April 4, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

This Easter Sunday comes to you, sponsored by the Gospel Mark.  It’s the shortest and weirdest of all the stories of the resurrection.  It begins and ends with the women.  They come to the tomb, early in the morning after the observance of the Sabbath is over.  They come to pay their respects, to offer last rites and to perform rituals on behalf of the one they loved and cherished.

Maybe you can understand their need, their desire, their compulsion to come to the place where the body of their beloved lay entombed.  I didn’t arrive in time to be with my father as he lay dying from pneumonia as a result of Parkinson’s.  My husband Bryon and I arrived half an hour after the death of his mother this past September from sepsis. But I needed to be there.  I needed to touch once again the beloved flesh.  To weep over the diminished body.  To anoint with the sign of the cross the dear forehead and to hold once again the stilled hands.

The women come to the tomb filled with grief, loss and deepest woe.  They came with love, but without hope.  They come out of duty, not expectation.  They come for an end, not a beginning.

This Good Friday, Mother Hillary preached a powerful sermon on facing the cross, not averting our eyes or numbing our hearts.  She encouraged us to feel our feelings; feelings accumulated over a year of pandemic suffering and death; racial injustice and violence; uncertainty, confusion and loss.  She called us to join with those courageous, strong women who not only stayed through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, but risked returning in order to anoint the body of one executed by the state for insurrection.

Because something powerful, confusing, overwhelming happens to the women when they come face to face with their devastating loss.  Something they could never have expected.  The tomb is empty.  The heavy stone is rolled away.  There is no body to anoint with strong spices to mask the smell of decay.  There is no beloved forehead to stroke or hand to hold.  There is no need for their services to be rendered.

There’s a tomb but no body.  There’s a grave but no corpse.  Instead a messenger is present to try and ease their fears, to assure them that they will find Jesus who was crucified.  Just not here.  Not now.  They will find him after they tell the others that he has risen.  They will find him when they go to where he told them to go, back to Galilee.  They will find him in both expected and unexpected places.

We want to hear a story about how they told all the disciples the good news, especially Peter who was stuck in shame and blame for denying Jesus at the last.  We want to hear how they found Jesus on the beach with breakfast or on the road to Emmaus or in the myriad of ways his beautiful, wounded body was revealed to them.  But we don’t.  Mark’s gospel ends with the women seized with terror and amazement, silent with fear.  Mark’s gospel ends in the middle of their ongoing sorrow, confusion and anxiety.  It leaves the women hearing the message of resurrection but without the ability or willingness to accept it.

Have you ever felt this way about the resurrection of Jesus?  Perhaps you have been seized with amazement that contained a fair amount of doubt or cynicism.  Maybe the resurrection has been told to you like a fairy tale to comfort you in your grief or as an indefensible doctrine that you are forced to accept regardless of your skepticism.  Perhaps you are afraid to trust it or maybe you’re terrified of what it means for it to be real.

I love Mark’s ending.  The story is not finished, whether by intention or by accident.  The story doesn’t end with the death of Jesus, but it doesn’t end with the triumph of his disciples, emboldened by his resurrected presence transforming the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It ends with three women afraid and silent.

The women don’t know what’s going on with the resurrection and neither do we.  No amount of theologizing or explaining can ever adequately allow us to grasp that God has loved His Holy One through the grave to the other side, that life has conquered death and love has the final word.

Will the women find their voice and embrace the message of resurrection?  Will they leave behind the empty tomb for a journey to Galilee?  Will they encounter the risen Christ and find healing for their grief and despair?  And will anyone believe their story?  Will they be the first to hear of the resurrection, or the last?

It seems like the only one who has ever been certain and assured of the resurrection is Jesus.  He lived his life in sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead.  It doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid or sorrowful when facing death.  After all, he asked that the cup of bitter suffering be taken from him.  But he also predicted over and over to his doubting and confused disciples that he would be raised, that death would not have the last word.  He faced into the very worst that the world could do to him, proclaiming that unless he died, as a seed dies, there would be no fruit, no new life.

Jesus lives his life as the resurrected one.  He is already fully alive and death cannot hold him.  He lives as one who knows and trusts in God’s ultimate power.  It enables him to endure the betrayal, mocking, misunderstanding, weakness, denial and folly that brings him ultimately to the cross.

This story ends with an empty tomb.  But the story is not complete.  The open ending offers the opportunity for each one of us to finish it.  How will you complete the resurrection narrative in your own life?  We all know that death is a reality, but what would it be like to live as one who is guaranteed of resurrection?  How are we to make our way through the trials and tribulations of this life, knowing about our own impending death and the grief and sorrow of all the other endings?  Like the women, on our own, we are afraid, confused, abandoned, and, if we’re honest, not in control.  If there were ever any delusion about that, this year has stripped away a lot of our denial.

But what if we are ultimately the resurrected ones, the ones who will taste life in all its fullness, the ones from whom all tears will be wiped away?  The ones from whom all disgrace will be removed?  The ones who will share in the boldest and best of feasts, fully reconciled with friend, foe and stranger?

To paraphrase the poet, Mary Oliver, “What will you do with your one, resurrected life?”  How will you look forward, lean forward and move forward into the fullness of resurrection?  It’s nothing we can earn or deserve.  I believe it’s offered to all, even to Judas who betrayed Jesus and to Peter, who denied him.  Why else would the messenger of God make clear to the women that they were especially to reach out to Peter?  Why else would Jesus share a cup and intimate moment with Judas, knowing that he would soon act against him?

What will it mean to live as one who has already been raised to new life?  The resurrected one has the power to forgive, to offer grace, to love in spite of how love is received.  The resurrected one doesn’t need to defend or build himself up or put others down.  After all, what could be more marvelous than being fully, completely alive?  The resurrected one can give freely and generously, laugh and cry with abandon and step outside her comfort zone.

As we live into our own resurrection, we are met by the risen One, who goes before us, accompanies us and has always been with us.  We follow where Christ leads.  We learn to love those Christ loves.  We enter more fully into life and all the varied emotions and experiences it provides.  We have the courage and strength to endure because we are never alone.  The risen One is with us always.  And because Jesus is raised, so too are we.

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

March 21, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I walked the Via Delarosa, the Way of the Cross in the Old City of Jerusalem during the second Intifada.  Traditionally throngs of Christian pilgrims make this pilgrimage along the stone streets of the Old City to both retrace and experience for themselves the final journey of Jesus.  The practice began very early, probably in the third century and it is most popular during the weeks of Lent, leading up to Holy Week and Good Friday.

A small group of us wandered the streets, looking for Roman numerals carved in stone which marked each of the 14 stations from the time Jesus was arrested until he was laid in the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We passed a lot of shops that were closed.  We looked up to see soldiers with automatic guns stationed along the walls.  The air was tense with the threat of violence and fear of the other.  Fresh conflict between Arab Palestinians and Israeli Jews had created further division, suppressed the economy and heightened centuries-long trauma.

This year, for the second year in a row, few Christian pilgrims will travel to Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross.  Ongoing conflict and the global pandemic have made it too dangerous.  The Way of the Cross, like so much of our world has gone virtual.

This week I led a group of the Companions of the Holy Cross through the Way of the Cross via Zoom and YouTube, using the beautiful stations from our own St. Mark’s Cathedral that were recorded a year ago.  We followed the officiant as she moved around the sanctuary, stopping at each of the powerful bas relief sculptures depicting the three times Jesus fell, the women of Jerusalem, the cross and tomb.  After every prayer and reading, we took time to reflect and pray.

Just as in all the pilgrims who have gone before us, we carried with us our sins and sorrow.  We brought our own wounds and the wounds of our world with us.  They weigh us down, just as the heavy cross weighed upon our Lord.

What Jesus carries along that way, is our pain.  He carries the anger and violence of the powerful who strike at others out of their insecurity and rage.  He shed sweat, tears and blood with the women, not just of Jerusalem, but of every place and time who suffer rape, violence, kidnapping, murder, discrimination and harassment.   He carries the grief of his mother and all who hold vigil at the death of a dear one, powerless and inconsolable.  He carries the consequences of discrimination, oppression, racism and injustice on his body.  His are the wounds of the slave, the marks of the victim of domestic violence, the trauma of the abused, the shock of the one caught up in a disaster, the despair of the betrayed, the anguish of one denied and despised, the burden of the shamed.

