Praying in anxious times

On November 8, 2016 I was beginning a retreat at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Divine in Cambridge, MA. When I scheduled it, I had no idea that it was Election Day but it turned out that I would rather have been nowhere else as the results came in and the election of Donald Trump as President became clear. I wrote about those days in a blog post

Prayer continues to sustain me. We began saying Morning Prayer regularly via zoom and facebook at the beginning of the pandemic. While the Daily Office is something that I as a priest am familiar with and even expected to pray daily, I have found new strength and sustenance in it over the last seven months. Saying it with others enhances its meaning. 

… I found hope and inspiration in those stone walls, in the chanting of the Daily Office, in the community created in silence and in the brothers’ hospitality. The silence of last week gave me space to pray and to think. As the week went on, the importance of prayer, the centrality of prayer, became more obvious. To reach not for my own words but for the church’s words; to say and chant psalms that were written 2500 years ago; for the doubts and fears, the faith and trust of an author so unlike myself, who lived in a world imaginably different from, for his words to speak for and to me, to speak of and to God; was comfort and consolation in this difficult and anxious. To rediscover the power of prayer, and especially of a community at prayer, was just what I needed. …

These last days before the election are an especially anxious time. Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum, most of us sense the importance of this election. We are afraid. We are afraid for the future of the nation and the world. The pandemic is growing; we fear for our jobs, our families and futures. Some of us are afraid that what we take to be fundamental rights will be stripped from us. Some may fear that their marriages will be declared null and void. In the midst of all the fear and anxiety, we lose sleep, lash out in anger, and find ourselves unable to focus. The relationships that should sustain us at times like these, our families and friends, our fellow members of the body of Christ, are strained by isolation and the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and conversations in establishing deep connection.

 If there were no pandemic, I would make sure the church was open throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday for people to come into that familiar and beautiful space, to experience the beauty of holiness, and to pray. Instead, we will offer Morning Prayer at 9:00 am both days as we have done throughout the pandemic. We will also offer Noonday Prayer both days at 12 noon, and Compline at 9:00 pm on Tuesday. I invite you to join us via zoom or facebook for any or all of these opportunities.

Other opportunities for prayer include the prayer service livestreamed from the National Cathedral at 2 pm (CDT): Holding on to Hope.

In addition, there are a number of appropriate prayers offered by the Episcopal Church or in the Book of Common Prayer:

A Collect for Elections (from the Episcopal Office of Government Affairs)

Almighty God, you have promised to hear what we ask in the name of your Son. Watch over our country now and in the days ahead, guide our leaders and all who will vote, guide them in all knowledge and truth and make your ways known among all people. In the passion of debate give them a quiet spirit; in the complexities of the issues give them courageous hearts. Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Collect For the Nation (BCP pg. 207)

Lord God Almighty, who has made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for Social Justice (BCP pg. 823)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect For an Election (BCP pg. 822)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The End of an Era: The departure of the men’s shelter from Grace

The End of an Era. What is God’s call for Grace Church now?

The news reports this week made public what had been clear to many of us since the beginning of the pandemic. The men’s homeless shelter that has been at Grace since 1984-5 will have a new permanent home funded by the City of Madison and Dane County. While the announced location fell through today, the City and County remain committed to finding a new, permanent location.

When the lockdown began in mid-March, Porchlight the agency operating the shelter, the city, and the county scrambled to find a suitable alternative. On March 30, shelter operations were moved to the Warner Park Community Center on the north side. The close quarters of Grace and the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist simply couldn’t provide adequate space for social distancing and for the health and sanitation protocols that were necessary to prevent widespread infection. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the space at Warner Park was much better suited for shelter operations and in spite of the transportation challenges, both staff and guests preferred the new facility.

As time went on and the pandemic continued, the possibility that shelter operations could return to the downtown churches became more and more unlikely. The city began seeking alternative locations for a permanent shelter and we at Grace began thinking about a future without the shelter. The announcement this week brought this period of uncertainty to an end.

There’s an enormous irony here. I have been at Grace since 2009 and for much of that time, my ministry has involved work with homeless people and around advocacy. Some years before I arrived, efforts to find a new location foundered on neighborhood opposition and political apathy. In the early 2010s, it took several years and several failed attempts to find a suitable location for a day resource center; a process that culminated with the opening of the Beacon in October, 2018.

At Grace, we had begun talking about the need for a new shelter. After extensive renovations funded by Epic in 2010, the shelter again was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Beyond that, the small size of the facility, its minimal accessibility to people with mobility issues, the fact that guests were forced to wait in the elements before entry, were ongoing problems that no amount of money could solve. For several years, we had conversations internally and approached downtown partners, city and county staff, and elected officials about the inadequacy of the current facility and the need for others to step up and take responsibility for solving the problem.

Our conversations were always cordial and supportive but they were also inconclusive. The former mayor asked us when we entered his office, “What’s your deadline?” Everyone agreed that a new shelter was desperately needed; but no one seemed willing to expend the political capital, or the time and energy to see it through. Finally, we began to work on our own. With the help of an outside consultant, we gathered a group of advocates, elected officials, and downtown stakeholders to begin the process of working toward a new shelter. The group had its first meeting in November 2019. In March 2020, the pandemic arrived in Madison.

The pandemic accomplished what we couldn’t. It demonstrated the inadequacy of the facility and raised to the level of emergency the urgency of developing an alternative. I’m enormously grateful to local governments, to the mayor and County Executive, to alders and supervisors, to county, and especially to city staff who have been working on this. A process I anticipated would take at least five years has reached a first, important milestone in a little over six months.

This does mark the end of an era. We received notice a few weeks ago that Porchlight would be terminating its lease as of the end of 2020. A relationship that has continued for thirty-five years with Porchlight and its predecessor agencies is coming to an end. Our identity as the church with the shelter is also coming to an end. Even as we celebrate the new beginning and look forward to a new purpose-built facility, we also take great pride in those people whose vision first welcomed the shelter to Grace, and the volunteers who supported it over the decades—the thousands who prepared and served meals over the years. For us at Grace, homeless ministry became part of our core identity; it attracted members and it shaped us as a congregation. We did more than welcome homeless people to the shelter; we welcomed them to our services and to our fellowship activities.

The shelter’s departure comes at a time of crisis in Madison’s downtown. The pandemic and protests have transformed our neighborhood. The downtown with its many restaurants, shops, the vibrant arts community, all have been devastated over the last six months. Despair and fear are palpable as one walks the empty sidewalks. 

Grace Church has been a presence on Capitol Square for over 175 years; our building dates from 1858. We have seen a lot over that time and the square has seen enormous change. This is a time of great uncertainty as we don’t know what life will look life after the pandemic. We don’t know whether many of the changes we have seen will be permanent. But as we look into that uncertain future and ponder what Grace’s identity and mission might be in the years to come, we must respond faithfully and creatively to the opportunities that present themselves. The departure of the shelter frees us to imagine new possibilities for our spaces and to explore new ways of connecting with our neighbors, including homeless people who will continue to live among us downtown.

Coincidentally, I had organized a meeting for tonight of our mission/outreach committee and our newly re-formed Master Plan Steering Committee, to begin a conversation about future ministry and mission at Grace and how our space might contribute that work. The public announcement of a new location underscores the importance of these conversations.

Maybe we’re the wicked tenants: A Sermon for Proper 22A

Proper22A

October 4, 2020

We’ve been spending a lot of time in vineyards recently. This is the third Sunday in a row that we’ve heard Jesus tell a parable set in a vineyard. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Last week, the story of the of the father who asked his two sons to go to the vineyard. 

Speaking of vineyards…

Quite apart from the parables we are hearing, I’m thinking of the 17 vineyards in Napa and Sonoma that have been damaged by the Glass Fire, and the many more that are under threat—a stark reminder of our failure as human beings to be good stewards of the creation with which God entrusted us.

