Sermon – April 21, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019

Acts 10:34-43, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 It is no exaggeration, no rhetorical hyperbole, to say that these three words are the most important words you will ever hear in your entire life.

The first word, “Christ,” tells us who is risen. The Lord Jesus Christ, who came to give us forgiveness, life, and salvation, who took our sin upon himself on the cross, was raised up from death.

The next word, “is,” tells us that his ministry continues to this very day, to this very moment. This proclamation is in the present tense! This statement is true here and now, right here this morning!

The word “risen” tells us what exactly happened. Jesus was not merely revived or resuscitated. Jesus was raised up to a new reality, to a new existence beyond death. He was raised up to live anew and forever in the power of God

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Why are these the three most important words you will ever hear in your life? What does it all mean for you?

It means that you have a savior, and because of this savior you are forgiven. You are no longer defined by your brokenness, your weaknesses, your shame. You are no longer defined by your failures, your sins. Instead, you can live in the freedom and joy of forgiveness. As Peter proclaims in our reading from Acts for today, “everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins in his name.”

It means that this is a present reality. Christ’s work isn’t just in the past. He continues to be at work as his Word is spoken to give you this new life here and now. This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia!

It means that death, while it is all-too-real, is not final. It means that death, while painful and sad and scary, does not have the last word. It means that death, our biggest fear and our greatest enemy, has ultimately been defeated for all of us. Because you see, this resurrection Jesus experienced is for you too. In our second reading on this Easter Sunday St. Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits.” In other words, in raising Jesus, God was just getting started! Paul writes: “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead will also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 What joy these three little words bring, if only we believe them! What freedom and peace they bring when we trust that they are true. What different lives we could live if we took these words to heart, not just on Easter Sunday, but every day of our lives.

The trouble is, most of the time, we don’t.

The 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a parable about a community of ducks with a duck church with a duck preacher. One Sunday all the ducks faithfully waddled to duck church, where the duck preacher stood to deliver his sermon. He opened his duck Bible to the place where it spoke of God’s great gift to ducks, the gift of wings. “With wings”, said the duck preacher, “we can fly! We can mount up like eagles and soar into the heavens! We can escape the confinement of pens and fences and know the joy of unfettered freedom!”

“We must give God thanks,” the duck preacher continued, “for such a great gift as wings, for we no longer need to waddle – we can fly!” All the ducks in the duck church rejoiced at this message. They stood up and quacked a hearty “Amen!” And then they turned around…and waddled home.

Can you see what Kierkegaard was trying to say with this little parable? Do you think it applies at all to us?

It certainly applies to the apostles! As we heard in our gospel reading this morning, when Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James told the disciples what they saw and heard at the tomb, when they proclaimed to the apostles that Christ had been raised as he told them he would, St. Luke tells us that “it seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

The apostles thought the good news of Easter was an idle tale. They thought it was a mere story, going nowhere, changing nothing. The apostles themselves didn’t believe the Easter message! At least not at first! Do we? The good news of Easter might be a joy to hear today. We might quack a hearty “Amen!” this morning. But will we believe it tomorrow, or will it just seem like an idle tale? Will we go right back to our waddling through life?

There are many reasons that it is hard for us to believe the Easter message.

It can be hard to believe the Easter message because we live in a world where waddling is considered normal. It is just easier sometimes to conform ourselves to the behaviors and beliefs of the world around us. It is easy to give in to the cynicism and despair that is all around us.

It can be hard to fly in the freedom of forgiveness because guilt and shame are such heavy weights on our hearts. People like to say that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but we know that isn’t true. Our sins, big or small, no matter where and when they happen, have a way of following us around. I talk to people all the time who turn to a puddle of tears at the drop of a hat because of things they’ve done or left undone from decades ago. Our sin weighs heavily upon us, and it is hard to believe that that weight could ever be taken off of us.

It can be hard to believe the Easter message because death seems so utterly and completely final to us. When you have lost a loved one to death and you ache with the pain of their absence, it can be hard to believe anything other than that death is the end. When you see another death notice at the post office, or hear of another fatal accident or tragedy on the news, or stand over the grave of a friend, it can seem like death is an unconquerable enemy. When you brush up against your own mortality, either through illness or ageing, it can seem like death is indeed going to have the last word with you someday too.

These are just a few reasons why it is so hard to believe in the good news of Easter, why we keep on waddling through life, stuck in our old patterns of living with sin and selfishness, apathy and anxiety, doubt and despair. Human power or strength or reason just can’t comprehend what we have heard. It seems like an idle tale to us. We just can’t get our heads around those three little words, no matter how hard we try.

Thankfully, Christ is risen. (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

 Our risen Lord is here in the present. His ministry continues right here this morning. Our risen savior come to us on this day of resurrection through his Word to raise our faith and to conquer our doubts. He is here and at work on us on this Easter Sunday by the power of his Holy Spirit so that he would open our ears and our hearts to those three beautiful words today, so that we would believe them, so that we would trust that they are true.

