August 11, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Sometimes in Scripture you read the phrase “the fear of the Lord.”  Or it comes as an imperative, “Fear the Lord.”  For many who were raised on a diet of religious guilt and terror, these words are a trigger, an entry into an entire system of behavioral control in which God is the tyrant who imposes his will on human beings who are inherently sinful and continually failing.  It is the fear of punishment, the fear of being consigned to the eternal fires of hell that is invoked to make someone obey the rules as interpreted by human authority.

This kind of fear is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.  It is the condition of being afraid.”   There is reason to be afraid when a wildfire is approaching, a car is skidding on ice, or a bear is growling nearby.  Fear in these situations heightens your senses and can provoke a physical response like flight or fight that might save your life.

But the unremitting psychological fear of one who is supposed to love you, who knows you intimately, whose child you are is damaging.  It breaks relationship.  It causes self-loathing and self-harm.   It can lead to violence toward self or others.  Perpetual fear can only end in death.  It can scare the life out of you.

In the past week we have all been affected by this type of fear.  It is fear that resulted in racial hatred and violence through mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and in communities all over this country.  It is fear that continues the practice of caging immigrants, separating children from their families, carrying out raids and arresting people who are working hard to create a better living situation for themselves.  It is fear and desperation that brings some of the unhoused people into the Ballard neighborhood and onto church grounds to find safety and sanctuary and fear that plays a factor in substance abuse to numb the pain and suffering and trauma.  Fear, self-loathing and hatred are a toxic mix endangering both individuals and communities.

Fear caught me up this past week, too.  There were too many days I had to call the police to help deal with people who were engaged in behaviors that were harmful to themselves or others.  Fear of abandonment and death plague people I love.   Fear is often at the root of broken relationships.

Fear can cause us to hold back; to push away; to retreat; to disengage; to punish; to demonize; to over protect.  Fear is a form of slavery where we are trapped and locked away from light and love and hope.  It can cause people to harden their hearts against God and one another.  It can overwhelm us so that we no longer hear the cries of the poor and vulnerable.  It turns all but our own tribe into a threatening “other” that has to be guarded against.  Fear keeps us from seeing and experiencing the radical, grace-filled Kingdom of God.

This past Wednesday, a terrified and disoriented young man appeared in my neighbor’s back yard at 9:30 at night, asking for a Band-Aid.  He was bleeding, missing a shoe and shaking.  His appearance frightened me, Bryon and our three houseguests.  It was unexpected.  We didn’t know if he was a thief or a threat.  But here’s the deal.  Every day I have contact with people who look scary, disoriented, dirty, and are partially clothed.  So do all the folks who spend much time at St. Luke’s.  And we’ve gotten to know people who seem kind of scary.  We know names and stories as well as their hopes and fears.  We’ve become neighbors. We’re in relationship with one another.

So on Wednesday night I asked the young man to come around to the front of our house so we could help him.  I called 911 to request medical assistance.  He began to strip off his clothing so we got him to lie down so we could put a blanket over him.  And he told me his name – Gregory.  It wasn’t clear what had happened but it was clear that he was hurt and vulnerable and scared.  The 911 operator mentioned there was a serious accident recently reported just 2 blocks from us.  We began to suspect he had been in the accident.  His neck and back were hurting.  He had scrapes on his shoulder, feet and hands.

It took a long time for the first police car to arrive.  During that time I lost my fear of Gregory and began to get to know him as we tried to carry on a conversation in spite of his disorientation.  It took a long time for the four police vehicles and all the personnel to conclude that he wasn’t a suspect.  Finally after taking my statement and questioning him, they left and let the medics assist him.  I asked if I could pray for him.  He told me his father was a pastor.  I told him I was glad he came to us for help.  An hour after he appeared in our yard, the ambulance took him away.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

There’s another definition for the word “fear,” “reverential awe or to have reverential awe of.”  This is the true sense of what the “fear of the Lord” is – to be in awe of God, amazed at God’s nature and attributes, to give deep attention to, to respect.  The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jesus surprises us with the gift of the Kingdom.  This is a homeland that transcends any house or nation and creates a community of radical belonging and peace.  This is a system where the old hierarchies are turned upside down and the master becomes the servant of the servants as Jesus did when he washed his disciple’s feet and as he promises in his story about the master returning from the wedding feast to fasten his belt, invite the servants to sit down and then waits upon them.

This is the Kingdom of God where widows and orphans are given respect and the oppressed are lifted up and everyone sits down at the banquet feast of the Lord.

The same week that brought all this bad news and suffering right up to my front porch is also the week that Mike came by after church last Sunday.  A year ago he was trespassed from church property for fighting and aggressive behavior.  He was stuck in a cycle of addiction, homelessness and violence.  One day he broke down on the bench in our courtyard and said he needed treatment or he’d die.  He didn’t have a phone anymore so I made the call on my cell and handed it to him.  I didn’t see him for 3 months.  And when I did, I hardly recognized him.  He was clothed and in his right mind.  He came by last week to let me know he has his old job back in Alaska and when he finishes, he’s going to visit the daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.  He said, “You never know which of us is going to make it so you have to keep helping all of us.”  “Don’t give up.”

That’s what faith is, fidelity to God, one day at a time.  Keep giving.  Keep engaging.  Keep learning to trust.  Keep praying.  Keep letting go.  Keep receiving the Kingdom.  It is God’s good pleasure to give us life and life abundant.

There’s something that helped me keep going this past week and it may surprise you.  It isn’t a devotional book or inspirational Bible commentary.  It’s a TV show.  Every night when I came back exhausted and strung out, I tuned into the first season of a show that was recommended to us.  I’d heard about it but until it was reviewed in the Christian Century as one of the clearest depictions of grace on television I hadn’t been interested.  But it turns out that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was just what I needed.

Five guys (The Fab Five) visit a man who has been nominated for a makeover.  They learn what is holding him back from being his best person and they come alongside to help and encourage the guy to take the steps necessary to see that he is deserving of love and self-respect.  The twist is that these are five gay men, one who is Pakistani and one who is African American.  The straight men they descend upon are a redneck cop in a small town in Georgia, an all-male, all white fire department crew and a conservative Christian family man with 5 kids.  And even though it’s a reality show and even though they have lots of production support, at the end of each show, someone is crying and it isn’t just the gay guys, but the people they come to care deeply about and me, too.  Over and over the barriers of fear and distrust get broken down as they look to find the best in one another and act in trust despite their misgivings.

That’s what happens here too.  We come together in worship and awe.  We find ourselves in the presence of a God who is greater than our fears and anxieties.  We discover the One who transcends our national boundaries, our prejudices, our distrust and hatred to restore us to our true identity and our best selves.  And once we get over ourselves, God puts on the robe of the servant and invites us to dine at this table where our divisions are healed and we catch a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom.   Amen.

 

July 28, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

“Lord, teach us to pray.”  Can you relate to this plea?  I know I can. Over nearly 40 years of following Jesus, I have tried different methods and disciplines for prayer. I have debated the efficacy of prayer and completed a seminary essay breaking down the Lord’s Prayer line by line. I have listened to people’s struggles with the purpose of prayer and why their prayers have not been answered. I have wondered about confident prayers for parking places, missing items and sports victories. And I have been asked by others, “Please, teach me to pray.”

It’s something I certainly felt I was lacking in when I went to seminary. In order to be ordained in this church, candidates must spend at least 3 months in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), usually in a hospital setting. I signed up for a summer in my hometown of Portland, Oregon but less than a month into my rotation, I got sick with the flu and bronchitis. Not only was I unable to work for a week, my recovery took longer and the danger of being contagious meant that I couldn’t spend my time visiting patients and their families, particularly because I was assigned to the neonatal unit, working with very ill newborns.

While I languished in the chaplain’s office, I started reading books on prayer, particularly on the medical effect of praying. One prominent book was written by a medical doctor and I was eager to see what studies and experiments might show about prayer. When I think back on it now, I realize that I felt so very powerless at that point, not only because I was sick and unable to fulfill my responsibilities, but also because the “work” of a hospital chaplain is mainly to sit and listen and pray, qualities that don’t come naturally to me.

I had recently spent 5 years working in a hospital directing a therapy program for people experiencing stroke, spinal cord and head injury. I was used to figuring out how to make people function better and adapting their world so that they might achieve the maximum independence possible. There were charts to fill out, tests to perform, exercises to prescribe. Sitting, listening and praying were skills I had not really developed or valued.

And now, because of my illness, I couldn’t even do those!  So I tried to find proof that praying for people is effective, it changes things, it’s a worthwhile thing to do. When I got back out onto the ward, I performed my own little experiments, trying to pray for the rapid heartbeat of an unconscious child to even out or imaginatively praying my way through an ongoing surgery, adding my effort to the medical personnel present.

And for a while, I thought I was really getting it. The heartbeat did seem to slow. The child did make it through surgery. My prayers were effective. There was proof that my prayer was part of the therapeutic process.

Until the day I attended the birth of triplets, knowing that one of the babies had died in utero and the others were probably seriously compromised. It was devastating for all concerned. The physicians and nurses did what they could but their solemn faces showed how desperate the situation was. There was nothing I could do. I wanted to weep and wail with the mother. I wanted to be somewhere else. I felt like I was in the way with no role, no power and no answers.

Finally, after the two surviving babies were whisked away in incubators and the room was quiet and there was nothing else to do, the nurse placed the stillborn in my arms and I began, “There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all.”

When we pray, we go into the Mystery. We acknowledge that we don’t have it all together. We don’t control the Universe. We can’t make it all better. We can’t save the world. We are contingent. We are not ultimate. In the face of all that is difficult and overwhelming; in the presence of all that is awesome and beautiful; in the middle of situations that we cannot understand or fix; we fall to our knees. “Our Father, who art in heaven.”   When we pray, we turn towards the eternal and Holy One who is beyond all our comprehension and yet as near as the breath we breathe. We exhale all our longings, pleadings and laments and inhale the dear presence of the Holy Spirit.

In prayer we receive our daily bread, just enough courage, hope and strength to go on, to continue the journey, to trust for the next step. I know why those disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They asked because they saw in his life and practice an intimacy and trust that was deeper than they had ever experienced and they wanted that connection for themselves. He was praying constantly and his prayer never ceased. He prayed up until the moment of his death and our Christian faith teaches us that he is still interceding for us eternally in glory.

Prayer holds us close to God’s heart and at the same time, we hold the cares, concerns, and thanksgivings of our own lives before God. As we expose our own sins and sorrows to God, we receive the grace and forgiveness needed to forgive others. As we ask for our own daily bread, we open our hands to share what we have been given. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we find ways to participate in the building of that vision. We find our lives becoming more and more of a prayer in both word and action.

In large measure we learn to pray by watching others, just as the disciples learned by watching Jesus. We need mentors in prayer and I want to lift some up for you today as you grow in prayer. The Episcopal Church is a church of prayer. Aside from the historical creeds, we don’t have a set of confessions or doctrines that you have to ascribe to. We often say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” which means that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We believe what we pray. And what we pray often comes from Scripture through the Book of Common Prayer.

The prayer book is what gave me words when I had no words of my own at the baptism of a stillborn child. The prayer book provides us every Sunday with prayers that have been prayed by people through the centuries, the world over. It gives us both a daily rhythm for prayer through the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline as well as prayer for the great transitions of life:  marriage, ordination, sickness and death.

Communal prayer, written prayers, prayers that are memorized and recited over and over again shape us and are there for us when words escape us. Many times at a death bed, a seemingly unconscious person will begin to mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer in unison with those gathered in vigil. Often in times of anxiety, in the middle of a dark night, my lips repeat over and over the prayers that now live inside my brain without effort or conscious thought, “Holy God, holy and strong, holy immortal one, have mercy upon us.”

Those who compose and lead the prayers of the people here at St. Luke’s are also prayer mentors. They gather up all the prayer requests along with the Sunday readings, world and local events, and our partners in the larger church into common prayer that we share in together. We are blessed to be growing as a people of prayer along with them.

There are some prayer mentors who have particular gifts for healing, guidance and coming alongside others. They are the ones who offer prayer for anyone during communion at our prayer station by the candles. They have both a sensitivity to each person and to the presence of God’s Spirit. They will pray for you in words or even in their own prayer language that goes beyond words. If you like, they will wrap you up in a prayer shawl that has been woven out of fabric from former vestments. They will hold you and those concerns that you bring before God when it is too much to try and hold them alone.

So what happens when we pray?  Did you notice the end of today’s gospel reading?  After Jesus encourages them to pray and gives them words to use, he says keep asking, seeking and knocking. He ends by saying, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

When I first started here at St. Luke’s 4 years ago, I had to rely on prayer and God’s Spirit in ways I hadn’t been aware of for many years. This can be an enormously challenging place for ministry. I am so very grateful for those who gather every Sunday morning before worship and every Thursday either in person or via email to pray for this church, this neighborhood and the needs and concerns that come before us. We keep a prayer list for church and a prayer box for the Edible Hope Kitchen to receive requests. On our website is a way to make confidential prayer requests. Every week and for many, every day these concerns are held in prayer. If you would like to be part of this ministry, just let me know.

Recently our prayer group was asked to come and pray in person for The Seattle School. It was a holy time of listening, inviting the Spirit, praying both prepared and spontaneous prayers and caring and loving those who are part of the Body of Christ and our partners in ministry. It was powerful and deeply meaningful to all. It made a difference.

Prayer is not transactional but relational. It is “Help, Thanks and Wow” as well as the beautiful, Elizabethan language of the BCP. It is listening to God and to others. It is language and beyond language. You may be surprised to discover just how much you are praying, even when you think that you don’t really know how to do so. That Holy Other is always speaking, wooing and drawing us into relationship. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  Amen.

July 14, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I spent my middler year of seminary at the theological college in Oxford. While there I got to travel around quite a bit and as a young, gung ho seminarian I often visited churches and cathedrals. The UK has its fair share of old and beautiful buildings but it is a cathedral built in the 1960’s out of the rubble of the medieval edifice that was fire bombed during WWII that I keep coming back to.

Coventry Cathedral is dedicated to the ministry of reconciliation, symbolized by its cross of nails. The cross is made from the distinctive hand crafted nails from its original construction in the 1500’s. If you have never seen one, they can be found as subtle Stations of the Cross on the walls of our historic chapel next door. The chapel will be open after church for Seafood Festival if you want to take a look.

The entire cathedral and its art reflect a powerful sense of the Christian message of resurrection, forgiveness, mercy and service. It honors the work of ordinary people and the impulse to rebuild after a terrible tragedy and the horror of world war.

Tucked away in one of the alcoves in one of my favorite pieces of sculpture. It stands as a powerful reminder of what is at stake as a city rebuilds itself from the ashes. There is a cityscape spread out in metal silhouette. It depicts houses, factories and tall buildings making up the skyline. Dangling from the ceiling above is a long rope with a teardrop shaped lead weight attached. The weight hangs directly in the center of the sculpture.

If you were paying attention to our first OT reading from the book of Amos you know that this is a plumb line. It is a method used by builders through many centuries to insure that the walls of any construction are truly upright. It is an unchanging standard based on gravity. In order to work accurately, the plumb line must be still, with no interference or outside force upon it. Every structure is measured against it. Those that fail to be upright and true will certainly begin to collapse.

When Amos, the unqualified and outsider prophet is given the vision of a wall and plumb line with regard to Israel, it was part of a word of judgement against the King and the political and religious leadership of the nation. God called them rotten, summer fruit, looking fresh and sweet on the outside, but brown and damaged inside. God has called out their failure to care for the poor, their love of finery and soft couches, their worship of idols and their empty religious rituals.

They are out of true. They do not meet God’s standard. They are in danger of collapse. The vision of the plumb line is a clear and simple message and it works whether the country is Israel, England or the U.S.

The plumb line doesn’t work when it’s swinging from left to right, oscillating from one side to another. It can’t come to rest if it’s spinning crazily around. The plumb line of God’s true measure isn’t dependent on political parties or leaders. It cuts through all the rhetoric, the spin and the fake news of the day. It cannot be bought off or corrupted because it is based in the unchanging precepts of the Holy One.

Here are some of those standards. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

And, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:2-6)

And again, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

These are standards, codes of conduct now broken by our own country, not only at our borders, but closer to home. Our own bishops, including all the bishops from Texas are calling out in a prophetic way to remind us of the plumb line, the standard in our treatment of those seeking asylum. I have also been surprised by some of the other voices crying out in alarm and in the language they have chosen to use.

My husband and I just returned from a 2,000 mile driving trip around the west. Bryon has recently discovered the joys of podcasts and had downloaded many of them for us to listen to when radio reception was missing and we were tired of talking to each other!  Of course, all his podcasts were political commentaries. These are secular programs with primarily secular commentators. And yet the tone and their choice of words were surprisingly religious. They talked about moral outrage, about common values and even about sin. In their own ways, they pointed to the plumb line and how we as a country are falling out of true. As the plumb line swings from side to side pulled by political tides, or oscillates on the crazy crises of an unstable and unreliable cycle we are disoriented, spinning and unable or unwilling to reassert the standard.

Into our toxic mix of blame, self-interest, division and corruption Jesus speaks. In the story of the Good Samaritan, he speaks to a lawyer, but he’s speaking to you and me as well. Here is a man who is testing the standard. He wants to be seen to be doing right. He wants to justify himself, his interests, his reputation. He may even think fairly highly of himself and his ability to match words and arguments with this itinerant rabbi. He’s fairly certain he’s doing just fine, has the right answers, knows the drill. But Jesus turns his world upside down.

You probably know the story Jesus tells in response to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”  A lone traveler is beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. First a religious leader sees him, crosses to the other side and passes by. Next a designated staff of the religious establishment sees him, crosses to the other side and passes by.

Anyone who knows a good story, knows that the third time is the charm. Who will come upon the victim last?  What will that person do?  What will the lesson be?

The third person is completely unexpected. It is the enemy of the priest, the Levite and the lawyer. It is someone from a religious and ethnic class despised and kept separate from them. And this man alone, not only sees the victim, but comes near, is moved with compassion, tends his wounds, gets him some help, pays for it and promises to check back with him. And it’s a Samaritan.

The lawyer can’t help but answer correctly when Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  Of course, it’s the Samaritan. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

You can look at this famous parable in so many different ways. Like any dream interpretation, you can probably find yourself in every one of the characters and you may even have faces and names you’d like to apply to the priest and the Levite, but here’s what I’m thinking about this now.

It seems to me there are a lot of folk in the ditch. They are the wounded, the marginalized, those running for their lives, those caught up in systems that are oppressive. They are the suffering. And it seems to me that they are the icon of the Holy One for our collective conscious. The victim is the only one who is not identified by race, nationality, profession or religious affiliation. I wonder if it is the man in the ditch that Jesus most identifies with as he walks his own dangerous journey to Jerusalem. By his very presence, the damaged one reads each one of us, holds up to us the mirror of recognition. Calls us to a standard that we may have ignored, forgotten or failed to live up to.

The wounded Christ doesn’t judge anyone. He offers himself in vulnerability, in powerlessness, in humility. He calls to us from the ditch, from his own ruined body to respond in love for God our neighbor. He knows what it means to be ignored, passed by, devalued, and left for dead. He identifies with every one of us who has felt demeaned, defeated, and damaged. In his divinity, he is our God. In his humanity, he is our neighbor. In his suffering, he is one with us. And when we love him in his surprising appearance as the suffering and dying one, we love our neighbors and ourselves. Amen.

June 9, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Yesterday Bryon officiated at the wedding of his youngest niece.  The whole family as well as their friends and guests gathered in a barn near Millersylvania State Park for the occasion.  Bryon’s three brothers and their children and grandchildren were present.  Bryon’s 89 year-old mom, Jean was beaming with pride and excitement.  The weather cooperated and it was a very happy event.

Right near the guest book and gift table, they had set up a special table with a sign that read, “If heaven weren’t so far away, we know you’d be with us today.”  Under the sign were photos of the two grandfathers of the bride who both died over ten years ago.  It was a lovely touch and you often see some version of this at weddings.

During the photos you might hear a comment, “Oh, he looks so much like his grandfather.”  Or at the reception there would be stories from their growing up years.  It is clear that many family values and traits have been passed on through the generations.  And while the grandfathers were absent, there was certainly a sense of legacy and the passing down of tradition.

I suppose that without Pentecost, gatherings of Christians might be similar.  We might remember Jesus and his teachings, telling stories about his wonderful acts, recounting his words, missing him and wishing he could still be present.  Life goes on without him, but his values have been imparted through the generations and we remember and memorialize him when we get together and listen to his words.  We wouldn’t resemble him physically or share his DNA but maybe we could emulate him and try to be like him.  We could put up a painting of what we thought he would have looked like and be glad that he was up in heaven watching over us.

Maybe that’s where the disciples would have ended up after their grief and horror over his crucifixion and their confusion and elation over his resurrection.  Maybe they would have settled down into a kind of sad and gentle remembering, honoring all that he had been in their lives.

But then Pentecost happened and they were catapulted into a much more dynamic, risky and exciting future.  Pentecost – 50 days from Easter, 10 days from Ascension.  The disciples were gathered in a room, waiting, praying, fearful, wondering.  I like to think they were catching their breath as they tried to make sense of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  They knew he died.  They met him again after his death, sharing meals, touching his hands and feet.  Then they watched as he physically departed this earth, never to be seen again.  Where was he?  Where did he go?  What were they supposed to do?  What comes next after all of that?

Pentecost.  God pours out the Spirit upon the disciples in ways they could never expect.  They leave the safety of their rooms to preach the gospel in every language.  They are catapulted into the public eye at a time when it was pretty dangerous to be preaching about their crucified leader.  The Spirit multiplies those who follow Jesus by 5000 in just one day and that expansion never slows down.  Preaching, healing, teaching, confronting injustice, the disciples go forth from their own homes and country to reach out to everyone with the message of God’s love in Jesus.

Pentecost.  Jesus’s physical departure ushers in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in ways no one could imagine.  Pentecost.  It is on this day that the followers of Jesus begin to gather as the people of the Way, the Christ followers, the Jesus proclaimers, the ones who will transform the world in the name of the one they know and love.

This is no act of remembrance in the absence of presence, but rather a bold proclamation of presence.  The work of Jesus continues in the lives of his followers by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are the ones who embody him in the world.  We are the ones who will do even greater works than he does because he has poured out his Spirit upon us.

Today the spiritual pilgrims come forward for a final ritual, the Affirmation of Christian Vocation.  Their journey began with Ash Wednesday and a focus on repentance and returning to God.  Through Lent we, together with them, considered what it means to live as a person of faith, to Turn, Learn, Pray, Bless, Worship, Go and Rest.  During Holy Week, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, we affirmed our faith and trust in the crucified and risen Christ, trusting that we have been baptized into his life and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Through Easter we explored what it means to live out the promises we make in baptism.  We celebrated with those who made public affirmation of their commitment by being confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church on Cathedral Day.

And now, at Pentecost we affirm that the Spirit of God is upon each one of us, calling us to lead lives of faith, hope and love and to minister to the people and in the places where God has put us.  Before we are all dismissed today, each one of us will have the opportunity to affirm our own vocation, the unique way God had called us to “walk wet” in the world as the baptized followers of a risen Lord.  Every one here is given the chance to discern where your own gifts, skills and passion meet the needs of the world.  Just as Jesus must depart physically in order for the Spirit to expand through the lives of his followers, we must leave this worship service, empowered to love and serve God and our neighbor in the world.

Because that calling is specific to each individual and because the nature of our calling changes over time, here are a few questions to consider as you think about your own vocation as a Christian

Who are you called to walk with on the Way of Love?  Often our calling begins with a person or a group of people.  When God entered more deeply into our reality, God never sent a program or a policy.  God always sends a person.  Our vocation to serve others begins with those who are closest to us.  You cannot love your neighbor in a foreign land, unless you learn to love the neighbor in your own home, workplace or family.

How does your occupation relate to your vocation?   Many people struggle with their jobs, wondering if this is truly the most fulfilling and Christian way to live out 40-50 hours per week.  It’s not unusual for someone who is dissatisfied with their occupation to come to me and say, “I think I would like to work for the church because it would be so much more meaningful and fulfilling.”  I hate to disillusion anyone but I can truthfully say that there is just as much bureaucracy, politics, anxiety and difficulty in the church as in any institution.  The truth is that you bring yourself with you into any job or career and there you meet others who are just as wounded and human as you are.  As you discern your own occupation and vocation, it’s worthwhile to think about how it relates to your faith and what it might mean to bring Christ with you into your workplace.  Brother Lawrence famously wrote a small devotional book about practicing God’s presence as he labored in the monastery kitchen, peeling pound after pound of potatoes.  How can God be present through you at work?

As you think about our society and the world, what makes you angry?  How might that show what you care passionately about?   Anger is a powerful measure of what we most deeply value.  It can also be a force when channeled to fight against injustice and to stand with those who need an advocate.  Jesus shows us how to engage a righteous anger on behalf of the least, the last and the lost.  Well directed anger can right wrongs, protect the environment, and promote reform.

Where might you be called to take some risks in order to follow Jesus more closely?   The Spirit may be also known as the comforter, but that doesn’t mean that being led by the Spirit will always make us comfortable.  Or as one of my favorite bathroom wall quotes goes, “If you’re in the center, you’re taking up too much room.”  The disciples were sent out beyond the boundaries of their familiar lives to other countries, to people who were different from them, into situations that were strange and disorienting.  Their willingness to take risks along with centuries of those who have put their trust in God are the reason why we are here today.

Finally, How do your finances reflect your values?  Have you made a financial commitment to supporting the church and other ministries as part of your spiritual discipline?  Does your will (if you have one) reflect the legacy you wish to leave?

Our relationship to money reflects what really matters to us.  When we consider our vocation, how we spend our lives, our time, our gifts and skills, we also consider what we do with our riches.  Our bank statements as well as our plans for after we die are an outward and visible sign of what is in our hearts.  When we line up our lives with what we believe, our financial commitments will be part of that.

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We often pray for the gift of the Spirit.  The password for St. Luke’s WiFi is “Come Holy Spirit.”  It’s a risky prayer.  It could lead to all sorts of excitement.  Amen.

May 5, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

One of the ways Christians have meditated on Scripture over the years is by putting yourself in the place of the people in the stories.  Maybe you’ve done this as you’ve considered the story of the prodigal.  Am I more like the younger or the older brother?  Or in the account of Jesus’s visit to the house of Martha and Mary.  Do you identify more with Martha who is doing all the chores or Mary, who is reverently sitting at the feet of the Rabbi?

It isn’t often or even ever, that I can remember, that I’ve asked of myself, “Am I more of a Paul or a Peter?”  These two towering figures of the New Testament each have such rich stories and teaching associated with them.  Mostly we focus on either one or the other.  But once in the three year cycle of readings, we get this Sunday where the conversion story of Paul is read alongside the commissioning of Peter after he’s shared breakfast on the beach with Jesus.

For each man, the story is one of, if not the most significant event in each of their lives.  Both encounter the risen Christ, who speaks directly with them.  Both face turning points that mean their lives will never be the same.  Both are given new names.  Saul becomes Paul after his conversion and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock as Jesus has commissioned him.   These are the origin stories of two towering figures of the Church.  The great Vatican Cathedral is named for Peter and the famous London cathedral is named for Paul.  They are the most prominent of the apostles.

And yet, each of these vital stories about how they received their new identity and purpose begins with shame—deep, crippling, run away and hide under a rock shame.  Shame is the certainty that if people know this about me, I will be rejected, derided, pitied and abandoned.

Saul’s shame comes as a result of his arrogance, his certainty, and his self-righteousness.  No one works harder than he does to do what is right.  He is the straight A Torah student.  He is the most devout defender of the faith.  He is an up and comer who will overcome every obstacle to complete his mission.  His zeal is so great that he seeks out and imprisons anyone found to be following the Way of Jesus.  He plans to root out all support for the crucified, rabble rousing, blasphemous leader of this new sect.  His future is bright and clear.

Until.  Until he gets knocked down and blinded by a light from heaven and he hears Jesus asking him, “Why are you persecuting me?”  He enters a world of shame and pain.  He is completely vulnerable.  He has to be led around by the hand.  He cannot eat or drink.  Everything he thought was right turned out to be wrong.  Everything he took so much pride in turned out to be worthless.  Instead of being in control, he was powerless.  Instead of acting, he is waiting.  His career has come to a sudden halt.  His future is unclear.

And the person God chooses to lift him up, to care for him, to restore him to health and then baptize him was a simple disciple of Jesus, named Ananias.  Ananias risks his own life and safety to approach and minister to the man who has terrorized him and the people he loves.  God will use Ananias and Barnabas and countless other disciples who have far less learning and status than Saul to teach him, love him and bring him into the Body of Christ.

