November 3, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

It’s November 3 and we’ve just had Halloween or All Hallow’s Evening, All Saint’s Day on the first and All Souls Day yesterday.  Most churches will combine All Saints and All Souls Day celebrations today with baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows along with a litany of those who have died and are known and remembered in the community.  Dia de Muertos or “Day of the Dead” brings together all these Christian feast days over a three-day holiday in Mexico that has links to an Aztec Festival.

Recently I learned about a movement called “Death over Dinner,” where guests are invited to dine together and have a guided conversation about planning and preparing for their own death, including end of life care, legacy and last wishes.

It’s been surprising to hear all this talk about “death” recently since over the past 10-20 years we’ve unofficially stopped referring to death and instead use the euphemism “passed” or “passed away” to describe this universal aspect of the human experience.  Although, it doesn’t quite work to refer to the “Day of the Passed Away” or “A Day of Remembrance for the Faithful Passed.

Episcopalians are a protestant denomination with catholic heritage and practice.  Practically this means that we don’t pray to the saints but we honor them, especially the ones we particularly like including, St. Francis, St. Clare, the apostles and St. Dunstan, the first Christian King in England.  We like to name our churches after saints and we continue to recognize new saints like Martin Luther King Jr., although they don’t have to have any miracles attributed to them.  There’s even a popular online contest, ‘Lent Madness,’ with brackets for choosing the most popular saint for the year.

We also honor All Souls, those who are not official saints, but ones who have died and are part of the community.  Some have been people of faith, others not so much but we entrust their souls to God and remember them.  We also recognize that they, like us and even all the big name saints are a mixture of both saint and sinner.  Each serve as an example but not a perfect one.

Greater awareness of death and attention to the departed is a powerful impetus to look at how we are living now.  None of us know how many years we have but it’s certain that each of us will die.  Denial of death by euphemism or the worship of eternal youthfulness can rob us of the reflection and changes necessary to make life matter now.  If, for today, for just a few short minutes we step back from our striving, planning, working for the future and contemplate the finiteness of our earthly lives, we will make space for the larger questions of what truly matters.

That great wisdom teacher Jesus offered his perspective on the life of blessedness and it is still blowing us away.  It turns upside down all the common wisdom of what makes for meaning, purpose and happiness.  Luke’s Sermon on the Plain or Beatitudes are short and direct.  Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted.  And then he follows it by the woes.  Woe are the the rich, the full, the laughing and the popular.

He’s talking to a mixed crowd.  There are his disciples and other followers, along with the curious and the desperate.  Nervous religious leaders are there to check him out or trip him up.  There are certainly lots of poor people, but also the rich.  There are those who are grieving and suffering along with the satisfied.  His words are for everyone, including all of us who listen to him these many years later in this mixed crowd.

In classic Jesus fashion, things are not as simple as they seem.  His beatitudes are not a clear judgement, Rich = bad, Poor = good.  Instead Jesus is proclaiming his truth, God’s truth, and it goes against all conventional wisdom.  He describes an upside down kingdom where the poor and lowly are valued, honored and comforted and the rich, powerful and esteemed will no longer be able to trust in their exterior marks of success.  The comfortable and complacent will be afflicted.

The wisdom in this is not that there is one permanent class of the blessed and another of the oppressed, but just as each of us is a mixture of saint and sinner, so in our lifetimes we will both mourn and laugh, be rich and poor, be full and hungry and be admired and persecuted.  Circumstances change.  Our lives are upended.  We get surprised.  Our ship comes in.  The stock market crashes.  The diagnosis is terrible.  A new drug is discovered.  Many of us in a lifetime will oscillate between happiness and despair, comfort and want, acclaim and criticism.  Some of that is in our control, but for the most part we are reacting to circumstances that seem arbitrary.  The part we choose is our response.

Which brings me to my two grandmothers.  In my family we have the narrative of the good and loving grandmother, Mama Tay and the stingy and difficult grandma Lilly.  Both were born poor, one in Ohio and the other in Hamburg Germany.  Both had difficult childhoods, Mama Tay because her father died early and Lilly because she was sent to live in America at age 16.  Neither were able to afford college.  They married, raised children and were ultimately widowed.  Lilly remarried to a wealthy man and she lived the rich life she had always wanted in a beautiful condo overlooking the Willamette River.  Mama Tay lived in a room in an assisted living facility until her death at age 98.

Mama Tay had a tough life, and a blessed one.  She blessed the people around her.  As she was dying I came out to visit and bring her communion along with my Aunt, cousin and mother.  She couldn’t speak but she wrote on a white board.  I love you.  Thank you.  I’m grateful.  The staff and attendants at the Assisted Living Center loved her so much that they volunteered to take on the extra shifts and care she needed at the end so that she didn’t have to be moved to a more highly skilled nursing facility.  She died at peace, well cared for and loved.

