November 13, 2016, The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Proper 28, Year C; Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Today is an interesting one in the life of any preacher whose church uses the common lectionary. You see, we’ve come to the back of the book, the final pages, the end of the road in terms of the preaching cycle. The church year concludes next week and the new year begins with Advent the week after. On top of the conclusion of the yearly calendar, we are coming to the end of a 3-year cycle of readings. We’re at the bottom of the barrel.

In other words, I didn’t choose the Scripture you just heard and are holding in your hands. I never get to choose what to preach on. Together we wrestle with the breadth and depth of human experience and God’s message as we find it in the Bible. One can only hope and pray for God to speak to us both individually and collectively through the words of Scripture in our own time.

And boy do we need to hear God speak now! We’ve come to the end of an election cycle but we have yet to begin a new administration. It is a time of radical transition. We are living in the aftermath of one of the most stunning elections in history. It seems as if most of the people and institutions we have counted on are reeling from the unpredictability and divisiveness of this process. Many of you are overwhelmed.  Some are fearful, some hopeful.

Enormous amounts of distrust and suspicion have been uncovered in our nation and are continuing to increase. Many people are in varying stages of grief and loss.  Much is unclear.

We are a people living in a time of upheaval, not only in our own country, but around the globe. The world we thought we knew has ended, and it’s not clear what the new one will be like. This may produce anxiety or anticipation. Some things are being cast down and others are being raised up, and it’s not at all clear what it will be like when and if the dust finally settles.

The people of God have been here before. In fact, this experience is common enough that there is a title for various passages in the Bible that describe it. We call these passages of Scripture, apocalyptic literature. The word apocalypse literally means “revelation.” In apocalyptic times the events that happen disclose what is going on beyond and behind history. The inspired writer describes what is really real and truly true in the face of forces, powers and events that seem overwhelming and enormous. Every year these apocalyptic writings are assigned to the weeks just before and during the Advent season. They are the wake-up calls that alert us to the fact that everything may not be OK, that we need to keep our eyes open, to pay attention and to stand up for the right and the true.

It’s not that we know or think that the end of the world is imminent. Jesus warns people often not to worry about figuring that out. There have been many previous times that have been experienced as world ending. In fact, major historical crises trigger end-of-the-world thinking.  We can’t predict what will occur. Much seems unclear. What is ending for sure, is the world we thought we knew. And that may be terrifying.

In addition there is an element of judgement in apocalyptic literature. God will pronounce a verdict on failed persons and institutions. “The arrogant and evildoers will be stubble” as Malachi predicts. Those systems that degrade and devalue all that God loves will pass away. Ways we had become comfortable with, or taken for granted, or failed to see are exposed when they fail to protect the ones for whom God is deeply concerned. Injustices that had become ingrained are dramatically overturned.

Jesus pointed all this out.  He warned people that some of the institutions that seemed most solid and powerful, like the massive Jerusalem temple, would be torn down and utterly destroyed. He predicted the strife, wars, natural disasters and terrifying events that befall humanity all too frequently. He knew his followers might become scared, confused, discouraged, overwhelmed, defensive, violent or faithless. He even knew they might face persecution and suffering.

And so he called on them to do what needed to be done, and he promised that they would not be alone, and he reminded them that what is really real and truly true can never be taken away. He told them that they would be witnesses: witnesses to hope in the face of despair; witnesses to God’s love in the face of hatred; witnesses to the value of every human being, particularly the most vulnerable, the poor, women, those not in the majority, those scorned by cultural prejudice, children, refugees and immigrants who are strangers in the land; the despised, the different, the disabled. He let them know that they could stand up in the face of overwhelming challenges, that they would speak up with words that come from the deepest place of the spirit and that he would be with them forever.

We are those who have the Spirit of Jesus alive in our very bodies. We are called by him to pray and witness and serve in his name, whatever the circumstances, no matter how overwhelming the situation is. We may be called to great acts of sacrifice but usually we’re asked to perform small and frequent acts of faith and compassion. When Martin Luther was asked about the possible end of the world during the time of the Protestant Reformation and the threats and violence that movement unleashed, he responded, “If tomorrow is the Day of Judgement, then today I want to plant an apple tree.”

This week Sara opened the Chapel early on Wednesday morning for those who wanted a quiet place for prayer. A couple of our guests, Keith and Pete, asked if they might join me. For over 30 minutes they were on their knees.  Mine couldn’t hold out that long. We prayed silently. We prayed out loud. And after some time, I felt the Spirit in my spirit. The Spirit has a pretty good track record in our historical chapel! They felt it too and both mentioned it to me later. An African American Pentecostal man, a white ex-con, and an exhausted middle-aged preacher drew close to God and therefore closer to one another in the presence of the living Christ. When it felt like we were done, we all wanted to do more. Pete helped with the garbage, Keith went to help some people outside, and I started scrubbing pots.  Prayer, service, testimony. They may not seem like much in the face of enormous change and challenge but through prayer, service, testimony — and endurance, –Jesus promises, you will gain your souls.

We will not be overtaken by the forces which dehumanize and denigrate the children of God. We will be given by the Spirit of Jesus the strength and the courage to stand “against the rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”  (Ephesians 6:12) We will not cease to pray in the Spirit at all times. We will not cease to do good and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Regardless of the changes and chances of this life, we will rest in the eternal changelessness of God.

We will persevere in the power of the resurrection. We will put our trust in the One who made the Pleiades and Orion, who brings light out of darkness and has conquered death.

Let me close with a favorite prayer, “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”  Amen.

November 6, 2016; Sara Bates

Proper 27, Year C

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Sadducees in today’s gospel reading are scared – scared that a young Jewish teacher is gaining too big of a following.  A following that might listen to him as he speaks against the way they run the Temple, upending the tables of merchants inside its walls.  The Sadducees, you see, were the ones who had authority over the Temple and were responsible for ensuring its place as a house of prayer.  But Jesus accuses them of making it “a den of robbers” in the chapter just preceding today’s reading.  It is no wonder then that the Sadducees are looking for a way to discredit, incarcerate or kill Jesus without infuriating the crowds.

Because Sadducees followed the teachings of just the first 5 books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is not explicitly mentioned.  Jesus on the other hand, like the Pharisees and many other faithful Jews, believed and taught his followers that the resurrection of the dead would happen.  Thus this was the topic they chose to try and trap Jesus with. They use the example of a levirate marriage, from the law of Deuteronomy 25:5-6,”If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.  The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”

But of course, they are also trying to mock Jesus, so they say that not only did the wife have to marry one of her husband’s brothers, but six of them. – each dying before she could bear a child, and thus having to marry the next brother in line till none were left and she herself died. So the Sadducees ask, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

In unusual fashion, Jesus responds not with a question, but with a statement “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

In other words, the resurrected life is not a continuation of this life, but a new life.  Life as a child of God; a life where marriage is unnecessary.

For in the time of the Old Testament and that of Jesus, marriage was necessary.  Many of us are likely aware that marriage at that time was a means of obtaining and protecting property, of increasing safety and security, and also a way of continuing one’s life and name beyond one’s own mortality, through the production of children.  This is more than apparent in the law of the levirate marriage.  For when a husband dies without having produced a son to carry on his name, the widow is not discarded or pushed aside, but instead remains in the protection of her husband’s family through marriage with a brother-in-law. The widow even has the authority to publicly shame the brother-in-law who refuses his duty.