Peter’s shame runs just as deep as Paul’s but for different reasons.  He knew and loved Jesus.  He was the disciple who responded whole heartedly to anything Jesus asked.  He was all in.  He was present for all the major miracles, signs and wonders.  He had been renamed Peter, the Rock and Jesus promised to build the church upon him.  Right before Jesus’s death, Peter promised that he would never abandon him.  Everyone else may turn away, he said, but I will never deny you.

Until.  Until he did, not just once but three times.  Imagine his shame.  He can’t get over his weakness, the denials, and the self-incrimination.  It seems like his shame keeps him from fully experiencing and rejoicing in the resurrection.  He slinks away, back to Galilee.  He goes back to fishing.  When things don’t work out, he returns to what he knows even if it’s no longer fulfilling.  At least it’s safe.  At least he won’t screw this up.  After everything we’ve heard from Peter in the gospels, there are no recorded words of his after the resurrection until he is interrogated by Jesus on the beach.  He has gone silent.

Three times Peter denied Jesus.  Three times the risen Christ asks him “Do you love me?”  It’s almost too much for Peter.  You can hear his resignation and his implicit confession, “Lord, you know everything.”  “You know everything about me.”  “You know my heart, my failure, my desire, and my shame.”

Jesus does.  He knows Peter’s heart and Saul’s nature and the very depth of our being.  Jesus knows that we’d like to escape our shame, to run from it or hide away.  We want to find a way to fix our lives and then to turn around and fix everyone else.  We want to clean up the messiness and chaos around us and inside us.  We believe that if we just work harder, gain more knowledge and data and apply ourselves, we will get all A’s, succeed, produce and raise great children, and live our best lives.

If you’ve ever heard or read the social science researcher, Brene Brown you know that her studies about shame lead her to a startling and unwelcome conclusion.  Shame destroys connection with others and our best and true selves.  And, the only way out of shame is vulnerability.  In order to connect with others, we have to be seen.  We need to be known, to be called by our own name and not the persona we try to create.   It’s a terrific risk.  We will face the death of the false self.  We will have to uncover our wounds and to open ourselves to that which we cannot control.

And the only way, my friends, that we can do this is if we know and believe that we are loved and that we belong.  The gift and assurance Jesus offers to Paul and Peter in the darkest part of their shame is that he sees them.  He knows them.  And he loves them.  In spite of their failure and weakness, Jesus commissions them to a life of sacrificial love and wholehearted giving.  This deep sense of being loved and belonging to Jesus gives them courage to proclaim the gospel even when they are persecuted, rejected and ultimately put to death.

Amazingly, this confident sense of being who they truly are allows them to let these stories be told over and over again.  Their deepest shame is public record, which precedes them everywhere they go.  Their sharing of the good news, their spreading of the gospel is grounded in their own vulnerability and authenticity.

Shame cuts us off from one another and from our own core.  Shame can’t be numbed without numbing everything else inside.  Shame can’t be controlled or projected onto others without devastating consequences.  We can’t pretend that our shameful behavior doesn’t hurt others.

Shame can only be healed by connection, by honest reckoning, by forgiveness in a context of love and belonging.  Shame is overcome when we understand that there is nothing that can separate us ultimately from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Did you notice that both Paul and Peter are welcomed and fed as part of their redemption?  The mark of the Beloved Community of Jesus is that all of us are welcome at the table WITH our shame, failure, sorrow and wounds.  Everyone is offered the body of the living Christ, food for the soul and the cup of new life.  Connection is established at the table.  Belonging begins with shared bread and wine.

When we know ourselves to be loved and accepted we can no longer project our shame in judgement of others.  We no longer need to withhold compassion and forgiveness from ourselves or others.  We are free, empowered and courageous to answer the call of Christ and to walk in his way.

After some reflection, I’ve decided that I am more of a Paul than a Peter.  I prefer to be right and in control.  It’s going to take getting knocked on my butt for me to acknowledge my weakness and stop trying to take charge of everything.  Over and over it has been God’s grace in those who love and accept me in spite of myself that leads me into fullness of life.  Often I find Jesus in those whose lives seem most unlike my carefully controlled and organized one.  These are the ones who offer me forgiveness, compassion and belonging when I least expect it.  And it is often at a meal, daily breakfast at the Edible Hope Kitchen, Thursday parish lunch or our Sunday feast at the altar, that I know myself to be loved for who I am, in spite of my many flaws and that I belong in this community of faith, hope and love.

Amen.

 

 

Second Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

There are three traditions about this particular Sunday in the church year.  The first is that it is unofficially known as “Low Sunday” because many who showed up for Holy Week and Easter feel like they attended church much more often than their normal pattern and others get to Easter Day and figure they got all the high points and can take a break until next Advent!

The second tradition is linked to the first.  Often the preacher for the Second Sunday of Easter is not the Vicar or Rector.  Like many parishioners, the Vicar may feel like they did more than their fair share of preaching and leading services during Holy Week and Easter and they deserve a day off so they assign the preaching to an Associate.

The third tradition on the Sunday after Easter is that we always hear the story of Thomas and his unwillingness to believe in the resurrected Christ until he has the opportunity to touch the wounds in the hands and side of Jesus.  You may have heard me call Thomas the “patron saint of Episcopalians” although this is not an official designation.  It’s just that many of us who have gravitated to this denomination did so because it seems to be OK with asking questions and raising doubts.  We often hear that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather fear.  Thomas is definitely not afraid.  While the other 10 disciples are holed up behind locked doors, he’s out and about and as a result isn’t present for the first appearance of the resurrected Christ.

If you’re in church this Sunday it may be because you weren’t aware of these traditions, weren’t paying attention to the church calendar, especially like Thomas or were hoping that the Vicar wouldn’t be preaching!

Or it may be something else.  It may be that you’re here because you received new life in the Easter celebration or were inspired by the presence of the Spirit.  You may be renewed in your faith and fairly serious about following Jesus and living into Easter faith, hope and love.  You may be one of the fifty folks who showed up for St. Luke’s first Easter Vigil in a long time and were moved by the power and beauty of the liturgy, readings and sermons.

