May 24, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

There is a pause in the narrative accounts of Jesus and his followers.  The three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke race along from one dramatic event to another.  There is always something happening – healing, teaching, opposition, journeys, questions, arguments, worship, prayer, eating, drinking, and finally suffering, death, grief, anguish, confusion, fear and then resurrection, forgiveness, affirmation, encouragement, comfort and commissioning.  Whew!

If you read any of these three gospels, you will go on a roller coaster ride with the disciples as they meet, follow, lose and then are reunited with Jesus.  Mark and Matthew end abruptly with the risen Christ giving marching orders to the disciples to go into the world to share the good news.  John, whose gospel takes an entirely unique approach ends with an acknowledgement that there’s a lot more to tell but there aren’t enough books to contain the full story.

But Luke does something different.  He brings the narrative all the way through the death and burial of Jesus to his resurrected presence with them in rooms and meals and on the road to Emmaus.  And then, in three short sentences he tells how Jesus left them, ascending up into heaven as he blesses them and they worship him.  The End.

Only it’s not the end.  It’s just the Great Pause.  The other gospels end and the story doesn’t get taken up again until the letters from the Apostle Paul many years after the death of Jesus.  But Luke writes another book, the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s the sequel to his gospel book.

It begins with Jesus ascending into heaven.  He repeats the ending of Luke at the beginning of Acts.  He begins with the Great Pause, that break in the narrative and all the action.  The disciples go back into a room.  They huddle together behind closed doors.  They put themselves in spiritual quarantine, limiting the people they are in contact with to the 11 closest disciples of Jesus along with Jesus’s mother, his brothers and “certain women” who were probably the most faithful of his followers, who had never deserted him.

They don’t preach or evangelize.  They don’t make any journeys to share the good news with those who’ve never heard about Jesus.  They don’t even go out to heal the sick, visit the imprisoned or feed the hungry.  They remain inside their room, devoting themselves to prayer.

After all they’ve learned, experienced, grown and seen they pause for prayer.  They wait and they pray.  Jesus has told them to expect the Spirit but he didn’t mention how and when that might happen.  In fact, when they asked, he makes it clear that “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  In other words, you guys are not in charge.  You have an important job to do.  You are to wait, pray and trust.  When the time is right, you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  You will be given the strength, inspiration and ability to witness to the love of God, not just here in a familiar place, but in places you never dreamed of going.  When the Spirit catches fire in the world it will take you beyond anything you have ever known before and enable you to do things you never imagined would be possible.  Nothing will ever be the same.

That event, the one they were waiting and praying for, the one promised by Jesus right before he left their sight for good, is Pentecost.  At Pentecost the Spirit blew open the closed doors where they were waiting and praying, shut off from the world, and propelled them into crowds of thousands to preach the good news in every language under heaven.  The Great Pause ends with the rush of wind, tongues of flame and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s an amazing story that you will find in the second chapter of Acts.  What happened there is still resonating the world over, nearly 2,000 years later.

On that day, what we know as the Christian movement, the Church was born.  And that same rush of the Spirit returns over and over again in the lives of individuals and in whole communities.

Before we get to Pentecost though, there is a pause, a break in the narrative, an in-between time, a time of waiting and praying and staying indoors.  This is the time between Ascension and Pentecost and that’s right where we are today in the church calendar.  The Feast of the Ascension was this past Thursday.  The Feast of Pentecost will be next Sunday.  We’re in the Great Pause in between.  We are waiting and praying, learning to trust the Spirit, expecting but not knowing what might happen.  We are both anxious and anticipating.  We are both hopeful and scared.

And we don’t know when the time will be.  We don’t know when we will be released from our current quarantine.  We’re not sure what the world will look like on the other side of this pandemic and we’re anxious about how we will get there.  As church people, we are used to a 40 day discipline, like the season of Lent or the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness or the 40 days and 40 nights of rain in Noah’s time.  Pentecost designates a 50 day time period.  It was 40 days from Easter Sunday to Ascension Day and it will be 50 days from Easter to Pentecost.  It’s designated as a full and complete time.  We can handle that.

But we’ve been away from church gatherings for 77 days already and we are  not prepared for this long of a waiting period.  We’re getting anxious and antsy.  Some are losing trust in authority and want to be free to make decisions for themselves about what to do and when to do it.  Some in authority seem unable to be clear or consistent about the best path forward and sow discord, confusion and consternation by making proclamations that are untrue, misguided or flat out wrong.

My Facebook feed is full of comments, responses, and official letters from clergy in response to the recent directive from the President to open the doors to all church goers this weekend.  There are many fine reminders that the church is not the building and that we continue to be the Beloved Community of Jesus whether or not we assemble together for worship.  There are lots of clever sayings that affirm the church has always been essential and especially so, through these difficult times.  I even changed our big front sign this weekend to read.  The Church Abides.  The Big Dude Still Rules.  Join us Live on Facebook, Sundays at 10AM.

But the fact remains that we probably won’t be returning to normal worship for weeks, months or even longer.  As long as there is a virus with no treatment and no universal vaccine, people will still be vulnerable, particularly when they gather inside in crowds where singing and speaking disperse droplets and people are unable to maintain a safe distance.  The graduated phases won’t allow us to welcome everyone back into the building, especially those who face health challenges, until it is completely safe.  Our gathered community will never be complete and whole and healthy until it can include everyone.   It seems likely that we will be practicing virtual worship and Zoom coffee hours and meetings for some time to come.

We will do so, not because it is mandated, but because we love one another and we don’t want anyone to suffer and die needlessly because of our carelessness.  We may choose to give up our rights on behalf of others, to live with the unfairness of foregoing what is meaningful to us, knowing that the system has never been fair for people of color, poor people and those on the margins.  As followers of the one who abandoned his own rights and privileges on our behalf, we will not insist on our own way when it only benefits us and may put others at risk.

So how, in God’s name, will we have the patience and fortitude to endure this present, painful reality?  For the past few weeks, we have heard from the letter attributed to Peter, although certainly not written by the hand of the Apostle since it addresses situations faced by the church a couple of decades after the death of the earliest followers of Jesus.  This letter speaks to a small, beleaguered group of Christians who are a tiny and intensely disliked minority.  They’re suffering for their faithfulness.  They are being reviled by the public and misunderstood.  They’re anxious and afraid.  And they’re under attack, not just from those who oppose their faith, but from the Devil, the force of evil and despair that attacks from within with lies, discord and hopelessness.

It would be easy for them to lose heart.  It would be easy to begin turning against one another, blaming their leaders and one another and acting, every one in their own best interests.  They could withdraw and abandon community, blend in with the rest of society, abandon the difficult call of Jesus.  Peter reminds them of Jesus’s words in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.  He tells them that they will be blessed when they are reviled and hated.  He repeats the promise that the humble will be exalted.  He points to other sisters and brothers in Christ who suffer as much if not even more than they do and yet endure.

