The 8th Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015

 

While Bryon and I were on our two-week “Staycation,” we binge watched two seasons of “Newsroom,” the television drama written by Aaron Sorkin about a national TV news program and the dramatic events that take place inside and outside the newsroom. But real news that we couldn’t ignore began to break in on our pleasure watching with tragedy, joy, life-changing decisions, inspirational rhetoric and courageous commentary.  It has been a remarkable series of events.

Mother Mary said it best in Luke’s Magnificat:

  • He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  • He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
  • He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

In the past two weeks, ordinary Christians welcoming the stranger and opening arms of love to a hate-filled young man were killed at the end of a Bible Study at church. As their loved ones began to respond and their funerals started to be held, an entire nation has been exposed to the extraordinary faith, compassion and grace of a Christian community who take seriously all the commandments of Jesus including the ones to love their enemies, to pray for those that persecute them and to not be afraid but to have faith.

These nine who died in Charleston at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were not the proud or the powerful but in their death, God has lifted them up. They are not lowly in God’s eyes but beloved children, now holy saints in glory. Their loved ones are weeping now but “joy will come in the morning” as they experience the new life of resurrection together. One daughter called out in her grief and sorrow as the casket was closing on her mother’s body, “I’ll see you in the morning.” And she will, in that beautiful morning when God wipes away every tear and there will be no more sorrow or sighing. For “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” “God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity.”

While our nation once again turns its face to the ugliness of racism and its persistence in our lives, confederate flags are coming down and the laws which protect people against discrimination in housing based on race are being strengthened. Yesterday, in a historical election, the bishops of the Episcopal Church have elected Michael Curry an African American bishop from North Carolina, to serve as our Presiding Bishop for the next 9 years. Our church which struggles with a mixed history with regard to slavery and Civil Rights has taken another bold action to proclaim that God is the one who lifts up the lowly and that in Christ we are one Body, black and white, male and female, rich and poor.

God has broken down the dividing wall that separates us from one another and has made us one in Christ. The painful division in our nation and our church regarding the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people has changed dramatically in the past years. The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage is another way in which the dignity of every human being has been lifted up officially. The celebration of this change is not universal but for many it is an affirmation that God’s beloved community includes and affirms our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Their painful exclusion from participation in the full life of the church is decreasing; the necessity of maintaining secrecy about their loving commitments is diminishing; their inability to share the full benefits of legal family life is disappearing.

And that’s not all! Many who did not have health insurance in the past will continue to have coverage. People like my brother and nephews will not have to choose between purchasing groceries and paying for health care. Divorced people who have been stigmatized by the Roman Catholic Church heard a note of compassion and understanding from their Pope acknowledging that divorce was inevitable when relationship had failed. We hear echoes of the gospel hope:

  • The lowly are lifted up
  • Those who mourn are comforted
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied
  • Those who are persecuted have their reward in heaven

This is the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims. This is the way of life he lived. Today we heard about Jesus’ encounter with the most vulnerable, the lowliest, the unclean in society. He allows himself to become vulnerable, lowly and unclean as he enters human tragedy, suffering and death and effects God’s restoration, forgiveness and new life.

His day begins with a boat ride back into familiar territory, Jewish territory. There he is approached by a Jewish religious official whose young daughter is gravely ill. Jairus must have heard about the healings that Jesus effected. He may also have heard that Jesus, unlike many other religious leaders of that time had a special place in his heart for children. When the adults want to push children off to the side because they are not important or seen to be valuable unless they grow up enough to work or bear children, Jesus calls children to himself. Jairus’s daughter was 12, not quite old enough to be of marriageable age, not quite at the point where she might be valuable economically or politically to her family. But she is clearly beloved of her father who is willing to humble himself and beg Jesus to cure her. Jairus risks political and religious disfavor by associating with Jesus. He risks a lowering of his status by his visible concern for a daughter. He crosses boundaries of propriety, tradition and religious righteousness to come before Jesus with his need. But that’s what you do when you love. Love makes us all vulnerable, humble and willing to suffer on behalf of the beloved.

Jesus hears that plea and responds immediately but while he is on his way, another desperate figure approaches him, but this time from behind, hidden from view and ashamed. Again the one suffering is a woman, not a lowly girl child but someone with even lower status, a woman who because of her constant flow of blood is unclean. She cannot be touched by anyone who wishes to remain ritually pure. She has lost her self-respect. She has spent all her money on cures that haven’t worked. She is an outcast with no one able to even touch her in tenderness, love or mercy.

So she sneaks up on Jesus from behind, not to touch his person, but simply to come in contact with his outer clothing, hoping against hope that his healing power might pass to her. And it does… immediately. But instead of slinking off, she is brought into a full confrontation with Jesus who needs to know who has come to him with such need and faith that he felt the very power leave him. In fear she approaches him and like Jairus falls down before him. And a second healing takes place for her. He calls her “daughter,” a beloved child of God. He affirms her faith in front of others and confirms that she is now healed and clean. He enables her to lift her head with dignity and self respect.

In the meantime Jairus’ daughter has died. He is ready to give up hope. Jesus again walks deliberately into a situation guaranteed to make him ritually impure. He approaches the corpse. No one could touch a corpse and remain clean. A lengthy ritual would be required to restore purity. But Jesus doesn’t see a corpse. He sees a beloved child. He reaches out to her and raises her up. He calls to her and restores her to life. He cares for her by asking that she be fed and nurtured into full health.

To live as citizens of God’s Kingdom and to walk in the way of Jesus will make us vulnerable and lowly and unclean as well. Every time we open our doors to the stranger and our hearts to the unlovely, the wounded and diseased, every time we open our hands to serve the least, the last and the lost, we open ourselves to risk. Anyone who hangs around this congregation knows this well. Whether it’s in the feeding program, daily encountering those on the margins or in ministry in the jail or hospital or through the ministry of prayer for those who are most desperate or in the Bible Study where anyone and everyone is welcome, we take on Christ and encounter the beloved children he cares for and gave his life for.

