September 29, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

 

One of my favorite cartoons depicts the heavenly throne in the clouds with a newly arrived soul who has just come through the pearly gates.  The newest saint has a look of astonishment on his face as he gazes upon the figure who is seated on the throne, bathed in light, dressed in a royal robe and wearing a crown.  From the throne the blessed one with tail wagging and ears perked up says, “The joyful, loving, eternally forgiving nature of dogs never tipped you off?”

After all, we all know that dog is just god spelled backwards!

Visions of heaven and hell are not just good material for cartoonists.  In every century, in every society there are stories and art that provide metaphors, imagery and language for the afterlife.  And since none of us can or ever will know what lies after death and the grave, there is no way to “fact check” any of this material.

The cartoon vision of St. Peter at the pearly gates cannot be found in Scripture.  The notion of a personal devil with a forked tail and pitchfork isn’t described in the Bible.  Most of us understand that there is no location called “heaven” somewhere above in the clouds, particularly since our spinning planet in our circling solar system has no reference point for up or down!

When we read the Old and New Testaments, we are given a wealth of different depictions of the afterlife, most of which are primarily a commentary on life as it is lived here on earth.

Today we hear another parable from Jesus about a dramatic reversal of expectations.  Jesus uses the language and imagery of the afterlife to call into question the assumptions of his audience.  Did you notice who is mentioned in the parable?  There is a rich man.  The trappings of first century wealth weren’t fancy cars and expensive jewelry.  We know he’s rich because he wears the very rare and expensive color, purple made from indigo and dresses in linen, which is the finest cloth of his time.  In addition, he never goes hungry and eats a lavish feast every day of the year.

Interestingly, although we don’t know the name of this fabulously wealthy man, we do know that the poor man is called Lazarus, not the same Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead, but one that Jesus must have known well because he describes him in detail.  He has no home but instead sleeps in front of the door to the rich man’s home.  He’s hungry and sick, covered in sores.  Lazarus dies an early death from exposure, starvation and lack of care.

So far there is nothing unusual in this tale.  It has been repeated the world over and we can see it unfolding on our own doorsteps.  It’s the story that 60 Minutes will cover when they broadcast their piece on Homelessness in Seattle in a few weeks.

What makes Jesus’s parable unique is the presence of the third character.  After death both the rich man and Lazarus encounter Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish faith.  It’s Abraham who comforts Lazarus and instructs the rich man.  It’s Abraham that points to Moses and the Hebrew prophets as more than adequate teaching on the perils of ignoring the poor and failing to care for the helpless.

After all, Jesus’s audience for this parable are the Pharisees, Jewish religious leaders and examples of holiness.  Just a few verses earlier, they are described as lovers of money.  They ridicule Jesus when he tells them “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  They may have believed, as many still do, that wealth and success are signs of God’s favor and that the poor choose or deserve their lowly status because of character flaws like laziness, criminality, stupidity or weakness.

This shocking parable is a dire warning to those who rely on money and status to justify themselves and who ignore those beloved of God, the poor and needy.  It is not primarily a parable of what the afterlife will be like.  It is not an actual depiction of some kind of hell or heaven.  It is, instead, a dramatic pulling back of the veil we hide behind when we turn away from desperate economic inequality.  It is condemnation of a society where daily the poor are left to lie in doorways, on the street, in filthy encampments bearing open wounds and without adequate care.

If you’ve been hanging out in church with Luke’s gospel over the past few weeks, you have heard a series of dramatic reversals from what is expected.  Jesus is turning all our common wisdom on its head.  In the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son, the God figure is more concerned with the one who is lost than all the obedient, careful rule followers.  In the parable of the unjust steward, the God figure is more concerned with forgiveness than fairness, with right relationship than right accounting.  And in today’s parable, those who have been abandoned, neglected and despised while alive are most highly valued in God’s economy.

Let me be clear.  It’s not the rich man’s wealth that ultimately gets him into trouble.  It’s his failure to listen to God in the words of the law and prophets.  According to Abraham, he wouldn’t even listen if one were raised from the dead.  He has chosen to rely on wealth rather than God, to love money and use people rather than the other way around.

And it’s not the righteousness of Lazarus that brings the favor of Abraham.  We don’t know anything about his character.  All we know is that he is desperate in this life and beloved in the afterlife.  In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus continues to fulfill his promise to “preach good news to the poor.”  He demonstrates the Old Testament principles that show God’s preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged.  He gives hope to those who have been forsaken on this earth with the promise of Paradise.  Jesus sees the poor as God sees all those who are broken down by life’s circumstances.  His economy is in opposition to the world’s.

