Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2022

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2022

Luke 16:19-31

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

Whenever I come across the story of the rich man and Lazarus, I can’t help by think about “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I’m sure most of you know the story well, but to refresh your memory, it is about Ebenezer Scrooge, a cold-hearted banker who spends his life hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor. He hates Christmas and snarls at Christmas carolers. When he is approached about making a charitable donation to help the poor he cruelly suggests that they would be better off dead so that they might “decrease the surplus population.”

Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The ghost of Christmas past painfully shows him how his love of money led him away from his lovely finance, Belle. The ghost of Christmas present takes him on a visit to his employee Bob Cratchit’s house, where he learns that if Bob’s son, Tiny Tim, doesn’t get some help, he is going to die. When Scrooge expresses empathy, the spirit throws his own words back at him about “decreasing the surplus population.” The ghost of Christmas future shows him his own grave, with a date on the tombstone just one year later. It shows him his debtors, who are glad he is gone. It shows him his colleagues, who joke about only being at the funeral for the free lunch. It shows him that Tiny Tim had indeed died, because his father couldn’t afford to get him the care he needed on his small salary.

The visits from these ghosts result in a profound change in Scrooge, and when he wakes up the next morning, he repents! He wakes up on Christmas morning ecstatic to know there is still time to change his ways. He makes a generous donation to the poor. He gives Bob Cratchit a raise. He befriends Tiny Tim and sees to his well-being.  He starts to live a life not unlike that which Paul encourages in his letter to Timothy from our second reading for this morning, being “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…taking hold of the life that is really life.”

Scrooge had a mirror lifted up to him by these three spirits, and this mirror caused him to repent. They helped him to change his heart, and then his ways. But Dickens wasn’t just holding up a mirror to his character. He was also holding up a mirror to his readers as well. Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” during the Industrial Age in Victorian England, a time when an enormous gap had opened up between the rich and the poor. It was a time when children were not protected by labor laws and often worked dangerous jobs in factories. Wealthy industrialists got rich off the backs of the working poor and their children. Dickens told this story in order to hold a mirror up to society and change the hearts of his readers. And it did! It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this little story by Dickens eventually led to changed hearts and then to changed laws which protected workers and especially children.

You can probably already begin to see the similarities between “A Christmas Carol” and the story we hear our Lord Jesus tell today.

Jesus’ story begins with a rich man in expensive clothes who “feasts sumptuously every day.” At this rich man’s gate, just outside his home, lies Lazarus. Lazarus is poor and hungry. Lazarus would be satisfied even with just the scraps that fell from this man’s table. Lazarus is covered in sores, which dogs came to lick. Jesus describes Lazarus as a man in desperate circumstances, lying outside the gate like garbage in an alley, while the wealthy man on the other side of the fence lounges on couches, has his fill of lamb and beef, and drinks wine from bowls.

As the story unfolds, both the rich man and Lazarus die, and in the afterlife their roles are reversed! Now the rich man is being tormented, while Lazarus is being comforted and cared for in the bosom of Abraham. The name “Lazarus” means “God helps me,” and that’s exactly what happens now. Lazarus is carried away by the angels and delivered into the strong and safe arms of Father Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water to cool his tongue, but Abraham says, “Sorry, you already had your good things! Now it is Lazarus’ turn! Besides, there is a chasm here that no one may cross.”

The rich man then begs Abraham to send a warning to his five brothers back home. But Abraham says, “Nope, sorry. They have Moses and the prophets to warn them.” “But Father Abraham,” the rich man pleads, “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And Abraham says to him: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen even if someone is raised from the dead.”

Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, who are described just a few verses prior as lovers of money. Last week, just a little bit earlier in the same chapter in Luke’s gospel, we heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Well, the Pharisees scoffed at Jesus for saying this. Luke explains their reaction by telling us that they were lovers of money.

So we shouldn’t over-interpret what Jesus says here in this story. We need to be mindful of what prompted it. Jesus isn’t necessarily giving us a detailed theological description of heaven and hell and who are in which place. Jesus isn’t saying that the rich will burn in hell while the poor get an express ticket to heaven. Father Abraham himself is described in the Bible as wealthy, and he’s there in heaven! So, it is more complicated than that. Jesus is telling a story to a specific group of people in order to expose them. He is telling a story which holds a mirror up to the hearts of the Pharisees, who were lovers of money and haters of Jesus.

But just as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” continues to resonate meaningfully far beyond the limited context of the Industrial Age of Victorian England, this story from Jesus is not just for the Pharisees of two thousand years ago. As the living word of God, this is a story that holds a mirror up to us too. It is a story God uses to expose us and diagnose us, to help us see things about ourselves so that we might ultimately repent, so that we might be changed.

This story, powerfully paired with our other two readings for today, are like Scrooge’s three spirits, each bringing us a warning about being so caught up in material things and creature comforts that we lose sight of God and our neighbors in need.

We live at a time when there are plenty of people like Lazarus lying at our gates, often literally. There is a crisis of homelessness driven largely by mental health problems and drug addiction which are plaguing American cities large and small. We see the crisis even here in Oak Harbor. There are no easy answers about how to solve this crisis. Christians in good faith can disagree about specific policies or strategies. We should be wise as serpents in how we go about addressing it, to be sure, and not naïve or enabling. But what we cannot do as Christians is ignore the fact that there are people in need. Our three spirits won’t let us do that today, that’s for sure!

The prophet Amos warns those of us who enjoy couches or steaks or bowls of wine, or some combination of the three, those who are at ease, who are financially comfortable and are not grieved over the ruin of our brothers and sisters in need, that such attitudes and lifestyles can lead us into exile, into separation from God.

St. Paul warns us that the desire to be rich, to keep all our money for ourselves, plunges people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, the Apostle says, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

In the gospel reading, it appears that there is no hope for those who condemn themselves through the love of money. The rich man is doomed to an eternity in the flames, and when he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, who are apparently headed the same direction, Father Abraham says, “No. They have Moses and the prophets to warn them. The rich man insists that if they get a message from the dead, from beyond the grave, they will surely listen. But Abraham replies saying, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Jesus hides an Easter egg here at the end of his story. He points to the fact that even after the resurrection, the Pharisees still won’t believe in Jesus. They will still scoff at him and reject him They will still be lovers of money and haters of Jesus. As St. Luke wrote these words down, he would have known that this is exactly what happened.

But what is true of the Pharisees is not true for us. You see, a dead man really did rise from the dead. Jesus Christ our Lord died and rose again so that he might bridge that great chasm between God and sinners. And as we put our faith in him, as we trust him, as we listen to him, he leads us into a new life. He gives us a new heart. We get Easter and Christmas wrapped up together as we are delivered out of sin and death and rise to a new morning with our brother, Ebenezer. We wake up after this visit from these three spirits to a new morning with fresh possibilities made possible by the forgiveness Christ has won for us. We wake up to live for something more than the acquisition of more and more stuff. We wake up ready to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. We wake up with hearts changed, so that we might take hold of the life that is really life.

God bless us, every one!

Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 18

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2022

Luke 16:1-13

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

People can be very clever and creative and committed when it comes to feathering their own nests.

I received an email this week from someone asking for emergency financial assistance. They said they needed help with their rent. They had a compelling back story and just enough information to sound legitimate, so I emailed back. We have a system in place to handle these kinds of requests, so I started to help this person through that process.

It should have been a red flag for me right away when the person said they couldn’t come into the office in person to fill out the application, but I bought their excuse and emailed it to them, asking for a copy of the lease agreement as well so I would have something to verify. From there, little things started to make me increasingly skeptical. I spoke with the supposed property owner on the east coast, who sounded a little too rehearsed. When I asked where the property was, she stammered and said, “Harbor, Washington.” There were other details in the story that didn’t hold up. I discussed it with some of our staff and we agreed that it didn’t smell right. So I politely declined the request and provided our community resource list with other sources of help, just in case we got it wrong. The nasty response I got confirmed to me that it was indeed a scam.

I’ve been fielding these requests for more than two decades now, and so my BS detector is pretty sensitive. But in this case, they almost got me. I was pretty close to putting a check in the mail to a P.O. Box on the East Coast for someone I’d never met in person! As angry as it made me, I had to give them credit. They were clever. They were creative. They were committed.

This morning we hear Jesus tell a parable featuring a similarly scheming scoundrel. The parable starts with his boss bringing charges against him for squandering his property, so he already has a record of financial mismanagement, if not embezzling, and on his way out the door he comes up with a scheme. He’s too lazy to dig ditches and he is too proud to beg, so he goes to the people who owe his boss money and he starts to cook the books, slashing their debt. “How much do you owe? $100? Now it is $80.” He does this over and over again, so that he will have a network of support after he is fired.

This, by the way, is why when people are fired today they are often escorted from the building by security. Businesses don’t want disgruntled employees sabotaging their business or poaching their clients on the way out the door, which is exactly what this man seems to be doing!

You’d think that the boss would be furious when he finds out what has happened, and maybe he was. But what Jesus tells us in the parable is that the boss actually commended him! Maybe it was a begrudging commendation, but the boss had to admit he was clever! He was creative! He was committed! Perhaps the boss was a cutthroat businessman himself and recognized a good scheme when he saw one.

Now there’s a lot about this parable of Jesus that I don’t understand. I have a hard time fitting all the pieces together. It is hard to know when Jesus might be being sarcastic and when he is being earnest. I can’t make all the characters neatly line up as an allegory, where each one represents someone else. It is hard to know how exactly Jesus is using his protagonist, whether he is a Robin Hood-type hero or an admirably cunning villain. And it doesn’t help that there is no agreement among Bible scholars about any of this. Every single commentary I read about this passage this week started by saying something like, “This is Jesus’ most difficult parable to understand and there is no consensus on exactly what he means.” Thanks a lot!

But even with all the confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding this parable, there is one overarching theme that seems to be fairly clear. Jesus seems to be making the point that his followers, the children of light, should be as shrewd, as resourceful, and as driven as what he calls “the children of this age.” We are to be as clever and creative and committed about our stewardship of God’s gifts as the scheming manager in the parable.

The children of light, of course, are to do so faithfully – without the dishonesty, without the manipulation, without illegal or unethical practices. But we are encouraged to be similarly shrewd, similarly clever and creative and committed. We are to be faithful with the little things, so that we might be good and faithful stewards of the true riches God gives to us, the riches of his kingdom.

And so this parable, at least in part, seems to be about how resourceful and driven we are with the money entrusted to us. Are we both shrewd and faithful? Do we manage our money in such a way that our master would commend us? Are we bold and clever and committed with our finances so that the true riches of God’s kingdom can grow and flourish?

Many of you are! We make a point here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church to protect your privacy in giving. There are only one or two people in the office who see who is giving what and I am not one of them, so I don’t know who gives what here, but I do know that we have people here who give regularly and generously to support our ministry. We have people who make additional gifts throughout the year to support our ministries of the month or when there is a need. We have people who give through their smartphones with our Tithely app or through electronic deposits through their bank. That’s clever! That’s committed! We have people who give additional gifts through their Thrivent Choice dollars and through the Amazon Smile program. We have people who have named our congregation as a beneficiary in their will with a planned gift. We have people who have established and given to and managed two endowment funds, which continue to generate money for ministry and for scholarships. How very shrewd all of this is! How very resourceful! Thank you!

This is all great. But I also know that it is part of our sinful nature for all of us to cling to that idol of money. We all want to feather our own nests, and we are equally clever in coming up with excuses for why we should hold on to our money for ourselves. You’ve probably heard the old observation that $20 looks like a lot of money when it is in the offering plate, but not like very much when you’re at the movie theater or the yarn store or the golf course or the book store. $100 seems like a lot to give to the church, but like nothing at all when you’re in the market for a new TV. $1,000 seems like a lot of money to tithe, but doesn’t seem like much for travel. Our relationship with money tends to bring out the scheming scoundrel in all of us. People can be incredibly clever in coming up with ways to appropriate God’s money for themselves.

“You cannot serve both God and wealth,” Jesus says. Money is important. We need it. But when we begin to look to money as the source of joy and security and meaning in our lives, it has become our god. There’s a reason Jesus says what he says here! Money is God’s greatest competition in the battle for our hearts. As Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “Money is the most common idol on earth.” Our hearts regularly cling to this idol. And when we’re clinging to this idol, we are not clinging to God. When we put our trust in our bank accounts, we are no longer putting our trust in God. When our chief purpose in life is to make money or to keep our money for ourselves, then our chief purpose is no longer to serve God.

This idol creates a distance between us and God. In the Bible that distance is often described as a debt. St. Paul describes sin as a debt. This language is even used in one version of the Lord’s Prayer, where it is said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Our worship of the fake god of money creates a debt that we owe to God. There is a debt we owe to God when he gives us all we have, and we live for the gifts rather than for the Giver, when we worship the gifts rather than the Giver, when we serve the gifts rather than the Giver. This is a debt we all owe. This is a debt we all need to have forgiven.

Thankfully, Jesus bears a bit of a resemblance to the clever manager in our parable today. You may not think this is a flattering comparison, but think about it – the Pharisees had been complaining about how Jesus had been squandering God’s kingdom as he welcomed sinners and ate with them. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a law-breaker as he healed on the Sabbath. They wanted to fire Jesus as the Messiah, thinking he was doing the job wrong. Jesus was going around writing off everyone’s sin. He was going around cooking the books on the debt sinners owed to God as he went around proclaiming the forgiveness of sin. It looked like a big scandal to the Pharisees, and God the Father just grinned and commended him for it. God just patted him on the head and said, “You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”

When Jesus died on the cross he said, “It is finished.” What Jesus says here in the biblical Greek can also be translated as “Paid in full.” It is a single word in Greek and it is the word that was stamped on the bills of the ancient world when an account was settled. This is what Jesus has done for us all. And so Jesus is at least somewhat like the shrewd manager in the parable – only Jesus didn’t just reduce our debt, he paid it in full. As St. Augustine said, the cross was a mousetrap for the devil, a clever scheme that sets us free from our debt. Talk about being clever, creative, and committed!

As we receive this forgiveness for our failures – financial or otherwise – our hearts are set free to live for the Giver and not the gifts, to worship the Giver and not the gifts, to serve the Giver and not the gifts. Our hearts are set free to cling once again to God and God alone.

And as our hearts cling to God, our hands don’t need to cling quite so tightly to our wallets, our purses, our checkbooks. Instead, we can be the clever, creative, committed stewards our Lord is calling us to be, so that the whole world might know the true riches of his grace.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 11

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2022

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

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

In our reading from 1st Timothy today, St. Paul writes: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Like the better-known words of John 3:16, this is a simple, straightforward summary of the entire gospel. It tells us clearly why Jesus came into the world: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus himself tell us the same thing, that he came into the world to seek and save the lost. In response to some Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them, Jesus told a little story about a shepherd pursuing one lost sheep and celebrating when it was found. He then told another little story about a woman searching for a lost coin and celebrating when it was found. Through these stories Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees why he has come. He has come to seek out and save the lost. Paul is right: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!

On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I’d like to share with you the story of Mychal Judge, whose story has some pertinent connections to our scripture readings for today.

Mychal Judge knew at a young age that he had been found by Christ Jesus. Even as a boy he felt a strong call to serve Jesus as a priest. He began the formation process to become a Franciscan friar when he was only 15 years old.

But years later Father Mychal lost his way. Even in the midst of his ministry as a priest he wandered away from Jesus and began to abuse alcohol. His abuse turned into full blown alcoholism, which he struggled with for several years.

