Sermon – October 13, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Eighteen Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019

Luke 17:11-19

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

A few years ago, Christian author Anne Lamott published a book called, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I think the title alone is indeed a nice summary of Christian prayer. We do indeed turn to God for help. We give God our thanks. As we ponder the mysteries and majesty of God, sometimes all we can say is, “wow!”

I also think these three words provide a nice summary of our gospel reading for today.

Help! That’s what the lepers needed! Leprosy was a devastating diagnosis in the ancient world. Not only were the physical effects of weakened and withering appendages a horrible thing to go through, but people experienced all of this utterly cut off from others. There are sections of the book of Leviticus which serve as strict public health regulations for people who contracted leprosy: they were to leave their spouses, their families, their town, their community, and live all by themselves. They were strictly forbidden from coming closer than 50 feet from another human being. The situation was so dire, with such little hope for restoration to the community, that some families would actually hold funerals for their loved ones with leprosy even while they were still alive! People with leprosy were perpetually, and in most cases permanently, unclean. They were thus banned from worship with the community, which meant they were effectively cut off from God.

Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. It was literally neither here nor there. It was one of those in-between places where lepers were made to live as they were pushed to the margins of society. Keeping the distance required by the law they called out to Jesus from afar, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” In other words, “Help!”

When Jesus saw them, he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. They knew what this meant! In those rare cases when people did recover from leprosy (or were perhaps misdiagnosed in the first place and found their skin had cleared up) there was a process by which they could be restored to the community. And the first stop in this process was to go to the priests. The lepers knew this! And so off they went – and as they went, they were made clean. They were physically healed. One of the ten turned back to Jesus. He laid down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Thank you.”

Next comes the “wow.” The “wow” comes when we pay close attention to a couple of very important details. First of all, the one leper who turned to Jesus and gave thanks was a Samaritan. Samaritans were seen by Jewish people as the worst kind of traitors. They had intermarried with their enemies, and over time had adopted aspects of their religion. Because of these deep betrayals of the God of their ancestors, they were seen as beyond the scope of God’s care or attention, worthy of nothing but his wrath.  But here is one of these outsiders, these foreigners, being healed.  And of the ten lepers who were healed, it was the despised Samaritan who turned back to give thanks and praise to God. Wow! Jesus himself notes how unusual this is! Wow!

But there’s another wow! Because you see, Jesus says something very specific to describe what has happened to this Samaritan. St. Luke, as he narrates the story, tells us that all ten were made clean. He tells us that they were physically healed. But when Jesus addresses this Samaritan, he says that because of his faith, something even deeper has happened. The Bible translation we hear this morning simply says, “Your faith has made you well,” but there’s a lot more going on here than the fact that his skin has cleared up! This man has been “made whole,” which is how the King James translates this verse. He has been “healed and saved,” which is how Eugene Peterson translates it in “The Message.” The root word translated here as being “made well” is the root word for salvation! Because of his faith in Jesus Christ this man was not only restored to good health, he was not only restored to human community, this leprous Samaritan was also restored to right relationship with God. He received salvation in the deepest sense of the word! Wow!

Help, thanks, wow. These three words really summarize the story, don’t they? And they don’t just do that.  They also summarize our pattern of life as Christians here today.

We start almost every worship service as Christians with the Kyrie. There’s a reason for that. Every time we sing the words kyrie eleison, we are singing the exact same words the lepers cried out when they came into the presence of Jesus. Kyrie eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.” We sing “Lord, have mercy on us,” because we need help! We need help just like the lepers did! There are times in all of our lives when we need help from God. There are times in all of our lives when we know that same sense of isolation, or that same sense of hopelessness, or that same sense of desperation that the lepers experienced. The illness of leprosy might be blessedly rare in our day, but the illness of sin affects us all. And so we know what it is like to feel alienated from others and alienated from God.  Many Christian traditions like to begin every service with twenty minutes of praise. I am glad to be in a branch of Christianity that still recognizes that much of the time the first thing we need to say to God is “help!”

And of course, our cries of help always give way to saying thank you, because God is faithful. God is good. Sometimes we say thanks to God for cures. Physical healing sometimes happens – sometimes in ways we can’t explain! But it should also be said that God doesn’t always give us exactly what we want. Sometimes people aren’t cured. Sometimes healing comes in a different way. I think of my friend, Pastor Deb Benson over at Anacortes Lutheran, since her cancer diagnosis. There isn’t much hope for a cure for her at this point. You never know what God has in store, but most of the medical measures being taken at this point don’t suggest a cure is coming for her. Pastor Deb has been very open about her experiences these past few weeks, sharing them regularly on her Caring Bridge website, and what has come through for me in her writings there lately more than anything else is her incredible gratitude. Even in the midst of her sickness, she is exuberantly thankful – thankful for every moment, thankful for the life she has led, thankful for her family, thankful for the support of her congregation and her friends, thankful for the work of the doctors and nurses who are caring for her. Deb is honest about the times she is sad or scared too, but she is also so very thankful to God for the many ways he has been so good to her. Sometimes healing happens even when there is no cure! And so she reminds me of another part of the liturgy, the Preface before communion, when we say: “It is indeed right, our duty, and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our savior Jesus Christ.”

And then there is the “wow.” You see, Jesus didn’t come into the world just to heal a few people physically and then go back to heaven. He didn’t come to open a traveling dermatology practice, temporarily curing nasty skin diseases so a handful of people could die of old age instead of leprosy.

Jesus came to conquer death completely. He came to conquer sin completely. He came to conquer everything that separates us from God, so that we could live in right relationship with him, now and forever.

The healing of the leprous Samaritan shows us that no one is beyond the care and concern of our gracious heavenly Father. It is a sign of Jesus’ greater purpose to bring life and wholeness and restoration to all people. It is a sign the greater healing he came to bring. It is a sign of the salvation he came to bring us through the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life.

Jesus has done all of this for you. Your faith in him makes you well.

There is nothing left to say but “wow!”

Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – October 6, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 6, 2019

Luke 17:1-10

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

About a year ago, an African American man named Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his apartment when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly below his, entered his apartment by mistake, mistook him for a burglar, and shot him dead.

This past week, Amber Guyger was convicted of murder with special circumstances and sentenced to ten years in prison. Botham Jean’s brother, 18-year old Brandt, was present at the victim’s impact panel. I’d like to show you what happened when he was given an opportunity to speak:

A video clip from ABC news is played showing Brandt Jean telling Amber Guyger that he forgives her, loves her, and wants what is best for her. He invites her to give her life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. He then asks the judge if he can give her a hug. The judge allows it, and they engage in a long, tearful embrace in the courtroom. The video can be viewed at the following web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkoE_GQsbNA

I think this is a nothing short of a miracle. In the horror of losing a beloved brother in such a tragic way, and with all the racial tensions simmering just below the surface, this young man did something that seems to many people to be impossible. He forgave.

When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, their request for more faith didn’t come out of the blue. It wasn’t random. They asked Jesus to increase their faith because he has just asked them to do something that seemed to them to be impossible. Right before they asked Jesus to increase their faith Jesus had said to them: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

No wonder the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith! He was asking them to do something that seemed impossible. You want us to forgive? Even if the same person sins against us seven times in the same day?

It is important to note that the offender is to be rebuked. Repentance is expected of the person. It isn’t as though there are zero consequences. Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples to be doormats!

But even so, he is calling them to something that seems impossible. He is calling them to be people of complete and perfect forgiveness. When he calls them to forgive seven times, he isn’t calling them to keep track. He isn’t telling them to keep a list, and that people get seven strikes and then they’re out. Seven is the number of completion. It is the number of perfection. Jesus is calling them to forgive completely and perfectly. Again, no wonder the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!” This kind of forgiveness seemed to them to be impossible!

But Jesus says it is not impossible. Not with faith. And you don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” This is an obviously absurd image meant to illustrate that faith can do things that seem impossible. Not that faith is magic! You can have all the faith in the world and you won’t literally be able to plant a tree in the ocean, right? But even a little faith can accomplish the seemingly impossible things our Lord Jesus calls us to do.

That’s because faith is not trusting in ourselves. It is not trusting in our own power or strength or abilities. Christian faith means putting our trust in Jesus. It is not so much a matter of how much faith we have, but where we put it! When we put our trust in Jesus, when we look to him as our Lord and master, when we realize how indebted we are to him for our salvation, well, we just naturally start to serve him – to do the things he has called us to do.

That’s what the next little parable is about. This can be a troubling story to our modern ears with its casual references to slavery. But we should bear in mind that the slavery referred to in this story is not the violent, race-based slavery which is a dark part of our nation’s history. The slavery of the ancient world was more of an indentured servitude. These slaves were most often bondservants who were indebted to their masters, who had provided them with material support in one form or another. A bondservant served his master not in order to receive a round of applause or a certificate of appreciation or in order to earn favor with the master. Bondservants served their masters because they were indebted to them! They served their masters because that’s what they were supposed to do!