These words from our ancestors in the faith encourage us to remember the promises of God and to be faithful in prayer during our own Great and Holy Pause.  In the scope of eternity, this period will only be a little while.  “The God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself, restore, strengthen, and establish you.”

The promise of God is sure and certain.  God sends the Spirit and God’s people are renewed and empowered to answer God’s call and to live out Christ’s commission in the world.  It is true the church has never closed.  The church abides.  The church is you and me, gathered in prayer and worship, in our homes, online, in essential workplaces, or wherever we may be.  The church is still feeding the hungry even if it’s in a parking lot with chairs spaced 6 feet apart.  The Spirit can never be contained in a building or a worship service but instead blows through all of creation with power, creativity and inspiration.

Be patient my friends.  Remember the promises of God.  Keep praying.  Once this Great Pause is over, the Spirit may explode in our lives, propelling us to be witnesses to the love and grace of God even to the ends of the earth!  Amen.  Alleluia

May 17, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I’ve been preaching for some 30 years now. In my files I have 6 sermons on these particular readings for the sixth Sunday of the season of Easter. Over the years, my husband Bryon and I have purchased a number of sets of commentaries for the 3-year cycle of readings we preach on. These impressive, thick, very expensive volumes take up a lot of space on our bookshelves and after a while their insights are no longer fresh and we invest in a new set. And yes we do know that you can find some of this online but we’re old fashioned!

But this week, nothing from these experts and nothing I’ve ever preached before quite gets to our current experience. These biblical scholars have never lived through a pandemic. We’ve never lived through a pandemic. I’ve never lived through a pandemic. I’m tired by the words uncharted and unprecedented but that’s what we mean when we say them. We’ve never been here before and we don’t know what to do.

Another thing. I’ve been a Christian for quite a few years but I’ve never experienced the level of anger, hatred and persecution leveled at a church for the simple reason that we’re feeding hungry and desperate people. The fact that the opposition has increased exponentially during a global pandemic when the situation for the poor and homeless has gotten worse is something I would never have expected.

And then there’s the question of what will the future be like? I’m certain that not all our individual churches will survive this upheaval. Although there seemed to be some uptick in virtual attendance when it was the new thing, now that we’re figuring out the metrics it’s clear that our mostly secular society is not tuning into an online church experience to make sense of this situation or listening to Christian preachers for direction or pursuing a deeper spiritual life.

You probably have your own set of “I never thought this would happen” issues. Everything from wearing masks and gloves and wearing out your hands with washing and sanitizer to home schooling trapped children while trying to work online. Then there’s the loneliness of not being with other people, anxiety about the economy and personal finances and the uncertainty about the future. Who can we turn to for leadership? Where is the wisdom we need to face this crisis? Who’s in control?

It turns out that we might not have experienced this before, but those who have gone before us have. The Apostle Paul encountered an educated, philosophical and curious audience in the Greek city of Athens when he was a traveling preacher. Although they professed lots of interest in various spiritual practices and traditions, they were essentially secular and agnostic, unwilling to place their faith and trust in God or to worship and follow any one God.

Paul preached a God who is particular and specific, not God in the abstract. A God who can be known, worshipped and followed. He used every rhetorical tool and phrase he had to let them know that this God was present in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. They didn’t have to keep searching and trying out new religious and spiritual fads. They didn’t have to beg God to be revealed by leaving offerings and making shrines. The God who was in Jesus is present, through the Spirit in each one, for “in God we live and move and have our being.”

It’s such a great speech, such a wonderful and life-giving message. We don’t have to create God. We don’t have to find the correct mantra, pursue self-enlightenment, take courses on religion, or read through the Bible, Koran and Book of Mormon, although all these things have value. None of this is necessary to experience the life-giving presence of the Spirit of the living God. In fact, God may surprise you when you least expect it, showing up when you weren’t looking for God.

Paul didn’t even share with them how the Spirit of God stopped him in his tracks, when he least expected it with a blinding light and the voice of the resurrected Jesus. I guess he knew another “born again” story wouldn’t impress these cynical listeners. Maybe he should have tried anyway. His excellent preaching didn’t produce much response. He gave a great sermon and most simply turned away to the next speaker, the fresh Ted talk, the new podcast. We 21st Century preachers can relate!

There’s also a lot of precedent for opposition to Christians who are trying to do good. As Peter tries to encourage a small, beleaguered group of Christians, he reminds them that doing good can lead to suffering. Followers of a suffering, maligned Jesus shouldn’t be too surprised when we are abused for doing what he commanded, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned. It’s really encouraging to read Peter’s advice as we continue to operate a meals ministry called the Edible Hope Kitchen. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Although it’s easy to become discouraged and to respond with anger to opposition, we have models of Christian love, courage and forbearance in the saints who have gone before us. We have reason to hope. We have a source of strength to face the fear, anxiety and hatred that is projected onto us and those we care for. We are not without comfort and assistance.

And that goes for this pandemic and all the challenges it brings as well. We are not alone or abandoned. God has sent the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate. There are so many things we can be sure of, beginning with the love of God, poured out into the world. There is so much we can be grateful for, even as we experience suffering, loss and ultimately death. God has not ceased to be as near to us as our very breath. God is revealed every day if we pay attention.
Many of us are appreciating the small things we barely took notice of before, birdsong, spring growth, the changing sky, small acts of kindness like wearing a mask and providing distance or greeting a neighbor we’ve never spoken to. We choose in this time to follow God. To be true to love, neighborliness, generosity, kindness and gratitude. To turn away from anger, condemnation, bitterness and hopelessness and to act with courage, patience and a powerful and sacrificial love.

We may not have been here before but our sisters and brothers have and so has Jesus. He took time before the crucifixion to prepare us for times like these, times of suffering, opposition and rejection. He reminds us of God’s love for us as the basis for our continued faithfulness and obedience. He lets us know that we won’t be understood or received warmly when we are true to the radical nature of the gospel. We are to love anyway. To practice belief in the resurrection anyway. To trust the Spirit anyway.

I don’t know who is out there listening to this sermon, participating in worship and joining in prayer. In fact I may be surprised by who is tuning in. Some are friends from afar. Some have discovered this Beloved Community for the first time. I do know that many of you who show up every week are faithful. You aren’t able to do the things you used to do, to be with the people you used to be with, but you’re part of this community. You’re not alone. The Spirit of God is present for you and with you. The love of these sisters and brothers is for ALL because it originates in God’s all-encompassing love.