But you also know the rewards. You know about the miraculous ways God transforms lives, beginning with our own. You know that healing is still happening through the loving, prayerful touch of those who call upon Jesus for power.   You know that death does not have the last word and that joy comes in the morning. You know that when you hang around Jesus and the people he cares about your life will never be boring or comfortable.

I hope we never have to endure the gut-wrenching grief of the congregation that is mourning the violent deaths of their two pastors and 7 beloved parishioners. But I do hope that it could be said of us that we live faithfully, not in fear; that we live with open hands and hearts, trusting in a good God who is always on the side of life; that we live with humility and humor and that our lives are surrounded by grace and God’s goodness no matter the circumstances; that we live as God’s grateful and forgiven people willing to become vulnerable and lowly and even unclean for the sake of others.

Let’s sing. Amazing Grace.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

 

 

Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015

 

Bryon and I are big fans of the British TV show, “Call the Midwife.” Each episode tells the story of a number of births attended to by the hard-working, adaptable and compassionate nurses and Anglican nuns of a very poor neighborhood in London after WWII. It’s based on a true story written and narrated by a woman reflecting back on that period of her life.

We are in the fifth season and by now we’ve watched at least 100 childbirths and the midwives have attended many times more than that number. The show is pretty realistic, and I’ve been told by a real midwife that it’s quite accurate. No matter the circumstances in which the births take place, there is always a moment that feels like a miracle, and the joy of the birth eclipses the pain and the poverty and the difficulty involved. True confessions: I always cry at least once during the show.

Jesus uses the experience of birth and the language of new life to describe what happens when we find ourselves transformed, brought into awareness of God’s loving presence, living in a new kingdom with a new identity. “Born from above.” “Born again.” “Born anew.” “Born of water and Spirit.”

The language is poetic and fluid and beautiful. It attempts to describe what can only be fully understood when it is experienced. It’s not a formula or a manual on how to be “saved” but rather an opening into a new reality that comes as gift and miracle.

All births have some things in common. There is a ritual and a structure that a good midwife will attend to. But no two births are ever the same. Each one has its own individual character and circumstances. Babies are born in hospitals and homes, in cars and elevators, in open fields and in operating rooms. Babies are born in their parent’s beds, or via c-section or even underwater in a tub. The “right way” for birth is different in different cultures and times.

The new birth Jesus speaks of is similar. There are common characteristics. We have rituals and structures that help us to be present and witness to the new birth. And yet each new beginning is unique, a gift from the God of Life who breathes into us fresh breath and awakens us to joy and wonder by opening our eyes and ears to the really real and the truly true.

How were you baptized? The rituals differ. Most are baptized as infants. The faith and love of parents or even grandparents or guardians along with the presence and promises of a Christian Community welcome the child into the life of faith, hope and love that the ritual of baptism embodies.

Just this past Easter at my husband’s church, 3 babies were immersed in the waters of baptism. Their parents made this decision based in their commitment and their desire for their child to know from the earliest age that this child is the beloved, the child of God, in whom God is well pleased.

Little Ruby, Rogue and Cameron went naked into the waters of baptism. It was very real and very powerful. All the small children in the church wanted to get as close as possible to the water and the babies. As they emerged all wet and wiggly, they were anointed with oil and ritually sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as “Christ’s own forever.” All the adults sang and made promises to help the parents raise their children in this new reality, this new kingdom, this new family to which they belong. Everyone wanted to get close to these new lives, to touch and bless them. True confession: I cried. I always do. And I’m not alone.

This is one way in which new birth by water and Spirit takes place. But there are many others. I was baptized at age 17 after I had experienced the transformative power of the Spirit and recognized that God was really present in my life. Some are baptized in an emergency when physical life was at risk. Others are baptized only when they reach the “age of reason” when they are supposed to be able to make the decision for themselves. Your experience will be different and absolutely unique even though many of the rituals are similar.

Water baptism only has to happen once. Since Jesus came, we don’t need to be cleansed over and over by a ritual bath as it was practiced by John and others. Whether we recall the actual event of our baptism or not, we are still baptized. We have entered into the resurrected life of Jesus. He has shared our lives so that we might share in the eternal life that he experiences with God. Just as in physical birth, we don’t have to remember or understand or even be conscious of this event. It is real and we live into it every day we draw breath.

Of course there are many who have been baptized in water who have no profession of faith in God or who have chosen another religious tradition besides Christianity or who are angry that this decision was made for them without their consent. They might say that they experienced the religious ritual but not the spiritual reality.

Nicodemus was familiar with that attitude and experience. He participated fully in his religion but missed the Spirit. He was drawn to the teaching and ministry of Jesus, but it scared him so he came by night to meet Jesus in secret and to try and understand where Jesus got his authority and why he seemed to be different from the established understanding about God.

Jesus never answers his question directly. Jesus never gives him a formula or provides a “how to” manual for new life. In fact, what Jesus tells Nicodemus is different from how he encounters the Samaritan woman or the rich young ruler or the blind man or the tax collectors and sinners. There are some things all followers of Jesus have in common but every one is different. Every encounter he has is specific to that person. Each new birth is unique.

Interestingly, the language Jesus uses when he talks to Nicodemus is ambiguous. We never know how to translate this new birth into English. It can mean new birth or born again or born from above. It is like the wind. You know it when you experience it but who can tell where it comes from or how it’s created or where it will go. There is a freshness and a mystery to this birth. It doesn’t follow a formula or fit into a neat box. It is filled with the awe and the holiness of God, it is as real and tangible as our own breath and present in real human flesh as Jesus was and it is enlivened by the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The other interesting thing about how Jesus speaks with Nicodemus is that instead of using the singular form for “you,” he uses the plural. He may be speaking to one person but his message is for a much larger audience. He speaks to all those who may be religious but not spiritual, who never experience the life-giving birth of the Spirit. He speaks to those who are longing for more, for waters that spring up to eternal life, for a new sense of purpose and meaning in a life that has lost its relevance. He speaks to all those who in the nighttime, come to Jesus with their unanswered questions and wonderings. His message is to the faith community who has lost sight of the presence of God, who cannot hear the message of God’s love in Jesus and the call to follow him.