The point of this little story, then, is really quite simple. Jesus is telling his disciples to serve him, to do the things he is calling them to do, simply because they are his people. They belong to him. They are indebted to him. They shouldn’t expect certificates of appreciation! They shouldn’t expect special treatment for doing what they have been called to do! They are to forgive others because that is what he himself has done for them. They are to forgive others because that is what his people do.

So who is it that you need to forgive today? Maybe it is a family member. Maybe it is someone who has hurt you or has hurt someone you love. Maybe it is someone you work with, or a neighbor, or a former friend. Maybe it is someone you should have been able to trust.

Remember that forgiveness does not mean ignoring the wrong that has been done. Jesus himself says there is a place for rebuking and for repentance. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. But it does mean letting go of the anger. It does mean seeking reconciliation whenever possible. What grudge have you been nursing that you need to let go of in order to pursue reconciliation?

Maybe it is someone here in this congregation. There is a beautiful moment built right into our worship service for this. It is called the passing of the peace. Much of the time we treat this as a casual time to say good morning, and a lot of the time that’s all it is. But its intent is for reconciliation. Its intent is for the people of God to be reconciled to one another before they go to the altar to be reconciled to God in Holy Communion. The passing of the peace is intended to be a time for the kind of embracing we saw in that courtroom.

Forgiveness means bearing with each other, looking past those flaws in others that annoy us on a daily basis. It means forgiving people over and over again, loving them in spite of their flaws. For instance, I have been loading the dishwasher incorrectly for twenty-three years, and somehow my wife still loves me!

Forgiveness can also mean something much more difficult. It can mean telling the person who shot and killed your brother while he was eating ice cream in his own apartment that you love her and you forgive her and you want what is best for her. It can mean lovingly inviting someone who has taken something precious from you to give their life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. It can mean going to someone you have every right to hate, and instead of giving them hate, giving them a hug.

This kind of complete and perfect forgiveness seems impossible. It seems about as likely as telling a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea and having it obey you!

But with faith in Jesus Christ, it is not impossible. You don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! Even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough for the Lord Jesus to work with. It gets his foot in the door so he can get a hold of our hearts and do his work in us. This complete and perfect forgiveness is hard. Sometimes it is an ongoing process. But it is not impossible.

We forgive because we have been forgiven.  We embrace others with grace because in spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has told us he loves us and forgives us. In spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has thrown his arms around us in his love and mercy.

We forgive because Christ is in us through faith, moving our hearts to extend to others the forgiveness we ourselves have received.

We forgive because we belong to him, and that’s just what his people do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – September 29, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, 2019

Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3, Revelation 12:7-12, Luke 10:17-20

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

Why does life seem like such a battle so much of the time?  Probably every person here today knows someone who is battling cancer or some other chronic illnesses. Probably everyone here knows someone who is battling depression or anxiety. It might even be you. I sometimes talk to people who tell me they are “fighting for their marriage,” or they are “fighting for their family,” or fighting for some other relationship with a loved one in the midst of all kinds of battles. We have battles raging in our community. We certainly have battles in our national life. (Just when you think our political battles couldn’t get any worse, someone in Washington D.C. says, “Hold my beer.”) There are battles raging in our world – some of them with words, some of them with bullets and mortars and rockets.

And then there are the spiritual battles. There is a war being waged all around us between grace and guilt, between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between faith in Jesus Christ and faith in any number of idols we create for ourselves. I see these spiritual battles going on every single day in my office, or out on visits, or right here in this sanctuary.

No doubt you find yourself caught up in these battles in one way or another. Why is it like this? Why does life seem like such a battle so much of the time?

Our reading from Revelation offers an answer to this. As we heard, war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. The archangel Michael and his angels defeated the dragon, driving him and his angels out of heaven. And so, as we heard, “The ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” The reading concludes with these ominous words: “Woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short.”

Why does life seem like a battle so much of the time? Well, that dragon, the deceiver of the whole world, now fights on the earth. This dragon now wages war on us! It wages war on the whole earth – but it especially likes to attack God’s people. And like any animal, this dragon fights most fiercely when it is cornered, when it knows its time is short.

On this St. Michael and All Angels Sunday we hear about and celebrate the archangel Michael. As we heard in the reading from Daniel, Michael is known as the protector of Israel. You could call him the chief guardian angel for the people of God. Michael is not the kind of angel we see much of in popular culture – he is not a cute little “Precious Moments” angel. He isn’t a Barbie doll with wings. He isn’t a fat baby. The archangel Michael is a warrior! He goes to battle for God’s people! He commands armies of angels against evil forces! He is most commonly depicted in Christian art as fighting the dragon, thrusting his spear into the belly of the beast.

