Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 25, 2021

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Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 25, 2021

John 6:1-21

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

It has often been said that a crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

We have two crises in our gospel reading today, and this saying very much applies to both of them! These crises reveal Christ. These stories and the way they are told by St. John reveal who Jesus is and why he has come. These are not so much moral tales told to build our character. They are first and foremost crises that reveal Christ Jesus as our savior and our Lord.

The first crisis isn’t necessarily a life-or-death situation, but it does involve a large crowd out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat. They aren’t necessarily going to starve to death, but if you’ve ever been out in the woods with a few hangry kids, you know how dire this situation is. Things can go south in a hurry!

But before we even get to the crisis itself, Saint John prefaces the story by telling us what time of year this is happening. “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” There are no insignificant details in John’s gospel! John mentioning that the Passover was near is hugely significant! John intentionally frames this story in the context of the Passover, which is the chief Jewish festival. The Passover is the celebration of God’s saving help, God’s deliverance of his people out of their captivity in Egypt as they trusted in his promise and painted the doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. And as God’s people were brought out of Egypt and spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness, when they were in the wilderness and out of food, God miraculously provided them with something to eat.

Now a bunch of Jews are again stuck in the wilderness without anything to eat. I love how Jesus toys with Philip here, feigning concern. “Well just look at all these people here! How are we ever going to buy bread for them all to eat?” Saint John tells us that Jesus knew what he was going to do all along. Jesus was testing Philip. “Do you remember your Sunday school lessons about the manna in the wilderness, Philip? Do you remember what God did?” Philip and Andrew both failed this Sunday school quiz, looking to their meager cash on hand and the slim pickings of a kid’s lunchbox. “What are we going to do?” they asked. And Jesus did what he already knew he was going to do. He took the loaves and fishes and he miraculously multiplied them, distributing them to everyone there, until all were satisfied.

The people who ate this miraculous meal in the wilderness knew they had experienced more than an impromptu picnic. They knew that they had experienced more than some kind of object lesson. They knew that they had seen a sign. They knew that this pointed to something important about who Jesus was. They began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world!” They tried to make Jesus their king. Jesus refused and withdrew from them – he wouldn’t be a king on their terms. He wouldn’t be coopted by their agendas or their felt needs. He had bigger things in mind, bigger things to accomplish – bigger fish to fry, we might say.

But they were on the right track. Jesus was the one promised by God. He had come to be a king of sorts. But more than anything else, Jesus had come to bring a new Passover. He had come to deliver his people from their captivity to sin and death. He had come to be the new Passover Lamb, by whose sacrifice the people would be saved. This crisis reveals that Jesus is God himself, who has come in the flesh to feed people in the wilderness and lead them into the Promised Land.

The next crisis is told much more briefly, but it reveals much the same about Jesus. The disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee at night when a storm kicked up. They were three or four miles from the shore. Boats like theirs went under in those kinds of conditions all the time, so this really was a life-threatening crisis. Jesus came walking out to them on the sea. Walking on the water was a cool trick, but it was what Jesus said that reveals the most about him: “It is I,” Jesus said to them. This is ego ami in Greek, which literally translates as “I AM.” In Hebrew it is pronounced Yahweh.  So now it is time for you to have a little Sunday school quiz. Do you know what God said to Moses when Moses asked for his name? God said, Yahweh, “I AM.”  In the fear and chaos of that storm in the dark of night, Jesus revealed himself as Yahweh, as the Lord God. “I AM,” he said, “So do not be afraid.”

A crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it. The Word we hear from God this morning gives us so much more than mere morality tales to build our character. Through this Word, God is revealing to us the truth about his Son. As Saint John himself says later in his gospel, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples that are not written in this book, but these are written so that you might believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”

We gather here today, each of us with our own crises of various sorts going on in our lives, both big and small. We hunger for a restored creation, free from viruses and fires and hatred and violence. We hunger for healing in our lives – the healing of bodies, the healing of relationships. We sometimes find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, feeling abandoned by God. Our lives are sometimes overwhelmed by chaos and darkness that cause us to be afraid. As we confess each Sunday, we are all in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.

But in the midst of whatever particular crises you might be enduring this morning, today Christ Jesus reveals himself to you through Word and Sacrament. He reveals himself as our Lord and savior. He comes to deliver us as the new Passover Lamb, by whose sacrifice we are saved from our captivity to sin and death. He comes to feed us with the miraculous food of his holy supper, which assures us of his presence and his forgiveness. This miraculous meal strengthens us for today and gives us a foretaste of the Promised Land to come. Jesus comes to us in the midst of every storm, every crisis we face. Just when we think we’re going down, just when we’re about to throw up over the side rails of the boat, he comes to us saying, “I AM. Do not be afraid.

The crises we hear of in God’s Word today reveal Christ to us through the signs he gave. These signs are given that you would believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you would have life in his name.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 18, 2021

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Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 18, 2021

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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

You’ll notice in the back of the bulletin that Pastor Stroud is listed as our preaching minister this morning. He had some health issues come up, and so I offered to fill in this morning. I invite you to pray for him.

It isn’t very often that I’m writing a sermon the day before I preach it. Usually I preach crock-pot style, reading the scriptures early in the week and letting the Word simmer for several days, but this week had to be a microwave sermon. But it worked out pretty well, actually, because as I was reading the gospel (yesterday!) I noticed that Jesus and the disciples, “went away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves.” I had to laugh, because that’s exactly what I did last week!

As many of you know I took some time off last week to go visit my dad in Post Falls, Idaho, and one of the things we did was go away in a boat to a deserted place by ourselves! One of my dad’s best friends took us out in his boat on Lake Coeur D’Alene to a place called Beauty Bay. This is the perfect name for this little bay because it is a beautiful place. It is a beautiful cove without any development nearby. The trees come right down to the shore. It is a small cove, so there aren’t any water skiers or jet skis zooming by. In fact, while were there, we had the whole cove to ourselves. It was glorious! The water temperature was a perfect 78 degrees, so we swam and we floated and we relaxed – in a boat, in a deserted place, by ourselves. I said to Amy on the way home that, although we were only gone for about the equivalent of a long weekend, it felt a lot longer. I felt so restored, so renewed, by our time away.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus said to his disciples. What a gracious invitation! What a gracious Lord! They had just returned from several days of ministry, having been sent out two by two to carry out Jesus’ work in the world, and now it was time to rest. Jesus isn’t a demanding CEO holding his employees noses to the grindstone nonstop, demanding more and more productivity. Jesus is a wise and loving shepherd, caring for his sheep by leading them to green pastures and still waters, where he can give them rest. Jesus understands well that we as human beings need rest. We often hear in the gospels about Jesus himself getting away or going off by himself or taking a nap. We need such rest too.

There’s even a commandment about this, you know. The third commandment demands that we take time to rest. It demands that we observe the Sabbath day. Part of the purpose of this commandment is to give us humans the rest that we need. Part of it is to emulate God, who after creating heaven and earth, rested on the seventh day. But there’s another aspect to this commandment which is widely recognized by the Jewish people. Jewish wisdom teaches that by keeping the Sabbath – by refraining from work and resting – we are reminded that we are not God! We are reminded that the world will continue along just fine without us!

The Sabbath, then, has a way of putting us in our place! It humbles us. In so doing it helps us to keep the first commandment, which is to have no other gods. Because you see, when we get too busy with life, when we get too enthralled with our projects and plans, we start to believe that everything depends on us. And the truth is, no matter how important our work might be, it doesn’t! When we fail to rest or refuse to take a break, whether we realize it or not, we are starting to think of ourselves as gods. “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist writes. Sometimes we need to be still in order to be reminded that God is God and we are not. The Sabbath helps us do this.

When Jesus and the disciples came ashore after their little getaway, there were crowds of people hurrying to get close to them. “Jesus had compassion on them,” St. Mark tells us, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

What do sheep do when they don’t have a shepherd? They wander around, fending for themselves. They have a tendency to get lost. They try to survive on their own, but often fall prey to predators. Instead of being led to green pastures and still waters, they try to push through on their own and only end up exhausted and depleted and, eventually, dead!

So it is with us. We not only need a break from time to time, we not only need physical rest, we also need the kind of rest that can only be provided by Jesus, our Shepherd. We try to live as our own shepherds, our own gods. We get so caught up on our work and our plans and our busy-ness. I know we have a lot of retired people in our congregation, but retired people are some of the busiest people I know! And while our work and our ministry and our volunteering are all good and important, they can take on a life of their own and mess up our perspective. They can lead us to believe that we can be our own shepherds and that we can get by on our own, without rest, without the Sabbath, without being still from time to time. Believe me, I’m preaching to myself this morning as much as I am preaching to you.

I’m not going to give you directions to Beauty Bay. As it is, over in Idaho they get frustrated with too many Washingtonians coming over to enjoy their beautiful spots. But I do encourage you to take time to rest, time away if at all possible.

Even more, I encourage you to think of this sanctuary as your Beauty Bay. I encourage you to think of this sanctuary as the place where you can be still, where you can float in the still waters of your baptism, where you can find that deepest kind of rest in the green pastures of God’s presence.

For you are not a sheep without a shepherd. Christ Jesus has come ashore today to be your shepherd. And he says to each of you, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 11, 2021

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Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 11, 2021

Mark 6:14-29

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

This is the gospel of our Lord?

I was tempted to read our liturgical response to the gospel reading for this morning in the form of a question! “Gospel” means “good news,” and it is hard to see what is good about this story. “Gospel” is also word used to describe the biblical genre of the four “spiritual biographies” we have of Jesus, but there is very little of Christ in this story – at least on the surface.

In hearing this passage, it can feel like we have stumbled into a soap opera, or something you might see on HBO Max. There are sordid and confusing and complicated family relationships. There are lustful stirrings. There is manipulation and murder.

This is the gospel of our Lord?

In order to understand this sordid episode, let me give you some background. Herod the Great (so-called) was the Jewish puppet of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth. He’s the guy who slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to eliminate what he saw as a threat to his throne with the rumored birth of a newborn king.

Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. One of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas, came to be another puppet ruler of the Roman Empire. On a visit to Rome he met Herodias, who just happened to be married to his brother, Philip. Well, Herod and Herodias hit it off. What a cute couple they would make with their matching names! Though they were both married, they each divorced their spouses and married each other. Herod’s first wife, herself the daughter of a king, was understandably upset and went running back to her father, who then went to war against Herod! Lots of people were upset about this – both because of the gross immorality of Herod running off with his brother’s wife and because of the resulting military skirmish – but one man in particular spoke out against it. His name was John the Baptist.

Now Herod found John the Baptist to be an interesting person. He liked listening to him. He knew he was a righteous and holy man. He even feared him to a degree. But his wife, Herodias, despised John. She hated John for daring to publicly call them out on their unlawful marriage. She was so mad about it that she wanted him dead. At first Herod wouldn’t go that far, but he did go ahead and arrest John and put him in prison. Marriage is all about compromise, right?

But then came Herod’s birthday party. He invited lots of powerful people for a birthday banquet. Herodias’s daughter, Herod’s stepdaughter, performed a dance at the party. (I know our translation says “Herod’s daughter, Herodias,” but other translations are more clear that this is the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome.) This dance got everyone’s attention. Given what we know about this family and the culture of the time, this probably wasn’t Shirley Temple doing a tap dance. This was very likely a young woman dancing in ways that kept the men in rapt attention.

At the end of the dance, the lecherous Herod made a big show in front of his powerful friends of promising to give Salome anything she wanted. He even offered to give her up to half of his kingdom. Obviously Salome was being manipulated by her mother, and so she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod was “deeply grieved,” the scriptures tell us, but, feeling pressured by the oaths he had made in front of his important guests, he gave the gruesome order, and they brought John’s head on a platter and brought it into the banquet.

This is the gospel of our Lord? It sounds more like an episode of Game of Thrones! Why are we hearing this today? Why did the framers of the lectionary see fit to include this as a reading we would hear on Sunday morning? (And why didn’t I ask Pastor Marc to preach this week?) And for that matter, why did St. Mark, who tells the story of Jesus so sparingly, see fit to include this story in his gospel? And how in the world is this God’s Word for us today?

Scripture describes the world as it truly is, that’s for sure. Like with Grandpa Herod, human life continues to be snuffed out for selfish reasons. Like with Herod Junior and second wife Herodias, people continue to walk away from marriages when someone else catches their eye. Like with Salome, young women continue to be ogled and trafficked and abused by people they should have been able to trust. Like with Herod Antipas, people will do horrific things in order to save face with their peers. Like with Herodias, no one likes to be confronted with their sin, and they will go to great and wicked lengths to silence those voices doing so. This whole sordid affair aptly describes the sinful, broken world we live in and the depravity of human nature of which we are a part. Sometimes we are its victims, sometimes we are its complicit bystanders, sometimes we are the perpetrators.

This still isn’t the gospel of our Lord, but we’re getting closer – because Mark’s willingness to portray the world as it really is reminds us that it is precisely this world that our Lord entered into. It is this world that God so dearly loves, quite in spite of itself. It is this world and its fallen human race that Christ came to save.

Last week St. Mark went out of his way to tell us that Jesus was rejected in Nazareth. Now this week, picking up right where we left off in Mark’s gospel from last week, he tells us this horrible story about John. And as with last week, Mark has a reason. He has a purpose. Mark is beginning to drop hints about how Jesus would save this broken world. He tells us this particular backstory because it so powerfully foreshadows what Jesus himself would endure. Jesus, like John, would be arrested. Jesus, like John, made some people mad for calling them out on their sin. Jesus, like John, would be brutally executed by a reluctant official who was bowing to the pressures of a crowd. Jesus, like John, would be laid in a tomb. What sparked this story was Mark remembering that Herod thought that Jesus was John, raised from the dead! Herod was wrong on the details, of course, but he was saying more than he knew, wasn’t he? Just beneath the surface, Jesus is all over this story!

After his own brutal execution, Jesus himself would rise from the dead. The grave could not hold him. The ugliness of this world could not keep him away.

And so know this: no matter how sordid or sinful or messy or painful or soap-opera-y your story might be, it isn’t too much for Jesus. He has come for you. He has come to heal you. He has come to forgive you. He has come to redeem you from the broken parts of your story. By his death and resurrection he has conquered sin and death in order to give you his kingdom, which comes with a new life and a new hope and a new future.

THIS is the gospel of our Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 4, 2021

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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 4, 2021

Mark 6:1-13

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

Oftentimes homecomings are wonderful occasions. Think of kids coming home from college for the summer. Or think of those joyful reunions on the tarmac just down the road at NAS Whidbey when a squadron returns and a family is reunited.

Oftentimes homecomings are wonderful occasions, but this most certainly NOT the case for Jesus when he came home to Nazareth. Jesus preached at his home congregation, and the scripture tells us his hometown crowd was astounded – but not in a good way! It goes on to say they took offense at him! This was already pretty obvious in the way they were referring to him after his sermon. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” This apparently was Jesus’ vocation when he left Nazareth, and so they were having a hard time receiving him as a Bible scholar and rabbi. “Who does this carpenter think he is teaching us about God?” Even worse, they said, “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” You see, in Jesus’ time people were usually identified by their relationship to their father. To refer to him as Mary’s son was to call the identity of his father, and thus his so-called “legitimacy,” into question. It was intended as a terrible insult to both Jesus and Mary.

So the people in Nazareth took offense at Jesus. They rejected him. They dishonored him. They didn’t believe in him – in what he said and who he was — and Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.

And in response, Jesus moved on to other villages, taking his message there. Moreover, he looked at his twelve disciples and said, “OK, now it’s your turn!” He paired them up two by two, gave them authority over unclean spirits, told them to travel light, and sent them on their way to carry on his mission.

Much has been made over why Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. Many scholars have said this was to bolster their witness, referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which says that a single witness in a court setting was not enough. You needed at least two. Maybe Jesus thought the witness of two people would carry more authority with people.

Another creative interpretation which I like is that this is an echo of the story of Noah’s ark. Just as the ark was unloaded after the flood with all the animals stepping out two by two to repopulate a devastated world that had rebelled against God, so too now was Jesus sending out his disciples two by two to bring restoration and new life. This is a bit fanciful, I think, but I like it!

But I think that more than anything else, more than any other reason, Jesus sent the disciples out two by two because he knew they would need each other. He knew they couldn’t do it on their own.

We’re celebrating Independence Day today, commemorating the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. And as we do so I am mindful of something Benjamin Franklin said as the members of the Continental Congress signed their names to that document, making them all publicly open to charges of treason against the British Empire. He said: “We must all hang together, or surely we shall all hang separately.”