When I preached on this text in Lent, I had the opportunity to share some of my own faith journey. As we hear this text again a few months later in between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost it offers us a vision of the new life of the spiritual community, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the good news in word and deed and midwifing the new birth by water and the Spirit of those who are drawn to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

 

 

Pentecost, May 24, 2015

For Memorial Day weekend, Bryon and I watched the film Unbroken.  I read the book when it came out a few years ago and was captivated by the life story of Louie Zamperini who was during his long lifetime at turns a teenage delinquent, Olympic runner, World War II bombardier, prisoner of war, husband, father, skateboarder and Christian.

The movie focused on what the directors thought were the most dramatic events of his life including his fame as an athlete, his amazing survival on open sea for 47 days after a plane crash and the unbearable torture and humiliation he endured over 2 years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  In the movie we view lots of scenes chronicling his speed, strength and courage.  The camera focuses on the actor’s blue-grey eyes which reflect his unbreakable will to survive.

Unbroken is the title of the book and movie, but the reality is that he did break.  He didn’t break under enormous physical hardship or torture or imprisonment.  He broke after he came home and was safe with his family and his beloved new bride.  Recent studies show that veterans have increasing incidences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even as their level of direct combat decreases.  More and more the research is pointing to the difficulty of assimilating again into modern society as the source of the problem.

Spirits break when there isn’t enough support; when the person loses their sense of meaning and purpose; when they are separated from the close bonds of fellow soldiers all sharing the same experiences; when the superficial, commercialized, lonely, isolated aspects of civilized life aren’t enough to keep the horror at bay.

Louie broke.  He started drinking.  He became distant from family and friends.  He felt suicidal.  On his own, his spirit could not withstand the trauma and pain he had endured.  He felt hopeless and lost when he was finally safe and secure.

During the very worst time on the life raft after weeks without food, water or shelter there was a terrific storm and the end seemed near.  It was then that Louie prayed the most basic of prayers, “God, if you get me through this, I’ll give my life to you.”  So many of us have prayed that type of prayer and then, like Louie never followed up on it, but at the lowest ebb of his life, he remembered what he had promised.  His desperate wife had tried everything to get his drinking stopped and his life restored.  She was at the end of her rope but it just so happened that Billy Graham was making one of his appearances nearby.  She begged Louie to go but he kept refusing.  Finally he relented and at a Billy Graham crusade he gave his life to God and his spirit was restored and his hope renewed.  He would say that his life was saved one more time and this was the most miraculous and life-changing event of all.

It would be easy to be cynical about this story except for the fact that Louie lived another 60 years until just last year.  And what happened in that sixty years is just as remarkable as all the stories of his earlier successes and survival.  He became a loving and devoted husband.  He became active in Christian ministry as an inspirational speaker and helped countless people. And by the power of the Holy Spirit he forgave all of his captors, including the most twisted and brutal one who was known as the “Bird.”  He even traveled to Japan to meet with all his prison guards in order to forgive them in person.

Without the saving grace of God, the love of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Louie would have been broken.  We love our heroes to be independent, unrelenting, and able to overcome any obstacle single-handedly. But that’s for the movies.  In reality we are all broken, wounded and empty.  It is the breath of God that breathes life into us and puts our bones back together and inspires and strengthens us and gives us a new song and a greater purpose.

It is God who puts us into community with other Christians so we don’t have to go it alone.  God gives us brothers and sisters who are linked to us with ties that resemble the very sinews and tendons of the body.

This feast of Pentecost today is less about the miraculous foreign tongues with which the disciples spoke and more about the power of God to bring life and hope and good news to those whose spirits are broken.  It is about the power that works in us to allow forgiveness and restoration to take place.  It is about scared and insecure people who overcome their shyness, unworthiness and nervousness to share good news with others who are desperate to hear their testimony.  It is about proud people who are broken in their failure and isolation and put back together by the love of God.  It is about the true heroes who are mostly unsung and often humble in their loyalty and service to others.

Friends, you are my heroes.  You persevere when the obstacles seem overwhelming.  You continue to hold onto faith when you experience some of the most difficult and desperate situations.  You love one another in spite of differences and offenses and you keep working at forgiveness and restored relationships.  You welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I know you’re not perfect.  You know I’m not perfect.  We are not yet what we will be.  This journey isn’t yet finished.  The Spirit of Jesus is being poured into us daily as we try to live ordinary lives with extraordinary inspiration and power.  We are not puppets being manipulated or controlled by a force outside ourselves. Instead we are moved and guided and encouraged by the Spirit to live courageous lives of faith, hope and love.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Sunday After Ascension, May 17, 2015

What inspires you?  Who inspires you?  When have you felt that inner prompting to be more courageous or creative?  Why did you move out of your personal safety zone to try something new and risky?  When have you received insight that seemed to come from a source greater and deeper than your own wisdom and experience?

The first followers of  Jesus experienced new insight, fresh courage and power far greater than their own limitations when they knew themselves to be filled by the Holy Spirit.  We get to hear about their amazing stories in the Gospel of  Luke and the book of Acts.  Both were written by the same author.  The gospel ends with the reading we heard today when the resurrected Jesus departs from their presence leaving them worshipping and rejoicing.  The book of Acts which often is referred to as the Acts of the Holy Spirit begins with the same event.  It is the pivotal event that links the ministry of  Jesus with the on-going ministry of his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension.  It is one of the five great feasts of the Church year and it always falls on a Thursday since it occurs 40 days after the Resurrection as Luke describes it in Acts.  I imagine it may have been a long time since you were at church for Ascension Day.  I might even guess that many have never even been to such a celebration.

Because it’s on a Thursday only the very pious usually attend.  And because attendance is low, many churches no longer have Ascension Day services, especially in the West.

It’s been years since I have held or attended an Ascension Day worship but this year a strange set of circumstances caused me to re-think this event so that we could gather today on the Sunday after Ascension to enter into the mystery and power of the Ascension.

Of course the first strange circumstance is that I am the priest of St. Luke’s!  What an amazing gift it has been these past two months to experience the power of the Spirit in this place through each one of you and the ministry and impact this congregation has!  This is a church with a very particular and unique experience of God’s Spirit.  I have come to expect to be inspired each day by some encounter or event that could only be possible through the Holy Spirit.  Some days I can hardly wait to show up, expecting God to surprise us and provide us with more than we can ask or imagine.

Because Jesus has ascended to the presence of God and there intercedes for us, we are given every spiritual gift necessary to live as his followers in the world.  Because he has known and experienced every human reality by his incarnation, he has compassion and understanding for us and gives his strength, courage and wisdom in difficult times.

We are provided with spiritual riches, enlightenment, and power.  The world may look at us or at the church or at St. Luke’s and see only weakness or poverty or foolishness but Jesus at the right hand of God has bestowed upon us every blessing that he received from the Father.  We are able to stand up in the face of overwhelming obstacles because of the power of God in us.  We are able to love in the face of hatred and humiliation because of the love of Christ which has been poured into us.  We are able to give generously because we are constantly replenished by the grace and goodness of God.

Jesus has ascended so that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.  He did not leave his disciples without comfort or blessing.  He does not abandon us.  As Jesus left his disciples he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  Their last image of him was one of blessing.   Their last gift from him was the gift of the Holy Spirit to be with them always.

Leave takings can be so important.  They can last with you forever.  I’ll never forget the last time my mother and I were with her mother.  Grandma was 98 and had lived a good life.  She didn’t have a terrible disease, she simply was wearing out, getting weaker.  Finally she stopped eating.  Our relatives from the East Coast called to say it was time to come out to see her.  When we got to Virginia we found her in bed at the care center.  She was thin and weak but in no pain.  There’s no other way to describe it, she radiated love.

Although she couldn’t talk, she could write short answers to questions.  As the good eldest granddaughter and priest, I met with her to ask if there was anything she needed, anything in her life that was unfinished, anything she wanted at the end.  No, she said.  It was all fine.  I asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell all of us.  She wrote down one word on her pad… love.  That was it… love.

My catholic Aunt and cousin, my Mom and I gathered around her bedside for communion.  She was incredibly present as we prayed and shared the sacrament.  She kept her eyes focused on each one of us, pouring into us her love.  It was an incredibly holy moment as we shared the bread and wine, our last meal together before we celebrate that holy feast together in glory.  There was peace and there was love and we all received her blessing.  None of us will ever forget that.

When Jesus ascended he poured everything he had, everything he received from God, everything he had taught and shown his followers about the Kingdom of God into them.  He poured his spirit, the Holy Spirit into them, filling them with the peace and love that would enable them to carry on without his physical presence.  The Ascension marks that moment when they let go of his body and receive the fullness of his presence in their hearts and souls.  Luke says that from that moment on, those who had been fearful and confused were now filled with great joy and themselves were blessing God.

The second strange thing around the Ascension that happened for me recently is that the joint Lutheran/Episcopal clergy conference last month had a speaker who is from a Nazarene college.  That has never happened before!  And his subject matter was the Holy Spirit!  That has never happened before!  He was brilliant and funny and hopeful and really helpful.  For him the Feast of the Ascension is the absolute pivot point in the life of the faithful.  No matter where he is in the world on that Thursday he locates a church that is celebrating Ascension.

He helped us to realize that unless Jesus goes, the Spirit cannot work in the lives of the disciples to spread the good news out to the whole world.  The mission of the church can only develop once it is empowered by the Spirit of  Jesus to continue his ministry far beyond the physical reach he had while on earth.  After the ascension and Pentecost people of every race and nation hear the good news.  After Ascension the gentiles begin to respond to the call of Christ.  After Ascension those scared, denying, betraying, bickering, immature disciples are transformed into preachers, teachers, apostles and evangelists and through them the world is transformed.

The mission of the church depends upon the Ascension and we are here because of it.

The third strange thing for me about the Ascension this year is that I was staying at a Roman Catholic, Benedictine monastery outside of Twin Falls Idaho on the Feast of the Ascension.  Any by now you probably can guess the name of the place… Monastery of the Ascension.

Here’s the wonderful thing about the work of the Holy Spirit.  It didn’t start with the Ascension and it hasn’t ever ended.  The Spirit moved over the face of the deep at creation.  The Spirit inspired the prophets in the days before Christ.  Jesus let his disciples know that the Spirit prays with us when we cannot find words for our deepest longings.  When we are baptized we are sealed with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit makes us one in Christ no matter our many differences.

We are continually inspired, empowered, comforted and led by the Spirit.  We are given every gift necessary so that we may answer God’s call to serve the world in Christ’s name.  We are filled with all the fullness of Christ.  And our lives can be a gift and blessing to the world.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015

In the gospel of John, Jesus makes a number of proclamations about himself that identify his role and purpose.  He is the “bread of life, the light of the world, the way, the truth and the life.”   And famously, he is the “good shepherd.”  Even growing up as a non-Christian, I knew that Jesus was identified by this role.  There were all those soft-focus prints of Jesus carrying lambs in his arms or across his shoulders or sitting in a field amongst a flock of snow white sheep.  It is one of the most prevalent Christian images in history, found in stained glass windows in churches all over the world.
It’s a pretty familiar image from the Bible.  Many of the leaders of God’s people were actual shepherds, like King David.  Some of them were labeled as bad shepherds because they took advantage of the people and looked after their own interests.  But Jesus calls himself the good or the model shepherd.  He gets the inspiration for his role directly from God.  He is unique as a leader and lover of people.  He is the good shepherd.

