Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 8, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 8

The Relationship Grid
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church
8 May 2022
Chaplain David G. Lura

Our readings from Revelation and Acts can remind us of Holy Week with references to palm branches in the former and a “resurrection” story from the latter.  Actually, the bringing back to life of Tabitha or Dorcas if you prefer reminds me of Mother’s Day observances because she was a woman “abounding with deeds of charity and mercy.”

Like many who preach on this Mother’s Day with these other two texts I feel compelled to reflect on the “shepherd” texts from the 23rd Psalm and John 10 readings.  You have probably heard the story of . . .

A couple retired to a small Arizona ranch and acquired a few sheep. At lambing time, it was necessary to bring two newborns into the house for care and bottle-feeding. As the lambs grew, they began to follow the rancher’s wife around the farm. She was telling a friend about this strange development. “What did you name them?” the friend asked her. “Goodness and Mercy,” she replied with a sigh. She was referring of course the 23rd Psalm where: “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (KJV).

Our two lessons for today refer to sheep or shepherds. It is probably the most familiar image in Scripture. God is a shepherd. We are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrews. That is perhaps why they are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, more than any other animal.

When we read the descriptions of a “good” shepherd, both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the gospels, we must realize, this is not a job description. It’s a spirit description. It’s a relationship grid. God is describing a relationship of a shepherd to a flock that goes way beyond a position that we are assigned or take on for wages. Shepherding, at least the kind God imagines, requires a parental kind of bond, a loving engagement that dreams of the very best for every one of those sheep, a life of nourishment, contentment, joy, and abundance.

Shepherding [like parenting and especially mothering] was and is a dangerous profession. You had to be alert nearly 24/7, and never took a day off, even for sabbath. Not only will sheep easily get distracted and wander away, but the hillsides and forests, even the valleys in Jesus’ day and still today, were filled with predators, each one eagerly waiting for a lamb to wander off alone. Some waited until nightfall to come and steal them away. Still others came in packs and preyed upon the entire flock at once, raiding and carrying them off, bleating and screaming.

To be a shepherd required the utmost attentiveness and attunement to everything going on around you. To be a shepherd meant to guard the gates of the sheepfold, to watch every sheep and lamb as you traveled from here to there as they grazed in the grass, and to be ready to fight to the death if a predator so much as came near.

For King David the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd was an obvious way to think of our relationship with God. He had vivid memories of life as a young shepherd before he became a warrior and a king. Thus he begins his popular and beloved Psalm 23 with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

But David wasn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this imagery. The Prophet Isaiah used sheep to illustrate the waywardness of God’s people. Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” Now many of us are probably thinking, how did he know about us? He sure got us right.

And, of course, this descriptive language is carried over into the New Testament, concerning Jesus. He is the ultimate Shepherd of God’s people as well as the unblemished, sacrificial Lamb of God. BANNER BEHIND CHOIR

Now, unless we’ve grown up on a sheep ranch or spent a lot of time at a petting zoo, we’re probably not all that familiar with them.  In any case being described as a sheep is not very flattering although, the truth is, sheep have more right to be offended by the comparison than we do.

Most of us probably prefer to think of ourselves as mavericks, too smart, too free-spirited and individual to go along with any herd. It’s natural, perhaps for Americans in particular, to celebrate qualities that are more characteristic of mules than of sheep.

When most of us think of these woolly creatures, we suppose them to be feeble-minded animals too stupid to think for themselves, and therefore apt to follow along with the rest of the herd, sometimes into dangerous or deadly situations. However, this image of the life of a sheep is based on a lack of understanding. When we get to know a little bit more about them, we can begin to realize that being a good sheep [that is, one that sticks with its flock and tries to remain close to the shepherd] requires some basic qualities that are also essential to being a disciple or true follower of Jesus the Christ. And, like the disciple of Christ, the sheep benefits greatly from belonging to the flock, gaining safety, guidance, nourishment, correction [to be sure] and care, as well as the opportunity to be useful and productive. Being part of the flock is the sheep’s equivalent of that American Express motto where membership has its privileges.