He suffers.  He is afraid.  His soul is troubled.

Those who treat people in pain talk about stages of recovery from trauma.  First there must be safety, deliverance from the violence, control of the virus, shelter from the storm.  This is followed by a period of recovery.  Finally we are able to find some meaning out of the suffering.

But for Jesus, the meaning of his suffering and death preceded it and carried him through it.  He carried the weight of pain knowing that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

John’s gospel makes it very clear, Jesus doesn’t just sacrifice his life or simply give up.  His life is lifted up on the cross.  In fact it is glorified.  And with him, we too are lifted up.   Our pain, suffering and sorrow is transformed.  We are never alone in our trauma for he promises, “Where I am, there will my servant be also.”  We do not have a savior who is above us but rather one who has suffered as we have and has borne our every pain.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have a complicated relationship to the theology of the cross.  As Mother Hillary explained last week, simply viewing the cross as the transaction whereby Jesus pays the debt of all our sins to appease an angry God, reduces and negates the deep significance and meaning.

For Jesus and for his followers throughout the ages, the cross is where the world’s pain and sorrow meet the love, mercy and grace of God.  And love wins. Light shines in the darkness.  The ruler of the world is driven out.  Death is vanquished.

And yet, we are still suffering.  With the ongoing global pandemic we are still in the phase of disillusionment and despair.  Not enough of us are safe in order to move fully into recovery.  We are still in a crisis of racism and xenophobia.  The lives and psychological well-being of Black, Indigenous, Asian and other people of color are still at risk.

Closer to home the crisis of poverty, inequity, addiction and mental illness have combined to increase homelessness all over our state and city, including across the street in Ballard Commons Park.  Many are suffering.  Many are traumatized.  The church has been both a sanctuary and a target during these difficult times.  Many have come to the church for food, respite, kindness and assistance.

A couple have lashed out at the church and the staff from a place of mental illness, addiction and trauma.  One man, believing the church owed him tithes and offerings and suffering from both mental illness and drug withdrawal, attempted to break down the glass doors to Bennett Hall.  He was stopped before he entered but the repairs took months and cost thousands of dollars.

Another man, suffering from some form of mental illness and compulsion has covered every available white surface with intricate writing with a Sharpie in a language other than English.

Recently a familiar Ballard, homeless resident attacked our Groundskeeper, broke windows and got into the lobby of Bennett Hall and then spray painted our buildings and grounds in 35 places.

These have been traumatic events.  There has been a physical, emotional and economic impact on our community.  There is pain, sorrow, anger, disillusionment and fear.  It has been clear that there is no one from SPD to the courts, to mental health providers to social service agencies who are able to save us or to save the troubled individuals who perpetrated the violence and destruction.

Of course I have asked myself, “What does it mean to follow Jesus in this situation?”  “What is the best course of action?”  “How are we to respond?”

My first priority has been to insure, as much as possible, the safety of those who live and work on our campus.  Thankfully we already had many safety procedures in place and good relationships with many in the community.  In every case the persons responsible for violence and damage have been removed from the area and the buildings and grounds have been repaired and cleaned.  We have cooperated with law enforcement, the King County Prosecutor’s office, mental health case workers, local officials and community members to advocate for treatment and if necessary, incarceration for those who a danger to themselves and others.

Without safety for all involved, there can be no recovery, no ability to make meaning of what we have experienced.  And yet, we already have the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus to lead us through this trauma and the pain and suffering we experience.  We know that it is the way of love.  The way to love and care for the mentally ill and addicted is to help them find a place of safety, of recovery and treatment.  The way to care for those without shelter is to build affordable housing.  It is not the way of Jesus to turn away from suffering, to avert our eyes, harden our hearts, and shut ourselves off.

We may do so for a time.  Certainly the disciples of Jesus scattered to the 4 winds after his death.  They lost hope.  They gave up the dream.  They hid or tried to return to their former jobs and security.

But their lives had already been changed beyond any return.  Jesus continued to dwell in their hearts.  Their spirits were now animated by the Spirit of Jesus.  The words of Jesus were confirmed as they experienced his resurrected life.  They had experienced great sorrow and they were certain to experience great suffering if they continued to follow him, but they had discovered the abundant life of Christ and so they turned around.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They remembered his promises and the world was transformed.

Dear ones.  This has not been an easy year for anyone.  There has been so much pain, sorrow and trauma.  We have a ways to go to be safe and to recover.  We will continue to do so.  In the meantime, we already have a way to make meaning of all we have experienced.  It is the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross that leads to eternal life.  It is where our pain is transformed.  It is where our sorrow turns to joy.  It is where our despair turns to hope.

February 14, 2021 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

In the name of One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the Sunday where we remember the Transfiguration of our Lord, and if I’m honest, it’s not always an easy story for me to appreciate. I often find myself most drawn to the stories of Christ that emphasize his humanity. I feel connected to that Jesus. The Jesus who grew tired after a long journey and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink is relatable. The Jesus who wept with grief at his friend Lazarus’s tomb is relatable.

Even the Jesus that seeks time away from the pressure of his ministry and the crush of the crowds by hiking up a mountain with three of his closest friends is pretty relatable. But the Jesus who becomes transfigured, whose clothes become dazzling white while the voice of God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved! Listen to him!”….  that Jesus is the one that feels other, that feels divine.

The word that we translated as “transfigure” is the Greek word “metamorpho-oo”, and you can probably guess the meaning of it, based on our modern English word “metamorphosis.” And this Greek word means: “to change one’s external form” much like the caterpillar changes to a butterfly. This connotation indicates that there was more happening on that mountain top that Jesus taking on a glow and his clothes gleaming white– there was a change so physical that it terrified Peter, James, and John! It’s hard for me to even imagine what that might have been, what details of the change could frighten Jesus’s inner circle of friends so much. It is unfathomable!

And that, I believe, is the point! This story, like the story of Elijah calling down holy fire that burned a soaked altar or the story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush that didn’t burn up, brings us face to face to the unbelievable, the far-from-normal, the unexplainable, unimaginable other. And that other-ness of Jesus’s transfiguration completely terrifies his friends, and on top of that, ancient prophets Moses and Elijah appear with him. But despite the terror, Peter starts babbling about how it is good to be there and how they should build  something– a tabernacle, tent, a dwelling, a shelter– it’s not entirely clear what he was suggesting– but Peter’s babbling makes me think he wanted to stay there with the transfigured Christ, Moses, and Elijah. He wanted to stay with Jesus, his teacher and friend, despite being afraid.

Fear has been our constant companion for the past year, hasn’t it? Fear of the coronavirus, of catching it or accidentally passing it to someone we love; fear of social unrest and economic instability; fear that ancient injustices will never heal, that that long moral arc of the universe will not bend to justice in our lifetimes. We have feared the election results and feared people’s reactions to them. And of course, there is always fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of helplessness, fear of whatever comes next when this life ends. I know that I have at times become weary of feeling afraid during this long year.

Yet, the chaplain in me knows that feeling fear, feeling afraid doesn’t make us weak. Fear is just an emotion, a morally neutral feeling that our brain creates in order to warn us about danger and keep us safe. It’s okay to be afraid, okay to admit it. There is no shame in it.

In fact fear tends to be an emotion often associated with a close encounter with the Divine. Angels always seem to say “Do not be afraid” as soon as they show up, so that makes me think the cute porcelain statues might have gotten the angels wrong. In the scriptures, “Do not be afraid” is the most repeated command, and when Jesus does something amazing, like walking on water, he says, “Fear not!” And yet, coming so close to God is often scary. On that mountain top when Jesus became transfigured, Peter, James, and John were terrified. But Peter wanted to remain. And this year, this long and difficult year that seems never ending, that is the lesson I am learning from the Transfiguration of Christ.

