December 6, 2020, The Second Sunday of Advent – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

The readings today invite us to talk about sin.  One of the advantages to using a lectionary cycle of readings instead of having the preacher choose is that sometimes we are invited to address subjects that we might otherwise avoid, and sin is an  unpopular subject outside of fire-and-brimstone preaching.  But that is the invitation for today, so let’s talk about sin and we’ll see if I can tell you something you don’t already know.  But let me preface that with some thoughts about this season; I promise you I will arrive back at the subject of sin!

Advent is sometimes compared with Lent in that both are seasons of waiting and preparation with attention being paid to our own levels of preparedness or lack thereof.  So it’s easy to be misled by the similarities into thinking they are basically the same; in fact Advent is sometimes called a little Lent.  But there are also key differences.  Lent is a time of penitence, of fasting, of focusing on our inner lives and how we come up short of what we want to carry into our relationship with God; a focus on our moral life if you will.  Advent seems to emphasize more our community life and our shortcomings in relationship with others; our ethical lives if you will.  Lent recalls liturgically the time of Jesus’ presence on earth, as he attracted more and more opposition, leading to his death and ultimate resurrection.  Advent recalls liturgically the time of waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah on earth, with people knowing only that God had promised his coming, and that the Messiah and salvation are linked.

Advent is a melange of warning, desperation, comfort, waiting and promise.  As such, it seems to me that the message of Advent is just what this year of 2020 calls for.  We have been through a year that began with warnings, which has at all times felt desperate, which has had us seeking comfort while being denied comfort in all the usual places, and which has been typified throughout by waiting for the fulfillment of the promise that some day it will be rectified, it will be over.  Advent is built on the experience of the sun disappearing to the south and believing in the promise that it will return.  It is a season when the first light of dawn is appearing on the horizon and we are trying to figure out whether to trust it.

I’m talking about several things here – the pandemic, the politics, the killings of unarmed black people and the subsequent demonstrations, the fights over masks and denial, the separation from families, the inability to attend church as well as our usual comforts of restaurants, bars and sports, among the other things we have had to put off or replace as best we could.  Advent is built for this, as a reminder of what Christianity believes, what it has been through, the things we have done and failed to do, the things we have accomplished, the things we wish we had done better, the things we wish we could do over, the fulfillments we have had to wait for.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of what I’m learning and what it is costing.  I keep finding myself fishing back in time to what the Christians of other ages thought and did when faced with enormous and explosive challenges to what they believed, and I think I am learning to understand them better, which is hard but not bad.  It helps to remember that however difficult the things they went through, they came out the other side; or at least the survivors did.

What are you leaning on in these days?  What are you learning?  Let’s see how the readings for today can be useful for this season of Advent.

Advent focuses for these first few weeks on the message of John the Baptist that we need to prepare ourselves for the incarnation of God’s Messiah.  It continues with the assurance that the promise of that Messiah will be fulfilled, indeed that promise is being fulfilled already even if we can’t see it.  The beginning of Advent takes us to a region desperately tired of being dominated by a ruthless foreign invader, with the Jews trying to understand which religious sects were really speaking for God, trying to understand why God was not responding to their pleas.  Advent continues with personal warnings to prepare ourselves coupled with the promise that God’s salvation will soon appear.

The people were leaning on the hope contained in prophets like Isaiah, who were very hard on the nation as it drifted away from adherence to God’s laws but who were also enormously hopeful about the future, telling the people that God might seem to have abandoned them, but would bring about a restoration.  God had not forgotten the people of Judah and Israel though it might have seemed like that.  The prophecies were of a hard-earned salvation, earned by living through the consequences of their own waywardness.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar to today’s ears?

Don’t you love to read the words of the prophet and poet Isaiah as he says “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…”  But then come some  harder words:  “…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she  has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  This is the promise of knowing that the punishment is ended, not the promise that the people get to skip the punishment; but yes, it is comforting to know that there is an end to it all, that a restoration is coming, that there is a way back to the condition of blessedness.  To hear the words “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” is to hear words of grace.

The reason, by the way, that so many of the prophetic scriptures are set in poetic lines is that the function of prophet was also the function of poet.  The two callings were mingled, perhaps because the words of prophecy can best be conveyed by poetry.  Poetry has always been used to go beneath the surface of emotions and facts to look for truth.  That is what we need at times like these; to seek the Spirit of God and listen to whatever we find in our seeking; to step above the day-to-day concerns and see what that looks like.

We don’t like being reminded of how far we fall short, and we are used to our human responses when we are accused of wrongdoing – the demands, the condemnation, the rejection – or when we accuse others of wrongdoing.  Christians have a variety of histories and traditions around sin, from the confession to the judgements imposed to the forgiveness offered to the atonements demanded.  We are most comfortable when we focus on the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice has cleansed us from sin and canceled God’s judgement.  We are aware of the demands that we forgive others as we have been forgiven, which we say whenever we repeat the Lord’s Prayer.  Some of us find it easier to forgive others, some of  us find it easier to forgive ourselves.  Many people struggle with the notion that God will forgive those who are guilty of terrible sins.  Many of us struggle with the notion that God can forgive us.  Both of those struggles find a place in my own head.  We find at the same time the desire for others to experience appropriate consequences for their behaviors, and the desire to avoid consequences for our own; or the fear that we will, in fact, receive consequences.

As we move from the Hebrew scriptures to the New Testament scriptures we are used to thinking of them as less judgmental, less wrathful, more focused on forgiveness and less on punishment.  But if we are willing to avoid the temptation to skip over the hard pieces, we find uncomfortable things there as well.  2 Peter reminds us that if we don’t pay attention, the consequences can sneak up on us like a thief in the night, and he tells us that Jesus is not returning as quickly as expected because God is trying to cleanse as many as possible before the consequences arrive.  The problem with delayed consequences, as 2 Peter lays out, is we may begin to think they will never happen.  That results in a loss of focus.  We are told to pay attention to our sinfulness and work with God to break its hold on us.  In 2 Peter salvation is offered by grace, but we need to pay attention and grasp what is offered.  Grace is offered unconditionally, but we have to accept or receive it.  This reminder is also part of Advent.

The first act in the event of the Messiah’s coming, after the birth itself of course, is the appearance of John baptizing people for repentance of their sins.  We are told by him that if we pay attention to the need for confession and forgiveness we will meet the Messiah, who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.

All this talk about sin presupposes that we all know what sin is.  Do we?  Most of us are used to thinking of sin as committing particular acts that violate a moral or ethical norm.    They might be things that are illegal, or they might not be.  In the Middle Ages, there were books published as guides for the priests that listed all the possible sins people might commit, together with the proper atonements.  But while the Bible does list individual sins here and there, and focuses particularly on breaking the Mosaic laws, it has an overarching understanding of what sin is.  The individual laws are simply expressions of that understanding.

The Greek word that is translated as “sin” is hamartia (ἁμαρτία), which is a term from archery meaning to miss the mark.  It is a failure to accomplish what we as humans, and members of God’s kingdom, are supposed to do – to hit the target, to hit what we should be aiming for.  The catechism in the Prayer Book asks “What is sin?” and answers, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.”  So we could say that what God asks of us is a proper relationship with God, with other people and with all creation, and sin means to miss the mark of either accomplishing that or trying to accomplish it.

When Jesus was asked what the most important law was he said “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” and oh, incidentally, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The other laws, and all the things we find in the prophets, are simply illustrations of that.

So there is a trap to thinking about sin as doing bad things, although doing bad things is certainly sinful.  The trap is that we might deny we are doing those things, or think we have solved the problem by making a list of the things we shouldn’t do and then behaving accordingly.  Rightly understood, however, sin is simply selfishness.  To beat sin what we have to do is focus in on our need to love better, to avoid breaking relationship, to understand that God loves us, God loves all others, and that as Creator, God loves the creation.  The sad fact of being human is that we tend to fail at all of those realizations and foci.

So seeking and receiving forgiveness are necessities even when we think we have been “good,” because the human condition is that we are always trying to hit the mark but not always hitting it.  We are mediocre archers at best!  That is why we need a Messiah rather than just needing a set of laws.

I want to make a point here about broken relationships, which is that we can’t always blame ourselves for them  Human relationships can be broken without our help, and our determination to love others despite what they have done doesn’t mean everything will be fine.  But that doesn’t mean the relationship is broken by us or that we have to fix it.  We just need to avoid breaking it ourselves, and fix it if we can.  We can love people whose relationships with us are toxic without exposing ourselves to the toxicity.  We can forgive without allowing ourselves to be used, which is a part of loving ourselves.

If it is true that we always have to be in a good relationship with everyone, then God is asking the impossible of us.  Jesus did not have a good relationship with Judas Iscariot, but that was not Jesus’ fault nor was it sinful, because he kept the door open and did not break the relationship himself.

So think of Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah into our homes and hearts.  That did not happen just once; it happens continually as we determine to do what we can to avoid missing the mark.  If we feel good about our Advent journey it will be far easier to welcome the infant Messiah when Christmas arrives.

November 1, 2020, All Saints’ Day – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I love the Feast of All Saints.  After 26 weeks of green vestments, we switch to white for this beautiful festival.  We light the paschal candle.  We sing the song with the “fierce wild beast.”  And there are baptisms.  I love baptisms.  I love gathering the families and children around the font, pouring the water, holding the babies or drenching the older children and adults.

I love the prayer over the water and how it reminds us of the connection we have through water to creation, freedom, forgiveness and Jesus.  The very water in our bowl may once have fallen as rain into the river Jordan or as snow on the top of the highest mountain.  It may have been the life-saving liquid for a thirsty cheetah or the home for an inquisitive octopus.

When we all affirm our baptismal vows with energy and enthusiasm, I love to really drench the entire congregation, reminding us thereby of the command to “walk wet” into the world, remembering who we are and how we are called to live as lovers of God and our neighbor.  I always laugh when I remember the suited ushers of my first parish who stood in the back, with mops ready to dry up the linoleum floor once I had finished with baptisms and asperges (Latin for sprinkling).

Today we will do that while we worship apart from one another.  Be sure to say your “I will with God’s help” response out loud to each of the promises.  Don’t be afraid to get yourself or your companions at home wet.  Put your hands in the water and make the sign of the cross as a blessing.  Make the same sign on your own body as a reminder that you are a child of God, free, beloved, forgiven, renewed.

The blessed water is not magic, but it is an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.  And although Episcopalians are technically Protestant, there are some of you who like to have holy water on hand in your home as a reminder of your identity in Christ.

Someone for whom that was important was Katryn.  She came to the Christian faith as an adult through the Roman Catholic church.  She loved Mary, the saints, the rites and rituals, the rosary and holy water.  When she could no longer remain Roman Catholic because of her commitment to equal acceptance of women and LGBTQIA folks, she sought out her local Episcopal Church – St. Luke’s.

Some of you knew Katryn.  She served as a greeter and reader on Sunday mornings.  She was recognizable by her vibrantly dyed black hair, her tattoos and later, her walker.  She was a beautiful person with a beautiful soul and spirit.  And she suffered.  She struggled with disabilities caused when she was hit by a city bus, suffing a brain injury and a shattered body.   She could no longer work or drive.  Her health deteriorated with an undiagnosed disorder that caused brain fog and terrible weakness.  She mourned the loss of her quick mind and her strong body.  She faced depression and anxiety.   She was poor in spirit.

When she suicided just before Christmas last year, it was a shock.  She had managed to plan it in great detail without alerting any of us who cared for her.  We were all so very sad.  On a sunny day in January her roommate and I scattered her ashes off the bow of the Bainbridge Island ferry with Mt. Rainier in the background and a long, sorrowful note from the ship’s horn as we came to a standstill in the middle of Puget Sound.

Afterwards, I went to her familiar apartment to pick up the religious books and artifacts she had left behind.  I was able to find good homes for all of them, but there were two things I kept.  One is the framed certificate from her baptism in 2003.  The other is the beautiful baptismal candle she was given on that date.  They rest in my office next to Brother Isaac’s ashes and the cross that was singed when my office nearly burned down.  These outward and visible signs are holy and dear to me.

The other tradition on the Feast of All Saints is to name out loud those who have died since the previous All Saints Day.  We’ll be doing that today and Katryn’s will be one of the names we read.  While I usually focus on the energy and life around baptism that is an important aspect of this day, this year is different.  This year I am more aware than ever of those who have died.

On Friday I participated in two communal rituals for those who have died.  The first was the “Say Their Names” memorial organized by my dear friend and her colleague.  They worked with St. John’s Episcopal in Kirkland and 5 other churches to put up the photos of 240 Black Americans who have been killed, including the Emmett Till, the Mother Emmanuel 9, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.  Dozens of volunteers made 240 beautiful bouquets which were fixed next to each photo.  On a beautiful fall afternoon, we walked the fence line reading and saying all the names, filled with mourning and anger at the ways they were reviled, persecuted and killed.  This All Saint’s Day, we remember and honor them.

The second ritual is one I haven’t missed since it began in mid-April on the PBS News Hour.  Every Friday (after Shield and Brooks) the host introduces a piece featuring the lives of five individuals who died from the coronavirus.  There are photos, stories and tributes from family members.  It is almost too difficult to watch and I cry every week.  These are not just numbers in a political argument, but beloved children of God who died in isolation, without family physically present from a horrible contagion that we couldn’t even imagine a year ago.  They are a small sample of the over one million people who have died worldwide.

And that doesn’t include those who have died from other causes, but because of COVID have been unable to have visitors or physical contact with the ones who love and care for them.  One of those was my beloved mother-in-law Jean.  We will say their names today as well.

Friends, we are the ones Jesus described in the Beatitudes.  We are those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who wish so much to bring peace and mercy.  We don’t have to set out on a plan or program to develop these characteristics.  If we are called by Christ and choose to walk his way, this is who we will be and these are the people we will love and be associated with.  If we are the Body of Christ, we will experience what he experienced in his own life, sacrificial love, purity of heart, persecution, sorrow, forgiveness and peace in the midst of strife and discord.

One of my favorite biblical scholars, Stanley Hauerwas has said that the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of a people and the Beatitudes the source of their life, liberty and happiness.  When we love God and our neighbor we will find ourselves living among those who exhibit these characteristics.  We’re not being asked to go out and try to mourn or be persecuted or poor in spirit, but we are guaranteed to be described in these ways when we follow the way of Jesus.

It shouldn’t surprise us when we find our church called a “demon church” because of our care for those who are in utter poverty.   We share the strength of the meek when we refuse to return evil for evil and stand with those who have been unjustly devalued.  Our righteousness isn’t based in personal perfection but rather in a willingness to have our lives guided and inspired by the life of Jesus.  His life is reflected, even if only dimly, in ours.

That reflection has been perfectly realized in the saints who have gone before us.  Their full communion with God and one another is the realization of the kingdom of heaven where God has brought them to the very springs of the water of life and where every tear has been wiped away.

And so we come full circle, from the waters of life at baptism to the fullness and wholeness of eternal life at death.  “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”  And yet, the more we walk wet, living into our identity as God’s beloved children, the closer we come to being like him.  That fullness is not of one completely realized human being, but rather of the communion of all the saints, past, present and future in complete harmony with all the created order.  It is a vision more glorious than we can possibly comprehend and yet one we instinctively long and hope for.

On this Feast of All Saints, 2020 in the midst of the challenges of our lives, look for the signs of the Kingdom.  You are sure to find them in births and pregnancies, in love and grief at the time of death, in the fight for justice, in those who pursue peace and in the daily acts of kindness and comfort that transcend hatred and evil.

October 25, 2020 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

Since we’re already in the process of an election, I think it would be a good time to talk about religion and politics.  There is some history you may or may not know and there are different attitudes that I’m sure you have heard.  This week we read part of the Torah where Moses is instructed by God to give the law to the people, and a week where Jesus quotes a portion of the Mosaic Law to his questioners.  Those readings are right at the intersection of religion and government.

“I don’t want to hear politics from the pulpit” is the most common negative thing I have heard in my preaching life.  I think that opinion has several origins.  First, it comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution – I’ll say more about that later; second, I think it comes from the notion by some that the preacher’s politics are going to be different from the listeners’; and third, it comes from the American idea that there is a wall of separation between religious things and secular things.

Unlike some churches, the Episcopal Church has always believed in Christian citizenship.  We believe that Christians and churches should be active participants in society and government.  We do not, as a consequence, believe that there is anything in the public square that God does not care about, or is not involved in; so we reject the idea that there is a place where God is welcome and a place where God is not.  Because we believe in this connection between public and private life, we support the effort to bring Gospel consciousness and Gospel perspective to the public square.  Our involvement has not always been admirable, and there are times we have backed away from involvement, or even discussion of cogent issues, altogether.  But because we are not one of those churches that believes in a complete disinvolvement from politics and government, we are able to discuss, debate, and experience growth and change in our shared public life.

I want to talk about race in this context, since that is in our political conversation this year.  You know that the history of race in the United States is complicated, and that complication includes the areas of both religion and politics.  In 1963, when I was 16, my father took our family to the deep South on a working vacation.  He wanted to study and talk with African American people who were working in campus ministry.  I remember a meeting with a Black Minister in Louisiana who drove us to his church in his car.  He told us not to roll down the tinted windows because he didn’t want white people to see that he had white passengers.  He said he had already had a cross burned on his lawn and he wasn’t anxious to get the wrong people interested in him again.  I remember that far more than I remember the conversation we had about his ministry in that place.  I remember the tension  in his voice and in his face.

Progressive Americans are used to being negative about the involvement of white conservative Christians in politics, yet some of the heroes of the faith are black conservative Christians who have been involved in politics, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Al Sharpton and Ralph Abernathy.  The Civil Rights struggle was a political and a religious struggle.  In the African American community, one of the few places where men, and later women, could find work in a professional capacity was in the church.  The subsequent sense of responsibility to the community by at least some of the Black Church and its ministers brought about a consciousness of a connection between civil and religious life that historically has been more unusual in the conservative white church.  In the African American Church we find fewer people complaining about the intersection of politics and religion, as witness Rev. Al Sharpton’s sermon at George Floyd’s funeral.

Black Christianity in America had its beginnings on the plantations, as white slaveholders argued about whether African Americans could benefit from Christian teaching, since not all of them would agree that Black people had souls.  But they did allow preachers to begin the process of preaching to and converting slaves.  One of the discomforting things about that process, as many slaves embraced the Gospel, was that white slave owners found themselves cast in the role of Pharaoh, with the slaves as the symbolic Hebrew people in Egypt longing for freedom.  We see this, for instance, in spirituals like “Go down, Moses,” where we hear the oppressed of the earth singing “Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.” How uncomfortable it must have been to hear the people you were oppressing using the God you proclaimed to them against you.  How quickly Christianity turned into a condemnation of the politics of the age and the region.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, God was considered to be the real ruler of Israel.  The histories and the prophets show God acting for the king and his nation when the king was listening to God, and acting against the king and his nation when he was ignoring God.  The government and God were linked together.    We see this in the laws, as with the reading from Leviticus.  We see that God told Moses what the law would be, and Moses told the people.

But when we get to the New Testament the connection between God and government is different.  There is no nation of Israel.  The so-called king was only a vassal of the Roman Emperor.  Jesus referred back to the Law of Moses regularly in his teaching, as in today’s reading where he repeated the commands to love God and our neighbor, but the Roman government had him arrested and executed.  Apostles like Paul found themselves using Roman law when it was helpful, but it was not always helpful.  They were arrested and thrown in jail for the things they said and the trouble they caused, and many of them were also executed.  But in Rome, too, the government was considered to be a part of divine reality, to the extent that the emperors began to claim that they were demi-gods themselves.  Again, religion and government were part of one another.  When Constantine accepted Christianity for Rome, the claims to imperial divinity were abandoned, but religion and government were still part of one another.

This continued after Rome fell, as kings and queens around Europe began to claim divine right to rule; that God not only accepted but arranged for their reigns.  God was the one who put the crowns on their heads.  This is still reflected in England, where the new monarch is crowned by an archbishop.  The government told the subjects how to worship and what to believe.

When Pilgrims and others came to America, we were taught that they came here for religious freedom.  That is not true.  They came here so that they, rather than the crown, could tell their subjects what to believe and how to worship, and each colony had its own form of intolerance written into its laws.  That situation led the revolutionaries who wrote the Constitution to include the clause in the First Amendment which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Many people believe that there is a phrase in there about separation of Church and State; you probably know that there is not.  That phrase came from Thomas Jefferson’s other writings.  The establishment clause is supposed to protect both the State from religion, and religion from the State.  The Supreme Court never said that schools and governments could not talk about religion; they just said they couldn’t endorse a specific religion.  And the government has only restricted Churches from telling its members to vote for a particular candidate with something called the Johnson Amendment.  President Trump has eased that restriction.

The Episcopal Church has a conflicted history with government.  We were the Church of England until the end of the Revolution, and that was a problematic association afterward.  Many of the clergy left for Canada after the American victory, since so many of them were Tories and loyalists, and there was actually talk of closing the Church of England in America and just joining the Lutherans.  But among the revolutionaries were Anglicans, and they decided to reorganize as the Episcopal Church with a democratic instead of monarchic government.

Despite historic aberrations, Episcopalians have never been happy with dogma.  We don’t like telling people what they have to believe.  That includes politics.  We did not separate into northern and southern branches during the Civil War, but that was because we were unwilling to discuss it.  There were Episcopal clergy who joined the Confederate forces as well as Union forces.  During World War I, Paul Jones, Bishop of Utah, a prominent pacifist, declared that he believed war to be unchristian, and he was forced to resign because of that.  But we have changed over time.  We do insist that people use their minds and the Gospel in coming to decisions.  We have a tradition of being a church that says “both/and” instead of “either/or.”  That perspective has been an important part of our ethos and made it possible for our doctrines and practices to evolve.

St. Luke’s is a part of the Episcopal Church as it started to develop in the 1960s and beyond.  The Episcopal Church wants to be a place where all sorts of people and opinions can be accepted, but we also want to be a place that supports reaching out to the needy and that resists oppression.  We have developed as a Church that is open to women and gay people in ministry, which has led some of our more conservative sisters and brothers to write us off as a bad lot, as happened here at St. Luke’s.  We have become a place where the poorest among us are as welcome as the wealthiest.  We have explored the ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit as well as the quietness of meditation and centering prayer.

When Jesus silenced the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he was silencing those who claimed to be the heirs of Moses, claimed to speak for and to everyone who worshiped the God of Israel, those who were the religious government.  They claimed to be the only ones who could interpret Scripture, they claimed to be the only ones who were allowed to have an opinion on how people were to live and believe in their society.  Jesus’ interactions with people about law and tradition help us understand how to do that in our own time and place.  We see him speaking truth to power, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

The Episcopal Church continues to be a place where anything can be discussed with all comers, a place where part of our religious tradition is the use of our minds instead of presenting a dogma we are not allowed to question.  There have been historic attacks on that.  During the American Revolution, the Church of England used the 1662 Prayer Book, which includes a prayer for the King of England with a mandate to say it at every Sunday service.  Revolutionaries were known to come into a church to see if the priest would say that prayer, and if he did, they would stop the service and throw him out the door.  Some of them would cut that prayer out of the prayer books in the pews.  We have seen other activities which are aimed at silencing those we disagree with.  But even though that is our history, it is not our tradition.

I have gotten in trouble in the past for saying how I think the Gospel connects with our public life, though only on rare occasions have I used the pulpit to ask people to vote for something specific.  For instance, many years ago there was a citizen initiative in this state that was aimed at suppressing LGBTQ people and I told the congregation I believed they should vote against it.  I also got scolded for opposing the first Gulf War.  But that is the tradition of our church.  We are supposed to be a place where we understand that God is the God of all of Creation and of all of our lives, and there is nothing that is outside of God’s interest and involvement, or our discussion.  I bring my gospel perspective and you bring yours.

Many of us have been participating in a Wednesday evening series of films, readings and discussions about race in America.  This series has really hit home regarding many things we take for granted about our nation and its religions, and it has reminded us of the tremendous cost there is when we do not speak the truth, when we take the path of comfort, when we do not question injustice.  It reminds us to hear and consider the experiences and thoughts of others we may not normally encounter or think about too deeply.  It has been very heartening to me to see and hear people taking the emotional risk to take part, and it is a reminder to think about the way our nation, our politics, and indeed our religion and our churches fall short of the Gospel and the law of love.

We need to hear that Black lives matter.  We need to hear that Brown lives matter.   We need to hear that Indigenous lives matter.  And when we get the opportunity to vote we need to use that opportunity and remember the example and words of Jesus when we do.  We must not listen to the voices that tell to be silent.

We have found throughout our history that people, including politicians, are ready and willing to use Scripture to support all kinds of things.  I would remind you that if they are using Scripture to support anything that does not reflect the love of Christ then they are not using Scripture authentically.

I would also remind you of something I’m sure you already know, that voting is the minimum requirement for Christian citizenship.  Vote with the Gospel in your mind and your heart.  Vote with the words of Jesus in your thoughts.  Vote against hate and indifference.  Vote for love, for caring, for those whose experience of life in America is an experience of fear.  The free exercise of religion in the Episcopal Church is an exercise of the Gospel in the streets as well as in the nave.  Take the strength you receive from Christ into the world.

God’s blessings be upon us and upon our country and people as we determine what happens next in our lives together.

September 20, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I think we can all agree.  It’s been a hell of a week.  The pandemic, the fires, the ominous sense of having the breath choked out of us by smoke.  But then there’s more.

On Thursday we buried my mother-in-law Jean.  On Friday we learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.  Jean was born in 1929, Ruth in 1933.  Both were daughters of immigrants, Jean’s parents Italian Roman Catholic and Ruth’s father Russian and Jewish.  Both women shared the shattering experience of the early deaths of their mothers, Jean when she was just 8 years old and Ruth at age 16 just before she finished high school.

Though their era and circumstances were similar, the direction of their lives were seemingly radically different and unconnected.  Jean struggled with poverty, the inability to attend school regularly and a difficult family situation.  Her early years were full of turmoil and insecurity.  She had two children out of wedlock, something that was shocking and shameful at the time.  It was when she met her husband, Dick that her life stabilized and improved.  She counts that day as the “best day of her life.”  Marriage and four sons followed.  She supplemented the household income by working at the Puyallup fair, baking pies and cleaning offices.  Aside from a couple of cruises and trips to Reno to gamble, she remained close to home.  She focused on raising a family and then caring for grandchildren.  Those of us who were privileged to know her generosity, lively spirit and warm affection miss her terribly.

Remarkably, as a widow she lived independently, in her own home until her final illness required hospitalization and a brief period on hospice where she died in an adult family home just 3 days after her 91st birthday.

RBG, on the other hand, is notorious, celebrated, and renowned.   Her education, accomplishments and influence put her in the forefront of American life for decades.  She is admired for her tenacity, her fierce intellect and her principled defense of equal rights for women.  She is already missed by hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention her family and friends.

Remarkably, as a widow, Ruth Bader Ginsburg maintained her independence and worked effectively to the end of her life in spite of her illness.

Which of these women lived the more important life?  Which was of more value?  In the face of systemic sexism which impacted their lives and careers at every stage, were they treated fairly?  Did they receive what they deserved?

Knowing the obstacles, discrimination and criticism they each received, didn’t they both have a right to complain, to be bitter, to give up or give in?  Of course.  Yet both, in their own way, were indomitable.  Both relied on a deep sense of their value in God’s eyes and their belief in fighting for what was important.  I know for a fact that Jean could have complained about a lot of things, especially the pain and discomfort of her last 2 months.  But when she was alert, over and over again she said, “I’m blessed.  I’m in God’s hands.  I love you.”

None of us will ever know Ruth’s last words and communication to her family.  We do know the final message her husband wrote for her when he lay dying in 2010.  He wrote, “You have been the love of my life.”  His were words of pride and support and a love that never dies.  And I imagine her Jewish faith and the love she knew carried her over the final threshold of death.  I can’t imagine her wasting too much energy complaining.

The readings from Scripture give us a divided response to the unfairness of life.  Jonah and the disgruntled workers who were paid the same for a full day’s work as those who barely worked an hour are complainers.  They’re so angry that God is not responding the way they think God should that they refuse to find any joy in life.  They cannot be glad for the repenting Ninevites, their children and animals whom God has spared from destruction.  They can’t be happy that desperate workers who had waited all day for a chance to make a few denarii actually received what they needed for their survival.  Instead these disgruntled people live with resentment, they perseverate on the supposed injustice of God’s generosity and forgiveness.

The Apostle Paul and the Psalmist take the opposite approach.  They focus on the goodness of God, the ways God is “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  Although Paul is facing danger, persecution and jail he perseveres and makes every effort to survive so that he can share with others the joy of faith.  It is not that their lives are without trial and suffering, it is rather that they know and rely on the presence of God with them and can see the possibility of God’s realm, a place of plenty and wholeness of life and light and love.  They know a God who creates a place at the table for everyone, the outsider, the repentant sinner, the one who come at the last minute as well as the well-behaved older brothers who follow the rules.

They persist because of their faith.  They love because they know they have been loved.  They have hope in spite of life’s circumstances because they see a vision of the Kingdom where there will be a place for everyone.  And they work as long as they can to bring that vision to reality here on earth.  They never give up.

Jean and Ruth had different spheres of influence, different roles to play, different responsibilities to fill.  I am so grateful for both of them.  The world is a better place because of them.  The light shines more brightly because they allowed light to shine through them.  They remained in the flesh as long as they could but now that they have departed, their spirit is united with God’s Spirit and we are, each of us, stronger because of them.

Now it’s up to us.  A legacy is a lot more than words on paper.  It’s the continuation of what an individual felt was worth fighting for.  I’ll remember Jean every time I cook for someone and offer hospitality, every time I forgive and show compassion, and especially when I overcome my own, natural restraint and the Seattle Freeze to reach out, with warmth and love and draw someone into the circle of love that she is still a part of.

I’ll remember and honor Ruth by fighting for what is right, using every talent and privilege I have on behalf of others and work to develop relationships and even friendships with those I disagree with and those who differ from me.

Maybe you’ve read the poem by Maya Angelou that is providing comfort to many who mourn the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  It also speaks to those who mourn Jean Hansen and the ones you love and see no longer.

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou…

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines,

gnaws on kind words

unsaid,

promised walks

never taken.

Great souls die and

our reality, bound to

them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,

dependent upon their

nurture,

now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed

and informed by their

radiance,

fall away.

We are not so much maddened

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance

of dark, cold

caves.

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

 

July 19, 2020 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

May I speak in the name of one God, who is Creator, Christ, and Counselor. Amen.

This morning, I confess to you all that I was tempted to scrap my sermon entirely and just play clips of Congressman John Lewis giving speeches. I know, after last week, that we have the technology to do it! And if you hadn’t heard the news, John Lewis, a Civil Rights legend and a personal hero of mine, died late Friday night from pancreatic cancer. And ever since then, I’ve been re-watching his speeches and interviews, feeling sad and inspired and grateful all at once.

On May 9, 1961, in his twenties then, John Lewis was beaten bloody by a mob of angry white men when he attempted to enter a waiting room at Rock Hill, South Carolina bus station. This waiting room was labeled “whites.” John Lewis said of that event, “I knew someone attacked me on May 9th, but I would not have recognized him.” It was not the first nor the last time John Lewis was physically assaulted in the midst of non-violent demonstrations for equality.

In today’s Gospel, Christ tells us another parable with agricultural imagery. This time, the story is about a man who planted good seed in his field. When that good seed began to grow into wheat, weeds grew among the wheat. “An enemy planted those seeds,” the man said. And his servants said, “Shall we go pull up the weeds?” And the Son of Man said, “No, for in pulling up the weeds, you may pull up the wheat too.” The good sprouts may be damaged in pulling up the bad sprouts. Instead, Christ says, let them grow together, the wheat and the weeds. Let them grow together.

In 2009, decades after John Lewis suffered that beating at the bus station, a white man in his 70s along with his son, in his 40s, came to visit John Lewis in his office. The man introduced himself and said, “Mr. Lewis. I’m one of the men who beat you. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

And Congressman Lewis said, “I accept your apology. I forgive you. We are all a part of the human family.” And the man began to cry. His son began to cry. When asked about this moment, Lewis would say, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught him, “I hold no grudge. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

It is easy, so easy, to read this parable and the explanation that Matthew’s Jesus gives to explain it, and decide that we too can label people wheat or weeds. Perhaps, in listening to this story about Congressman John Lewis and a man who felt ashamed by his past violence, we may feel tempted to label one of them good seed that grew into wheat and one bad seed that grew into weeds.

It would be easy to read this parable and decide that people are either good or bad. They are either wheat or weeds. They are racist or anti-racist. Progressive or Conservative. Jew or Palestine. You see how easy, how tempting it is, to sort people into binaries. And maybe the next instinct would be to stay in those groups, to let opposites repel and remain separate.

But separation is exactly the opposite of what John Lewis fought for throughout his entire life. And in the parable, separation is not what the Son of Man instructs. Instead, in the parable he stops the workers from pulling the weeds, as it may cause them to accidentally damage the roots of the good wheat by gathering it before it is time. The good seeds could be harmed if separated from the “bad seeds.” He says, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

This image from the parable has stayed with me all week! Let them grow together until the harvest. Let the “good” and the “bad” live and grow together, in the same soil. Even though an enemy has attempted sabotage by planting weeds among your wheat, do nothing. Let them grow together.

What I take from this is that labeling and separating the “good” from the “bad” is not our job at all. Let them grow together. The roots are bound up together, and both would suffer if they were separated.

You might say the metaphor doesn’t hold up when Jesus explains the parable to the disciples later on. Jesus explains that this is another imaging of the end of the world, where he is the farmer and the workers are angels, who will gather up the weeds, a symbol for causes of sin and evildoers, to be burned, and then the remaining wheat, a symbol for the children of the Kingdom of Heaven, will shine like the sun in the
Kingdom of their Father. But yet, when I read that explanation–even though I’m always uncomfortable when Jesus talks about burning and weeping and gnashing of teeth–I still read that deciding what or who is good, and who is not, and separating the two is not my job. Instead, it is God’s, and it won’t be done until the end of times.

Until then, Christ says, “Let them grow together.”

Hate is too heavy a burden to bear. We are all a part of the family of humankind. We are all children of God. These are the truth things John Lewis told the man who came to apologize for beating him so long ago.

All of our fates are tied up together. We are reminded of that over and over these days! Until all are equal, none are equal. Unless everyone takes precautions, unless ALL work together to stop the spread of coronavirus, all will remain at risk. We are all growing together in the same field. We are all a part of the family of humankind. And it is our duty to grow together. Not to judge, no. Not to hate, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.. Not to decide who is good, for that is God’s job and God’s alone. Just to grow. Together.

Let them grow together.

My friends, I’ve said these words to you in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

July 5, 2020 – The Rev. Hillary B. Kimsey

When I was a little girl, attending a little Southern Baptist church in a little suburb of Columbia, South Carolina, with the possible exception of the big downtown Columbia library, church was my favorite place in the world. In church, I found everything– caring adults, dear friends, fun activities, LOTS of good food, and a connection to God. At this little Pizza Hut-shaped church, First Baptist of Irmo, I felt God’s call–a call to serve, a call to learn, a call to love… a call I finally realized later was also a call to vocational ministry.

