Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for November 26

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2023

Matthew 25:31-46

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

In our gospel reading for this morning we find Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry. His passion and death are right around the corner, and before he goes to the cross, Jesus gives his disciples, and us, a glimpse of his coming again. He will come in glory, he tells us, with all his angels with him. He will return as the king of heaven and earth, sitting on his throne of glory with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be at his right hand, and the goats will be at his left. And the king will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” while the goats will be told, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.”

At this point you might be wondering to yourself nervously: “Am I a sheep, or am I a goat?” You might be asking yourself, “What can I do to make sure I’m in the sheep category when Christ returns?” You might be tempted to think that what makes a sheep a sheep is the good things they do. You might think that the ticket into the good place is to be earned by feeding the hungry and giving a drink to the thirsty and clothing the naked and caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned. You might start panicking that you haven’t done enough of those things to avoid the bad place.

But this is to get this vision Jesus gives us, this glimpse of his coming again in glory, all wrong. Before Jesus mentions anything about what the sheep have done, he spells out what has made them sheep. Jesus says, “Come all that are blessed by my Father.” Who is blessed by the Father? Those who have received the salvation he has provided freely as a gift through his Son! Those who are blessed by the Father are those who have received Jesus in faith! That’s what Jesus has been saying over and over again up to this point!

Jesus then points to an inheritance that is given to the sheep. An inheritance is not something you earn. An inheritance is not wages for a job performed, for hours you have put in. An inheritance is something you are given because someone has died. This is precisely what Christ is just about to do! He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, so that all who receive him in faith would have eternal life.

Finally, Jesus says this kingdom he has in store for his sheep was prepared for them before the very foundation of the world. It was  not prepared for them after they proved themselves through their good works. It was already established for his sheep well before they had even baa-d their first baa.

The sheep in this vision, then, are not sheep because they have performed good works. They perform good works because they are sheep! Just look how surprised they are when those good works are mentioned. They didn’t even realize they were doing anything special. “When did we serve you, Lord?” they ask. “When did we do these good things for you?” And the king replies, “When you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We’ve probably all seen those stories when a citizen does something heroic – maybe saving someone by doing CPR or the Heimlich maneuver, or rescuing someone who fell in a river, or bravely tackling an assailant unleashing mayhem on a crowd. They always end up on the news, and they almost always say something like, “I didn’t mean to be a hero. I was just doing what needed to be done. I didn’t think about it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

In the same way, Jesus’ sheep don’t perform good works because we’re trying to impress anyone. We don’t do it because we are calculating the rewards or benefits the king might bestow. We don’t do it to earn anything. We do it because that’s just what sheep do. As Martin Luther himself said in his commentary on Romans, “Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, such that it is impossible not to do good works constantly.”

It is the goats who calculate rewards and benefits. It is the goats who only do good works because of what it might get them. “Oh, that was you?” they say to the king. “We didn’t know! If we knew, we would have helped!” Do you see what is happening here? The goats have turned good works into a way to earn favor with the king. This is the way of the law. And it doesn’t turn out like they thought it would.

The sheep, on the other hand, are equally oblivious to the fact that when they serve a world in need, they are in fact serving their king. That isn’t why they do it! They don’t do it to curry favor. They don’t need to! They are already sheep, and they are merely doing what sheep do.

When we respond to human need, we are serving our Lord and King. This King of ours hides himself in the people around us, where we serve him through the callings of daily life. So when you bring groceries for the food pantry, you are feeding Jesus. When you bring coats or socks to our clothing drive, you are clothing Jesus. When you make beautiful quilts for strangers on the other side of the world, you are making quilts for Jesus. When you are up half the night with your sick child, or are caring for an ailing spouse or parent or friend, you are taking care of Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made visits to church members at the hospital or nursing home or in their homes and have found that someone from our congregation has already been there. When you make those visits, you are visiting Jesus himself.

Our King Jesus hides himself in the human needs all around us, and it is there that we serve him – but we don’t do it because we’re trying to earn points or ensure our place in the coming kingdom. We do it because it needs to be done. We dot it because that is who we are as people who have faith in Jesus. We do it because God has already made us sheep, and that is just what sheep do.

If you hear this parable today, this glimpse of the future that Jesus gives us, this glimpse of his coming kingdom, and start looking at yourself, trying to discern whether you’re really a sheep, maybe beginning to panic a little bit, you are putting your focus in the wrong place. Look instead to your King Jesus and to what he has already done to make you his sheep.

You have been blessed by God the Father. He has given you his dear Son to be your savior, to forgive your sin, to reconcile you to himself. The moment you receive Jesus in faith you are a sheep.

As a sheep, you have been given an inheritance. Jesus died for you, and you have inherited his life, his righteousness, his glory, his kingdom. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.

Christ’s kingdom was prepared for you from the foundation of the world, before you ever lifted a finger in his service.

The parable we hear today is the last parable Jesus tells before going to the cross. The next words out of his mouth are about his crucifixion. And so our eyes are led away from ourselves, from concerns about our own judgement, to the cross – the true source of our salvation.