This makes for a totally awesome Lord of the Rings-type image – I love it! – but the weapons used by Michael and his angels were not literally weapons of war. Instead, we are told in God’s Word that the dragon was conquered “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” The devil was defeated by the proclamation of Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross. This is how angels of God defeat the angels of the devil – but speaking of Christ! They pierce the belly of the beast by delivering a Word, a message! In fact, the word “angel” literally means “messenger.”

Throughout the Bible we hear about angels coming to people with a message. The angel Gabriel came to Mary with a message, telling her to not be afraid, but that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God. Gabriel also came to Joseph with a message, telling him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. A great multitude of angels came to the shepherds with a message, with good news of great joy: “to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

These angels show up again and again whenever a battle is being waged. Angels came to Jesus after he battled with the devil in the wilderness. Angels came to Jesus again in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he was battling dread and angst so fiercely that he was sweating blood. We don’t know what they said to Jesus, but they gave him the strength he needed to do his saving work, to do what it took to win the war against sin, death, and the devil. Angels showed up at the tomb on Easter morning, when the women were battling doubt and despair, fighting back tears and grief. These angels brought them the message that Christ had risen.

Angels are indeed warriors – but they fight their battles with the Word, with a message, with the Good News. They conquer the devil and his angels with the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony – and the angels of God are still doing this today as we fight our battles.

I meet with people all the time who are battling guilt. Sometimes people try to argue that postmodern people don’t feel guilt anymore. I beg to differ! The devil is described as an accuser in our reading from Revelation, and I see his demonic work all the time in the tears of people who are overwhelmed by guilt over things they’ve done or failed to do. As I share the Good News of Christ with them, delivering targeted forgiveness to those sensitive spots in their lives, you can almost see those unseen demons of despair loosening their grip!

Our friend Tom Piper left from our men’s lunch this past week, where we studied our scripture readings for today, to go visit a friend in Chelan who is dying of cancer. He kind of joked about going to be an angel to this friend, but I think he was more right than he knows! By being present with this friend as he fights what is likely his last battle, by sharing Christ’s love, Christ victory, Christ’s presence, Tom was piercing the belly of the beast just like the archangel Michael did. He was piercing the darkness, bringing the light of Christ and all his angels to that bedside.

There are so many battles that we face! To be honest, there have been times when I have felt defeated. At once such time, when I was feeling defeated and discouraged in ministry (for a whole variety of reasons), just when I was tempted to wallow in that discouragement, at just the right time I received an email from a pastor friend telling me she is praying for me. Telling me to stay the course. Telling me God is with me. And just like that, the dragon breathing down my neck was slain.

You may have heard Martin Luther’s beautiful morning and evening prayers. These prayers conclude with these words: “Let your holy angels have charge over us, that the wicked one would have no power over us.”

I know many of you here today are fighting battles of your own. The devil and his dark angels love to attack the people of God. They love to deceive us and accuse us. That dragon comes at us with a fire that brings fear and doubts and despair, all in a desperate attempt to lure us out of faith and away from our savior.

But today God sends his holy angels to have charge over us, so that the wicked one would have no power over us. Today we hear from Saint Michael and all angels. They have a message for us. They tell us that though many battles yet rage here on earth, the war has already been won. Sin, death, and the devil have all ultimately been defeated by the blood of the Lamb.

So don’t be afraid of that dragon, Michael tells us. His time is short.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – September 22, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2019

Luke 16:1-13

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

One of the great archetypes in all of storytelling is the antihero.  An antihero is a character who is utterly lacking in all the qualities you usually see in a hero, and yet, you can’t help but root for them. An antihero is a character who lacks typical hero qualities like, oh, say, morality or honor or respect for the law, and yet, you can’t help but like them.

One of the most famous antiheros of all time is Robin Hood, a character who has been around in various forms since at least the 15th century. Robin Hood, of course, breaks laws left and right. He is constantly on the run from the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor. While he is a thief and a lawbreaker and exceedingly crafty (and thus portrayed as a fox in the Disney classic), he is also a beloved hero.  There are plenty of other examples we could point to. Han Solo was a smuggler. Jack Sparrow was a pirate. Sherlock Holmes describes himself as a “high functioning sociopath.” These aren’t “good” guys, but somehow, they’re the good guys!

The archetype of the antihero was common in the ancient near east as well. Poverty-ridden peasants of Jesus’ time loved stories about crafty antiheroes who stuck it to the privileged and the powerful. Today we hear Jesus use just this kind of character in one of his parables.

“There was a rich man with a manager…” Jesus begins. The rich man accuses the manager with squandering his property and gives him the sack: “You’re fired!” Well, what’s this suddenly unemployed manager going to do? He knows he isn’t strong enough to dig ditches for a living. He knows he doesn’t want to beg. So he cooks up a plan. Before any of his boss’s clients know he’s been fired, he goes out to them to settle their accounts. He cancels their debts left and right! Oh, I see you owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? Make it fifty. What is that, a hundred basked of wheat? Make it eighty. (This, by the way, is why when someone in a modern corporation is fired, all their company credentials are immediately scrubbed and they are escorted out of the building by security!) This manager goes around unilaterally cancelling the debts of his boss’s clients! It is unethical. It is illegal. And it is….celebrated?

Yes, it is indeed celebrated! When the boss finds out what his former employee has done, he COMMENDS him for his craftiness, for his shrewdness! And not only that, but when Jesus himself finishes the story he lifts this character up as a positive example! Jesus encourages his disciples to emulate him! He says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Now we need to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is clearly not telling his disciples to acquire wealth through illegal and unethical means. That’s not how the antihero archetype works. I loved Han Solo as a kid, but it has never occurred to me to become a smuggler – though it did inspire me to do brave things for the good of others.  I don’t know anyone who has heard the story of Robin Hood and then thought it would be a good idea to go out and start mugging people in Bellevue – though perhaps it has pricked some consciences into thinking about the plight of the poor. The antihero is a hero in spite of their negative qualities, not because of them.

The point of this story is that the disciples are to be crafty and clever and shrewd in how they manage their money. They are to use it in ways that benefit others, with an eye towards eternity. They are to use it while always keeping in mind where their true riches lie. They are to manage their resources while always remembering that they cannot serve both God and wealth.

Jesus is telling this antihero story to put his finger on what he knows will be the biggest temptation for the disciples, which will be to feather their nest rather than build the kingdom, to worship the almighty dollar rather than Almighty God. Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism that “money is the most common idol on earth.” That was true in Jesus’ time, it was true in Luther’s time, and it is most certainly true in our time as well.

You’ve probably heard the old observation that $20 looks huge in the offering plate, but not so significant when you’re spending it at the movie theater or the golf course or the tavern or the yarn store or the bookstore. (Did I manage to poke everyone at least once?) People can be extremely clever and resourceful and driven when they want something. What if we were as clever and resourceful and driven in the funding of the kingdom of God? In investing in God’s work in the world? In tending to our neighbors in need?

Many of you are. We make a point here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church to protect your privacy in giving. There are very few people who see the year-end giving statements, and I’m not one of them, so I don’t know who gives what around here. But I do know that we have many people here who have been very clever and resourceful and driven and so very generous in giving to this congregation and to the ministries we support. We have people who give regularly to support our budget. We have people who make additional gifts 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. We have people who give to our church through Thrivent Choice dollars and through the Amazon Smile program. We have people who have made clever arrangements to make this congregation one of its beneficiaries in their wills, with large contributions designated for our endowment fund so they will continue to support this congregation for many years after they have entered the Church Triumphant. 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, that idol of financial security. And when we cling to this idol, we are no longer clinging to God. When we put our trust in our bank accounts and our purses and our checkbooks, we are no longer putting our trust in God. When your chief purpose in life is to make money, then your chief purpose is no longer to serve God. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” Jesus says.

This story is told to the disciples, and to us, so that we will let go of that idol and begin to use our resources for the sake of our God, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of those eternal homes Jesus points us to. This story with its antihero is told to begin to peel our fingers away from our wallets so that we might take hold of the true riches of his grace.

The parables of Jesus are never just a morality tale. They are never simply a way to cajole people to do something. The parables of Jesus can usually be understood on more than one level, and much of the time they are not just about what we are to do, but what Christ has come to do for us. This story is no exception. Because, you see, Jesus is the ultimate antihero.  It might feel slightly irreverent to think of him in this way, but consider the work of Jesus from the perspective of the Pharisees. They had just been complaining that he ate with tax collectors and sinners. That’s not typical hero behavior! Not to them! They complained that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, which they saw as a total disregard for the law.  Jesus was going around just announcing that people’s sins were forgiven – like he was God or something! From the perspective of the Pharisees, what Jesus was doing was immoral, illegal, even blasphemous. And so Jesus is the ultimate antihero.  He didn’t have any of the qualities the Pharisees expected their hero Messiah to have.

