October 15, 2017 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

God loves a feast and celebration. He promises to “make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” To this feast will come all those who have spent years in exile away from their homeland. To this banquet will be invited the poor, the needy and those who have been without homes. The meal will be set upon the same mountain that had been overrun by those who oppressed and tried to eliminate God’s people.

In the vision of God’s fullness, the refugee will return, the sorrowful will laugh with joy, those who have lived a life of shame will be able to stand up tall and the long period of waiting for deliverance will be over.

Even when the times are difficult, when death is near and danger surrounds us, God will “spread a table in the presence of those who trouble me.”  God draws us together for joy and gratitude even during the tough times. Like me, you may know people facing difficult diagnoses and terminal illnesses who are nevertheless blessed by gatherings of friends and family whom they haven’t connected with for years. The meal after a funeral with children running around, stories told, laughter and tears can be a rich experience of feast and celebration.

Of course, nothing is quite like the celebration at a wedding. Bryon and I are still talking about our wedding day of over 10 years ago when there was such a sense of joy and love and hope in the air. What a grand celebration it was for a Norwegian, Lutheran, bachelor pastor and a spinster Episcopal priest to share their joy  with all their friends and family their in this service of commitment and celebration.

So it’s no surprise that Jesus likens God’s Kingdom to a wedding banquet. In the gospels, Jesus is often described as the bridegroom and God’s people as the bride. In Matthew’s parable, God is the over the top parent of the groom who spares no expense or trouble to plan a wedding party. The king sends out the invitations way in advance. Just like today, he doesn’t trust people to truthfully RSVP. So he sends out his slaves as messengers to remind everyone that the great party is at hand. The table is spread. The finest foods are prepared. The band is kickin’ and the decorations are carefully set.

But the guests choose not to come. They offer excuses. They have better things to do. There is more work to be done, money to be made and they don’t have time for a party. Jesus stretches the parable to tell of some guests who actually kill the messengers of the king, just as the Israelites killed the prophets who promised the coming wedding feast of the Lord.

The celebration is ready. The party is planned but none of the invited guests are coming.

What’s a host to do?  What shall the King, who loves his son do?  First he kills those who murdered his innocent slaves who were just doing his bidding. This is first century justice. The parable is in line with expected practice. The point is made. But then the surprise comes. The twist that is the heart of every parable catches our imaginations and calls us to wonder.

The King doesn’t cancel the feast. Instead he sends out more slaves into what we now know are dangerous conditions and invites everyone, regardless of pedigree, earning power, religious fidelity, or even good character to be guests at the wedding. The room is filled with the good and bad, with the rich and poor, with the deserving and undeserving. The party can begin, but with a very unexpected cast of characters.

And if you were listening to this parable as one of those who might consider yourself the very first to be invited to God’s banquet, you might be getting a little nervous. You might be a little insecure about what you thought was most important in life. You might question what you thought about the king and what he values most. Perhaps you would feel sorrow over missing the feast or remorse for ignoring or mistreating the messengers of the king.

Perhaps this strange little parable of Jesus is a wake-up call for those whose busyness and business are shutting them off from who and what is truly important.

It’s a strange and disturbing parable but then at the end it gets even weirder. There is the wedding guest who comes at the last minute and doesn’t have the right clothing. As a result he is unable to stay at the party and is thrown out, away from light and laughter into a place of bitterness, anger and complaint, also known as “gnashing of teeth.”  Why in the world does this one guest in the midst of all the other shady characters at the party get the boot?  What is going on?

Let me tell you a little story that has me thinking about this. This past Thursday I was in Berkeley at my seminary to receive an honorary degree. They had also asked me to be the celebrant at the Eucharist in the seminary chapel. It was one of those affairs with many of the luminaries of the church present, including bishops, deans, trustees, faculty and big donors. And because it was such a big event, everyone who had fancy dress was expected to wear it.

For me it became very complicated. Ultimately, it would mean changing my clothes 5 times! First there was my clerical outfit, on top of which I wore a cassock, surplice and stole while leading the first part of the service and receiving the hood of my honorary degree. At the peace I had to rush out and replace all of that with an alb, stole and chasuble. Then I could preside at the table for the Eucharist.

Once the service had ended, I rushed out again to change back into the cassock, surplice and hood for photos. Then while everyone was at the reception before dinner, I got into my party clothes for the banquet.

Now I have to tell you that there was a part of me that found the whole exercise a bit silly and over the top. For the past year I wondered about whether this was really important or not. I didn’t make too much out of it. It was certainly true that Bryon was more excited for me than I was for myself. Even up to the ceremony, I was downplaying it and refusing to get too worked up over it.

But then something changed. When I saw how important this was to so many people who cared for me and what it meant to those gathered to celebrate the work and ministry of the other honorees, I was humbled. It wasn’t up to me to refuse or downplay or disregard this celebration. It would have been incredibly ungracious of me to refuse to participate or to come unprepared. The students who served as acolytes and as my personal dresser were thrilled to be part of the event. People from every church and diocese I had served in came long distances to celebrate with me even though the fires in Northern California made it difficult for them.

And best of all, that night words were said that affirmed the good news of Jesus and the joy of serving as workers in the vineyard of the Lord. Our little church was lifted up as an example of what it means to care for the least, the last and the lost. The dedication of faithful servants of God’s Kingdome was acknowledged and celebrated. I got to tell a little of the sweet story of how God’s Spirit is alive and well in Ballard where the table is set every Sunday (as well as Monday through Friday in the Edible Hope Kitchen) and the guests show up to receive food for the soul and the cup of new life.

The fancy costume and nice party wasn’t for me, nor was it about me. It was for the honor of all who serve at God’s table. It was an opportunity to do what Paul commands us to, “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

So my friends, let’s celebrate! Let’s rejoice that God has invited us to the party and made a place for us at the table. Let’s receive gratefully and give generously. Let’s remember who and what is important. Finally let’s rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

 

Proper 23, Year A

Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

July 23, 2017 – Kate Davis

I came home from preschool with a construction paper craft and proudly put it on the fridge. That day we’d learned about traffic safety — green means go, red means stop. To fortify this message, we made cut-out traffic lights — red, yellow, green.

My mom complimented my jagged circles and uneven pasting before offering a corrective: Peanut, you’ve hung it upside down.

To which I responded, with complete sincerity: No I didn’t.

Yes, the red light goes on top, and green on the bottom.

No, green goes on top and red goes on the bottom.

Honey, I see traffic lights all the time. I know which way they go.

At this point I’m getting combative: Green goes on top. We just learned this in school.

My mom, who is a much wiser and more patient person than I, sighed and said: okay.

Around the same time — I was maybe 4 — my grandmother had sewn me a butter-yellow summer dress, hand embroidered across the top. I took one look at it and announced, “I don’t wear yellow.” My mom — my poor mother — whispered to me, explaining that Grandma, who you love, went to a lot of effort to make it for you. Don’t you at least want to try it on? They sighed and went downstairs, and eventually my conscience — in my mom’s voice — got the best of me and I put it on… and went downstairs, and said, “Are you happy now, Grandma?”

I was a stubborn kid. No, that implies that I’ve somehow outgrown my stubbornness. I am a stubborn person. And no matter how patient my mom was with me, how much she tried to explain or prove, once I had made up my mind about something, that was it.

We laugh about these stories now, but at the time I can picture my mom’s confusion, frustration, embarrassment. Hadn’t she planted good seeds in her daughter? Where was this deep-rooted weed of stubbornness coming from?

I’ll admit that there are times that I wish my stubbornness could be weeded out, too. I’ve been in the middle of fights over stupid things, and think to myself, What can’t I just concede? even as I’m vehemently debating for my point.

I’ve hated my stubbornness. I wished to be naturally more pleasant. More “nice.” Certainly, when I was in a stage of life of dating, my romantic life would have been much easier if I had naturally been inclined towards being a polite girl who silently nods with interest at the right moments. But I often couldn’t seem to let my ideas and opinions remain silent.

I lamented: What made me this way? Why can’t I just nod and smile? Haven’t good seeds been planted in me?

A couple years ago, my parents came to visit for my graduation. At the school’s open house, they mingled with my fellow graduates and met my professors. Dwight was one of my professors, and not one I’d say I was particularly close to. He and I had our differences. And we voiced them in debates that took over class time, most often without resolution.

So it’s the open house, I introduce my family to Dwight, Dwight to my family, and Dwight looks straight at my parents and opens with: “Your daughter is so stubborn.”

My parents were shocked — not that he had diagnosed me as stubborn; they knew that better than anyone. They were shocked that the people who were granting me a degree in being a pastor knew that I had bad traits. Not quite recovered, they laughed and agreed, “Yes, she is.” I’m on the sideline thinking What the heck, man?

And then Dwight continued, “Your daughter is so stubborn, and the Church is so blessed to have her. The church is in a season of transition; Seattle is one of the top cities of de-churched adults; this is a dying field of work. The Church needs people with the kind of tenacity and fortitude of your daughter, now more than any other time in history.”

I tell this story not to tell you how lucky you all are to have me.

I tell this story because it seems to illustrate the truth of this morning’s parable: The very thing that we want to rip from the soil of our character might be intertwined with the very best of our character.

Or, in shorthand: Despite our tendency to focus on our sinfulness, we are all sinners and saints.

Last week we read another parable, about a sower who throws his seeds onto a path, rocky ground, among thorns, and fertile soil. Canon Britt taught that each of us is soil, and none of us is bad soil. Jesus shares the good news with everyone, believing that no one is inherently “bad soil.”

This week, Jesus says: You are not defined by the weedy parts of your soul.

I don’t think it goes too far to say that many of us hate of ourselves. There are aspects we despise, traits we hate, characteristics that we believe are dark, shadowy sides that we long to uproot and burn.

And it’s those very traits that we hate in ourselves that we also can’t tolerate in others. The very places we don’t receive grace for ourselves, we are unable to extend grace to others. Perhaps we even despise them as much as we despise ourselves.

Jesus says, “Do not uproot the weeds, for you would uproot the wheat with them. Let them grow together.”

Jesus accepts the weedy parts of our souls. He acknowledges that they exist and he calls a weed a weed, but his firmness that they be allowed to grow makes me wonder if perhaps nothing is as bad as the hatred of the bad, the desire to remove it, to obliterate it.

Julian of Norwich had visions of Jesus — this was in 13th century England. Afterward, she recorded entire conversations that they had had. Jesus told her “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” And she asked Jesus, “How can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin?” And he responded, “Since I have brought good out of the worst-ever evil, I want you to know by this; that I shall bring good out of all lesser evils, too.”

Later Jesus tells her, “Sin shall not be a shame to humans, but a glory.”

This isn’t a license to get away with bad behavior, but an invitation to complexity. An invitation to understand your weeds and how they might be intertwined with your best qualities. An invitation to receive grace and extend it to your own self. It would be easy to simply strive for perfection; tolerating our weeds requires compassion, love, patience. It might be that the only perfection can hope to attain is in accepting and blessing our imperfections.

For years I lived wanting my stubbornness to be rooted out and burnt up. But then someone saw a weed — saw my stubbornness — and said, “This is also good.” He saw how entangled the roots are with traits that I need — traits the world needs. And in that moment, I began to re-narrate my life. The same stubborn child that said “I don’t wear yellow” became the stubborn adolescent who said “I don’t wear clothes from companies whose advertisements promote anorexia.” The stubborn child who said “green goes on top” became the young adult who refuses to accept that the wealthy belong on top of society.

It’s in our own interior lives that we learn to acknowledge complexity, to accept shadows, and to live in grace. Only once we’ve received that grace, are we truly free to extend it to others.

In a few moments, we’ll confess our sins to God and neighbor. As we approach confession today, I’m thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor to myself, what it means for the narrating, judging voice in my head to be a good neighbor to my behaviors. If God can receive me not just for my wheat, but with all my weeds, who am I to reject myself?

But before we get to the confession, we’ll profess the Nicene Creed, and in it, our belief in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Which means that in our order of worship, we profess our belief that we are all already forgiven, well before we confess. Perhaps we are even able to confess because we have already been forgiven.

Jesus doesn’t deny our weeds, but he does accept them, and he loves the entire field of our being with the weeds yet intact.

May you let wheat and weed grow together. May you come to bless the weedy parts of your soul and know grace in your bones.  And may you be freed to extend that grace to everyone you encounter — even in their weediest moments.

 

Easter 4 – May 7, 2017 – Kate Davis

If you’ve spent much time churches, you might (like me) have a little bit of baggage with scripture in general, and shepherd imagery in particular.

