September 20, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou…

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines,

gnaws on kind words

unsaid,

promised walks

never taken.

Great souls die and

our reality, bound to

them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,

dependent upon their

nurture,

now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed

and informed by their

radiance,

fall away.

We are not so much maddened

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance

of dark, cold

caves.

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

 

July 19, 2020 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let them grow together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it will not be nothing. It matters.

Amen.    

June 14, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May 24, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2020 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 26, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Now that we are in the second month of social isolation and the third month of this pandemic, the implications are becoming clearer.  This isn’t going away anytime soon and no one can claim any certainty about the trajectory of infections, sickness and death.  We’re learning that anyone might be vulnerable and that the finest scientific and medical minds don’t know how best to treat the ill.  We’ve experienced the chaos of our unpreparedness and of a confused governmental response to this threat. 

At the same time the weather is improving.  It’s often beautiful outside.  Most of us are healthy and we’re anxious to be freed from lockdown, to return to jobs and activities, to visit with friends and family in person. 

The U.S. Army developed an acronym for this type of situation in the 1990s in response to the collapse of the USSR.  VUCA world, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  It certainly applies now.

One of the suggestions I’ve read about how to cope with this new reality is by keeping a journal.  Some have referred to the Diary of Anne Frank and others who wrote down the experiences of ordinary people during extraordinary times.  The thinking is not just that it might be therapeutic to pour out one’s own thoughts and feelings in written form, but that the record of these might be helpful to generations of people who come after and have to face their own world-shattering experiences.

In order to cope, to make meaning, to gain strength, we turn to stories.  We make connections through shared experiences.  

Today we listened to a story of ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary.  This account has been passed down through the centuries and is both familiar and fresh.  It’s one of my most favorite passages from Scripture and the one my husband has requested to be read at his funeral, hopefully many years in the future.  

Two companions, Cleopas and another who may be his wife, have just departed Jerusalem after the death and burial of Jesus.  As his disciples, it was no longer safe for them in the city.  It was a volatile time politically and any religious or political threat had to be suppressed, violently if necessary.  The future was uncertain for the movement that had gathered around the Rabbi from Galilee.  All their hopes were dashed when he was brutally crucified.  Their leadership was in disarray and their hopes had been crushed.  

On top of everything else, some of the women who followed Jesus and went to the tomb to attend his body reported that they encountered angels and a risen Jesus.  Was he dead?  Was he alive?  Had he really died?  Their situation was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous so they beat feet out of town.

On the way they pick up a stranger, one who at first seems clueless about the crazy, dangerous state of things.  But this stranger does know their stories.  He reminds them of all they heard over the years from the holy writings, all the promises of God and the ways that God interacts with humanity.  In a time of uncertainty they can draw on what they have already learned and know.  That God creates what is good.  That God does not abandon the people.  That God will deliver them and keep the promise, a promise for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.

How comforting it must have been to hear again the stories that formed and shaped them.  They didn’t want to part company so they invited him to a meal.  At the time of the traditional Jewish prayer over the meal, this stranger takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and in that moment, their confusion becomes clarity.  The strange tales of the women are affirmed as real.  The paradoxical possibility that Jesus might both have died and now be alive and present is suddenly revealed.  

This story is one that has nurtured Christian faith and practice from the beginning.  Breaking bread together has been the Church’s chief act of worship and remembrance.  The risen Christ is made known both in Scripture and in the meal, the ritual of the Eucharist.  This meal has been depicted at the heart of the life of the Church for centuries.

And now, many of us are not able to share in this meal or to share any meal except with those we are with in isolation.  Are you getting hungry for the sacrament?  Are you missing gathering with others?  The food available to-go may be good and nourishing, but most of the pleasure of eating with others, even the companionship of strangers, is missing.  One does not live by bread alone.  

This favorite story, about the centrality of the Eucharist, could leave us feeling sad and cut-off if that were all it was about, but our current situation opens up new insight and encouragement.  For instance, did you notice that the minute they recognize the stranger as their beloved Jesus, alive and well, he disappears?  

Like Mary at the tomb, they probably wanted to hold onto him, to prolong the contact and spiritual high.  In fact one of them could have kept him occupied while the other went out to send messages to other disciples to invite them to come to the place where the meal was held.  Maybe they could expand the building, set up an altar, keep Jesus there inside that room for anyone who might be willing to come as a newcomer or visitor.  

Instead he is off, going on ahead of them, leading the way from fear to faith, from death into life.   He cannot be contained and they are being called to follow where he leads.  I love that they get up after having walked 7 miles from Jerusalem and immediately turn around to walk back.  They can’t wait to get together with the disciples to share the good news.  They are willing to risk questioning and persecution in order to celebrate the presence of the risen one.  They want to share their story and hear if anyone else has had similar experiences.  They will be formed as community as they gather around Scripture and the meal.  They will be strengthened to love God and their neighbor as they share their Jesus stories.

We are living in a VUCA world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  In the middle of all of this there are stories of faith, courage, love and sacrifice.  Stories that will form and sustain us for the future and hold us together in the present.  Sometimes they will be stories of the frankly heroic, the medical staff who return daily to a chaotic hospital to care for the desperately ill.  The captains, whistleblowers and leaders who tell the truth and stand up for what is right despite the risk to their careers.  The minimum wage workers who clean, serve and care for others in spite of the difficulties they are facing.

Most of these will be stories of ordinary people in extraordinary times.  They will be found in journals and accounts as people treat one another with patience and kindness even when under duress.  They will be about those who keep putting one foot in front of the other even though they are exhausted and depressed.  There will be those who made masks, delivered meals, picked up groceries, checked up on an elderly neighbor or simply stayed 6 feet apart and wore a mask.  

A few nights ago, I turned once again to one of my most favoritist stories, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein.  Since I can’t concentrate enough to read an entire book, I watched one of the films.  The second one is called the Two Towers and it’s never been my favorite.  It’s dark and grim and it ends ominously without a conclusion and with very little hope.  Everything is hanging by a thread.  

The hero of the trilogy is not the Lord of the Rings.  Instead it is two lowly and unknown hobbits, Frodo and his companion and gardener Sam.  In the end it will come down to these unlikely characters to act faithfully, true to all they know is right and lovely and good.  Just before setting out on their final journey through the land of the enemy, Sam has a moment to reflect and wonder how it will all end.  In his short, humble speech the author voices his own reason for hope and endurance.  Here’s Sam:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

These are the stories we will be called to tell when this is over.  Keep listening for stories of promise and deliverance.  Keep your eyes open for the revelation of the risen one in your midst.  Keep holding onto what is true.  And be ready to share your stories with others when we once again gather around the table.

April 12, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

This has to be the most challenging Easter sermon most clergy will ever preach.  How can we proclaim resurrection, joy and hope in the time of pandemic when we are in lockdown–confused, anxious, despondent, dying?  It seems more appropriate to stay in Holy Saturday, that grey, in-between time when the disciples were exhausted by grief and paralyzed with fear.  Right now we think we have experienced the worst, but we can’t be sure what comes next.  It’s far too risky to proclaim that danger is passed and we can all come out of hiding to sing our Alleluia’s and declare the victory of life over death.

It’s made more difficult by the fact that I cannot see your faces.  I don’t know who is out there on the other side of this camera.  We don’t get to greet one another with the traditional Easter greeting, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”  There will be no passing of the peace “with a handshake or even a hug.”  We will not celebrate the Eucharist as we fast from this sacrament until we can be together as “One body in Christ.”  There will be no baptisms.  All of this fills me with grief and dis-ease.  It seems more appropriate to remain in Holy Saturday, that time of limbo, that day when his body was in the tomb and there was darkness over the face of the earth.

For the first time ever this year, I left out the reading from the Acts of the Apostles and instead included the one from Jeremiah.  That was hard to do.  The reading from Acts 10 is a standard bearer for many people of faith, particularly in the African American church.  I can always hear the thunderous voice of those who proclaim in the midst of racism and hatred, “God is no respecter of persons!”  In other words God shows no partiality.  In Christ all are one, all are included, all are beloved.  That has preached and will preach, but this year there is a different word for God’s people.

Jeremiah, that bitter, weeping, beleaguered prophet speaks hope and promise into this present darkness.  After 30 chapters of woes and warnings to a broken people, he proclaims “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.  God proclaims, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.  I will build you and you shall be built.  The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”

Grace in the wilderness.  Planters planting.  I’ve been thinking about this for the past few weeks.  The last thing I did before the governor’s shelter in place order went into effect was to get myself to the nursery.  I purchased that expensive dogwood tree I had been thinking about for over a year.  When I planted it a few days later, my Lutheran husband reminded me of Martin Luther’s saying,

“If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  Luther lived through the plague.  He found ways to minister to his people and the neediest during a time of death and despair.  He knew a thing or two about grace in the wilderness.

The other items I purchased at the nursery were seeds and compost.  The compost is actually more like manure, at least it smells an awful lot like it.  You may have another word for it.  The compost was needed because the project I had in mind was to dig up a portion of our backyard that was partially covered by grass and partially covered by fill.  The fill included 37 buried bricks from a demolished fireplace, rocks that had been dumped on the site and the natural rock and sand that our yard is composed of, the remains of a former riverbed.  This may not be the most gracious place to plant but it does have the best sunlight.

During the weeks of our confinement I have been chipping away at that plot, removing as many of the stones as possible, digging up and cleaning off the bricks for a future patio project, pulling up the sod and pulling out the weeds and roots.  It has been Lenten work.  I’ve been angry and frustrated at how difficult it all is.  The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve thought about my own rocky, imperfect soil and the work it takes to examine and amend it.  It’s been a discipline.  It’s been lonely.  It’s been hard.

During Holy Week I broke out the compost.  It was pretty pungent after a few weeks in the bag.  I spread it all around and then began the arduous task of double digging, the process of bringing up the soil from the bottom and mixing in the rich, life-giving manure that enables life and growth.  By now the weather had warmed and I was really sweating, getting down on my knees and churning the soil with my hands.  It was like digging a grave, piling up the mounds of dirt, going deep.  It was grief work, tangible mourning amidst the stink of sweat and compost.

At last the bed was ready for planting and the weather favorable.  On Good Friday after the service of the passion of the Christ, the solemn collects and the adoration of the cross, I came home, through off my clericals and put on my muddy clothes for the final act.  I mounded up the soil in rows and hills, opened the seed packets and carefully placed them at the correct depth and patted them safely in.  I finished just as the sun was going down.  In front of me was a bare, brown patch of ground, seemingly lifeless, fragile, easily disturbed by squirrels, crows and the big black lab that lives with us.

The seed had entered its own Holy Saturday, in darkness, longing for light, striving for new life out of death.

I had no idea that there is a long tradition of country people, particularly from the South, planting their seed on Good Friday.  As I learned from the Rev. Dr. Stacy Smith:

“This tradition is a way of demonstrating that in the midst of death—even death on a cross—we continue to have hope.  On a day of darkness and death, we testify that the hope we have in Christ is one that will bear fruit—and vegetables.  And even if those seeds of hope are buried deep in the earth, in the darkness of the soil when a hard frost can still threaten the crop, the good earth of Good Friday reminds us that death does not have the final word.  Planting a garden on this day means that we trust that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, and that the spring is stronger than the winter we are leaving behind.”

Today we proclaim the hope and promise of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  We are and have always been an Easter people, no matter the circumstances.  Like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the empty tomb, we are those who hear and see with both fear and great joy the resurrected Jesus.   We respond first with worship and disbelief and then with action as we go ahead to proclaim the good news to a grieving and despairing people.

Following the sermon, we will renew our promises to live as those baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We will have the opportunity to sprinkle ourselves and one another with water.  These are the waters of life that nourish and bring the seeds of faith to life.  These are the vows that enable us to “walk wet” in the world, living out our Christian commitments in every circumstance, no matter the difficulty or risk.

It may feel like Holy Saturday but Easter is already present, the seed of God’s love that lives inside each of us and is brought to life by the presence of Jesus, watered by the life of faith.  Ivar sang his favorite Easter hymn today.  Here is the final verse:

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,

Thy touch can call us back to life again.

Fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been.

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

April 5, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the word “unprecedented.”  Its literal meaning is “never before known or experienced.”  And it describes what we are going through.  We’ve never known a time quite like this.  We’ve never experienced such widespread fear and suffering.  Global travel has spread this virus further and more quickly than any others that have come before.  Technology has made us aware more of what is happening all over the world and what might be next for our nation, state and community.  It’s all so new and fast that we’ve run out of ways to describe what’s happening.

And yet.  Our world has suffered cataclysm after cataclysm.  Before the time of humans, wild swings in temperature and climate resulted in the death and extinction of multitudes of species.  Humans have endured plagues and outbreaks through the centuries, including in recent memory smallpox, polio and the COVID related epidemics of SARS and MERS.  Even now people around the globe suffer death from starvation, conflict, malaria and a host of diseases that debilitate and destroy.

But this touches us all.  No one is immune.  The virus knows no boundaries of nation, class, economics or race.  My clergy friends in South Sudan have taken up their loudspeakers and are traveling through the jungle and small villages in their dioceses to broadcast information about the virus to people who have no access to TV or radio and don’t know what might be invisibly threatening them.  Bodies are piling up in Europe next to famous landmarks and even in ice rinks.  Health care workers everywhere are tired, scared and overwhelmed.  And right now, outside the doors of St. Luke’s in the Ballard Commons Park and next to the library, 30-45 people are sleeping under tents and tarps on the concrete with inadequate shelter, running water, garbage pick-up, food and medical care.  It’s shocking.  It’s terrifying.  It’s unprecedented.

We enter Holy Week as Church in unprecedented times. We can only gather virtually, unable to share rituals of palms, water, wine and bread in person.  Kept apart physically from nearly everyone except those in our same household and solitary if we live alone.

Today we begin the oft-repeated journey of Holy Week, walking the way of Jesus’s last days from triumph and acclaim to suffering and death.  Most of us have been here before.  It is, precedented, although that’s not a word found in the dictionary.  Over centuries the people of God have located their own sorrow and pain along with the world’s tragedies in the Passion of Christ.  We recognize our own fickleness in the behavior of the crowd who move so quickly, in just a matter of days from chants of “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him!”  We are reminded of our own weakness in the failure of disciples who cannot stay awake to watch with Jesus in his darkest hours.  We cringe at Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial and know we might have done the same.  We mourn in anguish with Mary and the women who watch helplessly from the foot of the cross.

And as we look upon the crucified one, we find our own pain and sorrow mirrored and magnified.  We encounter the one who identifies in every way with our human limitations and difficulties.

Are you feeling afraid and anxious?  Jesus entered Jerusalem aware that it would probably lead to his death.  He wrestled in the garden with his desire to avoid the cup of sorrow that lay ahead.  He was filled with foreboding.

Are you feeling powerless and out of control?  Jesus encountered systems of organized power and authority that were confused, at odds with one another, self-serving, self-protective and ultimately death-dealing in their bureaucratic response to a perceived threat.

Are you in grief and disbelief at the suffering you see in the sick and dying, in the challenges faced by those on the front lines, in the shock of those, whose loved ones died so quickly and without anyone familiar by their side?  Jesus experienced unimaginable suffering, abandonment and rejection by nearly everyone.  He died alone, on a cross, with his hands nailed down and no one allowed to approach him or touch him in his final hours.

This Holy Week, we cry out with the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow.”  We will be walking the way of the cross this week and into a future that will be filled with more suffering, sorrow and dying.

This Passion Week we may be crying out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  How could our lives have been upended in such a short time?  How could our government be so unprepared?  How could our economy tank so quickly?  How could we lose so many freedoms and privileges we took for granted just one short month ago?  Who will be our savior?  Who will rescue us?  Where is God?

Scripture points us to hope in some unexpected ways during Holy Week.  The long tradition of God’s way of working in the world is often surprising, unlooked for and contrary to what we might anticipate.  For instance, the Savior of the world enters the holy city of Jerusalem on a donkey, with simple palm fronds and poor people’s clothing as his red carpet.  Unlike military and political leaders who head up a parade on horses with weapons and soldiers, pomp and circumstance, Jesus demonstrates power and authority that is non-violent, humble, rooted in his character and identity, in his teaching and example and in his relationship with God.

We hear that example lauded in the hymn from Philippians.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Finally as his body hangs on the cross and he breathes his last, a Roman centurion, one of the guard appointed to insure his death was carried out properly, one who shared no common religious background with Jesus or his followers, looks upon his broken, wounded body and exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

For those who have eyes to see, God is present in the humble, the ones who serve others, the suffering and lowly.  God has determined to dwell with humanity through the most difficult and dangerous times.

These times may be unprecedented but Jesus has been with us through the very worst that the world can dish out time and time again.  Over the centuries we have turned to him in prayer in our darkest hours.  We have contemplated his suffering and death and found resonance in the suffering and death we experience.  What we are going through is not unprecedented to Jesus.  It is known to God.  It has been experienced by Jesus.

We certainly wish we were not here.  But God will give us strength and courage for the “living of these days.”  We are to have the mind of Christ and to follow the example of Jesus in the midst of this pandemic.  When he died, very few people would have guessed that his life, death and resurrection would bring faith, hope and love into the world in ways that had never before been experienced.  No one would have expected that his followers would offer themselves in love and service to the least, last and lost of every generation in every part of the globe.  No one could have foreseen the apostle, martyrs, saints, priests, prophets and millions of ordinary, humble individuals who would change the world because they followed the crucified one.

We, Church are called to stand firm in the trauma of the present.  We are to remember our call to love and service.  We are to be those who care for others, hold community together, speak out for the marginalized and stand up for those who are being persecuted like our Asian brothers and sisters who are being unfairly blamed for this outbreak.  Church, we are to come through to the other side of this apocalypse holding onto hope, faith and love, ready to rebuild relationships and community in a broken and distrustful society.  We are to lead by humble example, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  We are to be willing to pour out our resources on behalf of those who have very little.

God knows we won’t do this perfectly.  We are like those failed, flawed, feeble disciples who get afraid, try to escape reality, become self-protective and lose sight of Jesus.  We will not always have the mind of Christ because our own minds have been overtaken by fear, mind-numbing escapism and distrust.  But God’s Spirit will never leave us and will bring us back to Jesus and back to our best selves.  We will find ways to witness to the love of Jesus by word and example.  We will find ways to keep serving our neighbor as ourselves.  We will stand up for the respect and dignity of every human being.  We will pray for the sick and suffering.  We will comfort the grieving.

And, if it be our turn, we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but not alone, for the Christ of the cross will walk with us to the end, beyond this pandemic, through death into the new world and new life that God has promised.

If you have always been too busy to fully participate in Holy Week, the Triduum, the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, this may be your best chance.  From the comfort of your own home, you have the option to join others gathered around their tables for a Maundy Thursday lunch via Zoom. You can experience Good Friday and the adoration of the cross through our now regular Facebook live stream and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday evening via St. Mark’s Cathedral’s livestream.  In these services every human emotion and experience is encapsulated and held by God.  You will not be alone, but rather joined by others all over the globe who follow the crucified one in the hope of the resurrection to new life.