But membership also has its responsibilities. And in our more mule-like character, we are sometimes resistant to those responsibilities. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit to make us into the right kind of sheep to follow Jesus especially those of us who, if you don’t mind a bad pun, are seriously “hard-of-herding.”

We need to ask ourselves, what does being a good sheep require? How can we make sure we’re in the right flock, obeying the Good Shepherd instead of wandering off on our own or following a stray herd? What do we need to know and do as members of Christ’s flock?

Our lesson from John’s Gospel is set during the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem and is what we know these days as Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights. It’s celebrated for eight days in December.

Jesus is in the temple courts. As he walked, some inquiring Jews came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Notice what Jesus says about his flock.

  1. He says that he knows them individually.This is a beautiful picture of our relationship with God, each of us is known by God.

Story shared earlier with children: The Lord is MY Shepherd

  1. Secondly – Jesus says the sheep listen to his voice.This relationship between sheep and shepherd is not one-sided.

A man in Australia was arrested sometime back and charged with stealing a sheep. But he protested that he owned the sheep and that it had been missing for many days.

When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter. Finally he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom and directed the accuser to step outside and call the animal. As you might guess the sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened.

The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and do the same.  The sheep responded immediately having recognized the familiar voice of his master. “His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!”

So let’s ponder this question: is this imagery descriptive of our relationship with Christ? Do we listen to his voice?

I believe most of us can agree that we are great talkers when it comes to our devotional life but are not very good listeners. We give God our orders for the day, but we are not committed to reverently listening to the orders God has for us. Christ says he knows his sheep, but then he adds, “and they listen to my voice.”

  1. Then he says his sheep follow him.

Author Neal Andersen contends that those of us who live in the western world don’t have a correct picture of what it means to be led like sheep. Western shepherds tend to drive their sheep from behind the flock, often using dogs to bark at their heels. Eastern shepherds, like those in Bible times, lead their sheep from in front.

Andersen tells about watching a shepherd on a hillside outside Bethlehem. The shepherd sat on a rock while the sheep grazed. After a time he stood up, said a few words to the sheep and walked away. The sheep followed him. It was fascinating! Andersen says the words of Jesus in this passage suddenly took on new meaning for him, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

We can judge whether a person is a disciple of Christ by how well he or she follows. Many of us want the benefits of belonging to Christ’s flock to be known completely and intimately by God without the responsibility of listening to Christ and following him daily. We want to know him as our Savior without having him as our Master.

Jesus is well aware of our weakness and our waywardness, so he adds this final word of Grace: Christ says that no one can snatch his sheep from him.

You and I know what it meant. “The Lord is My shepherd.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows us by name. We are to listen for his voice and follow him, knowing that he will provide for every need.

The Apostle Paul says it best in his letter to the Romans chapter 8 . . .

31b  If God is for us, who can ever be against us? 39b  nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is his promise to his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Pastor David Lura

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – May 1, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 1

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter – May 1, 2022

John 21:1-19

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

Let’s review just where we are in the Easter story on this third Sunday in the Easter season. The women found the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus, and told Peter and the others about it. Jesus appeared to the disciples that evening, showing himself to them, and then he came back again a week later to show himself to Thomas. The disciples believed that Christ was risen. They had received the Spirit. They received the peace of Christ and confessed that he was their Lord and their God. And now, as we pick up the story today, we find that they had gone home. They returned to Galilee and went back to work, back to their jobs as fishermen.

Sometimes people fault the disciples for doing this, but I don’t think that’s really the point. After all, isn’t that what you did? After Easter Sunday worship, didn’t you go home? After our Sunday services in the Easter season so far, didn’t you go back to work on Monday? We believe that Christ is risen. We have received the Holy Spirit. We know the peace of Christ and confess that he is our Lord and God, but we too return to our homes and to our work. And that’s not wrong. Those are our God-given vocations. That’s where we live out our faith.

But Peter and the others not only returned to his home and to his work, he also found himself returning once again to the disappointments of daily life in the world. He worked hard casting his nets all night long, and caught nothing. He was skunked. Was the high of Easter tamped down somewhat by the struggles of daily life in the world? Probably. Was the joy of the resurrection diluted down a bit now by disappointment? Perhaps. Was the peace Christ brought now threatened by an anxiety that was creeping back in? I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.

But thankfully, Jesus kept showing up. Jesus showed himself again in Galilee! Jesus met them when they were back at home, when they were back at work! Jesus knew exactly what was going on in their lives. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” And this Lord of all creation, the same Lord who spoke creation into being, now filled their nets with fish. As they made their way to the shore with their 153 fish, Jesus called them to himself, saying, “Come, have breakfast.”

It is specifically noted that the disciples gathered with Jesus around a charcoal fire. This is more than just attention to detail. Remember, it was beside a charcoal fire that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. John, the writer, by dropping in that little detail, is, in a sense, bringing us back to the scene of the crime. If the charcoal fire doesn’t make this obvious enough, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, giving him three opportunities to confess his faith, effectively undoing his previous three denials. You see, even Peter’s worst sin couldn’t keep Jesus away. Jesus kept showing up!

Isn’t it wonderful to have people in your life who keep showing up? I hope you have someone like this in your life. Our sister in Christ Anabelle Mitchell has had a hard time these last couple of weeks with the hospitalization and then the death of her husband, our brother Lee. And you know who keeps showing up? Her friend, Barb Wilson. I went to see Lee in the hospital last week, and they almost didn’t let me in. They told me Lee was only allowed one visitor, and it was his wife. I told them I was their pastor, and they still wouldn’t let me in. Finally, I told them their own hospital chaplain called the church and asked me to come, and finally they let me in. Well, I went up to the second floor and talked my way past the floor nurse and got into the room, and not only was Anabelle sitting there, but Barb was there too! How the heck did she get in? Well, she showed up for her friend. I still don’t know how she did it, but she did! And since then, Barb keeps on showing up.

My godmother was present at my baptism, and she has kept on showing up in my life. She was my mom’s best friend, and when my mom died, she showed up at her apartment the day my sister and I were there to clean it out. She has kept on showing up too. In fact, she showed up in Oak Harbor on Thursday to have lunch with me.

I hope you have people in your life who keep on showing up, especially amidst the disappointments and the struggles of life in this world. I hope you can be the person who keeps showing up for someone else. If you need someone to show up during a hard season in your life we have Stephen Minsters here at church who, though they go through a lot of training as care givers, have as their main job just to simply show up for you. We as a church want to be a community who shows up for one another.

It is three weeks after Easter and our lives have probably returned to normal. We’ve all gone back home and back to work, and we’ve probably returned to some of the disappointments and the struggles of daily life in the world as well. There are all kinds of different challenges and hardships that are part of life in this world which have perhaps tempered the joy you felt on Easter morning. Many are concerned about increasingly empty nets as inflation continues to be a problem. The peace of Christ is always threated by worries that come creeping in. It has been a hard week at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church as we have learned of the deaths of two of our members, Lee Mitchell and Gene Verburg. Even as we continue to celebrate that Jesus has indeed ultimately conquered death by his glorious resurrection, it continues to bring grief and heartache. As St. Paul said, the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

What God’s Word has to tell us today is that we have a Lord and a God who keeps on showing up. This risen Lord we are celebrating this Easter season is a Lord who keeps on showing up as we return to our homes and to our work. This risen Lord knows exactly what our problems are, and he keeps on showing up amidst our empty nets and our disappointments and our worries and our heartaches. Even our worst sins can’t keep Jesus from showing up! Just as Jesus met Peter beside a charcoal fire, at the symbolic scene of the crime, so too does he show up for you with grace and mercy. He shows up to restore you, to call a confession of faith out of you, and to give your life meaning and purpose as you share his love with others at home, at work, and in the nitty gritty of daily life.

Our risen Lord Jesus was there at your baptism as you were joined to him as your Lord and savior. And because he is a risen Lord, he will continue to show up your whole life long, over and over again. In fact, he is showing up for you here today. He shows himself to us through Word and Sacrament. He shows up with his forgiveness and his love.  He calls us to himself, gathering us around the table he has set for us, saying, “Come, and have breakfast.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 24

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2022

John 20:19-31

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

At our Easter service last Sunday, one of our young worshippers turned in a Connection Card with a question written on it. His question was, “What is the purpose of religion?” His question was probably lurking in the minds of many people last Sunday, including many adults.

Set aside the broader question of the purpose of religion in general. Contrary to what some people think, different religions will answer that question very differently. They are not all the same. So let’s get more focused and rephrase the question as, “What is the purpose of this religion? What is the purpose of Christianity? It is an excellent question to ask on the most important day in the Christian calendar. What does this all mean?”

The question isn’t a new one. In fact, some version of this question was certainly lurking in the minds of the disciples themselves on the first Easter. They had heard that Christ was risen, just as our worshippers, including this ten-year-old boy, did last Sunday. But that night they went back home and locked the door. They were afraid that the same people who put Jesus on the cross would coming looking for them next. They were right to be afraid about that, because they soon would!

Not only were they afraid, but it is obvious that the reality of the resurrection had not yet sunk in. They had seen the empty tomb. They saw the grave clothes all neatly folded up. They had heard Mary Magdalene say that she had seen the Lord, that he was risen – but it didn’t make sense to them. They went back home, afraid and confused, scratching their heads about what it all meant.

And then that evening the risen Lord Jesus came to them. “Peace be with you,” he said. He showed them his hands and his side. This was a real body, which we’ll see even more clearly in upcoming texts this Easter season. His wounds were still there, proving that the risen Lord was the same person as the crucified Christ. “Peace be with you,” he said again. Then Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit by breathing on them, and with the Spirit he gave them their mission, the mission of the church: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

That all happened on Easter night. But one of the disciples was not there that night. For some reason, Thomas was absent. And when his fellow disciples told him about it, he didn’t believe them! “Unless I see and touch those wounds with my own hands, I will not believe it,” he said.

Thomas spent another full week wondering about what it all meant. He spent another full week in his confusion and his doubts. It was the following Sunday that Jesus came again to his disciples – just as we are here today a week later! This time Thomas was there. Jesus again said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Go ahead, touch my wounds. Do not doubt, but believe.”

Some corners of the modern church have come close to romanticizing doubts, almost encouraging them. It is unfortunate that earlier generations shamed people who had questions or doubts, but in the modern church the pendulum has swung so far the other way that doubts are almost celebrated. It is certainty that is more likely to be shamed or ridiculed in our time.

To avoid either extreme it is important to note two things: First, Jesus is exceptionally patient with Thomas. He doesn’t scold him for not believing the testimony of the other disciples. From this we can be assured that Jesus is patient with our doubts too, with our struggles to believe and to understand.

But Jesus didn’t want to leave Thomas in his doubts either. He wanted to move Thomas from doubt to belief, to trust, to the certainty of Christ’s resurrection. In the Large Catechism, Luther describes doubt as a close cousin to despair. Jesus didn’t want to leave Thomas in that confusion that leads to despair, and he certainly does want us to be stuck in our doubts either.

In order to move Thomas from doubt to faith, he invited Thomas to touch him. We don’t even know that Thomas accepted the invitation. All the artistic portrayals show him poking his finger in there, but nowhere in the scriptures does it say he did. Instead, it tells us that Thomas responded with a confession of faith: “My Lord and my God,” he said. At last, Thomas believed!

What is the purpose of the religion that emerged out of these encounters? The purpose is that we would believe it too! The purpose of Christianity is nicely summarized in our gospel reading today. The purpose is that we would have the peace of Christ. The purpose is that we would take up the mission of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in his name. The purpose is that we would believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, conquering death for us as the firstborn of the dead, the firstborn of many into eternal life.

Jesus goes on to say to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have NOT seen, and yet have come to believe.”

Just then John, the narrator, adds his two cents, writing, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that YOU may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Both Jesus and John are directly addressing YOU. They are telling you what the purpose of all this is. They are telling you the meaning of it all. They are inviting you to believe, to trust, to have faith, that Jesus Christ is your Lord and God, and that he was truly raised from the dead. When you believe this, you have the freedom of forgiveness, you have the peace of God’s presence, you have the assurance of eternal life. When you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, you will have life in his name!

To be honest, I don’t care much about what the purpose of religion in general is. I respect my neighbors of other faiths and am sometimes curious about what they believe, but what I really care about is what is true. And the truth is that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died on the cross for the sin of the world and rose again in bodily form. This really happened in history. The writings we call the New Testament hold up as eyewitness testimony to historical events as well or better than any other ancient literature. The bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a fable or an archetype or an inspirational symbol. It really happened.

In his stunning poem, “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” John Updike writes of the resurrection:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,

The amino acids rekindle,

The Church will fall.

 

It was not as the flowers,

Each soft spring recurrent;

It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

Eleven apostles;

It was as His flesh; ours.

 

The same hinged thumbs and toes

The same valved heart

That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered

Out of enduring Might

New strength to enclose.

 

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,

Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded

Credulity of earlier ages:

Let us walk through the door.

Dear friends, today we are invited to walk through the door. As our psalm for today says, “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter it.” And, as we know, righteousness comes through faith in Christ. We are invited to walk through the door of faith. We are invited once again to believe. As Jesus said, “Do not doubt, but believe,” and “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” As John said, “These things were written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, and that through believing, you would have life in his name.”

May God’s Word today help you see what his all means, what this is all about. May the testimony of the disciples renew you in faith today, so that you would know the peace of Christ, so that you would join in the mission we share to proclaim forgiveness in Jesus’ name, so that you would confess with Thomas that Jesus is your Lord and your God, so that you would believe that he is truly risen from the dead — and that through believing you would have life in his name.

I can’t speak for the others, but that’s what THIS religion is all about.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Resurrection of our Lord – April 17, 2022

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 17

Sermon for the Resurrection of our Lord – April 17, 2022

Luke 24:1-12

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

A few months ago my wife and I watched the historical drama 1883. It masterfully depicts a group of pioneers heading west from Texas to Oregon. When they begin their journey, many of these pioneers have their wagons weighed down with all kinds of unnecessary items. Before they try to cross the Brazos River, Sam Elliott’s character, Shea, demands that they dump those unnecessary items which will only weigh them down. He discovers that people were trying to bring all kinds of heavy, fancy furniture, nice chairs, ornate vanities. One guy was even trying to bring a piano! As important as these things seemed to them, they would only weigh them down. They would literally sink them. If they wanted to step into the new life they were seeking in the West, they would need to lay them down.

The women who came to the tomb on the first Easter morning were carrying some things they didn’t need to be carrying. They came to the tomb on Easter morning carrying spices. These weren’t little two-inch canisters of cinnamon or curry powder or tarragon like we have in our kitchens. We’re talking several pounds of spices, likely transported in heavy, cumbersome clay jars. These were spices to be used to prepare a body for burial. They were a dense compound of aloe and myrrh – essentially the embalming fluid of the ancient world. These women carried the extra weight of those spices to the tomb expecting to complete the unfinished business of the past Friday. They carried those spices to the tomb expecting to prepare Jesus’ lifeless body for its final burial.

In addition to the weight of those spices, the women came to the tomb carrying other heavy burdens too. They carried the weight of grief. They carried the weight of sorrow. They carried the weight of hopelessness. It was a heavy burden to bear. It threatened to sink them.

When the women got to the tomb, they discovered they didn’t need those spices after all – because when they got to the tomb, the body of Jesus wasn’t there! This confused them at first, but just then two men in dazzling white appeared. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” they asked. “He is not here, but has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?”

Jesus had told his followers everything that would happen. He told them clearly. He told them three times! Jesus told them in no uncertain terms: “I will be handed over to sinners, I will be crucified, and on the third day I will rise.”

And he was indeed handed over to sinners. He was indeed crucified. And it was now the third day. Everyone seems to have forgotten what Jesus said would happen on the third day!

And so these women were carrying things they didn’t need to carry. They were carrying those heavy burdens unnecessarily. They were carrying those spices because they hadn’t remembered what Jesus said. They hadn’t remembered his promise. They hadn’t remembered that Jesus said he would rise again on the third day. If they’d only remembered his Word, they could have left all those heavy spices at home, along with all the other burdens they were carrying.

We gather today for a great celebration. It is Easter Sunday. It is the Third Day. This Easter feels particularly good as we are emerging out of a pandemic and are able to celebrate in ways we haven’t been able to for the past two Easters. It feels like a time of resurrection. It feels like a time of rebirth and new life.