In a similar way, our partnership, our unity, as Christians is essential to our mission. We need each other! We need each other across denominational lines as we form strategic partnerships for the sake of extending the gospel and strengthening our witness. We need each other across congregational lines as we support one another in mission. And we most certainly need each other on a personal level. Christians need personal relationships with other Christians. Church isn’t something you can do alone or online indefinitely! We need each other! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a quote I’ve been pondering throughout these past months of the pandemic: “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” We’ve seen that, haven’t we? We’re seeing it now! We need each other! Especially in the face of a culture that is growing increasingly hostile to Christian faith, we must all hang together, or, well, you never know.

Jesus knows we will face opposition. He knows that as we bear witness to him we will open ourselves up to insults. He knows we will be rejected. The cancel culture and the hostility to Christianity we see today is nothing new and it was not unexpected! And Jesus not only encourages us to hang together, he also advises his disciples, then and now, that when that happens, to “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

You see, in Jesus’ time, when a Jewish person had to travel through Gentile territory, it was very common for them, once they had set foot back on Jewish soil, to make a big show of shaking the dust off their sandals, so nothing of the unclean, unholy Gentile world would cling to them.

In a similar way, Jesus says, we are to shake off the rejection of those who do not believe. We are to shake off their insults. We are to shake off their offense and move on. It is just like the great theologian Taylor Swift has said, “Players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off. (Whoo-hoo-hoo.)

We too are sent out to bear witness to Christ. We too are sent out to share the gospel with others. This has always been hard. It has always been an uphill battle. But we are sent out into the world together, that we might be sources of joy and strength to one another. We are sent out into the world expecting rejection. Jesus himself was rejected! Do you really think you can do this better than him? But when we know it is going to happen, when Christ himself tells us to expect it, we avoid becoming overly discouraged. We are less likely to be crippled by our fear of rejection. We can more easily shake it off.

Jesus’ rejection was not only a foreshadowing of the rejection his church would face. His rejection at Nazareth by his own people was also a foreshadowing of the ultimate rejection he would endure on the cross. On the cross, Jesus endured the rejection of the entire world. Jesus endured the pain and humiliation of that ultimate rejection, and then three days later he emerged victorious from the tomb, shaking off the shackles of death. As cruel as this ultimate rejection surely was, it has become the very means of our salvation! The death and resurrection of Jesus has opened the way for a joyful homecoming, the most joyful homecoming of all, as sinners are welcomed back into the home of our heavenly Father, both now and forever.

Jesus has done all this to bring you home to God. And now that he has, he calls you to help him bring others home too. Let us hang together in this mission, unafraid.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for June 27

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27, 2021

Mark 5:21-43

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

Do you ever feel like you are just hanging on by a thread? Maybe it is something physical, trying to stay one step ahead of a medical condition that is dragging you down. Maybe it is emotional, trying to keep your head above those anxious thoughts that are pulling on you. Maybe it is financial, trying to hang on when there is too much month at the end of the money. Maybe it is social, trying to hang on to relationships that are frayed down to the last wisp of thread. Maybe it is spiritual, trying to hang on to faith in Christ in a world that increasingly ridicules and even vilifies such faith. Maybe you are trying to hang on to hope in a time that has been very challenging for all of us.

Many of us – maybe all of us – know what it is like to be hanging on by a thread. In our gospel reading for today we meet some people who are hanging on by a thread – one of them quite literally!

First, we meet a father who is hanging on by a thread. He is experiencing every parent’s worst nightmare: a deathly ill child. Jairus was a leader in the synagogue, and his precious twelve-year-old daughter was fading fast. She was at the point of death. Who knows what they had tried so far to make her well, but you can bet they tried everything – but to no avail. Nothing worked. And so Jairus’ was hanging on to hope by the barest of threads, and in one last desperate attempt to save his beloved daughter, he put his hope in Jesus. This dignified, powerful, respected leader of the synagogue fell down on the ground at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come lay his hands on her, so that she would be made well.

Jesus was interrupted on the way to Jairus’ house – we’ll get to that in a minute – and so when he arrived, the girl had already died. Word got back to Jairus’ on the road that it was too late, his daughter was already gone. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they said. They knew that there was no hope once death had taken hold! Dead people stay dead. What was the point of bringing Jesus to her now? But Jesus heard what they were saying, and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Jesus arrived at the house. There is a sound grieving people sometimes make that is devastating to hear. It is a wail or a groan that comes from somewhere so deep inside that it sounds almost unearthly. This was the sound Jesus heard as he made his way to the little girl’s room. There was loud wailing. Jesus asked the mourners why they were making such a commotion. “She is not dead, but is sleeping,” he said. They laughed at him.

And then Jesus went into this girl’s room. He went to her bedside and he took her by the hand. He spoke to her in her mother tongue. “Talitha cum,” he said, which means, “Little girl, get up.” And she got up.

When Jairus was hanging on by a thread, figuratively speaking, he put his hope in Jesus. And even in the midst of death and those deep groans of grief, Jesus brought life.

Today we also meet someone who was hanging on by a thread quite literally! As Jesus was making his way to Jairus’ home, he was interrupted by a woman who had pushed her way through the crowd in order to get close to Jesus. This woman had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. This was probably what today we would call menorrhagia, which is heavy and constant menstrual bleeding caused by cysts or tumors in the uterus. This was not only extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient, but often causes anemia, making one constantly weak and tired and listless.  Her condition also meant she was likely single or divorced and childless, which put her in an extremely vulnerable position socially. And on top of all that, the constant bleeding made her ritually unclean, and so, not unlike the lepers of that time, she was expected to be socially distanced from others at all times. (People in Jesus’ time were socially distancing before it was the cool thing to do.)

Well, this woman didn’t socially distance that day, and she doesn’t seem to have been lacking energy either! This desperate woman pushed her way through the crowd to Jesus and took hold of his cloak. She believed that by simply touching his clothes she would be healed. And so she was literally hanging on to Jesus by a thread, by the hem of his garment. And as she hung on to that thread connecting her to Jesus, she was healed.

“Daughter,” Jesus said, “your faith has made you well.” It wasn’t that Jesus’ clothes were magic. She was healed because she put her faith in the right place, in the right person! She put her trust in him. It wasn’t the thread itself, but who it was connected to. “Go in peace,” Jesus told her, “And be healed of your disease.”

We often think of health and healing only in a clinical, physical sense. But Jesus did more than cure her menorrhagia. He did more than stop the physical bleeding. Jesus called her “daughter,” assuring her that she was a beloved member of God’s family. Jesus made her clean, even as he took her uncleanness upon himself. Jesus restored her to community and to life. Jesus gave her not only health, but peace.

This is what Jesus does for all of us when we put our faith in him. He calls us his daughters and sons, assuring us that we are beloved members of God’s family. He makes us part of a community and fills us with life and faith and hope. He makes us clean by taking our uncleanness upon himself. That’s what he was doing on the cross, where he bore in his own body all the sin, all the uncleanness, that separates us from God. As we fall before him, as we reach out and cling to him, Jesus sets us free and gives us peace.

Even in those times when physical healing doesn’t come, when it seems like Jesus is a day late and a dollar short, when it seems like all hope is lost, when death comes and the deep wailing starts, even then our Lord Jesus will be there to take us by the hand. He will speak to us gently in our mother tongue and call us up out of death and into new life with him.

At one time or another we will all find ourselves hanging on by a thread, a thread that seems frayed and weak and about to snap.  But when that thread is connected to Jesus, it is a lifeline that will not fail.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 13, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for June 13

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 13, 2021

Mark 4:26-34

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

At the height of the pandemic, I thought about having a customized t-shirt made that I could wear all the time. Emblazoned on the front of the shirt would be the words: “I don’t know.” You see, I have been asked so many questions over these past fourteen months, so many questions that I don’t have an answer to, that my response, “I don’t know,” seems to have become a bit of a mantra. “When will we be back in the sanctuary?” I don’t know. “When will we have coffee hour again?” I don’t know. “When will we be able to take off our masks?” I don’t know. “Will people come back to church when this is all over?” I don’t know. You get the picture. Some days it seemed like having a t-shirt with those words would have made things simpler.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about those questions. Actually, it was, and is, encouraging to hear them. It was, and is, a sign to me that you are antsy to get back to normal, that there is some energy and life that is pent up in this congregation and ready to break loose as we start to put the pieces back together, even if not in exactly the same way.

This has been a wearying season for the church. It has been a time of so much uncertainty. But we were facing challenges even before our fourteen months and counting of COVID. There have been enormous cultural shifts in the last several years which has led to a drastic fall in the number of Americans who identify as Christian. The percentage of Americans with membership in a church has now fallen to under fifty percent, which is the lowest it has been since such records were kept in this country. Why has this happened? There is no shortage of explanations out there, to be sure. I can point you to hundreds of books and articles and blogs and podcasts offering answers, many of which contradict each other in one way or another. I have my own hunches about some of these things, but ultimately, if you ask me why this has happened, I have to say, “I don’t know.”

The questions that cut me most deeply as a pastor are the more personal ones, the ones where these national trends show up in your lives. Questions like, “How can it be that this child of mine who was raised in the faith can so easily walk away from it?” Questions like, “Why aren’t my kids bringing their kids to church? That’s not how they were raised.” Questions like, “Why won’t my spouse come to worship with me? Why do I have faith, and he or she doesn’t?” And though it breaks my heart to say it, the most honest answer I can give in most of these situations is, “I don’t know.”

To ask these kinds of questions is to ask about how God works. It is to ask about God’s ruling activity. And so it is to ask about the kingdom of God. You see, the kingdom of God is not a place with an address. The kingdom of God is not limited to the afterlife. The kingdom of God is not something we will into being through our own efforts. The kingdom of God is God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s activity in our world and in our lives, and though God uses us in some important ways, God’s kingdom, God’s work, often remains a mystery to us.

Jesus gives us some insight into the kingdom of God through the two parables we hear this morning. First Jesus says the kingdom of God is like someone who scatters seed and then goes to bed. Eventually the earth does its work, producing the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. Eventually, the seed ripens into grain. Eventually, there is a harvest. This all happens while the sower of the seed is sleeping. How does it happen? The sower does not know how!

God’s activity, God’s reign, God’s work, WILL bring a harvest, Jesus is teaching us. As it says in Isaiah, God’s Word will not return to him empty. It may not produce on our timeline. It may not produce in ways we can see. It may not produce in ways we understand. Jesus seems to be encouraging patience here. Plants grow slowly. We don’t understand exactly how. So it is with the kingdom of God, with God’s work. So relax. Take a nap. Be patient and let God worry about the harvest.

In the second parable Jesus compares God’s kingdom, God’s work, to a mustard seed that, though it is small, grows into something large, so that the birds of the air make nests in its shade. Personally, I’d rather live among the lofty cedar trees Ezekiel talks about in our first reading than a scraggly mustard bush, but Jesus is making an important point here. From a very small seed comes something which eventually grows quite large, large enough for birds to make nests and find shade.  So it is with God’s work: you can’t judge the final size of the kingdom by the initial size of the seed. Here Jesus seems to be encouraging trust. Our seeds can seem so meager, so small. God’s work is so often hidden from our eyes, just beneath the surface of what we can see. But trust me, Jesus is saying here, it will grow. It will grow like crazy! It might start small, it might not look like the grand cedar trees you imagined or hoped for, but God’s kingdom, God’s work, will bring shelter and shade to many.

There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know this: faith comes by hearing, so we can never give up on preaching God’s Word and sharing our faith with others. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know that God has promised that his Word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish that for which he sent it. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know that we have a calling as the church to sow and plant and water, and then turn it all over to God. As St. Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

This is hard season for sowing, to be sure. Our hearts ache for signs of life, for signs of growth. Our hearts long to see people returning to the pews and loved ones returning to the faith in which they were raised.

While we wait, the Lord Jesus is doing a little planting in our own hearts today. He is putting his Word in our ears and into our hearts. Through these parables he is telling all of us that it is OK to say, “I don’t know” about a lot of things. There are things that God is up to, ways that God is at work, that we can’t see, ways that we can’t know about. Through these parables he is inviting us to be patient and to trust him. As his Word is planted in our hearts today, he gives us the faith both to keep on sowing, to keep on planting those seeds, and also the faith to find our rest in him. We can sleep soundly, trusting that he will make things grow in their due time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church