Like me, you may have known some inspirational, dedicated and amazing people who played an important role in your life.  It may have been a parent or grandparent, a beloved teacher, a mentor or boss, maybe even a clergy person who influenced and inspired you.  Some of those people may even have been public servants and politicians.
Yesterday I was invited to a walking tour of Ballard with Mayor Ed Murray and his staff.  He takes Saturday mornings to get acquainted more intimately with the neighborhoods in the city by walking and talking with a variety of people who really care about what happens here.  He wasn’t formal or fancy.  He didn’t make any speeches or promote himself in any way.  His main purpose was simply to listen, to be present and to understand what is important to the people in this city.  It was an honor to show him our chapel, to talk about the ministry of this congregation and to point out the SLUG garden.  Listening to the many others who also spoke from their perspective made me realize how complex it is to be in his role and how great the demands are.  I haven’t been in town long enough to know about his policies and politics or even to decide if I would vote for him but I was impressed that he took the time to really listen to each of us.

This past Sunday through Tuesday I was at a joint Lutheran/Episcopal clergy conference with lots of very fine leaders including our own Bishop Greg Rickel and Bishop Kirby Unti from the Lutheran Synod.  Bishop Unti preached on this passage from John and it was good but it made me really nervous.  He was identifying our role as clergy with the shepherding role.  He talked about how essential it was to the church for us to serve our people as shepherds.  He tried to encourage us, knowing that it can be difficult at times to love and lead a church especially when churches go through struggles, conflict and decline.   I know he meant well but I started feeling more and more uncomfortable.
And this is why.  No matter how wonderful my mentors and leaders have been, how outstanding or caring or brilliant or devoted, all of them have failed me and others in some way.  It’s so tempting to put too much trust or reliance on someone we admire or rely upon.  It’s so easy to have it turn into hero worship or to set our expectations too high.  No one is perfect.  No one can deliver on every promise or hope.  And we can so quickly turn from admiration and acclaim to disillusionment and disgust.

Very early in my ministry a very wise member of the congregation who served on my shepherding committee told me never to “trust my press releases.”  She said you’re never going to be as good as some people make you out to be and you’re never going to be as bad as some folks decide you are.  No leader can make all the people happy or satisfied all the time.  No leader is ever completely responsible for the success or failure of the venture they are engaged in.  Every leader will make mistakes, have bad days and let people down.
Let me be very clear with you and myself.  I am not the good shepherd.  This is very good news for all of us because there is another who really is the good shepherd.  Jesus is the shepherd of our little flock at St. Luke’s.  He is the one who provides for us rest and refreshment in the midst of a stressful and difficult world.  The peace in this place comes from the peace of Christ upon, within and among us.  It is like the sweetness of green pastures and the quiet of still waters.
He is the good shepherd.  When we are threatened with danger and difficulty, he stands with us.  He doesn’t run from the overwhelming threat of the wolf at the door.  He isn’t intimidated by our financial situation, our challenges or the things that we fear.  In our darkest moments, in our sleepless nights, when it feels like all is lost and no one cares, he does not run away.  The good shepherd will not desert us or leave us alone.  He has endured the worst that the world can dish out and still he loves us, he believes in us, he will not abandon us.
He is the good shepherd.  He knows us and we can know him.  We can hear his voice calling to us as we listen and discern his purposes for us.  This happens in so many ways.  When we act as he acted by loving our neighbors, by helping those in need, by following in his footsteps we find ourselves responding with the same impulses that guided him.  When we dwell in the quiet of our souls and listen with the ears of our hearts we hear the same voice speaking to us that spoke to Jesus letting us know that we too are beloved of God, called to love others.
He is the good shepherd.  He sets a table and offers himself as our food.  This great mystery helps us become ever more like him.  He lays down his life so that we might experience our lives to the fullest.
But there’s something we may miss when we hear this in English with our 21st Century American ears.  You may be thinking that this describes the relationship between the individual and God, Jesus and me, but all the pronouns are plural.   The Good Shepherd is there for the flock and what we know and experience of God is in relationship to others.  God speaks to us as a community and we hear God best when we listen to each other.  God provides for us through one another and our welfare is tied to the welfare of others.  We don’t have to do it alone and we can’t make it on our own.  We are part of the flock that belongs to the Good Shepherd.
It gets even more complicated when Jesus mentions that there are other sheep we don’t have any clue about who also know his voice and who he’s listening to.  It means that we are linked with people we may not even like or who are not like us.  It means that the network of relationships God has placed us in is so vast and complex that we cannot afford to demean or diminish anyone whether they be a close friend or neighbor or a total stranger or even an enemy. When the Good Shepherd does his walk through the neighborhoods he doesn’t ignore a single soul.  Each one is precious.  He knows each one of us as if there were only one of us.
One of the most unique experiences I ever had as part of the flock where Christ is the shepherd was in New Zealand.  The first people to settle in New Zealand are the Maori.  When they heard the gospel many of them became Anglican Christians.  In 2005 I was present as they chose the Archbishop of the Maori people.  They gathered together at the central Marae or gathering place for their people for 3 days.  During that time they listened for hours to everyone who wanted to speak.  They prayed and worshiped together.  They ate all their meals together.  No one left the building.  I didn’t see any cell phones or laptops in use.  It was a concentrated exercise in community discernment by dedicated, prayerful people.  They only took a vote when everyone was ready to do so.
It was an immense privilege to be one of only 6 non Maori in that gathering of over 400 people.  I was so impressed by the serious way they engaged in the process but I wasn’t prepared for what happened at night.  Because no one left, there had to be provision to sleep hundreds of people.  Every night huge rooms were opened.  Woven mats covered the floors in long rows.  One room was for men and one for women.  When it was time to go to bed, everyone chose a place on the mat.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015