When we seek to follow in the ways of Christ, we are seeking not only to follow the teachings of a wise man or to model our behavior after a gentle yet fiercely good human. We are also seeking to follow the Jesus who became wholly other on that mountain top, the Christ who makes the impossible, possible. The One whose goodness is greater than any evil humankind can think up, whose justice never fails even when our justice does. The One who brings good news to the poor, gives sight to the blind, release to the captives, and lets the oppressed go free. The One who was with God at the creation of the world, the One who died yet lived again, the One who reaches his hands out to us to say, “There is more to life than this,” to say, “Come and See….Come to me and I will give you rest…. come be with me and I will show you everlasting life.”

And I don’t know about you, but this year, this is the Jesus I need, the one who points me to God when God feels hard to find, the one who gives hope when hope feels just beyond my reach, the One who shows me how to love just when I think I have no more love to give. I need that Jesus. Maybe you do too.

And so the good news for you and for me today is that we do not have to climb a mountain top to find the transfigured Christ. He is already, always close to us. So, just like Peter suggested, even if it feels scary, build a place in your mind and heart for Christ to stay, always close. Unfathomable though the transfigured Christ may be at times, it’s like one of my patients once told me: “He is just a whisper away.” Amen.

March 14, 2021 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

 

When I was a little girl, John 3:16 was the first Bible verse that I memorized. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” I think my Sunday school teachers believed that this verse was the one verse out of the Bible that summed up our beliefs as Christians. God loves the world. God sent Jesus to save the world.

This verse, John 3:16 alludes to the idea of salvation, that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection play a role in saving humanity. And in Christianity’s many forms, the understanding of what exactly Jesus did to save us, what exactly Jesus saves us from, and what exactly that means can vary. In fact, there can be multiple understandings of this big concept that co-exist! And if you want to go on a meandering journey through some of these ideas, just ask myself or any of our clergy or seminary students about atonement theory. It is a theological rabbit hole that fascinated me when I first began studying theology, and I still jump down it once in a while! But I do recommend that you have a conversation partner or two, especially if, like me, you spent the first formative years of your life in an evangelical expression of our faith. Sometimes talking about what salvation means can be intense, so we are here to journey with you! And in any case, atonement theory and the study of salvation is a vast ocean of various ways of understanding what Christ’s life, death, and resurrection means for humanity, but we are just going to dip our toes into that water today.

John chapter 3 contains much of the theology that our evangelical Christian siblings hold dear. John 3:16 especially alludes to what we call substitutionary atonement: the idea that Jesus suffered and died in our place, was substituted in for us to receive God’s punishment for our sins so that we could be saved. And when I was first beginning to study theology, I didn’t realize there was any other way to view Christianity! I thought, if I believe these things, then I will be saved, and I will go to heaven after I die. But what I learned is there is so much more to Christianity than this! I’ll say it again– there is so much more to Christianity than the afterlife.

Let’s take a peek at the text together. Jesus is meeting at night in secret with Nicodemus, and earlier in the chapter had been teaching Nicodemus about being “born again” through baptism. Nicodemus struggles to wrap his literal mind around this idea, imagining a physical re-birth that would be quite traumatizing to mothers!

Jesus teases him a little, saying, “You are a teacher of Israel, yet you do not understand these things? If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

This comparison to the Old Testament story we heard read just minutes ago fascinates me! If this is an apt comparison, then we may better understand yet another idea of what Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection actually mean for us. But perhaps most fascinating is this: we may learn a little about what Jesus thought he was coming into the world to do.

This story about Moses isn’t one that got it’s own movie like the exodus out of Egypt (best soundtrack ever); in fact, it may make us feel a little squirmy to read!!! According to the text, the Israelistes, who have been wandering in the desert for many years after their escape from Egyptian slavery, grew frustrated. They were hungry and exhausted and complained bitterly that Moses led them out slavery simply to die in the wilderness. Now if you keep going back in Numbers, you’ll see that this pattern has happened before– the people complain or disobey the laws given to them from Moses’s understanding of God, there is punishment, and they repent. The same thing happens in this story. The people complain bitterly, venomous snakes came into their midst, and many people died. The survivors came to Moses in grief and apology, and Moses prayed for them. God told Moses to make a snake of bronze and lift it up on a pole. That way, if anyone was bitten by a snake, they could look upon the bronze snake and live.

After this story, I feel it is important for us to remember two things: first, that a story in the Bible doesn’t have to be literal to be full of truth. And second, that one way of reading the Bible to consider it is full of writings by humans, like us, who were trying to find God in their lives. And the holy scriptures give us how these people, in this time, experienced God.

That said, what can we learn about salvation from snakes? It’s easy to cast snakes as a symbol of evil, when we consider the serpent that spoke to Eve in our creation story. But snakes are also symbols of wisdom and healing. And in this story, we see the bronze snake Moses made acting as a symbol of God’s healing for the Isrealites. In fact, if you remember the universal symbol of medicine is a winged staff surrounded by two snakes! Snakes have been symbols of healing and wisdom in many cultures, despite the fear many of us may feel regarding them.

So if Jesus is comparing himself the bronze snake that Moses lifted up to heal the people… what does that tell us about how Jesus sees his role?

When I pondered that this week, I kept thinking about human suffering– it is all around us, everywhere we go. Suffering from illness, poverty, grief, loneliness, mental illness. Suffering is part of the human experience, and Jesus experienced suffering during his lifetime.

For these Israelites, whether God actually sent the snakes or they simply thought God sent them, the Israelites were suffering in so many ways. Not only the exhaustion, hunger, and exposure, but now snakes. But Moses took the very thing they were suffering from and lifted it up for them to look upon, and they were healed.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In the original Hebrew, this word for “lift” can be both literal and figurative lifting, so perhaps Jesus intended that double meaning. Some interpret it as the literal lifting of Jesus  up onto the cross. But I’m considering the symbolism.

In the desert, the Israelites looked upon the symbol of their suffering and they were healed of that suffering and gained strength to continue their journey. The suffering did not end–they were still in the desert, hungry and exposed and exhausted. But they were able to keep going.

In the same way, Jesus is an example of human suffering. Not only his suffering on the cross but throughout his life. And the way he lived and died reminds us of some of the suffering we as humans inflict on each other. We create unjust systems that punish innocent people; we hurt one another; we cling to power even when others are oppressed; and we fear what we don’t understand and may lash out at those who are different from us. When we look at Jesus, we see the symbol of so much suffering.

But like Moses’s snake, if we look upon Jesus, we can be healed. We  can gain the strength to keep going. Our suffering might not end– I have turned to Jesus time and time again over the past year, but the pandemic did not miraculously end when I did so. But looking at the life and teachings of Christ brings healing to my soul. I gain the strength to keep going. Because Jesus also represents everything that is wonderful and good about humanity. We can be kind and wise; we can bring joy and peace to others; we can be teachers and leaders and healers. We can strive to be like Jesus. And when we do, the whole of human suffering may not end. Our suffering might not end. But we can look at Christ and be healed enough to keep going.

I believe that is part of salvation too. Salvation is not just for the next life; it is for this life. Because God loved us so much, God sent Jesus to be an example of all that is good about God and about humanity. Look to Christ, today, my dear friends, and be healed enough to live one more today. Look to Christ and let’s keep going on our journey. Together. Amen.

March 7, 2021 – The Rev. Mary Petty Anderson

Fire

 

Not long ago, I came across a piece of paper with words using a different alphabet, the first homework assignment in new language. I had already begun throwing away letters and diplomas and photos, remnants of something long vanished, when I read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. A theoretical physicist, Lightman is well-positioned to comment on the slippery nature of time, and I got serious about reconciling the past with the present.

I remember the day I stared at those sentences in Hebrew. I recognized a proper noun, Israel, and a lexicon told me that the first word was a form of the verb, “To hear.” It struck me that the professor had given us a break; he knew that we would recognize this verse from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Maybe you know the sensation of reading something in its original language. But I was unprepared for the sudden encounter with this ancient passage, a voice from antiquity, coming from the chaos of a foreign grammar. That day, my mind shifted to the first of the ten commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.”