The truth is, marriage is still seen as being important in today’s society.  Perhaps not in the same way, as when women were considered to have no worth outside of their male relatives and men needed children in order for their names to live on.  Yet marriage is often still seen as something one must do to be considered good and successful, as well as things like getting a college degree, having children, and owning a home.  Trust me as a single, childless woman, who doesn’t own her own home, it still matters.

But that’s why Jesus’ response is so important!! He is saying that in the resurrected life, we will be children of God, living under the perfect protection, peace and love of God.  There is hope in the resurrection of a life that is based on God and not on our society’s economics, patriarchy, misogyny, and racism.  There is hope in a new resurrected life that is not a continuation of this one.

We aren’t told exactly what that will look like, I doubt it is all of us sitting on clouds in the sky, but we still can have faith that it will be better.  But what are the actual things we want to be better?  What changes would we like to see in the new life?

Then I ask the question, why should we sit around and dream about how life will be better after we die? Instead, we should go out and make it better today in this life.  As Karoline Lewis says, “How we imagine resurrected life gives us a glimpse into what matters for our lives here and now.  What we want resurrection life to be is, in part, what we want or wish life to be now.  We can spend a lot of energy asking about or imagining the details of eternal life, or, we can channel that energy toward how the security of its promise might make a difference for how we choose to live now.”

If we imagine a life with God to be one where all have shelter, why don’t we go out and work for affordable housing for all.  If in the resurrected life we imagine sparkling rivers of clean water, then we could stand today with the Water Protectors in Standing Rock. We can today raise our voices in proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter, encourage and support more women to run for political office, apply for higher wage jobs and actually paying them the same as we pay men. We don’t have to wait.

We don’t have to wait; for today the resurrected Body of Christ surrounds us.  The Kingdom of God breaks through in our worship today, in the singing, in the prayers, and in the Eucharist.  God sees us as our full selves, and calls us to see ourselves and each other in the same light.  And in the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”


October 9, 2016; The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Proper 23, Year C

2 Kings 5:1-15; Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Did you pay attention to the words of our opening hymn? Maybe you were just trying to figure out the tune and keep up with Ivar. Maybe you generally don’t sing in public. Since it’s a fairly new hymn by a living composer, it may not have been familiar to you. And since it’s in the Lutheran Hymnal you may have never encountered it before although we have sung it at St. Luke’s a time or two. It’s a hymn I really like.

This past summer I got to work with the composer at a conference in Albuquerque. My husband Bryon and I were planning the worship and Marty Haugen, who composed the hymn was the musician. At a workshop he led, he told the story of how the hymn came to be written.

Marty is actually a member of the UCC church. He was commissioned by a Catholic parish to write a hymn for the opening of their newly renovated sanctuary. Since the construction took a long time, Marty had a chance to get to know the people of the congregation and to hear about their hopes and vision for their church. He knew that one of the primary changes they wanted to make was to open up the worship space to the entry way and the baptismal font.

The plan was to make the walls out of glass and to expand the font to an actual baptismal pool with running water. In fact, he showed us the photo of how they accomplished this.

The reason they did this was because they wanted everyone to know two things when they came to church. The first is that this congregation welcomed everyone. In fact they are one of the most diverse parishes in the city with people from every walk of life. They actively welcome people from the LGBTQ community. Their commitment to this practice brings us to the second thing they wanted everyone to know when coming to the church. The waters of baptism are central to Christian identity. It is through this new birth into the Spirit of Jesus that we are made One Body in Christ. It is in baptism that we drink the new life of God’s Spirit. And it is in baptism that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

So Marty wrote a hymn and this is one of the verses:

Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat: 

a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet.

Here the love of God, thorough Jesus, is revealed in time and space;

as we share in Christ the feast that frees us: 

All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

We are people who want and need signs of God’s love and favor. Think of Naaman, the proud, rich and powerful commander of the Syrian army in our first lesson. He wanted and needed to be healed of his leprosy, a hideously disfiguring and debilitating disease. In fact he came to his enemy’s land, the land of Israel in order to locate the small town prophet that a young Israeli slave girl had recommended to his wife. He came expecting that he would need to do something heroic and pay an enormous sum in order to get the prophet to work a miracle for him. Because he was such an important figure and had brought such vast wealth, he expected that he would be received as more important and valuable than anyone else who came to Elisha, the man of God.

But Elisha doesn’t treat Naaman any differently than anyone else in need. He sends servants to tell Naaman to wash 7 times in the Jordan River, the river that hundreds of years later, Jesus would be baptized in. And Naaman was offended. He thought he should get more attention, more honor, special treatment. If it wasn’t for his brave and persistent servants, he would have stormed home unhealed and bitter, spoiling for a fight. Instead he follows the prophet’s directions and is completely healed. He is shocked and transformed. And the shock continues when Elisha refuses to accept any payment for the healing. All the credit goes to God. This healing is a gift from God.

Or think of the 10 lepers who came to Jesus for healing. This time, unlike many others, he doesn’t touch them but instead instructs them to head off to the priest so that they can be declared clean and restored to their community. They are healed before they even arrive. Their lives are completely changed and made new. They are no longer outcasts and objects of pity. The healing is the gift of God.  They didn’t have to do anything heroic, or beg or manipulate or pay Jesus off.

One of the ten is different from the others. All were healed but not all were transformed. One of them, a despised Samaritan whose people were considered to be religiously and culturally impure, wants more than just healing. His heart is so full of joy and amazement, he doesn’t complete the trek to the priest but instead turns around and returns to the source of the healing. He comes to Jesus full of praise and thanksgiving and throws himself at Jesus’s feet. God is working in the grateful outcast and the reluctantly obedient stranger.

So who is part of God’s family? Does it really include violent enemies and despised members from groups we disagree with? That’s one of the questions baptism and Marty’s hymn answers for us. God’s Kingdom seems to encompass all who receive the gift of God’s love and mercy and demonstrate their reception by their gratitude. It is this gratitude and worship of God that is at the heart of those who have become part of the Body of Christ.

In fact, “The root of joy is gratefulness… It is not joy that makes us grateful:  it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”  Bro. David Stendl-Rast OSB.

Here’s another verse from Marty’s hymn:

Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone

To heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known.

Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face;

Let us bring an end to fear and danger;

All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

We get lots of opportunity to practice this joyful welcome here at St. Luke’s through the Edible Hope feeding ministry, our SHARE shelter, the garden and our many partnerships. In the month of October we will have two other ways to share our joy and to welcome all into the house of God.

On October 30 we will be celebrating All Saint’s Day, honoring those saints who have gone before us, the saints among us and the newest members of the communion of the saints through baptism. We welcome those families bringing children into the faith community through baptism and any adults who wish to publicly acknowledge their faith by receiving the gift of baptism. The waters in the baptismal font are at the entrance to our worship space. They remind us of the forgiveness, mercy and love of God in Christ where all are beloved and valued children of God.

