The Rev. Canon Britt Olson – May 6, 2018

For most of my adult life I have been a renter. It wasn’t until Bryon and I married 10 years ago that I first owned a home. I once calculated the number of places I had lived in my life and realized that I averaged at least one move a year before I turned 45. It was great to never be responsible for major upkeep like roofs, HVAC units and plumbing. It was fairly easy to pick up and move on when necessary and those frequent moves helped me avoid accumulating too much stuff.

But there were major disadvantages to renting. I always had to live with white walls and be very careful about what I hung on them. Then there was the garden. In many locations I either rehabilitated an overgrown garden or dug out and planted a new one. I planted herbs and annuals and vegies that grew fast. It was always difficult to leave the garden and move on. You’re never sure if anyone else will love and tend it after you’re gone. Even though the land never belonged to me, I had invested in it with my whole being and it had returned something beautiful and nourishing.

This past week as I dug out the sod, amended the soil and prepared the raised beds at our home, I realized that my gardening had changed. I was planning for how a shrub or tree might look after 10 years. I was moving things that would get crowded out over time if they stayed where they were. The roses I planted last year are doing great and should produce blooms this summer and for years to come. I’m adding to the blueberry bushes and thinking about raspberries.

There is something different about my relationship to this home and this garden. I’m home. The Pacific Northwest is the geography of my soul and I know how to grow things here. I’m investing in a future that may not even include me. I’m not just dwelling in this place. I’m putting down roots. I’m abiding.

To abide is to dwell in your heart’s home. It is to know where you belong. To be a renter is to serve the owner. You don’t really belong. You are only valued for the economic income you provide to the landowner. To abide is to be in a relationship of mutuality with the place you belong. You take care of it and it takes care of you. All the time, work and money you put into your abode is for a continual and future return. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a little land to produce fruit and flowers, trees and shrubs, vegetables and herbs, you can’t help but think of those who might come after you to reap the bounty of the land you have tended and cared for in your lifetime. There’s a difference between renting and abiding.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel, the proclamation that redefines a consumeristic understanding of the whole creation based on exchange and return is this. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The God of the universe pitched a tent in the middle of our human existence. The divine one became present intimately in Jesus. God chose to abide with us in all our frail, human messiness. God invested everything in this human adventure and gifted us with love divine, mercy unending and a willingness to sacrifice everything for our flourishing.

Like a rich woman who leaves her McMansion on Bainbridge and takes to the streets of Seattle to live amongst the unsheltered, God pitches a tent right in our neighborhood. Like a friend who moves in with you to bathe, feed and care for you during a life-threatening illness, God shares our sorrow and suffering. Like a vineyard owner who changes into work clothes and picks up pruning shears to work alongside the field workers, God partners with us in caring for this world.

By the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel, as Jesus prepares to go to the cross and his death, he describes the complete turnaround that his life and ministry has made. God had been pictured as a strict taskmaster, a distant ruler, a commander requiring absolute obedience, an accountant keeping track of our good and bad acts. Jesus puts those myths aside. He contradicts all the false notions of God. His intimate knowledge of God opens up a different relationship with the Holy One. Abiding with us, we can no longer be known as servants. God names us as friends.

We belong to God. No matter where we go, God will accompany us on the journey. No matter what happens to us, God will never abandon God’s friends. God will not demand blind obedience, that’s not what friends do. God will not keep secrets. Because we are God’s friends, Jesus will make known to us everything he has heard from God.

We share God’s joy. This is not joy without suffering. Rather it is joy that cannot be stolen from us whatever life’s circumstances. Remember that curious phrase from Philippians, “For the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross?”  Complete joy is joy that is not dependent on our situation, but rather on our status as God’s beloved friends and on the security that God will not abandon us.

We abide with God and in God. To abide in God is also to abide smack dab in the middle of this beautiful, broken world. It is to take seriously the command to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. The fruit we bear is the fruit of love. We are clearly called and commanded to love one another as God in Christ loves us. We are to pitch our tent in the middle of those with the greatest need. We are to care for our friends in their deepest distress and to labor in the field for a harvest that will nourish everyone.

At St. Luke’s we have been blessed to be a blessing. We are called to be God’s beloved community in this beloved neighborhood. We have been gifted beyond anything we can ask or imagine with the fruits of the Holy Spirit, baptized into the Body of Christ and commanded to live in love.

St. Luke’s was a renter congregation when it was first planted in Ballard at the end of the 19th Century. It took many years before the church was able to find land and money to build a permanent building. That chapel is now nearly 100 years old. There have been ups and downs, times of feast and famine in the life of this community. Sometimes we were bursting at the seams with people in attendance from all over the city, the nation and the world. At other times, we were nearly abandoned or closed.

Through it all God abides with God’s people. We are part of the larger Body of Christ, called to live in love and faithfulness and to tend this patch that is a legacy gift. Our Bishop Greg reminds us often that St. Luke’s is the heart of the larger Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. It’s the heart of Jesus that beats in this place and that powers us for the transformational ministry that turns strangers into friends and draws us to the table where all are fed.

Kristen recently preached a brilliant sermon in which she encouraged us to see ourselves not only as stewards of the gifts God gives, but as shepherds. Shepherds are intimately tied to those they care for. We are called not only to shepherd the riches of grace in the Christian tradition, in the gifts of word and sacrament, in font and table. We are commanded not only to love those who are in church on Sunday morning, but God’s friends who enter in through other doors to this holy space, in the Edible Hope Kitchen, the Bridge, Suzuki School, AA groups or through the SLUG.

Today we are taking seriously our care for all of creation. We are caring for the water cycle with our RainWise installation that prevents rainwater from overfilling the stormwater system, filters it naturally through our raingarden and provides irrigation from cisterns for our many gardens here. We are celebrating seven years of the SLUG gardening community where church members and neighbors work together to grow produce for themselves and for our kitchen and the Food Bank.

And today we bless the bees in our new beehives. These honey bees are so useful. They will pollinate plants in a 5-mile radius. They will produce wholesome, local honey that we can serve to guests in the Edible Hope Kitchen and share with others. We hope to get beeswax candles that can be burned at our first Great Easter Vigil next year as we celebrate the resurrection and the light of Christ in our midst.

None of us can say how long we will live in our current location. We can’t say for sure that St. Luke’s will still be here in another hundred years, or if so, what it will look like. We don’t know what state our planet will be in after another hundred years of global warming, pollution and over use.

But today we rejoice in the love that has brought us together, in the beauty and fruitfulness of this patch of earth, in the fruit of loving service that restores and heals in body, mind and spirit and in the love of God in which we abide and that abides in us, now and for ever. Amen.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48;  Psalm 98;

1 John 5:1-6;  John 15:9-17

 

April 29, 2018 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

How can we know God? After all no one has ever seen God.

How are we to understand the Scripture? The words are from another time and a culture that is far different from ours.

How do we live lives of meaning and purpose? Value is so often measured by what we produce, how much we make, our status and position.

And how in the world do we know where we belong? There are so many groups, causes and organizations vying for our time and commitment. No family or group of friends or institution is without conflict, hypocrisy and the many ways we can be wounded or wound others.

These are just some of the questions you may have asked yourself at one time or another. I think it’s fair to say that questions like these have been on the minds of those participating in the Spiritual Pilgrimage here over the past two months. They are questions of faith, identity, purpose and belonging. When you’re wrestling with these, you’re wrestling with what really matters and with who you are called to be.

We hear the Ethiopian eunuch asking the same questions in the account of the Acts of the Apostles. He wants to know God. He has a longing for God. He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he hopes to encounter God. As a foreigner and a person whose sexual identity makes him unclean and suspect in Jewish society, he wonders where he belongs. He doesn’t fit in. As a successful and rich official of the Ethiopian court, he has the money, resources and learning to be riding in a fine chariot and possessing a rare handwritten manuscript of the book of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Scripture.  He can read it but he isn’t sure of the meaning.

And yet, something in these words touches a deep place of pain and hope in the core of his being. His experience resonates deeply with the one described by Isaiah. He too was like a lamb before its shearer. His life and manhood were cut off. Justice was denied him. A future was denied him. He could not prolong his life through children and at death his life would be taken away from this earth. It seemed as though the prophet was writing about him, but that could not be! Who is this one who is wounded as he has been, who shares a destiny with him, who understands him in a way that no one else can?

The Spirit of God hears the longing and sorrow of the eunuch. The Spirit sees beyond his wealth, success and high standing to the pain and deep desire for affirmation and belonging in the heart of this court official. So the Spirit sends him Philip. Philip, who always seems to be the one to greet those on the margins on behalf of Jesus and the disciples. Philip, who certainly didn’t travel in chariots, dress in fine clothes, possess a copy of the Scripture or probably even read. What Philip lacked in success, standing and influence was absolutely unimportant to God or to this desperate man. What he did possess was direct experience with the living Christ, the Jesus who himself was rejected and despised, the man of sorrows, well acquainted by grief. The Messiah who produced no heirs and possessed no earthly kingdom. The suffering servant who was struck down, afflicted and cut off as a result of the sins and failures of humanity.

Philip was able to be the true companion of the Ethiopian, across every cultural, ethnic and sexual barrier. He could travel with this man because he knew the love of God which crosses every boundary by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Philip spoke, he spoke of his own experience of the love of God, which came to him in Jesus when he least expected it. He could tell the stories of how God’s love in Jesus was offered to all, without exceptions.

He shared how Jesus made a community of love and belonging out of a completely diverse and ragtag bunch of disciples regardless of wealth, age, religious identity, righteousness or religious standing. Jesus welcomed the political zealot, the woman trapped in prostitution, the ill in body, mind and spirit and ordinary fishermen.

When the eunuch heard this amazing, good news he took charge. Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He grasped the good news of God’s love and full acceptance. He trusted completely in the One who had experienced everything that he had and was able to promise new life, full acceptance and a new identity. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a witness at that baptism? The tall, African man in his expensive robes steps out of his fine carriage accompanied by a poor, young Greek Jew in travel stained clothing. They come to a small stream or wadi and Philip pours water over him in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The Ethiopian is born anew into a living hope, knowing himself as a beloved child of God and part of the inheritance of all the saints.  His life can never be taken from him.  He now lives in Christ and lives eternally.

We weren’t there, but…  We get to be present at baptism here in this community and in other places where Christians gather.  Many of us got to be present yesterday at St. Mark’s Cathedral when Nora, Keller, Suzi, Matt, Spiro and eighty other people were confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. It was grand. The music was top notch. There was plenty of pomp and circumstance including the bishop in all his finery. We heard an amazing sermon about the grace and love of God which comes to each of us as gift and blessing and is not conditioned by whether or not we are worthy enough, valuable enough, holy enough or have it all together. Thank you Kate Davis for preaching the good news!

It was a glorious two hours but at a certain point, I started losing it. All 85 of those to be received or confirmed formed an enormous circle around the altar. Our five were backed by friends, family and their pilgrimage companions along with other members of St. Luke’s. We were a pretty large bunch. As the bishop came by to place his hands on each of our beloved ones I felt the Spirit descend in a rush of affirmation and power. Each of us had our hands on the shoulders of the candidates or on the shoulders of the ones in front of us and we were all connected.  When the bishop was blessing Suzi, who was the first candidate, and then said “amen,” we joined in with a very enthusiastic and loud amen.

The Bishop said something like St. Luke’s Ballard is in the house and we all laughed with joy and gratitude and the rush of the Spirit. My heart was full to overflowing.

The author of First John is clear. We know and see God when we love one another. When we love another we enter into the flow of love that comes from God, through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. We don’t have to have perfect faith, complete understanding, or right behavior. We don’t even have to be religious by any institutional definition. “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Or, as the poet, Mary Oliver (a good Episcopalian) writes, “You do not have to be good.  You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” (From Wild Geese)

We see God as we grow in love for one another, for all God’s creatures and for the whole earth. We understand the message of God’s love in Scripture as we gather with others in this pilgrimage of faith and wrestle with the questions and concerns we share. We come to belong to a vast community of faith, hope and love as we abide in Christ. Jesus, our vine, nourishes us and connects us to a living faith, a life-giving community and the love of God that surpasses all understanding.

