January 10, 2021 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

May I speak today in the name of God, and of the Beloved, Jesus Christ, and of our Counselor, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we remember the Baptism of our Lord Jesus who allowed John the Baptist to cover him with the waters of the Jordan River. Today, we would have talked about baptism, even if there had not been a violent insurrection against our nation’s Capitol, a vile attack that sought to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and left 5 people dead. And, now, because I saw that mob at the Capitol carrying flags and signs that bore the name of Jesus, we absolutely must talk about baptism.

Baptism can look different for different people. My baptism was not in a river like Christ’s, but in a big baptistry tub, built behind the choir loft at my church. I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church, and my younger brother and I were baptized together on Easter Sunday. I was 10 years old. I remember there was a moment, where I stood in the bathroom, in my white robe, and for the first time in my short life, my teeth started chattering. This was well before any water was involved, so I wasn’t cold; instead, I was excited and nervous.

You might say 10 is young, but I was an old 10. When my pastor talked to me about inviting Jesus into my heart, I listened to him very carefully, and when he asked if I was ready, I told him… no! “No, this is a big decision, and I have to think about it!” As a 10-year-old girl, I had this understanding that if I did that, if I prayed that prayer and made that decision, that I was giving up control of my life. And as a 10-year-old girl, I already had precious little control over anything. I imagined my life as a ship on the waves and I knew that if I did what my pastor wanted, I would have to step aside and let Jesus take the helm and steer the ship. (How much I did not know then, about what God would ask of me! And yet, how right I was.)

After a long night of questions and prayer and some tears, I woke my mother up the next day and told her I was ready. She took me back to the pastor, and we prayed together, and on Easter I was baptized. I remember, hearing, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are now buried with Christ in baptism….” and then the rush of being immersed under the water, the instant of being held under, and the gasp as I broke the surface to hear the pastor say, “and you now rise to walk in the newness of life.” He handed me a candle and said, “You are the light of the world.” Then he dipped two fingers into a little bowl of salt, and tapped the salt onto my lips, and said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And even though it’s hard to believe that detail now that we face a pandemic…. the memory of my baptism is precious to me.

Almost a year ago, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and saw many sacred places in Israel and Palestine. On that trip, I stood on the deck overlooking the Jordan River, where tradition says today’s gospel reading took place. It was so crowded, and I heard so many other languages being spoken around me! That day the Armenian Patriarch was there and huge crowds of Armenian Christians were waiting to be baptized. Many of them wore white robes, and there was beautiful singing and chanting. So many people disappeared under that brown river and rose again. But in the midst of that beauty, something caught me off guard: extra security officers were present due to the Patriarch’s presence, in addition to the usual armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the grounds. It was a strange thing, I thought then, armed soldiers and newly baptized believers there, together. Strange that so many would be prepared for violence when others were celebrating their faith in Christ.

We could not reach the river, but our driver was able to go down to the bank and fill a plastic bottle with water from the Jordan River. Bishop Rickel led us in the renewal of our baptismal vows and then told us to close our eyes and mouth (the Jordan is actually one of the most polluted rivers in the world!), and then sprinkled us with the water and said, “Remember your Baptism.”

When someone bids me to “remember my baptism”, part of me remembers being a little girl with chattering teeth who wanted time to think and frowned at the taste of the salt on her lips. The other part of me remembers the vows I take every time I recite the Baptismal Covenant, as we will today. I remember not only the experience 10-year-old Hillary had, but also the seriousness of the decision and the promises I made.

Some of you may not remember your baptism because you were baptized as a baby; your parents and loved ones made promises on your behalf, then. And in confirmation or reception, you took ownership over those promises. Maybe some of you were like me, and your previous tradition didn’t include the Baptismal Covenant, but you make those promises now at St. Luke’s. Maybe some of you listening have not been baptized. If that’s the case, I’m so glad you are here. (And if you want to talk more about it, Canon Britt or I would absolutely love to hear from you.)

But no matter how we do it or when, baptism is a sacrament that we share with billions of other Christians in the world. Ten-year-old Hillary in that Baptist church in South Carolina is connected to that the joyful crowd of Armenian Christians at the Jordan river, celebrating even as soldiers patrolled. And in baptism, we are all connected to Jesus of Nazareth, baptized by John all those years ago.

Baptism connects us to other Christians all over the world across thousands of years. Baptism ties us all together; in baptism we die together, being buried with Christ, dying to the old self and rising again. In baptism, we rise with Christ, and we promise to do difficult things, with God’s help. Difficult things like resisting evil, like repenting and returning, like seeking Christ in all people and striving for justice, like respecting the dignity of every human being. Hard things, with God’s help.

And the uncomfortable reality is that this past Wednesday, when a violent mob attacked the Capitol building, they carried Jesus’s name with them on banners that said Jesus 2020 or Jesus Saves. The uncomfortable reality is that many of those insurrectionists have probably also been baptized. Some may even have believed that Jesus of Nazareth would support their actions. As far apart as we may feel from the people we saw on TV, it is likely that baptism connects us to some of that crowd.

There is a sickness inside American Christianity, an insidious nationalism that made the cross of Christ into a flagpole. That evil was on display this week at the Capitol by people with whom we share the baptismal promise. All Christians must reckon with that connection. Hitching the teachings of Christ to xenophobia, violence, and white supremacy is idolatry. It is evil, and I renounce it.

Yet, my baptism doesn’t make me better than anyone else, no matter how or when it happened, no matter who they are. That water connects all of us, and in baptism, all are forgiven and made new. In baptism, we are following Christ’s example of making a public promise. And in that promise we swear fealty not to America, not to a political party, not to a denomination, not to a politician or pastor, but to Jesus and the way of love. We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and Christ has no flag, no borders, and certainly no walls! When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended not as a bald eagle, but as a dove, and God called Jesus not a King or a Warrior but a Beloved Child.  We do not serve the empire or the economy; we serve Jesus Christ and through him, our neighbors.

So, my friends, I beg you: Remember your baptism.

-Rev. Hillary Kimsey, Curate

December 13, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Those of you who have been part of the Roman Catholic Church have a greater awareness and appreciation for Mary, the mother of Jesus.  You may have participated in her many feast days, prayed to her, sang about her and seen multiple visual representations of her in statues and paintings.

If your religious experience has been primarily Protestant you may have a positive appreciation for Mary but she doesn’t play a large part in your spiritual life and you may not have heard or seen much of her in church.  In fact you may have questioned her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception and her assumption into heaven as being particularly Catholic and therefore suspect.

For those of us who have little or no Christian background, Mary is sort of a hazy figure, in the background, only prominent at Christmas and during Holy Week when the broken body of Christ is taken down from the cross and cradled in her arms.

Even in Advent, it is not Mary, the one who carries the Christ child who gets top billing, but rather John the Baptizer, the fiery preacher, insistent prophet and wild man of the wilderness.  I’ve preached a lot of sermons on John.  The camel’s hair coat, locusts and wild honey are often interesting to children and his radical message is still pretty relevant and revelatory.  “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

And yet, there are clues, vestiges of the Episcopal church’s, small c, catholic identity that remain on this third Sunday of Advent, which we call Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday.  The pink of the candle on the Advent wreath and the rose color of the vestments point us to the deep joy of Mary’s faith.  We hear the Magnificat, the great praise/poem/song, which she proclaims while pregnant with her miraculous child.

Maybe I need Mary more this year than ever before.  Maybe you do too.  We certainly need a taste of a deeper joy that is not dependent upon circumstances or emotions.  In Mary’s Magnificat we experience praise, protest and promise.  Her words fall into our present reality with an urgent and powerful message.

She begins with praise, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  And some of us wonder, how can she be full of praise?  Her situation is dire.  She is poor and unmarried and pregnant.  Before her is a difficult birth in a cave or stable, a dangerous journey into a foreign land and uncertainty about her child’s future and safety.  She’s so young.  And yes, it’s probably not the case that she penned this masterpiece of poetry herself, but it is true that those who wrote it drew on their knowledge of her and her life.  They also drew on the great tradition of praise, protest and promise songs from women in the Hebrew Scripture.

In Mary’s Magnificat we hear echoes of Miriam’s song and dance after the Israelites were delivered from the Egyptians through the Red Sea.  We hear Hannah’s exultation when after years of barrenness, she conceived a child in her old age and the great priest/prophet Samuel was born to her.  Mary is in good company as she pours out her thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s favor upon one of lowly status, a young peasant woman with no influence or power.

Mary is full of her own worth and dignity which she receives from the Holy One.  She will face dark and difficult times, but at the heart of her praise is the conviction of God’s love, grace and favor to her and to all those who are not mighty in the world’s eyes.

Here is one of my little stories of praise.  I was ordained to the priesthood 24 years ago on this Sunday in a very large and wealthy church where I was hired as the third priest, mostly to work with the children and youth.  I certainly felt insecure, inexperienced and without influence.  The staff were all older and more experienced than I and the male priest was known as a “Cardinal Rector,” one of the most influential and powerful priests in the diocese.

On my first Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, just before the procession began, the Rector took me aside to tell me that the Choir Master was furious with me for one choice of music for my ordination.  It was a shock.  I had no idea there was even a problem.  I was crestfallen.  I was mortified.  All the joy and anticipation of this holy moment was suddenly gone and I had no idea how I could go forward.  Processing down the center aisle, I could hardly raise my head for the shame I felt.  I could feel the choir master glowering at me (even though he probably wasn’t).

I was so naive and earnest.  I knew there was no way I could celebrate the Eucharist unless I could be reconciled with my colleague.  During the peace I made a beeline for him.  I whispered that I was so sorry and I had never meant to cause him a problem or offend him.  I told him I couldn’t go forward with the service unless we were going to be able to work it out.  Of course, he was gracious.  The event was minor and we gladly shared the peace of Christ with one another.

His forgiveness and understanding were such a relief that I nearly burst with joy.  I was able to celebrate the Eucharist with a heart overflowing with thanksgiving.

Later I came to understand that the Rector used his power in an attempt to make me feel insecure and to keep me in my place.  Instead God lifted up the lowly curate and the pettiness of the powerful was revealed.

Mary’s Magnificat moves beyond praise into protest.  Those who can only visualize her as a sweet, demure, pious virgin have certainly not listened to her.  She has the best lines for protest banners and signs.  “He has scattered the proud in their conceit.”  “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”  “He has sent the rich away empty.”   In Mary’s words, God is turning the world upside down.  God is overturning the oppression of the proud, powerful and rich.  God has shown particular care for the poor, the lowly and the hungry.

Mary is with those on the front lines who stand against the people and systems who would take advantage of the weak and lowly.  I think of her especially in light of the protests against a dysfunctional justice system and the hurried execution of eleven federal prisoners before the next administration takes office.  Mary has inspired many who fight for equal justice and against the death penalty.  After all, she lost her child to a corrupt political power which used public crucifixion to control and intimidate its opponents.

Finally, Mary heralds the promise of God.  She carries within her own body, the hope and light of the world in the holy child Jesus.  She treasures this mystery and nurtures it.  She proclaims the vision that the Jewish people received from their genesis, the promise of a future and an everlasting inheritance.  It will be realized with the birth of the Messiah.

I imagine Mary in her final years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.  It is during that time that his followers continued to learn from and be mentored by her.  It is then that they write her story and encapsulate all she values in her Magnificat.  As an older woman I imagine her as a mentor, guide and support for the early Christian movement.  In Christian tradition, after her death she becomes the Queen of Heaven, crowned with honor and full of the power that was in her from her earliest age.  Through all the challenges, difficulties and griefs of her life, she continues to say “yes” to God and to be a bearer of good news.

I felt close to Mary this past week as my next eldest cousin, Mark, died of cancer at age 60.  He had been turned upside down himself 20 years earlier when, at a very difficult time of his life, he experienced profoundly the love and forgiveness of God.  At his funeral, his wife, Leah, mentioned that he got the “most improved” award.  He became a very faithful part of his Catholic Church and a profound influence on his friends and family.

His life, although shortened by cancer, was a huge blessing and full of faith, hope and love.  A few months before he died he wrote:

I was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four, colorectal cancer in February 2016 and was immediately surrounded by prayers for healing. Those prayers were answered in a unique way. I was blessed with peace and serenity. Through all the ups and downs of chemo, phase 1 trials and of regression and progression of disease, I never have had a moment of despair, of “why me.” Leah and I have ridden these peaks and valleys with a calm certainty that if we do all we can, God will take care of all the rest, no matter where this path leads.

The blessing of peace has allowed for spiritual growth; looking for a truth that ties humanity together. The beliefs are not original:

  • Love God/the creator and all his creation
  • Love all humanity (unique in that God gave us spirit as well as physical form)

It starts as simply as quieting yourself and allowing the beauty of creation to fill your soul. From there look for the spirit (which God has endowed in all human beings) in everyone. Start with family, then move on to everyone you contact and finally move to the wider world, where people need our respect, help and love.

We are all connected and responsible for each other. Together we can change the world.

Mary continues to speak to us all in whatever our circumstances.  “God has come to the help of his servant.  God has remembered his promise of mercy.”  Amen.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 25, 2020 – The Rev. Blaine Hammond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 20, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou…

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines,

gnaws on kind words

unsaid,

promised walks

never taken.

Great souls die and

our reality, bound to

them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,

dependent upon their

nurture,

now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed

and informed by their

radiance,

fall away.

We are not so much maddened

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance

of dark, cold

caves.

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

 

July 19, 2020 – The Rev. Hillary Kimsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let them grow together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it will not be nothing. It matters.

Amen.    

June 14, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May 24, 2020 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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