Everyone is looking for the perfect church. I know because I did so for a lot of years. After I became a Christian in college I also became a church dater. I was willing to attend anywhere I was invited, especially since I didn’t have a car at the time. I got baptized in the Conservative Baptist Church, I experienced the gifts of the Holy Spirit at the Foursquare Church. I went with friends to Presbyterian and Lutheran and Catholic churches. When I was involved in campus ministry I spent time in lots of African American churches where I saw people slain in the Spirit and I even did 5 years in Kent at a conservative Grace Brethren Church where they forbid musical instruments in their worship service and didn’t allow women to speak in church. Every one of these churches had something to recommend them, usually the people. But none of them was perfect.
Sometimes we look for the perfect church in our memory, comparing every other congregation to the one that we loved when we were younger. Some folks I know have given up on attending a local congregation in favor of TV worship services which can be enjoyed from the comfort of home without having to deal with all the real and imperfect people in the building. And others have found their idea of the perfect church in Scripture, particularly in the records of the very earliest followers of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles.
Don’t you love what was described in today’s first reading? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul. With power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them.” Of course I left some of the text out. As my husband says, “Everyone always talks about the signs and wonders in the gospel and asks why such miraculous things don’t happen today, but no one ever talks about the sign and wonder of those who ‘claimed no private ownership of any possessions or those who owned lands or houses who sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.’” That’s a model of a perfect church that only a few try to put into action today!
The problem with finding the perfect church is that churches are always made up of us imperfect people. The very first gathering together behind closed doors happened shortly after the resurrection. The word was getting out that something astonishing had happened with the body of Jesus and that some of his closest disciples including many of the women had actually seen Jesus in the flesh. They all gathered a week later in fear and grief and wonder at the news. Present was Peter who had recently denied even knowing Jesus three times. Thomas who had started leaving the area came back but he was full of doubt and the need for anything this strange to be proved to him personally.
The brothers James and John who had so often jockeyed for position in the imaginary hierarchy of the followers of Jesus were there. None of them fully understood Jesus’ promise about the resurrection. None of them had much confidence in the continuation of his message and ministry now that he was gone. They weren’t brave or influential or particularly brilliant or even very loving to one another. No one would have chosen that particular group to be the basis for a future global religious movement. No sensible church planter would have collected this bunch to invest in to transform the world. They seemed weak and foolish with absolutely no plan or leadership going forward.
When Jesus steps into their midst he addresses first their fears and confusion. He breaths peace and speaks peace and brings peace to their troubled hearts. He centers them by his very voice and presence and they return to their best selves, to who he knows them to be, to whom they are called to be. And when he has their attention and their minds can begin to take in whatever he will offer them, he does something so strange and wonderful that it takes my breath away.
Instead of teaching about God’s power to raise the dead or reminding them of all he had told them about this moment or commissioning them to get out there and carry on with the mission, he spreads out his hands, he lifts up his tunic and he shows them the very visible wounds of his crucifixion. This is not the Christ of the transfiguration or the Son of Man coming on the clouds or the mighty voice from heaven commanding them to listen and obey. This is Jesus, the crucified whose strength is make perfect in weakness, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, who humbled himself unto death so that God might exalt him.
The model he offers for the community who will become the Church, the Body of Christ, is his own flesh wounded and given for them. The risen Christ bears the marks of his suffering. And those who follow him, including you and I will always bear the marks of our failures and weakness and foolishness. We will never be the perfect disciples all shined and polished and certain and well behaved. We will always be a cast of characters for whom Christ was willing to give his everything and in whom he continues to live out his ministry of healing and forgiving and loving the world.
We’re a small band of faithful followers and quirky characters here at St. Luke’s but we’re part of a huge body of believers all over the world. During Holy Week we decided to take our offering and give it to a very special part of Christ’s body in Aberdeen, Washington. The ministry is called Chaplains on the Harbor and it’s led by a phenomenal young priest named Sarah Monroe. They have developed a very close relationship with those who live in tents along the river in that town. Over Holy Week the City threatened to evict everyone and wouldn’t provide a place for them to go. Sarah and folks there got the word out. They testified and organized and used social media.
Even Bishop Rickel came there on Maundy Thursday and urged all of us to pray for them and to get involved. I can’t tell you how amazed and gratified I am to report that not only have we been praying but we will be sending a very generous donation to them this week. We’re not a big or successful or showy congregation but God is using St. Luke’s to make a difference in the lives of the folks in Aberdeen. Thank you.
I love that we’re giving away money when we’re not always sure how we’ll pay all of our expenses. And yet there is something that has been happening here that only happens when we expose our own wounds and trust in the power of the resurrected one to provide for us peace and faith and life in Jesus name.
The last Sunday before I started as your Priest-in-charge, I had been asked to serve as the supply priest at one of the church’s I worked with in California. It was a pleasure to be with those dear people one last time. Their church is in the heart of Napa wine country in the chic town of St. Helena. They have about 300 members, many of whom have a great deal of wealth. They completed a 15 million dollar remodel of the entire church a few years ago and they already burned the mortgage. It is a remarkably blessed place. It can be very intimidating to be amongst such polished and successful people.
But they are among some of the most generous and faithful Christians I know. They have a group of praying people who minister to anyone who is in need. My final Sunday there, they wanted to know what I was going to be doing in Washington so I told them what I knew about St. Luke’s and what I hoped for and what made me fearful. They sat me down in the middle of the congregation, laid their hands on me and prayed for me and prayed for you. It was powerful. But it didn’t end there. They continue to pray and ask how things are going. And they started sending checks. In fact on that Sunday, they pressed checks into my hand and asked for the address of the church. Over the past month the generosity of the members of this congregation, the generosity of our diocese who provides two substantial grants to us and the generosity of the good people at Grace Church in St. Helena have helped us to meet the needs we have here.
Is the Diocese of Olympia a perfect church? No. Is Grace, St. Helena a perfect church? No. Is St. Luke’s, Ballard a perfect church? No. But we all serve a risen Savior who is able to work in and through us beyond what we can ask or imagine. We are Easter people who step out from behind closed doors, whose fear is replaced by God’s peace and who continue the life of the risen Christ wherever we are sent.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