Lilly had a tough life and even when she got what she thought she wanted, it wasn’t enough.  She was difficult to care for.  She fired attendants or they quit.   She was demanding and ungrateful.  She threatened to cut people out of her will if they didn’t do her bidding.  My father and Uncle finally had to physically put her in a wheelchair and take her to a nursing home since she refused to leave her condo.  She died that very night of an unexpected heart attack.  She was not at peace.

What makes for a blessed life?  How do we prepare for death so that it might be holy and, if we’re fortunate, peaceful?  Most of us will experience both joy and sorrow in life, success and failure, times of plenty and times of want.  What does it mean to live a good life in the midst of changing circumstances, much of which is not under our control?

The poor blame the rich as selfish, uncaring, corrupt and greedy.  The rich blame the poor, labeling them lazy, addicted, dirty and stupid.  We abuse one another.  We hate those who are different from us.  We curse those who disagree with us.  Grandma Lilly was a good example of this.  Her entire lifetime she remembered and admired the strength and success of Nazi Germany.  In the U.S. she was distrusted and rejected because of her German accent.  She was bitter and jealous.  When she finally got the riches she longed for she hoarded them and used them to try and manipulate her family.  She died angry and alone.

Mama Tay wasn’t perfect, but she chose another path.  She practiced forgiveness.  She gave generously.  She remained curious and connected to others.  Both grandmothers had times of wealth and poverty, suffering and happiness, hunger and security.  What differed in the end was their response.

Jesus knows that we are a mixed crowd.  He also knows our tendency towards blame and shame.  We compare our positions and blame the other and feel ashamed ourselves.  It leads to anger and bitterness.  So he gives us another way to consider, the Way of Love.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Regardless of circumstances, these are practices we can adopt.  When we experience our fellow citizens as enemies, when we undergo the cursing and abuse of neighbors, we can choose to love and pray for them.  We can practice forgiveness that sets us free.  We can receive and give grace.  No matter our financial status, we can give to another.  We can walk in gratitude.  And we can treat others as we would like to be treated.

Jesus himself was both poor and rich in his lifetime, born as a carpenter’s child but dining at the tables of the wealthy and powerful.  He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, but also one who laughed and loved and experienced deep joy.  At the end he loved and prayed for the enemies who killed him.  He poured out his gifts for all who asked of him.  He didn’t hold back.  He is the ultimate example of a blessed and meaningful life.  We who have been baptized into his death have also been given new life, blessed life, graced life.  Amen.

October 27, 2019 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

Given where our calendar stands right now, I want to say that according to William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the London Blitz, voting is the minimum requirement for Christian citizenship.  Participation in community is a form of stewardship, and voting is participation in our national community.  I would encourage you to vote with the Gospel in mind.

Today is Stewardship Sunday, when we start to focus in on our giving for the upcoming year.  Because of the connection between the concept of stewardship and the concept of pledging, many people think that stewardship is synonymous with giving money to the church.  But that’s not true.  Giving money to the church is part of stewardship, but in order to understand giving we have to know what stewardship really is.  So I want to start by talking about stewardship, and eventually I will get back to giving.  Cross my heart.

A good place to start is the chorus of a song by Tracy Chapman.  The song is about a woman’s disappointment in relationship, but the chorus has a broad application:

“So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul”

Well, she said it all there.  That’s the description of stewardship in a nutshell.

I’ll digress for a moment.  I worked with a priest for a while, back when I drank a lot more coffee.  When the coffeepot ran out, he used to put in more water and just run it over the used grounds.  He called that good stewardship.  I called it bad coffee.  You can work out which is right, if either one is, but I won’t ask for a show of hands.  I’ll check in again later about this.

I want to bring up St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrated with the blessing of the animals.  He has been called the most admired and least imitated saint of the church; because Francis embraced extreme poverty.  I mean extreme poverty; he gave up ownership of everything.  This, he reasoned, was because poverty sets us free; it teaches us that we are all beggars on God.  What we claim to possess actually possesses us.  When we realize that all that we have is our soul, we are no longer distracted from our divine purpose.

Stewardship is named after an occupation.  We had a reading about an unjust steward recently, remember?  Canon Britt did a good job preaching on a hard scripture that day.  He made free with the money and possessions over which he had authority; but in fact, he did not own those things.  The authority he had was delegated from his master, who did own those things.  A steward was someone who was given responsibility for things that did not belong to him; and I say “him” because in those days all of them were males.