As grand as yesterday’s liturgy was, it is the same form that we celebrate here in our humble little church every week. We gather with the signs of the table of Christ’s welcome and the font of new life. We hear the Scripture and puzzle it out together. We participate in the ancient and ecumenical creed that holds us in community. We pray for one another and the needs of the church, the world and the vulnerable. We share God’s peace and a common meal. And we are sent forth, like Philip, in the power of the Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses in the world.

We won’t all be together in this place forever. Some will move away. Some will drift away or get mad and leave. Others will grow sick or die. Our lives will change. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch never saw one another again. And yet. And yet, they and we are bound together in love forever. We have been made part of the Body of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit. We have been invited into the school of love in the community where we don’t all have to like each other or be alike but we get to learn how to love one another. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Amen.

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm 22:24-30

1 John 4:7-21

April 1, 2018 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Alleluia!  Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus often occurs in the calendar at about the same time as the annual resurrection of the populace of Seattle. In April we begin to emerge from the tomb, umm… cave of our long winter hibernation. We come out of the darkness into the light. The gloomy tenor of our faces is replaced with a smiling, friendly visage and instead of grey and black, we put on clothes with colors and patterns.

Ferdinand and Isabella, the pair of Mallard ducks that come to St. Luke’s every spring to nest and raise their chicks are back. This year is special since we just completed our Rainwise project with cisterns to catch run off from the roof and a beautiful new rain garden that operates like a pond to filter water naturally back into the water table. The ducks love it!

The new homes for the honey bees are up on the roof. This is the first year they will take residence at St. Luke’s to help pollinate our beautiful SLUG garden, and the new native plants we have added to the landscape. By the end of summer we expect our first harvest of local honey which we will serve in the Edible Hope Kitchen. Our hope is that its healthy properties will combine with the nutritious food and services we offer to 180 guests every weekday morning will be a benefit and a sign of our love and care for folks experiencing homelessness and hunger.

This past week I was reminded of God’s promise from the book of Isaiah. God promises a feast for all peoples, a feast of rich food, of rich food filled with marrow. In the holy days leading up to Easter we had our Maundy Thursday meal in the Edible Hope Kitchen where our fabulous cook, Robert had prepared not just ham, but roast pork and Tuscan chicken. Volunteers, guests and visitors sat around a table to share the meal where the love of Christ is tangibly present. The good news is that the same quality of food and care is served up five days a week, year round, to anyone in need.

These signs of resurrection life and the presence of the risen Christ are all around but we are often prevented from seeing or celebrating them. And we’re not alone. The gospel of Mark ends with the disciples scattered in their fear and discouragement and the women terrified and amazed. The power of God over evil, death and the grave had already taken place that first Easter morning, but no one had yet been able to see or receive it.

Fear, of course, is one of great blinders to resurrection life. Fear prevents us from seeing the other in the light of Christ. It makes us either timid or aggressive. It shuts down our options. It turns others into enemies. Fear prevents us from flourishing, from taking risks, from being vulnerable and therefore, from experiencing the deepest, richest connections of intimacy and love. Fear seized the women at the tomb of Jesus. It temporarily paralyzed them.

But then they are given something to do, something they alone can do. They are given the message of hope. The women are asked to bear the good news first to the disciples and then to the whole world. As they make their way from the tomb, each step creates confidence and strength. By the time they see the resurrected Christ, they have become the apostles he always knew they could be.

Shame, too. It keeps us locked up, unwilling or unable to accept the light of resurrection life. Shame sends us into isolation. Peter, in spite of all his protests and best intentions had denied Jesus three times. The shame of his cowardice cut him off from Jesus and from his friends.

It’s no surprise that the messenger of God instructs the women to tell “his disciples AND Peter.”  Peter needed desperately to hear that he had not lost the love of Jesus. He needed to know that God’s power and the forgiveness of Jesus were greater than the very worst he had done. The hope of the resurrection brings Peter out from hiding and transforms him into the rock and leader that Jesus always knew he could be.