When I was first a Christian in my early 20’s and letter writing was still a thing, I started signing them “with faith, hope and love, Britt.” I do that still. Much changes. For instance I almost never send hand written letters anymore, but I still use that signature. Faith, hope and love remain. The faith that has grabbed us in the person of Jesus and his timeless message and example. The hope we have that no one is ever lost, that doing what is right even when it is difficult and dangerous is worth it. The love that is poured out for us in Christ and that unites us with God and one another.

So much has changed and will be changing. Faith, hope and love remain. Amen.

May 10, 2020 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

Last week, Sara told about being bullied online for the church’s ministry of feeding the unhoused.  The hope of the bullies, she said, was that all the homeless people would go away, all the drugs and alcohol would disappear, and housed residents would be able to enjoy the park, the library and the neighborhood without being troubled.  The only thing we would have to do in order to get to this utopia would be to dispose of the people who do not conform to the complainers’ ideas about who should be allowed to be here.  This notion depends on two things: first, that people should be able to get their way through threats and intimidation; and second, that there is a class of people we could categorize as disposable, or as discards.  (As you may have read, the park here was swept recently and the tents removed, but some of the people are still here.)

It is undeniably true that in many times and places the Church itself, or portions of the Church, have agreed that there are disposable people, people whom God views as discards.  One of the verses that gets used as a proof text for that opinion is one we just read:  Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  I would add that when Jesus uses the term “Father” he is talking, not about the gender of God, but about the role of the father in his society, which was to nurture and guard the inheritance for the sake of the children.

This Scripture means, we are told by some Bible interpreters, that we have to make a decision to turn to Jesus.  In order to be saved from damnation we have to acknowledge our sinful natures, accept Jesus Christ as Lord, and thereby receive God’s salvation.  Many of those who believe in that route to salvation have put a lot of more progressive Christians to the test by spending time in the gutters and the alleys with the poor, the addicted and the outcasts.  I’m not going to speak of that group.  The ones I am concerned about are those who think of those on the outside as rejects, disposable, discards, along with all of us who don’t accept their theological position.  They think that God doesn’t have anything for us; God doesn’t want to do anything for us.  Those who don’t claim salvation by this formula are never heard by God, never acknowledged by God, never have prayers answered by God.

For Christians who don’t like that interpretation, this passage from John becomes a Scripture we might want to avoid, because that is what it seems to say.  If you want to proof-text the notion that God only saves people who go through this kind of conversion experience, only cares about people who do, this is one of the places you go.  If you don’t want to accept that sectarian approach to Christianity, this scripture can make you squirm, because to you that viewpoint of God’s activity is too exclusivist and limiting.  It seems to propose high walls, behind which are God’s elect and outside of which are the damned, and only those who follow the proper formula end up on the inside.  Those who get to go where Christ went are the only ones God works with and cares about.  So what do you do with a scripture like that if you don’t like that point of view?  It seems to present that thinking pretty clearly, doesn’t it?

But there is a question we need to ask of this scripture rather than simply dodging around it if we don’t like that conclusion.  And don’t get me wrong, please:  I am absolutely in favor of acknowledging our sinfulness and asking Christ to rule in our hearts.  I recommend it.  It was what God moved me to do when I first met Jesus Christ as a real, living person who is the revelation of God in the flesh, as he tells his disciples in this passage of Scripture, and it is what started me on my adult religious and spiritual pathway.

But, back to the question I want to pose.  Does this salvation experience, this way and truth and life that leads us to the Father, come from something Jesus does or something we do?  Or is it some combination of those two things?  With that in mind, what about this scary phrase, “No one comes to the Father except through me”?  Does that mean heaven is closed to us, salvation is closed to us, the pathway to God is closed to us, unless we respond according to some formula?  Or does it simply mean, as I would hold, that Jesus has acted, Jesus has opened the way to the Father?  That is, this passage refers more to something Jesus does, not something we do.

If we are going to use this verse to close the Kingdom of Heaven to those who don’t follow the formula, we have to ask ourselves what example Jesus set.  Who was he with?  To whom did he preach mercy and forgiveness?  For whom was he trying to open the kingdom of heaven?  Wasn’t it primarily the people who had been battered by life, who had been possessed by evil and didn’t know how to escape, the ones whose consciences were heavy, who lived with guilt and regret, the ones who had been disregarded, rejected and discarded by the people in power?

And who did he warn that they were in danger of losing the Kingdom of Heaven?  Wasn’t it those who ignored the poor at their feet, who used their freedom to deny freedom to others, who exploited the poor and the lower classes, who scorned those who were not like them, who denied that they had anything that needed to be cleared up with God?

Where do these questions take you?  They take me back to the people who are served by Edible Hope Kitchen and the people who serve them there.  I ask myself, if Jesus were in Ballard would he be found eating with the poor, the addicted, the hungry, those whose lives have gotten beyond their ability to control?  Yes, of course.  I say that while acknowledging that Jesus also spent time with those who didn’t accept his viewpoint about the value of people who weren’t doing well.  He longed for the rich and powerful, too, to be among those who had places prepared for them, and he tried to tell them about the value of the poor, those whose lives were no longer in control, those who were unable to understand how to make their lives work right.

We read of the martyrdom of St. Stephen from the Book of Acts this morning.  Stephen, the first martyr of the church, was also one of the first Deacons.  The charge to Deacons was to bring food to widows and orphans, but they soon began adding preaching the Gospel to their job descriptions.  The two were connected, as they understood the Christian faith in terms of what they had seen Jesus do.  The Gospel, to them, meant good news to the poor, both in proclaiming and in serving.

Another Deacon is one of my favorite saints, Lawrence.  Lawrence had been given control of money and valuables of the church in the days that Rome was persecuting Christians.  Lawrence used those valuables to help the poor.  The Romans arrested him and, knowing that he had been given those treasures, demanded that he turn them over in order to save his own life.  They told him a day and time he had to appear with the treasures of the church.  On that day, he showed up along with some of the poor people he had helped, and pointing to them, he told the Roman official, “Here are the treasures of the church.”  He tried to educate the Romans in the ways of God, but unfortunately they did not appreciate his lesson and made a martyr of him.

We are members of a church that understands St. Lawrence’s point of view even though we don’t always follow it.  We are members of a church that gives to the poor and at the same time asks God’s blessings on all.

When we are asked to choose between those whom society describes as acceptable, and those who are rejected and set aside, we have to respond that we do not choose.  Jesus opened the way to the Father for all of us.  Yes, he did provide us with a choice, to accept his example, his divinity, and his values or not.  He was a revolutionary not in the sense of wanting to overthrow or destroy those in power, but because he wanted to turn the whole value system on its head.