We are strengthened and upheld in our baptismal identity by the testimonies of the faithful and their stories of healing and gratitude. Our Fall stewardship program has been developed to provide us “Provisions for the Journey” as we share our stories of faith and are given the opportunity to turn around and be God’s grateful, thankful people in our worship and giving. Beginning October 23, you can look forward to hearing from a diverse group of people from St. Luke’s whose lives have been touched by God’s grace.

It all reminds me of the final verse of Marty’s song:

Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard

And loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.

Built of tears and cries and laughter,

Prayers of faith and songs of grace,

Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:

All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

October 2, 2016; The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Proper 22, Year C; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 32:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

I wish I had more faith. Especially after my weekend of gardening when I was moving various shrubs from one location to another. How nice it would have been to say to the Rhododendron bush, “Be uprooted and planted in the bed in the front yard!”  Instead my aching back tells me that I have to dig a fresh hole, amend the soil and then dig up the darn bush and cart it all the way from the back yard to its new home outside my front window.

I also wish I had more faith when I look around and see violence, wrongdoing, trouble, destruction, strife and contention. With St. Luke’s location here in Ballard there is no way for me to overlook the personal and communal crises that are harming so many.  I can’t step over the homeless man sleeping at our front door because I know his name and have listened to his story. When yelling and fighting break out nearby, I can no longer stay safely inside because people I care about may be threatened by the violence. When a senior pastor who has lived here for 30 years has to move because his rent is increasing, I have to speak up.

Today at noon in the Ballard Commons Park, I will be helping to lead a remembrance service for nine of the nearly 60 people who died on the streets during the past year. Small brass leaves with their names, birth and death dates will be embedded in the pavement. In the past, like many others, I may have failed to notice the 36 leaves that are already in place, but this year will be different. One of the leaves will be for Gary Oaks who died next to the dumpster in the alley down the street. While the police were waiting for the coroner to take his body away, I was contacted to come, uncover his forehead, bless him and pray for him and with those who had gathered in respect for a life ended in such loneliness and tragedy.

So with the prophet Habakkuk I cry for help. We all cry for help. Like the disciples we pray that our faith may increase when we come up against situations and injustices that overwhelm us. When there is no clear solution to the violence and destruction around us, we cry out. We cry in sorrow. We cry in anger. We cry to God, and we wonder where God is. We make our lament because the wicked surround the righteous and judgement is perverted. Wrongdoing and trouble surround us and we cannot hide from the pain and damage caused by the evils of the world.

Sadly this is not a new reality. In ancient Hebrew, the word translated as violence is ‘Chamas,’ which is defined as “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality.”  This kind of violence may be systemic and institutional, but it always impacts directly upon individuals. It is the violence that the prophets who spoke truth to power experienced, and it is the violence that brought Jesus to the cross.

God stands with those who suffer violence. God is near to the oppressed and will not abandon them. God has given to the prophets, to Jesus, and to us a vision that is radically different from the violence and destruction we witness. In Habakkuk’s time, God encouraged him to write this vision in large letters upon a wall, the original billboard. It was to be so plain that someone running away in fear could not fail to read it. It is a vision of peace where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and swords are turned into plowshares.

It is the vision of Jesus where the Kingdom of God is more real than the kingdoms of this world, and all are welcome at the great banquet feast where there are no strangers or outcasts. It may seem like it is not yet here, but we are those who are called to wait for it, to work for it, to speak its reality into existence.

One of the most violent and dangerous places in our world now and over the past 35 years is Sudan and South Sudan. The referendum that split the country into two in 2011 and created the new nation of South Sudan was only three years old before the newest nation was split by civil war. Now there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people in both countries. The cycle of violence and poverty and death is constantly repeating. It is easy to lose hope in face of such overwhelming destruction and wrongdoing. It is easy to lose faith when trouble is all around and the innocent are suffering and dying.

In 2012 I made a trip to South Sudan. My heart and prayers had been with the people there for years and I wanted to meet them in person and let them know that they were not forgotten. I stayed at a small compound run by an extraordinary woman. Cathy was born and raised in Uganda. When she was a young woman she met a missionary from the Netherlands, Wim. They fell in love and married but were unable to have children themselves. What they did have was an unswerving commitment to serve those who were the most vulnerable.

They moved to Sudan before the country split into two. Wim served with a number of non-profits. Cathy ran their compound and got involved in the community. As she traveled through Juba, the largest city in S. Sudan, she was overwhelmed by the trouble and hardship of young girls who were abandoned or on the street, used and abused by adults, unable to go to school, invisible. She began to take them in, one by one. The need was overwhelming. She formed a non-profit organization, “Confident Children out of Conflict.”

Cathy is fearless. She raised funds from all over the world. She confronted male relatives who wanted to hold onto the girls because of the money they could make off of prostituting them or turning them into indentured servants. She went into the most desperate neighborhoods, including the one where people lived on top of a graveyard to pull children from the brink of death. That’s where she found Moses. His mother had no food for him and his older siblings were barely surviving. Moses came home with Cathy and Wim. He was so thin, they weren’t sure he would make it.

When I met him, he had just reached his second birthday and was beginning to thrive. Now he is in kindergarten. He speaks at least 5 languages because of all the volunteers from around the world who have become his caregivers and fan club. He’s just one of the many children, most of whom are girls that Cathy and her team have brought off the streets and provided for.

This year, things got desperate in Juba. The Civil War was being fought in the streets. The children had to be moved to a village for their protection. Violence, destruction, and lawlessness had taken over.  Cathy and Wim could have left for their own safety. They could have given up and let evil and wickedness take over. But they didn’t. I don’t know how they find the faith to carry on, but they have.

Things have calmed down. Moses celebrated his 6th birthday. The girls are graduating from school, singing in the Cathedral Choir and learning that they are worthy of dignity and respect.

How do I know all this?  Cathy and I are Facebook friends. Habakkuk may have been asked by God to write the vision on a wall. The teachings of Jesus may have been written on papyrus, but social media is the new public forum, and we have a call to proclaim the vision in new ways to new generations.

People use the media to promote a variety of messages. Some are self-serving. Others are racist, sexist, and derogatory. Some try to incite fear, hatred and loathing. Many are divisive and narrow. It seems like the loudest and most damaging and hate-filled get the most attention.

But we know that these are not the most powerful voices or messages. This is not the vision that will transform our world and bring the Kingdom into reality. The voices of our current day prophets like Cathy are filled with faith and hope and love. The voices which echo Jesus’s teaching of love and mercy are more powerful than the hatred and injustice that are around us. As the prophet instructed us, “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

It’s less important how much faith I have, but it really matters who I have faith in. Every week we affirm our faith. We believe in the God who has made heaven and earth, and who loves all of creation including the trees and the animals we love and mourn. We believe in the Son who suffered death and was buried and who lives in the ones we encounter who are hungry, thirsty or in need. We believe in the Spirit of life who speaks through prophets and saints like Cathy and inspires us to live as people of the resurrection.

So my friends, write the vision of Christ’s love. Greet a stranger, plant a garden, share a meal, stand up for justice, care for the most vulnerable, post something hopeful, bless a child. For “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love.”

