August 8, 2021 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

posted in: Sermons 0

          In the 1890’s, when the native population of this area was relatively small, possibly due to raiding from other tribes as well as disease, non-natives began to settle in the area named for Captain Ballard, who got the undesirable land in a lost coin toss with Leary and Burke.  At the same time a small group of Episcopalians began to meet in the Legion Hall on NW 15th for worship.  In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

As Ballard grew and eventually voted to merge with the City of Seattle in 1907, fishing and lumber along with the drinking and gambling of the seasonal workers who were attracted to the area increased.  City officials tried to ban gambling for a day and to insist that if a new saloon was built, there must be a new church built as well.  The area was developing quickly, there was perceived lawlessness and lack of order.  Business owners were concerned.

In 1923, three leading businessmen donated the land for the Episcopal Church.  The name had already been changed to St. Luke’s from St. Stephen’s after the church was closed in 1907 and then restarted in 1910.  The local shingle mill provided the cedar shakes and the large cedar beams to anchor the simple structure.  Members and local contractors completed the work.  Stained glass kits were used for most of the windows.  It was solid, but not showy.  Little St. Luke’s was never as grand as its nearby neighbors, the Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches, nor was it as formal or fancy as its sponsoring church, Trinity Episcopal downtown.  In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

For nearly 40 years attendance went up and down.  Sunday school classes met in the sacristy of the chapel or in the kitchen.  Sometimes the church could afford full-time clergy.  Often they could not.  Frequently there were concerns about the survival of the small congregation.

Then, in 1961, an Episcopal priest, named Dennis Bennett arrived from California needing a job.  He had left a large and very well-to-do congregation in Van Nuys after he had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gift of speaking in tongues.  This was not a popular spiritual practice for most Episcopalians and he left his position as Rector before they could fire him!  The bishop in Western Washington offered him the small, struggling church in Ballard where, at that time, there were 15 parishioners.

Bennett was a faithful and gifted priest.  He was also someone well acquainted with failure and then with sorrow as his young wife became ill and died of cancer.  The experience that he and others had with a very dynamic, life-changing and powerful sense of the Holy Spirit began to catch on and to dovetail with what was happening in American culture in the 1960’s.  Soon people from all walks of life were drawn to the little church on the corner for prayer, healing, recovery and renewal.  Some of those early parishioners are still with us.  Daphne Burkholder, who left New Zealand at age 19 to come to work at St. Luke’s leading a bible study and eventually serving as a prison chaplain was one of those.  Some contact me every now and then to come back for a visit.  Many became clergy, missionaries and leaders in other congregations. 

Soon the congregation outgrew the humble, modest chapel they were meeting in.  Bennett made the cover of Time magazine.  People were coming from all over the country and even all over the world to discover the power and presence of the Spirit at St. Luke’s.  Bennett Hall was built quickly (and cheaply) in 1963 as a parish hall but soon became the main worship space for a congregations of 200-400 people.  The Chapel continued as the place for the early morning, Rite I (traditional language) Eucharist.  This is where you could find Robin Blanchett and her family after her mother suggested she try out St. Luke’s.

The fame of St. Luke’s and of Dennis and his second wife, Rita Bennett began to spread around the world as millions of copies of his book, Nine O’Clock in the Morning, were sold.  Money poured in.  The leaders of the Vestry purchased the duplex and brought in portables for the hundreds of children in Sunday School. 

In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

After Dennis and Rita resigned to lead a global renewal movement the church continued to grow and to grow out of its space.  St. Luke’s started a sister church to the north, St. David of Wales.  In 1988 one of the many prayer groups decided to start a weekly lunch for those who were hungry on the streets of Ballard.  They served a home-cooked meal for anyone who showed up.  Nancy Rogers worked in the kitchen for 32 years until COVID and her recent re-marriage made it difficult to come weekly. 

In the 1990’s St. Luke’s purchased the 3 lots on NW 58th and moved 4 cottages on site to house men who had just been released from prison and needed a home and support to reintegrate into society.  When Victory Outreach prison ministry moved out in 2011 the cottages first housed members of the Seattle Service Corps and now house students from the Seattle School for Theology and Psychology as they complete Master’s degrees in divinity or counseling.  In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

The charismatic renewal movement began to taper off.  Through the centuries there have been cycles of renewal, decline and rebirth in the church and St. Luke’s entered the cycle of decline.  There was also significant stress and tension in the congregation about issues of biblical interpretation and authority.  Efforts to rekindle the flame of excitement didn’t reproduce the growth of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The church voted to split off from the Episcopal denomination at the end of 2010.  A few members decided to remain. 

Those faithful few, again about 15, kept worshipping every Sunday.  They kept feeding people every week.  They opened the empty rooms and buildings for shelter space and for a partnership with Quest Church to house the Bridge Care Center providing clothing and services for those living unsheltered.  They partnered with neighbors to transform the empty, trash-filled lot, filled lot into the beautiful and nurturing SLUG – St. Luke’s Urban Garden.  In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

There were new opportunities.  And there were challenges.  The buildings and grounds were aging and in disrepair.  Finances were very tight.  The congregation didn’t have the resources to continue to support itself.  The bishop and diocese stepped in.  St. Luke’s became a mission, under the management of the diocese and the leadership of the bishop.  It became clear that there was no way to sustain all the buildings and programs with the few members who were present.  Once again, St. Luke’s was facing the possibility of closure.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done with St. Luke’s.  There were still people to feed, still people who needed the life-changing, healing power of God.  There were still faithful followers of Jesus who believe that Jesus is the bread of life, that Jesus offers the cup of salvation in his own loving sacrifice. The power of prayer and of faithful, loving service kept the church, not only alive, but true to its mission.  No matter how difficult things were, there was still the encouragement to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

And so we grew, slowly, one step at a time, welcoming everyone, fully including all people, encouraging folks to join the spiritual pilgrimage, re-starting the weekly prayer meeting, building up our infrastructure and our financial base.  All the while we continue to feed the ever-growing number of people living on the margins of our City’s economic and social structure.  In this place, people receive the bread of life.  They drink the cup of salvation.

Now we have new challenges and opportunities.  COVID along with gentrification and economic inequality have increased the visible misery of many of our vulnerable neighbors.  We’ve experienced death, violence and vandalism on or next to our property.  As a result of neighbor complaints, we face increased taxes and fees that are beyond our means to pay.  Some of our buildings are being held together with duct tape and bailing wire and none are ADA compliant or energy efficient. 

But the Spirit of God is in this place.  There are people who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.  There are faithful souls who continue in worship and loving service.  Ours is a sanctuary, a sacred space where people from all walks of life can come together in community.  Ours is a generative place with bees, babies and growing things.  Even during this past 18 months of virtual worship, we have welcomed new members and cared for one another.  We have continued to reach out to our neighbors with food, service and even vaccines. 

God was with the Israelites in the wilderness providing manna, the daily bread they needed for survival in a time of exodus and homelessness.  God was with Elijah the prophet when he experienced severe persecution from the political and religious leaders so that he was fed and strengthened with a cake baked on hot stones in his wilderness period.  God was with Jesus and the disciples as they fed the 5,000 in a deserted place.  God is in Jesus providing the living bread that comes down from heaven. 

St. Luke’s is entering another time of opportunity and challenge.  We have inherited a beautiful and life-giving land on which plants, animals and people have been nourished, sheltered and found sanctuary.  Although we can’t continue with the buildings that are currently on site, we can develop homes where people from all walks of life and all economic ability can find shelter and security. We can build a new home for the Spirit of God at St. Luke’s.  We can be a community where all are fed in body, mind and spirit.  We can offer Jesus, the bread of life and the cup of salvation for all who are hungry and thirsty.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!

Here you will find food for your soul.  Here you will drink the cup of new life.  Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *