Sermon – June 30, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

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

The beloved Lutheran theologian and author Mark Allan Powell tells the story of a young man he met who was passionate about following Jesus. He did not, however, attend church. He listened to Christian music. He read the Bible. He loved Jesus and wanted to tell others about him. But he did not come to worship. So Powell asked him, “Why don’t you go to worship?” And the young man said, “It’s boring.” So Powell pushed him a bit. He said, “Would you leave your family to travel to far off lands for Jesus?” And the young man enthusiastically said, “Yes, I would! I’d love to be a missionary someday!” Powell asked him another question: “Would you be willing to suffer ridicule for Jesus’ sake? Are you willing to lose friends over him?” And again, the young man said, “Yes. In fact, I already have!” Powell then asked him: “Would you be willing to give your life for Jesus?” The young man thought seriously for a moment, giving the question the weight it was due, and then resolutely said, “If it came to that, yes I would.”

Powell then said, “So let me get this straight. You would leave your family to travel to far off lands for Jesus. You are willing to suffer ridicule and lose friends for Jesus. You are even willing to die for Jesus – BUT YOU AREN’T WILLING TO BE BORED FOR JESUS? NOT EVEN FOR ONE HOUR ON A SUNDAY MORNING?”

We all have our deal-breakers, don’t we? We all have our conditions, our limits, when it comes to following Jesus. We all have our moments when we say, “Well, yes, I love Jesus, but let’s not get all crazy about it.”

In our gospel reading for today we see Jesus interacting with three would-be followers.

In the first encounter an enthusiastic man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go!” These are big words! This is a bold promise! But does he have any idea what he’s getting himself into? Jesus says to him: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus seems to be challenging his self-confidence. He’s saying, “Oh really? You’ll follow me anywhere? I can’t offer you a place to lay your head. It won’t always be easy. There will be sacrifices to make. You won’t always be comfortable or happy. Are you still interested in following me anywhere? Wherever I go?” We don’t hear a response from this man, and the silence is very telling.

Next up we have Jesus inviting someone to become a disciple. “Follow me,” Jesus says. But the man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” This sounds like a reasonable request. It even sounds like a righteous request! After all, the law of God calls us to honor our mother and father. Jewish culture expected children to care for their parents and especially to tend to them in their elderly, vulnerable years. When the time came, they were to make sure they were buried according to Jewish custom. This was how you kept the fourth commandment! But Jesus said to him: “Let the dead bury their own; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Another came to Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” This too seemed like a reasonable request. The lectionary reminds us this morning that there is Biblical precedent for this. When the prophet Elijah called Elisha to follow him, Elisha asked if he could go back and kiss his mother and father, and Elijah allowed it! Is Jesus more demanding than Elijah? It sure sounds like it! Jesus replied to this request saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

These three would-be followers each had deal-breakers of their own, didn’t they? The first was unwilling to give up his comforts. The second two were unwilling to put Jesus above their family obligations. And Jesus told all three of them in no uncertain terms that when it comes to following him there are to be no deal-breakers! They don’t set the conditions for following him, he does! And when it comes to following Jesus, there is to be no going back!

When the Spanish explorer Cortez landed on the east coast of Mexico after traveling hundreds of miles across the ocean, he famously burned his ships on the beach. His men had to watch as their only means of ever going home went up in smoke. It was clear – there was no going back! That’s what Jesus is doing here with his own verbal fire. He’s telling these would-be disciples that if they want to follow him, they need to burn their ships – and none of the three seemed willing to do that.

What are your deal-breakers? We have some of our own, don’t we? Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as my schedule allows!” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I like the music.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, until your Word conflicts with my political ideology, at which time I will explain away your Word and go with my ideology.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, insofar as it fits with the cultural trends of the moment!” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as we can keep it private – just between you and me.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I don’t have to give up this thing I really like, as long as it doesn’t put a crimp in my lifestyle.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I don’t have to care about your friends – especially the poor ones.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I’m not bored!” (Did I manage to poke each of you at least once with that list? Oh good.)

Sometimes we are like those Christians in Galatia Paul is writing to who have somehow gotten the idea that Christian freedom means freedom to think and do whatever the heck you want, to mold and shape Christ’s call to fit our own thoughts and desires. Not only does Paul say otherwise, but Jesus does too – and he does so in the strongest terms possible! Jesus tells these would-be disciples that following him will involve a radical reordering of our priorities and our values. He tells them, and us, that HE sets the terms, not us.  If we are going to follow him, we need to put him above everything else – even above those good things we cherish most.

Does this mean we should neglect our families for the sake of the gospel? Absolutely not. It means that we serve our families best when we put Christ first. If you have ever been on a plane with kids, you know that the flight attendant tells everyone that if the plane loses cabin pressure the adults should secure their oxygen mask first before putting one on their child. This is NOT a selfish act. It is simply the case that you are no help to your child if you are slumped over in your seat from lack of oxygen! In the same way, we need to breath Christ in first before we can be of true help to our loved ones, before we can love and serve them in the strength of Christ.

But the truth is, none of us puts Christ first consistently enough to be worthy of him. The truth is, we all have our deal-breakers, our conditions, our limits. If we had to pass this litmus test Jesus is putting in front of these three would-be disciples, none of us would make the cut. There are just too many things that we are not willing to give up.

Thankfully, Jesus did for us what we never seem to be able to do ourselves. He gave up everything. He gave himself without conditions. He gave himself for us without limits, even giving his life.

Luke tells us in this gospel reading that “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.” Luke tells us this twice in three verses! Luke is telling us that Jesus was headed to the cross. Although in the end NO ONE was willing to follow him there, Jesus went there for these three would-be disciples. He went there for all who failed to follow him. He went there for you and for me. And in dying and rising for us, Jesus has established a new covenant with us. He has established a relationship with us that cannot be broken. Now we belong to him!

And because we belong to him, we no longer live by “the flesh,” as Paul writes. We no longer live by our own arrogant attitudes and selfish desires. Instead we live by the Spirit. As Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

Left to ourselves, left to our flesh, we will never follow Jesus. There will always be a deal-breaker!

But when Christ’s Spirit goes to work on us, we begin to set aside those conditions and joyfully give ourselves over to a life of discipleship. When the Spirit gets hold of us, there is nothing we won’t endure to follow him. When the Spirit gets ahold of us, there is no ship we aren’t willing to burn in order to go follow him into the new life he gives to us.  When Christ’s Spirit goes to work on us, we find ourselves breathing him in, and then pouring ourselves out in loving service to others.

Christ’s Spirit is doing all this work in us here and now in our worship service, here and now as we hear Christ’s Word and share Christ’s Supper!

How anyone could be bored by that is beyond me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – June 22, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019

Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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

Several years ago, when our three boys were much younger, we went camping at Lake Wenatchee. The boys were still too young to be of much help setting up camp, so my wife and I gave them squirt guns to play with to keep them busy while we set things up. A short while later they showed up back at our site, all three of them soaking wet. My wife suddenly thought to ask, “Where have you been filling up your squirt guns?” One of them pointed to campground bathroom nearby.  Another of them gleefully blurted out that they had been using water from the toilets. You see, they had these long tube squirt guns that you filled by pulling the handle, and the campground toilets worked great for that! Of course, we were disgusted. Our boys were not only soaked in toilet water – but filthy campground bathroom toilet water.

I know this story sounds funny, but let me assure you that we were not laughing at the time. We were scared to death of what they might have contaminated themselves with. We were worried about bacteria, about giardia, about e-coli. And I told you this story not just because it is funny, but because I knew you would also react with disgust. I knew that behind your laughter you would be horrified by how filthy those boys made themselves. You germophobes are probably so disgusted that you won’t even pass the peace with them today!

And now, you see, I have brought you all into the concept of uncleanliness. You have experienced the disgust that comes from the idea of being contaminated by the unclean. And so you now have an idea of what it was like for the disciples in our gospel reading for today.

When the disciples’ boat made landfall on Gerasa, there was surely a measure of disgust. They were now in the land of the Gerasenes, which Luke describes as opposite of Galilee – opposite in more ways than one! This was a land of Gentiles. This was a region populated by non-Jews, part of the great unwashed, unclean world. This was a land of pig farmers, and pigs were profoundly unclean animals for Jewish people – they didn’t eat them, they didn’t touch them, they didn’t even come near them! As Jesus stepped out of the boat and placed his foot on the ground, the disciples probably cringed. What in the heck were they doing there? What were they doing in this filthy place, in this land of the spiritually unclean, this land of swine? Wasn’t Jesus afraid of getting them all contaminated? Wasn’t he afraid of the spiritual bacteria he might come into contact with?

And to make matters worse, the moment Jesus stepped onto this unclean land, he was met by someone who was undoubtably the most unclean citizen in the whole unclean town! This man lived not only among the pigs, but among the tombs – probably meaning the caves where bodies were left to decay until the dry bones were buried. This made him doubly unclean! You can almost hear the disciples groaning with disgust as this man approached the boat! This man also happened to be buck naked, which probably didn’t help things! Worst of all, this man had an unclean spirit. He was plagued by demons. At one point he had been shackled by his neighbors, but he had broken free and now ran wild.

We modern people are quick to assume that this man had a mental illness. That might be true, but I wonder sometimes if this assumption is fair to the biblical writers. It is true that they didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong when describing these forces at work on people as demons, as unclean spirits. I also wonder sometimes if it is fair to those suffering from mental illnesses.

The truth is, we don’t know what exactly the nature of this man’s problems was, but I think we get a clue into his problems when Jesus asks him his name. The man tells Jesus his name is “Legion.” This was certainly not the name his mom and dad gave him! A legion is a Roman military unit of 6,000 soldiers. This man was describing a powerful force that had taken him over, a force so powerful that it has robbed him of his name. It has robbed him of own identity. He was describing a force that has many faces, many names. This was a man at war with himself. There was a war going on inside him.

Mental illness could well have been part of this legion. Many who suffer from such illnesses describe their experience in similar ways. But there are many other demonic forces at work in our world and in our lives as well. They are powerful, and they go by many names. They go by names like despair and depression, PTSD and addiction. They go by more spiritual names like sin. They have names like pride and greed and lust and envy. These demonic forces have thousands of names and thousands of faces, and they all have a way of taking over. They are at war in all of us in one way or another.

Whatever demons might have been plaguing this poor man, they immediately recognized Jesus. They knew who Jesus was. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God.” They knew Jesus’ power, for they begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, back to the hellhole from which they came. They begged Jesus to let them leave the man and enter into a large herd of swine grazing on the hillside. Jesus allowed it, and a moment later the herd rushed over the side of a steep bank and drowned in the lake. Animal rights activists would not have approved of Jesus’ tactics here! The pig farmers in town weren’t too happy about it either! Do you know what the market value for that many hogs would have been? It would have been worth a fortune!

But what happened here with the pigs being cast into the lake meant something. Remember back to the story of the Exodus, how God saved Israel from their bondage, from their slavery in Egypt? Remember how the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea? With the drowning of these demons, Jesus was bringing about a new exodus. Jesus has come to deliver people from an even bigger enemy, from an even more powerful legion! Jesus has come to set people free from their bondage to sin, death, and the devil. What Jesus did for this Gerasene man he would soon do for us all by following those pigs into death, by going into the abyss himself as he endured the cross, redeeming us at the great cost of his own life.

The Gerasene man gives us a glimpse, a foretaste of this salvation, this healing, this deliverance. Now restored, he sat at Jesus feet, finally at peace, fully clothed and in his right mind. He desperately wanted to go with Jesus, to join the other disciples in the boat, but Jesus had other plans in mind for him: “Return to your home,” Jesus told him, “and declare how much God has done for you.

When we discovered that our boys were drenched in filthy campground bathroom toilet water, we fought against our visceral reaction of disgust, pushing down our rising nausea and our fears of contamination. As much as we wanted to run away from them, as much as we wanted to just shove them into Lake Wenatchee to rinse off and hope for the best, our love for them instead drew us in close to help them. We quickly found some quarters and some soap and got them into the campground showers. We made sure they were washed clean and then we put them in new, clean clothes.

That’s what Jesus did for this unclean man. That’s why Jesus went to Gerasa. “What in the heck are we doing here in this filthy place?” the disciples wondered. That’s what Jesus was doing! Jesus went to cleanse and clothe this possessed Gentile from a town that was crawling with pigs as a sign of what he would eventually do for us all. Jesus went to the most unclean man in the most unclean place to show his disciples, and us, that he had come to bring about a new exodus, a new deliverance, a new salvation, that would extend to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. He came to set us all free from that legion of dark forces with many faces and many names.

Your uncleanness, your sins, your struggles, your demons, those powers at war within you – none of it can separate you from Jesus. He isn’t deterred by any of it. He doesn’t cringe. He doesn’t hang back. In fact, it is the very reason he came.

In your baptism, Christ has done for you what he did for the man in Gerasa. Jesus washed you clean, taking away every contamination, taking away all the uncleanliness that would separate you from God.

In your baptism, Jesus drowned those demons, those dark forces that threaten to take over your life. To be sure, unlike those pigs, our demons seem to know how to swim, right? They keep popping up, don’t they? They can tread water! They keep coming to the surface! But make no mistake about it, they are on their way into the abyss. In the meantime, our whole life is a daily return to the waters of baptism, where our old self with its demons is drowned so that God can raise up the new person we are in Christ.

In our baptism we are clothed. That’s what the Apostle Paul says in our reading from Galatians for today: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ.” In baptism, we have been given new, fresh, clean clothes. We have been clothed in Christ Jesus, clothed in his righteousness, clothed in his promises, clothed in his love.

And so, like the Gerasene man, we sit at Jesus’ feet today, receptive to his word and grateful for his work in us. As we receive his promises anew, we are restored once again.

And as Jesus said to the Gerasene man, so too does he say to us this morning: “Return to your homes, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – June 16, 2019

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019

Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I just happened to be listening to the radio while I was in the car wash this past week when I heard part of an interview with Father Richard Rohr that grabbed my attention. He was talking about the fourteen years he spent as a chaplain at a jail in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Father Rohr said that it was rare to find anyone in jail who had a good father. He said while this was true for the women he met in jail, it was especially true for the men – who make up the vast majority of the jail population. It was rare to find anyone in jail – especially among the men – who had a good father. Father Rohr went on to say that (quoting now from a transcript of the interview), “We’ve got to start growing up men because the male of the species does not know how to hand on his identity, his intimacy, his caring to his children.”

Father Rohr then described the consequences of NOT growing up men to do these things. He said, “The rage in the young male who never had a dad or had an alcoholic father or emotionally unavailable father or abusive father is bottomless. It’s just — it moves out toward all of society.” The statistics for drug abuse and crime and teen pregnancies and suicides and dropping out of school certainly bear this out. The correlation between fatherlessness and these societal problems is undeniable, and it is a problem that has only been getting worse.

This is not to say that fatherlessness is an excuse for destructive behavior. There have been plenty of fatherless people who have risen above their circumstances and built good lives for themselves. Neither is it to blame all fathers for every wayward child. There are plenty of good fathers who have had children go astray for other reasons.

But I absolutely believe Father Rohr is on to something. I think his description of what fathers are called to do is especially profound. He says a father is to hand on his identity, his intimacy, and his caring to his children. Fathers are meant to be more than sperm donors, bringing children into existence and then going on their merry way. They are meant to give themselves to their children, to be present for their children, to be caring and loving towards their children.

You might be wondering what any of this had to do with either the Holy Trinity or with our scripture readings for today. You might be wondering if I’m using the occasion of Father’s Day to get on a soap box. That might be a little bit true, but I think this interview with Father Rohr actually has a lot to do with the Holy Trinity. I think it has a lot to do with a couple of our readings for this Holy Trinity Sunday. I think it has a lot to do with all of us here today.

The Holy Trinity is important for several reasons. It is a complex theological formula confessed in the creeds which both proclaims and safeguards the divinity of Christ. It is a doctrine gleaned from scripture (particularly John’s gospel) which describes the mystery of God being three distinct persons while remaining one God. The Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is also the proper name for God, given to us by Jesus himself as the name in which we baptize.

All of this is important. Every Christian adult should have some basic knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity, if for no other reason than to know when that language is being used by other religious groups in different and non-Christian ways – which it often is!

But as important as it is to know what the Trinity is, it is also important to know what the Trinity does. God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – exists as a relationship. The three persons of the Trinity have eternally coexisted in a relationship of intimacy, a relationship of closeness, of love. And God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is always at work to draw us into this relationship. God is always at work among us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to give us precisely what Father Rohr describes as being so very important for all of us as human beings – to give us his identity, to give us his intimacy, to care for us as his children.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus says that when the Spirit of truth comes, “he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The word “declare” in this verse is much more than merely saying something. To “declare” here is to impute, it is to give, it is to sign over. Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit’s job will be to take what belongs to Christ and give it to us, to transfer it all to us, to make it ours!

When Jesus was baptized, God the Father sent the Holy Spirit and said, “This is my beloved Son!” God gave Jesus his identity. Likewise, when we are baptized into Christ we are claimed, we are reborn as children of God, we are given our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God. It happens just as Jesus said: “The Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.” With that also comes Jesus’ righteousness, his standing before God, his eternal life! It is all given to us!

Jesus enjoyed an intimate relationship with God the Father, and he invites us into that same intimate relationship. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus taught them to call God their Father in heaven. This was not to make some point about God being male, it was an invitation for them to share the same relationship with God that he enjoyed. And as we pray to our Father in heaven, that’s precisely what happens. We have that same closeness to God that Jesus had. Again, just as Jesus said: “The Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

In our reading from Romans, St. Paul writes beautifully and powerfully of how God cares for us in the midst of our suffering. God doesn’t magically take away all our suffering, but God is present with us in the midst of it to give us endurance. God is present to use that suffering to cultivate godly character in us. Most importantly, God is present to fill us with hope. “And hope does not disappoint us,” Paul writes, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” God cares for us! God loves us!

All of us as human beings have a need to be given an identity, to be claimed by another. We have a need for intimacy, to live in close relationship. We have a need to be cared for and loved. Without these things we are lost! And God, who exists as a Holy Trinity, who has relationship at the very heart of his being, is constantly at work as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to draw us into relationship with him, so that we might know that we are claimed and close and cared for.

In my previous congregation there was a kid named Andy. Andy’s birth mother used drugs throughout her pregnancy, and so Andy was born addicted to cocaine. His biological father was nowhere in the picture. Andy could easily have ended up like so many of the young men Father Rohr encountered during his time as a jail chaplain, full of bottomless rage. But Andy was eventually adopted. He was claimed. He was given a new last name. He knew the intimacy not only of a very involved father, but also that of a mother and a big sister. He was well cared for and deeply loved. He was a toddler when he was adopted, and on the first Sunday after his adoption was finalized he came up into the chancel during the announcements and shouted, “I’m adopted! I’m adopted!” He said it over and over again, beaming with joy! Believe me, there wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary.

This is what God has done for you – for each and every one of you. God is not a Father who merely brought you into existence and went on his merry way. The God who has revealed himself to us as a Holy Trinity, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, has come to us in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in to adopt us, to give us a new name, a new family, and a new future.

God has come to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to draw us into this holy relationship, that we would be filled with joy and peace, so that we would know who and whose we are, so that he might pour his love into our hearts.

God is at work among us even now as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to give us all what we need the most: his identity, his intimacy, and his caring.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – June 9, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17

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

The word “spirit” is used in several different ways in the English language. It can be used to describe a supernatural being, like the three “spirits” that visit Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” It can be used to describe the demeanor of a community or a person, like when a crowd of fans has “team spirit,” or when someone is feisty or determined, we might say, “Boy, she has spirit, doesn’t she?” The word “spirit” is also sometimes used to refer to alcoholic beverages –which I think is very interesting.

On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, and so it behooves us to think about what the church means when we talk about the Spirit. We make reference to the Spirit in the invocation and in our prayers and in the benediction. We say in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit. We certainly sing about the Spirit a lot in our hymns for today. So what do we mean? What kind of a “spirit” are we talking about?