Wealth is a completely arbitrary standard for favor or success.  Those who measure their lives by it never have enough and those for whom wealth has lost its power will always be content.  When wealth is the dominant driver, we have to turn our eyes away from the poor and ignore the needy.  When we find ourselves in right relationship to God and God’s gifts we are able to open our hands in generosity.

Sometimes we catch glimpses of God’s kingdom and God’s economy.  This past week we held the Edible Hope Kitchen fundraiser.  Looking around the sold out event, I saw people from every walk of life, housed and unhoused, rich and poor, young and old, churched and unchurched.  We all shared the same meal.  We all shared a common mission of creating a community where everyone is fed and cared for.  If you weren’t able to come or couldn’t hear well, I’d like to share with you some of what Jess said about her experience as a guest at Edible Hope Kitchen.

Jess became homeless after a terrible car accident in which her fiancé was killed and she was badly disabled.  Over time she lost housing, job, memories and all her money.  She continues to struggle to get her life back and to remain safe while living on the streets.  What she loves most about the daily breakfasts at Edible Hope is the community.  When she comes here, she is valued, she is noticed, she is part of a group of people who she cares about and who care about her.  Someone checks in with her to see how she’s doing.  She feels seen and loved and she is able to offer her love and care to others.

No one is so poor that they don’t have something to offer and gifts to share.  No one is so poor that they are without value or purpose.  Conversely, no amount of money can secure your soul or prevent loneliness, unhappiness and purposelessness.

Jesus’s vision of the Kingdom is one where all are fed, all are loved, all are valued.  If we listen to Moses and the prophets, if we pay attention to the one who is raised from the dead, we can live in that reality even now.  Like this past Monday night at Lagunitas, we can experience Beloved Community, which is joyful, loving and eternally forgiving.  Amen.

 

September 22, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I have to admit that I am baffled by today’s parable from Jesus.  I’m not alone.  Like any good parable, there are as many possible angles in this one as there are people who attempt to interpret it.  What are we to do with a rich man, a dishonest manager and a bunch of debtors in the hands of Jesus?  If most of us were telling the tale, it would end with the manager facing charges, the debtors paying off all they owed and the rich man sitting pretty with plenty of cash and a new employee.

Instead the manager gets commended, commended!!! for being shrewd and we’re not even sure whether or not he gets fired in the end.  The debtors get away with much of their obligation forgiven and the rich man…  Well, what’s in it for him?

In Palmer Parker’s most recent book, which he’s writing in his 80’s, he reflects that it is bafflement that has led to his past 15 books.  A holy bafflement  has been at the root of his growth and some of his most powerful insights that he has shared through his writing and retreat leading.

This week’s bafflement, conversations and research into the parable of the dishonest manager have given me plenty to think about.  It goes against everything I think is fair and right to hear about a dishonest man who has squandered money that doesn’t belong to him and, when he is about to get caught, doubles down by releasing some of the debt owed to his master.  He should be punished, not commended.  People should be made to pay what they owe.  The rich man should use his power to bring the guy to justice.

But that’s not the way Jesus ends the parable.  And there are clues throughout it that something more is going on.  The first clue is in that word, squander.  Jesus has just used it in another famous parable right before this one.  That one is about a young man who asks for his share of his father’s wealth, his entire inheritance before his father has died.  He leaves home, goes to a foreign country and squanders it all on wine, women and song.  When he returns home, broke and begging, instead of turning him away or making him work it all off, the father gives him a royal robe and ring, puts shoes on his feet and hosts a celebratory meal.  It’s baffling.  He doesn’t even let that ne’er do well prodigal son apologize.

Then there’s the strange payroll practices in Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard where everyone who works even one hour as a day laborer is paid the same full day’s wages as everyone else at the end of the workday.  The folks who began at first light are outraged over a boss who doesn’t follow the rules of fairness even though they are given exactly what was promised.  In so many of these parables, Jesus is messing with our sense of what’s right.

