Tuesday was a busy, emotional, and exhausting day. It began with a web conference with architects, members of the construction management committee and master plan steering committee, contractors, and subcontractors. In the middle of a three-hour conversation, I stepped out for another meeting. Then I met with representatives from 100 State, a think tank, business incubator that helps individuals and organizations brainstorm. I’m hoping to involve them in our process of imagining our ministry and mission at Grace in our newly-renovated spaces and in our neighborhood.
Then, after both of those meetings, I sat in our quiet nave, with doors open, to await the DA’s decision in the Tony Robinson shooting case. After Margaret and Carol arrived, I made my way over to Willy Street where I joined with other clergy and members of Madison faith communities as we kept vigil on the site where Tony was shot and as we marched downtown, ending here on the tower steps, where Tony’s mother, Andy Jones of St. Andrew’s and Everett Mitchell addressed the gathering.
Tuesday was also the day when the Pew Foundation released its latest study on religion in America. The trends that have been identified and analyzed over the last decade seem to be picking up steam. There is precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who identify with mainline Protestantism, smaller declines for evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The group seeing the largest growth are the religiously unaffiliated—the “nones” as they’ve been called. In 2007, Pew reported that around 17.6% of the American population was religiously unaffiliated. In 2015, that percentage has grown to 23. Looking more closely at the numbers, the growth in the “nones” has been driven by young adults, those born since 1980, who have left institutional religion in droves.
Our experience at Grace on Tuesday was a fitting symbol of that. On a day when we and other faith communities opened our doors to provide places of prayer for people, the action was out on the street. At most a couple of dozen came into our nave to sit, reflect, and pray; while the gathering outside numbered in the hundreds.
Coincidentally, as we walked around the capitol, I had a conversation with another Episcopal priest about the Pew Survey and its implications for the future of the Episcopal Church. I said to him what I’ve said before, that while I doubt the Episcopal Church in its current form will be around in fifty years, the spirit of Anglicanism will continue to live, even thrive, in new ways and among new communities. And I’m quite certain that people will continue to gather for worship, reflection, and learning at Grace Church fifty years from now.
Still, the future is uncertain. We don’t know what might happen in five or ten years. We don’t know what life in Madison be like then. We are living in a rapidly changing culture, and we worship in a rapidly-changing neighborhood. Rapid change of this sort is disorienting, sometimes scary. While it’s becoming increasingly clear, to some of us at least, the shape of the renovations that we’ll undertake beginning this summer, there’s a lot we still don’t know, lots of unanswered questions, lots of decisions still to be made. And the biggest imponderable may be what will happen to the property surrounding us and what impact any future development on this block might have on our mission and ministry. If you’re interested in these questions, I hope you’ll join us in the library this morning after service when we’ll be exploring them in more depth.
In the gospel reading, we hear part of what is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. It’s set at the Last Supper and part of his farewell discourse, his last conversation with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus is preparing his disciples for a future in which he is no longer physically present with them. It’s hardly surprising, then, that one of the things Jesus asks for is that God protect them. But this isn’t a defensive posture, but rather a necessary precondition for something that is much more important—being drawn into one-ness with the Father—that we may be one even as the Father and the Son are one.
The other important request that Jesus makes is that God sanctify them—or to use a word we’re more familiar with from the Lord’s Prayer—“hallow them.” It’s a term we probably don’t often think about or even understand, and when we do reflect on its meaning, we probably think somewhat negatively about it. It conjures up images of “holier-than-thou,” moralistic, legalistic Christians, who withdraw from the world in order not to be tainted by its evils. There’s imagery here that might support such a connotation. The world seems to be depicted as evil, a threat, dominated by Satan.
But sanctified, or hallowed, has a less loaded meaning. Literally, it means “to be set apart.” What the text is saying is that the disciples, we, are sanctified in the truth, which as we know from elsewhere in the Gospel, is Jesus himself. We are set apart in Jesus, one in Jesus, not for our own benefit or enjoyment, or for his. We are set apart so that we can be sent into the world, even as Jesus was sent into the world.
A lot of complicated, dense language and imagery here, but the point is really quite simple. As a community called together by Jesus Christ, united with one another and with him through love, we are given the task and responsibility of doing the work of God in the world.
And what is that work? We might be tempted, given the negative language surrounding the world in today’s text, that our task is simply to be protected, not to venture out. But that’s not the case. However negatively the world may be depicted in this text, and indeed, throughout John’s gospel, it’s important to bear in mind that God loves the world. Indeed, God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son…
And that’s the work we have been given to do. Not only to love the world, but to show forth and make real God’s love in the world. That is our mission. That is why we have been called together as God’s people, that in us and through us, the world might know and experience God’s love.
Of course, we have done that and we do it. The work here on the square of Grace Church is well known and honored. Our Food Pantry does more than provide food for the hungry. We live in an era when even in our state we seem to want to punish, marginalize, and stigmatize those who our society has left behind, for example by making lists of what items can and can’t be purchased with SNAP—what we used to call food stamps. Here at our pantry, people can get what they need, what they want, with no questions asked. I could say similar things about the shelter that continues to provide overnight housing and meals for the men who have nowhere else to go.
But we are at a transformational moment in the life of our parish. Our renovations will open up new possibilities for ourselves and for our neighbors. It’s time for us to explore new ways that we might engage our community in mission, new ways to show forth God’s love in the world. And as much as renovated facilities can make new ministry opportunities available, we can’t sit inside the church, waiting for people to come by and come in. We have to be on the streets, in our community—Jesus is sending us forth into the world.
My hope is that all of us will engage these questions about future ministry and mission. My hope is that we will listen carefully to one another, to our neighbors in this community, and to the Holy Spirit, that we might discern how and where God is sending us right now. Our city, our nation, our world deeply needs the inbreaking of God’s love and justice. We have been set apart to be catalysts and witnesses of that justice and love. We have been empowered and are being sent out. Let us go forth, sent by Christ, sent in Christ!