of a carpenter shows up and says that He is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, people blow Him off.  But when that doesn’t work, they do what they must to silence Jesus because there is no way that this young, son of a carpenter, could be the Messiah, let alone a king.  So they silence Jesus by hanging Him on a tree.

This cross, in all of its gore, is a terrible symbol.  Crucifixion was how the Roman’s carried out capital punishment.  A slow, painful, torturous death that was done publicly to set an example – “Shape up, or this will happen to you.”  And yet in the church we make the cross the center of our worship space, we place a cross at the top of our steeples, many people wear crosses around their neck.  Why?  Because if you look for the bad in something, you will find the bad – like a symbol of torture and death.  But if you look for the good in something, you will find the good – like that same symbol also means life, forgiveness, the promise of eternal life with God.  As Jesus says to the thief hanging next to Him on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

            As Stephanie’s shirt says, “In a world full of grinches, be a Griswold.”  Our world needs more Clark Griswolds – someone who despite having family conflicts, personalities clashing, getting locked in a cold attic all day, working hard on something (like a Christmas light display) only for it not to work properly, having a S.W.A.T. team interrupt your “perfect” family gathering, and yet Clark can have such great joy.  If we look for the bad in something, we will find the bad.  But if we look for the good in something (even if the situation is terrible), we can still find the good.

            The crucifixion was an awful event and today, on this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus has taken all of our sins to the cross.  And through His crucifixion, Jesus has transformed the cross, a symbol of torture, and made it His throne.  For Jesus is the King of all kings.  Jesus is the promised Messiah.  He is our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the risen Christ.  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Psalm 46:1, NRSV

[2] Psalm 46:10, NRSV

Not Just a Number

Readings for the day (Lectionary 32 – Sunday, November 10, 2019):

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

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

            The summer before I started my seminary education, I got a job working in a prefab shop building houses.  Actually, I was just building the interior walls that were eventually shipped to the building site where the house would be constructed.  The walls were then set in place like a 3D jigsaw puzzle.  For over 9 hours a day, all I did was stood at one end of a table that was 16 feet long and assembled walls with a nail gun.

            Now when I got this job I had already graduated from college with a degree in construction management.  My qualifications exceeded that of my supervisor.  But there I was, working in a tin shed with no air conditioning during the heat of the summer.  And all we would hear from that supervisor was that we weren’t working hard enough.  Over the course of our 9 hour shift, as a whole crew, we assembled and packaged all of the walls for 5 homes.  Every shift.  Every day.  But this supervisor desired still more production.

            I felt like I was just a number; a machine that could work even faster at the touch of a button.  Maybe you’ve had a similar experience where you’ve felt dehumanized.  Whether it was with an employer or within a medical health system.  Or maybe it was an educational institution.  Often the bigger the system or institution, the easier and more frequently people, employees, customers become dehumanized to a number.

            In our text today, Jesus is nearing the end of His earthly life.  He has already had His triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  And ever since He has entered the city, Jesus has been dealing with questions and traps at every turn.  In today’s text, it is the Sadducees’ turn to quiz Jesus and seek to trap Him in some sort of blasphemy or other heresy so that they get rid of Him.

            The Sadducees had primary authority over the Temple.  They were the chief priests full of wealth and coming from privileged families.  They only recognized and followed the originally written five books of the Bible as fully authoritative.  As none of these books mention anything about a resurrection, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Knowing that Jesus believes and teaches about a promised resurrection to come, the Sadducees tailor their question and trap around marriage and resurrection.

            For us today, their question and assumptions appear ridiculous.  They wonder if one woman married seven brothers, who would she be married to in the resurrection.  In asking this question, they show that they have no regard for this woman and instead view her as some commodity and they treat marriage as a business transaction.  These Sadducees are so focused on following God’s Law, as defined by Moses, and only by Moses, that they end up dehumanizing this woman.  Plus, if this is how they think of women and marriage, could we assume that in their strong desire to keep their traditions and their own faith practices that they are in the business of dehumanizing all people?  We don’t like it when we are reduced to being a number within a large system.  And what the Sadducees did with this woman is exactly that; she became a number.  Not a human being.  Not an individual with her own thoughts and feelings.  Not a child of God.  But a number.

            We do the same thing though.  When we get so focused on our own traditions and ways of doing things and forget that we are working with real people, we’ve dehumanized the people involved and shown what’s most important to us is following our own laws.  Don’t believe me?  Have you ever criticized a generation different from yours for not doing something the way you did it?  If you fall into the category of the greatest generation or the boomers, have you ever questioned the gen-xers and millennials for not having the same work ethic or parenting discipline as you had?  Or if you’re a gen-xer or millennial, have you ever questioned the greatest generation and the boomers for not wanting change and sticking to the way they’ve always done things?

You see, when we group people together and categorize them by saying, “What is with those millennials?”  Or, “What’s up with these boomers?”  We start dehumanizing and forgetting that behind these labels, behind these categorizes are real people with real thoughts and real feelings.  When we get so focused on our traditions, when our ways of doing things are so important, when our statistics and performance is what drives us, then we forget that we are working with real people?

The Sadducees were concerned primarily with the institution of marriage, as it was defined by Moses.  Jesus’ response to their trap shows us what is most important.  Jesus shows that God’s Law is important.  Following traditions can be helpful.  Marriage has its place in society.  But above all of these, what is most important, is the people.  Jesus humanizes God’s children.  The Sadducees believed that the temple was the most important.  Jesus proves that what is most important is the people.  Because in the resurrection, that temple will be no more.  God’s Law, their traditions and ways of doing things will be no more.  But the people, God’s children, will live forever.

            Our ministry is not about the numbers, it’s about the people.  It is always about the people.  In their efforts to trap Jesus, the Sadducees exposed their inability to imagine that God might have something different in mind for what the Kingdom of God looks like.  We don’t know what the future holds for us.  We don’t know what God has planned for us.  But let’s not let our traditions and our ways of doing things limit God nor limit our ability to imagine what God has planned for us and our church.

            One thing about the future we do know, we know that we in fact will die someday.  There is no way out of that one.  But because of Jesus’ death on the cross and being raised to new life, we can live and die knowing the promise that God will similarly raise us from death to new life.  And having this promise of eternal life with God, we are free to not worry about trivial questions like that of the Sadducees.  We are free to love God and love our neighbors, treating them for what they truly are; not as just another number, but as a real person.  A real person who has thoughts of their own.  A real person who has feelings and needs that need filling.  A real person who has been claimed by God through the waters of Holy Baptism and chosen by God to be one of His children.  As Jesus says, we are “children of the resurrection.”  We ALL are children of the resurrection; not just a number.  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

Unexpected Grace

Readings for the day (Lectionary 31 – Sunday, November 3, 2019):

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.

Have you ever heard or said, “You make a better door than a window?”  Growing up, I remember hearing that (and even saying it) when someone was blocking the view of the TV.  Naturally we like to see what is going on.  This is why at shows and sporting events, the seats closest to the action usually cost the most money.  Maybe that’s why everyone at church sits in the back.  You’re trying to save money on a cheaper seat.  Jokes on you.  They’re all the same price.

Many of you probably remember the story of Zacchaeus from Sunday School.  You may even remember the little song that goes with the story.  As the children’s song iterates, Zacchaeus is short – a “wee little man.”  And according to the song, Zacchaeus climbs that sycamore tree because he is short.  And Luke does tell us that Zacchaeus is short, but then why didn’t Zacchaeus just move to the front of the crowd?  Like when you’re taking a group photo, people will say, “Short people in front.”  But Zacchaeus chooses to climb a tree instead.  Probably because he was a tax collector – specifically, a chief tax collector who was responsible for other tax collectors working under him.  The general public didn’t like Zacchaeus’ kind because tax collectors were corrupt individuals who usually collected more money from people than they rightfully should.  So, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to avoid the people who dislike him and yet he was still able to see Jesus.

Zacchaeus climbs the tree because there was something blocking him from seeing Jesus.  And it wasn’t just because he was short.  His sin.  His questionable ethics.  His corrupt taxation of other people.  His greed for more money prevented him from being able to see Jesus.  If we are not able to see Jesus clearly, then something or someone is blocking our sight.  And if our sight is blocked from seeing Jesus, then changes need to be made.  Then we need to move something out of the way or climb a tree.  What is preventing you from seeing Jesus today?  What tree do you need to climb in order to see Jesus clearly?

For Zacchaeus, he needed to change his ways.  Climbing that tree was the first step in changing his ways.  As Zacchaeus was sitting in the tree, Jesus gets nearer and stops when He sees Zacchaeus.  Who wouldn’t stop to look at a man sitting in a tree?  People usually aren’t high up in a tree.  Now imagine the crowds’ reaction to what Jesus does. Upon seeing Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he should hurry down from that tree because He is going to stay at his house today.  The crowd is shocked.  They can’t believe what they are witnessing.  The Apostle Luke tells us that “all who saw it began to grumble.”[1]  The people grumbled because there Jesus goes again, off to eat with sinners.  Why would someone with a social status like Jesus, a teacher of the Law, lower Himself to eating with a corrupt, greedy, dishonest tax collector?  The people grumbled because they were jealous.  They wanted Jesus to come to their homes and even if He didn’t go to their home, Jesus certainly should not be entering the house of some sinner.

Now I know that Luke says that everyone grumbled, but if you were someone in the crowd, would you grumble and think, “How dare Jesus associate with a sinner like Zacchaeus?”  Or would you praise Jesus and think, “Yes, Jesus is going to Zacchaeus’ house.  Maybe Jesus will get through to him and set that short tax collector straight.”  I think the crowd was either upset that someone of such high class as Jesus would enter the house of some sinner, or the crowd was hoping that Jesus would give Zacchaeus a good talkin’ to about honest, ethical practices for taxing people.  Maybe with the respect and authority that Jesus has, Zacchaeus would listen to Jesus and change his ways.

I saw in the news this past week about a Minneapolis non-profit that is focusing their efforts on helping people with burnt out headlights, taillights, and turn signals on their vehicles.  Typically, a burnt-out headlight or taillight fine will run $100 or more after court fees.  Now when we see a person pulled over, we may act like the crowd does with Jesus and Zacchaeus, by hoping that the person that got pulled over is getting a good talking to.  And maybe a ticket.  At least I hope that when I have someone pass me going way over the speed limit.  But what this non-profit is doing, is changing the whole mood of what was a tense encounter.  When a police officer makes a traffic stop because of a burnt-out headlight or taillight, instead of giving the driver a ticket, they are given a voucher to get it fixed…for free![2]

Having Jesus come over to your house as the chief tax collector had probably a similar feeling to that of seeing the flashing lights in your rearview mirror.  Zacchaeus was worried that he was going to have the book thrown at him.  And the crowd was probably hoping that the book would be thrown at him.  Yet, instead of the book being thrown at Zacchaeus, Jesus gives him grace.

God’s grace shows up in places we least expect it.  When everyone, including Zacchaeus, was thinking that Jesus, the teacher of God’s Law, was going to meet with Zacchaeus and throw the book at him, Jesus offers Zacchaeus grace and forgiveness instead.  When people get pulled over for having a burnt-out taillight, they’re probably thinking that they are going to have the book thrown at them.  Instead they are giving a voucher to get the light fixed for free.  That’s grace!  When you’re shown mercy and forgiveness, even when you certainly don’t deserve it.  That’s grace!

Think of a time in your life when you experienced grace.  A time when you certainly deserved a certain level of punishment for a wrong that you did and yet the people on the other end showed you grace by forgiving you.  That is what God’s grace feels like.  We deserve that punishment.  We deserve the book thrown at us, but Jesus trades places with us.  Your sin is a door that blocks your view of seeing Jesus.  Through His sacrifice on the cross for you, Jesus has broken down that door and instead offers you grace and invites you to dine with Him at His heavenly banquet with all the saints and to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 19:7, NRSV

[2] https://www.fox9.com/news/lights-on-minnesota-new-program-gives-drivers-with-taillights-out-a-voucher-not-a-ticket?fbclid=IwAR0C_zycjaTIH6mruG296LdpKobyZOIw6hwAsGgQ8gYUCvP9fzU5fbEsD6Q

Saints and Sinners

Readings for the day (Lectionary 30 – Sunday, October 27, 2019):

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Psalm 84:1-7

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

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

            “Stop pretending that we need help.”  “There is no void to fill.”  “We simply don’t believe in a god.”  I know I shouldn’t read the comments at the end of news articles, but when I come across an article titled, Minnesota Institute Explores What Is Replacing Religion for Young Adults[1], I end up clicking on the headline.  And the comments section of this article, and many other articles like this one, shows just how big the religious divide is getting.  Those inside the church are confused as to where all the young people have gone off to.  We are left wondering why people are not including faith and spiritual practices like public worship, prayer, and devotions into their daily routine in life.  And those outside the church just want to be left alone.  They don’t believe that they are missing out on anything.  They don’t believe that they need help, nor do they believe they have any void in their lives that needs filling.

            Recently I went to a clinic for a checkup and apparently they changed their forms since the last time I was there.  So I had to answer several questions including family medical history and social history.  Most of it was annoying to have to answer again since I’ve been going to this clinic for at least ten years now.  But one of the questions startled me a little.  The question was, “How often do you attend a religious worship service?”…in a year!  This was a multiple choice question with only three options to choose from.  The first option: Never.  The second option: 1 to 3 times per year.  The third option: 4 or more times per year.  The definition of “regular worship attendance” has certainly changed; especially if people are defining “regular” as 4 or more times per year.

            In the parable that Jesus tells today, it is so easy to judge the Pharisee and praise the tax collector.  We want to judge the Pharisee for being a self-absorbed, arrogant jerk.  Just like we want to judge all of those millennials who think that they don’t need God in their lives and that if they do come, “regular” worship attendance should be calculated more often than only 4 times per year.

            Although, we must be careful in how we interpret this parable.  For if we do judge the Pharisee for being a self-righteous hypocrite who needs more humility in his life, we may just end up congratulating ourselves and patting ourselves on the back for being humble, for frequently coming to church, for reading our Bibles, for regularly praying to God, for not being self-righteous, and certainly for not being a hypocrite…like this Pharisee is.  And if we do indeed do just that – Watch Out!  For when we congratulate ourselves for not being self-righteous, or for not being a hypocrite, we may thank God that we are not like this Pharisee in the parable that Jesus tells.  And yet, what did we just do?  The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”[2]

            So if we judge those who don’t come to church very often, or who don’t put God at the center of everything that they do, and in so doing we believe that we are better off than they are; then we are no better than the Pharisee in this parable that Jesus is condemning.  Have you ever looked at someone and thought, “Well I guess I don’t have it too bad.  That persons got it a lot worse than I do.”  Have you ever thought that?  I have.  I think we all have.  And in today’s parable Jesus is saying, “Don’t do that.  Don’t think that you have it any better off than someone else.”

            Now the Pharisee is not wrong in anything that he says.  He probably did fast twice a week and give a tenth of his income.  The problem is not in what he was doing, the problem was that he was trusting in himself and what he has done; not in God and what God has done.  His prayer is all about him and giving himself all of the credit for his many blessings and accomplishments.

            The tax collector on the other hand knows that he has faults.  He knows that he has made mistakes.  He knows that he is not as good as the Pharisees.  The tax collectors at that time were hired by the Roman Empire to collect money from people within their local community.  These tax collectors were under a contract to collect so much money for Rome.  So if these tax collectors were required to collect $1,000 a month.  They could honestly go to ten people and say that their tax was each $100.  But Rome did not monitor, nor did they care, how much these tax collectors actually collected from people.  As long as the tax collector sent in their $1,000 a month, Rome didn’t care if the tax collectors were actually telling people that their tax was say $300 each.  Any amount above the contracted amount was the tax collectors to keep.  These guys were corrupt and everyone knew it.  This is why the Pharisee was go grateful that he wasn’t like this tax collector that was also praying in the temple when he was.

            Knowing his own faults and failings, the tax collector says a simple prayer asking for God to look mercifully upon him.  He knows he’s unworthy.  He knows he’s not righteous.  The only thing he knows he can do is plead for God’s mercy.  And that’s all we can do.  Yes, we act like this Pharisee.  And in doing so, all we can do is pray like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”[3]  Because of our brokenness, because of our failings, because of our faults we are unworthy, we are not righteous, and we cannot save ourselves. 

            Maybe you feel like this tax collector who stands on the outer edge of the temple, feeling unworthy to get any closer.  Or maybe you are like this Pharisee who stands on the inside wondering what is with all of those sinners standing on the outer edge.  Today, Jesus teaches us that we are both sinner and saint.  We are worthless, but through Jesus’ sacrifice we are justified and we are worthy.

What’s happening in the church and the world around us certainly is a mystery.  And it appears to me that we spend a lot of time drawing lines.  We draw lots of lines.  We draw lines on if you live in the city or a rural area.  We draw lines if you are a Republican or a Democrat.  We draw lines based on the level of education you have.  We draw lines based on how much, or how little money you have.  We even draw lines if you are a Chevy or Ford person, a red tractor kind of person or maybe green in your color of choice.  The dividing lines are endless, and as we see in this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, no matter where we end up drawing that line in the sand, we will notice that God is always standing on the other side of that line. 

  But when we realize that our home, our church, our community, our country is less about either or and more about both and (as in, we are both sinner and saint) then we all will realize that there is nothing that we have and there is nothing that we can do but to solely rely on God’s grace and forgiveness, His love and mercy.  And when we can get ourselves to that point, that is when we will experience gratitude and God’s blessings in their truest form.

When we realize that what really matters in life is being saved and redeemed from our sins, then we will see that the true purpose in life and the reason for being involved in a church is not about being a good person.  We come to church not because we magically become good people.  No we come to church to be reminded that no matter how many times you mess up and act like the Pharisee, and no matter how broken you feel you are like the Tax Collector, Jesus has taken you, a poor, broken sinner, and traded places with you.  You are a sinner.  But through Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the cross, you are also a saint.  Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross – all so that you may be exalted.  And for that, we give our thanks and praise to God.  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-institute-explores-what-is-replacing-religion-for-young-adults/563398432/?fbclid=IwAR0aVd2GKbuOYhMZcn9nq6nwFBxvmXicOQ-DI5guNE2Bi0sdsSZh4m63rBI&refresh=true

[2] Luke 18:11-12, NRSV

[3] Luke 18:13, NRSV