But Christ didn’t abandon him to his brokenness. His didn’t let Father Mychal stay lost. Christ pursued him, and Christ found him once again. Father Mychal experienced the forgiveness and new life Christ brings to the lost as he got sober. Father Mychal would surely agree: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Father Mychal knew firsthand that Christ had come to seek and save the lost, and celebrated when they were found.

Father Mychal, in turn, served Christ by participating in his work of seeking out the least and the lost. He became well known on the streets of New York City for his acts of mercy. He worked with others who were in the grip of alcoholism, drawing on his own experience to help others get and stay sober. He was once walking down the streets of New York in the middle of winter, and as the wind howled through that concrete jungle he took off his winter coat and gave it to a homeless woman. He once prayed over a man who was dying of AIDS. This man looked up at Father Mychal and asked him, “Does God hate me?” Father Mychal responded by picking this frail man up, kissing him, and gently rocking him in his arms.

Father Mychal knew that Christ came into the world to save sinners. He knew that Christ had come to search for the least and the lost, and that he celebrated when they were found. He knew that Christ had found him when he was lost, and so he dedicated his life to participating in Christ’s work in the world.

In 1992 Father Mychal was appointed to serve as a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Before long he was well known by the firefighters and their families, and well-loved for the prayers, support, and encouragement he offered them.

On a bright fall morning exactly 21 years ago, Father Mychal heard the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airliner. Knowing that his firefighters would be the ones responding, he went searching for them. While others were fleeing those burning buildings, Father Mychal rushed towards them, searching for his beloved people who were now lost in a cloud of smoke and panic. Just as Jesus sought him out when his life was in shambles, now Father Mychal sought out his firefighters to bring them a word of hope on their darkest day.

The same Jesus who sought out and saved Father Mychal – especially when he was most lost – continues to seek and save the lost. What St. Paul said some two thousand years ago is still true today: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to seek out that one lost sheep. He continues to search for every last lost coin.

We all have a tendency to get lost. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” We are the lost coins who periodically fall into the nooks and crannies of disobedience and self-centeredness and destructive behaviors. We are the sinners who are lost in our brokenness, lost in our anxieties, lost in clouds of smoke and panic, lost in the challenges and the struggles and the tragedies and the disasters of our lives. Our sinful nature causes us to wander away again and again. The brokenness of our world often makes us feel lost and alone and afraid.

But as Christ’s word is proclaimed, he finds us once again. As he comes to us in bread and wine, he throws us a lifeline by which we are found. As our hearts are turned again towards God through the forgiveness and new life Jesus brings, we are found and there is joy in heaven.

And like Father Mychal, in response to being found, we join Christ in seeking and saving the lost. We participate in Christ’s rescue mission as we bring a word of truth, a word of hope, a word of peace, a word of grace, to the people around us. This happens as parents and Sunday school teachers share Christ’s love with students who feel a little lost at the beginning of a new school year. This happens as recovering addicts gather under this very roof in one of the several support groups we host here, where they are supported and welcomed and loved. This happens as our Stephen Ministers come alongside people in their seasons of brokenness to provide a ministry of presence to those who are hurting. This happens as our blanket workshop team gathers to make quilts for people around the world who are going through disasters of every kind. I could go on and on about the ways this takes shape in the life of this congregation.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Our Lord Jesus finds us lost sheep, he finds us lost coins, and he celebrates with all of heaven when we are found. This is what happens every Sunday here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church. We are not a club for the righteous, but a fellowship of the found. And we respond to the gift of being found by supporting and participating in Christ’s ongoing work of seeking and saving the lost.

Father Mychal died on this day, 21 years ago, in the North Tower lobby of the World Trade Center. He died as he went looking for his beloved people who were lost in the smoke of the floors above. His body was later carried out of the rubble by firefighters, a moment which was captured in a powerful photograph which has been described as “An American Pieta,” referring to the great Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus.

It is an apt description, for Father Mychal’s death is a reflection of what Jesus has done for each of us. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Lord Jesus searches for his beloved people who are lost. It is a reflection of the sacrifice Jesus was willing to make so that all of us might be found. Jesus died in pursuit of us, and his death tells us that no matter how lost we might be, there is nowhere Jesus isn’t willing to go in order to find us. He was even willing to bear the cross in order to rescue us, in order to save us.

But don’t forget that Jesus’ stories of finding that which was lost always ends with a celebration. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t the last word. God raised him from the dead, and in his resurrection there is cause for rejoicing in heaven and on earth.

Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for Father Mychal and all who loved him. Jesus’ resurrection is Good News as his name, along with 2,605 other names, are read at the World Trade Center this morning. Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for all who mourn, for all who feel lost, for all who are fumbling through any kind of disaster or challenge or hardship, no matter the scale.

Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for you and for me. It means that even death cannot separate us from him. It means that we who were once lost have been found forever. It means that his work of saving sinners continues today as the Holy Spirit continues this ministry both to us and through us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 4, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for Sept. 4

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 4, 2022

Luke 14:25-33

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

When we hear the word “hate,” it gets our attention. Hate is a horrible thing. The English definition of the word “hate” is “an intense and passionate dislike for someone or something.” We hear about hate groups and hate crimes and hate speech. These are all terrible, terrible, offensive things. And so it is shocking for us to hear Jesus in our gospel reading for today saying that no can be his disciple unless they hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself. It certainly gets our attention, right?

