Proper 24, October 18, 2015

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.  And he has a pretty good idea what will happen once he arrives.  Ever since his disciple Peter recognized him as the holy one of God – the Messiah, Jesus has been trying to correct their expectations about what that might mean for both him and for them.
They expected his triumphal entry into the capital city, the center of their faith and identity.  They expected him to demonstrate his power in the Jewish Temple and to confront the corruption and decay of the ruling religious leaders.  They even expected him to overthrow the hated, occupying, Roman army by signs, wonders and miracles.
Jesus tried to prepare them for what would really happen.  He told them, not once, not twice, but three times that “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Jesus wasn’t just on his way to Jerusalem.  Jesus was on the way to the cross.  But he keeps getting interrupted on the journey.  There are many who need healing and are desperate to approach him.  There are others like the rich man who want Jesus to give them the secret to a meaningful, spiritual life.  And then there are his disciples who often seem to be more difficult than helpful.
I love the honest portraits of Jesus’ closest followers in the gospel.  They are so flawed and clueless and impetuous and human.  Here are James and John, brothers, sons of Zebedee the fisherman.  They’ve abandoned their father and the family business in order to follow the itinerant Rabbi Jesus around the country.  They’ve been around for some of the biggest moments in the life and ministry of Jesus.  They’ve witnessed his transfiguration on the mountain.  They’ve been privilege to some of his private acts of healing and even the raising of a dead girl.  They feel like they’ve been getting the inside track on what Jesus is doing.  They know something big is coming when they get to Jerusalem.  They’re looking forward to it, and they don’t want to miss out.
So they ask Jesus for a favor.  They ask to receive the best seats at the table when Jesus is revealed in his glory.  They know it’s going to be a great and glorious day so they want to make sure they get their reservation request in early.  I love that Jesus doesn’t chide them or tell them to go away or slap them up the side of the head!  Instead he asks them if they can share his fate and he tells them that their lives will not be lived as lords and rulers but rather as servants, even slaves to all.
To be by the side of Jesus will mean suffering and the pouring out of their lives for the sake of others.  The only way to greatness in the Kingdom of God is by giving your life away, by letting go, by offering all you have in humble service.  Yes Jesus is going to Jerusalem.  He’s going to the cross where the only ones on his right and left hands will be the two criminals crucified beside him.
No matter how many times we may be reminded, we never really expect the cross.  A healthy person, a sane person doesn’t deliberately seek out suffering.  And I don’t think the cross was the ultimate goal for Jesus either.  Jesus was willing to drink the cup of pain and suffering but it wasn’t for the sake of suffering.  Rather, the Bible says that it was “for the joy set before him, that Christ endured the cross.”  It was for what existed on the other side of the cross and death that Jesus was willing to go through it.
This past month I really got to identify with James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John.  For nearly 30 days I walked the pilgrimage that is named for him.  He is the St. Iago (Spanish for James) that the Santiago Compostela is named for.  But most people simply call it the Camino or “Way.”  It leads to the great Cathedral where the bones of James are said to be at rest.  Every church along the Camino has statues of James and you see him depicted everywhere in his pilgrim’s cloak with his wide-brimmed hat, his gourd for water and the scallop shell, which is the symbol of the pilgrim.
