A Flour-Barrel Altar and the Mission of the Church

A Homily for the

175th Anniversary Celebration of the first Episcopal worship in Madison

July 29, 2013

This afternoon, I immersed myself in Madison’s early history, trying to get some feel for what it was like to live here in the late 1830s. I also hoped to get some sense of the people who organized the first Episcopal worship service that we commemorate this evening. Madison in 1838 was still a very small town. In the winter of 1837 and 1838, there may have been no more than a few dozen people living here. More came in the spring of 1838 as the territorial capitol was being built, land speculation taking place, and people moving here to seek their fortunes. But still the little store that became for a day “First Episcopal Church of Madison”—as eyewitness Simeon Mills later called it—could probably accommodate most of Madison’s population. It was a quite simple affair, with benches made out of planks, and empty flour barrel serving as the base for the altar.

The service was occasioned by the arrival of missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper who was seeking to reach out to whites on the frontier. He was travelling from Prairie du Chien to Green Bay, where congregations, or at least ministries, had already been established.

As I read these accounts, I wondered what those who were at that service imagined for the future of the church in Madison? Did they hope to see a building like Grace on the corner of Capitol Square? Did they imagine that one day there would be not one but four parishes in Madison, in addition to the Campus Ministry?

As I’ve thought about the last 175 years, I suspect that the place we are today as a church and a society would be incomprehensible, unimaginable to past generations of our fellow Episcopalians. All of us worship in buildings that were built by previous generations, with an eye to the possibility of growth and expansion. Those who built our churches were building for institutional stability and permanence. They were building for the future, for us, and we are both heirs and stewards of their efforts.

But what strikes me more than all of that is the image of that first worship service with benches made of planks and a flour-barrel altar and a bunch of reverend gentlemen (as Mills labeled them) unable to pitch a tune. Oh, and the store was still not complete. One side was open to the street. The space and the service were simple and makeshift. None of it would have pleased our theological, liturgical or aesthetic sensibilities.

What unites us with those who gathered 175 years ago? Well the very same things that unite us across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion—the fact that we have bishops and our common liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer. While there are many differences between tonight’s liturgy and most contemporary Episcopal services, the Eucharistic prayer itself is found almost word for word in Rite One of our BCP. We share one more thing, across the centuries and across the world, our common faith in Jesus Christ.

I like that image of a half-built store with plank benches and a flour-barrel altar. I like it because it reminds us not of who we are or where we have been, but it calls us forward into new ways of being church and religious community.

In the gospel we heard, those familiar words from the Great Commission, we are reminded of who Jesus calls us to be and where Jesus calls us to go.

Our buildings, our institutions, our identity, are all very comfortable things. Even the prayer book and hymnal are like security blankets. The language of the liturgy, the familiar hymns wash over us, reassure us that our worship and our church are stable and permanent things. We know we are called to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, but for most of us, clergy and laity, that means tending to ourselves, our worship, our buildings, our fellow members. We hope that visitors will make their way to our services, and that if they make it through our red doors once, that they will return. We hope they will do that, so that they can become members of the choir, or altar guild, or even vestry, and let us rest.

But Jesus calls us out into the world, to proclaim the gospel in all nations, to make disciples. He has sent us out to share the good news of God’s love on street corners, in cafes, and, yes, in storefronts, and social media. Jesus has not called us to build institutions, or staff committees, however important that may be. He has not called us to tend to our selves and our needs. He calls us to go out into all the nations.

Miranda and Paula have just returned from Tanzania and I’m sure they will have much to share about their time there, the church there, and how we can connect. But mission is not just about distant lands and places. Mission begins on the other side of the doors of our churches. Mission begins when we come to terms with the reality that we are increasingly living in a secular, post-Christian culture. That’s more true here in Madison than in many other places in Wisconsin or across the country.

We are again living on a frontier. The institutions, even the way of life that seemed to be so stable and certain a few decades ago are increasingly fragile, often broken. That’s true of our political system. That’s true of our sense of being a civic community, of sharing a set of common values and purpose. It’s true of our economy that is increasingly rigged so the wealthy become wealthier. It’s true of our churches, especially the Episcopal Church, that has lost the central place it held in American culture and society for so many years. It’s true of our churches even though Grace continues to occupy a prominent space on Capitol Square.

We are on a frontier, and the path forward for us is as uncertain as it was for those who set out to make new lives for themselves in the Wisconsin territory 175 years ago. The old certainties are gone. We can’t expect that if we package our worship and ministries in just the right way, that people will join us and our churches will grow. It’s not a matter of worship style, or marketing, or finding the perfect curriculum for Christian formation. In our society, many people have stopped looking for a church home. Many who are seeking meaning in life have no notion that they might find such meaning in Christian community. They don’t know the vocabulary, they don’t know the rules, they can’t imagine themselves embraced by God’s love in the body of Christ.

That’s the frontier on which we live, the future that we face. Jesus calls us forward into that future, to do his work in the world, to reach out and do what Christians have done for nearly two thousand years, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach. What that might look like, is anyone’s guess. What the Episcopal Church might look like in Madison in 50 or 100, or 175 years, is beyond my imagination. But if I had to guess, I would wager that it would look more like that storefront in which we began 175 years ago, than the church in which we worship tonight.

On that frontier, in that uncertain future, Jesus promises to be with us, always, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.


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