“May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Proper 18, Year C September 4, 2016, The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

When I was a senior in high school, I was part of something that I have been ashamed of ever since. I attended the same high school that my father and aunt had in the 1940’s. Then it was a mostly white school which drew students from the working and middle class neighborhoods around it. When I attended in the 1970’s, Grant High had been integrated by busing some students from nearby neighborhoods that were primarily African American. The reason for the segregation of the neighborhoods is a practice known as red-lining where banks, mortgage companies and realtors operated under a shared understanding that anyone who wasn’t white could only get loans and purchase property in certain areas designated by “red lines” on the map. Busing was an attempt to integrate students who might never otherwise come into regular contact with one another.

My parents taught me about red-lining. My father was a city planner and most of his work was in urban renewal in the very neighborhoods that had been set aside for people of color. My mother was an elementary teacher who taught in schools in the same neighborhoods.  They supported public schools and integration and an end to some of the damaging, racist practices of the government and culture. They were also the beneficiaries of those damaging practices.

My father was able to purchase a home on the GI Bill in a white neighborhood with a great interest rate. GI’s who weren’t white were not provided the same benefit. I don’t know if my Dad was aware of that in 1969.

My Aunt, my Dad’s sister, was different. She married the middle son from a family whose patriarch had developed a heating oil and furnace business. They raised their family outside the inner city and their kids attended mostly white schools. They had more financial resources than my public-servant parents ever had. So my uncle gave me a job at his family’s company. I’d take the bus every day after school to work 3-4 hours doing a variety of clerical work.

One day my Uncle called me into his office. I was nervous when I saw how nervous he was. He hemmed and hawed but finally he made it clear that he was asking me if I knew any black female students who might be willing to work with me at the office. You see, there was not one black office worker in the entire business and affirmative action was just beginning to take effect. My Uncle and his entire family had no contact with African Americans. And so he asked me to find someone for him.

I don’t remember if I talked to more than one person, but Shelly was willing and they hired her right away. She and I would ride the bus to work after school and sit near one another doing menial clerical work. We were polite to one another, but we never became close friends. I don’t even remember how the job ended for either of us, but it was my final year and I was heading for college. I don’t know what Shelly did, but we never spoke to one another after that.

And I’m so ashamed. I’m ashamed that I never realized how awkward and horrible it must have been for her. I’m ashamed that I never stood up to my relatives who demeaned Shelly by seeing her as a way to get around a quota. I’m ashamed that I participated in a system that benefited me but not her. I’m ashamed of my privilege and my ignorance and my failure to truly see Shelly and to embrace her as a friend, even a sister.

Because that is what she really is to me. I became a Christian halfway through that senior year of high school.  As I began to follow Jesus, my own family was ashamed, angry and confused. My family are atheists and my conversion created a lot of conflict. As I struggled with what it meant to love my family and to choose a different path than the one they had raised me with, other Christians were an amazing support for me.

They were family, too – a family that wasn’t created by blood or upbringing or even by similarity, but the family of God, the Body of Christ where we belonged to one another in a way that transcends race, background, language, political persuasion, and every other human distinction.

We get to catch glimpses of that reality in the stories of the early Christians, especially as we listen in on Paul’s short letter to a wealthy Christian leader, Philemon. Philemon and his wife Apphia were leaders of a house church and financial supporters of Paul. As many wealthy Romans of the time did, they owned slaves. Onesimus was a slave who at the very least ran away and possibly stole something of value in the process. He ended up as Paul’s companion. He converted to Christianity and became a supporter and partner to Paul when he was facing imprisonment.

The unjust system of slavery separated Philemon and Onesimus. Even worse, the required punishment for Onesimus would be terribly harsh if he were to return to his master. And yet, that is what Paul has suggested should happen. He is sending Onesimus back to that horrible situation, with the added possibility of a severe judgement for his desertion.

But Paul is hopeful that there is a force greater than slavery, greater than the self-interest of the powerful or an unjust system. What Paul is counting on is the transformative power of the gospel. He knows that the wealthy and powerful Philemon and the powerless and vulnerable runaway slave are also brothers in Christ. More than that, Paul is like a father to Onesimus. And Onesimus has become Paul’s heart.

Paul doesn’t deal with the unjust system or order Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Instead he appeals to love, the greatest force in human relationships. He loves both Philemon and Onesimus and he hopes that they might live in love towards one another. Paul is willing to pay the price financially for whatever has been lost. He is willing to pay the price of his own reputation in standing up for Onesimus and risk the loss of Philemon’s support. He is even willing to give up Onesimus’s companionship so that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus can be reconciled.

What Paul hopes and longs for is so radical that he even wonders if this whole situation came about for this very purpose, so that “Philemon might have Onesimus back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother, … both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

What would it be like if the transformative power of the gospel reached into the unjust systems in our society?  What if illegal immigrants who work, raise families and participate in the community were given a path to citizenship rather than deported and walled away from the life they have here?  What if drug users who are willing to try rehabilitation, could do so rather than be jailed?  What if churches were no longer the most segregated public gathering places on Sunday mornings?  What if we took the risks to love ALL of our neighbors as if they were brothers and sisters?

My life has been transformed by the love of Jesus and the amazing people who follow him. I have come a long way from the 16 year old who participated in an arrangement that failed to respect Shelly and treat her fairly and with dignity. I still fail daily to truly see each person as my brother or sister in Christ and to treat them accordingly. There’s much more to do and so much more to learn.

My 40th high school reunion is coming up next summer. This week I looked Shelly up on Facebook. Guess what? She loves Michelle Obama, animal rescue videos and Jesus. So do I!  It breaks my heart that we are not friends. So I sent her a message. She probably doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I wouldn’t blame her. But if she does respond, I’ve got some work to do, the real work of repentance and sorrow and the willingness to learn more about love and sacrifice for the sake of God’s beloved community.

Proper 10, Year C, July 10, 2016, Sara Bates

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus doesn’t answer him directly but tells him the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, from David’s city of peace, perched high on a hill, twenty miles through the wilderness, to Jericho, located at the edge of the Dead Sea.  It is a dangerous road, not one to travel alone.” – James A.  Wallace

It truly is a dangerous road, as he doesn’t make it to Jericho before being beaten, stripped and robbed, left for dead.

A priest walks by, moving to the far side of the road to avoid him.

A levite also walks by, moving to avoid him.

But then a Samaritan, the one who has nothing in common with the man, does the unthinkable and comes closer to him.

Cares for his wounds, transports him to the safety of an inn, and pays the innkeeper to care for him as he recovers.

After telling the parable, Jesus asks a final question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

This question and really the whole parable is upsetting to the lawyer and likely all who heard it because they knew that the only answer could be the Samaritan, but they didn’t want him to be his neighbor.  So instead of identifying him as the Samaritan, the lawyer answers “The one who showed him mercy.”

He could have also said, the one who came near to him.

For that is what really separates the Samaritan from the priest and the Levite.  He saw the man and came near to him.

In the wake of this week’s tragedies, I can’t help but also be upset by this parable.  Because I have to confess that I would have to put myself in the place of one who passed by the man lying on the side of the road suffering.

For my entire life I have seen my Christian brothers and sisters of color being oppressed, beaten down by a racist social climate, and I have not said or done anything to change it.