Before the Camino I didn’t have any particular attachment to James.  But that changed after a while.  Sometimes when I found myself really struggling with blisters, sore feet or the challenge of climbing another hill, I might whisper a plea, “Help me James!”
One of those days involved the climb up to the crest of the Iago Mountains.   We made it nearly to the top before we had to stop for the night.  We were prepared to get up early and walk in the dark until we reached the top, hopefully around daybreak.  One interesting thing about many of the people walking the Camino is that they don’t have any real religious or faith connection to the pilgrimage.  Because of that, many were unaware or didn’t pay attention to the fact that the top of the mountain held one of the primary landmarks of the ancient Camino.
At the pinnacle of the mountain is the Crux de Farro, the Iron Cross.  It is a simple cross on the top of a pole all alone on a mountain top.  For years it has been the custom of pilgrims to bring to the cross a stone or small object from home, symbolizing something that they want to let go of.  The night before we were to make the climb a group of us were having dinner together.  Some knew about the custom and were prepared, but for others it was a new concept.
My walking partner and I had spent quite some time thinking about what we were bringing to the cross.  We each had stones that symbolized something powerful that we wanted and needed to release.
Another woman had brought a photo of her beloved mother who had died recently.  She found out that I was a priest and she asked me to lead a prayer for all of us as we got ready for the next day.  Around the table were a Norwegian agnostic, a practitioner of spiritual yoga from Costa Rica, a couple of Canadians with some kind of Protestant background and a fellow Episcopalian from California.  At the end of the prayer I noticed tears in many people’s eyes.
The next morning we climbed the steep hill as the sun began to rise.  When the cross came into view, it wasn’t particularly remarkable.  It wasn’t especially large or beautiful or special.  In fact, it was pretty simple.  What was amazing though was the pile of stones and objects.  It had created a hill around the cross that was over 20 feet high.
People approached the cross and they got quiet.  They placed their stones and mementos at its feet.  Some of us knelt.  Others wept.  We offered up our pain and sorrow, our envy and ambition, our failures and weakness, our grief and anger and anything else that held us back from love and freedom and life.
We gave it all to Jesus because he can receive it and us.  He opened wide his arms upon the cross so that all might fall within his saving embrace.
He can take the worst that the world can give and by the power and mercy of God transform it and us into new life, forgiven, freed, redeemed.  As the sun rose that morning, the weight dropped off us and we hugged and became almost giddy.
And for a while we were all in harmony, kind-hearted to one another and willing to share whatever was needed.  Of course that doesn’t last.  We’re all human after all.  But the power of the cross and that surrender continue to resonate in the lives of those who were touched by that moment.
Today there may be something that you are carrying that you want to lay down.  It may be a painful memory, an unresolved relationship, a deep shame that burdens your heart.  You may need healing in body, mind or spirit or release from something that is holding you captive.  You may be ready to let it go now, or you may need some time to prepare yourself.
Here we believe that the arms of Jesus are open wide to receive whatever you need to release.  You may let it go in the confession we share during the worship as we offer up our sins and sorrows.  You may want to have someone pray with you by the font during communion.  There will be extra time today at the end of communion and I will be available to anoint you for healing and help.  We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who is able to deal gently with us, to offer up prayers on our behalf and to walk with us through the cross to the other side.