Today, yet another vineyard parable, but a particularly challenging one for us as 21stcentury Christians. The challenge is not in figuring out what it means. That’s pretty clear from the context, as Jesus’ listeners, the chief priests and the pharisees, got the point immediately.

The chief priests and pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them. We, as readers, are likely to think the same thing, that Jesus is talking about the chief priests and pharisees. Or worse, to conform to nearly two thousand years of Christian interpretation of this parable that interprets it as an allegory. In this reading, the landowner is God; the vineyard is the world, or Israel, or the Promised Land. The tenants are the Jews; the slaves the prophets sent by God to urge the Jews back to faithfulness, and of course, the son sent at the last is Jesus who was executed by the Jews. That’s a deeply problematic interpretation, one with fateful consequences for the Jewish people, and in an age when we see a resurgence of Anti-Semitism, it is an interpretation we should resist and problematize.

One way of doing that is to resist the temptation to leave the parable’s interpretation in the first century, but to let it challenge us, to place ourselves in the role of the listener, not the reader. What might it mean if Jesus is directing the parable at us and at our context?

I would like to go back to the reading from Isaiah, “the song of the vineyard” because clearly this image of Israel as God’s vineyard undergirds the parable. 

As I think about the world in which we live today, the world we are passing on to the next generations, I think about all of the ways we have been poor stewards of the all that we have been given. The climate catastrophe that we’ve know was coming and is now here; the pandemic that has killed more than 200000 in this nation, thrown millions out of work, increased inequities, and now finally, has struck at the top of our political system, the racism and white supremacy that threat our nation, I wonder who the wicked tenants are.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard: 

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill. 

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines; 

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it; 

he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And, then, at the end:

he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed; 

righteousness,
but heard a cry!

            God expected justice, but saw bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry.

            We should hear the indictment in Isaiah and in Matthew, as an indictment of us, not of some other group that we wish to demonize.

            It’s a hard message because even when we feel like we are the victims of injustice, that it is our views, or ourselves that are marginalized, and demonized, it is so easy to turn that language back on others, to respond in kind. But the tenants in the parable were not just protecting their own interests, they were operating as if it all were a zero-sum game. And in God’s economy, it’s never that, it’s never a zero-sum game.

            Think again about the parable, about the landowner, and about the song of the vineyard. Think about the generous, loving actions of God in Isaiah 5. All of the hard work, the care taken, to clear the land, build a wall and watchtower, plant the grapes. In the parable, similar effort. In the parable, after all that work, the landowner goes off and lets it to tenants. But when they don’t pay up, he doesn’t just evict them and find new tenants; he tries again and again to get a response from them. Finally, he sends his son, his beloved son, thinking that they wouldn’t harm him, that they would respect him.

            So, I ask again, what do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, generous, and patient. Given all that, what will he do next? The answer given in the gospel reading is an answer from the perspective of a dog-eat-dog worldview. I get mine. I get yours, too, unless you are stronger than me. We could translate the story very easily into our own economy and world

But are those the values of the reign of God? Is that what Jesus preached? What does Jesus teach in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, if someone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat as well. 

How might we answer the question: What would the landowner do, from this set of values, trying to live out the values of the Reign of God? We might want to look at it from the perspective of the landowner, to imagine what we might, or ought to do, in a similar situation. But I’m not sure that’s the appropriate angle to take.

I think that on one level, the question Jesus asks challenges us to reconsider how we think about God. Can we imagine a God whose grace and mercy extend to the unimaginable, beyond our wildest dreams? Can we imagine a God so creative, so patient as the landowner in the parable? A God who has made us stewards of a lovely and bountiful vineyard, and asks us to give back to God, what is owed, and to be as generous to others as God has been generous to us? 

We know that we are loved of God. We know that God has given us so very much. What would it be like to approach the world, our relationships with others, our stance in these difficult times, with an openness to sharing as generously of ourselves and what we’ve been given, as God shares generously with us? What would it be like to recognize and confess all the ways we have squandered all that God has given us, sought to keep it as our own, protected our interests at the expense of others?