February 4, 2018 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

The first of the healing stories of Jesus in Mark’s gospel happens at the very beginning of his ministry. We’re still in the first chapter. Jesus has already been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, called some disciples and cast out a demon, and that’s just the first 28 verses! Most importantly, he has proclaimed the vision by which his life’s work will be guided, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

The Jesus movement is still small and local. His first followers are two sets of brother fishermen, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. We get a tiny peek into their lives right at the beginning of their time with Jesus because they’re still in Peter’s home town of Capernaum. They’ve been to the local synagogue for the Sabbath where Jesus has both taught with authority and encountered an unclean spirit which he has silenced and cast out.

How do you follow up that kind of a morning worship service? Most Sunday afternoons, my husband Bryon, who is a Lutheran pastor, and I meet up for brunch at Patty’s Egg Nest and then go home to take naps! It makes sense that Peter invites Jesus and the disciples over to his house, which is in the neighborhood, for a Sabbath meal.

Like many Middle Eastern households of the time there are multiple generations living together, in this case Peter and his wife, possibly their children and his wife’s mother.

Like so many women in the Bible, Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t named. She may have been a widow since she was living with her daughter and her daughter’s husband. She was older, female, dependent. She probably had a shared room in this small home of a poor fishing family. Her contribution to family life included cooking, child care and cleaning. She was undoubtedly important to her family and valued, but she wouldn’t have been known much outside of the home.

And she was sick. Sick with a fever that had incapacitated her and might kill her. Powerless to get out of bed, too poor for a doctor, with no available treatment. And here’s what’s remarkable. Jesus has not yet healed anyone of sickness or disease. Peter and Andrew are just beginning to discover his authority and power but they don’t really know who he is or where all this is leading. Even so, they take their Rabbi straight from a place of authority and honor, where he has been teaching in the synagogue to a small back room where an older woman is lying sick in her bed.

All sorts of rules of propriety are broken by this action. A new student puts his teacher in a very difficult position by asking Jesus to heal his mother-in-law. A stranger, an unmarried man enters the private space of a respectable woman. An observant Jew, one learned enough to teach in the synagogue, touches a diseased person and heals her on the Sabbath.

Peter’s mother-in-law is immediately restored to full health and she enters the public sphere, first by serving Jesus and his disciples and, on that very same day, as a witness to the healing power of Jesus. By the time the Sabbath ends as Saturday evening arrives, everyone in the area has heard about this healer who casts out demons and cures the sick. Jesus never gets his nap as people in need surround the home where the woman has been healed.

You can imagine the kinds of needs brought to Jesus. They’re not much different from the ones we bring before God now. A friend or family member with cancer; broken relationships; the demons of alcohol and drug addiction; fear and anxiety; depression and discouragement; anger over injustice; concern for the future. And there are times when the trouble is so deep in our soul and we don’t know if Jesus is there to hear our cares or if his power to heal is real. We may be as weak as Peter’s mother-in-law, unable to reach out to Jesus by our own strength.

That’s kind of how the last week has been for me. The needs around me have been overwhelming. Some of our homeless guests are quite desperate and I fear for their health and safety. One young man asked me to pray for him that he might die. A dear cousin and a friend from college have both been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. Others are struggling with abuse and harassment by people they should have been able to trust. The daily revelations of the disease and damage to our democracy by those who are supposed to be the keepers of it is scary and disheartening.

It can be hard to pray. It can be hard to believe that God has the power to heal, forgive and restore our broken humanity. All that troubles us can result in the additional burden of isolation. We get shut away in the dark rooms of our disease and damage, cut off from others, shut away from God.

And this my friends, is why God has put us in community. God has placed us into the very Body of Christ so that we may be connected and knit together by God’s Spirit. When we cannot pray for ourselves or the world, the church will keep praying the Prayers of the People, weekly, daily, hourly.

It turns out that a woman at St. Paul’s in Bellingham, where I have done some consulting work is praying daily for me and for St. Luke’s. She heard about our ministry and has committed for the past year to pray for us.  Plus, the congregation sent their Easter offering of nearly $4,000 to the Edible Hope Kitchen last year.

We maintain a prayer list at St. Luke’s.  People call to add names. They send in prayer requests from around the world through the website. They write down requests on the prayer list found on the information table and put concerns into the Prayer Request tub at Edible Hope. When you join in the Prayers of the People, you are holding all these requests up to God. You are like Peter and Andrew, bringing those in need to Jesus for healing and wholeness.

Healing can also come in the freedom of release.We can be released from self-loathing and guilt over past behavior. We can be released from the hurts and wounds of our upbringing and freed to live as who we are truly called to be. We can be released from the destructive tendencies that plague our lives and enslave us to the small gods of indulgence, selfishness, greed, apathy and other spiritual unhealthiness.

Each week as together we confess before God all that we wish to be freed from and we want to leave behind, we receive absolution, the forgiveness of God proclaimed for us and marked on our bodies as we sign ourselves with the cross, the reminder of the triumph of truth over error, righteousness over sin and life over death.

Sometimes we need healing touch. We need Jesus with skin. Someone to be Christ for us in our time of need; to lay hands upon us; to speak words of faith, hope and love when we are struggling. At St. Luke’s we have prayer ministers with years of training and experience in praying. During communion they are always available to pray quietly or even silently for needs spoken or unspoken.  They will provide a space for God’s presence in your deepest need.

It may take time to see and experience God’s healing. It won’t always look like a miraculous restoration of life to the way it used to be. It will always involve the wholeness and integrity of the individual. It will always draw us closer to God and into relationship with others. It will always show us how, as healed individuals, we have the ability to serve others.

As we are healed and transformed by the love of God, we are called to share the gift with others, bringing them to God through prayer and service.

Amen.

 

5th Sunday after Epiphany                                                      

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12                                             

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39                                    

December 24, 2017 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

This year for the four weeks of Advent, my friend Tod wrote a daily blog on his favorite Christmas songs, carols and hymns. And while he included both the ancient and modern, the secular and religious, the silly and the serious, he missed that real classic, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”

It was fun and interesting to learn about each of his choices and to agree or disagree about whether I would have included the same songs. His writing inspired me to consider what might be my pick for the Christmas carol that resonates most with me as we come to the end of a tumultuous 2017 and look into the future of 2018.

Which words speak to our current situation while pointing back to the miracle and mystery of the incarnation and forward to the hope and longing for a new future? Which carols tell the 2,000-year-old story in a way that doesn’t overly sentimentalize the message and images but accurately reflects our fears and our hopes, our joys and sorrows, and the complexity of our personal situations and political realities?

I have to admit that I didn’t pick “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not because I don’t enjoy singing it, but because it offers a complex theological answer to questions few people are currently asking about the nature of divinity and how Christ can be both God and human. There’s a time for wrestling with the deep issues around the nature of God but for most of us, that’s not what we’re looking for on Christmas Eve!

I considered “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” another favorite. But this year in Bethlehem, all is not so still and quiet. The tension brought about by the announcement that the US will move its embassy to Jerusalem has created consternation and protest in this primarily Palestinian town. The hopes of all the years are eclipsed by the fears of what this means for the peace process. Luke’s gospel mentions the requirement that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to fulfill because of their status as second-class citizens in a country occupied by another power. Luke doesn’t have to say how scary, disrupting and dangerous this required census is and how it affects those who are disenfranchised.

This has been a difficult exercise. For the past week I’ve asked everyone I know, “Which song would you choose for this Christmas?” The mother of a teenager, who is growing up before her eyes chose “What Child is this?” The widow whose husband died suddenly, leaving her bereft and in darkness, chose “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.” My dear husband, Bryon, chose one of my all-time favorites, “Once in Royal David’s City,” with its verse “when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew, thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”

Good choices all, but what I need, what we need, what the world needs is a clear message of peace and goodwill towards all while being realistic about the many challenges we face. Those who walk in darkness are in need of a great light. All who have been silenced or afraid, on this night must be provided the safety to open their mouths to sing, sing, sing. Tonight we are invited to join with saints and angels in the hymns that ring through eternity – hymns that remind us of God’s promise to be with us; hymns that lift up the lowly and discover God in the most unexpected places; hymns that brim with the beauty and singing of the angels.

For me, the carol that says it best for our times was first a poem. It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister who had become overwhelmed, suffered a breakdown and was responding to his own melancholy and the threat posed by the Mexican American war.

In response to a request from a fellow clergy friend and possibly as an exercise to help him deal with his own grief and anxiety, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Our hymnal has only 4 of the 5 stanzas, which is a shame because I find them all profoundly helpful.
Sears writes about this weary world with its sad and lowly plains. He knows what it is like to be tired by all the changes and chances of this life and exhausted by the continued failure of humanity to love and care for one another and the earth. He mentions the woes of sin and strife and all the suffering we have caused, often to the most innocent and those unable to defend themselves. He begs us to be quiet for once and to hear beyond the protests, the disagreements, the violence, rage and strife, the blessed message of the angels.

Our Messiah has come to dwell with us, Jesus. He is the one who brings peace and reflects the song and vision of the angels. He is the one who lights the way and points to the truth. His is the light that shines in the darkness. When we are quiet and still, when we listen closely and pay attention, we can hear and join in this chorus of peace, love and joy.

Maybe you’ve had a hard year, too. Maybe you’ve been beset within and without. Perhaps you are tired and worn. Tonight you’ve come to this place for a bit of stillness, a bit of peace and quiet, a renewal of hope and the courage to carry on. If so, maybe the stanza that we don’t have in our hymnal is the one you need to hear.

Let me read/sing it for you:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Amen.

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