January 22, 2023 — The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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Annual Meeting Address

Right now my Facebook feed is filled with photos from the Holy Land. It seems that every clergy person I know is currently on a pilgrimage to the land of Jesus’s birth. And they all start in Galilee. Pilgrims take photos of themselves next to, on or in the Sea of Galilee. They post about their visits to Bethlehem and Capernaum. The places are significant. People want to be where it all happened. Location matters.

Interestingly, no one mentions that they want to be in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve never spoken those names in a sermon before. I wasn’t exactly sure where they were located and why they were referred to in both the text from Isaiah and Matthew in today’s readings. And yet, this area is part of the lore of God’s people and the prophecy for God’s chosen one.

These are the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel–two of the lesser tribes. They held land in the north of Israel, around or near the Sea of Galilee. And when the mighty Assyrians invaded, conquered the land and exiled the people in the 10th century BC, they lost everything.

Yet, here we are in 21st century Seattle, hearing their names. And my friends and colleagues are traveling across the world to visit their lands. How could such an insignificant place and its people, a place that has disappeared from official maps, have any meaning today?

It is in this place, to these conquered and oppressed people that “the people who walked in darkness have seen great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” God shows up in unexpected places and is revealed to people who the world has passed by. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, in the land of Zebulun and grows up in Nazareth in the Land of Naphtali.

After his baptism, Jesus returns to Galilee to call his first followers, to preach his first messages, to begin his healing and redemptive work. He didn’t stay in the Capital, Jerusalem where the people were gathering and flocking to John the Baptist. He left the places of influence and the people with power, and went back to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a land that had seen so much suffering and loss. As a result, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

It’s the Sunday of St. Luke’s Annual Meeting and is my custom, this sermon serves as the Vicar’s Address. As I reflect on the year that is past, I have also gone back in history to consider the past 100 years of St. Luke’s history since the original chapel was completed in 1924. At the time this was a fishing and lumber neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It was known as working class with an emphasis on industrial activity and saloons. The only building of note was the City Hall and it is long gone. The little chapel for the St. Luke’s congregation was built on donated land by volunteer labor and with the material at hand, lumber and cedar shakes. Parts of the ground floor were never finished and are still dirt underneath the carpeting.

Many times in its history, this little congregation was too small and too poor for it to survive. It was definitely one of the “lesser tribes” of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia! There was a struggle to find clergy to serve here and at times, the church ceased worship for a few months or years, although the annual Christmas bazaar, headed up by the church ladies still went on!

But in the 1960’s a light shined upon this small and modest congregation as the charismatic renewal blossomed at St. Luke’s. The congregation grew and its influence increased. They purchased more land and built Bennett Hall. They brought in used portable buildings from the war to house the 200-300 children coming for Sunday school. People came from far away to the land of Ballard, where the light of the Holy Spirit blazed brightly.

Just last week I got a call from someone who is now in a nursing home, who wanted to connect once again with the place where they had become a Christian as a teenager attending a youth group event. In a time of great suffering, she remembers the time that she experienced the light and hope of the gospel and is longing for that once again.

I had to tell her that the people she knew back when she was younger were mostly gone, moved away, left the church or split when the leadership voted to break with the Episcopal denomination in 2010. St. Luke’s was once again small and yet filled with the Holy Spirit and alive with mission and purpose.

Location matters. God shows up in unexpected places and to people who are on the margins, in exile, overwhelmed and downtrodden. When our world is disintegrating around us, God promises to re-gather us and restore us. God provides a place for us. Those who were exiled will return home.

In 2022 we began to return after two years of COVID exile. We held Easter services in person for the first time in three years. We resumed regular worship with bread and wine, while retaining our online worship option and new practices for health and safety. We got to see children again and have coffee hour. We even held the Edible Hope fundraiser in person and were able to move our meal service back inside.

We hosted Gratitude Gatherings, the Spiritual Pilgrimage and intergenerational events like the Pentecost bonfire. We welcomed newcomers, including Lucy Gunter as the new Program Director for the Edible Hope Kitchen, Kristen Daley Mosier as our parish administrator and Lynne Markova as our Seminarian. We said farewell to those moving on, Bishop Greg, Sara Bates and Lyn Fulkerson. We held funerals for our dear Rose Dorbin and Chuck Mason and we mourned the deaths of far too many of our friends on the streets. Mother Hillary completed her two-year curacy in June and Ivar took a well-deserved sabbatical.

Here, in the heart of Ballard, our mission of worship and service continues even with the many challenges of dwindling church attendance nationally, the continuing crisis of homelessness and related issues of poverty, inequity, mental health and addiction and global concerns of climate change, war and migration. We are holding space for light to shine, for love to flourish and for hope to be nurtured. We are called to be faithful to the promise of God to Isaiah, fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. We are still answering the call Jesus made to the first disciples, “Follow me.”

This next year will be a year of transition. Sometime in the next 12-18 months we will enter our own exile away from this land. We will take up residence in another church as guests and refugees from our own home while we await our promised return. We will find ways to continue our mission of feeding people in body, mind and spirit without the luxury of our own buildings and grounds. This year ahead will be one of preparing for that time as we strengthen our community and make wise decisions for the future.

Today at the Annual Meeting you will hear more about those plans, view the design and premier a wonderful video that shows how we got here and where we hope to be going. You may be like me, both excited and anxious at the same time. I hope you’ll be encouraged by the direction we are going and the progress that has been made. I also know that these things always become complicated and often go through many changes before they are fully realized. Any building project takes longer and costs more than you expect.

We are moving forward, trusting in God’s promise to bring us out of exile and back to our land. St. Luke’s Ballard can take comfort from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, who to this day are reminders of God’s promise fulfilled, God’s restoration completed. We are not the largest, greatest or wealthiest congregation. We can’t put our trust in our own power or influence. We are simply trying to be faithful to the call of Jesus, as those first disciples were. We want to be the place where people can gather and be brought together to create Beloved Community for decades to come.

Maybe someday it will be said, “Land of the Duwamish, Land of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, on Shilshoe Bay by the Sound, across the ship canal, Ballard of Seattle – on you light has dawned. Amen.

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