What’s the context? Do you have a memory of Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham?  Joseph, with his special coat; Joseph, whose brothers push him into a pit and sell him for twenty shekels of silver to a caravan, who then sell him in Egypt; Joseph, who interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and rises to be second-in-command. The timeline is eighteen hundred years before Jesus, and Joseph, his brothers, and their descendants stay in Egypt, and, at the end, make bricks and dig canals, like slaves.

Fast forward four centuries to Moses, a major player in Old Testament. Nobody except Jesus gets more attention than Moses. Four versions of a story converge and weave themselves together: Exodus, the covenant at Mt. Sinai, and wandering in the desert. I remember sitting in a small, blue chair in a Sunday school room of Hoyt Memorial Presbyterian Church, as I colored a picture of a baby in a basket floating down a river, with a young woman leaning over him. There was talk about bulrushes, a word I didn’t understand, but mostly I remember that after the baby grew up, he carried a stick that turned into a snake when he threw it to the ground. That got my seven-year-old attention.

Moses: adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter; Moses: who flees Egypt after he erupts in anger and kills somebody; Moses, who is tending sheep, when a bush bursts into flame and a voice says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have come down to deliver them.” The voice says, “You, Moses, are going to help me.”

Moses tells Pharaoh to let the people go, and he refuses. Negotiations, and confrontations, plagues with frogs, and blood, gnats, locusts, and the killing of every first-born of every species.

Israelites mark the doors of their homes with the blood of a lamb, so the angel of death will pass over their households. Pharaoh only relents after his first-born child dies: “Take your flocks and your herds, and be gone,” and the Israelites go east, headlong into the desert, free at last. Yet people have forgotten Yahweh. Moses is summoned to the mountain top: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. No idols. No killing. No theft. No cursing the name of the deity.

This is a pathway: “If you keep my covenant, you will be for me a holy nation,” a nation set apart: resident aliens, people with green cards.

This is the pathway between the commandments and this Gospel, when Jesus loses his temper and rages against moneychangers, using a whip to drive animals from the temple. Righteous and indignant, he’s clear about the message: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The oldest compete copy of the Commandments is a Dead Sea scroll from 2,0000 years ago. It lives in a pitch-black storeroom in a Jerusalem museum, so fragile that it’s locked away in darkness. And I have to ask you: is that document relevant to us? Too old-fashioned? Too low tech? Are we stuck in the past?

The commandments set forth a counter-cultural way of life, that we have not been left to our own devices, the volatility and deviousness. The Decalogue is an abrasive reminder of the ethos, of who we, as a community, can become, and in that, there is hope.

There’s plenty to do, because wherever we stand is an altar, and Exodus keeps on happening. The source of creation keeps coming to us, and we are invited to head in that direction. If I don’t see the link between the commandments and myself, there’s something wrong with my worldview. These ancient laws may seem archaic or primitive, but they are precious and real and have authenticity and authority.

There is a crisis of conscience when our stories no longer protect the things we hold sacred. We have to figure out how to choose life and still navigate the law inside this chaos. What are the dark threads that have woven themselves into our lives, what calamities we can avoid, and where does the heart lie?

But this is not simply a history lesson. It’s not even a story about Moses, and it’s not about a particular group. This is universal, archetypal. Maybe my memory of the coloring book of a baby in a basket is so clear to me because I have wandered in my own wilderness in bondage to one thing or another, making bricks for somebody else’s house, stuck with other sorts of pestilence, and hungry for something I could not name.

But there’s holy ground out there. It’s where the roads converge, where you are struck by truth and carried away by beauty, poised at the edge of promise, like an act of grace, one foot standing on the bedrock of an ancient foundation, the other foot standing here, in the present.

We pay attention to something written centuries ago because once upon a time, we had a close encounter with the divine, and the collective memory binds us together. That bush is still burning, shimmering with light. This is where we are in time, where we stay focused on the fire, where we can throw down the dead sticks that we carry around and watch ourselves come back to life.

February 21, 2021 – Kristen Daley Mosier

Where is the wilderness in our midst?

Good morning. Here we are again—Lent. Do you feel as though you never left? Does it feel as though you’ve already been soul searching for a while? Perhaps you’ve felt—just recently—a sense of nascent, embryonic hope, only to suddenly be faced with ashes. Wherever you are, whatever thoughts and emotions are sitting with you this morning, welcome. Welcome to another Lenten journey. (believe it or not) You won’t be alone as we move through this time, together.

As a child I knew nothing of Lent. I had no context or reason for understanding it until college, which is where I also started to learn about fasting as a spiritual practice. For a time (then and later) I would occasionally embark on short term periods of fasting and prayer, sometimes accompanied by a vague purpose in mind. Admittedly, after so many years of observing and not observing the liturgical season, I cannot say that I’ve had a significant or memorable experience. However, (even still) I do love the thought of spending time on mountain tops, and can relate to Peter who—as we read last week—was ready to build a hut (or three) and just stay put. Who wouldn’t want to dwell with the presence of divine Love and Light and Life; much like the sparrow and swallow of Psalm 84? But the mountain top is not the wilderness wandering of Lent. And I think I forget that sometimes. I mean, we’re supposed to ‘get’ something for our troubles, are we not? Isn’t Lenten fasting or journaling or praying or what-have-you all about enlightenment? A deeper sense of peace? More patience? Clearer skin? A healthier gut? Why, then, am I waiting patiently for the Lord?

Of course, Lent is not transactional. It is not about finding the prize at the bottom of the box. Yet we swim in a culture that idolizes particular visions of health and wellness that are inherently tied to notions of, and expectations around, productivity and ‘sweat equity’ that color our perceptions of spiritual practice. So then, how might we come to understand Lent for Lent’s sake? Now, perhaps you don’t have this problem whatsoever; in which case, I should probably be sitting at your feet, rather than you having to endure my verbal processing. (We can talk afterwards. I would love to learn something new.) My hope for now is simply to explore the idea of ‘wilderness’ and see where it leads as we enter into this particular season of Lent.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, Year B of the lectionary reading cycle—which means that last year we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil, in the wilderness, and next year we will read Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. Each story begins nearly the same: Jesus emerges from the Jordan after having been baptized by John, and wanders off into the wilderness for testing. Matthew describes him as being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, while Luke notes that Jesus is both led by the Spirit and is full of the Holy Spirit as he goes. Both writers keep the longer narrative describing Jesus’ interaction with the devil as it culminates in the three trials. Both writers really want you to know who is this Jesus in relation to God and the prophets, and therefore Israel’s tradition.

Mark, who we read today, doesn’t have time for all that. According to Mark, Jesus comes out of nowhere (quite literally—Nazareth may as well have been a non-place), is baptized by John; he then sees the heavens open, the Spirit descend upon him, and hears a voice declaring ‘you are my Son, my beloved.’ Then immediately, the Holy Spirit who just swooped down, is driving him out into the wilderness. The verb Mark uses is the same verb for exorcism (ekballei). This is a dramatic event as depicted with classic Markan narrative whiplash. But in the rush of all that, as the story progresses, did you notice something? “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by satan [the “accuser” from Job]; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark’s gospel is the only one to include mention of wild beasts with Jesus in the wilderness.

Scholar Ched Myers, notes that in the Greek text there is a striking prepositional change relating both to Jesus’ entry to the water and the wilderness. Mark chapter one verse five says that “people … were going out to [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan.” The preposition for “in” is [en]. Jesus, however, was baptized into the Jordan, [eis] followed by the Spirit descending onto him [eis], before thrusting (exorcising) him into the wilderness [eis]. Myers goes on to note that the grammatical shift suggests a more complete submersion—perhaps even submission—not only to the prophetic mission heralded by John (along with its significant political implications); but also to the created order itself. He notes that, “While theologians usually understand Jesus’ baptism as divine empowerment ‘from above,’ we could just as well argue he was being en-spirited from ‘below’ through a deep submersion into his beloved homeland.”[1]

In other words, what we see in Mark’s gospel is how water and wilderness are linked in a more-than-spiritual way even as it is the Spirit that leads/guides/compels/thrusts Jesus (and all who would follow in his steps) out into unfamiliar terrain. I say ‘more than spiritual’ because too often it is easier to imagine our own private wilderness as a generalized ethereal place in which we have interiorized experiences that are no less real, yet are not consciously tied to where we are as much as how we are. But this is where other contemporary practices can come into play.