You could even say that Jesus bears a striking resemblance to the clever manager in the parable. He was going around cooking the books on the debt sinners owed to God. He was writing off people’s sin left and right – making a lot of friends in the process and making it possible for them to enter into those eternal homes.  It was an epic scandal! And all the while, his boss, God the Father, sits back and smiles. God commends him for it! God pats him on the head and says, “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 the very same word that was stamped on the bills of the ancient world whenever an account was settled: tetelestai. This is what Jesus has done for all of us. Jesus is like the clever manager in the parable – only he didn’t just reduce our debt, he paid it in full.

This is where we find true riches. As we receive the riches of his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness, his love, our hearts are set free to live for the Giver and not the gifts, to worship the Giver and not the gifts, the serve the Giver and not the gifts. Our hearts are set free to cling once again to God and to God alone.

And as our hearts cling to God, a funny thing happens – we find that they don’t need to cling quite so tightly to our wallets.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – September 8, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019

Luke 14:25-33

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

One of the longest running and most successful ad campaigns in history is the Mastercard “priceless” campaign. It has been running with various versions for nearly twenty years now! One of the first versions showed a father and son going to a baseball game. There was a voiceover and words appearing on the screen which counted the cost of going to that game: “Tickets: $46, Hot dogs and sodas: $27, Signed baseball: $50.” And then it ended by showing the father and son talking and enjoying their time together and it said: “Real conversation: priceless.”

The dynamic this ad captures is that there are real costs to going to that game, to be sure, but that there is also something happening there that you can’t put a price tag on. There is something happening there that is sheer gift, something that is precious beyond cost. There have been several other incarnations of this ad which count the cost of various activities, but then always end by pointing to that which cannot be purchased or earned, that which is priceless.

While I’m a little reluctant to let a credit card company help me make a point about the Christian life, I think this campaign captures some of the important dynamics of what it means to follow Jesus. More specifically, I think it can help us understand what is going on in our gospel reading for today.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s attracted large crowds now. There are all kinds of people following him, and many of them don’t seem to understand what they’re getting themselves into. So, Jesus turns to this large crowd and tells them that before they take another step in following him, they need to count the cost. Jesus tells them that whoever comes to him and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be his disciples.

That’s one way to thin out a crowd right? What’s going on here? The first thing to understand is that Jewish people in Jesus’ time, including Jesus himself on a number of occasions, loved to use hyperbole. That is, they often used extreme rhetoric to make a point. Recall how Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off.” That’s another example of hyperbole. This is language that is not intended to be taken literally – but it is to be taken seriously!

Jesus is not literally asking his followers to hate their parents. Jesus himself keeps the fourth commandment – honor your father and your mother – in a tender scene from the cross when he entrusts his own mother to the care of the disciple John, saying first to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and then saying to John, “Here is your mother.” He is loving and honoring his mother even as he carries out his mission.

Jesus is not literally asking his followers to hate their spouses and children. Though our Lord himself did not marry, when he is asked questions about marriage he honors marriage as a divine estate, citing Genesis 2:24 as authoritative, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Then Jesus goes on to put his own exclamation point at the end, saying: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Though Jesus did not have children, he rebukes those who would prevent them from coming to him. He lifts children up as an example of faith. He warns that it would be better for those who lead children into sin to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the sea. Doesn’t it sound like he wants us to love our children? Not only our own biological and adopted children, but all children?

Jesus does not expect his followers to literally hate their brothers and sisters. Jesus calls his followers to love everyone! Jesus even calls us to love our enemies, and somethings our siblings fit that description – am I right?

These harsh, shocking words of Jesus shouldn’t be taken literally – but they should be taken seriously. Jesus is telling us that there is a cost to following him. Our Lord surely wants us to honor and love our parents and our children and our siblings, but he also doesn’t want those relationships to become an excuse for not following him completely, 100%. He uses this hyperbole to get our attention. He speaks in this shocking way to call us to put him first, even above those relationships we cherish most.

There is a cost to following Jesus, and Jesus encourages both that large crowd and us here today to count the cost. What builder, Jesus goes on to say, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down to estimate the cost before breaking ground? Or what king, intending to wage war against another king, doesn’t first sit down to consider whether he has enough troops?

