Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 24, 2021

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Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – October 24, 2021

Mark 10:46-52

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

Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, sat on the roadside, listening to the people pass. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was busier than usual. It was what we here on Whidbey Island might call tourist season. There was a great influx of travelers making their way from Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling this very road. Jesus was just hours away from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. He was just hours away from people shouting, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Jesus was just hours away from the events that would lead to his betrayal, his suffering, his death on the cross, and his resurrection on the third day – which he had predicted to his disciples several times now. All of this was now just hours away from happening.

Bartimaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was one of those traveling the road. We don’t know if he heard Jesus’ voice and recognized it somehow, or if he heard chatter in the crowd that Jesus was making his way down the road.  I had a member in my first church in Montana who was blind. His name was Terry. I remember seeing him at the grocery store shortly after Amy and I arrived in Montana. I said hi to him, and he replied right back, “Oh, hi Pastor Jeff!” I was surprised he knew it was me, as we had only met once or twice before at that point. As if sensing my surprise, he quickly added, “When you are blind you get very good at recognizing voices.” So perhaps it was with this extra keen sense of hearing that Bartimaeus knew that Jesus was near.

Not only that, but Bartimaeus also knew who Jesus was. He called him Son of David, showing that he knew Jesus was the promised Messiah. He knew Jesus was the long-awaited ancestor of David who had come to save. And so just hours before anyone began shouting their hosannas, Bartimaeus shouted out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When people sternly told him to be quiet, he cried out even more, saying again even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

These are hard words to say. It is hard to ask for help. It is hard to ask for mercy. To ask for help is to admit weakness. To ask for mercy is to confess that your own strength or standing isn’t enough.

I remember going to a gathering hosted by the chaplain’s office at NAS Whidbey where they briefed local clergy on all the resources available to Navy personnel and their families. There is help for struggling marriages, and help for alcohol and drug problems, and help for financial management, and help for mental health struggles. The problem the chaplain’s office saw was that a lot of the people who need this help couldn’t or wouldn’t bring themselves to ask for it. All the pastors nodded their heads, because we see the same problem in the church all the time! People don’t like to admit that they need help. I think maybe it might help a little bit to be part of a liturgical church, where we begin our worship with the Kyrie Eleison. Most Sundays we sing very the same words we hear Bartimaeus cry out today: “Lord, have mercy.” I sing it, because I need it! You sing it, because you need it too! We need help, and the Kyrie helps us ask for it week after week. But even with this refrain Sunday after Sunday, we still struggle to ask for help.

Well, not Bartimaeus. He cried out his Kyrie Eleison and it stopped Jesus in his tracks. Jesus stood still when he heard him. He sent his disciples to bring Bartimaeus to him. The disciples said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you!” What a beautiful thing to say to this blind beggar! What wonderful words to hear! They were so wonderful that Bartimaeus threw of his cloak and sprang up!

We might think of Bartimaeus throwing aside his cloak as just a minor detail in the story, but I think it is more than that. That cloak was likely this blind beggar’s only possession. Beggars in that time used their cloaks as a way to catch the coins that passersby would fling their direction, kind of like how a street performer might use a guitar case. When Bartimaeus wasn’t using it as his offering basket, that cloak was the only thing that kept him warm at night. This cloak was important to him! But these words from Jesus’ disciples were enough for him to cast that cloak aside. He trusted their words and he had faith in Christ, faith enough to let go of the only thing he possessed.

I am a huge Peanuts fan (the cartoon by Charles Schultz, not the ones in the shell that you eat at baseball games – though I am fond of those too). Many of you know the character of Linus in Peanuts. As someone who has struggled with low-grade anxiety all my life, I have always loved Linus. Linus clearly has anxiety issues too, which are evident in his ever-present security blanket. Linus’ attachment to that blanket is an ongoing plot point in many of the cartoon strips as Lucy and Snoopy try to separate him from it. Linus clings to that blanket in every cell, every scene – every scene, except for one. In the TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” as Linus takes center stage and recites the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke, he at last lets go of the blanket. In fact, it is right as he says, “Fear not,” that he drops it. This is Linus’, and maybe Charles Schultz’s, way of telling us that the coming of Jesus means we can let go of all we cling to for security in this life. We can let go of our fears, our anxieties, in order to take hold of the peace and wholeness and new life that Christ brings.

I believe this is exactly what is happening with Bartimaeus. He set aside his cloak, his sole possession, his security blanket, because he had been called by Jesus, and he trusted that Jesus would give him what he needed. He trusted that Jesus would help, that he would have mercy on him. And Jesus did just that. Jesus restored Bartimaeus’ sight.

But there is more happening here too. Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” The Greek root word for “well” here is sozo, which is about more than sight. It is about more than physical health. It is the same word that is translated elsewhere as “salvation.” Bartimaeus could not only see again, he had experienced salvation!

Jesus continued down the road to Jerusalem, now with Bartimaeus following him on the way. And it was in Jerusalem that Jesus would make us well too – in the biggest, grandest, truest sense possible. It was in Jerusalem, where Jesus was betrayed and suffered and died and rose, so that we too could be saved, so that we could be healed, restored, so that we too could experience salvation.

Bartimaeus not only had his sight restored, he helps us to see something important about Jesus. He helps us to see that we don’t need to be afraid to ask Jesus for help, for mercy. Bartimaeus helps us to see that we can take heart, for Jesus has called us too. Bartimaeus helps us to see that we can let go of those things we’re clinging to, we can let go of our fears, and instead boldly cling to Christ. Bartimaeus helps us to see that faith in Jesus, simply letting go and trusting in him, makes us well too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2021

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Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 10, 2021

Mark 10:17-31

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

The man who ran up to Jesus in our gospel reading had it all. He was rich. In Matthew’s version of this story we also learn that he was a ruler, so he had power. He had status. Matthew also tells us he was young, so it is probably safe to say he still had his looks and his health as well.

But, as so often happens still today, that superficial stuff didn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t really have it all, did he? Something was missing in his life. Something was missing, and he went to Jesus to find it. In fact, he ran to Jesus! This was urgent! He knelt before Jesus, showing both his vulnerability and his reverence for Christ. And then came the question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He didn’t really have it all, did he? He lacked a relationship with God. He had something nagging at him that said that there was more to life than all the outward blessings he had. Those things weren’t providing him with peace and contentment and hope. They weren’t providing him with true joy, the kind of joy that can only come from an intimate relationship with God. And so he fell at Jesus’ feet and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was more than a question about going to heaven when he died. This was about having a relationship with God that would begin now in this life and continue forever. What did he need to do to get that?

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus replied. “No one is good but God alone!” Jesus’ initial response seems a little smart-alecky, and maybe even rude, but it provides the first hint of an answer to this young rich ruler. “No one is good!” Jesus says. No one has a relationship with God based on their goodness! And then, as if to show him that no one is good but God alone, Jesus starts listing off the commandments. “You know the commandments,” Jesus says, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal or bear false witness or defraud.” And this rich young ruler responds by insisting that he has kept all these commandments since his youth.

But notice here that Jesus so far has only referenced what we call the “second table” of the commandments. He only references the commandments that govern how we live in relationship with other people. Next Jesus zeroes in on what the precise problem is for this young man. Jesus looks at him with love – not out of spite or anger. He looks at him with love and tries to get him to see that his problem is with the first table. In fact, it was with the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” His wealth had become his god.

“Sell what you own,” Jesus told him, “give the money to the poor – then come, follow me.” Now this young man had something he could do, but he just couldn’t do it! Sadly, he walked away from Jesus. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The young man thought he had kept all the commandments, but the truth was, he couldn’t even keep the first one! His wealth was the problem. His wealth had become his god. His wealth was what he looked to for comfort and meaning and purpose and joy. It was what was getting in the way of his relationship with God. And it was just too much to give up.

The point here is not that wealth is inherently bad. The point is that there will always be a commandment that will trip you up – usually the very first one! The point is that no one is good but God alone. The point is that if you ask what you must do to inherit eternal life, you’ve framed the question in such a way that you’ll never find it.

Wealth isn’t inherently bad or wrong, but it sure is easy to make it your god. Moreover, those with wealth, those with means, are used to seeing the world in such a way that it is what they do that earns them those good things. And oftentimes that is true! By doing good things like working hard and having goals and being patient and delaying gratification, you can earn wealth! But when you carry that mindset over to how you can have a relationship with God, how you can inherit eternal life, how you are saved, it just doesn’t work.

And so Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t saying here that it is merely difficult.  I’ve heard all the goofy interpretations that try to make this a possibility. This is clearly a humorous way of saying it is impossible. It is an idiom not unlike how we might say something has “a snowball’s chance in you-know-where.” Jesus makes this crystal clear just a moment later!

The disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” They too are shocked by what they are hearing. If this young, successful, upright, religious guy who has it all can’t be saved, then who in the world can?” And Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible.” Despite outward appearances, no one is good but God alone, and so it is impossible to inherit eternal life by doing something. Even if you are given something to do, you won’t do it! This was tragically illustrated by this rich, young ruler! “For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says. But that’s not all he says. He continues, “But not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

Dear friends, the impossible has been made possible through Jesus Christ, who came to be more than a “good teacher.” He has come to be our savior. He has come to make it possible for us to have a relationship with God, now and forever.

Jesus, himself young, himself possessing all the riches of God, himself the ruler of all creation, gave up everything for us on the cross – even then looking upon us with love. Jesus gave up everything to give us forgiveness and salvation and new life, now and forever. The question is no longer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” but “What has Christ already done?”

The impossible is made possible today as God speaks to us through his Word. God puts this tragic story of the rich young ruler in our ears in order to loosen our grip on our own wealth and instead take hold of Christ Jesus. God speaks to us through his Word of law and gospel to shatter our illusions about our own goodness and draw us to the goodness of Christ.

The impossible is made possible today as God moves our hearts through this good news to let go of everything that gets in the way of our relationship with him in order to take hold of the hope and peace and joy he alone can give us. Only in him do we truly have it all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 3, 2021

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Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 3, 2021

Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16

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

When Herod divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law, John the Baptist preached against his marriage as unlawful and adulterous and ended up imprisoned and then beheaded. Today we hear the Pharisees luring Jesus into a conversation about marriage, hoping to get him in similar trouble with the crowds and the authorities. Needless to say, I’m a little nervous about preaching this morning!

The truth is, Christian teaching on marriage has always been countercultural. For the Romans, marriage was primarily about power and establishing lineage. For the Victorians, marriage was often about consolidating wealth and status. In modern times, marriage is often seen as being about little more than desire and self-fulfillment. For the Pharisees, at least in the question they posed to Jesus, their only concern about marriage was what was legal.

While Christians of all eras have often had their perspectives on marriage skewed by the culture they lived in, the Christian teaching on marriage goes much, much deeper than any of these cultural perspectives – as we see in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.

In Christianity, marriage is rooted in creation. Jesus acknowledges that divorce is permitted under the Mosaic law – it is right there in Deuteronomy 24, verse 1 – but Jesus goes deeper. He goes back further to look at what God’s original intention for marriage was and is. “But from the beginning of creation,” Jesus says, “God made them male and female.” And then he quotes directly from Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

Jesus ties marriage to creation, to God’s intention, God’s design. God created men and women, equal but different, and called them into this special relationship of oneness called marriage. They become one physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They become one with their bodies and with their hearts and with their souls. And from this union, husbands and wives join God in the sacred task of bringing more human life into the world. The two that become one often then become three or four or five! As a professor of mine put it this week, “The future of the world comes out of our beds,” and so God seeks to protect and preserve the special relationship from which human life springs forth. Jesus fences the sacredness of the family by being brutally honest about what happens when a marriage ends in divorce. It is not just a legal contract being broken, but more like a body being torn in two.

And so, related to this, in Christianity marriage is considered a covenant, a life-long commitment. Divorce may have been allowed under Mosaic law, but it was never God’s intention. And for those who were seeing that concession in the law as a loophole, as an opportunity to ditch your spouse when someone more exciting or interesting comes along, Jesus says, “No!” Just because you’ve done the paperwork doesn’t make it okay. Marriage is not a legal contract cooked up by human beings, it is a life-long union established by God. And so Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

In Christianity, marriage is also rooted in the cross. As St. Paul says in Ephesians, it is about loving your spouse with the same kind of love Christ has for the church. It is a love that goes beyond warm feelings and romantic attraction to sacrifice – dying to yourself for the sake of your spouse. Joy in marriage is a byproduct of this. You can’t find joy in marriage by aiming for it directly! People sometimes talk about how marriage is a burden, about how their spouse is a ball and chain, that it limits their freedom. And while I would never call my wife my ball and chain, they are, at least in a way, right! Marriage takes effort! It is hard sometimes! It involves sacrifice, usually on a daily basis. But that sacrifice, when offered up in Christian love, gives way to a joy much deeper than any so-called freedom. As Jesus teaches us, it is by losing our lives that we find them. This is particularly true in marriage.

And so Christian marriage is rooted in creation, in covenant, and in the cross – and when it is done like this, it is beautiful to behold!

Maybe you’ve been to a wedding reception where the DJ invites all the married couples out on the dance floor. They all dance to some classic waltz by some crooner, and then the DJ says, “Everyone who has been married less than 10 years, please sit down.” So a few couples leave the dance floor, and then the DJ says, “Everyone who has been married less than 20 years, please sit down.” And on and on it goes until they get to 50 years, and then 60 years or more. They get to that last couple or two who have been married the longest. They might not dance well with their creaky old bones, but they have an easy grace about them. They smile at each other, still fascinated with one another. And as you look around at everyone else who is seated, you see people with beaming smiles. Some wipe away tears, but they aren’t sad! It is just deeply moving to see. Everyone, whether they are married or single or divorced or struggling in their marriage, everyone knows they are in the presence of something good and true and beautiful.

I know we have people here this morning with a wide variety of life experiences when it comes to marriage, and my hope is that everyone here can see God’s intention for marriage in our readings today like those people watching those elderly, long-married couples on the dance floor. I hope we can all see God’s Word here as good and true and beautiful.

But I know this won’t be easy for everyone. My job as your pastor is to tell you the truth about what scripture says, even when it make you uncomfortable, even when it might get me in trouble. But my job is also to put the good news of the gospel in your ears – every Sunday. So bear with me here, as I think this needs a targeted approach this morning.

For those of you who are single – either by choice or by circumstance – know that you are as beloved of God as any married person. Both Jesus and St. Paul were single, and both of them affirm singleness as a Christian calling too.

For those who are widowed, all this talk about marriage might be painful. It might rip the band-aid off your grief. Go easy on yourself today. Maybe find a way to remember and give thanks for your spouse. Call me or call a friend if you need to talk. And know that you are never closer to your beloved spouse of blessed memory than when you are up here at the altar receiving Holy Communion, where the church on earth joins the hosts of heaven, and the veil between heaven and earth is so very thin.

For those of you who are children of divorce, and who may have felt like you’ve needed to hide your pain because it makes certain people feel guilty, or it upsets their narrative about how resilient you are, you can bring that pain to Jesus. You can find healing in him. And if the broken family you’ve experienced has made you cynical about marriage, know that Christ can open a new future for you. There is hope in him. You aren’t destined to repeat the mistakes of others.

For those of you who are struggling in marriage, who have a hard time seeing your relationship as something good and true and beautiful, don’t hide your struggles. There is no shame in them. Reach out for the help you need. Too often people come to their pastors when a decision to divorce has already been made. Don’t be shy about asking for help before it gets to that point. Your struggles are nothing to be embarrassed about and are more common, even in Christian marriages, than you might think.

For those of you who are divorced under one of the allowances in scripture, which include adultery, abandonment, and abuse, know that Christ Jesus has nothing but compassion for you. Sometimes divorce is the choice of the other spouse or is necessary for one’s safety. Jesus had compassion on people in all kinds of situations in scripture. Trust that he has nothing but compassion for you.

For those of you who may have been the adulterer, the one who left one spouse to be with another, there is grace for you too. Recall Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. When everyone else was ready to stone her to death, Jesus forgave her sin and gave her another chance. When everyone dropped their stones and left, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” Repent and receive his forgiveness. As St. Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

For those of you who have remarried after a divorce, this gospel reading probably weighs especially heavily on you. But know that Christ died and rose again to give you a new life. And when you lay that failed marriage at the foot of the cross, you are free to rise to a newness of life which can include another shot at something good and true and beautiful.

The Bible begins with a wedding, and it ends with one too. And all of us can rejoice today in the wedding that the book of Revelation calls “the marriage feast of the Lamb.” This is the wedding between Christ and his church. Whether you are on the dance floor in a happy marriage, or sitting in the crowd looking on, no matter what your marital status or life circumstances might be, you are already part of this marriage relationship. Even now Christ Jesus takes you into his loving arms and blesses you, just as he blessed the children. He promises to love and care for you, to have and to hold you, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, not only today, but forever.

And there is nothing more good and true and beautiful than that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 26, 2021

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Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 26, 2021

Mark 9:38-50

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

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

I noticed this week as I was doing some worship planning that Halloween falls on a Sunday this year. I kind of wished I could have waited and preached on this text then. The gruesomeness would fit right in, right? Severed hands? Severed feet? Plucked eyeballs? Just think of the props I could find at one of those Halloween stores!

I hope it is obvious that Jesus is using hyperbole here. He doesn’t really intend for us to mutilate ourselves in our battle against sin. So why does Jesus speak like this? Why so graphic? Why so shocking? A colleague of mine shared a beauty of a quote from American author Flannery O’Connor. If you know anything about her stories, you know that she knew the value of shock. She once said, “To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s what Jesus is doing here. Knowing that we are hard of hearing when it comes to God’s Word, he shouts out with shocking language. Knowing that we are often blind to God’s will for us, he draws large and startling figures. He speaks of amputation. He speaks of the fires of hell.

We shouldn’t take Jesus literally about the amputation stuff, but we had better take him seriously! Jesus is using this vivid and disturbing language for a reason. He is trying to get our attention about something important.

Jesus is concerned about us being stumbling blocks to others. He is particularly concerned about the “little ones.” These “little ones” might be children. They could also be those who are new Christians, who are young in the faith. They could also be those who are toddlers when it comes to Christianity, who haven’t yet come to faith but are curious about it and asking lots of questions, like toddlers do. They could be those who are little in faith, those who maybe have been Christians for a long time but whose faith has become vulnerable and weak and little. These “little ones” could be those who are outside of the church proper, but are nonetheless doing Christ’s work.

Our sin as Christians can be a stumbling block to any and all of these little ones. I thought about telling a story giving an example of how children have been abused in church settings, but I just can’t do it. It makes me either cry or want to vomit. You know the stories. Do you think those stories aren’t a stumbling block – not only for the victims, but for others too? And so Jesus rightfully says, “Cut it out!” Some appendages literally need to be removed from the body.

Or what do you think it does to our newly confirmed Christians, our eighth or ninth graders, when they see people who have been Christians for 40 or 50 or 80 years engaging in gossip or being petty or stingy? What do you think it does to people who are curious about Christianity and then encounter Christians who are arrogant and prideful and self-righteous? Or what about that little one whose faith is just barely hanging on, who has been through a lot and whose faith is weak and little, and then when she finally comes to church she is snarled at by some grumpy church member?  It has often been said, to our shame, that the biggest barrier to the Christian faith is Christians. And so Jesus rightfully says to all of this, “Cut it out! Cut it out now!”

Actually, he says more than that. He says that if you put a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Do you think Jesus means business here? Does he have your attention?

Instead of being stumbling blocks we are called to be salt. “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.”  In addition to being a flavor enhancer, salt was an essential preservative in the ancient world. And so we are called to live in such a way that we enhance and preserve the faith of others.

There are a lot of reasons people reject Christianity or walk away from the faith. Not all of them are our fault. Right now there are powerful cultural forces at work that are creating enormous challenges for the church, resulting in a decline in numbers and in influence. Sometimes it is our faithfulness that drives people away! Jesus talks about people rejecting us because they reject him, and there is nothing we can do about that.

But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. To us who are sometimes hard of hearing when it comes to God’s Word, Jesus shouts at us to pay attention to our actions and our attitudes. He shouts at us to cut sinful behavior out of our lives. To us who are sometimes blind to God’s will for us, Jesus draws large and startling figures to help us see how we might be a stumbling block to someone else, and to stop it.

Jesus warns us of dire consequences for our sin. He speaks of millstones being hung around our necks. He warns us of the fires of hell.

Thankfully, Jesus came to do more than shout and warn. Ultimately, Christ wore that millstone around his own neck as he bore our sin on the cross. Ultimately, Jesus descended into hell for us, taking our place there for a time in order to set us free.

And so today we bring our sinful hands and our sinful feet and our sinful eyes and our sinful hearts and we lay them at the foot of the cross. And by his grace, our Lord Jesus forgives our sin. And then he starts to put us back together. He gives all those body parts back to us, so that we might use them to love and serve, to build others up, to enhance and preserve, so that instead of being stumbling blocks, we would be salt.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 19, 2021

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Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost – September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30-37

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

I was taking my garbage cans out to the street one morning this past week and through the hedge I saw my neighbor, a young mom, trying to herd her kids into the car. She looked harried and rushed. There might have been some of her kids’ breakfast on the sweatshirt she was wearing. Her two-year-old son was wandering towards the sidewalk – the opposite direction she wanted him to go. It looked like he was chasing a bug. Then their dog got out of the house and tried to get into the car. As she was pulling the dog back towards the house her four-year-old started crying because her mom wouldn’t let her bring her dog to school. It was pandemonium! My first thought as I watched this chaos unfold was, “Maybe having my kids go off to college isn’t so bad after all!” But my second thought was, “She is doing the Lord’s work right now, and I hope she knows it.”

Our culture for the most part sees that kind of work as insignificant. I have often been a speaker for a local Mothers of Preschoolers group, speaking on marriage enrichment. Whenever I’ve been there to speak, though, I’ve always made a point of telling them that their work as mothers of preschoolers is important, that it is significant, that it is holy even. Inevitably, I would see these moms wiping away tears. It is obvious that they aren’t hearing this elsewhere. They are used to their work being seen as insignificant, unimportant.

Before I continue, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that this is only women’s work. I spent many years in a rural congregation with a parsonage on the church property when my boys were little, in part so I could be close and help care for them. I changed a lot of diapers myself. My all-time favorite quote of Martin Luther’s is when he encourages fathers to care for their children in a hands-on way that was way ahead of his time. Luther wrote: “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool…God with all his angels is smiling.” That was quite a statement in the sixteenth century! Whether it is men or women doing it, although the world sees it as menial, unimportant, insignificant, it is holy work. The world sneers while God smiles.

In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus teaches his disciples for the second time precisely what he has come to do. He has come to be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and three days later rise again. Jesus again gives them the gospel in a nutshell. He has come to be their crucified and risen Lord. He has come to save them from sin and death.

Though this is the second time they’ve heard this now, they still don’t understand it – and they are afraid to ask Jesus about it. Instead, they start to argue about who would be greatest among them. They failed to see the significance of what Jesus was telling them about what was coming, about the cross and the empty tomb. They expected the Messiah to come and do things that the world would see as significant. They wanted a Messiah who would come and do things they thought were important, things like getting rid of the Romans and restoring Israel. The disciples wanted in on this so-called important work. They wanted to be seen as significant, as important, as the greatest, as the first.

Jesus overheard them arguing, and he turned it into a teaching moment. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus said. And then he took a child – maybe it was a baby resting in his mother’s arms, or a toddler perched on her hip. Maybe it was a child standing there holding her daddy’s hand. Jesus placed this child in front of the disciples. Then Jesus took this child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In Jesus’ time, children were not considered important. It was the adults doing the adulting that was important! We see this dynamic at work in another Bible passage where people were trying to bring their children to Jesus and the disciples shooed them away. According to the disciples, Jesus had more important adult stuff to be doing. Parents loved their children in the ancient world just as much as they do today, no doubt, but caring for them was regarded as a lowly, insignificant task, often delegated to others. And here is Jesus putting a child in front of the disciples saying, “Oh, you want to be great, do you? You want to be first? Well, then welcome this child. When you welcome a child you welcome both me and the one who sent me.”

The cross and the child are connected here. Both are seen as insignificant, but both are the places where God is seen and served. The cross was insignificant in the eyes of the world, but it was the means by which God saved us. The child was, and often is, seen as insignificant in the eyes of the world, but it is in these supposedly insignificant people that God is welcomed and served.

We have this enormous cross built right into our sanctuary windows to remind us of the gospel in a nutshell, to remind us that Jesus came to be our crucified and risen Lord. And just as we can look through these cross-framed windows out to the world outside, the cross is to be the lens through which we look at the world. And through the lens of the cross, the world starts to look different. We start to see that the Christian life is not about being the greatest or the first, it is about being the last of all and the servant of all. We start to see that the Christian life is not about leaving our mark on the world by doing important things, it is about emptying ourselves for the sake of others – especially those the world deems unimportant. We start to see that the Christian life is not about seeking significance, it is about seeking to serve.

Your serving might look different from that of the young mom next door, but never doubt that Christ is welcomed and served in the midst of the seemingly insignificant tasks and people of daily life. The Lord you follow is the one who was crucified, and so there is no one so small, and no act of service so humble, that it isn’t important and significant and even holy.

The cross that is seen by so many as insignificant is the means of our salvation.

It is also the lens through which we see what truly matters.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 12, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 12

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 12, 2021

Mark 8:27-38

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

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, others thought he was one of the prophets.

If Jesus were to ask us here today, “Who do people say that I am?” we could offer him a wide variety of answers. Many today see Jesus as a moral example, as a moral guide, like Jiminy Cricket sitting on your shoulder. Some see Jesus as one religious figure among several options that people can pick and choose. The historical Jesus movement sees him as a first century peasant who ran afoul of the Roman Empire and was executed and then had a bunch of lies and exaggerations made up about him by his followers. New agers see Jesus as an archetype of the divine spark inside all of us. Muslims see him as a respected, but human, prophet. Mormons see him as a son of God, not the Son of God.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked.

When I lived in southwest Washington I used to drive into Portland once in awhile to visit a bookstore there that I love. I remember driving through downtown Portland once and seeing a car which was just about covered in bumper stickers supporting all kinds of far left-wing causes. There were all kinds of radical slogans and symbols of progressive politics on this car. And nestled amongst all those bumper stickers was one that said, “Jesus was a liberal.”

“Who do people say that I am?”

This past January as people rioted at the capitol building in Washington DC, we saw Christian symbols intermingled wiht far-right wing slogans. There were flags with crosses on them being waved  right next to the gallows that were set up, supposedly to hang the Vice President of the United States. There were signs being held up with the same colors and fonts as the campaign materials of the previous president, only they read: “Jesus 2020.”

“Who do people say that I am?”

After asking his disciples what other people were saying about him, Jesus then turned the question on them. “But who do you say that I am? And Peter responded with the correct answer. Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” Technically Peter was correct, but he didn’t yet understand what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah. He didn’t understand what kind of Messiah he would be. He didn’t understand what Jesus had come to do.

And so Jesus told him. “The Son of must undergo great suffering,” Jesus said, “and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus gave Peter the gospel in a nutshell. He revealed himself as the one who would die for our sins and be raised for our salvation. He revealed that he had come to be their crucified and risen Lord.

Peter didn’t like what he was hearing. It’s understandable, I suppose. He didn’t want his beloved Lord to go through all of that messy cross business. Peter went so far as to take Jesus aside and rebuke him! Can you imagine? Well, Jesus rebuked him back even harder, saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

The problem – for Peter and often for us – is that we try to answer the question of who Jesus is with our minds set on human things rather than divine things. We try to answer it based on reason rather than revelation. We try to answer it based on who we think he should be. It has often been remarked that if Jesus lines up with everything you believe already, you’ve probably got the wrong guy. Jesus is lots of things, of course. He is our friend and our brother. He is our teacher and guide. He is our example, to the extent that we can imitate him. He is all of those things and more. But any answer that fails to identify him first and foremost as our crucified and risen Lord is a satanic lie. That’s not homiletical hyperbole – that’s exactly what Jesus says!

Who do you say that he is? Knowing the correct answer is so important! But let me be clear: It is not important because it is some kind of final Jeopardy question, where you better get it right or you’re done. It is not important because correct doctrine is what saves us. It is important because Jesus Christ wants you to know what he has done for you! It is important because Jesus wants you to know the depths of his great love for you. It is important because Jesus wants you to know that he has come to do so much more than be a mascot for your politics or provide policy suggestions or to sit on your shoulder and whisper personal advice in your ear. He came to suffer and be rejected and killed, and then raised again on the third day. He came to conquer sin and death. He came to be your crucified and risen Lord.

Why is this not the Messiah we want? Why do our human minds want to make Jesus into something else all the time? Maybe, like Peter, we just don’t like the idea of Jesus suffering for us. Maybe we don’t like thinking about how our sin made that necessary. Maybe we can’t stand the idea of being a burden or being dependent or someone else.

Some of you have heard me talk before about my friend who has been battling cancer for many years now. Some time ago he posted on Facebook that he was starting an experimental treatment where he needed to get a weekly shot for several weeks in a row. Each individual shot, he told us, cost $8,000.  I think he was mostly marveling at the absurd cost of this life-saving treatment, but I think some of us friends of his also worried that he might be thinking of himself as a burden with that enormous expense. And so something beautiful happened on social media, if you can believe it! One after another of his friends started making comments like: “Money well spent,” and “It’s a bargain if it means keeping you with us,” and, “You are worth it.”

Who is Jesus? The gospel truth is so much better than the incorrect or the half-true answers our human minds come up with. Jesus is the Messiah who came to save us from our sin and bring us to abundant and eternal life. It cost him dearly to do so, to be sure. It was a cost he paid not with silver or gold, but with his own precious body and blood. He did this out of his great love for us. It was a price he was willing to pay in order to keep you with him, today and forever. He did it because, whether you realize it or not, you are worth it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church