Some practices involving a more embodied approach seek to address the over-spiritualization with which we wrestle. Walking the labyrinth, or (as Canon Britt will tell you) the Camino are examples of this more embodied spiritual experience that engage us at a different register; one that we may not have words for but that we know can change us, push on us, press upon us like hands on clay. Embodied spiritual practices offer a tangible countercultural posture that help us see daily life in a different light. Having to stop and think about patterns of consumption, activity, movement, where and how we are spending our time and energy—that level of consciousness can be a gift at the right time. Not only that, but as the early desert saints, and so many others throughout time and history, will attest, sometimes we need to get completely outside ourselves, our communities even, before we can give God the attention we feel is due. As one contemporary writer describes it, “desert spirituality is a lived experience of faith involving deliberate deprivation of various sorts as a paradoxical gift of one’s environment.”[2] Some days, the axiom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it,’ is the truth we need.

Of course, I say all that to you, a community who already thinks about these things, who wrestles with notions of comfort, ease, and provision, as we are a full year into a deadly pandemic that is taking the life and breath away from already vulnerable and marginalized sectors of our society. We are on the cusp of a half million people dead within the last year at the hands of a novel virus as it shapeshifts and mutates according to certain bodies it comes in contact with in its travels. In the past year our own bodies have changed as our diameter of life narrows; a walk through the neighborhood takes the place of gym time, or coffee shop ventures and visits with friends further afield. I don’t know about you, but the cushion on my desk chair is a fair bit flatter than it used to be. For the past year, the wilderness has come to our very doorsteps, even seeped into our homes.

And yet, how has that changed how we imagine the wilderness of Lent? If I may, I would like to imagine a different kind of wilderness, following the gospel story of Jesus. I would like to suggest that the wilderness is indeed linked to our baptismal waters, and that it exists—in a very real way—in proximity to those waters. Beyond the symbolism of Jesus Christ (Jesus the God-man) in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, is the lived experience of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus the man-God) in the wilderness with the wild beasts unsheltered, fasting, for over a month. A wilderness place—geographically, ecologically, symbolically—is a liminal space, a marginal zone. Life is there, but it is a precarious life, always on the verge of perishing. Every ounce of energy expended in the wilderness is oriented toward survival; the nature of such life that can survive is not always recognizable.

When I think about the possibility of such a place here in our watershed, I think about the triangle hillside just above Shilshole where 57th crosses over the train tracks and then dives down to the street below. It is a triangle of brush, slender trees, composting leaves, and the occasional tent dweller. It’s places like this, places where there is a tent or two (or ten), where shelter/provisions/protection (such as they are) could be swept away at any moment…might we call those wilderness places? While it’s true that the gospel narrative of Jesus in the wilderness presumably takes place far from any civilization, that the story of temptation and testing is intended to demonstrate the divine affiliation Jesus alone carries as he carries the Spirit with him; nevertheless, we have this story: that Jesus traversed waters and wilderness. And as one scholar writes, “Borders and margins are always dangerous places to cross or in which to live. However, by freely moving into those dangerous places, Jesus calls into question the systems that promote and enforce order and demarcation.”[3]

I must apologize if you’re feeling a kind of whiplash as I make a hard pivot—metaphorical, narrative, conceptual—from the interiority of desert spirituality that typically helps us to navigate Lent, to the material realities right where we live. And I do not mean to suggest that we somehow ‘ought to’ physically enter such spaces. . . I wonder, though, what can happen when we begin to recognize the wilderness spaces within our own Cedar River watershed from which we draw water for baptizing and for remembering our own baptism. How is it that the marginal and marginalizing spaces that push life closer toward nonlife, the human to become inhuman how can those play upon our imagination? It is this wilderness that tangibly informs our spirituality at a communal and social level. Consider all the ways we seek out health, wellness, monetary security: and is it too far a stretch to say some of that motivation comes from fear, anxiety; a hesitance, a refusal to enter wilderness? We see the wilderness spaces in our watershed as uninhabitable, undesirable—yet there are persons there, some with not-so-wild beasts of their own, perched on the edge of precarity.

How does that make you feel?

Jesus, led / filled with / and expelled by the Holy Spirit, went from his baptismal waters of the Jordan River into the watershed wilderness. For forty days he was tempted/tested by the satan, humanity’s accuser. He was there with the wild beasts and was tended by angels. When he returned to Galilee he proclaimed the good news of the coming reign of God. Jesus traverses waters and wilderness in order to declare and initiate New Creation, new life—where God’s covenant with all flesh—all flesh—is filled with everlasting life. And as we will see, not even death can stop the life generating power of our God—not physical death, and certainly not the many ways our human systems and societies bestow death upon those pushed to marginal places.

If Lent is our annual wilderness pilgrimage, where is the Spirit leading you?

 

 

[1] Ched Myers, “A Call to Watershed Discipleship” in Anglican Theological Review (vol 100.1), p. 75.

[2] Rachel Wheeler, “The Revelatory Tide: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Water Crises” in Spiritus (vol 20.2), p. 178.

[3] Manuel Villalobos Mendoza, Abject Bodies in the Gospel of Mark, (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), p. 94.

February 7, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Every now and then I watch a show on TV and see the ads and am shocked by the behavior.  I’m shocked at people gathering together in close proximity with nothing covering their nose and mouth.  I recoil when I see people greeting one another with kisses on both cheeks and tasting food off of one another’s plates.  A weird mix of fear and disgust comes over me.  Does that ever happen to you?

Everything has changed so much in a year.  There is BP and AP, before the Pandemic and after the Pandemic.  Behavior that seemed completely normal and acceptable a year ago is now dangerous and scary.

These experiences shape how I read Scripture now.  Familiar stories take on new meaning.  Commentaries and Bible studies written BP no longer apply in the same way.  I have new eyes and ears for the words and stories.  I am reminded that we are not the first to undergo such death and disruption.  There are plagues and exile in its pages.  There is also insight, strength and courage as we face an uncertain future.

Every three years for nearly 30 years I have preached these texts.  But this week was different. I got shocked when at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus enters the bedroom of Peter’s mother-in-law where she lay consumed with fever, unable to move, possibly deathly ill.  And the first thing he does is touch her.  He gets right next to her in order to lift her, no the Greek word actually means “raise her up” out of bed.

He risked so much in this action.  I realize how dangerous it was for him to be closely exposed to her contagious illness.  After all there were no antibiotics or other treatments for whatever virus she had.  And then, it was the Sabbath.  He and his newly minted disciples had just returned from Synagogue.  To heal is to work and to work on the Sabbath is to break a sacred commandment.  If you read further in Mark’s gospel you’ll see how much trouble healing on the Sabbath brings upon Jesus’s head.

Finally, he’s crossing those rigid, cultural boundaries between men and women, between public and private space, between a bachelor, religious leader and a respectable, married woman.  And while it doesn’t immediately bring censure down upon his head, it does cause word to get out and soon he is completely surrounded by the sick and demon possessed and has to get up before dawn the next day in order to escape the press of people.

He didn’t have to heal her.  He could easily have made some excuses and avoided the awkward and potentially dangerous situation.  Instead, he rushes in where others might be more cautious.

And I couldn’t help thinking about all the women and men, suffering from fever and weakness, alone in their rooms.  All those in nursing homes and congregate living situations who have been put in quarantine and will not feel the touch of a human hand or a kiss for weeks or even months.  All who die alone, maybe just with a stranger holding a phone up to them or most often with no one else in the room.

Will Jesus come in to them?  Will Jesus respond immediately to their need?  Will Jesus risk everything for their sake, to be with them, to comfort them and to raise them up?  It’s not an idle question.  My dear mother-in-law got ill from a non-COVID bacterial infection during this pandemic and had to be put into a hospital, then a nursing home, then another hospital and finally an adult care home.  Each time she was quarantined and we could only visit by phone or sometimes through a window.  Jean was extroverted, loving and hugely social but most of her final months she was alone, including at the time of her death.