In our gospel reading for today Jesus promises to send his disciples the Spirit. He has told them he will be leaving them soon. The disciples are struggling with this news, and so Jesus makes them a promise. He promises that after he is gone, he will ask the Father, and he will give them “another Advocate to be with them forever.”

The word translated here as “Advocate” is paraklete in Greek – a word that is hard to translate into English. Some Bibles use the word “comforter.” Others use the word “helper.” Some use the word “counselor.” The version we hear today uses the word “Advocate,” which is someone who comes alongside another to seek their best interests. All of these words help us understand what kind of Spirit Jesus is promising here. He is promising that God the Father will send a Spirit which will comfort and help and guide. God will send a Spirit which will come alongside them to seek their best interests. This Spirit is a presence, a presence that will be with them forever.

Jesus goes on to call this Spirit the Spirit of truth. This Spirit has a message! The Spirit has a Word to bring! This Spirit comes bearing the truth. This Spirit will come to deliver the truth of God’s will, given to them in the commandments. This Spirit will come to deliver the truth of God’s salvation, given to them in Christ. The world will not receive this truth. The world will not know this truth.  But God’s people will, because this Spirit of truth will abide with them and be in them, Jesus says.

This Spirit promised by Jesus made a grand entrance as the disciples were celebrating Pentecost. Before Pentecost was a Christian festival celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost was a Jewish harvest festival. The name “Pentecost” means “fiftieth” and refers to the timing of the festival, which comes fifty days after Passover. So the disciples were celebrating what is essentially “Jewish thanksgiving.” There were all kinds of people in Jerusalem for the harvest festival, both Jewish people who had come home for the holiday and converts to Judaism who were making a pilgrimage to bring offerings to the temple. These people were from all over the world. Even though they were all Jewish, either by ethnicity or by faith, they had adopted the languages of the places in which they now lived, and so they spoke a wide variety of languages.

This was the setting in which the Spirit made its grand entrance. Suddenly there was a sound like a rush of violent wind. The disciples began to speak with tongues of fire! This was not some mysterious spiritual language, but actual worldly languages – the very languages these holiday visitors from around the world spoke!  These visitors heard this sound and gathered around the disciples, and the disciples put those tongues of fire to work by preaching to them! As they spoke of God’s deeds of power, each person heard the disciples’ words in their own native language! It was like one of those meetings at the U. N., where everyone is speaking in their own native language and having it translated for them in those headphones they’re all wearing – only there were no headphones! This was like Google translate on your smartphone, only without Google! Without smartphones!

The Spirit of truth showed up in a big way as the disciples spoke of God’s deeds of power to the multilingual crowd. In order for the truth to reach their ears and their hearts, God did a miracle. It was a miracle of speaking, as the Word came out in everyone’s native tongue. It was a miracle of hearing, as people from all over the world could hear the truth of what God had done for them in Christ. All were amazed and perplexed at what was happening!

Well, not all. Some sneered. Some mocked and taunted them. Some thought they were filled with that other kind of spirit. They thought they had already gotten into the wine for the thanksgiving dinner. Remember how Jesus said that the world wouldn’t receive the Spirit he would send? That the world wouldn’t know it?  Peter responded to this taunting by insisting that they weren’t drunk. It was only nine in the morning, for crying out loud! Peter told them, “This is what God said would happen through the prophet Joel, that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, that all would speak and hear God’s Word – young and old, male and female, slave and free, so that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord would be saved.”

This amazing account from Acts tells us even more about what the Spirit is and does. For all the pyrotechnics of the Spirit’s grand entrance on Pentecost, the work of the Spirit is really quite simple. The Spirit gathers people around the Word. The Spirit is at work through speaking and hearing. The Spirit is at work so that the entire world would come to hear of God’s great deeds of power. This Spirit is at work to stir hearts to the faith that saves.

With these Biblical insights into what the Spirit is and does, can you begin to see how the Spirit is at work in the church today? In our congregation? In your life? Because I sure can!

I see the Spirit at work as God’s Word gives comfort to those who are hurting. There are so many people in this congregation who are hurting in so many different ways, and I see week after week how the Spirit is at work to give you comfort. I see people who I know are carrying heavy burdens of guilt over past sins receive the words of forgiveness at the beginning of the service. I see you hanging on to those words for dear life. I see people who I know are battling illnesses or the fallout from broken relationships or are dealing with sick children or aging parents or all of the above, and it is here in the Word that you find strength and hope. I see people come to the altar for communion who I know are still grieving for loved ones who used to come up with them, and it is here that the veil is thin and the Spirit comforts you with a taste of the heavenly feast to come. I see the Spirit at work as our Stephen Ministers and others in our congregation come alongside those who are hurting to accompany you, to be there for you. The Spirit is indeed a comforter and a counselor and a helper!

I see the Spirit of truth at work as people are called away from the lies our culture and our world tell us and instead seek to conform their lives to God’s commandments. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments.” I see the Spirit of truth at work as the good news of Christ’s love and mercy begins to push out the lies we tell ourselves about how supposedly unlovable we are. I see the Spirit of truth at work as people begin to claim their true identity as forgiven and beloved children of God.

