December 5, 2021 – Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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          How fortunate I am to return to St. Luke’s after a 3 month sabbatical and find the perfect words to express my feelings in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

          I left you exhausted, overwhelmed, and discouraged by the ongoing pandemic, the increasing crisis of homelessness, and the distance and divisions in our nation and community.  I needed a break.  In fact, most folks need a break.  As one of the extremely fortunate and privileged, that break was a paid 3 month sabbatical with time for travel and learning, rest and reflection, caring for my family and connecting with others. 

          Because my husband is a Lutheran clergy person, we were able to take the sabbatical together and received a generous grant from the Lilly foundation to pay for the expenses.  Most jobs, particularly some of those that are essential, poorly paid and difficult do not provide employees with this amazing benefit.  It is a privilege for which I am extremely grateful.

          And yet, none of this would have been possible without you.  St. Luke’s may be small, but you are mighty.  Our staff, the majority of whom are part-time, led by Mother Hillary, our Curate who juggles two jobs, a commute from Bremerton and has been ordained barely over a year all did heroic work to handle the challenges and tasks of this complex parish and its ministries.  Our lay leadership – the church volunteers who count and manage the money, make decisions, and take responsibility for the health of the congregation all stepped up to keep things on track during a difficult time.  I thank my God for all of you!

          Twice during sabbatical we attended churches where it was the first Sunday back for the clergy person after their sabbatical!  It was good to hear about their experience and to have the example of their sermons.  But again, it’s the Apostle Paul who has the best words for a congregation he loves but has been separated from:  “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.”

          My favorite description of prayer for others is to “hold you in my heart.”  In prayer and in one another’s heart we are in the heart of God where no one and nothing can separate us.  As we pray for one another, we realize that superficial distance, division, separation, evil forces and even death are overcome by the power of the Spirit in the love of God.  We are in communion even when apart.

God has placed us in one Body and united us as siblings in Christ.  This communion grows with every connection we make.  As a result of our travel, I am in communion with the people of Mirimar Catholic Retreat Center on Cape Cod, Williams Temple Church of God in Christ in Macomb, Mississippi, St. Anna’s Episcopal in the Treme’ district of New Orleans and Goodwill Missionary Baptist in Seattle’s Central District.  The communion of God’s saints is far greater than we can possibly see or experience.  As our theme for this year’s Fall Pledge Campaign has us singing, “We are one in the Spirit.  We are one in the Lord.”

          The intent of our trip to the historic civil rights sites in the Southeast and our desire to learn and experience more of the truth of racism in our country brought us into conversation and relationship with amazing people.  The work of having conversations about race and listening to the lived experience of people who were alive for these historic events affirms the advice of Dr. Catherine Meeks, founder of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. 

Dr. Meeks taught for years at Wesleyan College.  She is a Jungian psychologist, and former professor of African American Women’s Literature.  She told us that she flunked retirement.  So, now she’s directing the center for racial healing.

Her message for the church is pretty straightforward – follow Jesus.   More than once, she said, “We just have to point people back to Jesus.”    She didn’t speak this from a pulpit but from her small office.  Still, we were in the presence of a prophet.  Her advice for the white church?  First, she said, get over feeling guilty.  Be who you are.  Don’t try to be something other than who you are.  And, secondly, do the work of relationship.   The real work of healing begins in relationship. 

She said that if you cannot find a person of color to be in relationship with, then begin with another white person different from you or someone with whom you have deep disagreements.  The act of building relationship, addressing others with respect, withholding judgement and practicing love are the essential aspects to working towards healing in all of our divisions and conflicts. 

          These are disciplines for which we need the power of the Holy Spirit.  As Paul addressed his dear ones in Philippi, he was aware of the problems, divisions and difficulties they were facing and so he writes:  “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” 

          Our healing, justice, right action and wisdom comes through Jesus as we are in relationship with God and one another.  Conversation by conversation, loving act by loving act, faithfulness to what is right, all these build step by step towards beloved community, towards the day of Christ, the healing and fullness of life that is God’s vision for creation.  The reason why these connections and conversations are so difficult is because they have the power to change us and then to change society and the world. 

          For me, the most difficult and stressful conversations were not with white racists or rural Black folk.  The toughest ones were with family, including a dear 88 year-old Aunt who hugged me after an absence of 7 years and then firmly said, “We won’t be talking any politics.”  The hardest and most rewarding labor was caring for a brother having back surgery and a mother suffering from dementia and frailty.  The gift of this sabbatical was to be present in all of these relationships, drawing upon the grace and love of God with the hope and promise of healing.

          Right before our sabbatical began on September 1 we agreed to vacate our home for two weeks so a family with two teenagers, a 3 year old, a dog and a Mom who was 9 months pregnant could move in since their anticipated home remodel wasn’t complete.  I left my home hurriedly after removing anything that might be breakable and storing all our personal effects.  We began couch surfing and then spending 1-3 nights in a different location for 60 days. 

When I visited the house to pick up somethings I found it in chaos.  The baby had been born two weeks early, the equipment and supplies necessary for a family of 6 completely overwhelmed our small home and a 3 year old is capable of much more than I had prepared for!

          We’ve returned in Advent.  The dramatic readings, themes and hymns along with the deep colors of purple and Sarum blue peel back all that is superficial and fake.  We dive deep into the reality of the world as it truly is, with an awareness of what is broken and marred.  We confront injustice, poverty, plague, disaster and war as signs of sin and brokenness.  We tell the truth of our own participation in the ways that lead to division, darkness and death.  This is essential if we are to embrace the grace and gift of the revelation of God’s light in Christ.

          In Advent we wait and watch for the deliverance that is coming.  As Isaiah and John the Baptizer proclaim, God is clearing a path, God is straightening the way; God is coming to transform this present nightmare into the vision of God’s Kingdom.  The great Howard Thurman gives us a prayer for this Advent:

Open unto me—light for my darkness.

Open unto me—courage for my fear.

Open unto me—hope for my despair.

Open unto me—peace for my turmoil.

Open unto me—joy for my sorrow.

Open unto me—strength for my weakness.

Open unto me—wisdom for my confusion.

Open unto me—forgiveness for my sins.

Open unto me—tenderness for my toughness.

Open unto me—love for my hates.

Open unto me—Thy Self for my self.

Lord, Lord, open unto me!

          We have come home to Advent.  Last year there were no decorations, no holiday meals, no Christmas tree.  But this year we have chosen to dwell in light and love.  Upon returning, our home wasn’t a disaster, just stripped clear of all the clutter.  We see things in a new way.  The furniture has shifted.  The Christmas tree stands in a new spot.  The old, familiar decorations from decades past take on new meaning as they are re-purposed.

          Best of all, we’re lighting candles every night.  Candles on the Advent wreath as we wait and watch for the coming of Christ.  Prayer candles for those we care about who are experiencing great difficulty.  Glassy Baby candles received as gifts from dear ones and lit to reflect gratitude, joy, hope and holy longing.

          These are lights of promise; the promise of restored relationships based on truth, healing and reconciliation; the promise of a more just society forged through the hard work of making connection, listening and working together; the promise of blessedness as we give and receive God’s blessing.  God comes again and again as we watch and wait and labor. 

          “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

          I’m grateful and blessed to take up my place among you again, trusting always in the power of the Spirit, relying on the grace and mercy of God and following the way of Christ to the end and beyond.  Amen.

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