Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 26, 2020

CLICK HERE for a worship video for Sunday, July 26

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 26, 2020

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

What do you think of when you think of God’s power? What metaphor might you use to describe it? We might think of the power of a thunderstorm rattling our windows. We might think of the enormity of a mountain. We might think of the vastness of the universe, as I was this past week as I stood at West Beach and caught a glimpse of the NEOWISE comet, some 64 million miles off in the distance.

You wouldn’t be wrong to think of something big or majestic when thinking of the power of God. The scriptures speak of God’s power this way often enough, particularly in the psalms. But today we hear the Lord Jesus describe God’s power in a very different way.

The first thing we need to understand is that when Jesus refers to the “kingdom of heaven,” he is referring to God’s power, God’s kingship, God’s authority, God’s rule. When we hear the word “heaven” we are quick to think of the afterlife. God’s power extends there too, to be sure, but this isn’t specifically what Jesus is talking about in our reading for today. Jesus is talking about God’s power, and Jesus describes this power with some very unusual metaphors, with some surprising parables. With at least the first three parables, Jesus points to the things that are small, like seeds and yeast. He points to things that are hidden, like a treasure buried in a field.

I’d like to focus in on just one of these metaphors today. We’re on a streak with the seeds and planting parables, so let’s stay with that theme and look at the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sowed in his field. Though it is among the smallest of all seeds, it grows into the greatest of all shrubs. It is so big and bushy that birds come and make nests in its branches.

Now, I know that at the end of the reading, when Jesus asks his disciples if they have understood all this, they all said “yes” – but I have to wonder! I have to wonder because not only are mustard seeds small and insignificant, but the mustard bush is nothing special either! People had to have been scratching their heads about this! Mustard was not a valued crop in Jesus’ time. Mustard wasn’t something they squirted on hot dogs at baseball games. Mustard had a mild medicinal purpose, so it was used in the ancient world, but more often than not it was a reviled plant because it was so invasive. Once it started growing, it spread everywhere! If you saw your neighbor planting mustard in his yard, you would not be happy about it. It would be like seeing your neighbor planting dandelions or scotch broom right next to your nice green lawn! Nothing in the metaphor makes sense. Nothing conveys power as we usually understand it. Mustard seeds are small, and those invasive mustard bushes are reviled.

But maybe that’s the point.

What Jesus is saying here is that God’s power will not look like much in the eyes of the world. God’s reign will look small and insignificant. There will be times when it is buried under the soil, out of sight completely! And then, even when it does start to grow like gangbusters, many people will curse it.

Is this not a good description of the life and ministry of Jesus himself? God’s power came into the world as a clump of cells in Mary’s womb, as a seed planted by the Holy Spirit, as a treasure hidden in a field. God’s power grew in him exponentially as he went about his ministry: proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven had come near, announcing the forgiveness of sins, healing the sick, raising the dead. But both Jesus and his scraggly band of disciples were reviled. Jesus ended up being spit upon and cursed like an invasive weed. In the end, his ministry did indeed lead him to a tree. It led to the tree of the cross. But this very tree became a home to many. It became a place to build a nest, a place to find respite, and shelter, and comfort.

It is a surprising parable. It isn’t the first thing we would think of to describe God’s power, but this is really what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus teaches us. This is what God’s kingship, God’s reign, God’s power looks like. It looks like Christ Jesus himself.

Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” In the Small Catechism Martin Luther explains this part of the prayer by saying that God’s kingdom comes whether we pray for it or not, but that when we pray this prayer, we are praying that it would come to us. We are praying that God’s kingship and authority would come into our hearts, into our lives. We’re praying that God’s power would take hold of us and rule over us.

And God answers this prayer by giving us his Son. God answers this prayer by giving us Jesus.

Jesus comes to us in ways that seem small and insignificant: through the feeble and sometimes stumbling words of a preacher, through the bedside prayers of a parent, through the wispy-thin pages of a Bible, through water poured over the head of a squirming infant, through a tiny wafer and a thimbleful of wine or juice.

Jesus begins to grow the kingdom of heaven in us. It is hidden at times, and is scraggly and unkempt even when it starts to blossom in us, but it takes root and grows.

Christ and his Church continue to be reviled by many. His cross continues to be despised and scorned by much of the world, but for us its beams have become a shelter and a home.

God’s power is indeed reflected in the power of a storm, the enormity of the mountains, and the vastness of space. But in his goodness God has revealed the truest expression of his power in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In him, the kingdom of heaven has come – to us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

WORSHIP SCHEDULE AND BULLETINS FOR AUGUST 2

WORSHIP SCHEDULE AND BULLETINS FOR AUGUST 2

Here is our schedule for this Sunday:

WORSHIP WITH HOLY COMMMUNION IN OUR SANCTUARY – 8am 

(Reservations and a briefing on protocols required to attend. Please call 360-679-1561 if you would like to come to this service.)