Well, it should get our attention – but the first thing we need to do in order to understand what Jesus is saying here is distinguish between our definition of hate and the way Jesus is using the word. Jesus is using a Hebraic idiom, a non-literal, hyperbolic manner of speaking. “Hate” here doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in our English dictionaries. In this particular context and culture to “hate” is not to despise or loathe or be hostile towards. Here it means to detach yourself from something. It means to consider something to be of lesser importance. It means to let go of something. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson deals with this passage in The Message, where he translates Jesus’ words as: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple.”

Throughout his life Jesus upheld the fourth commandment, in which we are called to honor parents. Jesus upheld and even intensified the sixth commandment, in which marriage is to be honored and spouses are to be faithfully loved and cherished. Jesus loved children and chastised those who tried to prevent them from coming to him. Jesus called people to love even their enemies. Jesus does not require us to have “an intense and passionate dislike” of anyone, let alone our parents, spouses, and children! He does, however, call us to detach ourselves from anything that can become an idol for us. He calls us to put him first, above everything else in our lives, even the best parts. He calls us to let go of all that we hold most dear in order to take hold of him.

This is a season of letting go for many people, myself included. Lots of parents have been seeing their kids off to college. I’m recently back from a couple of weeks off, and I spent much of that time getting my two older sons moved back to their schools. With my oldest son, who attends Texas A&M, it involved helping him drive the car he bought this summer down there. He’s a junior in college this year, so this is the third time I’ve had to see him off. While in some ways it is getting easier, in other ways it gets harder. This year as I sat in the airport in Houston waiting for my flight home my mind raced with worry. He has a car there now. Did I teach him to drive well enough? He’s turning 21 in November. Did I talk to him enough about being responsible with alcohol? Not only did my mind race, but my heart ached, because while he’ll be home for almost a month at Christmastime, he is talking about possibly staying in Texas next summer for an internship. His days of coming home and living with us are numbered, and it is hard to let go.

There is a Facebook prayer group for parents of students at Texas A&M that my wife and I belong to. (It is one of the blessings of having a kid go to school in the Bible belt!) On the first day of classes, one of the parents shared a photo of her devotional book reading for that day. It was from “Jesus Calling.” Sarah Young is the author, but she writes as though Jesus is addressing the reader directly. That day’s devotion read, in part:

Entrust your loved ones to me; release them into my protective care. They are much safer with Me than in your clinging hands. If you let a loved one become an idol in your heart, you endanger that one – as well as yourself….I detest idolatry, even in the form of parental love, so beware of making a beloved child your idol. When you release loved ones to Me, you are free to cling to My hand….My Presence will go with them wherever they go, and I will give them rest. This same Presence stays with you as you relax and place your trust in Me. 

Reading this was convicting. It stabbed at me. It poked. It revealed the idolatry that crept into my heart in the form of parental love. It revealed my desire to control rather than to trust. But reading this also freed me. It helped me relax. It helped me let go. And in helping me let go, it also empowered me to take hold of Christ more firmly.

Brothers and sisters, this is what our gospel reading for today is about. It is not about despising or being hostile towards father and mother and spouse and children and brothers and sisters and even life itself. It is about letting go of it all in order to take hold of Christ more fully and firmly. This is how we become disciples – not by clinging to control, but by clinging to Christ.

Even so, this is an enormous challenge. It convicts us. Christ’s call pokes at us, because it is so easy to turn our loved ones into idols, making them our ultimate concern. If it isn’t our loved ones, it is our selves, our own lives that we desperately want to control and preserve at all costs.

It might seem like a heavy charge, associated our love of our families with idolatry, but it fits the definition. Idolatry is turning to something other than God for security and wholeness and meaning. We look to our parents for security. We look to our spouses for wholeness. We look to our children to provide meaning. God wants to be the one to provide all these things for us! Only God truly can!

Not only is our idolatry offensive to God, but it isn’t fair to our loved ones either. It isn’t fair to expect our parents to be protect us from every hardship or challenge. It isn’t fair to our spouses to expect them to fulfill every need we have. As urgently important as our children are, it isn’t fair to make them our sole purpose and projects in life. These are all vitally important relationships, but there is a relationship that is even more important.

Following Jesus cannot be a mere hobby. It cannot be a part-time gig, or something we dabble in or take up casually. Christianity is more than a general philosophy or a worldview. It is a relationship with God in Christ, and nothing can be allowed to take precedent over that relationship. Nothing can be more important to us. If our hands insist on clinging to something else, they will never cling fully to Christ, and we will not be his disciples.

And so we need to let go. We need to loosen our grip in order to take hold of something even better. We need to give up control and live by faith in Jesus. This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is also so very freeing. It can help us relax, giving us a peace that the world cannot give us.

Many of you have had to let go of loved ones. Many of us have grieved or are grieving for parents who have died. I joined that sorrowful club along with many other members of our congregation this past year. Many in our congregation have lost spouses, reminding all of us that every love story eventually ends in tragedy. I know a few families in our congregation who have even lost children. There is a family in our community today which is grieving the loss of a 15-year-old. They need our prayers. Letting go of loved ones, especially in times of death, is the hardest thing we do as human beings.