So stewardship is not the practice of giving away a percentage of what we own; stewardship is the acknowledgement that we do not, and never did, own any of it.  It all belongs to God in the first place and we have no rights to anything that are not granted by God.  This is why we can talk about stewardship of land, of water and environment, of anything and everything that has come into our hands or is part of our lives.

That might sound simple, except for what is related by Tracy Chapman’s lyric, “Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple, don’t you eat of a bitter fruit.”  It is also related to the reason that St. Francis felt freedom when he was relieved of possessions.  That reason is an unpopular three-letter word, “sin.”

One way sin has power over us is when we are diverted into thinking that we do, in fact, own things.  Sin has power over us when we think that they have been given to us by God to do with as we wish, rather than being allowed the use and oversight of things that are God’s.  Another way sin has power over us is when we forget that God wants us to use them for good.  We have been lulled by theologies that suggest that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure.  We have been lulled by theologies that say that this world will pass away so it doesn’t matter what we do to it.  These kinds of theologies approve of radical individualism, of amassing wealth at the expense of others, of destroying God’s beloved creation because “it doesn’t really matter.”

We humans desire things violently.  We have only to look at the world to see that.  And I understand the wish to have more money, land and power than one can possibly use.  It can insulate us from misfortune and from being controlled by others. It can make us think that we have control. That is why God urges us toward community, in the midst of prosperity as well as in want.

“Hunger only for a taste of justice, hunger only for a world of truth,” sings Tracy Chapman.  St. Francis did not think that by disavowing possessions he had achieved God’s will; he believed his mission was to rebuild God’s Church, and he, along with his female counterpart, St. Clare, began doing that by forming communities of people who took vows of personal asceticism so that their focus might be on God and God’s people.  Apart from a special calling from God, it is impossible to be Christians alone, by ourselves.  Christianity is a community, not a solitary contract between God and an individual believer.

So stewardship means that we have everything and own nothing.  This consciousness of community is related to a tribal consciousness, which says that if anyone has food, nobody goes hungry.  Sharing is the will of God, expressed over and over in the Law and the Prophets, and affirmed over and over again in the New Testament.  In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells of a man who thought giving 10% of what he earned was good enough.  It was not good enough.

This consciousness of community is supposed to extend to every aspect of our lives.  Everything is offered to God and to one another.  We offer our fullness; we offer our emptiness.  That is stewardship.  We offer the rejection and scorn we experience; we offer the love and approbation we experience.  That is stewardship.  We offer who we are and what we are.  Forgiveness, mercy and compassion are stewardship too, sometimes the most difficult form.

That sense of having nothing that does not belong to God is behind the tithe and offering laws.  We give what we value most because that is the most radical affirmation that it does not belong to us to begin with.  Stewardship is also related to the sacrificial laws.  We don’t sacrifice animals anymore, but we still make sacrifices.  Second Timothy refers to being poured out as a libation.  A libation was an offering of such things as wine and oil, which were poured out before the altar.  Pouring out our whole self is the most radical sacrifice.

And that brings us to money.  I told you I would get here!  Money, too, belongs to the sacrificial laws.  We give what we value, and in this society, money has great value.  But how do we give it?  And it is true that some, like St. Francis, are unable to offer money; but he offered himself, and so can we all.

A portion of our giving should be directed to our religious community.  Apart from the fact that if we want something we need to pay for it, giving acknowledges who and what we are in God.  We are an interdependent people, responsible for ourselves and for one another.  We give so that the work of the Church – which, remember, is ourselves – may not die of neglect.  We give so that we can remember that we are not giving what is ours, we are returning what is God’s.  St. Luke’s has been on the verge of closing more than once, and it is giving that has allowed us to continue.

The Church is caught between trying to encourage people to give the biblical standard of a tithe, or 10%, and trying not to drive away people who are unable or unwilling to offer that much.  But the tithe is only a part of the standard; the phrase we need to hear is “tithes and offerings.”  Offerings may go to the church or somewhere else.  I like to direct a monthly offering to Edible Hope, for instance, and I will give now and then to charities.  Another thing I like is to give to Canon Britt’s Discretionary Fund, which allows her to give money to those in need.  On a larger scale is Episcopal Relief and Development, or ERD, which is a great place to send money for global needs, especially in times of disaster.  ERD is a highly rated charity, with only about 10% of the money going to administration.  Think about it the next time you hear about a hurricane or other humanitarian emergency and want to contribute.