My morality tends to be pretty conventional.  I follow the rules mostly unless I think I can get away with bending or breaking them and not getting noticed (like speeding and California stops.)  I think things should be fair and that you should be rewarded for your hard work and decency (until I learn about how the college admission process is influenced by money and power).  I believe in equality under the law although it’s become crystal clear to me that if your racial identification is anything other than “white” you will experience racial profiling and discrimination in our legal system.

Wait a minute.  I’m already getting confused.

There must be something more going on here.  Something that has to do with the forgiveness of debts; something to do with making friends and eternal homes; something about serving God and using money.

In this parable the manager ends up making friends and being commended by the rich man.  The debtors end up having debt forgiven and being free from obligation.  And the rich man is more than satisfied.  He has not lost anything,  even as others have gained favor, forgiveness and freedom.

The rich man, the prodigal father, the vineyard owner all are more concerned with relationship than they are with riches.  In fact, they seem to have endless resources that they can choose to deploy for the benefit of others freely and without obligation.   They bless and reward both the worthy and unworthy.  They are more concerned with the restoration of relationship than they are with accurate accounting.  These parables end with homecoming and celebration.  They are parables of the Kingdom of a God who doesn’t act like any king, ruler, rich man or father most of us will ever meet.  These are parables of Jesus’s God, parables of grace.

This is the grace of God in Jesus who hangs out with those who are dismissed as unworthy sinners.  This is grace that shocks the religious and righteous with the willingness to approach the disgraced and the outcast, to forgive the offender, to share with those deemed unworthy.  This is the grace that ultimately leads to the cross.  It is the foolishness of Jesus who offers up all that he is and all that he has in radical trust that God will multiply that offering beyond all he can ask or imagine.

With his dying breath, Jesus will ask for the forgiveness of all our debts and make for himself and all of us an eternal home that can never be taken away.

These parables call into question so much of what we value and how we think the world should be.  They baffle us.  They make us uncomfortable.  And they raise issues that we might prefer to avoid.  I remember early on as a Christian I read some books by Tom Sine where he discussed the concept of profaning money.  Most of the advice I get is about protecting money, making sure I have something in savings, making good investments and not wasting my money.  That includes charitable giving.  We’re encouraged to make sure the organizations we support use the funds reliably and well.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but Tom’s idea is that there are times when we need to take away the power that money has over us, the getting of it, the worry over it, the control of it.  There are times when you simply need to let it go, not knowing if the decision to give is wise or worthy.  In other words, “Never resist a generous impulse.”

I think of that when I remember my first year here at St. Luke’s when our finances were absolutely desperate.  We received an amazingly generous gift out of the blue, a gift that would enable us to move forward and ensure that our obligations would be met.  The small Bishop’s Committee at the time was composed mostly of the folks who had gone through the really difficult times here and knew that the church was close to being closed.  Before they spent the money, they decided they wanted to give 10% of it away in gratitude.  I can think of many who would have counselled them differently in those circumstances but that generosity has continued to characterize this congregation’s approach and God has continued to provide beyond what we can ask or imagine.

Many years ago I squandered an advantage I had.  I was a good student in High School, on the honor roll, a Merit scholar and voted “most intelligent” in my senior class.  In my family it wasn’t wealth that was most highly valued but rather education and intelligence.  I had both and they had become both my idol and my identity.  But I was poor in relationships, poor in compassion, poor in spirit.  When I became a Christian in January of my senior year, much began to shift.  My priorities changed.  And so, instead of attending an elite private school, I went to a public University where there was a greater diversity in the student body.  Instead of pre-law I shocked my parents and counselors by majoring in Recreation and Park Management.  I squandered my education, privilege and natural gifts.

At the time no one could figure out what I was doing and I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know myself.  But in Christ I had discovered an abundant life that was about so much more than winning the prize, being the smartest and earning success.  My choices led me into relationships with people who were different from me.  I learned to care for folks on the margins, including the poor and disabled.  I had time to make friendships, to learn to live in community.  It turns out to be a very rich life.

How can we all engage in holy squandering?  What can we let go of in order to make friends and build relationships?  Where are we called to forgive debts even when the recipient is unworthy or unrepentant or doesn’t even realize how they have hurt us?  When are we invited to the great celebrations of God’s grace and mercy?  Will we accept the invitation or remain outside the door because we feel like it isn’t fair or right?

September 8, 2019 – Kristen Daley Mosier

It is not often that I choose to take a closer look at Paul rather than Jesus but, I confess, this week’s gospel reading was a bit much, even for me. I had considered addressing the difficult sayings of Jesus, part two, as a follow up to my last sermon a few weeks ago, but then thought, we could all use a break from the difficult sayings of Jesus. Besides, I genuinely find the Philemon text much more compelling.