It is on the cross that Jesus reveals himself most fully as king. It is on the cross that he takes on the crown of thorns, suffering for our sake. It is on the cross that Jesus is enthroned on high, even as he takes our sin upon himself.

As we look to the cross and see the sacrifice our king has made for us, we can’t help but want to live as his loyal subjects, carrying out his will in the world. As we behold his love, we can’t help but have him begin to rule our hearts and our lives. As we receive his grace and mercy through Word and sacrament, we are blessed by the Father, we receive the beginning of our inheritance, we are given a glimpse of the kingdom he has prepared for us, and we are assured that we are indeed his precious sheep.

And then, when we hear the words, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” we go back to our daily lives to do the things that sheep do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2023

Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2023

Matthew 25:14-30

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

I would like you to imagine that someone has decided to give you two million dollars. That’s a pleasant thing to imagine, isn’t it? You’re probably already thinking about what you would do with it, aren’t you? But before you spend too much of it in your head, consider who gave you the money. Would that make a difference in how you used it? It most certainly would!

If the money came from a beloved, trusted relative who encouraged you to use the money freely, a loving relative who had plenty more where that came from, whose love you could never doubt no matter what, if that’s who gave you the money you would be empowered to take risks with it. If it came from a wealthy relative whom you knew to be merciful and patient and kind, and had no shortage of resources, you would be empowered to share it, to put it out there into the marketplace.  You would not be afraid to fail. Instead, you would be free, and in that freedom, that gift would become a blessing to many beyond yourself.

If, on the other hand, the money came from a mafia boss, if it came from Vito Corleone, who handed the money over to you through a cloud of cigar smoke while his henchmen were cracking their knuckles and looking at you menacingly, you would handle that money very differently! You would NOT take risks. You would NOT share it. You would put it somewhere safe. You would be terrified of failure, terrified of losing the money, terrified that they would come looking for it and you wouldn’t have it anymore. Instead of being free to use it, you would feel trapped by that money. You might even grow to hate both the gift and the giver.

This morning we hear another parable from Jesus about the final judgement. It’s that time of year in the liturgical calendar. We had one last week and we have yet another next week. In the parable we hear this morning Jesus describes the final coming of his kingdom as being like a master who gave large sums of money to three of his slaves. These sums are called “talents” in the parable. We hear the word “talents” and think of things we’re good at, like singing or doing math or juggling. But that’s not what the word means here. In the ancient world, talents were a measurement of weight used to assess the value of precious metals. Five talents might be thought of as fifty pounds of gold or 500 ounces of silver. Translating those amounts into modern dollars and cents is tricky, because it depends on what you’re weighing and the market value at that moment, but it is widely agreed that these talents represent A LOT of money. One professor I heard on a lectionary podcast this week said two million dollars per talent, so let’s go with that.

The amounts aren’t as important as what the slaves do with the riches given to them. The first two trade with them. They take risks. They put that money out there and it multiplies. It grows. It becomes a blessing beyond themselves. And in the freedom of sharing and using those riches, they come to enter the joy of their master. But as the parable unfolds, we come to learn that there is something even more important than what they do with the money. How they perceive their master makes all the difference in the world! We see that what they believe about their master, what they believe about who he is and what he is like, shapes their behavior, determining what they do with the riches they have been given.

The third slave believed that his master was “a harsh man.” He describes his master as a gangster and a thug, “reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He saw his master as demanding returns on his investment and taking them one way or another to get what is his. And so the third slave buried his allocation of the riches. Better safe than sorry, right? When you believe your master is harsh and unforgiving, the last thing you want to do is come up short.

But when the master returns and sees what this third slave has done, he calls him wicked and lazy. He is judged, alright – but it isn’t so much for his failure to produce even interest as it is his utterly wrong belief about what kind of a master he had. He isn’t just accused of being lazy, this slave is also called wicked. He had no faith in his master’s goodness. He had no faith in his kindness or his mercy. “Oh, you knew that I was a harsh man, did you? That I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? That’s how you think of me, is it?” And as it happened, the master he believed in was the master he got. The one talent he did have was given to the others and he was thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It would be very easy for us to hear this parable as a threat. It would be easy to interpret this parable as: “God has given you much. Use it, or else.” But that, my friends, would be to make the exact same mistake that this third slave made. It would be to turn God into a gangster, into someone who makes demands and comes looking for a return on his investment, bringing with him all the muscle he needs to get what he wants one way or another. But something else is going on here. It is hard to see at first glance, but there’s a bigger point being made.

Back in Matthew 13, Jesus himself said that the meaning of many of his parables are not readily apparent to many people (Matthew 13:13-15).  Jesus is purposefully obtuse at times! Many of these parables need to be looked at from a certain slant, in the light of the whole gospel, and with eyes of faith, in order to be understood. This is one of those parables that is operating on a deeper level than what we see on the surface. If we look at it with a normal human sense of how the world works, we’re going to get the “use it or else” message. We’re going to get a harsh gangster God. But if we look at it in light of the entirety of the gospel, we are going to get something different.

This is a parable about perception. It is not just warning us about using God’s gifts rightly. It is about that too, but it goes deeper than that. It points to something more fundamental. It is encouraging us to see God rightly. It is encouraging us to perceive who God really is, what God is really like. Yes, God has wrath. Our reading from Zephaniah makes that painfully, viscerally clear this morning. St. Paul refers to it too in our epistle reading.

But God is not a gangster. God is not a “harsh man.” The fullness of God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God’s true heart has been revealed as full of mercy and forgiveness and love for us. The final judgement will be a day of great darkness, Paul says in the epistle reading, but not for you, not for those whose faith is in Christ. “You, beloved, are not in darkness,” Paul writes. “You are children of light and children of the day. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, God has bestowed riches upon us. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

This passage would have been a great epistle reading to pair with this parable, because it ties everything together. It shows us in no uncertain terms who God really is! It shows us what kind of a God we really have! God is a loving, generous, wealthy benefactor, and in Christ his Son he has freely given us everything – not only everything we own and every skill we have, God has also given us forgiveness, life, and salvation. This God is good! This God is rich in mercy and grace. And so we have nothing to be afraid of – we can take everything God has given us and put it out there. We can take risks with it. We can be generous with it. Our good works are not what saves us – they are instead what God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life. They are just what we do when we know and trust and believe that God is good and kind and patient and forgiving.

When I train acolytes, I will ask them what they’re most afraid of happening when they are serving as acolytes. They will sometimes mention not being able to light the candles, or tripping, or – worst case scenario – dropping a communion tray. When they tell me what they’re most afraid of, I tell them that any of those things might happen, but if it does, I won’t be mad at them, and God won’t be mad at them either. I tell them we should try our best because we love God, but not because we are afraid of God. Mistakes will happen, but we will just clean them up and move on, trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness. You can almost see their anxiety level drop!

This is something I need to hear too. It is a principle that empowers everything I do as a pastor. I have a meme I keep on my phone that says, “When God put his calling on your life he already factored in your stupidity.” I draw inspiration and comfort from this on a regular basis. In my office I have a print of Luther’s Sacristy Prayer for pastors, which says much the same thing in prayer form, calling on God’s help and grace, “for without it,” it says, “I would have ruined everything long ago.” It is trusting in God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, that empowers ministry, that frees us to risk and to dare and even to fail.

Now apply this to your own life. It is trusting in God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, that empowers your discipleship. It is what empowers your stewardship. It is what empowers your service here in the church and in your families and in our community and in the world. God has given you the riches of his grace, and God has plenty more where that came from. God created you and has endowed you with gifts and skills and resources. God has given you everything you have, everything you are. God loves you more than you can begin to imagine. He sent his Son to give you forgiveness for every failure and freedom for faithful service. And so you have nothing to fear.

That other so-called god that so many people believe in, including too many Christians, is a lie. You can believe in that gangster god if you want, if you insist. But that so-called god is a wicked liar who will only drag you into darkness.

The real God, though, the God in whom Jesus invites us to place our trust, is like a powerful, wealthy, and loving Father who pours out upon us the riches of his kingdom and invites us to have fun with them, to freely and fearlessly put it out there, to share it, to multiply it, so that it becomes a blessing for others beyond ourselves.

Put your trust in this good and loving and true God, and you will find yourself entering into his joy – today and forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church



Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for November 12

Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November12, 2023

Matthew 25:1-13

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

Let’s go to a wedding, shall we? It’s a wedding in ancient Israel, so some things are going to be different from what we are used to.  However, many things will be the same. There will be a bride and a groom. There will be bridesmaids. There will be a celebration. There will be food! Best of all, there will be joy and there will be hope for the future. Isn’t every wedding, no matter the time or place, an occasion of joyful hope for the future as bride and groom promise themselves to one another for the rest of their lives?

So, there are many similarities to weddings in our own time, but some things are very different. For instance, in ancient Israel marriages were arranged by families. This is not to say that there was no love involved. In the Bible we hear how deeply Jacob loved Rachel. The Song of Songs is a whole book of the Bible filled with some of the most romantic love poetry you will ever read. But in these arranged marriages, feelings weren’t the first priority. Loving feelings often developed over time. The first priority was the arrangement between families. As soon as the marriage was arranged, the couple was betrothed, which, legally speaking, was as binding as marriage itself.

This state of betrothal could continue for weeks or even months until the wedding day.

The couple would continue to live separately until the groom had prepared a place for them to live. Once that place was ready, then it was time for the wedding.

Weddings began at sundown. As the sun set on the evening of the wedding, the groom would make his way in grand procession from his father’s house to the house of his bride. While he was on his way the bridesmaids would tend to the bride. Then when the groom arrived, these bridesmaids would accompany the bride to her husband at the door, and all of them together would continue to parade to the place he had prepared for them.