Jesus wants you to know that your sin really is forgiven! It died with him on the cross!

Jesus wants you to know that he really has conquered death! His resurrection is the first fruits of what God has in store for us all. Death is real, but it is not final. Death will not have the last word – Jesus will! One day he will call our names. One day he will call us into the new reality of the resurrection, into a new existence beyond death, to live with him forever in the power and presence of God.

Do you know what all of this means? It means we can stop waddling! We can leave behind the old life and start flapping the wings of faith. We can let go of our sin and our shame and our fear and begin to fly. We can begin to live in hope and joy, soaring with confidence and peace towards the eternal home our risen Lord has in store for us.

Hear it again. This is no idle tale! These are the three most important words you will ever hear in your entire life: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 Now don’t you dare waddle out of here today!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – April 7, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019

John 12:1-8

When my wife and I had been dating for one month, I bought her a single rose to mark the occasion. On our two-month anniversary, I bought her two roses. I kept this up for several months, adding a rose for every month.

The first time I met my sister-in-law Amy and I had been together for several months at that point, and Amy told her about the roses I was buying. My sister-in-law looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said, “That’s very sweet, Jeff, but I don’t think you’ve thought this through. What happens if you’re still together in ten years and have to buy her 120 roses? You’re either going to have to break up or win the lottery!”

And she’s right. It wasn’t sustainable. If I’d kept it up, I would have had to buy her 291 roses this month! That’s more than 24 dozen roses! Thankfully, Amy understood that I was lovesick and dopey and terrible at math. But that’s how love is! Love doesn’t count the costs. Love pours itself out for the sake of the beloved. Love does some things that look funny and ridiculous and even shocking to others.

That’s the kind of love we see in our gospel reading for today. Jesus was staying at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He had just raised Lazarus from the dead, and now the authorities were plotting in earnest to kill him. “It is better that one man die for the people,” Caiaphas had said – being more right than he knew. The sharks were circling, and so just before our reading for today, St. John tells us that Jesus could no longer walk openly among the people. Now, six days before the Passover, he was laying low at the home of his friends. It was his final stop before his fateful entry into Jerusalem.

In the middle of a dinner party, Mary did something shocking. She went and got a bottle of costly perfume from her room. This was not the cheap stuff from Walgreens – this was the good stuff from Nordstrom’s! This was worth 300 denarii, which was about a year’s worth of wages for a common laborer in that time. This wasn’t a small vial either. This was an entire pound’s worth of the best perfume the ancient world had to offer. This bottle of perfume was probably the most expensive thing Mary owned. She took this perfume and she poured it all out on Jesus’ feet. She used it to anoint Jesus, St. John tells us – and as she did, the fragrance filled the room.

This was all strange enough, but then Mary pulled off her head covering. She let down her long hair. She bent down and tipped her head and began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair.

It was all so strange: In the ancient world people were anointed on their heads, not their feet! And people either washed their own feet, or a servant would do it – but your friends certainly didn’t do it! And when feet were washed, you didn’t use the most expensive perfume in the house to do it! And the hair? In the ancient world all women wore their hair long. A woman’s long hair was her pride and joy. You certainly didn’t use that beautiful long hair to wipe someone’s feet! None of it made a lick of sense! It didn’t add up! It seemed ridiculous!

You can almost sense the disciples sitting in silence, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs during this very public display of affection. Eventually Judas (of all people) spoke up: “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor!” he objected. You see, the Passover was near, and it was customary to make an offering for the poor at the Passover. But that’s not what Judas’ concern really was. Judas was virtue signaling. He was saying what seemed virtuous while he didn’t really have any intentions of doing anything about it. In fact, St. John clues us in that Judas was a thief who liked to dip his fingers into the common purse to skim off a little for himself. To Judas, what Mary was doing seemed absurd. It probably seemed absurd to the rest of the disciples too.

But it wasn’t absurd to Jesus. Jesus told Judas to back off. He told him to leave her alone. Jesus understood that Mary was expressing her love for her him. Jesus explained that she was preparing him for his burial, which was now only days away. “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus said, “but you do not always have me.”

Whether she realized how short Jesus’ time on earth with them was or not, Mary was pouring herself out in love for her Lord. And love, real love, doesn’t count the cost. Real love in action sometimes seems ridiculous and even shocking to others. But this extravagant display of love wasn’t strange or ridiculous to Jesus. He received it with joy.

I heard another story from another Mary this past week. At our Wednesday soup supper this week Mary Brock shared with some of us how a friend of hers invited her to see a new movie that is opening soon – not this Friday, but the following Friday. When she was invited Mary looked at her calendar and said, “But that’s Good Friday!” Her friend responded, “So what! You already know what happens! He dies every year! Just come to the movie with me!” Mary’s jaw literally dropped even as she told us the story. Mary respectfully declined, leaving her friend shaking her head. It seemed ridiculous to this friend that Mary would give up a Friday night outing to the movies in order to come to a worship service. It seemed absurd to her.