Paul is just so clever. The subtlety by which he addresses his friend, Philemon, is masterful. This single chapter contains the most exquisite guilt bomb in Christian history. Yes, that is a bold statement. Consider how he sets up his defense:

Onesimus, a slave from Philemon’s household, somehow finds his way to Paul and proves himself quite ‘useful’. Paul, aware of Roman laws about runaway slaves, sends Onesimus back, but with this letter describing very clearly how he should be treated upon his return. Addressing the letter to fellow leaders Apphia, Archippus, and “to the church in your house” ensures that this letter will be read publicly when they gather to share bread and wine together. Spreading thick his rhetorical skills, Paul reminds Philemon of his faithfulness toward Christ—however that’s been demonstrated in the past, we don’t really know—then appeals to him (pleads with him) to receive Onesimus back into the household as if he were Paul himself. (You see,) Where Roman law dictates that a slave is nothing more than property to be dealt with as the owner sees fit (even when it means punishment by death); Paul is calling the community there to adhere to a different law: the law of grace as proclaimed by Jesus and carried on by his disciples.

For Philemon and his community, what Paul asks of them is an entirely new way of existing following the way of the resurrected Christ. Jesus taught that according to the reign of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; those who are considered the least of society (essentially, nonpersons, like children and servants) are first in line for the gifts of the kingdom. Conversely, to be baptized into Jesus Christ is to drop the covering of status and wealth (if that is what one has), and to be clothed in him who was Servant of all. Paul first and foremost seeks to elevate Onesimus, like when he refers to him as “useful” which is a play of words with “useless” and “Onesimus” (a common name for servants then). As he raises up the servant, he subverts Philemon’s status, first by appealing to him on the basis of love (rather than giving a command), then offers him the choice to voluntarily do the right thing (keeping in mind that there is only one right answer for Paul). He suggests that Onesimus not only be received back into the household, but be treated as a guest of honor as Paul would no doubt be treated, even as a dear brother. Remember, this letter is read aloud to the household and the community that meets there. (See how clever Paul is?) Paul is placing heavy pressure on Philemon—the patriarch, top of the social pyramid, and now follower of Jesus—to seek to live an exemplary life not by Roman standards, but according to the teachings passed down by the disciples.

Now, at this point in a sermon, it is common to turn to the world in which we live and look for a parallel. However, there is virtually no analogy between the text of Philemon and how you and I navigate society. Although Paul chides Philemon using familial language, this isn’t like that time when you or I did something to incur a parent’s wrath—say, break your mother’s favorite Swedish record, for example, by accident. And, while slavery still exists in the world, we are at a point in history where (for us, here in the far left corner of the U.S.) it is not the socioeconomic status quo. We expect slaves to be freed, and perpetrators to be punished as a near future if not present reality. Even with these differences, there is an invitation to understand how and when we do hold a place of privilege or status.

And, to be clear, this is not a missive against all slavery, everywhere. It is, by definition, particular and occasional. Yet, with this one instance, we see a glimpse—more than a glimpse—of what it looks like to follow in the way of Jesus, where social and material relationships are turned upside-down (or at least sideways). Paul exerts his spiritual authority to imprint a new vision for humanity, when he strongly suggests that Philemon (a baptized believer) seek to eradicate class and caste restraints on his relationship with Onesimus. And, just to top it off, he adds, Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. [Oh, and by the way] prepare a guest room for me. . . [I’ll be coming to check on you.]

That pressure to do justice, to act out of faith and love, is a holy, prophetic pressure.

It is also horribly uncomfortable. Philemon no doubt felt it hearing Paul’s words read aloud in the company of others. He was faced with a choice of stepping into the vision that Paul set before him, or reverting to the familiar present reality.

Transformation, baptismal living, emerges as we step together toward Christ, each according to our gifts and simply who we are.