For whatever reason you are here this morning, I am so glad.  I am so glad to unpack with you the message of Jesus and the call to live into the resurrection.  We bring our doubts and our fears as well as our awe and worship and praise.  Together with Thomas we come close to Christ to touch his wounds, to hear his blessing of peace and to receive the Holy Spirit.

But how do we get close?  After all the resurrected body is no longer with us.  The miraculous manifestation of tongues of fire aren’t visible here today.  We are those who have not seen, but we want to believe.  We are those who ask of God, “Lord, help my unbelief.”  We want to be close to God, but often we feel so distant.  We can’t put our fingers in the nail holes or our hands in his side.  We can’t share a meal of bread and fish with him or hear him bless us with peace.

Distance.  It’s hard to bridge the distance of time, the distance of a different culture, the distance of separation.  It’s especially difficult to bridge the distance of privilege.

The privilege of distance.  It’s a phrase I had never really heard until this past Friday.  I heard it in a song.  The song was written and sung by a woman whose neighbor had been killed by recently armed campus security officers in Portland.  He was a father and grandfather.  He had stepped in to break up a fight outside a bar.  He was succeeding as the security officers arrived.  A few minutes later he had been shot dead.

Her kids had played with his kids.  They had shared block parties with him and his wife.  They lived in a decent neighborhood just a few doors down from one another.  They attended the same church.    They were close, good neighbors.  And he was shot dead.

But there was a distance between them.  A distance that she didn’t even fully comprehend or realize until he was dead.  A distance that she didn’t understand but he did.  A distance that got him killed.  In their church, his family was one of only two black families.  On that sidewalk, in front of the bar, he was the only person of color.  The distance between them was the distance created by privilege, the privilege of whiteness.  It is the privilege of not having to worry about being automatically considered a suspect because of skin color.  It is the privilege of not being automatically branded a threat because you are a black male.  And it’s the privilege of not having to think about these things consciously or unconsciously every minute of every day.  The privilege of distance.

Jesus breaks down that privilege.  At his birth, Jesus moves into the neighborhood.  He pitches his tent amongst us.  At least that’s the Eugene Peterson translation from the Message.  I think about that every time I pass one of the many tents dotting our city, in parks, on sidewalks, under freeways.  Jesus pitched his tent in the middle of suffering, desperate humanity.

Jesus doesn’t keep his distance, not from lepers, or foreigners, the diseased or dead.  He talks to prostitutes and heals menstruating women.  He shares meals with the despised and rejected and even shares a cup with the one who will betray him.  With Jesus, it’s all personal, it’s all close, it’s all real.  At the end he suffers the fate of the indigent, the petty thieves, the rabble rousers, the ones with no power to save themselves.  He dies a death so awful that only his mother and a few, mostly female followers can bear to be present during his suffering.

And then, when his friends are keeping their distance from everyone, behind locked doors, he breaks down every barrier, including that most permanent one, death to be with them.  He stands in the midst of them.  He invites them to come close.  He offers the sign of peace.  And when Thomas misses that opportunity, he comes close again, just for him.  He comes close enough so that Thomas can touch the marks of his wounds.

After that, the disciples have lost the privilege of safety and security.  They have touched the death of Jesus and been transformed by his resurrection into those who go out into the world with the message of this boundary-breaking love which destroys the walls we build between one another.

Oh we are an Easter people, a people marked by the cross and propelled by the resurrection.  We are a people who can no longer be ignorant of the distance that separates us from the suffering and crucified ones.  We can no longer offer our peace from afar, our thoughts and prayers, our check to help the needy.  We can no longer avoid getting our hands dirty and even bloody as we care for those who have fallen and bind up the wounds of the victims.  Because the Lord of life has breathed the Spirit upon us, we can no longer walk away from death or to keep ourselves racially and economically isolated.

It may not be safe.  As one commentator put it, “The apostolic movement is a political enterprise that lives in tension, if not contradiction with established order in the world.”  To abandon the privilege of distance is to become as vulnerable as the vulnerable.  It is to question and doubt even those we have been taught to respect and rely on.

When we get close enough to touch the wounds of Christ, we will find ourselves in direct contact with the poor, the hungry, those who are strung-out and mentally ill.  We may get to know drug users or even drug dealers.  We will be able to see and hear the stories of those who have been sexually harassed or assaulted.  We will bring flowers to the site of shootings and we will walk in protest when our community failing the vulnerable.

We will open our doors to those in need, and like we did yesterday, we will provide the space and opportunity for friends and family to mourn when their 30 year old, beloved Ryan has died on the streets after suffering from years of anxiety, pain and addiction.   We will join in mourning for Christian sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka and for our Jewish neighbors in San Diego.  We will find ways to proclaim and act like Black Lives Matter and confront the ingrained racism that even now keeps our congregations mostly segregated on Sunday mornings.

And we will do so, not because we are so strong, or principled or even woke!  We’ll do so because we have received the Spirit of God, the Spirit not of timidity but of courage in the name of Jesus.  We will act because we have touched the risen Christ in the bodies of our wounded sisters and brothers… AND IN OUR OWN WOUNDS.  We have seen the power of God to bring new life out of death and to redeem even the most hopeless situation.  Because of the love of Jesus, we will forgive and ask for forgiveness.

And we will know that “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.”  It won’t be our certainty, our strength or even our own courage that propels us from this place but rather the wounds of the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for us an offering and sacrifice to God on behalf of the world.  Amen.

March 24, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

There is a long tradition of mysticism in Christianity. It is a river that runs deep through the centuries and has been practiced by men, women and children from every time period, background and outlook. It includes famous mystics like St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, the person who wrote “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and thousands of everyday folks who have had direct experience of the divine.

Mysticism is not just present in Christianity. It can be located in the rivers of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. These are great rivers of tradition, practice and devotion. They each have their own separate identity and yet, the stream, the life-giving water that flows in each one mingles and recombines with others as river water evaporates into steam and cloud and then descends once again as snow, rain and hail.

In Judaism, one Rabbi who is fascinated by this strand in his faith is Lawrence Kushner. He defines a mystic in this way:  “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”  That hidden unity is revealed as we understand ourselves ever more deeply to be located within God, part of the divine, in contact with a reality much larger than we are normally aware of.

I am not a mystic. I don’t do well with silent meditation. I’m happiest when actively “doing” something and less comfortable simply being. I’m more of a “Martha” than a “Mary,” paying attention to the practicalities, making sure the tasks are done. I’ve never had dramatic visions, heard the voice of the Almighty or been pulled out of this dimension into some higher, purer, spiritual plane. I’m an Episcopalian in part because Anglicanism is known to be a pragmatic, realistic sort of denomination, not prone to extremes (generally :).

For that reason, preaching on texts where there is direct, mystical encounter with the holy are very intimidating to me. The last time I preached was on the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus goes up the mountain and is changed temporarily into glory. Today we’ve got another mountain top, but it’s Moses and the burning bush. These are overwhelming experiences. People and plants are transformed. The voice of God speaks. The very ground becomes holy and the people involved take off their shoes, they fall on their faces, they tremble. Nothing will ever be the same.

Sometimes we long for such a clear and unequivocal communication of the divine presence. We may even ask or demand God to show up, to answer us, to fix the desperate situation we face. We may try to earn or trick God into a manifestation through extreme fasting, long prayers or particular methods that have seemed to unlock mystical experience for someone else. We need direction, healing, proof that God is real and cares for us. We want answers to the question of why we suffer, why the world is in such bad shape and why God doesn’t intervene. Or maybe we were once touched by God directly and we wish for a repetition of that amazing event.

Yesterday I went looking for encounter. For me, that mostly means paying attention when I’m walking. Did I mention that I suck at meditation?  My top silent prayer record is less than 15 minutes. It’s a good thing I have a spiritual director who contributed a chapter to the book, Spiritual Direction for the Extrovert!  She’s the one who gave me permission to pray while walking. It seems to work for me.

There are some practices that set me up for a holy encounter while walking. When I walk while reflecting on Scripture it seems to help open my mind to a different kind of understanding. When I intentionally offer to God the people and problems I am concerned about, there is an attentiveness that seems reciprocated. All those everyday things that help nurture my relationship with God, like worship, prayer, holy learning, service to others, sharing the good news, confession and Sabbath rest provide support so that my eyes and ears can be open to receive God’s presence.

So I went walking in the Washington Arboretum. I was looking for azaleas in bloom, or at least cherry trees and some camellias. I was in search of fresh, green things and a good place for my dog, Sally, to stretch her legs. It turns out that it’s too early in the season and Azalea Way was still mostly bare twigs. It also turns out that our recent snowpocalypse punished the trees and shrubs in the arboretum. Everywhere there were downed limbs and broken branches. I had no difficulty observing the brokenness and damage of our world.

My head drooped as I surveyed the destruction and it bowed further as I thought about the crises I see on our streets every day from homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. My heart was weighed down by the anger and disgust some people express towards those who are suffering in these situations and to those who are trying to help. I wondered how we could keep going here at St. Luke’s and in the Edible Hope Kitchen, caring for those on the margins, working to foster Beloved Community, seeking to love God and all our neighbors. How will we ever be able to develop our property in a way that fosters these values we hold so dear?  My walk was getting heavy and I was no longer looking around me.

This is when it’s good to have a very active, three-year-old black lab. She chased up a side path around the corner and I followed. As I rounded the bend, there was a 40-foot-high old magnolia. At the very top of the tree canopy were enormous purple/pink blooms, just being touched by the sun. I remember coming to the garden later in the season in previous years and seeing the remains of these blooms and being sad that I had missed the full flowering. But now, I was here! I was in this place at the right time. This great tree had put forth all its energy one more time into gorgeous flower. It was old and damaged and it was glorious.

I didn’t hear a voice. I wasn’t transported to another dimension. But the words of Scripture suddenly echoed in my brain. “I am.”  “I am” is here. “I am” is with you. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Jesus, Peter, Mary of Magdala and Martha; the God of all those who have gone before me is here. It’s the same message that Moses and Jesus heard.

It’s the same message for us. I have heard the cries of my people who are suffering. You are called to respond to them. I will be with you. With God all things are possible. I have the cattle on a thousand hills. I will be at your right hand. I will walk with you through desert, fire and flood. I will bring you and all my people safely home.

The holy one, blessed be God forever, is still active and present in our generation. Circumstances and situations may have changed but the vision is still the same. God has called us all to feast at the great banquet where everyone is welcome. God feeds us in body and soul so that we might feed others.

In just a few minutes, the spiritual pilgrims and companions for this year will be coming forward for the Rite of Welcome. Together we are walking this path, the Way of Love. We are called to “Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest.”  This Rule of Life opens our ears and eyes and heart to experience God’s presence. As we welcome them, each pilgrim will be signed with the cross to recognize that every part of them is engaged in a holy journey. It’s not that the heavens will open up and the Spirit will descend like a dove, (although anything is possible and this is St. Luke’s, Ballard after all!)  It’s more likely that they will have fresh eyes and ears to see and hear God in their daily lives.

The gardeners had been active in the Arboretum. They didn’t immediately uproot the damaged plants. Instead, they had been tending them, propping up sagging limbs, clearing out dead branches, adding nutrients. Gardeners have eyes to see life where it looks like death. They remember the fruit and flower even in the dead of winter or the damage of natural disaster. They have hope for the following year.

This Lent, let’s let our good gardener loosen our hardened soil, pour into our parched soul the nutrients we need to flourish and feed us with the nourishment that will strengthen us to bear good fruit. Amen.