In Jesus’ universe the value system of the world is turned upside down.  Jesus did not turn to society’s elite to make up his core followers:  he chose from the poor, the working class and the sinners; the outcasts.  The poor and the sinful, as they were termed, those who are discriminated against, he taught, go into heaven before the rulers, the teachers and the leaders.  He came, he said, to seek out the lost, the sick, the injured, those in prison, the children, the poor, the sinners.  He did not come to make us recite a formula by which we would become the elite or the inner circle.  He came to show us the Father, and having shown us the Father, demonstrated what the Father wants to do and wants us to do by what he himself did.  He came to make us the family of God, heirs of the Kingdom, disregarding all the artificial values that society placed on people’s worth.

The movement called Liberation Theology, which you may remember, talked about a “preferential option for the poor.”  That didn’t mean God liked poor people better than rich people.  It meant that the poor need more help in life than the rich do, and asks us to live and work accordingly.

Jesus told his disciples that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father.  If we have seen the Father in him, we have seen what the Father wants to do, and wants us to do.  He has shown us that the Father values us all beyond price, and if we are to follow the Father we, too, have to value each one beyond price.

I read a story one time – unfortunately I forget who told it – about a Benedictine Monk who was taught, as all Benedictines are, that all visitors are to be received as if he were receiving Christ.  He said that he had occasions when he was worn out, ready to quit for the day, only to see someone coming to the monastery, and in his weariness would say to himself, “Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?”

Yes, the world God has set us into can be wearying and discouraging.  But yes, it is Jesus Christ who we meet again, in the person of these travelers through life, whom we are asked to bless, to comfort, to feed, to teach, to set free.  Jesus has shown us the Father and told us that he, himself, is the way to the Father, and the truth about the Father, and the source of life from the Father to us.  This is Jesus’ action much more than ours.  We are asked to love even when love is wearying and difficult, as well as when it is liberating and joyous.

Jesus said that if we ask anything in his name, he will do it.  This doesn’t mean I can say “God give me a Rolls Royce, in Jesus Name.”  If you have tried that, you know how it goes.  To ask something in Jesus name, by the tradition he is speaking from, means to ask something according to his will and authority.  We ask for the lives and the freedom of those whom God has put at our doors.

 

April 26, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Now that we are in the second month of social isolation and the third month of this pandemic, the implications are becoming clearer.  This isn’t going away anytime soon and no one can claim any certainty about the trajectory of infections, sickness and death.  We’re learning that anyone might be vulnerable and that the finest scientific and medical minds don’t know how best to treat the ill.  We’ve experienced the chaos of our unpreparedness and of a confused governmental response to this threat. 

At the same time the weather is improving.  It’s often beautiful outside.  Most of us are healthy and we’re anxious to be freed from lockdown, to return to jobs and activities, to visit with friends and family in person. 

The U.S. Army developed an acronym for this type of situation in the 1990s in response to the collapse of the USSR.  VUCA world, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  It certainly applies now.

One of the suggestions I’ve read about how to cope with this new reality is by keeping a journal.  Some have referred to the Diary of Anne Frank and others who wrote down the experiences of ordinary people during extraordinary times.  The thinking is not just that it might be therapeutic to pour out one’s own thoughts and feelings in written form, but that the record of these might be helpful to generations of people who come after and have to face their own world-shattering experiences.

In order to cope, to make meaning, to gain strength, we turn to stories.  We make connections through shared experiences.  

Today we listened to a story of ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary.  This account has been passed down through the centuries and is both familiar and fresh.  It’s one of my most favorite passages from Scripture and the one my husband has requested to be read at his funeral, hopefully many years in the future.  

Two companions, Cleopas and another who may be his wife, have just departed Jerusalem after the death and burial of Jesus.  As his disciples, it was no longer safe for them in the city.  It was a volatile time politically and any religious or political threat had to be suppressed, violently if necessary.  The future was uncertain for the movement that had gathered around the Rabbi from Galilee.  All their hopes were dashed when he was brutally crucified.  Their leadership was in disarray and their hopes had been crushed.  

On top of everything else, some of the women who followed Jesus and went to the tomb to attend his body reported that they encountered angels and a risen Jesus.  Was he dead?  Was he alive?  Had he really died?  Their situation was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous so they beat feet out of town.

On the way they pick up a stranger, one who at first seems clueless about the crazy, dangerous state of things.  But this stranger does know their stories.  He reminds them of all they heard over the years from the holy writings, all the promises of God and the ways that God interacts with humanity.  In a time of uncertainty they can draw on what they have already learned and know.  That God creates what is good.  That God does not abandon the people.  That God will deliver them and keep the promise, a promise for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.

How comforting it must have been to hear again the stories that formed and shaped them.  They didn’t want to part company so they invited him to a meal.  At the time of the traditional Jewish prayer over the meal, this stranger takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and in that moment, their confusion becomes clarity.  The strange tales of the women are affirmed as real.  The paradoxical possibility that Jesus might both have died and now be alive and present is suddenly revealed.  

This story is one that has nurtured Christian faith and practice from the beginning.  Breaking bread together has been the Church’s chief act of worship and remembrance.  The risen Christ is made known both in Scripture and in the meal, the ritual of the Eucharist.  This meal has been depicted at the heart of the life of the Church for centuries.

And now, many of us are not able to share in this meal or to share any meal except with those we are with in isolation.  Are you getting hungry for the sacrament?  Are you missing gathering with others?  The food available to-go may be good and nourishing, but most of the pleasure of eating with others, even the companionship of strangers, is missing.  One does not live by bread alone.  

This favorite story, about the centrality of the Eucharist, could leave us feeling sad and cut-off if that were all it was about, but our current situation opens up new insight and encouragement.  For instance, did you notice that the minute they recognize the stranger as their beloved Jesus, alive and well, he disappears?  

Like Mary at the tomb, they probably wanted to hold onto him, to prolong the contact and spiritual high.  In fact one of them could have kept him occupied while the other went out to send messages to other disciples to invite them to come to the place where the meal was held.  Maybe they could expand the building, set up an altar, keep Jesus there inside that room for anyone who might be willing to come as a newcomer or visitor.  

Instead he is off, going on ahead of them, leading the way from fear to faith, from death into life.   He cannot be contained and they are being called to follow where he leads.  I love that they get up after having walked 7 miles from Jerusalem and immediately turn around to walk back.  They can’t wait to get together with the disciples to share the good news.  They are willing to risk questioning and persecution in order to celebrate the presence of the risen one.  They want to share their story and hear if anyone else has had similar experiences.  They will be formed as community as they gather around Scripture and the meal.  They will be strengthened to love God and their neighbor as they share their Jesus stories.

We are living in a VUCA world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  In the middle of all of this there are stories of faith, courage, love and sacrifice.  Stories that will form and sustain us for the future and hold us together in the present.  Sometimes they will be stories of the frankly heroic, the medical staff who return daily to a chaotic hospital to care for the desperately ill.  The captains, whistleblowers and leaders who tell the truth and stand up for what is right despite the risk to their careers.  The minimum wage workers who clean, serve and care for others in spite of the difficulties they are facing.

Most of these will be stories of ordinary people in extraordinary times.  They will be found in journals and accounts as people treat one another with patience and kindness even when under duress.  They will be about those who keep putting one foot in front of the other even though they are exhausted and depressed.  There will be those who made masks, delivered meals, picked up groceries, checked up on an elderly neighbor or simply stayed 6 feet apart and wore a mask.  

A few nights ago, I turned once again to one of my most favoritist stories, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein.  Since I can’t concentrate enough to read an entire book, I watched one of the films.  The second one is called the Two Towers and it’s never been my favorite.  It’s dark and grim and it ends ominously without a conclusion and with very little hope.  Everything is hanging by a thread.  

The hero of the trilogy is not the Lord of the Rings.  Instead it is two lowly and unknown hobbits, Frodo and his companion and gardener Sam.  In the end it will come down to these unlikely characters to act faithfully, true to all they know is right and lovely and good.  Just before setting out on their final journey through the land of the enemy, Sam has a moment to reflect and wonder how it will all end.  In his short, humble speech the author voices his own reason for hope and endurance.  Here’s Sam:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

These are the stories we will be called to tell when this is over.  Keep listening for stories of promise and deliverance.  Keep your eyes open for the revelation of the risen one in your midst.  Keep holding onto what is true.  And be ready to share your stories with others when we once again gather around the table.

April 12, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

This has to be the most challenging Easter sermon most clergy will ever preach.  How can we proclaim resurrection, joy and hope in the time of pandemic when we are in lockdown–confused, anxious, despondent, dying?  It seems more appropriate to stay in Holy Saturday, that grey, in-between time when the disciples were exhausted by grief and paralyzed with fear.  Right now we think we have experienced the worst, but we can’t be sure what comes next.  It’s far too risky to proclaim that danger is passed and we can all come out of hiding to sing our Alleluia’s and declare the victory of life over death.

It’s made more difficult by the fact that I cannot see your faces.  I don’t know who is out there on the other side of this camera.  We don’t get to greet one another with the traditional Easter greeting, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”  There will be no passing of the peace “with a handshake or even a hug.”  We will not celebrate the Eucharist as we fast from this sacrament until we can be together as “One body in Christ.”  There will be no baptisms.  All of this fills me with grief and dis-ease.  It seems more appropriate to remain in Holy Saturday, that time of limbo, that day when his body was in the tomb and there was darkness over the face of the earth.

For the first time ever this year, I left out the reading from the Acts of the Apostles and instead included the one from Jeremiah.  That was hard to do.  The reading from Acts 10 is a standard bearer for many people of faith, particularly in the African American church.  I can always hear the thunderous voice of those who proclaim in the midst of racism and hatred, “God is no respecter of persons!”  In other words God shows no partiality.  In Christ all are one, all are included, all are beloved.  That has preached and will preach, but this year there is a different word for God’s people.

Jeremiah, that bitter, weeping, beleaguered prophet speaks hope and promise into this present darkness.  After 30 chapters of woes and warnings to a broken people, he proclaims “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.  God proclaims, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.  I will build you and you shall be built.  The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”

Grace in the wilderness.  Planters planting.  I’ve been thinking about this for the past few weeks.  The last thing I did before the governor’s shelter in place order went into effect was to get myself to the nursery.  I purchased that expensive dogwood tree I had been thinking about for over a year.  When I planted it a few days later, my Lutheran husband reminded me of Martin Luther’s saying,

“If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  Luther lived through the plague.  He found ways to minister to his people and the neediest during a time of death and despair.  He knew a thing or two about grace in the wilderness.

The other items I purchased at the nursery were seeds and compost.  The compost is actually more like manure, at least it smells an awful lot like it.  You may have another word for it.  The compost was needed because the project I had in mind was to dig up a portion of our backyard that was partially covered by grass and partially covered by fill.  The fill included 37 buried bricks from a demolished fireplace, rocks that had been dumped on the site and the natural rock and sand that our yard is composed of, the remains of a former riverbed.  This may not be the most gracious place to plant but it does have the best sunlight.

During the weeks of our confinement I have been chipping away at that plot, removing as many of the stones as possible, digging up and cleaning off the bricks for a future patio project, pulling up the sod and pulling out the weeds and roots.  It has been Lenten work.  I’ve been angry and frustrated at how difficult it all is.  The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve thought about my own rocky, imperfect soil and the work it takes to examine and amend it.  It’s been a discipline.  It’s been lonely.  It’s been hard.

During Holy Week I broke out the compost.  It was pretty pungent after a few weeks in the bag.  I spread it all around and then began the arduous task of double digging, the process of bringing up the soil from the bottom and mixing in the rich, life-giving manure that enables life and growth.  By now the weather had warmed and I was really sweating, getting down on my knees and churning the soil with my hands.  It was like digging a grave, piling up the mounds of dirt, going deep.  It was grief work, tangible mourning amidst the stink of sweat and compost.

At last the bed was ready for planting and the weather favorable.  On Good Friday after the service of the passion of the Christ, the solemn collects and the adoration of the cross, I came home, through off my clericals and put on my muddy clothes for the final act.  I mounded up the soil in rows and hills, opened the seed packets and carefully placed them at the correct depth and patted them safely in.  I finished just as the sun was going down.  In front of me was a bare, brown patch of ground, seemingly lifeless, fragile, easily disturbed by squirrels, crows and the big black lab that lives with us.

The seed had entered its own Holy Saturday, in darkness, longing for light, striving for new life out of death.

I had no idea that there is a long tradition of country people, particularly from the South, planting their seed on Good Friday.  As I learned from the Rev. Dr. Stacy Smith:

“This tradition is a way of demonstrating that in the midst of death—even death on a cross—we continue to have hope.  On a day of darkness and death, we testify that the hope we have in Christ is one that will bear fruit—and vegetables.  And even if those seeds of hope are buried deep in the earth, in the darkness of the soil when a hard frost can still threaten the crop, the good earth of Good Friday reminds us that death does not have the final word.  Planting a garden on this day means that we trust that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, and that the spring is stronger than the winter we are leaving behind.”

Today we proclaim the hope and promise of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  We are and have always been an Easter people, no matter the circumstances.  Like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the empty tomb, we are those who hear and see with both fear and great joy the resurrected Jesus.   We respond first with worship and disbelief and then with action as we go ahead to proclaim the good news to a grieving and despairing people.

Following the sermon, we will renew our promises to live as those baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We will have the opportunity to sprinkle ourselves and one another with water.  These are the waters of life that nourish and bring the seeds of faith to life.  These are the vows that enable us to “walk wet” in the world, living out our Christian commitments in every circumstance, no matter the difficulty or risk.

It may feel like Holy Saturday but Easter is already present, the seed of God’s love that lives inside each of us and is brought to life by the presence of Jesus, watered by the life of faith.  Ivar sang his favorite Easter hymn today.  Here is the final verse:

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,

Thy touch can call us back to life again.

Fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been.

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

April 5, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the word “unprecedented.”  Its literal meaning is “never before known or experienced.”  And it describes what we are going through.  We’ve never known a time quite like this.  We’ve never experienced such widespread fear and suffering.  Global travel has spread this virus further and more quickly than any others that have come before.  Technology has made us aware more of what is happening all over the world and what might be next for our nation, state and community.  It’s all so new and fast that we’ve run out of ways to describe what’s happening.

And yet.  Our world has suffered cataclysm after cataclysm.  Before the time of humans, wild swings in temperature and climate resulted in the death and extinction of multitudes of species.  Humans have endured plagues and outbreaks through the centuries, including in recent memory smallpox, polio and the COVID related epidemics of SARS and MERS.  Even now people around the globe suffer death from starvation, conflict, malaria and a host of diseases that debilitate and destroy.

But this touches us all.  No one is immune.  The virus knows no boundaries of nation, class, economics or race.  My clergy friends in South Sudan have taken up their loudspeakers and are traveling through the jungle and small villages in their dioceses to broadcast information about the virus to people who have no access to TV or radio and don’t know what might be invisibly threatening them.  Bodies are piling up in Europe next to famous landmarks and even in ice rinks.  Health care workers everywhere are tired, scared and overwhelmed.  And right now, outside the doors of St. Luke’s in the Ballard Commons Park and next to the library, 30-45 people are sleeping under tents and tarps on the concrete with inadequate shelter, running water, garbage pick-up, food and medical care.  It’s shocking.  It’s terrifying.  It’s unprecedented.

We enter Holy Week as Church in unprecedented times. We can only gather virtually, unable to share rituals of palms, water, wine and bread in person.  Kept apart physically from nearly everyone except those in our same household and solitary if we live alone.

Today we begin the oft-repeated journey of Holy Week, walking the way of Jesus’s last days from triumph and acclaim to suffering and death.  Most of us have been here before.  It is, precedented, although that’s not a word found in the dictionary.  Over centuries the people of God have located their own sorrow and pain along with the world’s tragedies in the Passion of Christ.  We recognize our own fickleness in the behavior of the crowd who move so quickly, in just a matter of days from chants of “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him!”  We are reminded of our own weakness in the failure of disciples who cannot stay awake to watch with Jesus in his darkest hours.  We cringe at Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial and know we might have done the same.  We mourn in anguish with Mary and the women who watch helplessly from the foot of the cross.

And as we look upon the crucified one, we find our own pain and sorrow mirrored and magnified.  We encounter the one who identifies in every way with our human limitations and difficulties.

Are you feeling afraid and anxious?  Jesus entered Jerusalem aware that it would probably lead to his death.  He wrestled in the garden with his desire to avoid the cup of sorrow that lay ahead.  He was filled with foreboding.

Are you feeling powerless and out of control?  Jesus encountered systems of organized power and authority that were confused, at odds with one another, self-serving, self-protective and ultimately death-dealing in their bureaucratic response to a perceived threat.

Are you in grief and disbelief at the suffering you see in the sick and dying, in the challenges faced by those on the front lines, in the shock of those, whose loved ones died so quickly and without anyone familiar by their side?  Jesus experienced unimaginable suffering, abandonment and rejection by nearly everyone.  He died alone, on a cross, with his hands nailed down and no one allowed to approach him or touch him in his final hours.

This Holy Week, we cry out with the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow.”  We will be walking the way of the cross this week and into a future that will be filled with more suffering, sorrow and dying.

This Passion Week we may be crying out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  How could our lives have been upended in such a short time?  How could our government be so unprepared?  How could our economy tank so quickly?  How could we lose so many freedoms and privileges we took for granted just one short month ago?  Who will be our savior?  Who will rescue us?  Where is God?

Scripture points us to hope in some unexpected ways during Holy Week.  The long tradition of God’s way of working in the world is often surprising, unlooked for and contrary to what we might anticipate.  For instance, the Savior of the world enters the holy city of Jerusalem on a donkey, with simple palm fronds and poor people’s clothing as his red carpet.  Unlike military and political leaders who head up a parade on horses with weapons and soldiers, pomp and circumstance, Jesus demonstrates power and authority that is non-violent, humble, rooted in his character and identity, in his teaching and example and in his relationship with God.

We hear that example lauded in the hymn from Philippians.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Finally as his body hangs on the cross and he breathes his last, a Roman centurion, one of the guard appointed to insure his death was carried out properly, one who shared no common religious background with Jesus or his followers, looks upon his broken, wounded body and exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

For those who have eyes to see, God is present in the humble, the ones who serve others, the suffering and lowly.  God has determined to dwell with humanity through the most difficult and dangerous times.

These times may be unprecedented but Jesus has been with us through the very worst that the world can dish out time and time again.  Over the centuries we have turned to him in prayer in our darkest hours.  We have contemplated his suffering and death and found resonance in the suffering and death we experience.  What we are going through is not unprecedented to Jesus.  It is known to God.  It has been experienced by Jesus.

We certainly wish we were not here.  But God will give us strength and courage for the “living of these days.”  We are to have the mind of Christ and to follow the example of Jesus in the midst of this pandemic.  When he died, very few people would have guessed that his life, death and resurrection would bring faith, hope and love into the world in ways that had never before been experienced.  No one would have expected that his followers would offer themselves in love and service to the least, last and lost of every generation in every part of the globe.  No one could have foreseen the apostle, martyrs, saints, priests, prophets and millions of ordinary, humble individuals who would change the world because they followed the crucified one.

We, Church are called to stand firm in the trauma of the present.  We are to remember our call to love and service.  We are to be those who care for others, hold community together, speak out for the marginalized and stand up for those who are being persecuted like our Asian brothers and sisters who are being unfairly blamed for this outbreak.  Church, we are to come through to the other side of this apocalypse holding onto hope, faith and love, ready to rebuild relationships and community in a broken and distrustful society.  We are to lead by humble example, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  We are to be willing to pour out our resources on behalf of those who have very little.

God knows we won’t do this perfectly.  We are like those failed, flawed, feeble disciples who get afraid, try to escape reality, become self-protective and lose sight of Jesus.  We will not always have the mind of Christ because our own minds have been overtaken by fear, mind-numbing escapism and distrust.  But God’s Spirit will never leave us and will bring us back to Jesus and back to our best selves.  We will find ways to witness to the love of Jesus by word and example.  We will find ways to keep serving our neighbor as ourselves.  We will stand up for the respect and dignity of every human being.  We will pray for the sick and suffering.  We will comfort the grieving.

And, if it be our turn, we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but not alone, for the Christ of the cross will walk with us to the end, beyond this pandemic, through death into the new world and new life that God has promised.

If you have always been too busy to fully participate in Holy Week, the Triduum, the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, this may be your best chance.  From the comfort of your own home, you have the option to join others gathered around their tables for a Maundy Thursday lunch via Zoom. You can experience Good Friday and the adoration of the cross through our now regular Facebook live stream and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday evening via St. Mark’s Cathedral’s livestream.  In these services every human emotion and experience is encapsulated and held by God.  You will not be alone, but rather joined by others all over the globe who follow the crucified one in the hope of the resurrection to new life.

 

February 9, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Over thousands of years, the holy city of Jerusalem has endured cycles of destruction and rebuilding.  The protective city walls have been breached, buildings have been destroyed or abandoned as the populace was taken into captivity or fled for their lives.  Even now violence and destruction continue within her walls and in surrounding neighborhoods.

Isaiah writes to a dispirited people who can’t understand why God doesn’t end the destruction.  They fast and pray, they engage their religious traditions and still God doesn’t deliver them from their enemies.   What more can they do?

Well, Isaiah has a word for them, in fact a lot of words.  He makes it clear that no amount of religious observance, or even religious language, no dramatic fasting or display of religious fervor, dare I say not even a National Prayer Breakfast will make any difference unless their actions reflect the priorities of God.

“Loose the bands of injustice.  Undo the thongs of the yoke.  Let the oppressed go free.  Share bread with the hungry.  Bring the homeless poor inside.  Cover the naked.  Don’t ignore your own people.”

Only when the nation cares for its broken, neglected and ignored members will the light of hope be kindled.  Only when all of God’s people are treated with respect and dignity will the country be healed.  When those are the priorities, and only then, will the gardens flourish and ruins be restored.  Then they will call you the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Some of you know about the pilgrimage walk, the Camino de Santiago.  In English it is called the Way.  It’s the journey pilgrims have taken for hundreds of years to arrive at the cathedral of St. James (St. Iago).  By the 20th Century, the path had fallen into disuse.  Cities and their neighborhoods had built up over it.  Vegetation had obscured it.  The many hostels and small villages along its 500-mile route had closed up or been abandoned as the flow of pilgrims was reduced to a trickle.  The impulse to take on a 500 mile journey by foot in search of healing, forgiveness and renewal had become unpopular and unnecessary.

In 1984 a Spanish priest named Don Elias wanted to recover and revive the Camino.  He spent all his free time in his little grey Citroen covering the countryside of Northern Spain looking for the ancient route.  He got a deal on some bright yellow spray paint and he began to spray simple arrows or “flecha,” pointing the direction to Santiago.  He talked to people about this traditional French route and the purpose of pilgrimage.  By the time he died in 1989, he had rediscovered and marked the entire journey.  Still there were few who made the pilgrimage.

But the word began to spread.  Each year since, the number of pilgrims has increased until now there are over 250,000 annually who walk at least some portion of the pilgrimage.  All along the way the villages are coming back to life.  Small, remote, rural places are filled with laughter and conversation in every language.  New stone walls are built on top of old foundations.  The breaches are being repaired.  The streets are being restored.

And Pilgrims are rediscovering the holy practice of walking.  All of us who have made our Camino did so followed Don Elias’s arrows.  After just a few days, you are attuned to arrow spotting.  You can find them on the ground, on walls, signs and even trees.  In the midst of busy cities, pilgrims walk with their eyes peeled for arrows, tuning out the crowds and traffic. The flecha glow in the dark.  You don’t need a map or GPS or guide.  You simply follow the flecha.  They literally light up the path.

Jesus tells us that we who follow him are the light of the world.  I don’t know how many of us will have the impact that Don Elias had, but we are each beacons, arrows, pointing to the way, shining in dark and confusing times.  By us, some may find their way home, some may find healing and hope in God.

Jesus also tells us that those who follow him are the salt of the earth.  Salt is good both for preserving food and for enhancing its flavor.  Without salt life becomes tasteless and bland.  It may even begin to rot.

In our nation, some of the saltiest people in its history are those who have taken a stand for Civil Rights.  These are primarily people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ folk, people who have been oppressed and marginalized.  Their stories and voices have been silenced or hidden.  And yet these stories and contributions are an essential part of the whole.

And so we are recovering and lifting up Civil Rights history in the locations where its most important events took place.  In Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington DC.  In small rural towns where individuals were lynched and entire communities of African Americans destroyed.  This fall, as part of my sabbatical, I will be traveling to many of these locations to be salted; salted with the tears of years of oppression; salted with the courage of those who risked everything for freedom and dignity; salted with the wounds of systemic racism; salted with the flavor of those who are essential to our communal well-being and who have been, at best ignored, and at worst, systemically destroyed.

The Civil Rights movement is not just history.  It carries on to this day all over this nation.  You can hear and feel it in the Poor People’s Campaign, A Call for Moral Revival led by the Rev. William Barber.  God is still calling out to us to be salt and light in our day.  I love that the organization Barber founded is called “Repairers of the Breach.”  Here is a short description of their mission:

Repairers of the Breach seeks to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion, and property rights. Instead, we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. Our deepest moral traditions point to equal protection under the law, the desire for peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and the responsibility to care for our common home.

Amen and Amen.

Yesterday when our Property Stewardship Team met to determine the next steps for development at St. Luke’s, we studied and reflected on this passage from Isaiah. We are salt and light in this community.  We share our bread with the hungry in the Edible Hope Kitchen.  We partner with the Bridge Care Center to cover the naked.  We provide shelter space for those with no homes.  We are a watered garden called the SLUG.  And we work to see and be in relationship with all our neighbors, including those who are unsheltered and those who persecute us for our mission.  As our resident prophet reminded us yesterday, when it says we are not to hide from or ignore our own kin, that means our brothers and sisters on the street.  It even means those we consider our enemies or opponents.  It means loving our neighbor as ourselves, all our neighbors, even the ones who are so hard to love.

Here in this place we want to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in, a place where all God’s people flourish.  Together we are light shining in the darkness, arrows pointing out the way.  We are salt, preserving life, enhancing the rich diversity of the flavors of our community and even getting into the wounds caused by sin to bring awareness and attention to what needs healing and reconciliation.

When God’s people function as salt and light, then our prayers and fasting strengthen and prepare us for our mission.  Then our rituals and rites have meaning.  They give us courage to go forth from this place into a world desperately in need.  Amen.

Feb 2, 2020 – Kristen Daley Mosier

In this season after Epiphany, according to weekly lectionary readings, Jesus has grown up, been baptized, and begun his ministry. Yet, in today’s gospel reading, here we are, back at the Temple with Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. Not every year do we get to meet or reacquaint ourselves with Simeon and Anna, so this year is quite special in that regard. When I first read the texts for today, I knew immediately that we needed to hear from Simeon the faithful servant, and Anna, the prophet. And so, we join Simeon and Anna as they pull back the blanket, to gaze upon the face of Jesus—what better image to hold during this time before Lent. As Blaine reminded us a couple Sundays ago, it is in this time of winter rain and darkness that God’s light continues to emerge; the Messiah is revealed.

Luke’s gospel describes Simeon as one upon whom the Holy Spirit rested. He was guided by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple on the day that Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus. Upon seeing the family, he knew that God had fulfilled the promise given, and says “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon’s refrain is the third song of praise in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The third Sunday of Advent we listened to Mary rejoicing in God’s work, her magnificat closing with, “[God] has helped his servant Israel…according to the promise he made to our ancestors..” Later, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, proclaims “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us…” Where the first two come from the parents of Jesus and John, and focus on God’s redeeming work for Israel, Simeon’s prose acts as a kind of capstone after the boys are born, going further to extend God’s grace to include all others outside the Jewish faith: “my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon embodies anticipation—faith-filled watching and waiting to see a promise come to complete fulfillment.

Luke then goes on to include the story of Anna, a widow, and a prophet. Unlike Simeon, we learn her family name and lineage, and that she resided at the temple. She is like the sparrow and the swallow from our psalm today, who make their nest beside the altar of God. I suspect that it is due to time spent at the Temple that she is able to recognize God’s salvation in the form of the infant Jesus. And so, upon meeting the family (and Simeon) she begins to praise God and “speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna offers to us an image of abiding patience, what’s also known in older language as ‘tarrying.’

What I love about the stories of Simeon and Anna, is how they introduce readers to (what I like to call) Luke’s Order of Perfectly Ordinary people, who have an extraordinary encounter with God in Christ. Characters like them are mirrored in the book of Acts (which is the companion volume) by disciples and Gentiles who respond to the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, and who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Simeon and Anna offer illustrations of living a worship-filled life, as ordinary people—they are not priests or official temple servants. Yet, they demonstrate such familiar intimacy with the divine simply by their presence, as they recognize God (incarnate) in the flesh of a vulnerable infant, carried and cared for by a poor, young couple.

In Jesus’ time, worship happened exclusively at the temple. However, within a decade or so of the gospels composition, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Roman army. The oppression of the Jewish community, combined with the quick adoption of Jesus’ message among Gentiles, in addition to the content of this new way of faith, converged in such a way that the very nature of worship was transformed. When God’s dwelling place—the temple—no longer exists, where does one go? At the same time, a new gospel emerged saying God became human to dwell on the earth. The question shifts from where does one go, to whom does one worship? The who of worship becomes God in Christ, and the where begins in the breaking of bread, in community. Yet, there remains a tension between the who and the where, particularly when it comes to how we are to understand creation, the world around us.

As today’s psalm and the opening hymn suggest, there is yet another way to encounter God, to be immersed in worship.

1 Creating God, your fingers trace, the bold designs of farthest space;

let sun and moon and stars and light, and what lies hidden praise your might.

2 Sustaining God, your hands uphold, earth’s mysteries known or yet untold;

let water’s fragile blend with air, enabling life, proclaim your care.

If we take seriously the incarnation, that God is Creator abiding in, with, and under all of creation, then all ground is holy ground, all waters are sanctified. Here in the PNW, we are blessed beyond belief with evergreen forests, clear running rivers, sea teeming with life and mountains that might as well be gateways to the heavens. With this absurdity of riches, there are many who seek the canopy of trees and stars as their temple for worship (the inverse of a desert experience, you could say). There are times when it seems as though we can only experience the divine when we retreat entirely from the noise of urban life. (This is not that sermon.)

The greatest challenge, when it comes to worship, is maintaining a dynamic tension between who (the Triune God of all creation) and where (in communion with one another, in communion with the rest of creation). The ground outside where trash sometimes collects may not seem holy, but it is. The back stairwell to the undercroft is far from pristine, but God dwells here, in this place, because people gather in the name of Jesus, to worship, to care for one another, to feed, nourish, and bring healing by the power of the Spirit. (Sometimes we do need to retreat, but not because God has drifted away.)

Worship is one of those terms that we think we know what it means, but defining it can be rather difficult. We come together to worship each week, meaning it is this time-space of (now) when we sing, pray, pass the peace, and take in Jesus himself in the bread and the wine. So, worship is what we ourselves ‘do.’ At the same time, worship is an an encounter with the (w)holy Other; it is something we enter into, like walking into someone else’s banquet. As both activity and encounter, it is our primary theology—meaning that we are no longer simply talking about God, but rather are communicating (with) Godself through song, prayer, gesture. Worship is our participation in the life of Godself, together and individually. And it doesn’t end when service ends. We are sent out in anticipation, waiting to encounter God in the world around us.

Christian tradition holds a tension of distance and intimacy—transcendence and immanence. That tension extends through worship. Prayers to a seemingly distant God culminate in consuming Jesus in bread and wine. In the various Eucharistic prayers (Greek for thanksgiving) that Canon Britt uses from season to season, week to week, we can hear how the language navigates that dynamic tension of God near and far.

In Simeon and Anna we see a foreshadowing of radical nearness (a new way of God communicating Godself). The Holy Spirit rests on Simeon as he expectantly waits for God’s Messiah; Anna’s abiding near the altar of God brings recognition when she sees the family—Anticipation and Patience are the postures of worship.

In the Vineyard church, where I spent some time, we have some incredible stories of what can happen when you simply pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit,’ with hands outstretched. Similar stories reside here, too, from the years when Dennis Bennett was Rector, and beyond: healing, inexplicable joy amidst anxiety, specific words of encouragement, and so much more. We need those stories. We need new stories. We need to encounter God in surprising ways, to see fleshy vulnerability as a beautiful part of creation. And we need to give ourselves permission to simply be ordinary.

St. Luke’s has its own order of perfectly ordinary people who encounter God, and the invitation is open to join or simply inquire. Each week, during communion, there are folks who stand by the icon and candles, ready to pray with anyone who would like to do so. Today, when you take the bread and the wine, I want to encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit for a word, a phrase, an image, something that is particular for you. Hold onto that and, if you feel so moved, ask for others to pray with you. No lengthy explanations required, just patience and anticipation.

This Sunday is about worship. Worship refines us. Worship attunes us to God and our fellow creatures; to all of creation. Worship is our vocation, our calling, as followers of the Jesus way and readers of the Hebrew-Christian scriptures. Worship is not sitting on a cloud, strumming a little harp. Nor does it entail offering uncritical allegiance to someone else’s conception of God. Worship is as simple and difficult as presenting ourselves to Creator God (who is Love), just as we would approach an infant