If the Church is going to continue to be here for us it needs to have people to do the work, and to pay its people and its bills.  I read a joke the other day.  A preacher says “I have good news and bad news.  The good news is we have all the money we need to get the roof fixed.  The bad news is that it’s still out there in your pockets.”  The reason for pledging is that our church needs a budget to operate, and if we don’t tell our Vestry what we plan to give they can’t know what we can afford to do.

The book of Sirach proposes what I think of as a difficult premise, which is that God will repay us if we make offerings.  I have heard that developed as a kind of magical thing, which is why I think it is difficult.  But it is true that in our own lives, our giving and our receiving are linked, as our hearts and spirits are opened by our offerings.  Sirach also offers us the warning that we cannot bribe God, or offer a dishonest sacrifice.  A sacrifice was supposed to be the best of the animals or the first of the crops; a dishonest sacrifice cheated by offering what the person least desired.  We are asked to give the first and the best, not the leftovers.

Finally, I want to focus on the joy of participation in stewardship rather than on burdensome duty; all participation in God’s activity is joyous.

So, you decide.  Bad coffee or good stewardship?

“Hunger only for a taste of justice; hunger only for a world of truth.  All that you have is your soul.”

October 20, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Luke, our patron saint.  And there’s so much to say!  About Luke who was a physician, an evangelist, an early Gentile convert to Christianity and the writer of over one quarter of the content of the New Testament.  And about St. Luke’s, Ballard – this 130 year old start-up congregation with a rich, roller coaster-like history that makes it quirky, beloved, reviled and unique.

Every three years the liturgical churches are guided by the words of Luke the Evangelist Sunday by Sunday as we work through his gospel in Year C of the Lectionary and add in readings from his Acts of the Apostles for a number of months.  Through his eyes we see social outcasts like lepers and Samaritans who are made whole and well in body, mind and spirit.  We experience the power of God’s Spirit guiding and giving courage to followers of Jesus as they make risky journeys of love for the sake of the gospel.  We hear Mother Mary’s Magnificat praising the God who turns the world upside down on behalf of the poor and lowly.  We join shepherds in their fields by night, prisoners whose jail doors have been blown open and prodigal sons who are freed and forgiven by the grace and mercy of God.

There’s plenty of drama in Luke-Acts.  Just as there has been plenty of drama in Luke’s namesake congregation here in Ballard.  Despite its central location in the neighborhood, it has often been a church on the margins.  First as an Episcopal Church in a neighborhood that was originally, overwhelmingly Scandinavian and Lutheran.  Then as a congregation of mostly working-class people of modest means in a denomination often known for wealth and status.  For the first 75 years it moved locations, changed names and nearly closed any number of times.  It had trouble holding onto clergy and paying its bills.

When growth and attention finally came to St. Luke’s, Ballard it came in the form of the charismatic revival movement that brought both renewal and notoriety to this little corner of the world.  The dramatic power of the Holy Spirit energized this little church, brought them closer to Jesus and more willing to reach out in love and faith to others.  All sorts of people flocked here from every social and religious background as well as atheists and agnostics from all over this city, the country and the world.  Newsweek and Time had cover stories on the Rector, Dennis Bennett and the congregation.  Thousands would visit each week at one of 4 Sunday services or the weeknight gatherings on Tuesdays and Fridays.

It was in this place that people were inspired and changed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  People from widely different backgrounds experienced love in such a profound way that they grew in love for one another across the divisions that normally keep us separate.  Former prisoners came to find freedom and acceptance.  Those who had been blinded by hatred or addiction or the rat race towards success recovered their sight and began to respond to the beauty of the Lord.

Lots of marriages began here and many others were saved.  Individuals who were converted or renewed in their faith went back to their own congregations or even out into the world to share the love of God with others.  Countless others discovered their vocation of Christian ministry within the church or in their secular occupation.  This little church was an incubator for movements of the Spirit that are still growing all over the world.

And 30 years ago, one small prayer group decided to start feeding lunch to the hungry in the neighborhood and to the seasonal workers and alcoholics who were hanging out in Ballard.  Most of us know what has happened since!

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Luke.  But both Luke the Evangelist and Physician and the rich history of this congregation are pointing away from themselves to someone greater.  The miracles and healings in Luke and Acts point to Jesus.

The powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in the early Christian community points to Jesus.  The charismatic renewal movement here in Ballard in the second half of the twentieth century points to Jesus.  Even the prophet Isaiah proclaimed by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth reveal the source of life and love being fulfilled in Jesus.

Because of these witnesses we too are called forward into a new experience of renewal and healing by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In a very secular age, in a very secular city, we are called to live as people of faith, hope and love, to be witnesses to Jesus.  We want, we need to experience the Spirit that breaks down divisions, that binds up the wounds of racial hatred, that frees those bound up in addiction and depression.  We need a renewed vision of community that brings people together in love even when they don’t like one another.

We want, we need the power of God to change our careless ways that are dealing death to the planet we love.  We need the courage of the Spirit to step out sacrificially to care for more than just our own wellbeing.  We want to be part of a movement of the Spirit that renews the face of the earth.

But here we are, this Sunday, just a small group of characters, peculiar treasures.  We are not a mega church.  We are not successful or rich or acclaimed.  We don’t have a ton of resources and we struggle with our own lack of racial diversity, our own busyness that makes it hard to develop a rich spiritual life, our own doubts and fears that make it hard to believe God would call us to do something risky or demanding in Jesus’s name.

And we ourselves are wounded.  Maybe you identify with those who are trapped by jobs and responsibilities that take all your time and energy and leave you very little for yourself, let alone the Spirit.  Maybe you find yourself bound by behaviors that you know are not good for you or helpful to others and leave you feeling ashamed and filled with self-loathing.

Some are facing physical and psychological challenges that make it hard to believe that you will ever feel well again.  Or you may be caring for loved ones under tremendously difficult circumstances.  Despair can get a hold of us and make it hard to hear the life-giving voice of the Spirit.  Doubt can produce fear that blinds us to our own beauty and the beauty of the world around us.  Our own failures and the failures of those we have trusted can cause us to wall ourselves off and prevent us from trying again, loving again, caring again.

Well, you’ve come to the right place.  You’re in the place of St. Luke, the physician and proclaimer of good news.  You’re with fellow St. Lukans who share an experience of renewal and healing by the power of the Holy Spirit even during the darkest times.  You’re at the table of Jesus where all are welcome and fed.

You may have noticed that each Sunday, a few people gather by the prayer candles and the baptismal font to pray for healing in body, mind and spirit.  Maybe you’ve participated.  Maybe you’ve felt awkward or nervous about what’s happening and have chosen to stay away.  Maybe you’re not sure what you think about healing prayer.  Maybe it’s delusional, or anti-science or some form of magical thinking.  Or maybe it’s just way too public and exposed!

Today we will offer healing prayer, laying on of hands and anointing with oil as a sacrament of the Church in a more formal way.  I want to let you know what is happening and why as we prepare for this.

First of all, no one here is a healer.  The source of all healing is God in Christ Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  None of those who pray for you have magical gifts.  What they do have is a love for God and for you, and a desire for the greatest possible good for you.  They may be your friends or even family who join me in praying for you and supporting you.  They may be those who have followed Jesus in his healing ministry for many years and have experienced their own healing through God’s grace and mercy.

They may have special gifts of prayer that allow them to pray in a prayer language that goes straight from their heart to God.   They offer to pray for others out of their own faith and love.

Secondly, healing prayer is not in contradiction to, or in place of good medical care.  In the first reading from Sirach we heard an exhortation to honor physicians and their skills.  Healing prayer accompanies appropriate treatment.  It is not a last resort when all has failed.  In healing prayer the focus is on God, not whatever the ailment is because this is not medical treatment.  Those who pray for others lift them up to the source of light, life and love that is the Holy One, entrusting you to the God who knows every part of you.

Finally there is no right way to pray.  You can pray for healing personally and quietly without involving others.  You can pray in any language and with many different words or in silence.  You can pray here in church with oil that has been blessed by the bishop or anywhere else you like or need to.

What matters is that you give God the opportunity to move in your heart, will and spirit.  Healing and wholeness come from God but often in ways that are unexpected or unasked for.  I know that when I was working as a diocesan executive in a nice office in Northern California and praying for spiritual renewal and better emotional health, I sure didn’t expect that prayer to be answered by bringing me to St. Luke’s, Ballard!

At the end of the sermon we will pray for healing for all people and their concerns in a litany of healing.  Then I will go over to the side with a few others who will join me in prayer and the laying on of hands.  You may come forward and stand or sit as you prefer and let us know for whom we are praying.  Oil will be place on your forehead and we will put hands on your shoulders and back.  If you prefer not to be touched, please let me know.  Again, there is no magical or right way for healing prayer.

During the healing prayer, Ivar will be playing and there is music in your bulletin for singing.  Singing is certainly one way to join in prayer.  In fact, right now I’m asking Ivar to add the song “Give me Jesus” at the end since it is often the prayer of my heart and our collective spirit.

Let us pray.

September 29, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 22, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute.  I’m already getting confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 8, 2019 – Kristen Daley Mosier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

July 21, 2019 – The Rev. Mary Petty Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 1, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a portion of what he heard that evening:

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

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

August 11, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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