Have you ever had someone call out your deepest heart’s desires in such a way that hooked you in the gut? It is that feeling of knowing who you are beyond words, and a deep longing for integration/cohesion between what you do and what you believe about yourself. Perhaps your desires center around vocation and purpose in life, or maybe relationships and connection. Have you ever noticed just how difficult it is to pursue those desires? I find that among the clues indicating that I’m on the right path include, a) all doors open up mysteriously allowing me to move forward, and, b) everything feels as though it is going to heck. (Real conflicting.) For example, when I was accepted to a doctoral program, it was a beautiful and humbling confirmation that I occasionally get a good idea or two. Ever since then, life has presented an ongoing series of challenges (including the death of my estranged mother within the past couple years). As one who is going through a vocational crucible, I want to encourage you: pay attention to your gut level desires, pay attention when opportunities suddenly open up, pay attention when things get difficult. Never hesitate to ask someone to pray for you. Each one of us has something to bring to the table here. Some days it may be just our body, perhaps accompanied by a stream of tears, depending upon the week. That’s perfect. Other days we can bring a prayer to speak on someone’s behalf. That’s beautiful. All of it, all of what we bring each time contributes to something so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Gathering together to hear scripture and break bread—on Sundays and during the week—is one way we are formed together, encircled by God’s hands. By simply showing up you are participating in a vision of the kingdom, walking in faith and love together with others.

It’s come up in prayer, and I can sense it, too, that God is doing something here, at St. Luke’s, and it’s uncomfortable, but good. Good and hard tend to go together when it comes to growth and maturation. It’s as though our form is changing a bit. I mention that because some days we are like Philemon, having a place of authority/privilege, and it’s when we draw close to Onesimus that we find integrity of heart to pursue the work of the kingdom. When we gather together in communion we are united by God’s holy, prophetic W/word that of healing, wholeness, abundance of life that we can taste each week. It is a holy, prophetic word that points beyond what we can see each day, to a deeper reality of new life in the Triune God. Consider this: when we enter this space, there is the baptismal font where we can remind ourselves of our own baptism, and wet our appetites for God’s shalom, for peace, and for renewal not to hoard for ourselves but to spread out for all. Holy, prophetic pressure is the very thing that can ignite a passion for justice, starting within ourselves.

Recently, an acquaintance through Facebook posed a question regarding what to do with the pledge of allegiance as his daughter starts kindergarten. While this particular acquaintance is a devoted Christian, he is not one to conflate allegiance to a nation with allegiance to God. Later he posted his reflection on the ensuing discussion that centered around lessons learned from the civil rights movement. What struck me the most in his reflection specifically regarding the civil rights movement was how he described a pervasive underlying vision for a not-yet reality. He says this: “It is a movement rooted in living in the future you hope for, as if the lies of the present had already been defeated.”[1]

This is Paul’s vision as he writes to Philemon: remapping kinship ties, ways of being with one another, and intimacies with the Spirit of God. This is the truth toward which we aim as followers of Jesus, here in this place: a constant invitation to walk our baptismal journeys. Each one of us is invited to the table, to live in this future-present / present-future, difficult though it may be.

 

 

[1] From Dan Heck’s reflection on the civil rights movement, and saying the pledge of allegiance posted online, “How my community of beautiful weirdos helped me hear my teachers from the Civil Rights Movement, and make our Pledge of Allegiance more honest” (Medium, 23 August 2019); https://medium.com/@danheck/how-my-community-of-assorted-weirdos-helped-me-hear-my-teachers-from-the-civil-rights-movement-66668de736be.

July 21, 2019 – The Rev. Mary Petty Anderson

There’s an old song called “Sisters” that my brunette, brown-eyed sister and I sang when we were young, in Memphis, Tennessee, to a room full of veterans, while our grandmother played the piano.

Then, we sang the songs of the Armed Forces: “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun…”.  That came to me this week as I watched documentaries on Apollo 11, and when two test pilots – one with a doctorate in astronautics and the inspiration for the hero in Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear— when they step down to the lunar surface, my heart nearly burst with wonder.

On the day it happened, I was studying art and politics in Rome and took a bus to the American Embassy to watch, but the TV was nothing but snow, nobody was tuned in, and I missed seeing everything.

Now, on the module on the moon’s surface, there is a plaque imprinted with the names of the astronauts, in their handwriting, and the date: July 20, 1969, A.D., Anno-Domini, the numbers of years since Jesus was born. The fighter pilot John McGee wrote, “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of earth… (and) put out my hand and touched the face of God.” Then there’s the first video of Earth-rise, Christmas Eve 1968, Seattle astronaut Bill Anders reading, “In the beginning, God created…heaven .. and .. earth.”