But I remember a quote attributed to Martin Luther in which he says: “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

Whether we’re dropping our kids off at school or lowering a loved one into their grave, we can let go in the confidence that God still holds them in his mighty and loving hands. And if they are in God’s hands, they are safe. If they are in God’s hands, they can never be lost, they can never be far from us. Our letting go of them, then, isn’t an abandonment, it is placing them in the hands of the One who loves them even more than we do. And so we can relax. We can know that peace beyond all understanding. We will certainly grieve, but not as those who have no hope.

We are called to carry the cross and follow Jesus, putting him above everything else in our lives, trusting him above all else, letting go of anything that threatens to become an idol in our hearts. This call pokes at us. It is a cross, after all. It convicts us.

But we take up this cross today knowing that following Jesus to the cross also means following him into the resurrection. It means following him into his victory over sin, death, and the devil. It means following him into a new life where we don’t have to cling or be in control, a new life full of freedom and peace and hope, a new life that goes on forever, a new life where we find that all we have lost we still possess.

In this new life we are free to love our families and friends without turning them into idols. We are free to appreciate and cherish the life we have been given, while not living only for ourselves and our self-preservation. We are free to let go of control and live by faith. We are free to let go so that we can take hold of Christ more firmly.

As we take hold of him, we find that he already has a firm grip on us, and will never let us go.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 31, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for July 31

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 31, 2022

Luke 12:13-21

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

We have several people in our congregation who have downsized recently as they have moved from larger, family-sized homes to smaller units in retirement communities. It has occurred to me recently that this is not only an incredible physical challenge, but an emotional one as well. You see, while I might be in a different stage of life than these brothers and sisters in Christ, my wife and I have been trying to do some downsizing too. Now that our kids are older, with two of them having one foot out the door, we have been trying to get rid of a bunch of their childhood stuff. In particular, we have a large Hefty bag full or stuffed animals. We have no need for them. They are just taking up space. But I have a hard time letting go of them. Each of those stuffed animals means something to me. It represents something. There is the stuffed bison from our trip to Yellowstone. There is the weird blue monkey a kind nurse gave to one of my boys when he had to get stiches. There are the stuffed jaguar cubs that look just like the three cubs we got to see at the Woodland Park Zoo when our boys were just three little cubs themselves. I know I’m not going to cart these around for the rest of my life, so I have to let go of them sometime, but it is hard because I’ve ascribed meaning to these possessions. So I get it. I get how hard it is for those of you who have had to haul away treasured pieces of furniture that have been part of your life for decades, or things you got as wedding gifts, or knick-knacks that are meaningful to you but don’t mean anything to anyone else, things the kids and the grandkids don’t want. It is hard because we so easily attach meaning to material possessions.

This isn’t inherently wrong or bad or sinful, but it is so easy for us to go overboard with it. It is so easy for us to make too much meaning of these material things. We can begin to think that the very meaning of life is to acquire and hold on to these possessions. We can begin to think that our worth as people is tied up in what we own, what have accumulated for ourselves. We can begin to look to our material assets as the source of our hope for the future.

This sounds like a first world problem, but it was actually an ancient world problem too, as we hear in our gospel reading for today. This is a universal human problem.

Our gospel reading for today begins with dispute about a family inheritance. A man comes up to Jesus and asks him to mediate an argument he was having with his brother about who was entitled to what. To ask a traveling rabbi like Jesus to intervene suggests that the inheritance conversation had not gone well. This was a family at odds. These were brothers who were in conflict. And they were in conflict because they had let the money mean more to them than the relationship.

Jesus refused to get involved. Instead of mediating the dispute, he diagnosed the man’s heart. First Jesus warned him and everyone within earshot to be on their guard against all kinds of greed. “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus said.

And then Jesus went on to tell a parable: A rich man had a bumper crop. His harvest was so abundant that he had to build bigger barns to hold it all. It was so abundant, in fact, that now he could retire! He had hit the jackpot! He could spend the rest of his life relaxing – eating and drinking and being merry. He could travel and play golf and drink gin & tonics and take it easy.

But just when his new barn was bursting at the seams with his retirement grain, the Grim Reaper showed up at his door, saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. What does all that grain mean to you now?” “So it is, Jesus concludes, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

You might be asking yourself: Does this mean saving money is sinful? Is my 401k an example of me sinfully storing up treasures? It is more holy to live paycheck to paycheck and stay close to a zero balance in your bank account, never accumulating anything? Plenty of people find themselves living that way whether they want to or not, but is this the model for all Christians to follow?

I think it is helpful here to recall another story about bumper crops and bigger barns. In the Bible we also have the story of Joseph, who, when working as an assistant to Pharoah, had a vision of seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of severe drought. What did he do? He built bigger barns! He used those bigger barns to store the grain from the bumper crop years, saving the people from famine. Joseph is hailed as a hero in this story for building bigger barns and storing up treasures!

What is different from Joseph and the man in Jesus’ parable? Well, Joseph used the bumper crop to serve God and to serve his neighbors. The man in Jesus’ parable used it only to serve himself. The man in the parable used his bumper crop to secure a comfortable future for himself and himself alone. The man in Jesus’ parable’s preferred pronouns were “me, myself, and I.” Just look at how he talks to himself: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.” As Jesus said, he stored up treasures for himself but was not rich towards God. He lived for his appetites, for his comfort. He ascribed too much meaning to his money, thinking it meant his life was now complete.