Canon Britt Olson

Proper 23, October 10, 2015

Jesus can be so extreme sometimes.  Really!  I mean there’s all that business about if your right hand offends you, cut it off.  And his warning that it would be better to put a stone around your neck and jump into the lake than to cause one of his little ones to stumble and struggle.  Not to mention all the business about losing your life to save it.
And then he comes up with his instruction to the rich man who was basically trying as hard as he could to be a good guy.  “Sell all you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  I’m sure all the guy heard was the part about selling all you own and that’s the part we probably heard as well and it’s impossible and completely unrealistic.  What was Jesus thinking?
I think we all make some common mistakes when we hear language like this from Jesus.  The first is that we don’t pay any attention to it.  We may think it has nothing to do with us because we’re not rich.  Or we may think it’s completely idealistic and therefore can be ignored.  We decide we just won’t pay that much attention to these kind of crazy ideas from Jesus.

Of course another mistake is that we read this as a form of judgement against rich people.  Ah ha, we think!  Clearly those stinking rich people are being selfish and greedy and need to give up what they’ve got and give it all away to the poor.  Jesus said so.  I remember in my early days as a priest I was so mad at Bill Gates.  While I knew of widowed parishioners who were sacrificially giving 10% of their resources to charity, in his early days at Microsoft he was giving a paltry .03%.  I felt absolutely certain in my judgement of him and I think I even said so in a sermon!  I’ve had to reconsider that position many times over as I hear about the ways he is now trying to give away nearly everything he has amassed to solve problems for the most vulnerable in our world.
I’ve also heard many well-meaning preachers use this text as a way to encourage the congregation to adopt a percentage giving discipline during the fall season of fund-raising for congregations by saying that really God demands 100% so if we’re only asking for 5-10% for your pledge, you’re getting off easy!
The reason I think these interpretations are mistakes is because they miss the main points of this interaction between Jesus and the rich man.  One of the most important points is that the man was desperate and anxious and needy.  He came before Jesus and interrupted him by throwing himself on his knees in front of Jesus.  He had great riches, yes and a good life but he was missing something.
He was longing for more and he was afraid that he might be missing out on what was most important.  This is a man with a great spiritual need in the midst of all his material abundance.  He has the goods but he lacks the ultimate Good.
It’s also important to note that Jesus loved him.  Jesus didn’t judge him.  Jesus didn’t need his money to run his operation.  Jesus didn’t tell everyone to sell everything they have.  Jesus looked at this particular man at this critical time with love and offered him the best hope the guy had of meeting his deepest longing.  And Jesus promised him exactly what we needed.  If the man heeded Jesus’ words he would have the heavenly treasure he sought, security, joy, peace and a deep purpose.  Jesus offered him what he didn’t always offer everyone, the chance to follow him, to be close to Jesus, to experience the power and love and glory of God up close and personal.  What Jesus was inviting the rich man to is nothing less than a life-giving relationship with God that would be offer riches greater than he could ever ask or imagine.

I met such a rich man during my walk on the Camino this past month through northern Spain.  We had stopped for a night at a pretty poor hostel where two brothers had prepared for us a simple meal.  There were about 25 pilgrims sitting on benches around a long table.  I chose to sit next to Dennis who seemed to be more obnoxious that most of the pilgrims I had met.  I was curious why this man seemed so arrogant and edgy.  My finely tuned pastoral skills were telling me something was going on with him!
Most pilgrim conversations are about how far you’ve come and where you’re staying next and where you’re from.  Dennis made it clear that although he was Irish, he had been trained in England.  He also made sure I realized that he was walking much further and faster each day than I was (which wasn’t hard to do since I was pretty slow!)  He also mentioned the many places all over the world he was familiar with.  He had just retired at age 40 from a career with a global corporation that had him traveling 3 weeks out of 4.  In other words, in very short order he made it clear to me that he was richer, fitter and smarter than me and possibly most of the people on the Camino.  He was obnoxious and I couldn’t imagine what had driven him to spend over a month of his life walking in all kinds of weather, sleeping in dormitories with smelly, snoring people and eating the most basic food in simple alburgues.
I decided to ask him about his reasons.  Something very surprising for both of us happened.  He told me that he was trying to stay only in hostels run by the church.  He also said that he had tried to walk one day in silence which was difficult for him, and I could believe it given his tendency to dominate conversation.  Then he finally got real.  He said he had decided to give away one thing every day.  Like many on the Camino he had packed too much stuff.  I’m sure in his own life he had too much stuff.  So every day he tried to share something.  By this point in the journey he had to buy a new shirt because he was running out of things to give away.
Finally he pulled a black pocket watch out and showed it to me.  On the final day of the Camino when he reached the Cathedral at Santiago, he planned to give away his watch.  And then he started to tear up.  He finally looked right at me and at that moment I loved him.  He said the watch wasn’t that valuable but that he had had it since he was 14.  It would be really difficult for him to let it go.
For one moment this rich man got real.  I saw his heart and his need.  He was vulnerable and open and breaking.  I offered to pray for him on the journey, thinking that I would probably never see him again since he would be walking so much faster than I.

The conversation changed.  His mask came back on.  He tried to get me to drink more wine and then ignored me for the rest of the meal.  I did see him again.  But he had shut down again.  He made it clear that he had other people to walk with who were his friends and that he was going so much faster.  His vulnerability which was his salvation, had also made him scared and insecure so he had to turn me away and walk away.  And I grieved for him.  And I pray for him.  And I love him.
What Jesus wants for the rich man is the same thing he wants for Dennis and for me and for you.  He wants us to have the most abundant, free life possible.  He invites to live as part of God’s kingdom where there is always more than enough so that we can share generously what we have.  He gives us brothers and sisters on the journey so that we never walk alone or without companionship.  We cannot let go of more than God will give.

There is a saying on the pilgrimage, “The Camino provides.”  People repeat this with great faith because they have experienced it in miraculous ways.  We know who it is that makes that provision possible.   It is the Spirit of God calling all of us to a life of generosity and love that brings to life the very Kingdom of God.  You don’t have to walk hundreds of miles through all kinds of weather, you don’t have to sell everything you own or leave your family and quit your job to experience this radical provision of God.  All you have to do is follow Jesus and be open to the Spirit.  All around us there are other “Dennis’s” longing for love and meaning and purpose.  They want to be free from the race to succeed and accumulate and look good.  The good news is that Jesus looks at each of us in love.  He promises us treasure in heaven and he calls us to a radical discipleship that leads to life eternal.


Canon Britt Olson

The 16th Proper, August 23, 2015

In just 3 weeks I will begin a month-long pilgrimage to the city of Santiago in Spain.  For over 1300 years people have walked the Camino or Way to this destination where the bones of James one of Jesus’s original disciples rest.  The most popular route covers 500 miles across Northern Spain.

For a month I will essentially be homeless.   We will walk 14-16 miles every day carrying everything on our backs and staying at hostels we find along the way.  The journey will be a struggle.  There will be tremendous physical challenges including exhaustion, pulled muscles and tendons and blisters.  These are the challenges of blood and flesh.  But veterans of the Camino talk more about the spiritual and emotional challenges that occur on the journey.  I may want to give up because it is so hard.  I will certainly be afraid at times and lost and lonely.

There will be temptation to abandon the way and quit or to push myself too hard out of pride and a competitive spirit in a foolish way.  I will encounter other pilgrims whose behavior (especially the snoring) will be challenging to me.  There will be doubt and discouragement and I will probably feel like giving up half a dozen times a day.

In preparation for the pilgrimage I have been walking (not nearly enough!).  Recently I have gotten my pack ready with everything I think I’ll need for the journey.  After consulting with many people who have gone on the pilgrimage before me, I have some idea of what might be helpful and important.  The most critical piece of equipment are my hiking shoes.  After trying out a number of different options, I have settled on the ones I hope will get me over the rough ground without developing blisters.

The pack itself has to fit me well.  The belt around my waist is designed to carry all the weight so my shoulders and neck don’t get too strained.  I’ve got rain gear, including a marvelous poncho that will cover most of me and my pack in case of a deluge.  And the hat is critical.  It will protect me from the sun which beats down mercilessly and can cause an unwary pilgrim to collapse.

Every item has to be carefully considered.  Since I’ll be picking up this pack dozens of time a day and carrying it for hundreds of miles, only that which is most essential can be included.  Everything else has to be discarded.  The journey is too long and the challenges too great and the struggle too hard to waste my energy taking on anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

My intention for this journey has changed since I originally conceived it.  I thought I would be walking trying to discern God’s direction for my life and ministry.

But now that I have been serving this congregation, I have a different intention.  I will be walking for St. Luke’s, for wisdom and strength and discernment for what God is doing in this community.  My prayer will be for this congregation and its mission, for those who live in the neighborhood who are hungry for the bread of life and for those who have lost their way.

And because I love St. Luke’s, I will be thinking of all the faith communities that face challenges and struggles in this time of dwindling congregations and the growing irrelevance of the church to so many people.  Who are we called to be?  What is essential to our faith?  What does it mean for us to be Church?  If we had to pack our bags as pilgrim people, what would we take on our journey?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  I’ve known plenty of churches that didn’t have a building to worship in.  They had to pack everything in each week, set things up and then pack it all away.  What do we really need to be the people of God?  What would be on your list?

The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness with nothing but what they could carry.  When they got within reach of the Promised Land, their new leader Joshua warned them that it might become more difficult to follow God once they were settled in a land of milk and honey.  It would be easy to forget God once they were stable and comfortable and their shelves were stocked.  No longer would they need God to provide for them their daily bread. Pilgrimage had wonderfully simplified their lives and helped them to grow in trust.  Once they crossed over into plenty they would need to be reminded regularly what it means to choose God and to choose the true life that really matters.

The original name for Christians was the “People of the Way.”  We are still on a pilgrimage.  We carry with us the riches of the stories and history and poetry and instruction and lament that is the Holy Scripture.  We are people of the Word as well as people of the way and we must carry with us all that those who have gone before us in faith have entrusted to us.

We bring with us bread and wine, oil and water.  The real presence of the living Christ in the holy meal brings us back together and re-members us as the very Body of Christ, joined with all those who want to know and follow Jesus.  As bread is broken and shared and wine is blessed and poured we share in the great banquet that connects us with the past and the future and where everyone is fed.

The water of baptism refreshes and renews us.  In it we are named as God’s beloved and washed as tenderly as a mother bathes a child.  We are united with those of every race and tribe and language, equally valued and cherished by God.  The oil of the Spirit comes upon each one of us to fill and comfort and guide and inspire.  In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever and God will never let us go.

What else shall we carry?  We carry love for our neighbor.  This is the love that enables us to let go, to sacrifice, to overcome our fears and resistance to touch another person and find there not a stranger but a being of infinite worth.  We bring with us gratitude, a spirit of thankfulness in all things.  We bring generosity that enables us to empty out what we have over and over again and to find that there is still more to give.

And we bring everyone with us.  The pilgrimage isn’t complete until everyone has made it to the journey’s end.  It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God.

When Paul finished his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he made a list for them of what they would need to complete the journey and to fight the good fight.  He knew how hard this Christian life can be.  He knew that they would grow weary and be overwhelmed.  He urged them to be strong, not in their own strength but in the strength of the Lord.  He believed that they would make it through with God’s help.

And so he told them.  Put on the belt of truth.  Let the weight of all you carry be grounded in the truth.  When truth is at the core, you will be able to bear the load.

Cover yourself with the breastplate of righteousness. Let your integrity and your right relationships protect you from the storms.  When you are right in your relationship with God, when your conscience is clear, when you are honest with God and yourself then you will be whole and healthy.  Nothing from without will be able to invade or pollute you.

For shoes, wear whatever helps you to be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Get ready to run towards any opportunity you have to bring the blessing of peace and hope and joy that is the good news of God in Christ. Words matter but so do actions.  Blessed are the feet of the one who brings good news.

Put on the helmet of salvation.  A good hat can save your life!  God will cover you and keep you safe so that you can go where God calls.

Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  God’s words come to us in Scripture and are written on our hearts and spoken to us by messengers and prophets who remind us over and over again of the heart of the matter.

Finally, Paul asks the people to pray.  He asks them to pray at all times.  He asks them to pray for all the saints. He even asks them to pray for him.  We are each of us on a pilgrimage.  Prayer may be the only thing that gets us through, our own prayer, but also the prayers of others for us.  The way is challenging.  It can seem overwhelming and hopeless at times.  God has provided us as individuals and as a church with what we really need to make it through to the end.

I will be praying for you with every step.  I know you will be praying for me.  What a party there will be when we reach our destination!

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson


The 9th Proper, July 5, 2015


This past week a group of 6 Middle School children and their adult sponsors from two churches on the East side took a mission trip… to Seattle!  They stayed at St. Luke’s in our cottages and visited a number of agencies that provide meals for people in need.   All of that was eye-opening for these kids, but what really transformed them was the time they spent getting to know the people of St. Luke’s and some of our guests from the feeding program. They developed some questions to ask folks and then in pairs conducted interviews.

And they listened.  These kids who upon arrival had no real idea why they were there except for some vague notion of helping people, became completely engaged as they met new people, new brothers and sisters in Christ.  I watched these bored looking kids and their anxious leaders absolutely bloom in the few days they were with us.  They had a great time and they didn’t want to leave.  When I asked them what they had learned, one of them said it best. She said, “I learned that they are normal.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there is nothing and no one “normal” at St. Luke’s!

I wonder what those first disciples encountered when they were sent out two by two into neighboring villages. They were told to arrive empty-handed.  They were to show up at the doors of strangers in need of hospitality. They had to be dependent upon people to host them.  There is a certain level of humility that develops when you cannot provide anything for yourself and require the kindness of strangers.  By traveling in this manner, they were imitating Jesus.  Their mission began in complete dependence upon God’s provision for it to succeed.

I imagine that they became very aware of their circumstances.  They paid close attention to the neighborhood, looking for an opening, looking for someone who might be willing to invite them in.  I also imagine that they had to become excellent listeners, open to hearing about what really mattered to others.

The disciples may not have had anything material to offer, but they did have the stories of their own transformed lives and their love of Jesus.  They may have been needy in terms of food and shelter, but they walked in the belief that “God’s grace was sufficient for them.”  They had a gift to share in the good news of God’s loving embrace of all people and the power of God to heal and deliver those who are suffering.  They may have been experiencing a “poverty of purse,” but they had no “poverty of purpose.”

Some of the people they encountered rejected them, shut their ears, wanted nothing to do with them.  Jesus predicted that would happen; and he told them not to let the rejections cling to them but rather to shake it off, move on and entrust themselves to God.  But others were open and receptive.  I can imagine them talking late into the night after the meal is over and the food is put away and the children are in bed and the twilight dark is all around.  I can almost hear their conversation and their questions. “What is the good life?  Where is true meaning to be found?  How can I know God better?”  These conversations are the fertile ground where the seed of the gospel is planted.  This is how God’s loving embrace spreads, one by one in relationships of openness and respect.

The church wasn’t born when a building was constructed, or a strategic plan implemented or a set of spiritual laws and doctrines developed.  The church is born out of lives transformed by relationship.  It begins when we encounter the love of God in Christ and share that with others.  The body of Christ grows when faithful disciples respond to the call to love God and love others by reaching out our arms to a broken world.

God asks us to show up, to listen, to speak the truth in love and to leave the results to God.  Our mission and our call is not dependent on our building or budget or wisdom or strength.  Our mission is a direct response to the love of God poured into our lives for the purpose of sharing it with others.

Our new Presiding Bishop calls himself a CEO, “Chief Evangelism Officer.”  He lit up the entire General Convention of the Episcopal Church with his sermon at the closing worship service this past Friday.  He told them all to “go.”  Like Jesus he sent everyone out from 10 days of resolutions and budgets and structure to be the church in a hurting world.  In one of his sermons he said this:

“We have to remember that the disciples didn’t have trust funds and endowments.  They were not the established Church.  They were more sideline than mainline.  And yet because of their witness to the radical welcome of the gospel, inspired and propelled by the Holy Spirit, here you are and here I am, two millennia later.  As the old song that my grandmother used to sing goes, ‘It is no secret what God can do; what he did for them, he’ll do for you.”

Well St. Luke’s doesn’t have endowments or trust funds either.  We are in some ways completely dependent, unable to meet our own needs without the kindness and generosity of others.  And yet we have a tremendous gift to share.  When I thanked the kids and their leaders for coming, they said that it needed to be the other way around.  They wanted to thank St. Luke’s for sharing the riches of God’s grace and radical welcome of all people.

This next weekend we have an opportunity to be sent out to our neighbors two by two.  We have been given a free booth at the Ballard Seafood Festival Saturday and Sunday.  I am pretty sure we may be the only Christian church represented.  We won’t have anything to sell.  We won’t have anything fancy to give away.  We won’t have a slick advertising campaign.  But some of you will be there in pairs, willing to listen to the needs and concerns of our neighbors, willing to share the good news of God in Christ, willing to tell the story of how lives are transformed as we welcome all God’s people into the community of the beloved disciples.  We’re going to show up.  We’re going to listen.  And if we are invited to, we’ll speak the truth in love.  We can leave the outcome to God.  We are simply called to be faithful and to go to our neighbors where they are.

Many of you can’t be there in person, but I want to ask you to commit to prayer for this mission.  The shifts are two hours long.  Maybe you could take a two hour block and remember during that time to pray.  Pray for those who are present at the booth.  Pray that we may have open ears and open hearts.  Pray for the neighbors we meet.  Pray that we may be able to hear and respond to their questions and longings.  Pray that God may do a work of transformation in all our hearts, enabling us to live and love more deeply in the way of Christ.

As we follow in the way of Christ we are sure to discover anew what the Apostle Paul heard from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

“It is no secret what God can do; what he did for them, he’ll do for you.”

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson


The 8th Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015


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

Mother Mary said it best in Luke’s Magnificat:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s sing. Amazing Grace.

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson



Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson



Pentecost, May 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson

The Sunday After Ascension, May 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Canon Britt Olson