But I want to circle back to my sister, because I often have the sense that one of us might as well be on the far side of the moon. These days, she’s a deacon and in a double-wide trailer lives way outside of Liberty, Mississippi, a town of 750. A born extrovert, she is a whiz at whipping up a feast for forty, with flowers and pizzazz. She set up and ran the first food kitchen in Monroe, Louisiana, for people on the street and routinely had a homeless person living in the spare bedroom. Right now, my sister has taken a position that’s opposite mine in a family conflict.

Do you have a sister? Maybe you have a stellar relationship with her, but the pathway that my sister and I walk has been sometimes sprinkled with compassion and generosity, but littered with shame and sorrow, blame and blind spots: what else?  Take your pick among the possibilities in any family system. Her extroversion and my introversion in opposition, the sensate and the intuitive: it’s a relationship that’s tricky and convoluted, like most every family relationship.

It’s like this Gospel reading about a pair of sisters, Martha-Mary.  They show up once in the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, Luke—and they are worn out with cliché.  One reason is that this story gets tangled up with stories about four other women named Mary: this is not Mary of Magdala, not the wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, not Mary of Clopas or the mother of James. And if you want to skip ahead 10-15 years to John and see the other reference to Martha-Mary, you can add a brother, and read about his being raised from the dead, and totally confuse today’s story. Today there’s no brother, no Lazarus, no alabaster jar, no oil poured on feet and wiped with long hair.

What do you not know about these sisters? Have they ever been married?  Are they married now? Are they widows? What about children?  Which sister is older and holds title to the property? How do they support themselves?  Did they inherit land with olive trees, or a flock of sheep, or a big-enough vineyard or orchard for support? Is it possible that they operate an inn for travelers, with continual food prep in a job that’s a source of much anxiety and trouble? And do they often irritate each other and find fault?

Here’s what you know. This comes directly after a story of a man who is stripped and beaten and left half-dead and rescued by a good Samaritan.  Hold that. Now: two sisters have a house. There is no mention of men in the household: not a husband or father or brother or son. All you know is that one sister welcomes a visitor into the house. She cooks. The other sister sits around listening to the man. The cook complains to the guest, either because she wants help, or because she’d rather be sitting around listening, but she can’t, because somebody has to cook supper. The guest comments that she’s too busy and distracted and defends the sister.  And I think: what’s really going on here? What is the point that Luke is making? Take this down another level, to something bigger.

Consider the notion that these two sisters are parts of one integrated person, with all that complexity: both hospitable and spiritually hungry; focused on work, and afraid of missing out;

holding a balance between extroversion and introversion; between reason and emotion; busy with work and starving to know what’s out there, beyond the kitchen. It’s not enough to stay inside or hide away. It’s not enough. There’s that stretch of human imagination, moving on. There’s life out there.

This story is an invitation.  Martha-Mary bumps right up against the Good Samaritan, and with these four people, there’s an entire worldview, the building blocks, the DNA of Jesus, the fundamental core of belief, and the kingdom of God is right here. It’s a doorstep, and you’re invited to walk across the threshold in search for connection and balance, to find welcome and comfort and solace and sustenance for your hungry heart.

 

September 1, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

September 1.  Labor Day weekend.  We can smell Fall around the corner.  School starts soon.  For many of us this time of year carries excitement and a readiness to get back into a routine, to focus on getting things accomplished, quite frankly – to get back to work.  As a student, I always enjoyed getting new school supplies, new books and new classes.  The sadness of the end of summer was supplanted by looking forward to new possibilities.

But there is another factor at work as we come to the Labor Day weekend and that is a profound exhaustion at the never-ending pace of work.  Summer breaks are less refreshing because we never fully leave our work and responsibilities since we stay connected via technology no matter how far away we roam.  The pace of life keeps increasing as we get older and it gets harder and harder to keep up.  There is so little time for quiet, so few opportunities to “switch off” so we keep working harder and harder to keep up with our many obligations.  Very few of us obey the Sabbath commandment so we find ourselves growing ever more weary in body, mind and spirit.

What keeps driving us?  Why do we keep striving and laboring and getting too little rest?  The wisdom writers of Scripture and the great psychologists of the 20th century identify this core striving as our human ego needs.  Our value is measured by our success, productivity, reputation and status.  We believe that the harder we work, the more valued, admired and loved we will be.  At the root of our unending labor is human pride – the belief that we alone are responsible for and in control of our destiny.