I think we like to use shepherding stories for children. They’re so … pastoral. So tame. Sheep are so soft and cuddly and kid-friendly.

My childhood lessons of the gospel passage we read this morning focused on one verse: Jesus says “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved”. The lessons focused on some variation of: gates keep good things in and bad things out. Gatekeeper Jesus defends us against the evils of the world so that they never come near us. The important thing, I heard, is to be inside the gate where it’s safe — far from dark valleys where evil and atheists lurk.

But if Jesus is the gate, and the point of believing in Jesus is to be safe — then how do we explain disease, addiction, depression, loss, abuse, and the innumerable other ways that people suffer — and yes, even people who follow Jesus, and yet suffer? Is our gate broken?

It’s only in looking at these “good shepherd” passages as an adult that I’m beginning to realize how much of the text was left out in my childhood verse memorization. Jesus doesn’t stop after “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved” — he continues “whoever enters by me will be saved — and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus says that the shepherd’s job is to call the sheep and lead them out. Which is a very different image than being locked in. Jesus seems to have a goal other than our safety.

The shepherd leads us out of the gated area — out into the world. Out to green pastures, out beside still waters.

//

And out into the darkest valley.

On Friday, I attended the funeral of my friends’ stillborn child.

Months ago, the couple learned that their baby had a genetic disorder. They found out so early that they had the option to terminate the pregnancy, but they decided to parent as best they could for as long as they could. They decided to see where the experience might lead them.

A few days past her due date, their daughter was small but kicking — until she wasn’t. My friend labored for a child she knew would be stillborn — labored, it must have felt, not to bring about life, but for death.

After the funeral service, the grieving mother and I embraced, and as she pulled away she noticed her hand, covered with the ashes of her daughter and the dirt she had, just moments before, buried her with. As she ended the hug and noticed, she instinctively apologized, and we looked at her hand. In a holy half-second, we beheld the messy and dark reality of death. All I could think was, this woman walks through the darkest valley.

And she is not in that valley because she doesn’t love Jesus, or doesn’t follow God. She is not in that valley because she wandered away from the good shepherd. She didn’t choose a path that God wasn’t on. Rather, she is in a dark valley precisely because she was present and attentive to where God led her. She was present to her daughter. She is present to her experience of motherhood. And she is present to her grief.

[Pause.]
Both the psalmist and Jesus know that there are rhythms to life. We enter the fold for sustaining rest, and we go out from the fold to encounter both the beauty and the darkness of the world. We enter the gate and we exit. We lie down in green pastures, and walk in dark valleys. Sometimes the two are closer together than we would expect.

It strikes me that we read these texts in the Easter season. We read about the walking through the valley of the shadow of death when the memory of Christ’s death is so recent. We state, in the psalm, that even while walking through the darkest valley, we fear no evil — when the memory of Christ’s resurrection is fresh. The Good Shepherd is the one who has willingly walked into the darkest valley without fear — and has showed us that death and darkness are not the end of the story.

These texts, today, make me rethink the whole purpose of the spiritual life. As a child, what was emphasized was safety. As an adult, I doubt that safety is at all the point. God doesn’t seem ultimately concerned that I’m protected from the dark realities of the world. Safety does not seem to be the goal. Preservation does not seem to be the goal.

Jesus tells us that he came that we “might have life, and have it abundantly.” That word “abundantly” is the translation we use for a word that conveys a sense of “an extraordinary amount; going beyond what is necessary.” I love that — that Jesus came for “life beyond what is necessary.”

The goal of spiritual walk, then, is perhaps life beyond what is necessary — life beyond simple self-preservation. Perhaps the spiritual life is about becoming a person who regularly passes through the gate. Becoming a person who is willing to walk in dark places, and can tolerate the fear of darkness.
Perhaps it’s about becoming a person who knows there is no path that God is not already on. A person who trusts that there will be green pastures again, despite the darkness of the valleys in which he sometimes find himself. A person who can be present to the joy and the grief in her midst. A person who acknowledges evil — and yet does not fear it.

Jesus doesn’t promise that we’ll stay inside the safe fold of the gate. And the psalmist doesn’t write only of green pastures and cool waters. Indeed, the psalm seems to take for granted that we will walk dark valleys.

But we are reassured that we never walk them alone.