I see the Spirit at work as we support Nick and Shannon, our missionaries in Peru, who preach not only in Spanish but are also now hiring interpreters so that they might speak of God’s deeds of power in remote villages among people who speak rare tribal dialects. I see the Spirit at work right here on our congregation as we welcome and love some of our families whose primary language is something other than English.

I see the Spirit at work as we are gathered week after week around the Word, as God works through speaking and hearing, as God is at work to stir our hears to the faith that saves.

I have seen the Spirit at work in the lives of Natalie and Joe, our confirmands, whom I have had the privilege of watching grow up in this congregation, and whom I have very much enjoyed teaching in confirmation class these last two years. I’ve seen the Spirit of truth begin to teach them God’s truth given in the commandments and in the gospel. I think each of them has won the Catequizm game we do at least twice each! I’ve seen the Spirit stir their hearts to service, whether as acolytes or computer techs or Joe getting sweaty doing hard labor on church clean up days or Natalie perched up there on the organ bench playing something beautiful during the offering. I’ve seen the Spirit begin to teach them to pray, to call on the name of the Lord when they need a helper, when they need a comforter, when they need an advocate. Their lives haven’t always been easy. They aren’t always easy now. But they know this Spirit. They know this Spirit more than they even realize, because, just as Jesus promised, his Spirit abides with them and is in them.

This is what we mean when we talk about the Spirit here at church. We are talking about the comforter Jesus promised. We are talking about the Spirit of truth – Gods’s truth. We are talking about the presence of God, with us now and forever. We are talking about a Spirit that works through the Word, through speaking and hearing, so that we might know of God’s deeds of power in our lives.

You know this Spirit, because he abides with you too. The Spirit of Christ has come in through your ears this very morning as you have heard his Word. And so this Spirit is in you, just as Jesus has promised.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – May 26, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019

John 14:23-29

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

I went to the barber shop last week (don’t I look nice?) and as I was waiting, I picked up a Men’s Health magazine off the table in the lobby. As I flipped through the magazine, I couldn’t help but notice that every other article was, in one way or another, about anxiety. There were at least four articles in this one issue that either mentioned anxiety in the title or had it as part of the story. I looked at the cover to see if it was a special issue dealing with anxiety, but no – the cover described stories about getting ripped abs and tips on enhancing your (ahem) romantic life and so on. In other words, it was a typical men’s health magazine. How interesting, I thought, that anxiety would keep showing up in these articles!

Well, I tossed the magazine back on the table. I still hadn’t been called back, so I pulled out my phone. And, I kid you not, the first thing to pop up in my Facebook feed was an article entitled, “Millennials: The Most Anxious Generation.” People often joke about the supposedly pampered lives of the millennial generation, but the article pointed to some very real challenges causing this widespread anxiety, including what they called “ambition addiction,” as well as a constantly changing political and economic climate, and the non-stop demands and pressures of a technology-based lifestyle.

Anxiety is a big issue in our time for all kinds of people, and the suggestions in these articles were all good: cutting back on caffeine, getting more exercise and more sleep, cutting back on screen time, and so on. All good ideas! In some cases anxiety might even need to be treated with prescription medications or counseling.

That’s all fine and good, but as I was thinking about this widespread anxiety in our culture today, I could help but remember something St. Augustine wrote all the way back in the fourth century. He wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

The disciples’ hearts were restless. Their hearts were troubled. They were anxious. Jesus had told them that he would be leaving them soon. He had told them that he would soon endure suffering and death, and on the third day rise again. This was all so confusing to them. It was certainly anxiety-inducing news! In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus addressing their restless, troubled hearts. We hear him addressing their anxiety. We hear Jesus give them promises and resources for dealing with this anxiety.

First Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with them.” Jesus is responding to Judas (not that Judas – different one), who asked Jesus how he would make himself known to them and not to the world. Jesus responds by saying he will make himself known to them through the word. Those who love him will keep his word, Jesus says. and in so doing they will know the love of the Father. Those who love Jesus will hold his word close, they will learn from it and cherish it, and in so doing Christ will make his home with them.

Jesus goes on to say that he will make himself known to them through the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in his name. This Holy Spirit will teach them everything, and remind them of all that he has said.

And through both Word and Spirit, Jesus says, his disciples will know peace. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus tells them, “my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

This peace Jesus promises is not the absence of conflict or challenges. Jesus told them that in this life they would have many trials. He told them there would be crosses to carry. This peace is not about the absence of those things, it is instead about a presence – it is about his presence. The biblical concept of peace, of shalom, refers to the sense of wholeness that comes from being in right relationship with God. It is the peace of a contented heart which has found its rest in God.

As many of you have heard by now, our friend Oscar Bakke died on Monday. Pastor Stroud made it out to the hospital to be with some of Oscar’s family who had gathered to be with him. He shared a word of scripture and a time of prayer with them. Oscar opened his eyes long enough to signal that he knew who was there and what was going on. Death is always scary. Death is always sad. But through Word and Spirit there was also a peace there in that hospital room. I could still hear that peace in Oscar’s daughter’s voice over the phone later that night. Oscar died just a half-hour after Pastor Stroud left. Through Word and Spirit, our brother Oscar died in peace. (Thank you, Mark, for your ministry.)