You might imagine that a lot has happened since I was that little girl in that suburban Baptist church in South Carolina! And you’d be right. Like many young adults, in my teen and college years, I began to feel disenchanted with the church. I took my love of books and became a high school English teacher. For three years, I taught high school students how to dig into a text, look for cultural and historical context, the perspective of the author, and to wonder whose voices are missing. And during my time as a teacher, one of those life-long friends of mine from that little Baptist church died from leukemia. His name was Lee, and he was the kindest, gentlest soul. Before he went on home hospice, he was at a hospital near me, and I spent many evenings and weekends at his bedside. Sometimes I chattered until he smiled; sometimes he slept and I cried. I sat at his bedside, feeling lonely, like God was so far away. And I sat in his funeral, filled with enough anger to scream! Anger at God for not offering a miracle healing, and angry at the church for singing upbeat praise songs at his funeral when I wanted to weep and wail and lament.

Lee’s death changed me. I remembered how it felt to sit alone at his bedside, wishing I could tell someone what I felt, and I wanted to be that someone for others. So, I left teaching. I went to seminary, and that first summer, I did a summer internship as a hospital chaplain in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. The Navy moved my spouse and me to Washington. I changed denominations and was confirmed into the Episcopal Church in 2015. (Yes, I’ve skipped over some details, but you and I will have two years to get to know each other!) All that to say, hospital ministry became part of my priestly calling, and I was hired as a staff chaplain for Swedish Medical Center in Seattle in March 0f 2019.

And in March of 2020, we were in the full throes of a global pandemic. In these past few months, working as a chaplain during this time of coronavirus, I have witnessed some crushing losses. For a time, I could no longer be at the bedside, and I could no longer be present to family members in person, because they were not allowed to visit. I would call family members of patients hospitalized in our ICU’s with coronavirus, and they would tell me, “I am home sick too, and so are my children,” or “I have already had two other family members die of this virus,” or “Would you please just go into their room and tell them I love them?” Days and days, weeks and weeks of this; one morning, I woke up on the first day of my work week and immediately burst into tears, knowing I had to go back to the hospital and do it again, knowing that so many families were suffering, that people were dying, with no end in sight. I would find my friends and coworkers, the nurses and medical staff, hunched over in a corner, weeping, as yet another family said goodbye. Perhaps you felt that too, in the thick of it.

And just as we started to turn the corner, to see a glimpse of hope in the battle against this virus, George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck as he cried out for his mother. His death was a symptom of another virus, just as deadly and not nearly as new: a deeply systemic racism that has oppressed Black people, indigenous people, and people of color in this country and all over the world.

For weeks, there was this surge of energy, of drive to push back against these systems of oppression. Protestors marched, statues came down, reform bills were passed. Yet right now, maybe you have noticed too, I feel the energy, particularly in myself and other white people trying to learn how to be allies, I feel that energy waning. And I hear the exhaustion of my dear friends of color, asking me, “How are you just now noticing what we have been experiencing for all these generations? How are you tired after a few weeks, when this is my life every day?”

We are tired. We are tired of staying home, tired of staying six feet away, tired of feeling unsafe. We are tired of turning on the news and watching Black people being murdered by police, tired of seeing systems of injustice cling to power, tired of feeling this dread of injustice and this fear of COVID-19 which have both already claimed too many lives far too soon.

We are living in unprecedented times, and we are, all of us, exhausted.

Never have we needed to hear these words more than right now. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus says these words to contrast all the stories he is about to tell about the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 12. The Pharisees were teaching many, many rules and regulations required by the Law. Rabbis often used the metaphor of a “yoke” to talk about following the Law. But Matthew writes that the Pharisees were prioritizing following those rules even if it meant not helping others. They criticized Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath. Their teaching on the law was a great burden; Jesus offers his teachings as an “easy yoke”, a “light burden.” The commandments are simple, Jesus says. Just two rules will do. “Love the Lord with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If you focus on these simple things, you will find rest for your soul.

If we, in these unprecedented, exhausting times, focus on learning from Christ and on loving God and loving our neighbors, we will find rest. There is no hard choice but to choose to love. When I woke that Wednesday morning, back in April, weeping at the thought of going back to work, I literally gave myself a pep talk, out loud, in my bed. “You will love God. You will love people. You will call families and talk to patients on the phone, and it will not be nothing.” And I went to work another day.

And so will you, my friends. Today you will face another day of uncertainty in the face of this invisible virus, so you will show your love for your neighbors by being cautious in whatever ways you can.  Today you will face another day, knowing that racism is real, that it claims lives too. So you will show your love for your neighbors by listening, learning, and helping wherever you can.

And it will not be nothing. It matters.

Amen.    

June 14, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Yesterday I got lost in a place I’ve been to hundreds of times.  After nearly two months of taking walks in our immediate neighborhood, I took my black lab, Sally to Magnuson Park.  Before the pandemic, we walked and Sally swam and chased balls and rabbits there at least 2 or 3 times a week.  I thought we’d followed every trail and explored every corner of this very large park that used to be the Sand Point Naval Air Station.

It turns out we’d never been on the back side of Promontory Point.  I didn’t even know there was a backside, but we turned down a trail and found ourselves winding through dense forest and undergrowth.  This was an area that had never been developed.  It was clearly not a well-used trail and all the rain had turned the ground muddy and slippery.  When the trail started running along the top of a 50-foot drop off, I looked around for a tree branch to use as a walking stick for stabilization and to help me keep my balance.

I was suddenly unsure and anxious.  What if I slipped, fell and strained or broke something?  What if Sally or I accidently slid off the edge?  She was off leash; what if we got separated or she went ahead and encountered something dangerous?  I was creeping ever more slowly as the trail narrowed and narrowed until we finally came up against a chain link fence.  Sally had already figured out that she could race down the fence line, and she was running back and forth, trying to urge me on.

But I’m no longer young, strong and supple, so I had to cling onto the fence and branches as we descended the steep bank off the hill.  I was cautious, nervous, unsure of where we might be going and how to get there safely.  I stopped for a moment and Sally came racing back to me.  She was grinning from ear to ear as only happy dogs can.  She had mud splashed up her legs and her fur was still wet from the lake.  Once she made sure I was all right and coming along, she took off through the forest at high speed, leaping over downed logs, sliding around corners and having a blast.

She led me down the hill and into a meadow that was full of large white and yellow daisies.  The sun came out briefly and the sight of my lively, beautiful dog in the middle of a field of wildflowers took my breath away.  Fear turned to joy in that moment and I experienced a deep well of gratitude.

Lately it may seem that we’ve become lost in a familiar place.  When we venture outside, most people are masked and we cannot see one another’s faces.  All the places we normally go are either shut or have new procedures to protect from the spread of the virus.  Being around other people can produce anxiety and concern.  We’re not exactly sure where we are, what direction we are going and how long it will take to get there.

And now, the murder of George Floyd has revealed in a much clearer and more urgent manner, the ground of racism that our entire system is based on.  That ground is muddy, slippery, and dangerous.  Racism poses an existential threat to the life and well-being of people of color.  Its perpetuation as the ground of our society privileges and keeps safe and secure the White race over and against other races and ethnicities.  Racism endangers us all because it perpetuates abuse of power, the devaluing of Black, Brown and Indigenous people and the lie that some bodies are worth more than others.  The rapid and enormous response to George Floyd’s murder is disorienting and it is also extremely clarifying and necessary.

We have so very far to go and the way ahead is not clear or easy.  It is messy and difficult.  As a church that is overwhelmingly White and older and has benefited from and profited from institutional racism, we are walking this path and joining this march, but we are slow and uncertain.  The beautiful, lively, leaders who are going ahead are the ones we must follow and support.

There is a prayer, a collect, that we will pray together today at the end of the Prayers of the People.  In just three short phrases it turns us towards the direction that the Spirit is propelling us and that Jesus is calling us to go.  It asks God to keep the Church, which is nothing less than the presence of Christ, incarnate in the people, “to keep us in steadfast faith and love.”  We are to stay the course, to keep moving forward in the name of Jesus, to persevere and persist.

Because of the love we know in Jesus, we are to endure in love, to suffer in love, to sacrifice for love’s sake and to see and love our neighbors as ourselves.

This prayer asks that with God’s grace, we the Church might “proclaim God’s truth with boldness.”  Telling the truth means acknowledging and repenting of the racism that lies within individuals, our communities, particularly St. Luke’s, the larger Episcopal Church and our nation.  We can learn the truth by reading, studying and listening, but God’s truth is always embodied in a person.  Right now the truth is incarnate in the protesters, in the voices of people of color.  It’s not just a theory, but the living, breathing, marching, crying, raging sisters and brothers, siblings who are hurting, visible, vocal and demanding change.

Finally the prayer asks that we might “minister your justice with compassion.”  Compassion can be perceived as a “soft” word, like “being nice.”   Yet, it literally means with passion.  Jesus mentions his compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd.  It is his deep feeling for humanity that leads to actual Passion with a capital P, his suffering, crucifixion and death.  The actual meaning is to feel with another, to have a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Anyone who saw the video of George Floyd’s death is conscious of the suffering he experienced and the callousness of those who caused his distress or who remained indifferent to it.  And now it is time, it is past time to turn sympathy into action.  As people of the Jesus movement we are called to embody his presence in our world.  In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples into the nearby neighborhoods, towns and villages to embody the good news of God’s Kingdom, present in Jesus, the Messiah.  He gives them instructions that I think work very well for disciples in our present moment, in the neighborhoods and communities into which we are called and sent.

We begin with the compassion that Jesus feels for those who are harassed and helpless, with the crowds, composed of people from every walk of life, for all those trapped in a system of racism and oppression that prevents the full flourishing of all of God’s people.

Jesus sends us to confront the unclean spirits, the evil that underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, fear of the homeless poor and all that separates us from one another, causing hatred and suspicion.  The grace and love of God in Christ is active to tell the truth, to call out the demonic spirits of our age and to fight against them with the power of the Spirit.

We are called to be healers, to be part of the cure for the disease and sicknesses that afflict so many.  We are to proclaim that the value of life cannot be measured in money and that the commodification of people starting with slavery and continuing with the devaluing of others is a sickness that requires a healing intervention.  We are to be those who fight the illness of despair that is killing and endangering so many.  We can proclaim loudly and insistently that Black Lives Matter.  We can treat with dignity and respect all our neighbors, particularly those who are demeaned and devalued.

For those of us who are White, we, like those first disciples are called to speak the truth, to cast out the demons and to address the sickness of our own White culture first.  These are the ones we know and our familiar with.  We bear the responsibility for our own racism and privilege.  We have no moral authority with communities of color.  Like those early disciples, we come empty handed.  We must leave behind all the signs and symbols of our ill-gotten power and prosperity.  We are to divest ourselves, to the extent that we are able, of our privilege.  We are to bring nothing except our compassion, our commitment to being truthful, our humility and our willingness to share suffering.  Wisdom will come only as we let go of pride and fear and learn to trust others.

And it will be hard.  Jesus warned those first disciples that following the way of love under the guidance of the Spirit would bring conflict and division within their own families and communities.  Some of you have already experienced this as children and parents disagree and siblings cut themselves off from one another.  The way of Jesus will not guarantee an easy, peaceful existence but rather bring us face to face with conflict, persecution and hatred.

And if you’re like me, you’re not sure what to say or do.  I don’t want to make things worse or reveal my ignorance or make a mistake.  God knows we are often inadequate and imperfect.  And so we pray for the Spirit to speak with us and through us and between us, the Spirit that is leading us all into the fullness of the dream and vision God has for this planet and the people who dwell therein.

It’s a vision we catch glimpses of here and there.  In the beauty, passion and clarity of young leaders all over the county.  In the creativity of the artists, mural makers and community builders in the CHAZ and other areas.   In the support and generosity of sometimes unlikely people and businesses.  In the incredible silence of 60,000 people walking together for a mile and a half in a show of unity and respect.

These are the brief moments, like a sun-kissed meadow of flowers that give us the hope and vision for a better future, that keep us walking the path no matter how long or difficult.  Because we believe that there is a promised land, a land where all of God’s people will dwell in peace and safety, where all will be known as God’s own beloved, where all God’s sheep will find waters and pastures of peace.  Amen.

 

May 24, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2020 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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