January 24, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

Have you seen the Bernie memes that have been going around since last Wednesday’s Presidential inauguration?  My favorite is Bernie Sanders as Jonah.  He’s sitting alone on his folding chair under a large bush, with his arms crossed and the famous mittens on his hands.  The caption makes it clear that the Assyrians have just repented of their warring, violent deeds, Nineveh is spared destruction and Bernie/Jonah sat down to pout.

It made me laugh out loud, particularly since I knew we would be reading a portion from the book of Jonah this morning.  It also seemed more appropriate to see Bernie placed in a Jewish context, rather than photo-shopped into the many Christian churches of my Facebook friends.

Burt Bernie is no Jonah.  Unlike Jonah, Bernie isn’t a sore loser and has expressed his support for the man who defeated him in the primary.  He even cares for the welfare of those who consider him an enemy.  That’s what’s remarkable about this short book from the Hebrew Scripture.  It’s a story of one who is called by God to offer the opportunity of forgiveness and deliverance to those who are Israel’s greatest enemies.  When the Ninevites listen to God and change their behavior, they are afforded the same grace and opportunity as the chosen people.

The stories of our ancestors of faith can guide and inspire us in our own day.  They call us to a larger view of God’s grace and mercy, even for those we consider our enemies.  They give us strength in times of conflict, war, plague and pestilence.  We recognize our own struggles, doubts, hopes, fears and desires in their songs and laments.  It’s no surprise that we heard echoes in our national rituals this week; in poetry and prayer, speech and song.

My sermon today serves as the Vicar’s address for St. Luke’s Annual Meeting.  As we reflect on the past year and imagine what lies ahead, may the stories of old and the cries of our ancestors help us to find courage and hope for the facing of these days.  May they guide us by the Spirit to move forward into the future with God’s help.  May they play their part in holding our community together through all the changes and chances of this life.

Three major themes from Scripture are important for our time:  Diaspora, Exile and Exodus.  They are the reoccurring experiences for the people of the Book and they are relevant to us in our day.

Diaspora occurs when the people of God are abruptly uprooted from all that is familiar; dispersed from the places where they normally gather; separated from the community in which their rituals and customs provide continuity and security.  They find themselves in unfamiliar territory, confused, anxious, depressed, and fearful.  They long for a return to normal, to their customs, habits and regular haunts.  But instead they are apart, struggling to maintain their identity and routines when everything is strange and different.

The pandemic has dispersed and separated us.  We’ve been worshipping virtually since March 15, 2020.   For 6 months we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist and our subsequent, monthly communion has been offered by appointment only for individuals and household groups.  There have been no hugs, no passing of the peace, no coffee hours, potlucks or communal singing.  We’ve gotten familiar with Morning Prayer and recorded readings and prayers.  Some of us have learned to preach to a camera instead of the gathered assembly.

Some join worship on Sunday mornings via Facebook.  Many watch without a Facebook account or at a different time.  Others participate from their homes in Ballard, W. Seattle, Edmonds, California, Virginia, N. Carolina and even England!  We held Coffee Hour on Zoom.  We finished the Spiritual Pilgrimage all together online and even supported those being confirmed by the bishop on Pentecost.  We baked cookies and delivered them, made phone calls, prayed for one another and did the hard work of confronting racism in relationship to our faith.  We even welcomed a new priest into our midst, who got to know us well in surprising and unexpected ways.

We may have been dispersed, physically separated and uprooted from our place of worship, but we have continued to live into our vision as “God’s beloved community, which is welcoming and diverse, with Christian worship and service at the heart.”  The promise from Scripture is that God will gather the people from the four directions, from far away, even from the ends of the earth.  God has held us together through the strangest challenges we have faced in generations and God will bring us back together.  Although I’m pretty sure many will continue to join us remotely through our ongoing livestream!