I have let fear stand in the way.

Fear of not knowing what to do, and most importantly fear of losing my own privilege.

I allowed myself to believe that the Civil Rights Movement had ended racism.  But for the past 10 years my eyes have been opened slowly.  In my studies of public health, I was shown report after report how the societal racism in the United States negatively affects the health of people of color.  I could no longer deny the fact that racism still existed.  And I even started to see my own white privilege and understand my part in societal racism.  I even acknowledged the fact that I am a racist because I haven’t actively or intentionally worked to end racism, but allow it to continue.

I have seen the wounded, and I continue to walk on by on my way to my high hill of privilege.

But recently it’s become harder and harder to just walk on by.

I usually get my news from social media, meaning the newspaper articles and tv news reports I see are posted on Facebook or Twitter.  Technology has drastically changed how I see the world.  Everything is instantaneous, less curated, and more opinionated.  It has opened my eyes to events I would have been unlikely to witness otherwise.  I have been witness to the last moments of peoples lives, people I don’t know, but that are instantly made known to me as children of God as their lives are being taken from them.  If it weren’t for cell phone video, I probably would have never known the names of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.  They would have been just 2 of the estimated 136 black persons killed by police in America in 2016.

Now, it’s as if I’m not just seeing the lifeless body on the side of the road, but am seeing the robbery and beating taking place.  I am seeing the destruction happen, not just the results, and I sit and watch until the body looks just like all the other bodies left on the side of the road. But now this body has a name.  And each time I walk down the road, I remember that name.  But I have just kept walking until now.

I can’t keep walking though.  The young black men killed and the young black children who I don’t want to see killed have captured my spirit.  It is time for me to stop. Time for me to stop and come near to those in need on this dangerous road we are on together.

And that’s the thing I hope you all get from this… we are on this road together.  We need to come near to each other for safety.  We need to be neighbors; we need to be lights to each other in this dark world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This quote was lived out in this parish this week.

On Friday morning after a gunman ambushed the Dallas Police force at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, killing Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa (Zah ma reepa) and injuring 5 other law enforcement officers and 2 civilians, I received a message on Facebook from Canon Britt inviting me to join a discussion that was taking place. As I went back and read through all the previous discussion, I saw that Jasen Frelot who will be joining us this summer for a short children’s ministry internship was gathering leaders of churches throughout Seattle and the greater area to come together to act out of radical love. He was asking that we would help contribute and join him in delivering flowers to all the Seattle Police precincts and to officers on the street with the message, “Our prayers for safety and peace on this painful day. With gratitude, love, and hope for a more just and peaceful future.” Over 30 churches joined the conversation and put this idea into action, spreading the reach throughout the greater Seattle area. Canon Britt went with two fellow ministers to deliver flowers to the North Precinct, and since I was working in Snohomish that day, I went during my lunch break and delivered a bouquet to their police department as well. The receptionist there thanked me for the gesture and let me know that the officers were really struggling with the emotion of the day. Throughout the day I would see posts on Facebook and Twitter about various churches delivering flowers. But it was seeing Jasen and his daughter Ruby handing out roses to officers on the street that allowed me to understand the incredible need for love in these moments.

In these moments where anger and sadness are more than appropriate, we can choose to instead spread love. Not just to the police officers mourning their fallen comrades, but people of color too. As Jasen said in a video post explaining why he choose to take these actions “We should have acted sooner, there is no excuse for not acting when our Brothers and Sisters in Christ are being killed.” He also said that he hoped that this day would “inspire [the churches that joined him on Friday] to no longer be silent in the face of oppression…There can never be enough images of white people and white churches, white progressives and white conservatives, and white people showing their support for black people and people of color.”

Jasen, you have inspired me. I will be there on the road with you, drawing near to those who are in need. Thank you for helping to call me closer to those lying on the side beaten and bruised. I hope that we all will draw nearer together in this time of pain and confusion, spreading the love of Jesus that is the only remedy to the evil of this world.

On the night Martin Luther King Jr. died, Bobby Kennedy said something that is truer even today “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded me in an address he gave on this week’s tragedies, that we have in our prayer books that we can use to help draw us closer to God and one another.  If you would all turn to page 815 in the Book of Common Prayer and say with me the prayer For the Human Family (no. 3)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

Proper 6, Year C, June 12, 2016, The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

When I first became a Christian at the age of 17 I had a pretty strong moral compass.  I was raised by atheists who had extremely high standards of ethical behavior.  And because I was the oldest daughter, I strove to meet all of their expectations of honesty, hard work, frugality and integrity.  And mostly I did, primarily because I wasn’t creative or crafty enough to do anything really wrong without being caught.

When I became a Christian, there was a whole new set of standards to live up to.  These included loving your enemy, caring for the most vulnerable, praying for others, gratitude and generosity.  These are tough enough still for me but there were some other requirements that became very confusing and difficult for me.

One church insisted that rock music was of the devil and I would have to destroy all of my albums that weren’t Christian.  Another church youth group became convinced that even kissing outside of marriage would lead to immorality  so they encouraged all of us young people to refrain from any physical contact with the opposite sex.  And, by the way, contact between members of the same gender was so outrageous that it was hardly even mentioned!

Smoking was forbidden.  Drinking alcohol was both illegal and immoral.  In some of the churches I visited, even being a member of the “other” political party was a sign that you were slipping in your Christian faith.

I began to get the impression that being Christian was about being perfect and sinless.  Because I loved Jesus and I admired so many of the people who followed him, I really, really tried to be good all of the time.  I agonized over my anger towards my siblings.  I felt ashamed of my lust and passions.  I tried to bring together the politics and convictions I had learned from my family with some of the radical politics of the newly developing “Moral Majority.”  I even attended an entire week’s program for college students that laid out a manual of proper Christian behavior in an enormous notebook with headings and sub-headings for every possible situation and Bible proof texts for each one.

It was exhausting and confusing and very difficult.  The love of God which had transformed my life and given me light and hope and a new identity was being crushed under a heavy weight of law and judgement.  This was not freedom in Christ or the abundant life or the joy of the Spirit.  This was justification through the law and it was nullifying the gift of God’s grace in my life.

Fortunately for me, I discovered the great depth and breadth of the Christian tradition through the spiritual guides in the authors I was reading.  One of these influences was Madeline L’Engle and I tried to read nearly everything she wrote.  I found out she was teaching a writing institute in Vancouver BC and I got on the waiting list.  Fortunately I was accepted and I heard directly from her an entirely different approach to the Christian faith.  She wrote stories of real challenges, flawed characters, God’s transforming grace, hope and beauty.

She gave us an assignment to re-write one of the stories of the Old Testament so I started reading the Bible for its stories, rather than just for moral guidance and direction.  And, boy these were some stories, filled with turmoil, tragedy, comedy, sex, violence, redemption, and yes, true love!  In order to procrastinate from my homework I decided to go swimming in the beautiful pool at the University.  As I got into a rhythm in the water I had a sudden realization.  All those heroes and heroines in the Bible were NOT perfect people.  In fact, all of them were notoriously flawed.  There was not one Moses or Noah or Rahab or Miriam or Saul or Solomon that hadn’t screwed up royally.

