Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016 – Canon Britt Olson

Welcome to the 1,983rd celebration of Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are still living into that great Mystery. After centuries of violence, suffering, injustice and oppression, we Christian people continue to gather in joy and in faith that there is another way, there is another story, there is a greater reality.

It’s certainly amazing that we are gathering here this morning in the middle of a city known for its secularism, in an area of the country known as the None Zone (for the number of folks who select “none” as their religious affiliation), when we could be participating in all the other options before us on a beautiful spring morning in Seattle. We’ve been drawn together this morning as friends, family, neighbors and even strangers to celebrate the dawn of hope, the transforming power of love and the triumph of life over death.

It’s incredible to me that we are here, at St. Luke’s, Ballard after all the changes and challenges that this community has experienced. Through 100 years of ups and downs, faithful people have continued to practice the power of resurrection in this place, praying, worshipping and caring for the least, the last and the lost by feeding and sheltering the most vulnerable. At some points it seemed that all might be lost, the property sold, and the buildings demolished in order to make way for new development. But beyond all expectation, the Spirit is moving to bring new life and a new way forward as a community of faith, hope and love in the middle of this city.

Each of you has a story to tell as well. It probably involves challenge, suffering and maybe even death. Perhaps there is betrayal, wounding or brokenness. And yet, here you are. Something has happened to bring you back or to bring you here for the first time. You have been drawn into the great drama of Jesus’s Passion, his suffering, death and resurrection. Something or someone has shown you a different way, a path forward, a new direction.

How is this possible? How does resurrection become real?

Resurrection only becomes real when someone witnesses to its reality.

Resurrection becomes real when there is a witness.

The first witnesses were women. They were disciples of Jesus and they had been with him through it all. They were healed by him. They saw all the good he did and his power to free those who lived under the oppression of evil. They listened to his teaching and they observed the way he treated people, especially those who weren’t in the center of things, especially the poor, especially women. And so when the dawn broke, at the first opportunity they didn’t abandon him even in death. They arrived to care for his broken body only to find an empty tomb and two unusual figures with a message they could barely believe. But then they remembered what they had learned. Their grief-numbed brains began to whir with memories of all Jesus had said and done. Their hearts began to thump with excitement and anxiety. And they knew that everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same.

These were the first to testify to the resurrection but soon there would be others. All those who experienced the resurrected Jesus became his witnesses. Their testimony was risky. It was considered foolishness and weakness. It got many of his followers killed. And yet they could not keep silent. That thing that happened to the women, happened to them. Life was snatched from death. Love came forth in the midst of hatred. Hope sprang up from despair.

For the past 6 weeks 25 people have been on a Spiritual Pilgrimage through Lent at St. Luke’s. Each week we have heard testimony from someone who has experienced the power of the resurrection. It’s probably just a coincidence but all those who testified are women! They shared how God brought them through difficult marriages and the challenges of being a single mother. They told how God became their closest and dearest friend when they felt abandoned by the death of those they loved. One told how she is moving from a position of privilege and safety in order to see more of the resurrected Christ in the face of the other. They shared the compelling reasons why they are willing to get up every morning to serve those on the margins of society, those who are addicted, mentally ill or simply struggling to maintain dignity in the face of loss. They care for elderly parents, they create beautiful gardens, they fight injustice and… they’re really, really uncomfortable right now! These women are witnesses to the resurrection.

Witnesses are not perfect or sinless or always faithful. Witnesses are real people with flaws and failings. Witnesses don’t point to themselves but rather to the glory and grace of God in the power of the resurrected Christ. Most of the time they don’t even realize what they’re doing. Witnesses bear truth by their authentic lives.

We are, each of us, witnesses to resurrection. Every time we make a choice for life over death we testify to resurrection. Every time we forgive as we have been forgiven we demonstrate the way of Jesus. When we make the effort to love our enemy and to see the face of Christ in the stranger, we stand up for resurrection. When we open our hands to give generously, we trust in resurrection. When we share a meal where all are valued, all are welcome and all are one in Christ, we live in the reality of resurrection.

Resurrection is not something you prove or disprove. It is not a doctrine that can be taught or memorized. Resurrection can only be witnessed. And to witness is to put your very life on the line. To witness is to let your life show.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

With faith, hope and love,
Canon Britt

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016

 

Thirty years ago a friend who is a skillful calligrapher offered to write a favorite verse or passage from Scripture for me.  Because it would take him a lot of time and effort and because it would probably be a keepsake, I thought long and hard about my choice.  Finally I decided upon the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read this morning.
In it Paul examines his life and context in light of his encounter with Jesus.  He has a lot going for him.  He’s had a great upbringing as part of a notable family.  He has a wonderful education where he has been a star student.  He’s part of an elite group of religious practitioners who take their faith seriously and work hard to do everything according to what is required.  He’s been righteous and blessed and successful in his career as a star persecutor of those who are a threat to the stability and strength of his religious system.
But when he meets the risen Christ in his encounter on the road to Damascus, everything pales in comparison.   All that he has previously valued, all that gives him status and meaning and a sense of purpose is suddenly worthless in comparison with this heavenly call, this radical relationship with the one he calls “Lord.”
At the time I chose this passage, I had counted as loss some things that had previously provided me with value.  I had just left my career at the hospital to become a missionary with college students.  My good salary, condominium on Puget Sound and single life in the city had been traded in for poverty wages, a tiny apartment and life in a small college town in Oregon.  I was probably feeling a little sorry for myself at this point.  I was certainly feeling at least a little self-righteous about my “sacrifice.”   I confess that I was probably just a little proud to display my beautiful calligraphy.  It drew attention to all that I had given up.  It made me seem more holy.
Two funny things happened along the way.  First, I had the time of my life in campus ministry.  It was rewarding and challenging and life-giving and an absolute blast.  The sacrifice paled in comparison with the delight of ministering to and with bright, questioning, sincere, searching students.  The joys far outweighed the difficulties and God provided for me more than I could ask or imagine.
The second funny thing that happened is that my framed calligraphy disappeared from my wall.  It ended up in a box, moving with me from place to place and job to job.  Because it was in storage, it wasn’t destroyed in the fire that burned down my office.  Because it was in an already packed box, it was one of the last things left unpacked here in our new home in Seattle after everything had gone up on the walls.
Which is how it came to be one of the few pieces of art available to decorate the walls of my office here at St. Luke’s.  I put it up a year ago and even though it’s a little faded, it still has the power to move and convict me.
This week I was being interviewed by a wonderful young man who is a member of our sister church, Pangea, and a first-year Master of Divinity student at Seattle Pacific University.  He has a project due next week on how the minister’s Christology (their theology of who Jesus is) and their denomination affect their understanding of God and humanity.  Of course he procrastinated and needed to get 5 interviews done in two days so I agreed to meet him early one morning in my office.

He asked me about my cultural context.  And of course I’m privileged.  I’m a white American.  I grew up in a middle class home.  I’ve had a good education and good employment.  As far as a career in the church goes, I’ve done fairly well.  Then he asked me how that context relates to my current ministry here.  I looked up at the wall and noticed the calligraphy.  And I was once more convicted.

Nothing I have achieved or has been given to me is enough.  This context is not the best and truest definition of who I am.   This is not what gives me or anyone else value.  What really matters is that Jesus has called you and me by name and that each one of us is the beloved child of God.  Everything else will pass away but by the power of Christ’s resurrection, we are all united in God.
Like Paul I really do “count it all as loss and rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Please hear me, this is not really about me but about every one of us.  We can all find some reason for boasting.  We can all just as easily find some reason for self-denigration, for self-hatred and insecurity and self-doubt.  On my best days I may not struggle with envy and selfish ambition and competition and comparison but most of the time, like everyone else, I measure myself by my accomplishments and status.  And on my worst days when there is true suffering involved in following Jesus, when it’s difficult to turn the other cheek or to give generously or to forgive others then I certainly have no desire to join Paul in the “sharing of Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
These verses are not candy-coated.  They point to suffering, loss and death.  They bring us directly to the Passion of Christ as we near the experience of Holy Week.  They are alive with struggle and strain and a pressing desire to experience more of Christ, more of new life, more of the depth of what is really real and truly true.  This is not religious righteousness that we can somehow obtain by being good and obedient.  It is not a happy state of prosperity conferred on those who pray right or believe right or think right.
It is not a relationship with God where anyone has any advantage of any kind whether it be birth or righteousness or status or a clear conscience.  We are all at the feet of Jesus, dependent alone on his grace and mercy and carried forward by the power of his Spirit.
As we come to Holy Week and Easter we are given the example of Mary who knelt at his feet and poured out all that was of value on him.  She gives her most precious gift of oil, but also her devotion, her love, her very self.  She gives no thought to status or propriety or even the cost of the oil she anoints him with.  She counts all that as rubbish compared with the value of knowing Jesus and of being in relationship with Him.
She foreshadows too Jesus’ act of love and humble service when he washes his disciples feet in the coming week.  It’s crazy.  It’s awkward.  It’s uncomfortable.  Few of us want to be on the receiving end of such over the top love and devotion.  Many of us would rather earn our way, stay strong, and demonstrate that we can do it on our own.  We can’t face the shame of our own poverty or the chance that we might really be seen for who we are.  Mary’s strength is in her vulnerability and Jesus praises and loves her for it.
Some of you remember Mr. Rogers and his TV show for children.  I didn’t see most of it since we never had a TV so I was interested to hear an interview with a recurring character on the show, Officer Clemmons.  It turns out that he was the first regular African American character on the show.  Fred Rogers wanted him to be a policeman but he argued that choice.  Francois Clemmons grew up in a neighborhood where the police were not to be trusted and had used fire hoses and dogs to counteract the civil rights protests of the day.
But Mr. Rogers thought it would be a good idea and they began to work together.  It was a time of racial tension (when has there not been?).  On one show Mr. Rogers is cooling his feet in a kiddie pool of water.  He invites Officer Clemmons to join him and the camera focuses on their four feet, two black and two white in a common pool.   You have to remember that some public pools were still segregated at the time.
They converse and sing a little song about the many ways to show love and then it’s time for Officer Clemmons to get back to work.  He starts to lift his foot out of the water and Mr. Rogers reaches for a towel.  Instead of drying his own feet, Mr. Rogers begins to dry the feet of Officer Clemmons.  Francois is still talking about that moment decades later.  It was a small but profound moment on public television and a big moment in Francois’ life.
Remember that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister.  He was also a true Christian.  He knew exactly what he was doing when he participated in a joint foot washing with his African American colleague and friend.
Two things I’ve learned along the way. Counting as loss all the things that seem to give us value may be foolish in the world, but it’s deep wisdom. In God’s economy there is so much more to gain – new life, new companions on the journey, a deeper sense of the intrinsic worth and dignity of every person and hope that holds us through all the changes and chances of life.
And letting go of all those external things which define and categorize us leaves us free to fully embrace all the joy and wonder God has for us. You never know what might happen. You never know who God will put in your life. You never know how you will be called to love and serve for the joy set before you. As Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers sang together, “There are many ways to say I love you.”

I love you!