But even so, I can’t help but wonder how many of us have come here today carrying a heavy load of spices. I can’t help but wonder how many of us are packing around things that we don’t need to be packing around. I wonder if we were to scratch beneath the surface of all those nice Easter pastels, how many people we would find who have come here today carrying heavy burdens.

So many of us continue to carry the burden of our sin, our brokenness, our failures – past and present. We are weighted down by the persistence of our shortcomings. We are often weighted down by the knowledge that we are not the kind of people God calls us to be. Heck, we aren’t even the kind of people we ourselves want to be! As St. Paul said about himself, “I do not do the good I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.” The same could be said for each of us. We are all broken in one way or another. We are all sinners. As St. Paul put it, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Or as St. James put it, “We all stumble in many ways.” Our sin, our constant stumbling through life has a way of weighing us down.

Another heavy jar we continue to carry around is the jar of hopelessness. We often look at the world around us with its never-ending problems, with its steady stream of tragedies, with its conflicts and its callousness, and its is easy to lose hope. What hope do we have in a world plagued by corruption and violence? What hope do we have in a world where responsibility and righteousness are often sneered at as the naïve relics of a bygone era? What hope do we have living in a culture which has gone off the rails in so many different ways? What hope do we have in a world where God continues to be driven out and put on a cross? It is easy to be weighed down by hopelessness over the state of our world.

We are often weighed down by fear as well. Whether it is low-grade anxiety or a paralyzing panic, it is a burden on our shoulders. What will tomorrow bring? What does the future hold for me, my family? How am I going to make it?
Other times we carry a heavy clay pot full of grief. People we love get sick. People we love die. Grief is an understandable and inevitable and normal thing to carry, but it weighs us down nonetheless.

So what burdens are you carrying this morning? What is weighing heavily on your heart today?

As we gather here on this Easter Sunday, we hear Good News. We find that there are a lot of things we’ve been packing around that we don’t need to be packing around. Like the women at the tomb, we find that we’re carrying burdens that we don’t need to carry!

We don’t need to carry the burden of our sin. Our sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus, who rose again to give us newness of life. We are forgiven! We are loved! We have been reconciled to God forever! We can leave all our sin, all our shortcomings, all our failures at the foot of the cross and begin to walk a little lighter.

We don’t need to be weighted down by hopelessness either. The resurrection tells us that God isn’t done with this world yet! God hasn’t given up on it! The world, the devil, and our sinful selves might try to drive God out, putting him on a cross – but he comes back! God hasn’t given up in this world, and we shouldn’t either.

We don’t need to carry around that jar full of fear. Instead, we can remember Jesus’ promise to us. We can remember he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We can remember he said, “Do not be anxious about anything, for God will provide what you need.” We can put our future in his hands, confident that all things work together for good for those who love God.

And that heavy clay pot full of grief? Even that starts to feel lighter as the Good News of Easter starts to sink in. For the empty tomb tells us that even death – our greatest enemy – has been defeated. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus has been victorious over death, and that he promises to share that victory with us, granting us eternal life with him. And so, although we grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

“Remember what he told you,” the angels said to the women. And in remembering, their sorrow was turned to joy, their confusion was turned to amazement, and their fear was turned to boldness. In remembering, they became witnesses to the best news the world has ever heard. In remembering, they realized they didn’t need to be carrying those heavy spices, or those heavy burdens, any longer.

Dear friends, Christ has risen from the dead, and so you don’t need to be carrying them either.

Don’t let those heavy things you’re carrying drag you down. Don’t let them sink you.

Lay them down on this joyful Easter morning, so that you can step into the new life he has in store for you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

 

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 3, 2022

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 3, 2022

Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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

This is the Sunday in Lent when I kind of wish we had scratch and sniff worship bulletins. There would be so much to smell! In the reading from Isaiah, where Isaiah describes the new thing God is doing, we could smell the distinctive and wonderful scent of petrichor, that amazing scent you smell after it finally rains on dry ground. We could smell the exotic scents of the zoo – the musk of jackals and ostriches and other wild animals giving their honor to God. We could smell the rich aroma of the wine given to God’s chosen people, so that they might declare his praise. From the psalm we could catch the distinctive and wonderful scents of farm fields and harvest, the scents of freshly turned soil and recently cut hay.

Maybe technology will make scratch and sniff worship bulletins possible in my lifetime. Maybe we’ll even have the ability someday to pipe scents into the sanctuary to augment our readings. But on second thought, maybe that isn’t such a good idea. Because by the time we get to our second reading, there’s some stuff there that doesn’t smell so good!

In our reading from Philippians, Paul cites all his so-called spiritual credentials, all the reasons he has to be “confident in the flesh.” Paul lists off all the reasons he has to be comfortable in his status before God as determined by outward appearance and outward behavior.

Paul notes that he was circumcised on the eighth day, just like good Jewish baby boys were, just like it says they are supposed to be in the book of Leviticus. Of course, he was a member of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. He was a member of the prestigious and respected tribe of Benjamin. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, born into the right family, the right culture. He was a Pharisee, who were more scrupulous than anyone else in keeping God’s law, dotting every last “I” and crossing every last “T”.

And yet, Paul concludes, he now, in light of Christ, considers all of those spiritual credentials to be “rubbish.” Now, this is an example of Bible translators being polite. “Trash” or “garbage” would at least get us a little bit closer to the word Paul actually uses here, and no one wants to smell garbage. But the actual word Paul uses is something even smellier and more offensive. The Greek word is an offensive slang word for excrement, for doo-doo! I struggle every time I preach on this text with just how far to push this with an accurate English word. Can I say “crap” and keep my job? “Crap” isn’t as bad as the word I want to say.

Anyway, whether it is rubbish or garbage or excrement or doo-doo, it certainly isn’t something you want to scratch and sniff! It isn’t a scent you want piped into the sanctuary, that’s for sure!

Paul uses this word to be intentionally provocative. He evokes this foul smell to make an important point. What he is saying is that in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus, all his spiritual credentials stink. They are garbage. They are doo-doo. Paul has come to know a better righteousness, the righteousness based on faith in Jesus. He doesn’t need all those credentials anymore. He can throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet because now he has Jesus.

Our gospel reading is quite fragrant as well. One night when Jesus was having dinner with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, Mary got up and got a bottle of costly perfume and dumped the whole thing out on Jesus’ feet, using her hair to massage it into his soles. The fragrance of this costly perfume filled the room.  It is an odd gesture, to be sure, but it is a beautiful one – filled with so much meaning and adoration and love.

Mary took her expensive perfume and used it to anoint Jesus, marking him as someone special, someone precious to her. She anointed his feet, humbling herself as she knelt before him. She wiped his feet with her hair. Most women had long hair in those days. They kept it tied up and covered most of the time, only letting it down in the presence of those closest to them. Mary not only let her hair down in front of Jesus – she went on to use her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is a picture of intense spiritual intimacy and love.

When Judas objects, saying that they could have sold that perfume and used the money to help the poor, Jesus tells him to back off and leave her alone. First of all, Judas was virtue signaling. John tells us as much. Judas didn’t really intend to actually help the poor. Moreover, Jesus saw great meaning and value in what she was doing. He told Judas that she was preparing him for his burial. When someone died in those days, their bodies were prepared with fragrant ointments and spices. This is what Mary was doing, Jesus said.

The strong, powerful fragrance of this perfume matches the strong, powerful meaning behind what was happening. Mary was anointing Jesus as the Messiah. She was worshipping the Savior who would soon die for her. She was pouring out everything that was most valuable to her for his sake. She was humbling herself before her soon-to-be crucified Lord. She was letting down her hair, entrusting herself to him completely. She was humbly serving him by washing his feet.

The contrasting smells of Paul’s poopy garbage and Mary’s costly perfume provide for us a contrast between two ways of life. They provide a contrast between a righteousness that we seek for ourselves and the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus. They provide a contrast between a life that is all about status and which tribe we belong to and virtue signaling, and a life that is marked by spiritual intimacy with Jesus, a life where we pour ourselves out for the One who poured himself out for us.

The former is foul. As Martin Luther liked to say, rooting your salvation in your works always leads to one of two places. Either you become prideful over your supposed status and achievements, or your fall into despair because you never quite get there. Both stink!

We have our own status symbols that we strive for. We have our own tribes that we belong to that we think make us better than other people. We have our own ways of virtue signaling, of projecting our so-called righteousness. And it all stinks. It has us chasing our tails. It has us at each other’s throats.

Paul knew a better way. He called it the righteousness from God based on faith. He described it as the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

This better way is found in the fragrance that fills our gospel reading. True Christianity can be seen in Mary’s odd but beautiful gesture. True saving faith is about kneeling before the One who died for us. It is about entrusting ourselves to him completely. It is about humbly serving him with all that we are and all that we have.

If you find yourself walking in either pride or despair, you might want to check your shoes. You may have stepped in something – that smelly  something Paul that warns about.

Instead, kneel before the One who gave his life for you. Jesus has done everything necessary to make us right with God. He has “righted us” by giving us his righteousness as a gift of grace, received in faith. He died for us and rose again to give us a new life.

So pour your treasures out at his feet. Worship him. Adore him. Love him. Serve him.

And may the fragrance of our love for Christ fill this room, today and always.

Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 27, 2022

CLICK HERE for a sermon video for March 27

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2022

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

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

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

Jesus not only welcomed tax collectors and other sinners into his company, he also ate with them. He reclined on their couches. He dipped his bread in their bowls. He lingered among them for long after-dinner conversations.

Who you ate with in the ancient world mattered. It mattered a lot. Eating with someone meant you had a relationship with them, a connection. We see a reflection of this in our English word “companion,” which literally means, “the one with whom you break bread.” By eating with these tax collectors and other sinners Jesus was sending the signal that he considered them his companions, his friends even!

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

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

First there is the son who left. He went to his father and demanded his inheritance ahead of time, essentially treating his father as though he was already dead. This son took his share of the family estate and left town. He traveled to a distant country, where he would be free from the expectations of his family and his community. He would be free from his responsibilities to others. And there in that distant country, he squandered all that money away on “dissolute living.” He spent it all in wasteful and extravagant and immoral ways. His father was so gracious in giving him that money, and he wasted it all on prostitutes and single malt.

Just when the money ran out, the economy tanked. A famine plagued the land. This son went to work for a Gentile employer, caring for pigs. Now, many of us are blessed to know and love some hog farmers. Many of us know them as wonderful people. Some of us even consider them to be workers of minor miracles, because they take slop and turn it into ham and bacon! But for Jewish people, pigs were filthy, unclean animals. They didn’t raise pigs, they didn’t touch pigs, they didn’t eat pigs. As this Jewish son worked these hogs, so desperate and hungry that he drooled over their food, it represented rock bottom.

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

And here is where things get really interesting. You see, the father had been watching for his son. The father had been staring out at the horizon, hoping and praying for the day his son would come home. And then it happened! He saw him!

Then come the six most wonderful words in the whole parable: “while he was still far off…” Yes, the son had “come to himself.” Yes, the son had turned away from his sinful lifestyle. Yes, the son had repented in the truest sense – he had turned around and come home. But he wasn’t there yet. While he was still far off, the father was filled with compassion. While he was still far off, the father ran to him! While he was still far off, the father found him. And when he did, he put his arms around him and kissed him.

The son made his confession. He said he wasn’t worthy to be called his son. But before he could even finish his speech, before he could offer himself as a servant, as an employee, his father was already clothing him in the best robe, placing the family ring on his finger and putting new sandals on his feet. This dad didn’t want another employee. He wanted his son. And now that he was home, it was time to fire up the barbeque and the band and have a party.

But there was another son too. This son never left home. He was faithful and loyal and obedient. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He didn’t sow his wild oats like his brother had done. But make no mistake about it – this son was lost too.

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

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

I think the meaning of this parable would have been pretty obvious to the Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus’ little dinner parties with sinners. They may or may not have liked it, but they probably understood what Jesus was saying. Those sinners were like the young son who had come to himself. They had hit rock bottom spiritually and morally and now they were stumbling towards home. While they were still far off, Jesus had gone to meet them. They had been welcomed back as God’s children, and now it was time to celebrate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church