And one of the very worst, the most scandalous sinner in the whole Old Testament was also one of the most favored and graced of God’s lambs, David, the shepherd boy chosen to be the golden King of Israel.   David the boy with the sling.  David the beloved of God.  He is also the king who forcefully took Bathsheba and impregnated her.  He is the warrior who deliberately sent an honored soldier to death to cover up his rape.  And he thought he could use his power and influence to get away with it.

But he could not hide from God or God’s prophet.  Nathan tells a heart-wrenching story about a poor man and his beloved only lamb that is taken by a powerful and wealthy man.  When David passes judgement on the rich and powerful sinner in the story, Nathan utters one of the most damning phrases in literature, “You are the man!”

What follows is a description of the consequences of David’s behavior.  It’s heartbreaking to hear the damage that cascades not only through David’s life but through the life of Bathsheba, their son, their larger family and the nation.  Murder and treachery multiplies.  Violence and disrespect towards women spreads.

And yet, all is not lost.  Even in the culture of “an eye for an eye,” God demonstrates grace, forgiveness and a reason for hope.  David’s repentance allows God to work in him and through him despite his despicable and evil behavior.  Later in this service we will sing a bit from Psalm 51, which is one of David’s most famous songs of repentance.  He honestly and humbly acknowledges his fault without blaming anyone else or offering excuses.  He doesn’t look for a scapegoat or rationalize his behavior or claim that his exalted status as King gives him special dispensation.  He recognizes that his sin goes deep into the moral fabric of the universe and is a sin against God the Creator.

David is the ultimate example of every human’s double identity as both saint and sinner.         None of us gets a clean bill of moral health.  Some of us have more visible, scandalous and socially unacceptable moral failures but none of us is exempt.  We have all fallen short of the glory of God and of our best and truest selves.  Simply trying harder or being in denial won’t make it all better.  Our only hope is in the grace and mercy of God in Jesus.

Forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration all begin with an honest cry of confession.  Our humble and heartfelt recognition of our responsibility for the mess we have made of things is the open door for God’s grace to get in.  When we scapegoat someone else, rationalize away our own culpability or romanticize the ugliness of our behavior we remain closed off and unable to receive the salvation we so desperately need but refuse to ask for.

When we refuse to acknowledge the way we have wounded others and sinned against God and our neighbor we are trapped and doomed to continue to suffer the consequences and repeat the patterns.  There is not one of us here who can escape based on how smart or good or church-going or moral we are.  Like the woman of the city – the notorious sinner of Jesus’s day, we each have the opportunity to fall at the feet of Jesus and to pour out our sins and our sorrows, weeping and hopeful at the same time.  It is Christ who raises us up to our feet, who proclaims the forgiveness of our sins, tells us that our faith has made us well and sends us forth in peace.

We at St. Luke’s are a home for all saints and sinners.  We get to practice confession, forgiveness, humility and reconciliation on a regular basis.   It is not easy.  In fact this church has a history of folks disagreeing and departing rather than staying to continue the hard work of making peace.  But there is nothing sweeter than the renewal of a right spirit within an individual and a community.  There is no sharing of the peace that is more powerful than when those who have been cut off from one another are reunited.

Today as we do every Sunday throughout most of the year we will have a general confession.  We come together to corporately acknowledge that each one of us is both saint and sinner, desperately in need of God’s grace and mercy.  We offer a common prayer of acknowledgement and a common hope for forgiveness.  It will be my privilege as a priest to offer general forgiveness the name of the triune God.  Today only there will be an opportunity after the confession for individual prayers for healing and absolution by the font.  No one must come.  No one will think you are a greater or lesser sinner either way.  We are all in this together folks.  In fact, I’ll start by asking Ivar to grant me absolution.  Please feel free to use this short time as you most need, in quiet, in reflection, in prayer.  May you know the healing power of God’s grace and the merciful forgiveness offered in the strong and loving name of Jesus this day and always.  Amen.


The Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016 – Canon Britt Olson

My father was a city planner and had a degree in architecture so I grew up going on “walks” with him around Portland. He loved to talk about the history of the buildings and the different styles of architecture. He shared how urban renewal shaped the city in the 60’s and 70’s and the successes and failures of the movement. When he retired, he became active in the rails to trails movement, creating miles of bike trails which he rode on until his Parkinson’s disease became too crippling.
His passion for cities and buildings was passed onto all three of his kids. My sister teaches courses on architects and architecture at the University of W. Virginia and my brother loves everything about old Portland. And wherever I travel I always look for museums or tourist centers or websites where I can find out about the place I am and what has shaped it.

That’s one of the reasons I am so excited about being in Ballard during this incredible time of change and development. I care passionately about how the people who already live here and those who are moving in can work together as residents, business owners, governmental agencies, neighbors and non-profits to create the best possible community for the most people. Here at St. Luke’s we are in the center of this rapidly changing neighborhood and as those whose values for community are shaped by the vision God has for all people, we have something to contribute as well.
Which is why I heard the passage from Revelation in a new and focused way this past week as I began to prepare for Sunday. The writer of Revelation has received a vision. He is called to write it down accurately, to share it with others and to work to see that the vision becomes reality. He writes,
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
What is this new Jerusalem, I wondered? Why is there a vision of an ideal city where God will dwell rather than a beautiful mountain top or a glorious beach or a majestic forest? After all, most people from the Pacific Northwest say that they find God most often in nature which almost always implies that they don’t find God in the city or in a building. This probably means that most folks find God where there aren’t as many people around. There is nothing to spoil an ideal vision or a glorious experience like the presence of real people who are loud or crazy or dirty or annoying or rude or a pain in the neck or all of the above!
Here’s the thing. Cities are where people are. A recent study shows that 86% of those who are considered Millennials (or young adults) will live in a city by the year 2020. If most of these folks don’t think that God can be found in the city, it will be a tragic situation. It makes a difference if you feel like the only way you can encounter God is by going on retreat, climbing a mountain or mediating in solitude.
But cities can be so dirty, chaotic, loud and dangerous. Certainly old Jerusalem is that way with its narrow alleys and walls and the ever present armed soldiers reminding you that this is one of the most contested pieces of property in the world. What is God’s vision for the city, the new Jerusalem that is so beautifully described in Revelation.
The first thing I noticed in the lengthy description of this perfect city is that it is beautifully proportioned, clean and orderly. It feels spacious and light and healthy. And although it has a wall and 12 gates, every one of those magnificent gates stand open. They are never shut. Imagine that. Imagine living in security and safety, not because we have more alarm systems, deadbolts and guns but because God has established us in relationships of trust and respect. Every time we have to build more walls, hire more guards, and put ourselves in gated communities we live in the old Jerusalem where fear and danger are primary motivators and we cannot even get near our neighbor because we are scared.
In the new Jerusalem we are willing to open ourselves to encounters with those who are different from us, those who have lived on the other side of the tracks or right next to the tracks, those who live in neighborhoods still defined by the old practice of red-lining that kept people of color from purchasing homes anywhere but in one, specific area, those who speak different languages and practice different customs.
Each of those gates is named for a different tribe of Israel. And each of the twelve foundations are named for the twelve apostles. Think of that. So many of the tribes failed to honor their promises or broke off from one another or even went to war with each other. And the twelve apostles? Does that include Judas?
Certainly Peter who failed Jesus so badly and many of the others who were clueless or doubting or manipulative would all be honored by having their name written on the very bedrock of this new city. Imagine that. God can create something beautiful and lasting and inspirational from the failures and foibles of ordinary people who serve and extraordinary Lord.
But the best is yet to come. There is no fear. There is no darkness. There are no locked doors. There isn’t even a religious temple. No glorious cathedral or new version of Solomon’s grand temple. No steeples to catch your attention or churches on hills. None of that will be necessary for God will dwell with all the peoples. God will be present everywhere and with everyone. No one will be able to claim that God prefers to dwell in this particular synagogue, church or mosque for God’s temple will be in our hearts. God’s law will be lived out in our lives. Our priorities will be less in the building and maintenance of houses of worship and more in actual worship.
And here’s the very best. In this new Jerusalem, the death that stalks city streets will no longer be present. No longer will people die from heroin overdoses or from exposure. Never again will someone walk into a house or workplace or school and shoot to kill dozens of people. Suicide will cease. And the mourning and crying and pain of grief will be dried up. God wants to bring a new Jerusalem where life is abundant and the thirsty are given the springs of the water of life.
It’s a glorious vision. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry reminds us over and over, it takes us away from the nightmare that this world has become into the reality of God’s dream for all of creation.
This vision was given 2,000 years ago and it is still not our everyday reality. What good is it then? Why bother with fine words about a new Jerusalem when we live in real world where the rich are getting richer; and there are more gated communities and secure buildings; and the violence increases; and homelessness is exploding; and more people are taken by drugs and alcohol; and the city is a chaotic mess? Why even consider this vision of God that seems so far out of reach?
Because without it, nothing will ever change. Without it, it will be “every man for himself.” Without this vision, we will fracture into more and more groups of self-interested, partisan people who are at war with nature and one another.
When people of faith catch a glimpse of God’s vision, we are able to share that with others and to give ourselves to a hope that opens up completely new possibilities. When we learn to live in the beloved community where every person is valued and welcome, we offer a different way of life to those around us.