Jesus held this parable up to this man who was fighting with his brother about his inheritance, but he is really holding it up to all of us. Either we have financial security and think our lives are complete, that we can rest now, or we don’t have financial security and think that winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune will solve all our problems. Either way, we ascribe too much meaning to our possessions. As St. Paul says in our reading from Colossians, greed is a form of idolatry. As Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism in his discussion of the First Commandment, your god is really that to which your heart clings for all good. It is what you put your confidence in, what you look to for comfort and security. And for many people, that god is their stuff, their possessions, their assets. This was an ancient world problem. It is most certainly a first world problem. It is a problem for every one of us here today, whether we have a lot or we have a little. The human heart ascribes too much meaning to possessions. We turn it into our god.

Even as Jesus shows us the truth about our misplaced meaning, our idolatrous hearts, he also at the same time gives us something better to cling to by encouraging us to be “rich towards God.” Being “rich towards God” sounds like a pitch to give your money to God, and that is certainly part of it. Giving, both in service to God through tithes and offerings and in service to neighbor through charitable gifts, is a spiritual practice that helps train our hearts to not cling so much to our money. But Jesus is inviting us into something more than this. I’ve also seen his phrase here translated as “rich with God” or “rich with the things of God.” To be “rich with God” or “rich towards God” is to treasure the gifts he is giving us through his Son.

Jesus is inviting us into is a life where we find our meaning not in our possessions, but in the Good News that God possesses us, holding us close. Jesus is inviting us into a life where we find our identity and our purpose and our security not in what we own, but in the great truth that we are his own. Jesus is inviting us to relax, to eat, drink, and be merry, not because we might have enough saved, but because he has saved us through his death and resurrection.

When I was on my pastoral internship in rural North Dakota, my wife and I drove into Grand Forks to do some shopping in the big city. This was couple of years after a terrible flood devastated the Red River Valley. Many areas of the city had recovered, but there were areas down by the riverbank where you could still see the damage. It was a bizarre scene. Electrical shorts caused fires which burned the upper half of several buildings, while in the lower halves you could still see the water damage. I remembered seeing the news coverage of the flood. We were living in Minnesota at the time and it was a big deal. I remembered seeing footage of barns being swiftly carried downriver by the current. I remembered how the weather suddenly turned bitter cold, freezing the floodwaters overnight, and so thousands of livestock which had been up to their bellies in water froze in place and died. I remembered seeing interviews with usually stoic Scandinavians openly weeping after they had lost everything: herds and homes, barns and businesses. Most of all, I remembered seeing a big plywood sign propped up against the front door of an evacuated farmhouse, with a message spraypainted on it that said: “You are not what you own.” It was a message of hope. It was a message of truth. It was a message that people desperately needed to hear. It is a message we need to hear too.

You are not what you own. So often we define ourselves by our possessions. So often we ascribe our sense of worth to what we have, or don’t have. So often we look for comfort and contentment in things. We make too much meaning of what we own.

You are not what you own. You are so much more than that. Your life does not consist of an abundance of possessions that can be purchased. It is instead to be found in the one who has purchased you and redeemed you, not with silver or gold, but with his own body and blood. You are that precious to him, regardless of what you own. It is not what you have, but that he has you! Life is truly found when our hearts cling to Christ and Christ alone, who fills our hearts to overflowing with the riches of God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love. Not even the Grim Reaper can take this life, our life in Christ, away from us.

You are not what you own. You are his, and your life is truly found in him, today and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 24, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for July 24

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 24, 2022

Luke 11:1-13

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

Prayer is a real struggle for many Christians. Some Christians struggle with what to say, what words to use in prayer. This seems to be especially difficult for many Lutheran Christians. Just ask a typical Lutheran to pray in public, and nine times out of ten they will be visibly stricken with fear. They’ll suddenly look like a deer in the headlights. Panic ensues as they worry about finding the right words.

If it isn’t the words that are hard to find when it comes to prayer, it is our lack of persistence in prayer. We neglect it. People get so busy in their hectic, overscheduled lives that it can be hard to find the time for a meaningful prayer life. Prayer sometimes gets relegated solely to something that is rattled off at the dinner table, or perhaps muttered to oneself at the end of the day just as you’re drifting off to sleep.

But sometimes the struggle with prayer goes well beyond finding the words or the time and goes right to the heart of prayer itself. Sometimes the struggle is with doubts about its efficacy – doubts that God hears us, doubts that God answers us, doubts that our prayers make a lick of difference in our world or in our lives.

In our gospel reading for today, we hear Jesus teaching the disciples about prayer. And what he teaches in these verses speaks to all of the concerns we still find so pressing today.

As we struggle with words, we hear Jesus tell us what to say! In teaching what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, he puts the words in our mouths. We have the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer here in Luke’s gospel. The fuller, more familiar version is found in Matthew’s gospel, and the fullest version – the one with the doxology at the end – is found in the Didache, an early Christian text. But even here in this short version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus puts words in our heads and our hearts for us to use in prayer.

As he gives us these words, Jesus teaches us to address God as Father. This is how Jesus himself addressed the Lord God. He is, after all, the Son of God. What is remarkable here is that Jesus teaches us to address God in the same way! Through Christ, we have that same relationship, that same closeness, that same love. As Martin Luther puts it in the catechism, “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear father.”