The account of the resurrection in the gospel of Mark is shorter than any of the others. It contains no description of the empty tomb. There are no appearances by the risen Christ. We don’t hear about “doubting Thomas” who would only believe if he had a chance to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. Mark offers no “proof” of the resurrection. He only recounts that the tomb is empty and that a strange young man, robed in white tells the women that Jesus has risen as he said he would.
The last official word in Mark’s gospel is “afraid.” The women were afraid. Or to be more specific, they were struck with terror and amazement. They thought they knew how things were going to be. They knew about death and grief. They knew what the customs for burial were and what their role needed to be. As they approached the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid, their greatest concern was how they would get past the heavy stone which prevented the grave from being defiled.
No matter how heartbroken they were, it can’t have been a huge surprise to them that Jesus had been killed. He predicted his death many times. Anyone with sense knew that he was upsetting the political and religious authorities. His closest disciples had begged him not to go to Jerusalem during the Feast of the Passover. Tensions were high. The powers that be were ready to make an example of someone who upset the status quo and Jesus did more than upset things, he turned them upside down so that the weak gained strength, the poor were privileged and the outcast found a place at the table.
So the crucifixion of Jesus, though devastating was not unexpected. It wasn’t unexpected either that his closest friends and disciples mostly deserted him. It was too dangerous to be considered one of his followers. Even Peter, who was so devoted to Jesus had denied him three times during the time of his arrest and trial. No, it’s not surprising that Jesus was killed. And it’s not surprising that the movement he founded floundered without him. And it’s not surprising that his followers get scared or discouraged or overwhelmed and seek to protect their own lives.
But this is not the source of the women’s terror and amazement. What scares them into silence is not his death, they already witnessed that, or his desertion, after all they knew Peter and the others and understood their human frailty. It’s not the presence of Jesus’s battered body but rather the absence that terrifies them. And it’s not the finality of death which amazes them but the words of a young man robed in white who instructs them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
They are too scared even to heed the words of the young man and so they keep quiet. And the story is left open for us. Will they develop the courage to report this astonishing news? Will they go to Peter to relieve him of his guilt and despair and to let him know that there is a chance for a new beginning with Jesus? Will they overcome their terror and continue the message and ministry of Jesus even when it’s dangerous? What will happen to all the hopes and dreams that Jesus awakened in them? Is this the end or a brand new beginning?
All of us know what it’s like to be afraid. We fear what will happen with our loved ones who are aging or sick. We fear the consequences of the bad choices our children are making. We stay awake at night wondering how we will pay for everything and what our future will be. We worry that our relationships will be irreparably damaged by selfishness and insecurity. We experience the sheer terror of a diagnosis that is certain to lead to death.
Like the women at the tomb we are overwhelmed with terror and feel as if there is no hope. But another voice is speaking to us. Another voice is calling us to move forward. At those times, there is another message that comes through. A message we are asked to not only accept but to proclaim. It is the message of the resurrection. “Do not be alarmed. He is going ahead of you.”
The women did find their voices. They told the news to his disciples “and Peter.” And Peter, especially Peter. Peter must have been in such despair. Everything had gone wrong. Nothing had turned out like he expected. Instead of a triumph in Jerusalem, he had seen his beloved leader shamed, beaten and mocked. And the worst part is that Peter hadn’t stood up for him, hadn’t even admitted to knowing him. Can you imagine what it might be like for the women to finally gain their voices, come to the disciples and Peter to share this amazing and terrifying news? And Peter had an opportunity to see his relationship with Jesus restored and to receive the courage and inspiration to move forward faithfully, following Christ every day of his life until he at last was put to death for his proclamation of the resurrection.
He is going ahead of us. This is the message of the resurrection. No matter what we face, no matter how scary or difficult it is, Jesus is going ahead of us. No matter that we have betrayed or denied him, forgotten or ignored him, he is already there ahead of us waiting for us, longing for us to return to the place where we knew him best.
Our fears will be trumped by amazement. We will see the power of the resurrection even when all seems to be lost. We will be restored to God and to one another.
The women did not remain silent and that has made all the difference in the world. By sharing the good news of the resurrection we have all been given the hope of new life and a new purpose. Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

Actions speak louder than words. Actions speak louder than words.
In a culture that is either indifferent or resistant to Christianity this Holy Week and the great three days of Easter, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Feast of the Resurrection either go unnoticed or unobserved. Our beautiful liturgies and sermons will have little impact because they will be heard by so few and embraced by such a small percentage of the population. Like the early church which was a beleaguered minority in a majority culture of Roman occupation and religious pluralism, we can only hope that they will say of us as was said of those first Christians, “See how they love one another.”
Actions speak louder than words.
These three days are filled with action. From last Sunday’s palm procession we will engage in rituals that have shaped Christians almost from the beginning. We will wash feet and share a holy meal with Jesus and his followers. We will experience the desolation of emptiness as the sanctuary is stripped of everything festive, everything that speaks of Christ’s presence. Tomorrow we will offer solemn prayers, read the Passion Gospel and touch the rough wood of the cross. Finally on Easter we will rise up rejoicing, singing our Alleluia’s and feasting with the saints throughout history who know the power and glory of the hope of the resurrection.
It is in these actions that we will come closer to the mystery that is Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection and know in our own flesh what it means to be those who follow in his way. We will also receive and renew our commitment to love as he loves, to serve as he serves and to offer ourselves as Jesus offered himself for all humanity. As we live his way of humble service our actions will speak louder than all of our words.
When I was a priest in Nevada our new bishop agreed to join me as the co-chaplain for our high school youth retreat called Teens Encounter Christ. It was a good event and at the end of the 3 day weekend the teens who served on the team were cleaning up the church. I was sitting at my desk in my office taking care of “important” business when teens started trickling in with concerned looks on their faces. “Did you know that Bishop Katharine is vacuuming the church right now?” They didn’t want to get in trouble. They didn’t want her to have to do such a menial task. They knew she was important and had a lot to do. One of the adults wondered if I would speak to her. But I didn’t. Bishop Katharine and I had known one another for a long time. One thing I was certain of is that she would always be the one helping out at any task that needed doing. If you had her over for dinner, she would do the dishes. If you suddenly lost your voice and she was available, she would come and preach for you. If you were a teenager in trouble or a priest with a difficult situation, she would be there for you.
Bishop Katharine who is now the Presiding Bishop for the entire Episcopal Church never forgot the words of Jesus. “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Each of us has an opportunity to be the one who serves others in Christ’s name. It is our holy calling. When we feed others in the name of Christ, we are feeding Jesus himself. When we visit others in prison in the name of Christ, we are visiting Jesus himself. When we pray for others in the name of Christ, Jesus is praying with us.
But there is another side to Christ’s service that can be more difficult for some of us. Not only are we called to serve, but we are asked to receive. You heard Peter struggle with this. He didn’t think that Jesus should be washing anyone’s feet and especially not his. He objected to being served. He either thought he could do it for himself or someone who had a lowly position should be doing it rather than his Lord. He resisted having his feet washed.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015