We will not be those who give into despair over the difficult situations our cities and neighborhoods are facing. We follow a risen Christ who reigns in glory and opens to us a new vision for how we might live in harmony with one another and with our environment. We can plant flowers in a neighborhood where all the dirt is disappearing. We can open our church home to all our neighbors so that we might actually sit down at table together across all the barriers that might keep us apart. We can participate in meetings, events and advocacy that builds up the common good and refuse to belittle or dismiss those who differ from us.
It won’t be easy. When Jesus gave us the new commandment that we should love one another just as he has loved us, he did so right after Judas left to betray him and just days before he was crucified. The challenges are real and the difficulties seem insurmountable at times. But we are not those who are without hope. We are Easter people. We have been given a vision to goad and inspire and guide us to live as people of faith, hope and love.
And as we do, one relationship at a time, one more effort to reach out to the least the last and the lost, one more time we work towards reconciliation rather than harboring grudges then the promise of Jesus will be for us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.

Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016 – Canon Britt Olson

Welcome to the 1,983rd celebration of Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are still living into that great Mystery. After centuries of violence, suffering, injustice and oppression, we Christian people continue to gather in joy and in faith that there is another way, there is another story, there is a greater reality.

It’s certainly amazing that we are gathering here this morning in the middle of a city known for its secularism, in an area of the country known as the None Zone (for the number of folks who select “none” as their religious affiliation), when we could be participating in all the other options before us on a beautiful spring morning in Seattle. We’ve been drawn together this morning as friends, family, neighbors and even strangers to celebrate the dawn of hope, the transforming power of love and the triumph of life over death.

It’s incredible to me that we are here, at St. Luke’s, Ballard after all the changes and challenges that this community has experienced. Through 100 years of ups and downs, faithful people have continued to practice the power of resurrection in this place, praying, worshipping and caring for the least, the last and the lost by feeding and sheltering the most vulnerable. At some points it seemed that all might be lost, the property sold, and the buildings demolished in order to make way for new development. But beyond all expectation, the Spirit is moving to bring new life and a new way forward as a community of faith, hope and love in the middle of this city.

Each of you has a story to tell as well. It probably involves challenge, suffering and maybe even death. Perhaps there is betrayal, wounding or brokenness. And yet, here you are. Something has happened to bring you back or to bring you here for the first time. You have been drawn into the great drama of Jesus’s Passion, his suffering, death and resurrection. Something or someone has shown you a different way, a path forward, a new direction.

How is this possible? How does resurrection become real?

Resurrection only becomes real when someone witnesses to its reality.

Resurrection becomes real when there is a witness.

The first witnesses were women. They were disciples of Jesus and they had been with him through it all. They were healed by him. They saw all the good he did and his power to free those who lived under the oppression of evil. They listened to his teaching and they observed the way he treated people, especially those who weren’t in the center of things, especially the poor, especially women. And so when the dawn broke, at the first opportunity they didn’t abandon him even in death. They arrived to care for his broken body only to find an empty tomb and two unusual figures with a message they could barely believe. But then they remembered what they had learned. Their grief-numbed brains began to whir with memories of all Jesus had said and done. Their hearts began to thump with excitement and anxiety. And they knew that everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same.

These were the first to testify to the resurrection but soon there would be others. All those who experienced the resurrected Jesus became his witnesses. Their testimony was risky. It was considered foolishness and weakness. It got many of his followers killed. And yet they could not keep silent. That thing that happened to the women, happened to them. Life was snatched from death. Love came forth in the midst of hatred. Hope sprang up from despair.

For the past 6 weeks 25 people have been on a Spiritual Pilgrimage through Lent at St. Luke’s. Each week we have heard testimony from someone who has experienced the power of the resurrection. It’s probably just a coincidence but all those who testified are women! They shared how God brought them through difficult marriages and the challenges of being a single mother. They told how God became their closest and dearest friend when they felt abandoned by the death of those they loved. One told how she is moving from a position of privilege and safety in order to see more of the resurrected Christ in the face of the other. They shared the compelling reasons why they are willing to get up every morning to serve those on the margins of society, those who are addicted, mentally ill or simply struggling to maintain dignity in the face of loss. They care for elderly parents, they create beautiful gardens, they fight injustice and… they’re really, really uncomfortable right now! These women are witnesses to the resurrection.

Witnesses are not perfect or sinless or always faithful. Witnesses are real people with flaws and failings. Witnesses don’t point to themselves but rather to the glory and grace of God in the power of the resurrected Christ. Most of the time they don’t even realize what they’re doing. Witnesses bear truth by their authentic lives.

We are, each of us, witnesses to resurrection. Every time we make a choice for life over death we testify to resurrection. Every time we forgive as we have been forgiven we demonstrate the way of Jesus. When we make the effort to love our enemy and to see the face of Christ in the stranger, we stand up for resurrection. When we open our hands to give generously, we trust in resurrection. When we share a meal where all are valued, all are welcome and all are one in Christ, we live in the reality of resurrection.

Resurrection is not something you prove or disprove. It is not a doctrine that can be taught or memorized. Resurrection can only be witnessed. And to witness is to put your very life on the line. To witness is to let your life show.

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

With faith, hope and love,
Canon Britt

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016


Thirty years ago a friend who is a skillful calligrapher offered to write a favorite verse or passage from Scripture for me.  Because it would take him a lot of time and effort and because it would probably be a keepsake, I thought long and hard about my choice.  Finally I decided upon the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read this morning.
In it Paul examines his life and context in light of his encounter with Jesus.  He has a lot going for him.  He’s had a great upbringing as part of a notable family.  He has a wonderful education where he has been a star student.  He’s part of an elite group of religious practitioners who take their faith seriously and work hard to do everything according to what is required.  He’s been righteous and blessed and successful in his career as a star persecutor of those who are a threat to the stability and strength of his religious system.
But when he meets the risen Christ in his encounter on the road to Damascus, everything pales in comparison.   All that he has previously valued, all that gives him status and meaning and a sense of purpose is suddenly worthless in comparison with this heavenly call, this radical relationship with the one he calls “Lord.”
At the time I chose this passage, I had counted as loss some things that had previously provided me with value.  I had just left my career at the hospital to become a missionary with college students.  My good salary, condominium on Puget Sound and single life in the city had been traded in for poverty wages, a tiny apartment and life in a small college town in Oregon.  I was probably feeling a little sorry for myself at this point.  I was certainly feeling at least a little self-righteous about my “sacrifice.”   I confess that I was probably just a little proud to display my beautiful calligraphy.  It drew attention to all that I had given up.  It made me seem more holy.
Two funny things happened along the way.  First, I had the time of my life in campus ministry.  It was rewarding and challenging and life-giving and an absolute blast.  The sacrifice paled in comparison with the delight of ministering to and with bright, questioning, sincere, searching students.  The joys far outweighed the difficulties and God provided for me more than I could ask or imagine.
The second funny thing that happened is that my framed calligraphy disappeared from my wall.  It ended up in a box, moving with me from place to place and job to job.  Because it was in storage, it wasn’t destroyed in the fire that burned down my office.  Because it was in an already packed box, it was one of the last things left unpacked here in our new home in Seattle after everything had gone up on the walls.
Which is how it came to be one of the few pieces of art available to decorate the walls of my office here at St. Luke’s.  I put it up a year ago and even though it’s a little faded, it still has the power to move and convict me.
This week I was being interviewed by a wonderful young man who is a member of our sister church, Pangea, and a first-year Master of Divinity student at Seattle Pacific University.  He has a project due next week on how the minister’s Christology (their theology of who Jesus is) and their denomination affect their understanding of God and humanity.  Of course he procrastinated and needed to get 5 interviews done in two days so I agreed to meet him early one morning in my office.

He asked me about my cultural context.  And of course I’m privileged.  I’m a white American.  I grew up in a middle class home.  I’ve had a good education and good employment.  As far as a career in the church goes, I’ve done fairly well.  Then he asked me how that context relates to my current ministry here.  I looked up at the wall and noticed the calligraphy.  And I was once more convicted.

Nothing I have achieved or has been given to me is enough.  This context is not the best and truest definition of who I am.   This is not what gives me or anyone else value.  What really matters is that Jesus has called you and me by name and that each one of us is the beloved child of God.  Everything else will pass away but by the power of Christ’s resurrection, we are all united in God.
Like Paul I really do “count it all as loss and rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Please hear me, this is not really about me but about every one of us.  We can all find some reason for boasting.  We can all just as easily find some reason for self-denigration, for self-hatred and insecurity and self-doubt.  On my best days I may not struggle with envy and selfish ambition and competition and comparison but most of the time, like everyone else, I measure myself by my accomplishments and status.  And on my worst days when there is true suffering involved in following Jesus, when it’s difficult to turn the other cheek or to give generously or to forgive others then I certainly have no desire to join Paul in the “sharing of Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
These verses are not candy-coated.  They point to suffering, loss and death.  They bring us directly to the Passion of Christ as we near the experience of Holy Week.  They are alive with struggle and strain and a pressing desire to experience more of Christ, more of new life, more of the depth of what is really real and truly true.  This is not religious righteousness that we can somehow obtain by being good and obedient.  It is not a happy state of prosperity conferred on those who pray right or believe right or think right.
It is not a relationship with God where anyone has any advantage of any kind whether it be birth or righteousness or status or a clear conscience.  We are all at the feet of Jesus, dependent alone on his grace and mercy and carried forward by the power of his Spirit.
As we come to Holy Week and Easter we are given the example of Mary who knelt at his feet and poured out all that was of value on him.  She gives her most precious gift of oil, but also her devotion, her love, her very self.  She gives no thought to status or propriety or even the cost of the oil she anoints him with.  She counts all that as rubbish compared with the value of knowing Jesus and of being in relationship with Him.
She foreshadows too Jesus’ act of love and humble service when he washes his disciples feet in the coming week.  It’s crazy.  It’s awkward.  It’s uncomfortable.  Few of us want to be on the receiving end of such over the top love and devotion.  Many of us would rather earn our way, stay strong, and demonstrate that we can do it on our own.  We can’t face the shame of our own poverty or the chance that we might really be seen for who we are.  Mary’s strength is in her vulnerability and Jesus praises and loves her for it.
Some of you remember Mr. Rogers and his TV show for children.  I didn’t see most of it since we never had a TV so I was interested to hear an interview with a recurring character on the show, Officer Clemmons.  It turns out that he was the first regular African American character on the show.  Fred Rogers wanted him to be a policeman but he argued that choice.  Francois Clemmons grew up in a neighborhood where the police were not to be trusted and had used fire hoses and dogs to counteract the civil rights protests of the day.
But Mr. Rogers thought it would be a good idea and they began to work together.  It was a time of racial tension (when has there not been?).  On one show Mr. Rogers is cooling his feet in a kiddie pool of water.  He invites Officer Clemmons to join him and the camera focuses on their four feet, two black and two white in a common pool.   You have to remember that some public pools were still segregated at the time.
They converse and sing a little song about the many ways to show love and then it’s time for Officer Clemmons to get back to work.  He starts to lift his foot out of the water and Mr. Rogers reaches for a towel.  Instead of drying his own feet, Mr. Rogers begins to dry the feet of Officer Clemmons.  Francois is still talking about that moment decades later.  It was a small but profound moment on public television and a big moment in Francois’ life.
Remember that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister.  He was also a true Christian.  He knew exactly what he was doing when he participated in a joint foot washing with his African American colleague and friend.
Two things I’ve learned along the way. Counting as loss all the things that seem to give us value may be foolish in the world, but it’s deep wisdom. In God’s economy there is so much more to gain – new life, new companions on the journey, a deeper sense of the intrinsic worth and dignity of every person and hope that holds us through all the changes and chances of life.
And letting go of all those external things which define and categorize us leaves us free to fully embrace all the joy and wonder God has for us. You never know what might happen. You never know who God will put in your life. You never know how you will be called to love and serve for the joy set before you. As Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers sang together, “There are many ways to say I love you.”

I love you!

Canon Britt