Of course it is tragically true that not all earthly fathers have a close and loving relationship with their children. It is sadly the case that not all earthly fathers can be approached with boldness and confidence. But that is how Jesus approached his Father, and so that is how we can approach our Father in heaven. We can approach God as our Father because we are indeed dear to him and he is dear to us.

Jesus goes on to teach us what to pray for. Rather than asking God to build up our own personal kingdoms with selfish requests, Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. Rather than trying to bend God to our will, Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s will would be done – in our lives and in our world. Rather than praying only for our own needs, Jesus teaches us to include others in our prayers. He doesn’t teach us to say, “Give ME each day MY daily bread,” but “Give US each day OUR daily bread.” Rather than coming before God with our virtue signals blazing, with our supposed moral or spiritual credentials on display, Jesus teaches us to come before God in humility and repentance, asking for forgiveness for our sins. Rather than candy-coating what life in this world is like with platitudes and flowery language, Jesus teaches us to bring our deepest fears and our deepest temptations to God as we pray: “Save us from the time of trial.”

In teaching us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus has given us the words we so often lack. He has given us words to memorize and hold dear and recite often both in worship and in our personal life. He has given us words to help us avoid a narrow and self-centered prayer life, so that we might learn to ask for the things God wants to give us.

Jesus also addresses our lack of persistence in prayer. He tells a parable about someone who needed to borrow three loaves of bread from a friend in the middle of the night. He was persistent, asking again and again and again – and it paid off!

Now, we should not take from this that God will only act on our behalf when we have pestered him enough. We sometimes think this way. We treat God like we treat the button at the crosswalk, thinking the more times we push it, the more likely it will be for the light to change quickly. (I’m not the only one who does this, right?) The point here is to not give up, to keep at it, to not neglect prayer. He is encouraging us to make prayer a habit and a priority, to be persistent in it.

Finally, Jesus addresses the most difficult problem we have with prayer – its efficacy. Does prayer “work”? Why does it so often seem that our prayers are not answered?

Rather than giving an answer or an explanation to this question, Jesus gives a promise. He assures us that God will respond. “Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Jesus points to how even earthly fathers in an evil, fallen world know how to give good gifts to their children. How much more, then, will God respond by giving good things to his beloved children!

This doesn’t mean God will give us everything we want, when we want it, as we want it. And thanks be to God for that, because we don’t always know what is best for us! Sometimes the most loving thing a father can do is to tell his child no, or not yet, or not in that way.

God is not a genie in a bottle, there to grant self-centered and sometimes foolish wishes. God is more like a wise, loving father who knows what is best for us, who must sometimes say no in order to protect us from ourselves, or in order to say yes to something better.  We don’t try to prove that prayer works because something we prayed for “came true.” Instead, we trust God’s promise to hear us, even when God’s answer is confusing or slow in coming. We trust God’s promise to give us what we need.

There is a lot of instruction on prayer packed into our gospel reading for today, and I hope it is important and helpful for you in your prayer life. I hope it fine tunes your theological framework for prayer. But there is something here that I find not only instructional but inspirational when it comes to prayer.

As Jesus teaches us about prayer he first teaches us to address God as our Father, and then he goes on to use an analogy from parenting, telling us that even fallen human parents want to give good gifts to their children.

This got me thinking about my own relationship with my children. I am a fallen human being, to be sure. I am not a perfect father. I get cranky and impatient. When my children approach me about something I sometimes say the dumb and selfish thing before I sheepishly backtrack and say what a better father would have said the first time. But even with all my many flaws, I desperately want to hear from my children. Even with my turned-in-on-self human nature, nothing makes me happier than when they turn to me, when they confide in me. I take delight in hearing from them and want to know what they are thinking, what they’re worrying about, what their needs are. This has become especially true as they have become young adults and are away at college for most of the year and are working long hours when they are home for the summer. When I don’t hear much from them, I miss them. And so even a brief check-in over dinner fills my heart with joy.

My oldest was at Air Force field training for two weeks this summer. All the cadets had to turn in their phones at check-in, so we had no contact at all for two weeks. It was the longest period of time with no contact since he was born more than 20 years ago. I ached to hear from my kid! When he finally got his phone back and texted me from the airport, my world was right again.

Again, earthly parents are at best a pale comparison to the love of our heavenly Father, but I think part of the reason Jesus uses this parental language so often when teaching us how to pray is to help us understand just how much God longs to be in touch with us, how much God loves it when we turn to him, when we confide in him, when we share our worries and our needs, even when we just check in with him.

Prayer is a spiritual discipline, to be sure. We need training in the practice of prayer. It is our duty and our obligation as Christians. But when we think of God as longing for a word from us, when we think of God missing us when we’re not in touch, when we think of God as a loving parent who delights in hearing from us, then prayer becomes something more than an obligation or a practice or a discipline. When we think of God in these intimate personal terms, as Jesus teaches us to do, it becomes less of a struggle and more of a joy. It becomes a gift. It becomes a way to unburden ourselves. It becomes an ongoing conversation. When we believe and trust that the Lord God is our true Father and that we are his true children, we freely and joyfully turn to him with all boldness and confidence as dear children turn to their dear father.

When it comes to prayer, our Lord Jesus has given us more than an instructional how. He has also given us a tremendously inspirational why. We pray because God loves us dearly and delights in hearing from us.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church