Canon Britt

Sermon, February 28, 2016, 3rd Sunday of LentIn the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit+ Today’s readings start with the infamous burning bush and end with a fig tree that may or may not have ever produced any fruit. There’s nothing like plants to bring us out of winter and into spring! Our own “burning bush” is starting to bud just outside the main doors here at the church. Both literally and figuratively that is… Just as God called out to Moses from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses!” do we not also hear God’s Holy Spirit calling out to us, “St. Luke’s, St. Luke’s!” “Sara, Sara!” … “I have observed the misery of my people…; I have heard their cry on the account of homelessness, violence, addiction and systematic racism… Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them…, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Starbucks, the Boeings, the Amazonians, the Microsofts, the Costcos, and the Nordstroms. The cry of the Seattlites has now come to me; So come, I will send YOU to bring my people, out of … despair.” Do we not hear that call every day here at St. Luke’s? I know I do. But how do we respond? Do we say “Here I am,” do we cover our faces out of fear, do we question God “who am I that I should” be sent? or even “who are you” God? But God responds to each the same way, “I am who I am. The God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent you. When God says “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” what we should hear is “I am the God, who hears the cry of his people and does not just sit and observe, but over and over again is the one who takes action, who intervenes.” God intervenes through the faithful. And most importantly, God said, “I will be with you.” I say most importantly, because I won’t speak for you, but I find it extremely overwhelming to think of participating in… the call of God ALONE. I too see God’s people crying out… I don’t have to look any further than inside of this room, or outside my doorstep to see people who could use a little milk and honey. But the temptation to stay in the comfort of my life, the tending of a flock as Moses did, would be too hard to resist if it wasn’t for the promise that God will be with me. God will be with YOU! God will be with me. I have to repent though. I have to stop and take notice of the burning bush, stop and turn my focus from myself and realign it to God, to the path to which I am being called. I can’t move forward into God’s call if I am still focused on myself. Which is where today’s Gospel comes in. It might be hard to see the connection between the first part of today’s gospel and the parable at the end. But they both have to do with the need to repent. At the start, Jesus is being told by his disciples that a group of Galileans has been killed in the temple while offering sacrifices, by order of Pilate. They seem to be asking the age-old question, the question of why do horrible, tragic things happen to God’s faithful, if God intervenes? Is it a punishment sent from God for our sins? Jesus tells us NO. God does not punish us for our sins like that. God does not send tyrants to kill those who have sinned; God does not throw down towers on those who have sinned. God does not send an armed man into a school to kill children because they have sinned. God does not send hurricanes or earthquakes to wipe out thousands of sinners. Jesus tells us NO! These tragedies are not God’s punishment. They are just part of life in THIS world. We all face tragedy in our lives. It is not punishment for our sins, yet tragedy can be the result of sin; the sins of our own or those of others. Thus, Jesus warns them and us that we too are at risk of perishing; our piety and righteousness will not protect us. Our only salvation is repentance. By repenting and turning from sin we can help prevent tragedy. Repent, from these earthly ways to God’s ways. Turning away from sin. Turning away from the sins that ARE at fault for the tragedies of this life. Turning away from the destruction of God’s creation. Turning away from the oppression of God’s people. Turning away from being blind to other’s suffering. Turning back to God. Repentance. Repentance is the first step to answering God’s call. Repentance is digging around and aerating the soil of the barren fig tree. Repentance is the laying of manure at the roots of the barren fig tree. Too often, people hear the parable of the barren fig tree and think that God is the landowner wanting to cut it/us down, with Jesus the Gardener negotiating for another year. But I think the landowner could be society, ready to tear down anything that isn’t productive. The gardener is ourselves and the fig tree our actions. We are the ones who have to determine if our actions will be productive. We are the ones who have to decide if we are going to continue on our same paths and let our actions remain barren or if they can be fed by God’s grace and mercy through repentance, to produce fruit. We need to turn toward God in order to produce fruit, we need to turn toward God in order that others can produce fruit. Help aerate the dark earth around the fig tree, allow light to shine on injustice, oppression, violence and sinfulness so that the world will be more fruitful with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And less likely to be cut down by violence, racism, natural disasters, oppression and injustice… Let us hear God’s voice calling out to us, just as Moses did, repent and go out with the assurance that God is with us.

Today’s readings start with the infamous burning bush and end with a fig tree that may or may not have ever produced any fruit.  There’s nothing like plants to bring us out of winter and into spring!  Our own “burning bush” is starting to bud just outside the main doors here at the church.  Both literally and figuratively that is.

Just as God called out to Moses from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses!” do we not also hear God’s Holy Spirit calling out to us, “St. Luke’s, St. Luke’s!” “Sara, Sara!”

“I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry on the account of homelessness, violence, addiction and systematic racism. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Starbucks, the Boeings, the Amazonians, the Microsofts, the Costcos, and the Nordstroms. The cry of the Seattlites has now come to me.  So come, I will send YOU to bring my people, out of despair.”

Do we not hear that call every day here at St. Luke’s?

I know I do.  But how do we respond?  Do we say “Here I am?” Do we cover our faces out of fear? Do we question God “Who am I that I should” be sent, or even “who are you” God?  But God responds to each the same way, “I am who I am. The God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent you.”

When God says “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” what we should hear is “I am the God, who hears the cry of his people and does not just sit and observe, but over and over again is the one who takes action, who intervenes.” God intervenes through the faithful.

And most importantly, God said, “I will be with you.”

I say most importantly, because I won’t speak for you, but I find it extremely overwhelming to think of participating in the call of God alone.

I too see God’s people crying out. I don’t have to look any further than inside of this room, or outside my doorstep to see people who could use a little milk and honey.  But the temptation to stay in the comfort of my life, the tending of a flock as Moses did, would be too hard to resist if it wasn’t for the promise that God will be with me.

God will be with you! God will be with me.

I have to repent though.  I have to stop and take notice of the burning bush, stop and  turn my focus from myself and realign it to God, to the path to which I am being called.

I can’t move forward into God’s call if I am still focused on myself.

Which is where today’s Gospel comes in.

It might be hard to see the connection between the first part of today’s gospel and the parable at the end.  But they both have to do with the need to repent.

At the start, Jesus is being told by his disciples that a group of Galileans has been killed in the temple while offering sacrifices, by order of Pilate.  They seem to be asking the age-old question, the question of why do horrible, tragic things happen to God’s faithful, if God intervenes?  Is it a punishment sent from God for our sins? Jesus tells us, “No!”

God does not punish us for our sins like that.

God does not send tyrants to kill those who have sinned. God does not throw down towers on those who have sinned. God does not send an armed man into a school to kill children because they have sinned.  God does not send hurricanes or earthquakes to wipe out thousands of sinners.  Jesus tells us, “No!” These tragedies are not God’s punishment.  They are just part of life in this world.  We all face tragedy in our lives.  It is not punishment for our sins, yet tragedy can be the result of sin, our own sins or those of others.

Thus, Jesus warns them and us that we too are at risk of perishing. Our piety and righteousness will not protect us.  Our only salvation is repentance.  By repenting and turning from sin we can help prevent tragedy.  Repent from these earthly ways to God’s ways.

Turning away from sin.

Turning away from the sins that ARE at fault for the tragedies of this life.

Turning away from the destruction of God’s creation.

Turning away from the oppression of God’s people.

Turning away from being blind to others’ suffering.

Turning back to God.

Repentance.

Repentance is the first step to answering God’s call.

Repentance is digging around and aerating the soil of the barren fig tree.

Repentance is the laying of manure at the roots of the barren fig tree.

Too often, people hear the parable of the barren fig tree and think that God is the landowner wanting to cut it/us down, with Jesus the Gardener negotiating for another year.  But I think the landowner could be society, ready to tear down anything that isn’t productive.  The gardener is ourselves, and the fig tree our actions.  We are the ones who have to determine if our actions will be productive.  We are the ones who have to decide if we are going to continue on our same paths and let our actions remain barren, or if they can be fed by God’s grace and mercy through repentance to produce fruit.

We need to turn toward God in order to produce fruit. We need to turn toward God in order that others can produce fruit.

Help aerate the dark earth around the fig tree, allow light to shine on injustice, oppression, violence and sinfulness so that the world will be more fruitful with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And less likely to be cut down by violence, racism, natural disasters, oppression and injustice.

Let us hear God’s voice calling out to us, just as Moses did. Repent and go out with the assurance that God is with us.

Sara Bates, Ministry Intern

Sermon February 21, 2016 2nd Sunday of Lent

I once heard a wedding sermon that made a big deal out of the difference between a contract and a covenant.  I guess the young preacher was acutely aware that the couple were both just finishing law school!

Like that couple, most of us are more familiar with contracts than with covenants.  We enter into them all the time, usually by pressing “agree” online after not reading the 3 pages of terms for the service we’ve signed up for!  We have employment contracts and real estate contracts and service provider contracts.  They define and delineate our lives.

We have contracts in church too.  We share our buildings with a number of different groups and ministries.  Each one enters into a contract with us and our larger body, the Diocese.  When we were considering partnering with our sister church, Pangea, we negotiated a contract, got the proper documents in order and signed on the dotted line.  But we did something in addition to the contract.

We wanted to develop guidelines about how we would relate to one another. We knew that the relationship could be life-giving and precious or it could become frustrating and conflicted.  So we decided to enter into a covenant with one another.

We shared what was important to us and what values would guide our partnership.  Each partner promised to be available to the other to work out the normal tensions that come up when you’re sharing space.  We asked hard questions and listened deeply.  And we agreed to adjust the covenant as needs or situations changed.

We rarely look at the contract.  Usually the relationship is already in deep trouble if you have to start quoting the fine print.  Instead we check in with one another regularly and remind ourselves of what matters most to the other by recalling what we have promised in our covenant.

God is a covenant-making deity.  From the very beginning God makes promises to the people he has created and loves so dearly.  His covenant with Abram and Sarai is dramatic. In an ancient ritual only documented one other time in the Bible, God literally “cuts a covenant” with Abram, sealing his promise forever in blood and with an oath that only death can sever.  God asks Abram to cut three animals in half, laying them out on the ground.

All day Abram sits beside their carcasses, chasing off the vultures and carrion birds, smelling the increasing decay as he contemplates the mysterious interiors of what were once living beings.  Finally he swoons in sleep, filled with anxiety and foreboding.  In the deep darkness of the night, when nothing is visible, a blazing fire, the fire of God appears and passes between the halves of the animals, and God makes a solemn oath to be faithful to his promise.

How do we moderns make sense of this ancient rite?  The closest we come to this experience is when two children prick their thumbs and mingle their blood in the oath of blood brothers, thereby sealing a promise to be faithful to each other no matter what.  How can God’s presence in fire passing through dismembered animals symbolize God’s willingness to be bound to Abram and to share his fate?

We may not understand it but Abram and his ancestors certainly did.  These signs and symbols carried deep meaning for them. The promises God makes to give them both land and descendants carries Abram and Sarai through a long journey, through years of barrenness and doubt and into the fulfillment of the promise beyond their wildest imaginings.  God makes the covenant and keeps it even when Abram loses hope and tries to get an heir from his concubine.  God remains faithful even when an elderly Sarai scoffs when the angel of God gives her the news that she is to bear a child.

God makes covenants with Noah, Moses, Abraham, David and they all have the same thing in common.  In every case the human partner lets down their end.  Noah gets drunk.  Moses’s brother Aaron helps the people build a golden idol. Abraham loses trust in God and tries to pass Sarah off as his sister.  David commits adultery and murder.  We humans are fickle and weak and forgetful.  We get impatient and angry and depressed.  We let ourselves and our loved ones down.  And over and over again, we let God down.

But here’s the difference.  God remains faithful.  God keeps promises.  God renegotiates.  God never gives up and is willing to go to any lengths to be in relationship with us.  God’s ultimate covenant comes to us in Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the one who sees us frightened and scattered and helpless like little chicks.  He knows the ways we have forsaken God and gotten lost and afraid.  And like a mother hen, he longs to draw us back to God and to protect us.

Jesus makes the ultimate covenant with us in his own blood.  He offers all for the sake of a real and lasting relationship with hurting and damaged humanity.  He can transform our shame and humiliation, our failures and wounds.  It is by his grace and glory that we are made new, forgiven, redeemed, and claimed as God’s beloved.  The covenant God makes with us is not dependent on our ability to keep its terms.  It depends solely on God’s power, faithfulness and mercy.

To mark God’s grace and the power of God’s love we participate in sacraments–outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace.  We have our rituals, our signs and symbols of the covenant.  The two primary ones for Christians are baptism and Eucharist; the bath and the table; water, bread and wine.  And they can be just as strange and shocking as Abram’s animal sacrifices.

To be immersed in the waters of baptism is to be called God’s beloved. Baptism confers a heavenly citizenship.  In baptism we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus and our lives are linked to him in a profound way.  We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

At baptism we enter into a covenant with God.  It’s not dependent on us.  We don’t have to have full comprehension of what it means to be God’s beloved.  We don’t have to be at the age of reason.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to wait until we’re so close to death that we aren’t capable of committing any more sins so we can die “in a state of grace.”  We don’t have to be able to keep up our end of the bargain.  We don’t even have to have perfect faith or constant belief.

Yes, there are promises we make or are made on our behalf when we are baptized.  They are important touchstones for how we want to be in relationship with God and with others.  They remind us what it means to live as a beloved child.  They bring us back to our better selves when we have strayed.  And we will stray.  And when we do the Good Shepherd of the sheep will seek us out and call us back to safety and to our best and truest selves.

This Lent many of us are making a “Spiritual Pilgrimage” by exploring the promises in the baptismal covenant.  It is an opportunity to enter more deeply into the covenant God makes with us, to live into who God longs for us to be.  We are guaranteed to mess it up, to make mistakes, to forget what we intended to do or be.  Yet God in Christ is faithful.  God never abandons us or forgets the promise God has made to be with us even to the end.

This is a covenant you can count on.

 

With faith, hope and love,

Canon Britt Olson

Sermon, January 24, 2016, 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Well it’s the end of January and we’ve had the State of the Union speech, the State of the State speech, the Golden Globe awards, the best of 2015 in music, art and dining and we’re looking forward to the Super Bowl (sort of) and the Oscars (with reservations).

It must be time for that church tradition called the Annual Meeting.  It’s a canonical requirement and usually takes place in January or February.  It’s the time when we elect people to church offices, approve a budget and fulfill our duties as an organized congregation within the Episcopal Church.

Not all Annual Meetings are equal.  In fact, rarely are things at St. Luke’s regular or normal, and 2015 was no exception.  For one thing, St. Luke’s said “farewell” to your Vicar and “hello” to a new Priest-in-charge.  A change in clergy leadership is a big event in the life of any congregation.  Along with the change from a full-time priest to a ¾ time priest, St. Luke’s saw the departure of all of its staff at the end of 2014.  For a small congregation that is a dramatic transition.

This wasn’t the first time that St. Luke’s went through a major change in personnel.  At the end of 2010 the priest and church leadership along with a majority of the members voted to leave St. Luke’s and the Episcopal Church.

Many of the people who had been responsible for the work and ministry here were suddenly gone.  Their financial contributions left with them.  Less than 20 people were left to manage the church, its programs and ministries, its buildings and property.  I can only imagine what a challenge that presented for everyone who was involved.

What I do know is the challenge St. Luke’s faced this year with reduced staff, shaky finances and buildings and property showing years of deferred maintenance.  At the beginning of 2015 there was just $6,000 in the bank and the power company was threatening to turn off the lights.  There was also a faithful remnant who continued to gather for worship and to serve the neediest in our community.  There was also the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus and the presence of the living God.

Amazing things are possible when faithful Christians who know themselves to be part of the Body of Christ contribute towards the building up of the body.  It takes incredible commitment to believe that we are ALL called into this body; that we cannot say to anyone “you do not belong,” or, “we have no need of you.”  It takes the transforming power of love to recognize that all people, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, women or men, gay or straight, rich or poor, housed or homeless, of every race and nation and background are made one in Christ.

We share the same Spirit of God.  We are baptized into the one Body.  We eat from the same table and drink from one cup.  We are members one of another and even when we make a break or set up barriers to try and exclude some or leave this fellowship, by the power of the risen Christ we still belong to God and to one another.

The Apostle Paul knew how easy it is to get crossways with one another and to shame and exclude our brothers and sisters in Christ.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  It’s still happening.  Just this past week the leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion voted to censure the Episcopal Church for our affirmation of same-sex marriage.  In his response, our newly elected Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry said:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.  While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today:  All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”

We really do need each other.  We need every gift from every person.  Each one is unique and valuable.  The transformation that has taken place at St. Luke’s this past year is because each one in some way has contributed to the building up of the body, to our communal and collective ministry in this place.  Clergy come and go.  But the call to God’s faithful people is to continue caring for one another, continue rejoicing with those who rejoice, suffering with those who suffer.

Over the course of my ministry I have worked with over 140 churches.  Each one has unique challenges and opportunities.  Each has a unique history and style.  They come in all different shapes and sizes.  But the ones that excite me most and bring the greatest joy are those who can answer the questions: “Why are you here?  What is your purpose?  What is your mission and calling?”

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had an opportunity to make his purpose and calling clear.  He had just emerged from his wilderness time alone in the desert.  He was filled up with the Spirit and ready to engage his ministry.  He started from home, back in Nazareth where he knew the people and they knew him.  He started by choosing a passage from Scripture that summed up for him the history of God’s purposes for the people, a calling that had come directly to him and filled him with energy and initiative.

That morning in his home synagogue Jesus gave his keynote address, he cast his vision for God’s Kingdom, he proclaimed his mission and announced his calling.  It was bold and exciting and radical.  It caught everyone’s attention and it got him in trouble too.  He was proclaiming God’s call in a way that made it clear that he would be turning everything upside down.  He said:

·      The poor will be on the receiving end of the very best news.

·      The ones who are captive in jail or in situations that keep them bound up are freed.

·      The blind see.

·      The lowest and most downtrodden are lifted up.

·      The hungry are fed.

·      The despised are God’s beloved children.

This church has not lost sight of its purpose and calling even in the most difficult circumstances.  For 30 years St. Luke’s has been feeding the most vulnerable, the hungry and homeless in our neighborhood.  Over the course of the past year the numbers have increased by over 30%.  It’s a challenge.  Volunteers have been overwhelmed, resources stretched and the plumbing and facilities have broken down numerous times.  But even in the most difficult months when there was hardly any money, you fed everyone and you continued to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all by your words and actions here.

When the congregation declined and rooms were no longer needed, St. Luke’s partnered with SHARE to open a shelter on the property.  When the Bridge needed a new location to open its clothing bank along with a drop-in center to provide resources and counseling for people on the street, St. Luke’s entered into partnership with Quest Church to host it here.  When members and neighbors were tired of looking at the vacant lot owned by the church on 58th Street, they got together to clear it and to plant the SLUG (St. Luke’s Urban Garden) so that fresh food and neighborliness might grow on this property.

In 2015 we opened up the cottages to ministry interns who are training and working in theology and psychology.  That partnership continues to bear fruit.  We cleared out our old Sunday School rooms and entered a partnership with the Suzuki Institute, who teach music in order to develop the whole life and character of the children they mentor.  Recently we started a relationship with a new church plant in the Mennonite tradition.  Pangea is already a beloved sister congregation and we are sharing more than just space as we seek to love God and our neighbor in this place.

The hungry are fed.  The poor receive good news.  Those without homes find shelter.  The naked are clothed.  Prisoners are visited.   The wasteland produces food and beauty.  The sound of music fills the building.  These are important reasons why St. Luke’s exists and continues to fulfill its purpose.

None of this is possible without the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.  Without a deep connection to the divine source through prayer and worship, we would simply be a social service agency facing intractable societal problems.  The heart of this calling is lived out and empowered through our weekly gathering to encounter the risen Christ in word and sacrament.  The regular meeting of the Prayer Ministry team is at the center of all we do.  Our ongoing encounter with Jesus in Scripture at the weekly Bible Conversation on Sundays provides strength and direction.

As St. Luke’s moves forward into 2016, I don’t have to preach to you about developing a mission statement or a purpose.  Every week that we read the words of Jesus in the gospel, our mission and purpose is defined.

Instead our challenge will be to find ways to invite others into a deeper relationship with God in Christ.  Our Spiritual Pilgrimage on the six Sundays of Lent will be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to explore and renew their faith.  The increased presence of families with children creates opportunities to pass the transforming love of God on to the next generation.  Our greater involvement in the neighborhood through Art Walk, the Ballard Speaker Series and partnership with neighborhood groups opens up the opportunity to testify to a life-changing relationship with Jesus.

We are one Body in Christ, and every member is an essential member.  We have a calling as God’s people in our own time and place to follow Jesus and to love God and our neighbor.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.  Amen.

With faith, hope and love,

Canon Britt

December 24. 2015 – Christmas Eve

At Christmas God came into the neighborhood.  The God who created light out of darkness, who flung stars and planets across the universe, who poured out the thunderous seas and shaped the earth’s beauty became present in the intimacy of birth, in the humility of the manger.
The Christmas crèche is one way we attempt to approach the mystery of Emmanuel – God with us.  We set up a Nativity scene.  Do you have a favorite one?  I purchased mine on a trip to Bethlehem in the year 2000.  It is hand carved out of olive wood.  It was purchased in haste.  The second Intifada had recently begun and to get into Bethlehem we had to take a back way, leave our bus, crawl over a barrier of broken concrete and enter a town that had been deserted by tourists.  Only one shop was open and our guide told us there could be no time for shopping, it was too dangerous.  A Lutheran pastor friend and I worked out a way that allowed me to enter the shop on the way to the Church of the Nativity to choose a crèche and then as we came back he covered for me as I hurried in, paid for the figures and got back to the group.

The shopkeepers were desperate.  The source of their income and support was tourism and it had completely dried up with the violence and danger of the conflict.  Although it’s expected that a buyer will haggle and negotiate the price, there was no time and my heart wasn’t in it.  But there was a bonus for me.  When I unpacked the Nativity set I found an extra figure.  It was made by a different carver and was probably meant to be Joseph.  But I already had a lovely, matching Mary and Joseph so he was designated as the innkeeper.  Every year I set up this crèche I remember the people of Palestine and all those who walk in darkness and the shadow of death.
The crèche shows us who was in the neighborhood when love came to town as the baby Jesus.  Of course there were Mary and Joseph, so poor and exhausted, so far from home and support that they took what little shelter they could find.  They were first-time parents full of hope and anxiety, uprooted and at risk because of policies that showed little concern for their vulnerability.  Homeless in Bethlehem, they made a nest in the stable and kept themselves and their newborn alive through their love and courage.

There was that innkeeper.  He wasn’t a Mother Teresa or even a Bill Gates but he did at least open his outbuilding to the struggling couple.  He did what he thought he could that night and it was enough to make room for love to be born.
There were those great working class figures, the shepherds.  Their hands weren’t clean; and they didn’t smell great; and they weren’t accepted in polite company.  While others were warm and resting, they were working, keeping vigilant, laboring while everyone else slept or celebrated.  When love comes to town, the first to hear about it are not the emperors or governors but the ones who sat under the stars and had ears to hear the hope proclaimed by heavenly voices.
There are also the magi or kings, those intelligent, learned and risk-taking foreigners who are making their way to find the child whom God and their studies has revealed to them.  In my house the kings and their camels spend a few weeks getting closer and closer to the crèche but don’t actually arrive until January 6 which is the 12th day of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany.  They bring precious and valuable gifts that neither the parents nor the shepherds can afford.  Their response to the promise of this child of peace is generosity.

Finally, there are those who hear this good news through the testimony of their friends and neighbors.  The nativity scene is always open to the viewer, drawing us into the mystery and making us a part of the story.  It is not just to that neighborhood in Bethlehem, but to every neighborhood that God comes.
God comes to the pregnant mothers and expectant fathers, those nervous first parents who receive the gift of the child.  God comes to the rough and hard-working men and women who labor while others sleep, who protect us and prepare all that we need, often behind the scenes and whose hearts and ears are open to receive the message.  God comes to the innkeepers and shopkeepers and residents and community leaders and business folk who open a place for the babe to be born.
God comes to the thought leaders and innovators, to those with riches to share and power to make change.  God turns their lives upside down and sets them on paths they might never have expected to encounter truth and love in a most unlikely source.
God has come to this neighborhood.  We can see him in the faces of our neighbors, all of our neighbors. We experience him in the love we share with one another.  As one amazing Christian wrote before he was condemned and executed in a Nazi prison, “Jesus stands at the door knocking.  In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help.  He confronts you in every person that you meet.  As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.  That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the [Christmas] Advent message.  Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God enters our world as a displaced person, a refugee, one without a home.  God’s love comes to the wealthy, the working poor, the educated classes, the unemployed.  God draws near to those who can’t sleep, the parents of young children, those who keep vigil with the ill and dying, the ones pulling the night shift.
When love comes to the neighborhood things change.  Those with homes and those without shelter sit down to a meal together.  Those with two coats give one away.  Those who are burdened and overwhelmed by the demands of jobs and the care of possessions have a moment of peace and rest.  Children and the vulnerable show the way to the learned and esteemed.  We let go of our fear and anxiety and discover new hope in the birth of the babe.  We find the strength and courage to go on for another day.
This day and every day God comes to our neighborhood, to Ballard and Shoreline and the Share Shelter; to West Seattle and South Lake Union and the University District, to Wenatchee and Portland and Washington DC; to Cairo and Berlin and Jerusalem.  The open crèche is an invitation to each one of us to join the great drama of God’s love for the world.
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord, love come down at Christmas.  Amen.

 

With faith, hope and love,

Canon Britt

November 22, 2015 – Last Sunday in Pentecost

Today is a special day here at St. Luke’s.  Today we finally finish the season of Pentecost, which began way back in June.  Because this is the last day of the church year, it is the culmination of the entire story of Jesus from his birth to his death, and it proclaims his position as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We call this day the Feast of Christ the King.  But Jesus was never a king in the way we usually understand the word.  In fact, we probably don’t have a strong positive reaction to the word, “King.”  For one thing, we citizens of the United States have been very clear that we do not need or want an earthly king.  We have fought numerous wars to establish our independence and to protect our freedoms.  We have committed our men and women of the armed services to the defeat of dictators, potentates and tyrants who would use and abuse their own populace for self-interest and greed.

None of us is interested in kowtowing to an all-powerful human monarch, and yet we have our kings in America in varying degrees of worthiness.  We’ve got our own political dynasties. We still talk about the time when Kennedy was president as Camelot.  JFK with all his human weaknesses represented for many a sort of modern day King Arthur.  Remember how we refer to Elvis?  The basketball team in Sacramento is called the Kings.  Then there is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.  We make kings out of athletes, musicians and politicians, but none of us would ever want to swear absolute allegiance to these flawed human beings.

What do we mean when we refer to Jesus as King?  We call the cross which has an image of the risen Christ on it the Christus Rex, from the Latin, meaning Christ the King.  It shows Jesus in his resurrected form with a crown upon his head.  The Christus Rex proclaims that Jesus is King because he has gone through death and is gloriously alive in the Kingdom of Heaven.  He still bears the nail holes, reminders of his suffering, but he wears the crown of triumph.

But that is not the usual view of kingship.  Pilate was the Roman procurator, responsible for ruling the Jewish population of Judea from 26-36 A.D.  He knew exactly what being a King meant.  When he heard Jesus referred to as the King of the Judeans, the Jewish people living around Jerusalem, he knew he was hearing a threat to his power and influence.  There can only be one temporal ruler, and Pilate was skilled enough to make sure that ruler would be him.  He wielded power through intimidation and fear and force.  He had soldiers at his command and wasn’t afraid to use them to accomplish his purposes.  He held the power of life and death for the Jewish citizens under his control.

But he didn’t hold that power over Jesus.  Jesus could not be intimidated or threatened by Pilate.  He knew of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  This kingdom is not geographical or political or time-bound.  It is the realm where God’s love, mercy and justice prevail.  It exists when a person so loves and follows God that their final security and trust is in God alone.  For that reason, the Kingdom is best seen in the life of Jesus.  But it is also present in relationships between people where real love and compassion create connections that are true and lasting.  Love is at the heart of God’s kingdom–a love that lasts forever, a love that not even death can destroy.

When we are baptized, it symbolizes a new allegiance for us.  We have been transferred into God’s Kingdom.  Our obedience is to another master—not to a tyrant or a flawed human being–but to Christ the Good Shepherd who promises to lead and guide us through this life and to carry us into the life that is to come.  Jesus the King is the servant of all.

Instead of demanding from others, he gives himself freely and completely, even unto death.  Instead of exalting himself, he lifts up the weak and vulnerable, the suffering and sorrowful.  Instead of manipulating others for his own purposes, Jesus is a servant to the truth and in him we can honestly be ourselves.  He reminds us that the first will be last and the last will be first.  He went through death for our sake, and is the firstborn of the dead so that we might know eternal life.

For while we are alive, we exist in the now and the not yet.  We can imagine and catch glimpses of what God’s kingdom is, but much of our world is in conflict with that reality.  It is difficult to follow Christ’s example of compassion and forgiveness.  It’s hard to give up our own desires in order to serve and care for others.  We constantly strive and then fail to be true followers of Jesus.

The world is filled with figures who want to establish their own rule through violence, force, manipulation and lies.  There are those who are hungry for power and influence and will stop at nothing to gain it.  There are those whose followers are fighting and killing in order to destabilize and terrorize whole populations.  Others tell untruths so that they can promote their own version of reality and gain political influence.  There are many who would be king.  Their rule will always be temporal and temporary.  Every human ruler will die or be deposed.

When I walked the Camino through northern Spain this September, I visited a number of glorious cathedral churches.  Often the altar was dwarfed by an elaborate set of carvings and sculptures that rose from the floor to nearly the ceiling and covered the entire space behind the chancel.  Amazingly, every surface would be covered in real gold and other precious materials.  There were always statues in the niches and the most important ones were directly in the center.  I was surprised to find that a statue of a king or earthly ruler was often featured prominently.  This was probably done to gain favor with the current ruler or because that king had been a patron of that particular congregation.  Money, power and influence have certainly corrupted the church many times.

In response church leaders commissioned sculptures of Jesus sitting on a throne with all the trappings of an earthly king.  This image of a large, imposing figure with a crown, scepter and fine robe is what some think of when they hear the phrase Christ the King.  I don’t think Jesus ever had these competing images for earthly power in mind when he said, “My kingdom is not from this world.”   His example as a servant king who offers himself on behalf of others is what has lasted throughout the centuries and calls us as his followers to listen to his voice.

The challenge is to answer the call in our own lives and our own generation.  Where does our allegiance lie?  Will we serve self or others?  Will we follow Jesus or be led astray by other influences.  Can we offer our own lives sacrificially for the good of others?  What kingdom holds sway over us?  It is our choice.  We can make our lives count so that at the end it will be said of us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

With faith, hope and love,

Canon Britt

November15, 2015

As news of the terrorist attacks on Paris began to spread on Friday and Saturday, my Facebook news feed began to fill up with prayers and support for the city and its inhabitants.  Nearly every message was accompanied by a photo of the Eiffel Tower.  It is the iconic symbol of Paris, and it is usually outlined in twinkly lights as the center of the City of Lights.
But after the attacks the Eiffel Tower went black.  The lights are off.  And so one of the most powerful photo montages I have seen this weekend has a darkened Eiffel Tower in the center surrounded by images of other iconic buildings from around the world which have been lit with the colors of the French flag.  You can see the Tower Bridge in London, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, City Hall in San Francisco and even the new One World Tower in New York City bathed in the blue, white and red colors of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” that are the emblems of the French flag and nation.

One of the most poignant images ties into our gospel reading for this morning.  It is a photo of the Western Wall or the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem which has also taken on the colors of France in solidarity and mourning for the extreme violence that has resulted in so much death, suffering, fear and grief.  The Western Wall is all that remains of one of the most beautiful and significant buildings in the world, the Jewish Temple.
This is the same Temple that Jesus and his disciples are visiting in Jerusalem during the Festival of the Passover in the last week of his life.  The disciples are simple fisherman from Galilee.  The Temple is the largest and most dramatic building they have ever seen, fashioned from huge blocks of marble cut into enormous squares.  It was covered in gold and ornamented with the finest materials gathered from all over the known world.  At the Passover Jews from every part of the known world made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to pray in the Temple and to offer their sacrifices and offerings.
The temple was the center of Jewish worship and identity.  It was the symbol of their survival, security and hope.  The disciples were impressed and awed by what they saw.   “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings?” they remarked to Jesus.

It’s then that Jesus begins his prediction and warning of what is to come.  He knows that this amazing edifice will be destroyed.   In just a couple of decades the Temple was torn down forever.  All that remains of that once astonishing building are the stones from the base that make up the Western Wall where people still congregate to pray and mourn in times of deep need and sorrow.  The temple is gone and with it the entire way the people of God oriented their worship and religious identity.
For years people have read Mark, chapter 13 and Jesus’s words about wars, famine and earthquakes as predictions about the end of the world.  But Jesus was also very clear that no one, including him could predict when that would be.  In his words to his beloved friends, Jesus is doing what he always does, loving them to the very end.  He knows that the world as they know it is coming to an end.
The temple will be destroyed and the world turned upside down.  The catalog of the world’s tragedies will continue to cause suffering and disruption.  Jesus grieves in advance for what lies ahead.  He wants them to be prepared.  He cannot protect them from the pain and sorrow of the world.  But he doesn’t want them to be those who lose hope.  He knows that beyond the very worst that they will experience is a new beginning, a new birth, a new life in the Spirit.

It’s not just the temple that will be destroyed.  These words are spoken just four days before Jesus himself is handed over to death.  When his followers experience the horror of his death on the cross, they are devastated.  They are overwhelmed by grief and loss.  They lose hope.  It seems as though death, destruction and evil have won the day.  It feels as though the world is an unsafe place and that Jesus’s teachings of love and forgiveness are eclipsed by the powers of violence and hatred.  It is as if the lights have gone out, and the darkness has taken over.
Have you ever felt that way?  Maybe even this day.  The world can be a difficult and dangerous place.  In addition to the dangers of terrorism and cataclysm we experience our own mini-apocalypses of suffering, grief and loss.  It seems as though our world has been turned upside down.  It may even seem that God is absent or that Jesus doesn’t really care.  Like the disciples we may lose hope and give into the despair and bitterness that fuels a dark and bleak vision of the world.
But this is not the vision that Jesus has of the world.  He is no stranger to the darkness and evil that is very real and present.  But he knows a greater light and a higher power.  He knows that death will not have the last word and that hope will be born anew as God’s love is poured out into the world through suffering and beyond death.
In spite of all human violence and hatred Jesus is true to his mission to love God and love others, even his enemies.  He forgives even from the cross.  He trusts even unto death.  He loves to the end and beyond.  He endures the very worst that humanity is capable of and is transformed by the power of the resurrection from the dead.
And so are his disciples.  They didn’t get it while he was with them.  But they too were transformed by resurrection.  The light of Christ did not go out with the death of Jesus.  It continued to shine in them even in their own darkest hours and death.  They passed on to us who continue in the way of Jesus the strength and courage to endure the very worst of what may come with a resolute hope and trust in the one who will never abandon us.
The writer to the Hebrews encourages us in this way, ” Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

We do not know what that Day may be for us or when it will be.  But Jesus has prepared us.  He has given us his words to encourage and strengthen us in the dark times.  He has placed us in company with others who love him and helps us learn to love one another.  He has given us a mission of love and service to our neighbors who are hurt and suffering.
And he has promised to be with us even unto the end of the age.  He is with us this day in the Body of Christ gathered here and around the globe.  He is with us in the words spoken and the prayers prayed.  He is with us in break broken and wine poured, his very presence poured out in love into our lives that we might go forth with faith and hope and love.  Amen.

With faith, hope and love,

Canon Britt Olson

 

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

Canon Britt Olson