My friends, Word and Spirit are not just given to us to have a blessed death. They are given that we would have a blessed life! They are the means through which Jesus gives us his presence and his peace throughout our lives. The problem is that we keep looking for this peace in all the wrong places.

One of the best books I have read in recent years is by the Episcopal theologian David Zahl. The title is “Seculosity,” which is a word he made up to try to capture the idea that while participation in church life is in steep and steady decline in the United States, people are actually more religious than ever – they have just transferred those religious impulses to secular life. The subtitle of the book fleshes this out a bit more: “How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It.” Over and over again with brilliant cultural insights Zahl shows how people are seeking validation and self-worth and community and meaning in all these important but ultimately insufficient pursuits. Citing some of the important work done by Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind” he writes of how people have infused these pursuits with a religious-like fervor and zeal in a vain attempt at self-justification. And where is it all leading? To anxiety. To restless, troubled hearts.

Zahl is quick to note that Christians are not immune from “seculosity.” We are not immune to the urge to seek self-justification and meaning and, ultimately peace, in the wrong places. Zahl writes about how he himself, a son of Episcopal clergy, a son of the church, a theologian of the church, is prone to doing so, and as I read his book there were plenty of times when I was wondering how he got inside my head, because I do the exact same things myself.

And where does this “seculosity” lead us? What happens when we make career and parenting and technology and food and politics and romance our new religion? We get men’s health magazines filled with articles about anxiety. We get a generation of young people who are being diagnosed with debilitating, clinical anxiety at double the rate of baby boomers.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” There are a number of helpful ways to alleviate anxiety, including prescription medication and counseling, and no Christian should ever be embarrassed or ashamed about getting the help they need. But our restless hearts will only ever find the real peace we long for when they rest in God –  and our hearts rest in God through Word and Spirit.

“Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says, “And my Father will love them and we will make our home with them.” Sometimes I fear that Lutheran Christians are more interested in platitudes and slogans than they are in keeping the word – which is ironic, since Martin Luther was the one who risked being burned at the stake to get the Bible into the hands of everyday people. And so one of the real highlights of this program year for me has been the Bible Project, the Bible study we’ve been doing in which we have surveyed the entire Bible. We’re finishing up this week. It has been successful not only in the number of people who have participated (averaging 15-20 on Tuesday nights!) but also in how we have seen how all the books of the Bible, all the Biblical writers, all of whom wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, work together to proclaim Christ and guide us in our life in him. It has opened up so much to those who have been part of it – including the teacher! – and I think it has whet the appetite of those who have participated to go even deeper into the scriptures. We’ve seen how deep that well goes and we want more! We have seen how God makes his home with us as we keep his word!

Deep and regular Bible study is an essential way of keeping the word, and I hope even more people get involved in Bible study next program year, but Word and Spirit are also at work here, in our worship. Here in worship we find a peace that comes to us not by our striving or by our efforts but is instead given to us as a gift. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Through the word of forgiveness, through the word of proclamation, through the visible word of the sacrament, Jesus comes to give us his peace. In and through the gathered community of Christ, our Lord Jesus makes his home among us. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus promised!

I know that many of you have hearts that are troubled and afraid. I know that many of you are anxious at times. Sometimes I am too. But today through Word and Spirit our Lord Jesus gives us a peace that the world cannot give us. Today through Word and Spirit he renews us in his forgiveness, so that we might live in his shalom, with that sense of wholeness that comes from living in right relationship with God. Today through Word and Spirit our Lord Jesus gives us peace in the midst of the difficulties we face. Today, through Word and Spirit Christ says to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Through this Word and Spirit, our Lord Jesus comes to us, so that our restless hearts would find rest in him.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon – May 19, 2019 (Audio & Print)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Easter – May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35

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

There are few words that have the power to grab our attention like the word “new.” You perk up and pay attention when you hear that your favorite musician has a new song coming out. You notice when your favorite author has a new book about to be released, or when there’s a new episode of your favorite TV show about to air. I noticed this past week that there are some new flavors of Oreo cookies that are coming out this summer. This made me more excited than it should have. Yes, “new” is a powerful little word.

In our gospel reading for today Jesus tells his disciples he is giving them a NEW commandment. “I give you a NEW commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.”

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything new about this commandment at all. In fact, the commandment to love is one of the oldest commandments there is! It is found all the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, where God says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It is found all the way back in the book of Leviticus, where God says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Love of God and love of neighbor both are among the oldest commandments God has given us. So why does Jesus call his commandment to love a “new” commandment?

Jesus’ commandment is new in two ways. The love Jesus’ followers are to have for one another has both a new shape and a new source. This is evident from what Jesus says next: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” These words make this commandment new! This commandment to love, as old as it is, is given a new shape and a new source.

What is the shape of the love we are called to have for one another? It is to have the shape of Jesus. It is to have the shape of his love for us. It is to have the shape of the cross. Jesus uses a specific word for love here. That word is agape. Agape love is more than a sentiment. It is more than an emotion or a feeling. It is not based on attraction or compatibility. The agape love Jesus speaks of is not a noun, it is a verb. It is embodied in acts of service. It is lived out in acts of sacrifice. It is a love that is steadfast, bearing with others even when it is hard.

Jesus powerfully illustrated the shape of this love just before giving this new commandment as he knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. Though Jesus had a status and an authority over them as their teacher and their Lord – not to mention his status as the very Son of God and the King of all Creation! – and he set all that aside in order to serve them. He sacrificed his status in order to tenderly wash their dirtiest parts. He loved his disciples with a steadfast love, fully knowing that one of them would betray him, another would deny him, and eventually all of them would abandon him. This is what makes this commandment new – the shape of the love we are to have for one another.

One of the rookie mistakes I made here as pastor at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church happened one Veteran’s Day weekend several years ago. I had encouraged those who serve in the military to wear their uniforms to worship that Sunday. I thought it would be a great way to honor their vocation. I was surprised to find that though we have quite a few service people in our congregation, almost no one wore their uniforms! We had a couple VFW hats, but that was about it! I had a conversation about this later with a Naval officer who has since become a dear friend. He explained to me that people may have been reluctant to wear their uniforms because uniforms immediately open up a gap between officers and enlisted. He told me that uniforms indicate rank. “And at church,” he said, “there shouldn’t be any ranks.”

This is someone who understands the new shape of love between Jesus’ followers. This is someone who understands agape love. Those ranks are crucial in their place, they are essential to a well-functioning unit, but within Christian community there are to be no ranks, no levels of status, just people who humbly serve one another according to their callings with agape love.

Christian community is to be marked above all else by this kind of love, this love that is shaped like Jesus. As St. Paul says in First Corinthians, “If I have prophetic powers and all knowledge and faith to move mountains, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. If I give away all my possessions so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing.” This passage is often associated with weddings, but Paul is actually writing about the church here! He’s saying that if a congregation has the best programs and the best music and the biggest budget, but does not have love, it is nothing more than noise in God’s ears. Who cares if the choir sounds good if they aren’t loving each other and praying for each other? (Which I’m proud to say they do here!) Paul is saying that if a church has the best theology and the best social ministry efforts and the best church building, but does not have love, it is nothing. Who cares if the sanctuary is beautiful if the people inside it are ugly towards one another?

There are many things that are important in the life of a congregation, but what we have to offer the world more than anything else is this new Jesus-shaped love.

At a time when there is so much anger and vitriol and division in our culture, we can show the world a community where people are loved regardless of their differences in age or education level or income level or race or political party. When there are differences of opinion about complex political questions, we can show the world a love that is patient and kind and humble. We can show the world that we can disagree about certain things without hating one another, or accusing one another of being “haters.”

At a time when love is often seen as a commodity, as something you find in order to benefit yourself, we can show the world a love that humbly serves others.

At a time when love is seen as something sentimental, we can show the world a love that is sacrificial.

At a time when love is seen as an amorphous, abstract idea, we can show the world a love that is shaped by Jesus’ obedience to the will of the Father.

At a time when love is often understood as transactional: “I’ll love you as long as you perform as I expect, as long as you are meeting my needs, as long as you make me feel a certain way,” we can show the world a love that is steadfast, a love that bears with others through thick and thin.

We will never do this perfectly, of course. Anyone who has been around the church for awhile knows that! But we are called to strive to live out this Jesus-shaped love here in church. This is where we practice it, so that we can then take that Jesus-shaped love into our homes, into our families, into our community, into our world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.”

If we were left on our own to live out this new commandment, we would never even begin to have this kind of love for one another. But this commandment doesn’t just have a new shape, it also has a new source. We are not only called to live OUT the love of Jesus, we are called to live IN the love of Jesus! “AS I HAVE LOVED YOU,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another.” Do you see what this means? Jesus’ love for us comes first! Jesus’ love for us isn’t just the shape of the love we are to have for each other, it is also the source of that love!

Just as the Lord Jesus stooped down and washed the feet of the very disciples he knew would betray and deny and abandon him, so too does he stoop down to serve us in love. He stoops down to wash the dirtiest parts of our lives clean with his forgiveness. The Almighty and Everlasting God stooped down and came into the world in order to be our savior. On the cross, Jesus took all our failures upon himself. On the cross Jesus took our lack of love for him and our lack of love for each other and absorbed it into his own body – and in his resurrection he has started the work of the new creation, he has started the work of making us new people. His love and grace and mercy come to us new every day, moving our hearts to begin to love one another as he has loved us.

The word “new” pops up a few times in our reading from Revelation for today as well. There we hear the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. It says that in this new heaven and new earth God’s home will be among mortals. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

Clearly that day is not here yet. But God has already begun to dwell among his people. He has come to us through his Son to show us the shape of his great love for us. He continues to come through the Spirit to be the source of that love in our lives, so that it would flow through us into the lives of others.

In following Jesus’ new commandment, we give the world a glimpse of this new heaven and new earth. We give the world a sneak preview of what God has in store when he comes at last to make all things new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church