What are we who care about those who are ill to do?  Where can we turn for help?  Peter (originally named Simon) and his brother Andrew had just met Jesus and just began to follow him.  I’m sure they knew their mother-in-law was sick and I’m certain that they were desperately worried.  Their invitation for Jesus to visit their home may not have been entirely disinterested.  In fact, the first thing Peter does as soon as he gets Jesus in the door is to tell him about his mother-in-law.

I get it.  When you care about someone and they are desperately sick and nothing seems to help, you will do anything to save them.  You will try every treatment, ask for as many second opinions as you can get, call in all your chips on their behalf.  There’s no time to waste.  Peter and Andrew even forgo the polite acts of expected hospitality.  They don’t care that it’s the Sabbath.  All they want is for Jesus to do something, to make her well.  They may have even made that bargain so many of us try, “I will follow you anywhere, Jesus, if only you…”

This gospel story has a happy ending.  The mother-in-law is healed.  Many others are made well.  Peter & Andrew along with James and John continue to follow Jesus.  But we’re reading this AP or maybe DP, during Pandemic and we know that not everyone recovers.  Not everyone is healed.   Even Peter’s mother-in-law will ultimately die.  Before she does, Jesus himself will die.

Jesus knows this, long before his disciples do.  Before dawn he goes out alone, to a deserted place and he prays.  He finds strength and courage to carry on.  He commits once again to the mission of proclaiming the good news of God.  His ministry includes healing and deliverance as signs that God is near, not separate from us, but as close as the very breath we take.  In fact God breathes with and in us.  God is infected by us.  Jesus shares our air and is willing to die from the experience.

Are you humbled and grateful for those who are on the front lines of this pandemic?  EMTs picking up people who can barely breathe from their beds at home and delivering them to the hospital; caregivers in hospitals and other facilities who show up day after day to face danger, death and despair; essential workers making barely enough to pay their own bills while taking care of everyone else’s needs?  We see the face of Jesus in them.  We know that Jesus touches others through them and provides comfort, strength and love at the last because they are there.

A woman who had known my mother-in-law for less than a week, stayed up through the night with her because she was suffering and scared and didn’t want to be alone.   Jesus was present in that room.  Even when no one else is there, we trust the risen Christ to be present, to bless and heal, to bring mercy and grace and comfort at the last.

Every Thursday some of the many members of the Prayer Group meet on Zoom to pray for the needs that have been brought to our attention.  It’s a powerful time.  Many on our prayer team have the gift of praying in the Spirit in a language or awareness that transcends understanding and brings a connection to God beyond words.  We all join in the Prayers of the People weekly and each individual adds their own prayers.  Like Peter and Andrew we can “tell Jesus about our concerns at once!”  This pandemic reminds us of how much is not under our control.  In the middle of our fear, insecurity, sadness, anger and grief, we can call out to God and ask Jesus to come to us and to others.

As we do, we sometimes sense the inner touch of a hand, a reassurance, a steadying presence that gives us just enough strength to carry on, to continue with our mission, to believe there is good news in the midst of all that is wrong with the world and our own lives.  Illness and death will not disappear before Christ’s return, but we will be able to bear it and to bear the presence of Jesus to others in need.

At the end of her life, I believe Jesus came to Jean, my mother-in-law to touch her, to take her by the hand and to raise her to new life.  And I believe he will do the same for you and for me.

Amen.

January 24, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Have you seen the Bernie memes that have been going around since last Wednesday’s Presidential inauguration?  My favorite is Bernie Sanders as Jonah.  He’s sitting alone on his folding chair under a large bush, with his arms crossed and the famous mittens on his hands.  The caption makes it clear that the Assyrians have just repented of their warring, violent deeds, Nineveh is spared destruction and Bernie/Jonah sat down to pout.

It made me laugh out loud, particularly since I knew we would be reading a portion from the book of Jonah this morning.  It also seemed more appropriate to see Bernie placed in a Jewish context, rather than photo-shopped into the many Christian churches of my Facebook friends.

Burt Bernie is no Jonah.  Unlike Jonah, Bernie isn’t a sore loser and has expressed his support for the man who defeated him in the primary.  He even cares for the welfare of those who consider him an enemy.  That’s what’s remarkable about this short book from the Hebrew Scripture.  It’s a story of one who is called by God to offer the opportunity of forgiveness and deliverance to those who are Israel’s greatest enemies.  When the Ninevites listen to God and change their behavior, they are afforded the same grace and opportunity as the chosen people.

The stories of our ancestors of faith can guide and inspire us in our own day.  They call us to a larger view of God’s grace and mercy, even for those we consider our enemies.  They give us strength in times of conflict, war, plague and pestilence.  We recognize our own struggles, doubts, hopes, fears and desires in their songs and laments.  It’s no surprise that we heard echoes in our national rituals this week; in poetry and prayer, speech and song.

My sermon today serves as the Vicar’s address for St. Luke’s Annual Meeting.  As we reflect on the past year and imagine what lies ahead, may the stories of old and the cries of our ancestors help us to find courage and hope for the facing of these days.  May they guide us by the Spirit to move forward into the future with God’s help.  May they play their part in holding our community together through all the changes and chances of this life.

Three major themes from Scripture are important for our time:  Diaspora, Exile and Exodus.  They are the reoccurring experiences for the people of the Book and they are relevant to us in our day.

Diaspora occurs when the people of God are abruptly uprooted from all that is familiar; dispersed from the places where they normally gather; separated from the community in which their rituals and customs provide continuity and security.  They find themselves in unfamiliar territory, confused, anxious, depressed, and fearful.  They long for a return to normal, to their customs, habits and regular haunts.  But instead they are apart, struggling to maintain their identity and routines when everything is strange and different.

The pandemic has dispersed and separated us.  We’ve been worshipping virtually since March 15, 2020.   For 6 months we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist and our subsequent, monthly communion has been offered by appointment only for individuals and household groups.  There have been no hugs, no passing of the peace, no coffee hours, potlucks or communal singing.  We’ve gotten familiar with Morning Prayer and recorded readings and prayers.  Some of us have learned to preach to a camera instead of the gathered assembly.

Some join worship on Sunday mornings via Facebook.  Many watch without a Facebook account or at a different time.  Others participate from their homes in Ballard, W. Seattle, Edmonds, California, Virginia, N. Carolina and even England!  We held Coffee Hour on Zoom.  We finished the Spiritual Pilgrimage all together online and even supported those being confirmed by the bishop on Pentecost.  We baked cookies and delivered them, made phone calls, prayed for one another and did the hard work of confronting racism in relationship to our faith.  We even welcomed a new priest into our midst, who got to know us well in surprising and unexpected ways.

We may have been dispersed, physically separated and uprooted from our place of worship, but we have continued to live into our vision as “God’s beloved community, which is welcoming and diverse, with Christian worship and service at the heart.”  The promise from Scripture is that God will gather the people from the four directions, from far away, even from the ends of the earth.  God has held us together through the strangest challenges we have faced in generations and God will bring us back together.  Although I’m pretty sure many will continue to join us remotely through our ongoing livestream!

Another theme we share with our ancestors in the faith is that of exile.  The division, rancor and even violence we have experienced as a nation and the breakdown of relationships within families, communities and the church have created an experience of alienation and exile for many.  What had once been home, a place of belonging and acceptance is no longer there.  We are cut off from one another, unable not only to agree, but even to remain in relationship.  Many feel persecuted, attacked and unsafe.

It’s a familiar theme in Scripture.  Israel was conquered numerous times and its people removed to a foreign land, without control, power or influence, forced to adapt to customs, practices and beliefs they distrusted and hated.  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they cried.  They wept “by the waters of Babylon.”