There were no streetlights in those days, and so the most important responsibility the bridesmaids had was to have lamps ready to light their way. They would dance in celebration on the way to the wedding feast, their lamps bobbing and weaving with their gyrations, making brilliant streaks along the dark parade route. It was quite a spectacle! Once they arrived at the place the groom had prepared, there would be feasting for days. Their relationship would be consummated at last, and they would begin life together as husband and wife.

Jesus uses this imagery of a wedding in ancient Israel to describe the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t the first to do so. The Old Testament is filled with this imagery. Hosea describes God as a faithful husband. The prophet Isaiah wrote: “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Maker marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” The aforementioned Song of Songs has long been interpreted in part as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people.

Jesus wasn’t the first, and he didn’t just use this imagery once. We heard a parable a few weeks ago about the Kingdom of God being like a wedding feast. One of the most beloved passages from the gospels is rooted in this imagery, as we hear Jesus in John 14 saying, “I am going to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This is wedding procession language! Christ promises to come to us to take us to himself. Christ is the groom and his church is the bride and he promises a day when he will take us to the place he has prepared for us, where, as we sang on Reformation Sunday, he will consummate the relationship between himself and his church, bringing to completion this intimate and permanent union.

This language might raise some eyebrows. I know I’m veering towards PG-13 territory. But this imagery is an enormous and important part of the biblical witness. There is nothing scandalous or dirty about it. Only in our perverse and porn-sick generation is this seen as anything other than beautiful and holy. The clearly symbolic language of this holy union points to the permanent closeness of Christ and his people.

Jesus wasn’t the first to use this imagery, and he wasn’t the last either. St. Paul refers to the relationship of Christ and his church as akin to that of husband and wife, their one flesh relationship mysteriously reflecting the closeness of Christ and his bride. In the book of Revelation, St. John does too, describing Christ’s ultimate return as the marriage supper of the Lamb and describing the new kingdom, the new Jerusalem, as being like a bride adorned for her husband.

All of this helps to place our parable for today in both its biblical and cultural context.  Jesus is talking about his return. He describes this return as being like a wedding party. “It will be like this,” Jesus says. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the groom. Five were foolish and five were wise.”

Remember, the main duty of the bridesmaids was to light the way for the parade back to the place the groom had prepared. The foolish bridesmaids, probably under the influence of too many White Claws or wine coolers, didn’t bring any oil with them. And when the groom was delayed, not coming until midnight, they didn’t have enough oil. You had one job, right? Be prepared with the lamps. Be prepared to celebrate. But they weren’t.

The wise bridesmaids, on the other hand, were. They had flasks of oil with them. They were prepared for any delay. And when the groom finally arrived, their lamps were burning bright in anticipation of his arrival. These five wise bridesmaids lit the way for the bride and groom while the five foolish bridesmaids raced off to try to buy some in the middle of the night. But it was too late. When they finally made it to the wedding party, the door was already shut. “Lord, lord, open to us!” they pleaded. But the groom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

It is a troubling way to end the parable. Whether this represents Jesus’ final word to those who “run out of oil” or is merely a character designed by Jesus to get our attention, I cannot say. But either way, the point is clear. As we await the coming of Christ, we need oil in our lamps. As we await the coming of Christ, we need to keep awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour.

Martin Luther, in a sermon he preached on this parable, said that the oil represents faith, while the light from the lamp represents our good works. As Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they would see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We hear these words when we are baptized. The oil of faith, poured into us in Holy Baptism as gift of the Holy Spirit, is what saves us, but this faith imperfectly but inevitably burns brightly with good works which give glory to God.

This oil is topped off throughout our lives by the hearing of God’s Word. It is topped off by receiving the Lord’s Supper. It is topped off by being connected to the body of Christ in worship and fellowship and service. This oil of faith is sustained and strengthened by diligently making use of the means of grace given in Word and Sacrament.

Except when it isn’t, right? We know how our failure to stay topped off leaves us dry and flickering. We know how our neglect, our lack of diligence in matters of faith leaves us dim. We see it also among friends and loved ones who drift from these means of grace our Lord gives us. We see how their oil gets lower and lower and lower as they come to worship less and less often.

This is why the pandemic has been so devastating to churches. It cut the supply line for our lamps. By keeping people away from church for so long, many peoples’ oil ran devastatingly low. For many it seems to have run out entirely. Some estimates are that a quarter to a third of what were marginally active Christians are gone, probably at this point for good. Their oil ran out.

The pandemic was only hastening trends that were already well underway. And as western civilization continues to reject its heritage, its foundation, running on the fading fumes of the past, we see the light of good works that glorify God growing more and more dim and the world becoming more and more dark.

A foolish bridesmaid, whether through foolishness or carelessness or neglect, lets the light go out altogether. A foolish bridesmaid doesn’t account for the possibility that the groom might take longer to come than we’d hoped, longer than we’d like. And so the foolish bridesmaid falls first into a hurried, desperate angst, and then into despair.

But that isn’t you. You are a wise bridesmaid. For you have come here today to get topped off. You have come to have your lamp filled with the gifts Christ Jesus freely gives us. Through his Word and his Supper and his people he fills you up with faith in him. And that faith shines! It shines with peace. It shines with hope. It shines with love. It shines with the light of good works that give glory to your Father in heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” Jesus says. And then he describes an ancient near eastern wedding. You are invited to this wedding. In fact, you are part of the wedding party! You are bridesmaids and groomsmen in the marriage feast of the lamb! Collectively, as the church, we are also the bride! Christ is coming to take us to the place he has prepared for us, so that where he is, there we may be also. He is coming to take his bride the church to himself, drawing us into a relationship that is intimate and permanent, a union that is joyful and eternal.

Keep awake and watch for the groom. Keep your lamps lit. He is coming for us. Do not slide into apathy or indifference as you wait. Do not give in to despair and hopelessness. Do not let the growing darkness of this world keep you from letting your light shine. For it is in the darkness that your light is needed more than ever.

In the meantime, we wait, knowing neither the day nor the hour. In the meantime, we keep our eye on our gracious bridegroom, who sneaks in among us even now, giving us a foretaste of the wedding feast to come, and in so doing keeps our lamps full.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for October 29

Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2023

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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

“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Martin Luther continued in the Word. As a monk and a scholar he had the privilege of studying the Bible, God’s written Word, at a time when many did not have access to the scriptures. The printing press was still a very new invention, and there just weren’t that many copies of the Bible available. But Luther had access to the scriptures, and the more he continued in the Word, the more he discovered that the truth he found there didn’t align with the so-called truth that was being taught and practiced in the church at that time.

And so it was that on October 31st in the year 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to have a conversation about the truth he had found in God’s Word. He had 95 debating points, 95 truth claims gleaned from the scriptures, that he wanted to discuss so that the church could get back to the truth he found there. By posting it on the church door on All Hallow’s Eve, right before people would be pouring into church for All Saints Day worship services, he ensured that lots of people would see it.

Well, lots of people saw it alright! Those new-fangled printing presses resulted in copies of the 95 theses spreading all over Europe. The truth claims Luther was making struck a nerve. Luther’s call for the church to return to the truths found in God’s Word unleashed a firestorm that eventually led to him to being declared a heretic and an outlaw. Long before people ever talked about cancel culture, the medieval church tried to cancel Martin Luther. They burned his books. He was excommunicated from the church. He had a bounty placed on his head and was hunted like a common criminal, which made it necessary for him to spend nearly a year in hiding.

Luther unwittingly unleashed a fierce battle for the truth. On one side you had medieval church bureaucrats and councils and bishops claiming they had authority over the truth. The truth was whatever they said it was, which just so happened to be whatever advanced their power and lined their pockets. The most obscene example of this was the sale of certificates of forgiveness called indulgences. Instead of freely proclaiming forgiveness in Jesus’ name as commanded in scripture, Christ’s forgiveness was turned into something that could be bought and sold. Forget confession. Forget repentance. Forget the absolution. You could just buy a handy-dandy certificate and you’d be covered. You could even buy forgiveness for future sins! The church authorities made a fortune selling their version of the truth. This part of the story is pretty well known.

What might not be as well known is that once the Reformation was underway you also had what came to be called the “enthusiasts.” The enthusiasts claimed that the truth was whatever they felt it was. They claimed direct revelations from God not only independent from the church, but apart from the scriptures! The truth, for the enthusiasts, was based on their own individual thoughts and feelings. Once Luther opened that Pandora’s Box, they felt empowered to advance their versions of the truth as well. And so the Reformation was a time of great confusion about what the truth even was.

Does this sound at all familiar? We too live in a time of widespread confusion about what the truth is, about where the truth can be found, about what truths we should live by.

We too live in a time of changing technology. Like the printing press 500 years ago, the internet and especially social media have changed the conversation about the truth in dramatic ways, both good and bad. On the one hand, the internet has made it so that the lies broadcast by major media institutions long seen as authoritative no longer go unchallenged, but on the other hand it has also provided easy platforms for a million more liars!

Fast on the heels of the internet is the unfolding emergence of “artificial intelligence,” or “AI,” which, out of thin air, can produce astonishingly realistic images and videos with voice cloning. If you think those fake texts you sometimes get, supposedly from me, asking for gift cards, are confusing and disturbing, wait until you get a phone call with a fake version of my exact voice, or the exact voice of a family member, pleading for something, interacting with you in real time. It’s already happening. The struggle to discern what is true, what is real, is only going to get more difficult.

Adding to this confusion is the postmodern malaise of extreme subjectivism, where the truth is whatever someone’s feelings tell them it is. As with the enthusiasts of Luther’s time, there is a widespread belief in our own time that all truth is self-determined, that we define our own realities. This is not new. This is not progress. This is the oldest trick the devil has, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when the serpent hissed to Eve, “Did God really say,” encouraging her to live her own truth and eat the fruit God had told her not to eat. And the result continues to be chaos and conflict and confusion.

“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So what is this truth, and how does it make us free?

As Luther battled both the authoritarians on the one hand and the enthusiasts on the other, he called both to the truth he found in God’s written word. The scriptures are the place to find the Truth above all truths. The Bible contains God given truths for us to live by.

The scriptures, Luther taught, proclaim God’s Word of law and gospel, God’s Word of command and God’s Word of promise. The scriptures contain both the deepest truth about us and the deepest truth about God.

The truth about us, as we hear from Jeremiah this morning, is that we have broken the covenant God has made with us. The truth about us, as St. Paul says in our reading from Romans for today, is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The truth about us, as Jesus says in the gospel reading, is that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and a slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household. The scriptures tell the truth about us, the truth about our situation, the truth about our fallen human nature, the truth about our need for redemption, for salvation.

Thankfully, the scriptures also tell us the truth about God. The truth about God is that, as Jeremiah says, he forgives our iniquities and remembers our sin no more. The truth about God, as St. Paul teaches us, is that he has redeemed us, he has saved us, he has made us right with him through Jesus. We are justified by his grace as a gift, received through faith in him. The truth about God, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, is that he has sent his Son to make us free, so that we will no longer be slaves to sin, so that we will have a permanent place in the household.

This freedom is not a freedom to pursue our own versions of the truth. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever we want! As St. Paul so aptly puts it in Romans 6: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” We are freed from sin and death and freed for a life lived in right relationship with God, a life that aligns with the truth God has revealed to us.

In a time of radically changing information technology and cultural upheaval, a time of chaos and conflict and confusion, we will continue to fumble our way through truth claims. We will probably continue to argue and disagree about what is true with a small ‘t.’

But as Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage which continues to call us back again and again to the capital ‘T’ truth found in God’s Word. It is this truth that we can hold onto in the midst of everything going on around us. It is this truth that unites us as God’s people. It is this truth that we can all strive to live our lives by. It is this truth that we can share with a weary and confused and hurting world.

As Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage which calls us again and again to do exactly what Jesus calls us to do today: to continue in his Word. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we are truly his disciples. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we come to know the truth that makes us free. And if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video October 22

Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2023

Matthew 22:15-22

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

In our gospel reading for today we hear the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a hot button question. It was a question pertaining to one of the biggest, most divisive issues of the day: “Was it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Many Jewish people despised paying taxes to Rome. They resented having to carry around coins with a picture of the emperor on it and words etched in proclaiming him to be a god, and they certainly didn’t like having to fund their own oppression by paying them taxes.

But not everyone hated paying these taxes. Some Jewish people were okay with it. A group called the Herodians saw some advantages to having Rome in Israel. They recognized that the Roman Empire brought with it some benefits. It’s like that scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” set in Israel in the time of Jesus, where one of the Jewish characters says, “What has Rome ever done for us?” And his Jewish friend says, “Well, there’s the aquaducts, and sanitation, and the roads, and irrigation, and medicine, and education.” The Herodians thought paying taxes to Rome was a good deal.

“So Jesus,” the Pharisees asked, “what do you say? Is it lawful (meaning under Jewish religious law) to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

This was a hot button issue. There was a lot at stake in Jesus’ answer. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would be seen by many as advocating idolatry and being complicit with a foreign enemy. If he said it was unlawful, he would be labeled a revolutionary and handed over to Roman authorities. Remember, the Pharisees asked him this question to trap him. They wanted to throw him in the middle of this debate so they could watch him get torn apart. Either way he answered would get him in big trouble, and they would be rid of him at last.

The first thing Jesus does in response is to bluntly call them hypocrites. He knows they have those idolatrous coins jingling in their own pockets as they speak. He asks for one of them. Then he asks whose image is on it. When they answered, “The emperor’s,” he said, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and give to God the things that are God’s.”

What does this mean, exactly? It sounds like some kind of riddle. Technically, everything belongs to God! Every Jewish person knew that! So was it lawful to pay the tax, or not? Both sides seem to have been scratching their heads over Jesus’ answer. Neither side got upset. The Pharisees were amazed that he managed to step around their trap. They left him and went away.

But Jesus answer was so much more than an artful dodge. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s” is not really a riddle. Instead, Jesus is redirecting the focus of the conversation to something even more urgent. Jesus cuts through the heat of this hot button issue to focus on something bigger. The bigger question for Jesus isn’t whether they should give the emperor his coin; it was whether they were giving themselves to God.

You see, the coins they had might have carried the image of the emperor, but they themselves carried the image of God. The people themselves, with their talents, their gifts, their resources, their lives, they bore the image of God. As it says in Genesis 1:27, as the first human beings were created, “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.”

“Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says. Just as the coins bear the image of the emperor and should be given to him, human beings bear the image of God – and so we are called to give our whole entire selves to him. We are to dedicate everything we have, everything we are, to God, whose image we bear.

In his book, “Giving to God,” Mark Allen Powell tells a story about the mission work done among the Gauls in medieval times. The Gauls were a bloodthirsty people living in what is now France and Belgium. Christians missionaries entered the region to share the gospel and were very successful. Many of the Gauls converted to Christianity, even many of their warriors. Before sanctuaries with baptismal fonts, baptism took place by full immersion in a river or a lake, and when the warriors were baptized, many of them insisted on leaving their right arm out of the water. They explained that they wanted to leave one arm unbaptized so that they could continue to slay their enemies without mercy.

Powell suggests that this is more of a medieval version of an urban legend than historical fact, but it does provide a striking metaphor for something that afflicts God’s people of all times and places. We don’t want to give our whole selves to God. We might not leave one arm unbaptized so as to keep on slaying our enemies without mercy, but we are very good at compartmentalizing our lives, leaving God out of certain parts. We all hold back parts of ourselves from God so we can keep on doing some things our own way. I once saw a cartoon in a stewardship book that had a guy getting baptized with one arm out of the water, but instead of holding a sword he was holding his wallet.

“Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says. That means everything. It means both arms. It means every body part (yes, even those ones). It means every last part of you, every last part of your life. It means your entire, undivided heart. It means all your talents. It means all your treasures, all your coins – no matter whose face is on them.  This doesn’t mean all or even most of our money needs to be given to the church, but all of it is to be used for the glory of God. All of our lives are to be given over to God in joyful obedience. We were made in the image of God, and so we are to give ourselves, every last part of our lives, to him.

So didn’t Jesus care about the question at hand? Didn’t he care about that hot button issue? Didn’t he care about the difficult position the Jewish people were in as they had to carry this idolatrous money around in their pockets all the time, money they had to use to fund their own oppression?

I’m sure he did. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to sort out those problems, as pressing and difficult as they were. Jesus didn’t come to enforce the commandments, even the commandment against idolatry – as important as that is. Jesus didn’t come to start the Jerusalem Tea Party, starting a revolution against Rome and their taxes.

Jesus came to do something much bigger. Jesus came to conquer a much bigger enemy.

Jesus came to save the Pharisees from their hypocrisy. He came to save the Herodians from their complicity. He came to save ordinary Jews from their idolatry. He came to save all human beings from their sin.

Jesus didn’t come to overthrow Rome, he came to overthrow the power of sin, death, and the devil. He didn’t come to offer his thoughts on the tax code, he came to collect for God all the precious human beings made in God’s image. And when we refused to give ourselves entirely to God, he gave himself entirely for us on the cross.

There is no doubt we have many pressing and difficult problems in our own time. There is no doubt that the American people, including us here in this sanctuary, are as divided about many of those problems and their possible solutions as the Pharisees and the Herodians were about theirs. We are not called to put our heads in the sand about these issues. We are not called to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. One of our vocations is that of citizen, and so we are called as Christians to engage in those hot button issues.

But at the same time, when we gather to hear from the Lord Jesus, we can’t let those hot button issues get in the way of what Christ has to say to us. He comes to us with even bigger concerns in mind. He comes to address our deeper problems.

Today our Lord Jesus reminds us of something we forget all the time: that we are made in the image of God – every person, every body part, every cell. In holy baptism Jesus goes a step further and inscribes his name on us, so that we would be certain that we belong to him!

“Give to God the things that are God’s,” he says to us today.

God wants more than chump change. God wants you. And through the saving work of his dear Son, he has claimed you, he has redeemed you, he has saved you, he has cleansed you through the forgiveness of sin and made you his own.

Give to God the things that are God’s. You are already his, so let the whole of your life bear witness to the image you bear and the name which was inscribed upon you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for October 15

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2023

Isaiah 25:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

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

When my wife and I got married, in the days leading up to the wedding there was a question hanging over the preparations: “What would Uncle Dan wear?” You see, Amy’s Uncle Dan has a history of showing up to family events looking like he just stumbled out of a deer stand, which, oftentimes, he had. He is notoriously anti-suit and tie. Before the wedding he told everyone, “I’ll come, but I am NOT wearing a suit. I don’t wear suits, and I’m not going to start now.”

To Amy and me, the question of what Uncle Dan would wear was more of a joke than anything else. We didn’t really care whether he wore a suit or not. While our wedding ceremony was quite formal with a full communion liturgy, held in an Episcopal church in Bellingham where Amy’s prim and proper Grandmother was a member, even so we had plenty of college friends in Bellingham who would be attending in more casual attire.

But it was not a joke to my father-in-law. He didn’t want his brother showing up to this formal affair in camo or denim. This was his daughter’s wedding! This was her special day. This would be a sacred moment in the life of the family. And so my father-in-law brought an extra suit, met his brother at the church door and said, “Put it on.” Which he did.

In the parable we hear today Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet given by a king. The king sends out servants to call those who had been invited, but they wouldn’t come. The king sends out his servants again, this time with a glimpse of the menu – “Look, the fattened calf has been slaughtered! The prime rib is almost ready! It’s going to be great!” But they made light of it. They still wouldn’t come. So, in what might be seen as just a bit of an overreaction, the spurned king sends in his troops and burns down their entire city. Then the king sends out his servants again. This time they go out into the streets and invite all different kinds of people – both good and bad. And soon the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But there’s one last plot twist in the story. One of these guests who had been so graciously welcomed into the wedding banquet wasn’t wearing the right clothes. He didn’t put on the traditional wedding robe. When the king noticed this, he said, “How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” When he gave no reply, the king had him bound and thrown out into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yikes. Talk about a strictly enforced dress code!

This parable, like the one we heard last week, is an allegory. And like the vineyard parables we’ve been hearing the last few weeks, this parable makes use of a common image in the Bible. The prophets, including Isaiah in our first reading for today, had been saying for centuries that when the Messiah came, it would be like a great wedding banquet. God and God’s people would be joined together as one forever, and a great feast would be held to celebrate – a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines strained clear.

This is important background in understanding this parable. Like the parable we heard last week, Jesus is telling a story which describes his coming into the world. It is a story which convicts those who are rejecting him.

The king in the story is God. This might make us uncomfortable, with the king’s short temper and violent lashing out, but the prophets often spoke of God’s wrath using such stark imagery. It should be taken seriously. It is meant to get our attention.

The servants are God’s prophets, sent again and again to prepare the way for the Messiah. Again and again they are ignored – or worse – by the religious authorities.

The wedding banquet represents the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the promised Savior. The chief priests and the Pharisees were the original invitees. They ignored the invitation to receive Jesus as the Messiah, and in so doing they rejected the king. The people on the street who are invited into the wedding banquet are all the people who were receiving Jesus with joy, all the people Jesus was bringing into the kingdom – the foreigners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners.

So far, so good. So far, this says almost the exact same thing as the parable of the tenants in the vineyard last week. But then there’s this plot twist at the end. There’s this odd scene at the end where one of the people brought into the banquet is kicked out for not wearing the right clothes. He isn’t wearing a wedding robe and so he gets the boot. What is Jesus trying to say here?

We often talk about God’s invitation into his kingdom as being unconditional, open to all. And it is! Remember, Jesus specifically said both good and bad are welcomed in! However, what Jesus seems to be saying here is that while the invitation is universal and unconditional, this invitation will also require a change of clothes.

What exactly is this change of clothes? Parables are like poems in that they can be interpreted in different ways, and this parable certainly has had various interpretations over the years. In the early church it was taught that the wedding robe represented holiness of life. In the fourth century, St. Augustine taught that it represented love. Martin Luther insisted that these new clothes represented faith. C. S. Lewis suggested that the wedding robe represented joy.

I don’t think we have to pick one of these interpretations. I think they can all be right. I think they are facets on a diamond, collectively pointing to the fact that being invited to the wedding banquet brings with it a change of clothes! In other words, this invitation will change us, and if it doesn’t, something is wrong! This invitation means leaving behind the dingy clothes of the old life, soiled as they are by sin. It means putting on the new life. It means putting on those qualities St. Paul encourages us to put on in our reading from Philippians, putting on what is true, what is honorable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing. It means putting on what is commendable to our king, our host, our Lord. Too many people come into the church wanting to change it rather than to be changed by it. But this invitation, open to all, changes us! There are old garments, old morals – or lack thereof, old ideologies, old worldviews, old attitudes, old behaviors, which need to be left behind in order to be clothed in the new garments of holiness and love, faith and joy.

Thomas Long, a Bible scholar at Emory University, summarizes this point in his commentary on Matthew with a real zinger. He writes, “To come into the church in response to the gracious, altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not conform one’s life to that mercy is to demonstrates spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb and happy hour in a bus station bar.”

Yes, all are invited, but what we wear matters. I’m not talking literally about what we wear to church. Dressing respectably when attending worship is a good practice, but this goes deeper. This is about clothing our lives in the qualities that give honor to our king.

When my father-in-law met his brother at the door with a suit and said, “Put it on,” it was a command, no doubt about it. But it was also a gift. My father-in-law brought his own suit and gave it to his brother. He knew that his brother didn’t have a suit of his own and so he provided it for him out of his own closet.

Similarly, this word we have from our Lord Jesus today is both law and gospel. It is both a command and a gift. You see, just as my father-in-law gave his brother the suit he needed for the wedding, so too does Christ give us what we need to be properly clothed. Knowing that we don’t have the right clothes ourselves, he gives them to us as a gift. Out of Christ’s own closet, he gives us his holiness, his love, his faith, his joy. This is what God, our King, does! As Isaiah writes in another passage which would be fitting for today, “God has clothed me in the garments of salvation and covered me with the robe of salvation.” This is what God is doing in Christ! This is what God has done for you! As St. Paul teaches us in Galatians, in holy baptism we are “clothed in Christ.” We are dressed in his righteousness.

Just like the suit, this wedding robe is a gift. The proper clothes we need are given to us as a gift of grace.

We have pictures of Uncle Dan at our wedding. He looks funny in the suit given to him by my father-in-law. But you know what? In the pictures, he’s smiling. He’s holding his plate and grinning. He left his old clothes in the bathroom of the church hall and entered into the joy of the occasion.

You are clothed in Christ, and so you have a place at the wedding banquet. It is here at his table that he feeds you with rich food, with well-aged wine strained clear. Leave the old garments behind and come. Enter into the joy of this occasion. Let us all be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church