Another theme we share with our ancestors in the faith is that of exile.  The division, rancor and even violence we have experienced as a nation and the breakdown of relationships within families, communities and the church have created an experience of alienation and exile for many.  What had once been home, a place of belonging and acceptance is no longer there.  We are cut off from one another, unable not only to agree, but even to remain in relationship.  Many feel persecuted, attacked and unsafe.

It’s a familiar theme in Scripture.  Israel was conquered numerous times and its people removed to a foreign land, without control, power or influence, forced to adapt to customs, practices and beliefs they distrusted and hated.  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they cried.  They wept “by the waters of Babylon.”

The prophets helped them to recall who they were and who they belonged to.  While in Exile, the people’s relationship with God was strengthened and became more intimate.  They could no longer rely on a national, religious identity and customs so they returned to what was essential and eternal.  What lasts is their love for God and for neighbor.  Through the prophet Jeremiah, God instructs the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Whatever the political party in charge, whichever person is president, governor or mayor, whether we have power or not, God asks us to work for the good of all.  We didn’t stop feeding folks in the Edible Hope Kitchen even as the pandemic raged and we were blamed for those who sheltered in the park across the street.  We welcomed help from the National Guard when the administration recognized how essential our services are.  We advocated for the opening of the library restrooms and provided a place for folks to get tested and treated during the hepatitis outbreak.  You provided resources for Safeway gift cards, toiletries and care packages for anyone in need, no questions asked, no ID required, no hurdles to jump.   Soon we hope to build over 100 units of affordable housing on our property in order to address the need for housing for low-wage earners and their households.

We have been called by God to work for the welfare of our community and all who are part of it, not just here in Ballard but around the world.  Much has changed but our mission remains the same.  “We feed people in body, mind and spirit, with the love of God, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Sprit.”

Finally, we are a people of the Exodus.  The story of being delivered from a mighty power, wandering in the wilderness and a new beginning in a land of promise has resonated and inspired refugees in every age; those who have been enslaved, particularly African Americans; and all those who have been delivered from sin and despair by the love of God.

I think of how the Israelites had to leave Egypt in haste with only the clothes on their backs and no time even to let their bread dough rise before baking it.  For months we didn’t even change the pages on the church calendar.  It seems like we were stuck in perpetual Lent with no Easter.  Our programs shut down.  We didn’t need the cleaners to come.  We unplugged the refrigerator and turned off the heat to save electricity.   We had to learn to live in the wilderness.  We’re still waiting.

As hard and strange as it has been, we learned, as did the Israelites, that our relationship to God and to one another is not dependent on a particular place.  No one could have imagined that we would learn how to be church without going to church.  Some of us weren’t sure we could survive financially without passing an offering plate, and yet we finished the year in the black and can present a balanced budget for 2021.  We adapted, learned new things and were blessed by so many members who stepped up to lead and support this congregation in a multitude of ways.

As we look ahead to property development and the 2-3 years when we will be off campus, who knew that we would get so much advance practice in living through an exodus?!   We have weathered this together and I am confident we will make it through the opportunities and challenges of the next years.  The strength of our current and future leadership is astonishing and I certainly hope you will tune into the Annual Meeting today at 11:30 to hear from them and to offer your own appreciation for how we have managed this strange, complex and difficult year.

In today’s gospel, Jesus both commands and invites.  He asks us to leave behind what we know, all that is familiar and secure, in order to follow him.  We will be changed.  We will find ourselves going in a new direction, reaching out to new people, leaving behind some of our old ways.  Things cannot stay the way they are.  We cannot remain as we have been.  God is making all things new.  God is bringing new life, resurrection life even in the midst of death and despair.  We will not be able to return to how things were.  Instead we are called to move forward with God’s help into a future that God has promised.

Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is already here and that by his light, we see light.  Poet Amanda Gorman tells us, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.  If only we’re brave enough to be it.”  (from The Hill We Climb)  There is good news here, good company for the journey, encouragement when the way is tough, and a strong foundation for the future.  I’m grateful for each of you.  I’m grateful for this community of St. Luke’s.  And I’m grateful to God for the chance to step into this next year with faith, hope and love.