The prophets helped them to recall who they were and who they belonged to.  While in Exile, the people’s relationship with God was strengthened and became more intimate.  They could no longer rely on a national, religious identity and customs so they returned to what was essential and eternal.  What lasts is their love for God and for neighbor.  Through the prophet Jeremiah, God instructs the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Whatever the political party in charge, whichever person is president, governor or mayor, whether we have power or not, God asks us to work for the good of all.  We didn’t stop feeding folks in the Edible Hope Kitchen even as the pandemic raged and we were blamed for those who sheltered in the park across the street.  We welcomed help from the National Guard when the administration recognized how essential our services are.  We advocated for the opening of the library restrooms and provided a place for folks to get tested and treated during the hepatitis outbreak.  You provided resources for Safeway gift cards, toiletries and care packages for anyone in need, no questions asked, no ID required, no hurdles to jump.   Soon we hope to build over 100 units of affordable housing on our property in order to address the need for housing for low-wage earners and their households.

We have been called by God to work for the welfare of our community and all who are part of it, not just here in Ballard but around the world.  Much has changed but our mission remains the same.  “We feed people in body, mind and spirit, with the love of God, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Sprit.”

Finally, we are a people of the Exodus.  The story of being delivered from a mighty power, wandering in the wilderness and a new beginning in a land of promise has resonated and inspired refugees in every age; those who have been enslaved, particularly African Americans; and all those who have been delivered from sin and despair by the love of God.

I think of how the Israelites had to leave Egypt in haste with only the clothes on their backs and no time even to let their bread dough rise before baking it.  For months we didn’t even change the pages on the church calendar.  It seems like we were stuck in perpetual Lent with no Easter.  Our programs shut down.  We didn’t need the cleaners to come.  We unplugged the refrigerator and turned off the heat to save electricity.   We had to learn to live in the wilderness.  We’re still waiting.

As hard and strange as it has been, we learned, as did the Israelites, that our relationship to God and to one another is not dependent on a particular place.  No one could have imagined that we would learn how to be church without going to church.  Some of us weren’t sure we could survive financially without passing an offering plate, and yet we finished the year in the black and can present a balanced budget for 2021.  We adapted, learned new things and were blessed by so many members who stepped up to lead and support this congregation in a multitude of ways.

As we look ahead to property development and the 2-3 years when we will be off campus, who knew that we would get so much advance practice in living through an exodus?!   We have weathered this together and I am confident we will make it through the opportunities and challenges of the next years.  The strength of our current and future leadership is astonishing and I certainly hope you will tune into the Annual Meeting today at 11:30 to hear from them and to offer your own appreciation for how we have managed this strange, complex and difficult year.

In today’s gospel, Jesus both commands and invites.  He asks us to leave behind what we know, all that is familiar and secure, in order to follow him.  We will be changed.  We will find ourselves going in a new direction, reaching out to new people, leaving behind some of our old ways.  Things cannot stay the way they are.  We cannot remain as we have been.  God is making all things new.  God is bringing new life, resurrection life even in the midst of death and despair.  We will not be able to return to how things were.  Instead we are called to move forward with God’s help into a future that God has promised.

Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is already here and that by his light, we see light.  Poet Amanda Gorman tells us, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.  If only we’re brave enough to be it.”  (from The Hill We Climb)  There is good news here, good company for the journey, encouragement when the way is tough, and a strong foundation for the future.  I’m grateful for each of you.  I’m grateful for this community of St. Luke’s.  And I’m grateful to God for the chance to step into this next year with faith, hope and love.

January 10, 2021 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

May I speak today in the name of God, and of the Beloved, Jesus Christ, and of our Counselor, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we remember the Baptism of our Lord Jesus who allowed John the Baptist to cover him with the waters of the Jordan River. Today, we would have talked about baptism, even if there had not been a violent insurrection against our nation’s Capitol, a vile attack that sought to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and left 5 people dead. And, now, because I saw that mob at the Capitol carrying flags and signs that bore the name of Jesus, we absolutely must talk about baptism.

Baptism can look different for different people. My baptism was not in a river like Christ’s, but in a big baptistry tub, built behind the choir loft at my church. I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church, and my younger brother and I were baptized together on Easter Sunday. I was 10 years old. I remember there was a moment, where I stood in the bathroom, in my white robe, and for the first time in my short life, my teeth started chattering. This was well before any water was involved, so I wasn’t cold; instead, I was excited and nervous.

You might say 10 is young, but I was an old 10. When my pastor talked to me about inviting Jesus into my heart, I listened to him very carefully, and when he asked if I was ready, I told him… no! “No, this is a big decision, and I have to think about it!” As a 10-year-old girl, I had this understanding that if I did that, if I prayed that prayer and made that decision, that I was giving up control of my life. And as a 10-year-old girl, I already had precious little control over anything. I imagined my life as a ship on the waves and I knew that if I did what my pastor wanted, I would have to step aside and let Jesus take the helm and steer the ship. (How much I did not know then, about what God would ask of me! And yet, how right I was.)

After a long night of questions and prayer and some tears, I woke my mother up the next day and told her I was ready. She took me back to the pastor, and we prayed together, and on Easter I was baptized. I remember, hearing, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are now buried with Christ in baptism….” and then the rush of being immersed under the water, the instant of being held under, and the gasp as I broke the surface to hear the pastor say, “and you now rise to walk in the newness of life.” He handed me a candle and said, “You are the light of the world.” Then he dipped two fingers into a little bowl of salt, and tapped the salt onto my lips, and said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And even though it’s hard to believe that detail now that we face a pandemic…. the memory of my baptism is precious to me.

Almost a year ago, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and saw many sacred places in Israel and Palestine. On that trip, I stood on the deck overlooking the Jordan River, where tradition says today’s gospel reading took place. It was so crowded, and I heard so many other languages being spoken around me! That day the Armenian Patriarch was there and huge crowds of Armenian Christians were waiting to be baptized. Many of them wore white robes, and there was beautiful singing and chanting. So many people disappeared under that brown river and rose again. But in the midst of that beauty, something caught me off guard: extra security officers were present due to the Patriarch’s presence, in addition to the usual armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the grounds. It was a strange thing, I thought then, armed soldiers and newly baptized believers there, together. Strange that so many would be prepared for violence when others were celebrating their faith in Christ.

We could not reach the river, but our driver was able to go down to the bank and fill a plastic bottle with water from the Jordan River. Bishop Rickel led us in the renewal of our baptismal vows and then told us to close our eyes and mouth (the Jordan is actually one of the most polluted rivers in the world!), and then sprinkled us with the water and said, “Remember your Baptism.”

When someone bids me to “remember my baptism”, part of me remembers being a little girl with chattering teeth who wanted time to think and frowned at the taste of the salt on her lips. The other part of me remembers the vows I take every time I recite the Baptismal Covenant, as we will today. I remember not only the experience 10-year-old Hillary had, but also the seriousness of the decision and the promises I made.

Some of you may not remember your baptism because you were baptized as a baby; your parents and loved ones made promises on your behalf, then. And in confirmation or reception, you took ownership over those promises. Maybe some of you were like me, and your previous tradition didn’t include the Baptismal Covenant, but you make those promises now at St. Luke’s. Maybe some of you listening have not been baptized. If that’s the case, I’m so glad you are here. (And if you want to talk more about it, Canon Britt or I would absolutely love to hear from you.)

But no matter how we do it or when, baptism is a sacrament that we share with billions of other Christians in the world. Ten-year-old Hillary in that Baptist church in South Carolina is connected to that the joyful crowd of Armenian Christians at the Jordan river, celebrating even as soldiers patrolled. And in baptism, we are all connected to Jesus of Nazareth, baptized by John all those years ago.

Baptism connects us to other Christians all over the world across thousands of years. Baptism ties us all together; in baptism we die together, being buried with Christ, dying to the old self and rising again. In baptism, we rise with Christ, and we promise to do difficult things, with God’s help. Difficult things like resisting evil, like repenting and returning, like seeking Christ in all people and striving for justice, like respecting the dignity of every human being. Hard things, with God’s help.

And the uncomfortable reality is that this past Wednesday, when a violent mob attacked the Capitol building, they carried Jesus’s name with them on banners that said Jesus 2020 or Jesus Saves. The uncomfortable reality is that many of those insurrectionists have probably also been baptized. Some may even have believed that Jesus of Nazareth would support their actions. As far apart as we may feel from the people we saw on TV, it is likely that baptism connects us to some of that crowd.