What does it cost to follow Jesus? You know what it costs! Sometimes it means enduring ridicule or scorn from others, perhaps even those closest to you. Following Jesus means carrying a cross. It means being willing to suffer for his sake. It means living a life of sacrificial love. The Christian life is not always pleasant and fun and entertaining and easy. There are crosses for us to carry. Jesus says that following him means giving up all our possessions. This is not a vow of poverty, but another call to put Jesus first, above everything else in life, being willing to give up anything and everything that gets in the way of following him. We are called today to count these costs – to tally them up, to acknowledge them, to reflect on them.

I have to admit that at first I was mortified that this was the gospel reading for Rally Sunday. It’s little heavy for the kick-off to our program year, don’t you think? Rally Sunday is supposed to be a day of celebration, right?

But as I let this scripture get ahold of me I came to see how perfect it is for today. You see, now that the new school year has begun many of our families are counting the cost – both financial and in terms of time commitment – of being part of various extracurricular activities. Our members of all ages here at OHLC are counting the cost of being involved in our various ministries here as we begin a new program year: Do I have time to check out that adult Bible study? Will I help out at Munchy Monday this year? Should I sing in the choir?

 And whereas my personality is such that I would mostly hang back and let you figure out what you want to be part of, perhaps gently guiding and encouraging you, today through our gospel reading Jesus is all up in your face! He’s all up in your business saying: “PUT ME FIRST! If you want to be my disciples,” he says, “it is going to cost you something!” Maybe it’ll cost you some time beyond Sunday morning. It might even cost you some other opportunity. It might cost you your reputation with some people as they find you your hanging around with THOSE people. It might cost you some measure of comfort as you learn to live in community with other sinners. But if you want to follow me, Jesus says, it’s going to cost you something. And so we have this call in our scripture reading for today to count the cost and follow Christ.

But this isn’t the whole of Christian life. This isn’t the whole of what scripture has to say to us. This isn’t the end of the story! This comes from one of the gospels, but it is not yet the Gospel, the Good News. For that, we have to look elsewhere. For that we need to move ahead in the story.

You see, after Jesus said all of this to the large crowds that were following him, he continued his journey to Jerusalem. And it was there in Jerusalem that he would carry his own cross. There, having counted the cost, Jesus entered into the battle against sin, death, and the devil. There, Jesus paid the ultimate price to defeat these enemies and save us all. There, Jesus earned us forgiveness, life, and salvation by giving up everything he had in his own display of sacrificial love.  There, Jesus made it possible for us to live a new and abundant life with him. There, Jesus paid our way! He paid the entire cost for our salvation with his own precious body and blood. And so St. Paul would later write: “For by grace you have been saved by faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”

When it comes to the Christian life, two things are true at the same time. Our life in Christ costs us nothing, while at the same time it costs us everything.

We are called to give Jesus everything we have and everything we are. We are called to love and serve him with all our hearts and all our minds and all our souls – even when it is hard. Especially when it is hard. We are called to calculate the cost and willingly, joyfully pay it.

But we do all of this as a response to what Christ has already done for us. What he has done for us is something we can’t put a price tag on. The forgiveness and life and salvation he has won for us is a sheer gift, it is not something that can or needs to be purchased or earned.

And so even as we count the cost of discipleship today, we do so knowing that Christ’s love for us is truly priceless.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – September 1, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

Who you eat with matters. And not only that, but where you sit when you are eating with others also matters. It is fraught with significance! This was true in the ancient world, and it is true today as well.

There is a plethora of studies which show that families who make a point of eating together regularly fare far better than those who do not. Eating together is a social ritual with all kinds of benefits, but perhaps most important is that they are honoring each other. They are investing themselves in each other, meal after meal. And, especially when you’re eating with extended family, where you sit matters. Many of us know how significant it is at Thanksgiving or Christmas when you finally get invited up from the wobbly card table in the rec room to the dining table with the adults. That’s an important rite of passage for many people!

The significance of who you eat with and where you sit is evident in the cafeterias of middle schools and high schools. You can bet that one of the big concerns many students will have as they start school this week is where they will sit for lunch. Will they have someone to sit next to? Whose table will they be invited to sit at? Will they be honored with a spot with the cool kids? Who will they invite to sit with them?

This continues into adulthood. Consider a couple putting together a guest list for their wedding reception. They often have to decide who will sit where. There is usually the table for the couple, at which a few guests of distinction will be seated. The closest family members and friends are usually seated closest to the couple, with the other guests radiating out from the honored table in order of decreasing importance, until you get to some poor shmuck who is seated way, way out on the perimeter….right next to the pastor.