“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Fifty years ago yesterday was Bloody Sunday. On that day a group of civil rights advocates and many ordinary people attempted to cross a bridge in Alabama on their way to walk to the capitol in order to demand fair voting practices. In response police on horses and with truncheons beat and bludgeoned unarmed citizens, women, young people, the elderly and black civil rights leaders who were committed to non-violent protest. That day the marchers were turned back, fleeing for safety, fleeing for their lives, seemingly overwhelmed and defeated.
It was a day marked by enormous obstacles and steadfast determination. It was a day of horrific violence met by a courageous refusal to retaliate or even practice self defense. It was a day when might seemed to triumph over right and the weak seemed to be defeated by bullies.
But Bloody Sunday did not end the dream of full inclusion for African Americans in the political life of this country. Just a few days later Martin Luther King Jr. led a much larger group of marchers from all over the nation, black and white, old and young, some still with swollen faces, bandages and bruises back over the bridge again. On the other side they were faced by an all white police force mounted on horses and carrying weapons that may still have been bloodied by the earlier attack.
The marchers faced an overwhelming force of power and privilege. They carried only their moral conviction and their solidarity with one another. They marched with faith and with hope and even with love in the face of oppression, hopelessness and hatred. When they reached the edge of the bridge and were face to face with those who had once already inflicted great pain and suffering upon them, Martin Luther King stopped and then knelt down in the middle of the road to pray. Soon those around him knelt as well and the wave passed back through the crowd. Catholics, Muslims, Baptists and atheists knelt to pray. Mothers, grandmothers and high schoolers knelt to pray. A future congressman and a few brave politicians knelt to pray. It was utterly silent as the force of human dignity and belief met the forces of violence and degradation.
The way was cleared. The marchers walked through the gauntlet of police in safety all the way to Montgomery and just 5 months later the President of the United States passed the Voting Rights act to insure that every eligible person in this country would have access to vote for their own governance. It was a triumph in a long march that moves inexorably towards justice and freedom.
For centuries Christians have come face to face with overwhelming challenges in their commitment to follow Jesus by loving God and loving their neighbor. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Loving God faithfully has resulted in the death of countless martyrs. Loving neighbor as self has meant sacrifice and suffering in many situations. Standing up for justice in the face of oppression has gotten folks beaten, imprisoned and killed. Serving the poor is costly. Caring for the stranger is dangerous. Welcoming the foreigner can be uncomfortable.
In the world where success, power, might and wealth triumph, the way of Jesus seems foolish. In the face of overwhelming obstacles the few, faithful followers of Christ appear to be weak, powerless and unimportant. Imagine how it must have felt in those days in between Bloody Sunday and the decision to return to the bridge in Alabama. Imagine the temptation to give it all up as hopeless and to return home to safety. Imagine the desire to retaliate, carry weapons and fight back. Imagine how terrifying it would be to once again face the hatred and violence that waited on the other side of the bridge.
Those marchers were inspired by Jesus Christ and the centuries of his followers who count the cross, pick up their cross and keep following no matter how weak they feel or how foolish they look. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples as they faced the huge and glorious Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He promised that the Temple would ultimately be destroyed and he predicted that he would ultimately be put to death, but he also reassured them with the hope of resurrection. In the face of certain suffering and death, Jesus proclaimed the hope of new life. In the face of the sin and evil of this world, Jesus offered the enduring righteousness of God. In the darkest hour when all seemed to be lost, Jesus told them to look for the light.
The Temple was destroyed. Jesus went to the cross and died. But three days later the power of the resurrection overcame death, hopelessness, evil and darkness. And the Body of Christ is still alive even to this day in the presence of his followers who continue to carry their cross on the way to death and resurrection.
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Dear people of God at St. Luke’s, Ballard, we are facing an overwhelming situation. We cannot maintain the buildings and programs here with our current resources. By the world’s standards we are weak with few human and financial resources. By the world’s standards we are foolish, dedicating ourselves to the least, the last and the lost in the middle of a neighborhood that wants to cater to the wealthy and successful, the best and the brightest. The temples of new construction and commerce threaten to tear down the sanctuary where so many have experienced the power of God’s Spirit.
We don’t know what the future holds for us. We do know that what is eternal is not built with human hands and can never be destroyed. We do know that the physical body of Jesus Christ was put to death on the cross but that the Body of Christ is alive and well everywhere that Christians pick up their own cross to follow him. We do know that Spirit can never be taken from us whatever our circumstances and the call to mission in this place with these neighbors continues no matter what.
And so we are called to be faithful. We are called to stop in the middle of the road and to get down on our knees and to pray. We are called to trust the power of the Holy Spirit rather than our own power. And we will need to be open to see where that Spirit will lead. It will mean that life as it has been at St. Luke’s will be changed but not ended. It will mean that there will be death as well as resurrection. It will require us to welcome the stranger, to love all of our neighbors, not just the homeless. It will require continued courage and willingness to sacrifice.
But we are not alone. We live with faith because we know that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. We pray because we trust that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And we live in hope because we know that God’s power has overcome death and the grave and brought us to life in the resurrection of Jesus.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson