The Sunday After Ascension, May 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015

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

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

February 8, 2015 | The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Today’s reading from Marks’ Gospel
picks up right where we left off last week,
continuing a story that has already started;
it’s like we’re watching an old movie serial—
“previously, on Mark’s Gospel…”

Jesus has just called his disciples to join him,
and then they went to the synagogue in Capernaum,
where Jesus started teaching.

While there, Jesus encounters a man possessed,
and Jesus heals the man,
which is where we pick up our story today.

After leaving the synagogue,
they go back to Peter and Andrew’s house,
and where Peter’s mother-in-law is.

She has a fever,
and is so sick that she is confined to her bed.

Now, imagine for a minute
that you were sick in bed with a fever,
and your son-in-law comes home
bringing with him four men,
whom you’ve never met.

It’s safe to imagine that she was not thrilled to see them.

They told Jesus about her at once,
and Jesus went to her,
took her hand, raised her up, and healed her.

Note the next sentence:
“The fever left her, and she served them.”

She must have been so pleased,
this woman,
to have a son-in-law
who could meet such a nice guy like Jesus,
invite him over to her house
while she was sick with a ridiculous fever,
and heal her with just the touch of his hand,
so she could get back into the kitchen
and make dinner for them.

It’s easy to see this as another example
of women in the Bible getting short shrift,
a woman without a name,
only known because she’s Peter’s mother-in-law,
and how often do mother-in-law stories
make the woman in question look good?

In this light,
this story fits right in with the countless others
throughout Christian history,
in which women make the ministry of the men possible,
and get no credit for it at all;
just think of the countless women
it would have taken to keep Jesus’ band of roving men
fed and cared for while the men
“[went] to the neighboring towns,
so that [Jesus might] proclaim the message there also,
for that is what [he] came to do.”

 

But perhaps there is another way to view this story.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law,
lying sick in her bed with a fever,
sees that Jesus has come to visit her,
along with the disciples that are there with him.

And Jesus does something unthinkable:
he reaches out and touches her.

The story doesn’t have him talking to her;
it’s not like a hospital where he’d say
“Hi, my name is Jesus,
I’m the Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
and I’m here to help you with your fever.
I’d like to take you by the hand
and lift you up,
if you’re okay with that.”

Instead, Jesus walks in,
when Simon Peter lets him know that she’s ill,
and he lifts her up,
and he heals her.

Jesus doesn’t have to say anything,
he just heals her,
and she gets up to serve them.

Getting up to serve them
shows that she is healed,
that the fever has left her fully;
and we can also hope it also shows her gratitude,
that the transformation she experienced
simply by touching Jesus’s hand,
and being raised up by him,
led her to service in the way that she was able;
our of her recognition of what Jesus has done for her
comes an act of service,
simple and pure.

And what’s more, her gratitude
pours out of her being healed on the Sabbath;
Jesus transgressed in his healing,
at least according to the customs of the day,
in order to heal this woman,
and in her gratitude,
she got up to serve him,
again, in transgression of the Sabbath,
because that gratitude came pouring out of her,
and she couldn’t help but serve them.

This mother-in-law’s act of service
is sharply contrasted with her own son-in-law’s behavior
just a few verses later.

“That evening, at sundown,
they brought to him all who were sick,
or possessed with demons,”
Mark tells us.

The disciples waited until the Sabbath had ended,
and then they went and got everyone.

One can imagine that Jesus may have been inundated
by the crowds,
and the Gospel says that everyone was there,
but that he cured many of them;
he couldn’t get to them all,
and had to leave to pray,
to strengthen and recharge himself
after the work he’d done.

And for taking the break that he needed,
the Disciples snap at him,
“Everyone is searching for you…”
having hunted him down.

Unlike the gratitude that Peter’s mother-in-law showed,
we see in this response only anxiety,
“There’s more people to heal, Jesus,
how can you take a break now?”
which is easy for them to say,
since they’re not the ones doing the work.

It’s worth noting
that Jesus can’t heal everyone in this story;
there are more people left that need healing,
there outside Peter’s door.

Jesus needs to recharge his battery
and take time for worship and reflection
before he can go on to cast out more demons,
and heal more people in the surrounding towns.

It’s an important message for us, too,
who in our own culture
feel compelled at times
to do more, and keep busy,
so we can avoid letting other people down.

Jesus is clear from the first
that he can’t do everything the Disciples want him to,
and that he needs to stay focused on his mission,
on his work.

We also need to stay focused on Jesus,
to keep our own business and work balanced
with time of reflection, prayer, and quiet.

The things that vie for attention in our lives
may not be all the sick people in a town
gathered at our door to be healed,
but the people and things in our lives
can be just as demanding as Jesus encountered today,
and the pressures we feel can be as strong
as a group of disciples hunting us down
to ask “Where have you been?”

Doing the work we’re called to,
and leaving enough time for us to care for ourselves
is a balancing act that can feel impossible.

But the response of Peter’s mother-in-law is telling:
Her service rose out of her heart,
when she rose from her sickbed;
She couldn’t help but respond to Jesus,
because Jesus had healed her.

When our service is a response to Jesus,
as opposed to a response to the pressures
of the world around us,
we can be sustained,
and find time for prayer,
and be the disciples that we are called by Christ to be,
instead of the disciples that the world
would prefer us to be,
which isn’t the same thing.

I would invite you this week
to spend even a brief moment in prayer each day,
time to re-center yourself
and listen to Christ,
and the call he has given you.

Let your service this week come from your deep gratitude,
and not from what the world expects from you,
in Jesus’ name.

February 1, 2015 | The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Living, as I do, with two small children,
I have been afforded dozens of opportunities
in the last few months
to watch the latest Disney princess movie, “Frozen,”
the ending of which is going to get spoiled this morning.
The movie came out 15 months ago,
so I feel like you’ve had enough time to see it
if you were going to.

And though it’s dangerous to digress in one’s second paragraph,
I will say that “Frozen” goes a long way toward
addressing the many flaws that princess movies have had;
in the end, a princess saves herself and her sister, the queen,
and the male love interest (who isn’t a prince)
is watching the whole thing happen on the sidelines.
Princess Anna doesn’t need any man to save her.
In this preacher’s opinion, this represents progress.

Anyway, the action of the film is motivated
by Elsa trying to run away from everyone,
because her power to command ice and freeze things
has run amok, and she is afraid of hurting people accidently,
particularly her younger sister, Anna.

Elsa has frozen Arendelle, her country,
and doesn’t know how to un-freeze things.

Anna ends up with ice in her heart,
and only an act of true love can save her
(we are led to think that the solution will be
a true love’s kiss… Again, the idea being
that only a man can save Princess Anna…barf…).

Elsa has no idea how to save Anna,
or how to thaw the eternal winter
she has set off across the land.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

 

By now, several of you must be wondering
how this can have anything to do with
any of the readings we heard today…
We’ll get there soon enough,
but first, let’s talk about love.

Paul writes today to the church at Corinth,
that knowledge makes people arrogant,
but loves builds people up.

He’s writing specifically to address
a problem with the wealthy and sophisticated
members of the Corinthian church
had been eating at dining rooms in a spa temple
dedicated to Asclepius, a Greek god of healing.

For the sophisticated, wealthy folks
who could afford to eat there,
they justified themselves by saying,
“But Asclepius isn’t real, so what’s the big deal?
There is no God but God.”

Paul thinks this is a valid point, and a smart one;
since Asclepius isn’t real,
it’s fine to eat that food.
And the folks who are eating that food
know that’s why they’re eating it,
so it doesn’t do them any harm.

But, Paul asks, what about the folks who are new to the church,
the folks who aren’t so sophisticated,
the folks who used to believe in Asclepius,
and who now see members of the church
eating in the dining rooms there,
and are tempted to eat there themselves,
and risk falling away from the Church,
away from the life-giving relationship they have with Jesus,
whose authority we see on display in the Gospel today?

Jesus casts a demon out of a man just by talking to him;
that’s how powerful Jesus’ words are,
how life-giving a relationship with him is.

So to challenge the faith of someone
whose faith isn’t yet strong,
simply by eating food that had been offered to idols,
that’s against God’s hope for us as disciples.

What difference does being right about how to believe make,
when your “being right” causes someone else to stumble?

Knowledge, Paul says, makes people arrogant;
if you think you know something,
you don’t know as much as you should know.

Instead, Paul suggests,
you should be focused on love.

You can know all kinds of things,
but you can never know enough things.

Instead, you need to experience love,
both giving love and receiving love,
in order to know and be known by God.

That point, that love is more important than knowledge,
even comes through in “Frozen.”
In the end, when Elsa is under attack on all sides,
Anna puts herself in harm’s way,
and saves her sister just as Anna turns to ice,
the ice in her heart finally freezing her solid,
sacrificing herself to save the sister she loved.

That sacrifice was the act of true love that saved Anna,
who thawed out and was restored once her sister was safe,
her love for Elsa, her sister, having saved her.

Elsa didn’t know how to under the perpetual winter;
she didn’t have the knowledge she needed
to undo the damage she caused;
it was love that showed her how,
taught her to do something
that no knowledge could.

Elsa was saved by Anna’s act of true love,
and through that love,
taught Elsa how to end the eternal winter.

Like I say, not your average Disney princess movie.
Good job, Disney!
And the music is fabulous. Seriously. Watch it.

And just as love is deeper than knowledge in Disney movies,
it’s also deeper than knowledge in discipleship,
for you, and me, and everyone.

The foundation of our relationship with God,
and God’s relationship with us,
is not rooted in our heads;
you can read everything that every theologian ever wrote,
and acquire all the knowledge that anyone ever had,
but it’s not enough.

Our relationship with God is rooted in our hearts,
in the love that we have for God.

Our relationship with the Divine
lies in the choice to love, and to be loved by,
Jesus, who is the Holy One of God,
which even the unclean spirits in Mark’s Gospel
seem to have figured out.

And loving is a choice,
particularly the kind of love that Jesus and Paul
talks about all the time in the New Testament.

We use the verb “falling” to describe how we come to love
our spouses and partners,
and centuries of romantic literature
have peddled the trope of “love as destiny;”
The Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare did it,
and countless (lesser) playwrights, screenwriters,
and novelists have followed suit.

But ultimately, love is a decision,
a choice that we make, and continue to make,
even when we don’t exactly feel like it,
or when it bores us, or when it hurts.

And unlike the emotional affection we may feel for someone,
which we don’t have control over,
truly loving, in the way that Jesus and Paul talk about loving,
is a choice—the greatest choice we make in our lives.

Love is actually one of the main themes
of this letter to the Church in Corinth;
and today’s reading isn’t the part that is best known.
The thirteenth chapter is often read at weddings:
“Love is patient, love is kind,
it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, is isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude…”
And since love is a choice that we make, every day,
and not just a state that we happen to find ourselves in,
because we happened to “fall in love,”
it’s a calling, a way of life, and a vocation.

But regardless of where you read about love in the Bible,
love is the foundation of our relationship with God,
and our relationship with each other.

And just like the other loving relationships in our lives,
whether they’re with a husband or wife,
with our parents, or children, or siblings;
or our families of choice,
the people we consider our family,
even though we may not be legally or technically related,
our relationship with God in Christ
requires cultivating, and nurturing, and feeding.

Our relationship with God is nurtured
the same way that our other relationships are:
through communication, and shared experiences.

This is one of the reasons that worship is so important
to our understanding of what it means
to live a Christian life:
if we don’t gather to worship,
to share in the bread, and wine, and Word, and song,
then we can’t be sustained for the road ahead.

We need all of those things:
bread and wine, to feed our bodies and souls;
Word and song to remind us of where we’re headed,
and our relationships with others,
to accompany us on our journey.

When we come to this table,
we fill our souls for the work of the week,
following Jesus each day,
working for peace, love, and justice each day.

We also nurture our relationship through prayer:
our individual prayer, each day,
whether it’s in the formal language of the Daily Office,
asking God’s blessing on the food we eat,
or just telling God what we’re grateful for
in the moments when we feel that gratitude
welling up inside us.

Our individual prayer, each day,
is a vital part of our loving relationship with God,
and as Paul says in our reading today,
loving God is how God knows us.

Prayer and worship are the two best ways
for us to nurture our loving relationship,
to be filled by God’s love,
and to give love back to God,
from what God has given us.

Being here today,
to receive the bread that gives life to the world,
is a significant part of that,
and I thank you for being here
to be a part of this community.

In the words of the poem by George Herbert,
“Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven, I will praise thee;”
Each day, we should offer praise and thanks to God,
even if it’s just saying “Thank you, God” before a meal,
or saying the Lord’s prayer at a stoplight.

If you’d like to have a resource to take with you,
please take a Book of Common Prayer
from the shelf by the door when you leave today;
there are lots of different devotional resources in it,
and I’d be more than happy to show them to you
following the service today,
or on the phone or by email this week.

This week, share your love with God,
because love is the foundation of that relationship.

As Paul tells the church at Corinth,
as Elsa learned from her sister Anna,
and as Jesus shows us over and over again
in his life and ministry,
loving is how we practice our faith,
sharing the love that God gives to us,
and giving it back to God.

We can’t ever know God, really;
as Paul says, if we think we know something,
we don’t yet know as much as we should know;
but if we love God,
then we are known by God.

Here’s to a church and a world known by God,
that is known for its love,
in Jesus’ name.