And then there is the betrayer, Judas. By the time of Christ’s resurrection, he was probably already dead by suicide. He had traded the faith, hope and love of Jesus for his own idea of power and privilege. He had substituted a political solution for a transformation of life. He had sold his best beloved for silver to corrupt and venial officials. He was in a despair that led to death.

And yet, even in that dark place, the life of resurrection touches him. Jesus descends to the dead. The resurrection of Jesus has power not only for the living but for the dead. The resurrection defies time and space and makes a way where there was no way. The life of Christ is extended to all for all time and God is not willing that even one should perish, not even the most notorious betrayer in history.

It’s funny how resurrection life keeps popping up where we least expect it. A few months ago I needed to move some furniture here in the sanctuary. As I often do, I went out to the courtyard and into the dining room to ask if any of our guests could help me out. When I first began at St. Luke’s I wasn’t sure how safe it would be to do something like that. Fear and distrust of the homeless is often the result of unexamined prejudice and simple lack of contact and connection. Fear keeps us from seeing the other as a beloved child of God.

A guy in his thirties offered to help me that day. I was on a mission so I marched ahead of him into the sanctuary to get the job done. Suddenly he wasn’t with me. I whirled around but didn’t immediately see him. The lights weren’t on and he wasn’t anywhere in sight. I looked closer and saw his form huddled down  just inside the door, and I immediately was on alert. We were alone in the church. The lights were off. I didn’t even have my phone on me.

As my eyes adjusted, I realized what was going on. He had removed his baseball hat. His hair was dirty since he hadn’t been able to get a shower or do laundry on the weekend, but he had bared his head. He was kneeling and his head was bowed. As he rose up, he dipped his fingers in the holy water of the baptismal font and crossed himself. He had come into this place, this holy space where the presence of the risen Christ is acknowledged in the waters of baptism, in the reserved sacrament of bread and wine and in the light of Christ candle and he fell to his knees to worship. That day he reminded me that the resurrected Christ is alive and going before me. My fear, shame and busyness often prevents me from seeing and responding to God, but nonetheless, Christ is present.

This Easter Day we experience the risen Christ in light. In word and song. In the beauty of the earth and in the beauty of the faces surrounding us. We receive Christ in bread and wine and in the prayers offered by and for us. And we see the light and love of Christ in Skyler and those who love her and present her to God for baptism.

Baptism isn’t about being perfectly clean and pure. Baptism isn’t about what we can understand about God and reciting correct doctrine. Baptism isn’t magic to protect the child from evil and death. Baptism is grace and goodness, the life of the risen Christ offered freely for Skyler and for each one of us. Baptism is a gift from God that acknowledges the power of Christ’s life and love for us, no matter what!  We are given the opportunity of a lifetime to live into it. We are washed daily from shame and freed from fear in the waters of resurrection life. We are given a new beginning over and over again as we follow the way of Christ. Today I am so grateful for Skyler. She shows us the openness of a child, the trust of one who is beloved and hope for the future. It is so easy to see that she is precious and she reminds us that each one of us is precious too, each one of us is the beloved of God.  Her life began in the waters of the womb, is made alive with Christ in the waters of baptism and will be fulfilled when Jesus goes before her and with her into life eternal.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter Day, B

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

March 11, 2018 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

 

 

I don’t know about this Daylight Savings time change. It seems that “people love light more than darkness.” For myself, I love a full night of sleep rather than the loss of an hour! But I’m grateful to be here this morning and grateful that you are here as well.

Of course when Jesus talks about darkness, he is not talking literally but metaphorically. He’s talking about what is hidden, denied, kept in secret. He’s talking about our fears and shame. Jesus knows the countless ways that we individually and collectively become trapped in patterns of behavior that shut us off from the light of God, damage our relationships and are self-destructive.

You are probably familiar with the cycle. There is the thought or action that brings a rush of shame, fear or disgust. It’s quickly followed by judgement either of self or another. Then comes anger and blame followed by condemnation. Condemnation leads to despair and brokenness. Then it begins all over again.