There is a sickness inside American Christianity, an insidious nationalism that made the cross of Christ into a flagpole. That evil was on display this week at the Capitol by people with whom we share the baptismal promise. All Christians must reckon with that connection. Hitching the teachings of Christ to xenophobia, violence, and white supremacy is idolatry. It is evil, and I renounce it.

Yet, my baptism doesn’t make me better than anyone else, no matter how or when it happened, no matter who they are. That water connects all of us, and in baptism, all are forgiven and made new. In baptism, we are following Christ’s example of making a public promise. And in that promise we swear fealty not to America, not to a political party, not to a denomination, not to a politician or pastor, but to Jesus and the way of love. We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and Christ has no flag, no borders, and certainly no walls! When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended not as a bald eagle, but as a dove, and God called Jesus not a King or a Warrior but a Beloved Child.  We do not serve the empire or the economy; we serve Jesus Christ and through him, our neighbors.

So, my friends, I beg you: Remember your baptism.

-Rev. Hillary Kimsey, Curate

December 13, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Those of you who have been part of the Roman Catholic Church have a greater awareness and appreciation for Mary, the mother of Jesus.  You may have participated in her many feast days, prayed to her, sang about her and seen multiple visual representations of her in statues and paintings.

If your religious experience has been primarily Protestant you may have a positive appreciation for Mary but she doesn’t play a large part in your spiritual life and you may not have heard or seen much of her in church.  In fact you may have questioned her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception and her assumption into heaven as being particularly Catholic and therefore suspect.

For those of us who have little or no Christian background, Mary is sort of a hazy figure, in the background, only prominent at Christmas and during Holy Week when the broken body of Christ is taken down from the cross and cradled in her arms.

Even in Advent, it is not Mary, the one who carries the Christ child who gets top billing, but rather John the Baptizer, the fiery preacher, insistent prophet and wild man of the wilderness.  I’ve preached a lot of sermons on John.  The camel’s hair coat, locusts and wild honey are often interesting to children and his radical message is still pretty relevant and revelatory.  “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

And yet, there are clues, vestiges of the Episcopal church’s, small c, catholic identity that remain on this third Sunday of Advent, which we call Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday.  The pink of the candle on the Advent wreath and the rose color of the vestments point us to the deep joy of Mary’s faith.  We hear the Magnificat, the great praise/poem/song, which she proclaims while pregnant with her miraculous child.

Maybe I need Mary more this year than ever before.  Maybe you do too.  We certainly need a taste of a deeper joy that is not dependent upon circumstances or emotions.  In Mary’s Magnificat we experience praise, protest and promise.  Her words fall into our present reality with an urgent and powerful message.

She begins with praise, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  And some of us wonder, how can she be full of praise?  Her situation is dire.  She is poor and unmarried and pregnant.  Before her is a difficult birth in a cave or stable, a dangerous journey into a foreign land and uncertainty about her child’s future and safety.  She’s so young.  And yes, it’s probably not the case that she penned this masterpiece of poetry herself, but it is true that those who wrote it drew on their knowledge of her and her life.  They also drew on the great tradition of praise, protest and promise songs from women in the Hebrew Scripture.

In Mary’s Magnificat we hear echoes of Miriam’s song and dance after the Israelites were delivered from the Egyptians through the Red Sea.  We hear Hannah’s exultation when after years of barrenness, she conceived a child in her old age and the great priest/prophet Samuel was born to her.  Mary is in good company as she pours out her thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s favor upon one of lowly status, a young peasant woman with no influence or power.

Mary is full of her own worth and dignity which she receives from the Holy One.  She will face dark and difficult times, but at the heart of her praise is the conviction of God’s love, grace and favor to her and to all those who are not mighty in the world’s eyes.

Here is one of my little stories of praise.  I was ordained to the priesthood 24 years ago on this Sunday in a very large and wealthy church where I was hired as the third priest, mostly to work with the children and youth.  I certainly felt insecure, inexperienced and without influence.  The staff were all older and more experienced than I and the male priest was known as a “Cardinal Rector,” one of the most influential and powerful priests in the diocese.

On my first Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, just before the procession began, the Rector took me aside to tell me that the Choir Master was furious with me for one choice of music for my ordination.  It was a shock.  I had no idea there was even a problem.  I was crestfallen.  I was mortified.  All the joy and anticipation of this holy moment was suddenly gone and I had no idea how I could go forward.  Processing down the center aisle, I could hardly raise my head for the shame I felt.  I could feel the choir master glowering at me (even though he probably wasn’t).

I was so naive and earnest.  I knew there was no way I could celebrate the Eucharist unless I could be reconciled with my colleague.  During the peace I made a beeline for him.  I whispered that I was so sorry and I had never meant to cause him a problem or offend him.  I told him I couldn’t go forward with the service unless we were going to be able to work it out.  Of course, he was gracious.  The event was minor and we gladly shared the peace of Christ with one another.

His forgiveness and understanding were such a relief that I nearly burst with joy.  I was able to celebrate the Eucharist with a heart overflowing with thanksgiving.

Later I came to understand that the Rector used his power in an attempt to make me feel insecure and to keep me in my place.  Instead God lifted up the lowly curate and the pettiness of the powerful was revealed.

Mary’s Magnificat moves beyond praise into protest.  Those who can only visualize her as a sweet, demure, pious virgin have certainly not listened to her.  She has the best lines for protest banners and signs.  “He has scattered the proud in their conceit.”  “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”  “He has sent the rich away empty.”   In Mary’s words, God is turning the world upside down.  God is overturning the oppression of the proud, powerful and rich.  God has shown particular care for the poor, the lowly and the hungry.

Mary is with those on the front lines who stand against the people and systems who would take advantage of the weak and lowly.  I think of her especially in light of the protests against a dysfunctional justice system and the hurried execution of eleven federal prisoners before the next administration takes office.  Mary has inspired many who fight for equal justice and against the death penalty.  After all, she lost her child to a corrupt political power which used public crucifixion to control and intimidate its opponents.

Finally, Mary heralds the promise of God.  She carries within her own body, the hope and light of the world in the holy child Jesus.  She treasures this mystery and nurtures it.  She proclaims the vision that the Jewish people received from their genesis, the promise of a future and an everlasting inheritance.  It will be realized with the birth of the Messiah.

I imagine Mary in her final years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.  It is during that time that his followers continued to learn from and be mentored by her.  It is then that they write her story and encapsulate all she values in her Magnificat.  As an older woman I imagine her as a mentor, guide and support for the early Christian movement.  In Christian tradition, after her death she becomes the Queen of Heaven, crowned with honor and full of the power that was in her from her earliest age.  Through all the challenges, difficulties and griefs of her life, she continues to say “yes” to God and to be a bearer of good news.

I felt close to Mary this past week as my next eldest cousin, Mark, died of cancer at age 60.  He had been turned upside down himself 20 years earlier when, at a very difficult time of his life, he experienced profoundly the love and forgiveness of God.  At his funeral, his wife, Leah, mentioned that he got the “most improved” award.  He became a very faithful part of his Catholic Church and a profound influence on his friends and family.

His life, although shortened by cancer, was a huge blessing and full of faith, hope and love.  A few months before he died he wrote:

I was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four, colorectal cancer in February 2016 and was immediately surrounded by prayers for healing. Those prayers were answered in a unique way. I was blessed with peace and serenity. Through all the ups and downs of chemo, phase 1 trials and of regression and progression of disease, I never have had a moment of despair, of “why me.” Leah and I have ridden these peaks and valleys with a calm certainty that if we do all we can, God will take care of all the rest, no matter where this path leads.

The blessing of peace has allowed for spiritual growth; looking for a truth that ties humanity together. The beliefs are not original:

  • Love God/the creator and all his creation
  • Love all humanity (unique in that God gave us spirit as well as physical form)

It starts as simply as quieting yourself and allowing the beauty of creation to fill your soul. From there look for the spirit (which God has endowed in all human beings) in everyone. Start with family, then move on to everyone you contact and finally move to the wider world, where people need our respect, help and love.

We are all connected and responsible for each other. Together we can change the world.

Mary continues to speak to us all in whatever our circumstances.  “God has come to the help of his servant.  God has remembered his promise of mercy.”  Amen.