December 10, 2017 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

“Once there was a way to get back homeward. Once there was a way to get back home. Sleep pretty darling, don’t you cry. And I will sing a lullaby.” Beatles

Sometimes you just really want to go back home. This is often the case during the holidays. For years as a single priest, living far from family Christmas Eve and Day were especially poignant for me. I imagined families gathered around trees, opening presents, and sharing a meal while I finished the final of four Christmas services and ate a cup of ramen noodles while sitting at my desk.

We just want to be home for the holidays. We want that vision of Christmas we hold in our minds, even if every year it doesn’t conform to expectations. People the world over and for centuries have wanted to go home.

It is the deep desire of refugees living in a foreign land. No matter how desperate their country of origin is, they are anxiously longing for an opportunity to return.

For those who have lost their homes to fire and other natural disasters, this Christmas will bring grief and longing and disbelief that their homes and all they have and all they mean have been destroyed, often in a matter of hours. How can it be?

We want to go home. We want to go back to a place of safety and security where we are loved and accepted. We want things to be the way they were before. Before he died. Before the divorce. Before the war. Before she started drinking. Before everything got so complicated and difficult.

We hear this longing across our country and the world. We want to return to the way things used to be. We want our jobs back. We want a chance to raise our children the way we were raised. We want to recover our way of life that feels threatened and insecure. We want our neighborhood to be the same sweet, peaceful place it used to be. We hardly recognize the city any more, it’s changing so much. Sometimes we don’t even feel at home in our country. Some joke about leaving for Canada and New Zealand. Some talk about revolution and resistance. Others long to “Make America great again.”

We want to go home.

For the Jewish people in Isaiah’s day, that homecoming meant a return to Jerusalem from exile in the foreign land of Babylon. The promise of a way in the desert, a highway for the people to travel upon back to their homeland was a powerful comfort in a time of great difficulty. For Christians experiencing persecution and difficulty in early days, the longing was for the return of Jesus and the final day of the Lord when everything would be put right and all that was wrong and evil and unjust would be put to an end.

How do we find our way home? How can we make it through the wilderness with the dangers and difficulties it presents? What will fix the many problems we face – homelessness and poverty, terror and threats of war, addiction and broken relationships? And who will lead us? Who knows the answers and has the strength and courage to bring us back?

John the Baptizer offers one way in the wilderness. His is the way of repentance in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He compels us to examine our lives and to confess the ways that we have broken our relationship with God and with others. In the wilderness we are to move beyond blame and shame by acknowledging both our shared and individual sin. By confession and forgiveness we are set free to begin again, to re-commit ourselves to the way of God.

The Baptizer calls people to honest repentance. But this is only the first step. This is preparation. This is what is needed when we are in the wilderness. We can’t go home when we’re stuck in blame and shame. There is no way to a healthy family dynamic when our inner six year old and our judgmental teenage self confront the complicated reality of family relationships. We cannot work together as a community to address the problems of homelessness, addiction and mental illness when we are hurling names at one other, demonizing the people involved and magnifying the shame of the most vulnerable by treating them without respect and dignity.

And we cannot be great as a nation when many of our fellow citizens are shamed because of race, color, gender or orientation. We cannot return to a time when it was standard practice to devalue the human worth of the non-white, the poor, and those that don’t conform to arbitrary standards of normal identity. There will be no moving forward if we blame the immigrant, the Muslim, the homeless, the rich or the people of a different political party for all of our problems. In the wilderness of our fear and anger, repentance is one first step towards a new future.

But repentance alone won’t bring us home. Even John the Baptizer knew that. He was aware that he alone wasn’t powerful or worthy enough to deliver the people, to transform the world, to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, at last, in the last days, at the end of hope in the depth of our longing we discover our heart’s true home. And it is Jesus. The beginning of the good news is when Jesus enters our world and our lives. It is when Jesus makes a home in our very beings by the power of the Holy Spirit and dwells with us. We can be at home in any place, anywhere and at anytime when we are at home with God in our inner being.

Jesus doesn’t come to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel or to recruit an army and establish world peace or to fix everything for us. Jesus comes to offer himself in love for the world and to immerse us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit so that we might live as witnesses to the life, light, and love of God.

Jesus comes and people are healed and empowered. Jesus comes and families are disrupted as new connections that transcend blood and ethnicity and background are forged. Jesus forgives and those who lived in shame and regret are able to lift their heads and begin a new life. Jesus comes and we find our heart’s true home at last beyond human boundaries and barriers. We are able to be at home with those who are very different from us and those from whom we differ. We are able to love in a fresh way those who are part of our own family and to expand that love to include the stranger and alien.

This is no lullaby to soothe us but rather a powerful new identity that propels us into the world as servants of the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our longing for true home sends us out as messengers of the One who finds his home in every human heart. Amen.

November 19, 2017 – The Rev. Ivar Hillesland

Ordained in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), Ivar Hillesland serves as the pastor of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, a joint mission of the Diocese of Olympia and the Northwest Washington Synod. In addition to sharing his preaching talents with us, Ivar serves as St. Luke’s parish musician and teaches early childhood music.

 

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.