ONLINE SERVICE OF WORD & PRAYER – Posted on Facebook and YouTube by 7am on Sunday morning

DOWNLOAD BULLETIN FOR THE ONLINE SERVICE HERE: OnlineWorshipBulletin2Aug20

DRIVE-IN WORSHIP WITH HOLY COMMUNION – 10:30am

DOWNLOAD BULLETIN FOR THE DRIVE-IN SERVICE HERE: DriveInWorshipBulletin2Aug20

MORE INFORMATION FOR OUR DRIVE-IN SERVICES:

As you arrive, you will receive a bulletin and presealed communion elements. These items will be handled with utmost care, and distributed by volunteers with masks and gloves. If you are uncomfortable with that level of contact, you are welcome to print your own bulletin (available above) at home or view it on an electronic device and refrain from Holy Communion.

Because of the relaxed guidelines, particularly for outdoor services, know that now you also may enter the church building to use the restroom. You may also have your window rolled down during the service. Whenever you are out of your vehicle, you must wear a mask and maintain 6′ of social distancing.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 19, 2020

CLICK HERE for a worship video for Sunday, July 19

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 19, 2020

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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

We here at OHLC had some professional landscaping done in our church parking lot islands recently and it looks fantastic. However, there is one stretch outside of the fellowship hall that didn’t get done before COVID shut everything down. That strip was all torn up because of some other work we had done, and before long the dirt started filling in with all kinds of green things shooting up. They looked like weeds to me. I was just about ready to grab a bucket and some weeding tools and yank it all out. Thankfully a couple of our members mentioned to me that those weren’t actually weeds that were growing in there. Well, some were of course – but many were volunteer flowers and new growth from what had been planted there before. They all looked like weeds at first, but if you look now you see a beautiful garden full of poppies and snapdragons and daisies. If I had followed my instincts, if I had gone by my basically non-existent plant identification skills, it all would have been torn out!

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between weeds and the plants you want to grow. We’re back in the soil this morning with another agricultural parable from Jesus, and this is the dilemma Jesus describes. The weed mentioned by Jesus in this parable is a specific kind of weed. It is darnel wheat, or false wheat. This weed was particularly troublesome to many farmers in Jesus’ part of the world because in its early stages it is virtually indistinguishable from real wheat. Not only is it troublesome because it is hard to distinguish from the real wheat, but beneath the soil its roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to pull out. If you were to try to weed out this false wheat, you’d pull out the real wheat along with it.

This image of a field with both wheat and weeds growing together alongside each other is put to us in this parable as an image which describes the world we live in. It describes the age we live in, the age between Christ’s first coming and his final coming. This field with both wheat and weeds is a starkly accurate description of our world. On the one hand, it is a beautiful place, filled with wonder and delight. Love happens. Reconciliation happens. Generosity happens. On the other hand, the world is full of weeds. There is hatred. There is corruption. There is violence.

This field of wheat and weeds growing together is a good description of the church too. The same sacred institution which has safeguarded the precious words of the gospel has also at times been the source of intense disappointment and pain for some people. Even at the congregational level, this same community of faith which so often envelopes us in love and mercy and comfort can also be the source of our deepest wounds.

This field of wheat and weeds living side-by-side is a good description of families. Family members can be the source of our greatest blessings, and also our greatest hurts.

To take things a step further, we ourselves as individuals resemble this field of wheat and weeds growing alongside one another. Both wheat and weeds, good grain and false wheat, grow out of our hearts.

When we encounter the weeds of this world, our instinct is to grab a bucket and some weeding tools. Our tendency is to want to pull out those weeds as much as possible. And in some cases, this is exactly what we should do! God works through government and law enforcement to create a measure of order in this world, to protect people from harm, to limit the damage the weeds might do. God gave instructions to the church in Matthew 18 on how to deal with problematic weeds that might crop up. There are cases when certain pastors or members need to be dealt with – perhaps even removed from a congregation. There are lines that need to be drawn theologically. Families need to be weeded in certain tragic situations such as when children are endangered. In those situations God works through protective agencies to weed out abusive or neglectful parents and plant kids in a different field where they can safely grow. God calls us as individuals to weed out our own wicked ways through self-examination and repentance. Sometimes weeding is warranted! Sometimes it is necessary!

But sometimes our weeding takes on a life of its own. Sometimes our weeding becomes counterproductive. Sometimes in our righteous attempt to pull weeds, we end up damaging the wheat.

We see this in the violent zealotry of the world around us. We see it reflected in the Orwellian “cancel culture” of our time, when people are pulled out of the garden of public discourse for holding views that are deemed by the fascist mob to be incorrect.

We see it in the conflicts of the church, where righteous attempts at establishing a pure community of faith have led to things like the inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or the innumerable conflicts between and within denominations and congregations. In an overzealous attempt to weed out heresies, much wheat ends up being destroyed in the process.

We see it in families when an attempt at weeding out a problem leads to a divorce. Sometimes this is unavoidable, of course, but as that weed is pulled, people soon find that those entangled roots pull on everyone in the family, tearing up the whole field.

We see it in ourselves when we become obsessed with weeding out every imperfection from our lives. By all means we are to strive to curb our destructive, sinful behaviors, but as Martin Luther himself discovered in an Augustinian monastery, an overzealous perfectionism can only lead us to two places: pride or despair. Usually it is the latter. Neither are good.

This parable, then, is a warning to us. It is Jesus’ way of telling us to back off obsessive weeding! It is Jesus’ way of describing how the world will be for us as we live in the age between his first coming and his final coming. “There are going to be weeds,” Jesus says. “They have been planted there by the evil one. But you are to leave those weeds to me.”

But this isn’t just a parable of warning, it is also a parable of hope! You see, any field plagued by darnel wheat would be considered doomed in the ancient world. A farmer wouldn’t know until it was too late, and then there would be no way to harvest it. It would be a total loss.

Sometimes we think of the world in the same way – that it is beyond hope. Sometimes we think the church is too overgrown with weeds to grow anything good. Sometimes we think our families are too weedy to be worth much. Sometimes we think we ourselves have far too much thistle and pigweed rooted in our hearts to be worthy of God’s love.

But the punchline of the parable is that the Son of Man brings in a harvest! In a field where everything looks hopeless, where there is false wheat tangled up with the good wheat, there is a harvest! Jesus, the Son of Man, sends in his angels to gather the grain into his barn!

We live in a hard time, in an in-between time, where the weeds and the wheat grow right alongside one another, often entangled in a complicated mess. But we are invited by our Lord Jesus today to trust that the future is ultimately in his hands.

We are invited to live in hope, knowing that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. We are invited to live in the confidence that this very Son will do the weeding and bring in the harvest.

We are invited to live in the confidence that the church, even in the midst of all the weeds, will endure – for our Lord Jesus has promised that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

We are invited to have faith that through Jesus Christ, we have been declared to be good, harvestable wheat. We are invited to trust that through his saving work our sin has already been incinerated, and that he is growing something beautiful in us even now. We are invited to live in the joy and peace of knowing that by his grace he will one day gather us into his barn forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

WORSHIP SCHEDULE AND BULLETINS FOR JULY 26

WORSHIP SCHEDULE AND BULLETINS FOR JULY 26

Here is our schedule for this Sunday:

WORSHIP WITH HOLY COMMMUNION IN OUR SANCTUARY – 8am 

(Reservations and a briefing on protocols required to attend. Please call 360-679-1561 if you would like to come to this service.)

ONLINE SERVICE OF WORD & PRAYER – Posted on Facebook and YouTube by 7am on Sunday morning

DOWNLOAD BULLETIN FOR THE ONLINE SERVICE HERE: OnlineWorshipBulletin26July20

DRIVE-IN WORSHIP WITH HOLY COMMUNION – 10:30am

DOWNLOAD BULLETIN FOR THE DRIVE-IN SERVICE HERE: DriveInWorshipBulletin26July20

MORE INFORMATION FOR OUR DRIVE-IN SERVICES:

As you arrive, you will receive a bulletin and presealed communion elements. These items will be handled with utmost care, and distributed by volunteers with masks and gloves. If you are uncomfortable with that level of contact, you are welcome to print your own bulletin (available above) at home or view it on an electronic device and refrain from Holy Communion.

Because of the relaxed guidelines, particularly for outdoor services, know that now you also may enter the church building to use the restroom. You may also have your window rolled down during the service. Whenever you are out of your vehicle, you must wear a mask and maintain 6′ of social distancing.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020

CLICK HERE for a worship video for Sunday, July 12

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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

In hard times, Americans turn some dirt and plant a garden. It happened with the victory gardens of the World Wars. It happened with the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s, during a time of deep recession and inflation and malaise in American life. It is happening again today in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seeds and soil and gardening tools have been flying off the shelves. YouTube videos offering gardening advice have been getting a lot of visits.