It gets especially tricky when parents of the bride or groom are divorced and have to be seated in some way that honors both sides. It gets even trickier when one of those parents brings a date or there is a stepparent involved. Believe me, in those highly charged situations, people are watching where people are seated! I’ve seen it again and again! It matters!

Similar kinds of things also happen in employee lunchrooms and senior center dining halls and church fellowship halls as well. There is a subtle social ceremony taking place as people are seated, and it matters. It is fraught with meaning. Oftentimes it reveals what and who we really care about.

In our gospel reading for today Jesus is at a banquet. St. Luke introduces the scene: “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” The choices Jesus would make in this social ceremony would say a lot about him. And so they were watching closely.

But Jesus was doing some watching of his own. As the banquet got underway, Jesus saw guests who were jockeying for position at the head table. Just like at a wedding banquet, the closer you were to the host, the more important you were, and so they were climbing all over each other trying to get to those choice seats. Jesus warns them that this is a recipe for humiliation. Far better, Jesus tells them, is to humble yourself. Not only do you avoid being humiliated if you should be asked to move down, but you stand the chance of being publicly honored if you are invited closer. Jesus is citing some wisdom literature here. He’s quoting almost word for word from the book of Proverbs – our first reading for today – from a section on how to conduct yourself in the king’s court.

But then Jesus moves beyond just offering some wise advice. He moves beyond mere etiquette to something far more profound. Jesus uses this general principle to describe what God has in store as he brings in the kingdom: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is what God was up to in Jesus!

Jesus then turns to the host, inviting him to live into this new reality God is bringing about. He says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t just invite your friends and relatives. Don’t just invite your wealthy neighbors who’ll return the favor. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Here Jesus is giving the host – and all of us! – a glimpse of what the heavenly banquet will look like. The sick will be healed. The poor will be fed. The humble will be honored. The faithful will be rewarded. And as he gives us this glimpse, he invites us to live into this coming kingdom, this new reality, even now.

Do we do that? Does our congregation reflect the picture Jesus paints of the heavenly banquet?

I remember reading how Saddleback church in California – one of those non-denominational megachurches – trained its evangelism team by showing a picture of an upper-middle class man with a Starbucks cup in his hand and SUV in his driveway and a wife and two children and telling them that this was their “target demographic.” Their goal was to reach that kind of person, and they shaped their church around attracting such a person. You could say it was hugely successful. But you could also ask, especially in light of this text, was it faithful?

There’s more to Saddleback church than this one anecdote and I don’t mean to throw stones at another church – especially since something similar happens in Lutheran congregations ALL THE TIME. We’re much more subtle about it, but it happens!

In a previous congregation I served I remember when an attorney who was new to town started attending worship at our church. You should have seen the way the members drooled over him and his family! An attorney! Wouldn’t he be great to have on the church council! I wonder if he tithes? Can you imagine how that would help our budget? You can bet that everyone wanted to sit by him at fellowship time!

Or I have a Lutheran pastor friend who is interviewing for a new call and all the call committees are constantly asking him: “How would you bring young families into our church?” No one is asking him how he would “bring in” the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

This is the problem with our seating charts. We quickly go from honoring friends and loved ones to treating people like commodities, like assets, like “target demographics.” We jockey for position so we can be close to those who can do something for us. We surround ourselves with people who are like us, people who make us feel comfortable, people who look like us and think like us and vote like us. We surround ourselves with people who can improve or reinforce our social standing or affirm our worldview. These little choices we make week after week about who we are willing to sit next to in the pews and in the fellowship hall and in the coffee shop and in our homes reveal what we truly value, what we really care about.

Jesus has come to turn all of this upside down. He has come to rearrange our seating charts. He does this through his own humbling and exaltation. As Jesus was both humbled and exalted through his death and resurrection, he has brought us into a new reality, he has brought us into a new relationship with God and with each other. There is no more jockeying needed!

By his saving grace, by the forgiveness and new life he has won for us in his own humbling and exaltation, Christ has made it possible for us to come to his banquet, his supper – even though we bring absolutely nothing to the table.  We have been called to the heavenly feast – not because of anything we have done, not because of any kind of status we bring, but simply because the King has called us forward.

Who we eat with matters. It is fraught with significance. When we eat with Christ Jesus, we receive his grace, his undeserved favor. And when we have received his grace, we start to live into it, extending it to others. When we have received this grace, we begin to live it out. When we have received this grace, how can it not impact who we are willing to sit next to?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church