Because it’s Lent, and like me, you may be a little more aware of the unhealthy patterns and habits that you have, this may sound familiar to you personally. It’s certainly a universal symptom of our human condition. The traditional Christian term for this is sin. It’s like being in a room without an exit. It’s like going down a road and finding out it’s a dead end. It’s the experience of seeing your world narrowed and constrained and your freedom circumscribed. It’s trying to negotiate the world when you can’t see clearly.

And we all go there. We all find ourselves stuck, trapped, bound by this destructive cycle.

So here’s the truly radical aspect of what Jesus says in John 3:16 and 17. First of all, this world in which we all experience the effects of shame, fear, judgement, condemnation, despair and death is a world which God loves. God loves us, even in our brokenness, God loves us so much that God has no desire to condemn. God wants to break the pattern that leads to death and to bring us to fullness of life that can only be described as eternal, not just life after physical death, but the life that comes when we are no longer bound by the power of death.

And for that purpose God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the one through whom this life becomes most real and present. The Greek word for save is so much more than a simple rescue from death. It literally means to bring out into an open space. God opens a door in a room with no exit so that we might escape. God creates a new way where there was once a dead end. God opens up new possibilities, fresh horizons, a new beginning. God shines the light so that we may see more clearly.

But how? How does God deliver us? What does it mean to be saved? It’s clear when you look around that we human beings keep getting stuck. The self-help genre of books, tapes, speakers and workshops are ever increasing. There is no end of treatments for the conditions we face. Scientists are constantly looking for ways to ease human pain, suffering and alienation. We have been trying to help and save ourselves for centuries. We have tried willpower, increased knowledge, expert assistance, and countless ways to numb our pain and despair. And it’s not working.

On a daily basis I interact with people who are trapped by addiction. They have lost housing, family, jobs, health and freedom. As one person facing jail time put it, “I have already been in prison with this for the past 5 years, no cell can be worse.” Another asked me to pray for him and when I asked what I could pray for, he asked that I pray for him to die.

This is a cycle of shame, blame, despair and death. We can’t judge or punish our way out of it. Moral or legal condemnation makes very little difference. Last week I watched the 5-part documentary, The Trade, about the heroin crisis. It’s clear that everyone from the poppy growers in Mexico, the dealers in the States, the users, their loved ones, even the police and government officials are trapped in a crisis that is far beyond their control. It’s certainly beyond my control.

How can Jesus save in this situation? How do those trapped in this cycle break free?

John’s gospel uses a very strange analogy from the Old Testament to point us towards the way that God acts in Jesus. The story is from Numbers. Moses and the people are in the wilderness and they’ve gotten stuck in a pattern of complaint and futility. They are tired of wandering around lost and eating the limited diet of quail and manna that has been provided. In fact, they seem willing to go back to Egypt where they were trapped in a cycle of forced labor and oppression rather than continue in their current situation. They are ready to put themselves back into slavery, to return to what was familiar, to lose their freedom.

But then a crisis comes. God gets their attention. They suddenly find themselves attacked by venomous serpents. They are desperate for Moses to call upon God to save them. And God provides a remedy. The very thing that has caused suffering and death is also the object of their healing and restored life. Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it high so that any who look up to it will be spared.

How can the very thing that brings death, also bestow life? If I was an Israelite, I’ve got to tell you I would find it very difficult to take my eyes off the snakes I was trying to dodge and believe that just looking at the bronze serpent would somehow protect me. I’d be more likely to try to find another solution like working together with others to corral the snakes or outrunning them or starting a fire or learning what kind of snakes they were and getting them something to eat they liked better.

But what God asks of them is to look up and to trust. The word that we read as belief is really much more about trust. It’s not about agreeing to a proposition or saying you believe. It’s not about making an idol of the snake or believing in magic. It’s much more about putting your trust in God. It’s about recognizing that your own abilities, skills and willpower can only take you so far. You can’t prevent death. You can’t avoid failure. You will get trapped and stuck in cycles that lead to shame, judgement and despair.

But God wants to bring you to an open space. God invites you to lift up your eyes and to trust. And here’s what God offers when we finally stop and raise our eyes: What we see is Jesus, who himself is lifted up. We see him first upon the cross. The very instrument of suffering and death is one which he has chosen freely as his fate. He walks into the heart of judgement, condemnation, shame, fear, despair and death. He does so as a free, human being, not constrained by sin or trapped by the self-destructive patterns we all experience.

When we raise our eyes and see Christ on the cross, we see the one truly free and whole being who loves us and offers himself for us. As we continue to look at Jesus, we see him raised up. The tomb is empty. Death has been conquered. The very worst the world could dish out could not hold him down. Death doesn’t get the final word. There is life that can never be taken away, that nothing, not even the worst we experience can steal from us. God has placed us in Christ where we are ultimately alive.

Finally we see Christ ascended in glory. His presence fills the whole world by the power of God’s Spirit. What is truly true and really real is so much more than we can think or imagine or even hope for. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus open up the entire cosmos to life and we are drawn up into that dance, that eternal love between God, Jesus and the Spirit.

We’re not asked to believe impossible propositions. We’re not required to be good enough, strong enough or faithful enough. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or judge everyone else who doesn’t conform to our expectations. We’re just asked to raise our eyes to Jesus, to see that he is looking back at us with love and not with condemnation. He is inviting us to freedom and life. The very things that have caused pain and suffering in our lives can be an open door, even a wound where the light can get in.

Some of the folks who know this most profoundly are the folks who are truly in recovery. They don’t give any weight to shame and judgement. No one will ever be saved by that. They hold onto hope for the hopeless. They look at addicts with love and compassion because they’ve been there themselves. They are willing to be the kind of friends who tell the truth.

The church is the home for all saints and sinners. Each one of us is both. When the light shines in and through us, the love, grace and mercy of God spreads to the whole world.

 

4th Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

February 25, 2018 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Do you ever get a tune or musical phrase in your head that keeps playing over and over again? I guess that’s called an ear worm and it can be annoying, but it can also be instructive. It means the brain is working on something even when we’re occupied with lots of other thoughts and activities. There might be something we need to pay attention to or something we are stuck on.

This past week, the phrase and tune that keeps going through my head is from our opening hymn, “Take up your cross, the Savior said.”  We chose this hymn for today because of its obvious association with the gospel reading. Earlier in the week when I was proofing the bulletin, I looked at it again and sang it out loud to make sure it wasn’t too difficult or unfamiliar. That’s when it got lodged in my brain, an ear worm that won’t get out.

Choosing music for this diverse crowd can be tricky. This hymn dates back to the 19th century, and my guess is that less than a quarter of you are familiar with it. That means everyone with musical training is trying to read the music and words at the same time. And the rest are listening to see if you can pick it up by maybe the last verse or just giving up and waiting for it to be over so you can sit down!  For most of us, it goes by so quickly that it doesn’t make an impression.

If you do have the luxury of paying attention to the lyrics, you may be put off by the old fashioned language, the theology, or the images that no longer work well for our context. Today we sang about Calvary’s hill and a golden crown. These are shortcut images that work only marginally in today’s context to point us in the former phrase to the death of Christ and in the latter to a reward in glory.

All week my brain has been wrestling with the question, “What does it mean to take up your cross?” How will those words be heard or sung by this congregation with all of your diverse religious and cultural backgrounds? Will the words of Jesus be heard as an invitation to follow the cross as it “guides you to abundant life” as in the words of the hymn?  Or will this sound like bad news, part of a religious system that is destructive and victimizing?

Part of the bad theology about the cross comes with the phrase, “It’s just my cross to bear,” as if something or someone has been strapped onto our back, weighing us down as we carry it or them through life. The reason this is so destructive is because it traps us as victims of a God who would weigh us down with overwhelming burdens, and to what end? There is already so much in the world that is difficult and damaging. There are endless ways that people suffer and are damaged by one another and by life’s circumstances. What kind of God would deliberately add to those burdens by heaping on additional pain? It is not true that God never gives us more than we can handle.

It is true that the world can overwhelm us with pain and sorrow. God is not in the business of adding to that quota but rather of coming alongside of our suffering and sorrow to bear the burden with us.

The cross that Jesus takes up, he does so willingly. He is not a victim of God or even the victim of the Roman political process that committed him to this heinous form of torture and death. According to the hymn in Philippians, Jesus takes up the cross “for the joy set before him.” He lives a passionate life, in love with God and with all humanity. He chooses a life of meaning, purpose, joy, wonder and spirit. That choice involves radical love, faithfulness to the truth, acts of justice and mercy, deep compassion and willingness to follow the ways of God in opposition to the ways of death.

When he invites those who follow him to take up your cross, he is inviting us into that same life. He is inviting us into a life that can never be taken away from us, no matter what this world dishes out. Jesus is interested in the long game, the big picture, the truth and reality that gets blocked out by the urgency of daily life.

So much of what we work and strive and long for will simply disappear. Fame, importance, success, wealth, acclaim, popularity and physical strength are all temporal realities. You can lose any one of them in the blink of an eye. Contrary to the gospel of prosperity, they are not a sign of God’s favor. They are simply circumstances. They are more enjoyable circumstances than illness, disaster, failure and tragedy but they do not determine our true and real identity. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye and they cannot secure our body, mind and spirit from adversity. Yet we spend so much of our energy trying to acquire these outward marks of the good life.

Jesus says, “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Or in the words of Jim Eliot, a pastor murdered in 1956 in Ecuador by those he was trying to reach out to in love, “She is no fool, who gives what she cannot keep, to gain what she cannot lose.”  “He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

To take up the cross is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It is to walk in his way no matter what life’s circumstances. It is to walk by faith, hope and love.

Abram and Sarai are our forebears in this risky walk of faith. With God’s presence and promise they leave everything that is familiar for a journey to a far land. They are given a new identity and a new hope by God, and they stake their lives on it. Their barren lives are filled first with the hope of a child and at last with more offspring than the stars that can be counted. They are given new names in late old age and filled with a hope and promise that upends all that was familiar. Probably more scary than the journey, the foreign land and having to start all over was the possibility of becoming parents for the first time when they were in their extreme old age! Because of their faith and willingness, they have become the father and mother of many nations and faith traditions.

When Bryon and I were discussing this week’s readings at dinner one night this week, he asked, “When did you find your life in losing it?”  The verb, “lose” is so close to the verb, “loose.” When I think of losing my life, I think of loosing it, of letting it go. For me to take up the cross is to let go of the need to be seen to be successful, to be seen to be well-liked, to be seen to be right, to be seen to be good. These are all outward and relative qualities. To take up the cross is to let go of these external markers of value and success. To accept the risky journey towards fullness of life. To fix my eyes on Jesus who lived the most amazing, full, abundant life possible. To trust in God’s strength and presence when the journey is difficult and dangerous.

I can certainly think of many times where the risky journey, the difficult choice, the way of Jesus has surprised me with so much blessing and fullness. There are instances too great to number. But the important question is more about what’s next. Where is God calling me to follow Jesus next? What do I need to loose in order to hang on more closely to God? What do I need to let go of in order to receive the riches God is offering?  What choices will lead to life and life abundant?  Who will I need to open up myself to in order to grow in love?

Most Sundays I have the privilege of dressing up in fancy clothes, addressing you for 15 minutes, mostly uninterrupted and commanding a small measure of authority in leading worship. This could be dangerously ego-enhancing. There’s a desperate temptation to want to be praised for the sermon or acknowledged for crafting and leading worship well. It’s easy to get pretty excited when the chairs are nearly full or to despair when only a few show up.

Most Sundays, we process in ceremonially and it feels like I might be someone important. But there is something more important coming before me, someone more important who is already present and worthy of worship and praise. The cross comes first. The cross of Christ leads me into this sanctuary. The cross reminds me that I follow where Jesus leads and serve as he served. When people bow as the cross enters the worship space, they are honoring the cross of Christ and not those who minister in his name. The cross reminds us of what is true and lasting and life-giving. It helps us to loose what is unworthy and to cling onto and hold fast to what will last. Amen.

 

2 Lent, Year B

Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16

Psalm 22:22-30

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

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