There is something therapeutic about getting your hands in the dirt. There is something calming about being grounded in the earth. And of course, there’s nothing better, nothing more rewarding, than the fresh produce that springs up. I’ve already been enjoying the lettuce my wife has been growing, and we’ve got snap peas and tomatoes and rhubarb and mint coming along nicely as well.

As wonderful as that all is, there is nothing more therapeutic, nothing more calming than God’s Word. There is nothing more grounding than being rooted in God’s Word. There is nothing more delightful or more nourishing than the harvest that comes from God’s Word being planted in us.

Today we hear one of Jesus’ parables wherein he offers what appears on the surface to be gardening advice. He speaks of a sower who goes out to sow seeds. He speaks of common problems with getting those seeds to sprout: There is the hard soil, the path, where the seed falls only to be eaten up by birds. There is rocky ground that prevents those seeds from taking root. There are thorns that choke those seeds out. And then there is the good soil. There is the rich, receptive, dark earth. There is that good soil that is not hardened or rocky or covered in thorns. The good soil brings forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus says. In other words, “Listen up, this is important!”

Of course, Jesus isn’t doling out gardening advice here. It’s not bad advice for gardeners, such as it is, but this is more than that. This is a parable. Usually Jesus just lets those parables hang there for us to scratch our heads over and figure out, but here is a rare occasion when Jesus tells us EXACTLY what this parable means! Jesus is describing different scenarios which made it difficult for God’s Word to be planted.

Jesus tells us that the seed that falls on the path and is eaten by birds represents the Word being heard but not understood, and so the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart. How we understand the Word is so very important! There are those who see the Bible as little more than a rule book to follow, and when they discover that they can’t possibly keep all the rules, they fall away in frustration. There are others who see the Bible as an oracle, as a book that predicts the future with secret codes, and when those schemes don’t come to pass, they fall away with disappointment. There are those who see the Bible as little more than a collection of ancient documents to pick apart and discard at will, such that they never hear the voice of the Living God speaking through them. But that isn’t what the Bible is. The Bible is a lot of things, but it is best understood, Martin Luther said, as the manger that holds Christ. We go to it to see him! We go to it look upon our savior! If we don’t understand the Bible in this way, the evil one can snatch the gospel right out of our hearts.

Jesus tells us that the rocky ground represents those who receive the Word with joy initially, but they fall away when trouble or persecution arises because they aren’t rooted, because there is no depth to their faith. We see this happen with consumer Christianity, where people rejoice in the Word when it meets their needs and when it is fun and entertaining, but they fade away when it becomes challenging or difficult. We see this happen as cultural Christianity fades and those who were regular and even enthusiastic churchgoers when it was the popular thing to do wither away as it becomes increasingly countercultural to follow Jesus. Without deep roots in the Word, without a depth to their faith, they wither away.

Jesus tells us that the thorny ground represents the cares of the world and the lure of wealth, which choke out the Word that was planted so that it yields nothing. We all know how busyness and distractions and keeping up with the Joneses and endless scrolling on our devices can choke out the Word in our lives. We let less important things grow up around us until God’s Word is obscured by all the weeds that we let fester.

And then there is the good soil. The good soil isn’t hardened, it is freshly turned and receptive. The good soil isn’t rocky and thin, it has roots and depth. The good soil isn’t covered in thorns, it is weeded so that there is space for the Word to grow in us. This good soil bears fruit a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus says. “Listen up, this is important!”

Anyone who has spent any time gardening knows that you can’t make a seed sprout. You can’t make the sun shine or the rain fall. You can’t control the process of photosynthesis. You can help create the conditions in which a seed can sprout, but there is so much that is beyond your control, that is up to forces beyond you and your efforts. The same is true with the planting of God’s Word. It is the Spirit that creates faith when and where it will.

But Jesus challenges us this morning to roll up our sleeves and get our hands in the dirt to help create the conditions in which his Word can thrive in us. He invites us to be receptive rather than hardened, so that the evil one won’t snatch away what God is trying to plant in our hearts. He challenges us to be rooted, to go deep, to grasp God’s Word and hang on for dear life when the hard times come. He calls us to weed out the distractions to give his Word the space it needs to grow in our lives.

We have a rough row to hoe these days as church life has become so much more complicated in these days of pandemic, but Jesus calls us to continue to tend to this garden so that he might continue to plant his Word in the good soil of our hearts. This garden is more therapeutic, more calming, more grounding and nourishing than any garden we could ever plant. It is a victory garden like no other! As his Word takes root in us, by his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, it bears good fruit indeed.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church