This view is reinforced in every aspect of our society.  We are rewarded for how much we accomplish.  We admire the successful and the famous.  We elect people who demonstrate confidence that can so easily tip over into unhealthy arrogance.

This sin of pride, which is not the same as a healthy sense of the self, is addressed in our Judeo/Christian tradition.  “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.”  Pride places self above all others and especially, above the Holy One.  Pride insists on its own way.  Pride is arrogant and rude and boastful.  Pride and envy go hand in hand.

Pride wants the best seats at the table.  Pride needs to be seen and honored.  Pride wants to be associated with the most important and powerful rather than the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  Pride is often associated with seething anger when the ego has been called into question and pride manifests as shame when a hidden fault is revealed.

We live in a time and in a nation where pride is rarely identified in a critical manner.  The message is to be great, the best, the most beautiful, the top of the class.  The notion of true humility, which involves a right understanding of our selves in relationship to the world and our Creator is undervalued.  As we keep working so hard to get ahead, we forget that we are but mortal and therefore contingent, dependent, subject.  There is great danger in overestimating our place.  “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We can even turn the spiritual life into one of unending labor and striving.  I have read and heard endless exhortations to discipline your life of faith, to work out spiritually, and to strive for a righteous life.  So often we turn the gospel of God’s grace and unconditional love into a message of earning God’s favor through constant diligence and hard work.

This past Tuesday, our own Brother Isaac died at his home on the property.  It was a privilege and honor to minister with him over the past 4 years and to spend time with him at the last.  His spiritual journey was a rich one through many disciplines and traditions.  When he fully embraced Christianity, it was in a spirit of a generous orthodoxy.  He loved and followed Jesus and he probably knew more of theology than anyone I know but what most characterized his commitment to Christ was his desire to grow in humility.

In May of this year I was given the honor of preaching at the closing Eucharist of our diocesan clergy conference.  I was pretty nervous about it, since these are my peers and we aren’t always kind to one another.  Plus, the bishop was going to be present and that’s always a little bit fraught.  As I thought about our calling as Christian ministers, Brother Isaac came to mind.  And so I shared the following:

There’s someone I encounter every single day I show up at church because he’s the live-in caretaker on the property.  He’s been in that role for 15 years, living in a small apartment.  He’s one of many characters at St. Luke’s.  We call him Brother Isaac.  He’s a priest, a monk, and a hermit.  He’s even been consecrated a bishop.  At one point his theological library numbered over 3,000 books.

His job involves tending to all our trash.  He picks up everything on the property from needles and food to propane tanks and tires.  He manages the 2 dumpsters and 9 roller cans it takes to handle the garbage from 200 meals, 5 days a week, a shelter, drop-in center, music school, church plant, urban garden and 9 full-time residents.  In addition he is the point person for the people who camp, sleep and pass out on the church grounds.  Up until January of this year he made 3-5 rounds every day to keep up with the heavy use we get on the property.  He’s easy to overlook because he’s quiet and he blends in with our unhoused neighbors.

But then he got sick, terminal cancer, and he could no longer perform his rounds.  None of us had any idea how much he was doing and how hard it was until he had to stop.  After the first month, when the trash was overflowing and it took about 10 of us to cover all he had been doing, I asked him, “How did you do this for so long?   I get so fed up with everyone who abuses the property.  I’m tired of cleaning up feces and vomit and garbage.  It’s so hard to strike the balance between the needs of the vulnerable and the need for safety for everyone.  How do you deal with such disturbed people every day?”  How have you kept your patience and compassion this long?

He looked at me in his classic Brother Isaac way, with a little, knowing smile and said, “Well, God called me to a vow of humble service, and St. Luke’s has certainly provided that opportunity.”

At our first Easter Vigil in many years in April, Brother Isaac was in attendance.  It was his final Easter.  For high, holy days, he wears his cassock, pectoral cross and biretta.  He sat in a pew in the old chapel and his attention was rapt.  As Megan, one of our Associate clergy read the Easter Sermon of St. John Crysostom the long western light shone through the stained glass upon him and he was alight.   He was radiant.  His face was full of hope and faith and love.  He saw the risen Christ.  He was filled with the Spirit and he knew God.

Here is a portion of what he heard that evening:

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.  First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together!  Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!  You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.  Let no one go away hungry.  Partake, all, of the cup of faith.  Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!  Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.  Amen.

August 11, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 28, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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