But Mary of Oak Harbor loves Jesus like Mary of Bethany did. She can’t imagine going to the movies on the night the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion. And so she will be here pouring herself out at Jesus’ feet.

This is how the world responds to us who love Jesus. They will often get behind much of our work in the world. They will often admire us when we help the poor. They will often appreciate it when we build hospitals or nursing homes or when we dig wells. They will applaud us when we do something seen as practical in helping others. Oftentimes they’ll even set up their own secular versions of those efforts. We should keep on doing those things. The poor are always with us, Jesus said

But what we do here? Gathering to praise and worship Jesus? That is something the world will always think is ridiculous. Singing songs to Jesus on a weekend morning when you could be sleeping in? Are you crazy? Theologian Marva Dawn once wrote a wonderful book about worship called: “A Royal Waste of Time.” It was a tongue-in-cheek title, pointing to how worship is perceived by many people.

And the practice of setting aside a significant portion of our income as a love offering to Jesus? That seems absurd to many people too. They think: What a waste! Don’t you know you could buy a jet ski or a hot tub with that money? Or, like Judas, they will virtue signal about it, saying: Don’t you know you could do something more practical with that money, something that actually helps people?

Or spending time at Jesus’ feet by coming to Bible study – either by staying a whole extra hour at church, or, even crazier, coming on a Tuesday night? Or spending time in prayer, falling on your knees and pouring your heart out to Jesus? To many people this all seems as absurd as dumping a bucket of Chanel No. 5 on someone’s feet and rubbing it in with your hair.

But when you love Jesus, you don’t count the cost. You don’t tally the time. Real love is willingly sacrificial. It means joyfully pouring yourself out of the sake of the beloved. There is nothing particularly virtuous about us that causes us to act this way and do these things. This is simply what people who love Jesus do, and Jesus receives this love with joy.

We love him because he first loved us. We love him because he poured himself out for us.

The morning after that dinner party with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He could probably still smell the perfume on his feet as he made the last leg of his journey. There he was greeted with palm branches and people shouting “Hosanna!” There Jesus showed his love for each of us as he gave himself up for us on the cross. We’ll pick up this part of the story next Sunday as we begin Holy Week.

But we remember even now that on the cross, Jesus poured out more than perfume. He poured out his blood for us. He poured out his life for us. It was a shocking display of love that seemed ridiculous to many. It still seems absurd to a lot of people.

But in his great love for us, Jesus didn’t count the cost. Instead, he poured himself out for the sake of the beloved. He poured himself out for you. He loves you that much.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – March 31, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 31, 2019

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

The Pharisees could hardly believe their eyes. Here was Jesus, who was presenting himself as a rabbi, as a holy man, as a teacher of Israel, and yet he was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were considered the worst kind of sinner in Jesus’ time. First, they bid on contracts from the Romans to have the right to collect taxes on their behalf. Collaborating with this reviled pagan enemy was bad enough, but then they went on to use their role as tax collectors to squeeze every last dime out of their own people with exorbitant “service fees.” They were swindlers and traitors and everyone despised them for it.

There were other kinds of sinners Jesus spent time with too. We aren’t told what kind of sins they were up to. You can probably imagine – though I don’t recommend spending too much time thinking about it.

Jesus not only welcomed tax collectors and other sinners into his company, he also ate with them. He reclined on their couches. He dipped his bread in their bowls. He lingered among them for long after-dinner conversations. Who you ate with in the ancient world mattered. It mattered a lot! Eating with someone meant you had a relationship with them, a connection. We see a reflection of this in our English word “companion,” which literally means “the one with whom you break bread.” By eating with these tax collectors and other sinners Jesus was sending the signal that he considered them his companions, his friends even!

The Pharisees grumbled about this, and in response to their grumbling Jesus told three stories, three parables. He told the parable of the lost sheep, he told the parable of the lost coin, and then he told the parable we hear today, which I like to call the parable of the lost sons.

You’ve probably heard this parable before. Some of you know it very well. It is probably Jesus’ most widely known and most loved parable. Most people know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I like to call it the parable of the lost sons because it connects it to the two “lost” parables that come before it, and also because it calls our attention to the fact that there are two sons in this parable, each of whom are lost in their own way.

First there is the son who left. He went to his father and demanded his inheritance ahead of time, essentially treating his father as though he was already dead. This son took his share of the family estate and left town. He traveled to a distant country, where he would be free from the expectations of his family and his community. He would be free from his responsibilities to others. And there in that distant country, he squandered all that money away on “dissolute living.” He spent it all in wasteful and extravagant and immoral ways. His father was so gracious in giving him that money, and he wasted it all chasing momentary pleasures.  We don’t get the specifics, but you can probably imagine – though, again, I don’t recommend spending too much time thinking about it.

Just when the money ran out, the economy tanked. A famine plagued the land. This son went to work for a Gentile employer, caring for his pigs. Now many of us are blessed to know and love some hog farmers. Many of us know them as wonderful people. Some of us even consider them to be workers of minor miracles, because they take grain and slop and turn it into bacon! But for Jewish people, pigs were filthy, unclean animals. As this Jewish son worked these hogs, so desperate and hungry that he drooled over the pigs’ food, it represented rock bottom.

At this point Jesus says this son “came to himself.” He realized his need to return to his father. So he headed home, hoping to at least get hired on as one of his father’s workers. Off he went, rehearsing his apology speech all the way home.

And here is where things get really interesting. You see, the father had been watching for his son. The father had been staring out at the horizon, hoping and praying for the day his son would come home. And then it happened! He saw him! Then come the six most wonderful words in the whole parable: “while he was still far off….” Yes, the son had “come to himself,” yes, the son had turned away from his sinful lifestyle, yes, the son had repented in the truest sense – he had turned around and come home – but he wasn’t there yet! While he was still far off, the father was filled with compassion! While he was still far off, the father ran to him! While he was still far off, the father found him. And when he did, he put his arms around him and kissed him. The son made his confession. He said he wasn’t worthy to be called his son. But before he could offer himself as a servant, as an employee, his father was already clothing him in the best robe, placing the family ring on his finger and putting new sandals on his feet. This dad didn’t want another employee. He wanted his son. And now that he was home, it was time to fire up the barbecue and the band and have a party.

But there was another son too. This son never left home. He was faithful and loyal and obedient. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He didn’t head off to Daytona Beach to blow his dad’s money on a wild and wooly spring break like his kid brother did. But make no mistake about it. He was lost too.

This older brother saw his younger brother being welcomed back into the family with a big party and he became angry. “I’ve been faithful! I’ve been good! I never left! I never disobeyed you! Where’s my party?” This son was lost in a haze of resentment. He was lost in a fog of self-righteousness. He was lost in that he couldn’t find his way into the joy his father was experiencing. He couldn’t even call his brother his brother. Instead he said to his father, “This son of yours…”

 But here’s another amazing thing: the father blesses this son too! Even in the midst of this son’s anger, his resentment, his self-righteousness, the father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” What a gracious thing for a father to say to a pouting son! “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father explains why he has thrown this party. “We had to celebrate,” he says, “for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

I think the meaning of the parable would have been pretty obvious to the Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus’ little dinner parties with sinners. Those sinners were like the younger son who had come to himself. They had hit rock bottom spiritually and morally and now they were stumbling towards home. While they were still far off, Jesus had gone to meet them. They had been welcomed back as God’s children, and now it was time to celebrate.

Likewise, the Pharisees probably understood very well that Jesus was casting them as the older son. Jesus was suggesting that they were grumbling because, in their own way, they were lost too. They couldn’t let go of their anger, their resentment, their self-righteousness. They couldn’t let go of their disgust and see these sinners as their brothers who had come home.

Jesus used this parable to describe his ministry to them. He had come to reach out to the lost, even while they were still far off. He had come to bring them home to God. But he had an invitation for the Pharisees too: Stop grumbling and join the party!

Where we find ourselves in this parable is perhaps a little more complicated.

Sometimes we are the younger son. We take the grace God has given us and we squander it. We come here on Sunday mornings to get our share of the inheritance, and then we spend Monday through Saturday living in wasteful and extravagant and immoral ways, chasing momentary pleasures. Instead of seeking to faithfully serve our loving Father, we go our own way and serve ourselves, thinking we’ve found freedom when we’ve really found a bondage of our own making. We try to live by our own rules until we’re so filthy and hungry that we start to long for home.

Other times we are the older son. We take a little too much pride in our supposed faithfulness, our supposed obedience. In our self-righteousness we look down our noses at those whose sins are more public and scandalous, refusing to acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters, refusing to share in God’s joy when they come home.

There’s more than one way to get lost, and we seem determined to try them all at one time or another. The good news is that this parable isn’t just about two lost sons, it is about a loving Father. In this parable, Jesus reveals the will of our Heavenly Father towards us. Even while we are still far off, God comes to us. Even while we are still far off, God is full of compassion and love towards us. As we turn to him, God welcomes us home with joy, clothing us not as mere servants, but as beloved sons and daughters. And when we grumble and are resentful and insist on stewing in our own self-righteousness, even then God says to us, “You are always with me, and whatever is mine is yours.” God invites us to celebrate his work in the world and to share in his joy.

We continue to get lost, but thankfully Jesus continues to eat with sinners. He eats with us today, renewing us in his forgiveness and making us his companions, his friends. Because of him, we can always come home. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – March 24, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 24, 2019

Luke 13:1-9

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

When I tell people I have a friend my same age who has been battling lung cancer for several years, the question I almost always get is: Was he a smoker? Or if not that then: Did his parents smoke? The answer is no to both, but the question reveals something about us, doesn’t it? Oftentimes our first response to frightening or threatening circumstances is to try to find an explanation. We try to connect the dots. We try to understand cause and effect. Sometimes this even leads us to blame the victim. If we can find something that the victim did to bring it upon themselves (like smoking), we can distance ourselves from what is happening to them and the world seems a little safer, a little more predictable, a little more in our control.

Trying to understand cause and effect can be helpful in many circumstances. If we understand what might be causing bad things, we can potentially prevent them from happening again. But sometimes the cause is elusive. Sometimes there is no ready explanation. Sometimes the victim did nothing to bring it upon themselves. Sometimes lung cancer just shows up. Sometimes a gene or a cell just randomly misfires.

We have a saying we turn to when there are no easy explanations. We say: “Stuff happens.” (Only we don’t say stuff, do we?) When something bad happens out of the blue, things we can’t understand, things we can’t explain, we often summarize the situation by saying, “Stuff happens.”

Well, some stuff happened in our gospel reading for today. Some really nasty, awful stuff. First we hear about a gruesome act of terrorism in which Pilate slaughtered some pilgrims coming into Jerusalem from Galilee. They were bringing their sacrificial offerings to the temple when Pilate struck them down, mingling their own blood with the blood of their sacrifices. It was a horrible act of violence, cruelty, and desecration.

Apparently when people heard this news, they tried to make sense of it. Jesus seems to suggest people were thinking: Well, they must have done something. Maybe they upset Pilate somehow. Maybe they provoked him, the fools. Maybe they weren’t as faithful as their offerings suggested and God even had something to do with it! Maybe God was preventing the secretly unclean from entering the temple. You never know. Jesus soundly and swiftly rejects this way of thinking. “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?” he says. “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus then points to a different tragedy, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, which came crashing down, killing eighteen people. Again, Jesus said: Do you think these people were worse sinners than everyone else? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

When people tried to offer trite explanations for tragedy, when they tried to assign blame, when they started even to implicate the victims themselves, Jesus rejected this line of thinking entirely. He told people instead that tragedy should lead to repentance. It should lead people to look at themselves. It should push people to turn to God.

We’ve had strikingly similar situations happen in our own time in just the past couple of weeks. There was the shooting in New Zealand, where fifty people were killed as they were worshipping God. I know they were Muslim. I know that their prophet is not ours. But the Bible tells me that those were human beings created in the image of God. The Bible tells me they were fellow children of Abraham. The Bible tells me they were neighbors we are called to serve in Christian love, just as Christ loved and served Samaritans and Gentiles. These people were struck down while offering their sacrifices to God. While all kinds of blame has been cast in just about every direction, they have been gathering in their house of worship this week on bare floors because they had to tear out the entire carpet in their sanctuary, which was soaked with blood from wall to wall.

Then there was the crash of the jetliner in Ethiopia, which took the lives of all 157 people on board. There were many people on board who were in Ethiopia doing mission work, including pastors, priests, and nuns. The Rev. Norman Tendis, a Lutheran pastor who had been in Ethiopia on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, died in the crash.

There are plenty of questions that should be asked about both of these events, to be sure. There are plenty of “how” questions that need to be explored to try to prevent them from happening again. But what about the “why” questions? Why those people in New Zealand? Why those people on that plane? Why those pilgrims from Galilee? Why those eighteen people when the Tower of Siloam fell?

In the face of bad things happening that we can’t explain, we might say, “Stuff happens.” We don’t say that to trivialize the tragedy or to dismiss the pain that comes as a result, but as a way of acknowledging that sometimes there are no answers to why things happen as they do in this broken world. “Stuff happens.”

Jesus doesn’t give answers to why stuff happens, but he does tell us how to respond. First he tells us what NOT to do. He warns us against blaming the victims. He warns us against thinking that we are somehow superior because what happened to them didn’t happen to us. But even more importantly, Jesus tells us what we SHOULD do. He tells us we should repent. This doesn’t just mean feeling sorrow for things we’ve done, which is how we usually think of repentance. Jesus is using the word ‘repentance’ more broadly here. When bad things happen, we are to turn to God. When the stuff hits the fan, we are called to turn to God.

This leads us into the second part of our reading for today, the little parable Jesus tells. Jesus paints a picture of a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit and found none. He was ready to cut it down, but the gardener pleaded for a little more time. “Let me put some manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, you can cut it down then.”

What does this mean? In writing on this passage, St. Augustine said some interesting things about the manure. He wrote, “The basket of dung is filthy, but it produces fruit.” He wrote: “The gardener’s filth is the sinner’s sorrows.” I find this interpretive move by Augustine very helpful in connecting the parable with the circumstances Jesus is addressing. Augustine says that the manure represents the sinner’s sorrows. These sorrows are unpleasant. They are filthy. They are the “stuff” that happens. Why these things happen remain a mystery, but we do know that God uses them to draw us to himself. When “stuff happens” God uses that stuff to push us to repent, to remind us of our dependence on him. When “stuff happens” God uses that stuff to call good fruit out of us, the fruits of faith.

We see this again and again in the Bible. We see it in how God used the horrible behavior of Joseph’s brothers to ultimately save all of them. We see it in how God used the invading armies of Assyria and Babylon to call his people back to the covenant. We see it in how God used the persecution of the early Christians to spread the gospel out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We see this most clearly in how God used the violent and cruel and desecrating act of the crucifixion of his Son to bring about our salvation.

There is still so much mystery surrounding all of this. The “why” questions are so far over our heads! But it is clear that when “stuff happens,” God uses that stuff to push us to turn to him. When “manure happens,” God uses it as the fertilizer, so that we would bear the fruits of faith.

I’ve told you before that I see this so often in my friend with cancer. When the worst kind of “stuff” happened to him, it has led him even more deeply into a reliance on God that has born fruits of faith. He has no doubt had his dark nights pondering why, but that filthy manure in his lungs and now his bones and brain as well, has also made him a man of even deeper faith, an even more loving husband, an even more doting father to his two girls, and an even more compassionate pastor. Turning to God will do that!

Turning to God will do that to you too. So when “stuff happens,” rather than blaming victims or grasping for answers that might not be there, simply turn to God. When the manure hits the fan, on the news or in your life, turn to God. Place that manure into the hands of the Gardner.

This is earthy stuff, I know. You should hear the uncensored version of this sermon! You should the parts my wife talked me out of saying! This is earthy stuff, but that’s Jesus for you. He isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. He isn’t afraid of the manure. He can use it! This Gardner took the basket of dung that was the cross and made it bear the sweetest figs of forgiveness, life, and salvation! So when “stuff happens” to you, hand it to him. He’ll use it to grow in you the fruits of faith.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – March 17, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2019

Luke 13:31-35

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

Throughout the ages there have been all kinds of stories about foxes and hens.

Maybe you heard the one about the fox who got into the hen house and ran around in circles causing the hen to become dizzy. When the hen collapses, the fox captures her in his sack and takes her home, where he plans to gobble her up. But along the way the fox stops to rest. As he is snoozing, the hen slips out of the sack and replaces her weight in the sack with a stone. And so, when the fox gets home and reaches into his sack for his supper, the joke is on him.

In these stories the foxes are inevitably depicted as wily and cunning and deceitful and tricky, employing various clever strategies to fill their bellies with some Chick-fil-A. But in most of these stories the foxes are outwitted by the higher wisdom of the hen. They are foiled by those seemingly awkward, seemingly foolish feathered creatures who end up exercising an unexpected power of their own.

This basic premise is seen in all kinds of stories, from Aesop’s fables to the all-time greatest cartoon ever made – Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, which is the same story set in the American Southwest.

Aesop’s versions of these stories date back to five or six hundred years before Jesus! And from the sound of our gospel reading for today, it appears as though Jesus himself was familiar with them.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what he needed to do there. He knew the fate that awaited him. He was determined to carry out his mission. Some Pharisees came to him with a warning: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” It is hard to know what motive the Pharisees might have had in bringing Jesus this warning. They certainly haven’t been concerned about his personal safety before now! Perhaps they were using it as a way to get Jesus out of town. Whatever might have been motivating them, Jesus would not be thrown off course. “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Herod is described by Jesus as a fox. He must have inherited his wily ways from his father, Herod Senior. Years ago when Herod Senior heard people saying that a new king had been born in Bethlehem, he had every child in that town under the age of two murdered. It was a ruthless and calculating way for a king to keep his hold on power. But as brutal and crafty as his strategy was, this fox was outwitted. The newborn king and his parents had already fled to Egypt.

Herod Junior was following in his father’s footsteps. It was Herod Junior who, when John the Baptist publicly condemned his divorce and remarriage to his sister-in-law, had John put in prison. Herod Junior seemed cunning and powerful, but it was his own dancing stepdaughter and her mother who tricked him into taking the far more grim step of putting John’s head on a platter.

It was Herod Junior who had killed Jesus’ cousin John. It was Herod Junior who Jesus was now calling a fox. “Tell that fox I have work to do here. I’ll go when I’m good and ready.”

If Herod is the fox in this power play, Jesus casts himself as the hen. As he sets his sights on Jerusalem, Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you were not willing.”

Hens seem powerless against foxes. Hens seem defenseless. They seem so docile. But they exercise a power of their own! Maternal love is like that. Maternal love and protection is a force of nature, isn’t it? We see this across the animal kingdom. The last place you want to be is between a mother and her brood. I’ve seen the sweetest looking otter mama turn terrifyingly fierce towards me when I rowed too close to her babies in my canoe. This is true for humans too. My wife has a hoodie that says “Mama Bear” on it. Ninety-nine percent of the time my wife is sweet and gentle and soft-spoken and demure. But if you mess with our kids she will bite your face off!

Jesus casts himself as a hen. He won’t be deterred by that fox, Herod. Jesus won’t be thrown off course by his threats.

But at the same time, Jesus has a different problem. There’s a new wrinkle in this story of the fox and the hen, and it has to do with the chicks. As Jesus looks towards the city of Jerusalem he sees a bunch of chicks that don’t want his protection. He sees a bunch of chicks that reject the fierce love he is coming to bring them. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that stones those who are sent to it, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

If Herod is the fox and Jesus is the hen, who are we in the story? We are the chicks! We are the ones who go scurrying away, thinking we can handle things on our own. We’re the ones who maybe don’t think the fox is really a threat. We are the ones who reject the loving care of the hen.  Throughout the Bible, indeed throughout all of human history, human beings have been like chicks who run away from the help of the hen. We know this. We see it all the time. Human beings can be stubbornly independent. God created us for himself and for community with others, and yet human beings persistently and stubbornly think they can manage on their own.

For instance, men are notorious about not wanting to go to the doctor, right? I remember seeing a billboard for a public health campaign trying to get men to go to the doctor. It said, “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.” And someone had vandalized the sign. Some guy got up there and spray painted the words: “No we won’t!”

There are students who refuse to get help from free tutoring provided by schools. There are married people who refuse to get help from marriage counseling. There are young parents who refuse to ask for help from veteran parents. They’re going to do it their way! One of my biggest frustrations as a pastor is that so many people who need the healing ministry of the church refuse it. In fact, when people’s lives get difficult is often the time they stop coming to church. They don’t want anyone to know about their problems, even here at church, where is should always be OK to not be OK! But none of us want to be seen as weak or vulnerable, as needing help.

This pervasive human stubbornness gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus too, and when it does it breaks his heart. He wants nothing more than to gather us under the shelter of his wings, but oftentimes we’d rather go at it alone. What seems to us like being brave or strong or independent is really a rejection of what he has come to give us.

When Jesus did make his way to Jerusalem, he showed us and the whole world the unexpected power of a mother hen. In Jerusalem, Jesus outwitted every last fox once and for all. And he did it in a way that no one saw coming.

Hens aren’t powerful creatures. They don’t have claws or fangs. They don’t quite have the talons that roosters do. They can peck at an enemy, but usually that’s no match for a hungry fox. And so, when her brood is threatened, a hen exercises a different kind of power. When a fox comes after her chicks, mother hens have been known to jump in front of them. They will hurl themselves into the jaws of their attackers in order to save their brood. It isn’t uncommon for people who keep chickens to go out to the coop the morning after an attack and find the mother hen reduced to a pile of feathers while the chicks are all safe and sound. That’s the strange power of the hen.

I read a story this week about a University of Idaho professor who was studying a range fire when he came upon an odd-looking clump. He kicked at it with his boot and found a bunch of sage grouse chicks underneath what was the remains of their mother. That’s the strange power of the hen.

Mother hens will give themselves for the sake of their brood, and this is precisely what our Lord Jesus has done for us. On the cross, Jesus hurled himself into the jaws of the worst fox of all. He handed himself over to sin, death, and the devil. Talk about clever – Jesus took our rejection and turned it into the means of our salvation! On the third day his work was indeed complete. He rose again so that he might, at last, gather us into his kingdom.

You can stop scurrying away, you know. You can stop trying to make it on your own. You can stop trying to rely on yourself. For Christ Jesus died and rose to make you part of his brood, and he is gathering you under his wing even now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – March 3, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – March 3, 2019

Luke 9:28-36

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

Lent has been on my mind. This past week I put the final touches on the bulletin and the Powerpoint for our Ash Wednesday service which will be held this Wednesday. I wrote a new confession of sin for that service based on the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation of the commandments in the Small Catechism, so I’ve been thinking about sin and repentance. Our family usually gives up something or takes up some new spiritual practice for Lent, so I’ve been thinking about spiritual disciplines. I checked to see where the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service were so I would be ready to burn them to make the ash I’ll use to mark you with the sign of the cross as I remind you that you are dust, and to dust you will return, so I’ve been thinking about mortality.

I stopped by Haggen the other day to pick up some milk while all of this weighty stuff was running through my mind, and as I headed back to the milk cooler I saw a gigantic display of Easter candy. There were chocolate bunnies. There were pastel-colored M&Ms. There were Peeps. There were Cadbury eggs.  My first thought was, “Good night! Lent hasn’t even started yet and they have all this stuff out! This is ridiculous!”

My second thought, though, was more positive. As I passed back by that display on my way to the checkout, I looked at all the bright springy colors, smiled to myself and thought: “Easter is coming.”

As we come to the end of the season of Epiphany today and look to the beginning of Lent we hear about how Jesus took Peter and James and John at the top of a high mountain. And what these disciples saw there, even if they didn’t realize it at first, was a sign that Easter was coming. They had a hard road ahead of them, but for a moment they caught a glimpse of the glory of Christ. They caught a glimpse of what would ultimately be his victory over sin and death.

While Jesus was praying on the top of that mountain, the appearance of his face changed. It started to glow with an unearthly light. His clothes became a dazzling white. They saw the divinity of Jesus shining through. They saw the Jesus that death could not destroy. They saw the radiance of his eternal power and glory! For a moment, the disciples caught a glimpse of Easter!

Suddenly there were two other men there talking with Jesus. It was Moses and Elijah! They appeared in glory, Luke tells us. They had long been dead, but now they were radiating with heavenly glory. Death had no power over them! The disciples caught a glimpse of Easter!

Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. Wouldn’t you love to know what they were talking about? Well, you can, because Luke tells us! They were speaking of his departure. This is Luke’s gentle way of telling us they were speaking of his death. The actual word in Greek here is “exodus.” Just as Moses led an exodus out of slavery into the Promised Land, now Jesus was going to lead an exodus of his own. He was going to lead people out of sin and death and into the Kingdom of God. And he would do it through his death and resurrection. This is what he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The disciples got to listen in on this conversation, and in so doing, whether they realized it at first our not, they were hearing the good news that Easter was coming.

And then, to cap this amazing scene off, a cloud came. To you and me a cloud isn’t anything unusual. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are enshrouded in clouds all the time, right? But this cloud was special. This cloud meant something. In the Old Testament, God indicated his presence by coming in the form of a cloud. God led the people through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud. God descended on the tabernacle, Israel’s portable worship space, in the form of a cloud. As we heard in our first reading, when Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, God came in the form of a cloud. When the temple was built in Jerusalem, a cloud descended upon it, telling the people that this was where God’s presence would dwell. Now that cloud enshrouded all of them. Now this cloud descended on Jesus. God was there! And then, from that cloud, God spoke. God said: “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”

And just like that, the whole thing was over. What the disciples had seen, even though it may not have crossed their minds initially, was a sign that Easter was coming. They saw Jesus shining with the glory of God. They saw Moses and Elijah in glory, free from death. They heard them talking about a new exodus where sin and death would be conquered once and for all. They saw the cloud of God’s presence pointing them to Jesus, the source of their salvation. Easter was coming!

I find it fascinating and encouraging that the disciples get this sneak peak of Easter in the midst of some very earthy, very human stuff they’re dealing with.

First of all, we hear that they were tired. Some commentators have speculated that maybe this happened at night, which admittedly would have made for a better light show when Jesus’ face and clothes lit up. Others have suggested that this is a sign of their spiritual laziness, which we see in other parts of the gospel narrative. Either way, the disciples were tired when they witnessed this remarkable transfiguration of our Lord. They barely managed to stay awake for it.

We also hear that Peter’s initial response to all of this was confusion. He thought that what he was seeing with Jesus and Moses and Elijah all there warranted a building project. He wanted to start a capital campaign. He wanted to build something, perhaps a monument, perhaps a place of worship, perhaps three of those tiny houses so they’d each have a place to sleep. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke tells us that this proposal was born of confusion, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying.

And then, as the cloud formed around them, all the disciples were terrified! God hadn’t even spoken yet and they were already trembling with fear!

What utterly human reactions. What utterly human experiences. And this glorious vision of the transfigured Christ came to them in the midst of all this. In the midst of their tiredness, their confusion, and their fear, they were given a sneak peak of Easter morning.

As we join Peter and James and John today on the top of that mountain, we have our own human stuff we’re dealing with too, don’t we? I know that many of us are tired. We’re tired of turning on the TV or picking up our phones and seeing what new craziness the world is up to. I know that many of us feel confused from time to time. We’re confused about where God is and what God is up to in our world, in the church, in our lives. I know that many of us are anxious, or afraid, or maybe even terrified, about all kinds of different things.

Lent isn’t just a season of the church year, it is a reflection of the very real things we deal with as human beings, and so even though it isn’t quite Lent yet, we also gather here today with an awareness of our sin, an awareness of the ways we are failing to be the kind of people God is calling us to be. We gather here aware of our need to be more spiritually disciplined. We gather here today aware of our mortality, of how fleeting and fragile our lives are. There are plenty of things besides ashes that remind us of that, isn’t there?

Friends, it is right in the midst of this that we catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We catch this glimpse in the Word, which fills our heads and our hearts today with this radiant vision of Jesus shining on the mountaintop. We catch this glimpse in the baptismal font, which sparkles with the living water where we were joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, where we participated in his new exodus out of sin and death and into forgiveness and eternal life. We catch this glimpse at the table of the Lord, where we enjoy a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come.

To those of you who are tired, or confused, or afraid, know that Easter is coming. Even now Christ Jesus has given you a glimpse of his glory. And wherever his light shines, new life is just around the corner.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church