On siting a new purpose-built men’s shelter

I wrote this letter to the Mayor and Alders in advance of Tuesday’s common council meeting:

April 28, 2021

Dear Mayor and Alders:

For over 35 years, from 1985 through March 2020, Grace Episcopal Church opened its doors to some of Madison’s most vulnerable residents, hosting the Men’s Drop-In Shelter. For more than 11 of those years, I have served as Grace’s Rector (Senior Pastor). In countless meetings and encounters, I have received praise and gratitude from Madison residents and political leaders for our commitment to people experiencing homelessness. I have also had many uncomfortable encounters and been subjected to criticism from downtown business owners and residents who blame the shelter for attracting undesirable people, causing crime, driving down property values, and forcing downtown residents to move away. My response to them usually focused on reminding them that like others, people experiencing homelessness enjoy being downtown because of all that it has to offer, including a wide range of human services beyond the shelter. I also encouraged them to recognize that people experiencing homelessness are members of our community who deserve every opportunity to flourish.

I and members of Grace knew the importance of the shelter we housed. We were also aware of its limitations. Over the last years, it had become clear to us that our facilities were inadequate to the needs placed on us by our commitment to our guests. We began internal conversations about how best we might move the larger community to work toward a new purpose-built men’s shelter. In conversations with downtown stakeholders, homeless service providers, and advocates, we discerned the monumental task ahead of us. We met with city and county staff, Alders and County Supervisors, the former mayor and the County Executive. In each of those conversations, we were given the same advice: Unless we set a deadline (i.e., essentially evict the shelter), local government would take no action. Such a step was inconceivable to us. Not only would it be a public relations disaster; we also regarded it as a sin against the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor.

At an impasse, we contracted with Susan Schmitz to help us determine whether there was sufficient interest in energy in the wider community to work toward a new shelter. By November 2019, she was able to convene about twenty people representing homeless service providers and advocates, downtown stakeholders, elected officials, and city and county staff to begin working toward this goal. I expected that it would take 5-10 years and that finding a suitable location would be much more difficult than raising the money to purchase a property, design and build a facility, and fund operations. Then the pandemic arrived. With little fanfare the shelter left Grace on March 30, 2020, leaving us with an empty basement. I knew that shelter operations would never return to Grace in any likeness to its previous form. Our spaces were woefully inadequate, not up to current building codes, and potentially dangerous to the health and safety of guests. The responsibility for finding a new permanent location was now the responsibility of local government.

I don’t know whether the Zeier Rd. location is the best site for a new shelter. I don’t know whether other sites are still being considered or would be better suited for the purpose. I do know that any site will arouse steep opposition from neighbors who fear for property values, quality of life, and personal safety. 

I also know that in the 35 years that we have hosted the men’s shelter, we have continued to offer a full range of programming and worship with no major disruption or detrimental impact. Of course, staff and volunteers were often uncomfortable to see or pass through the line of men waiting at intake. On cold winter Sundays especially before the Beacon opened, we would often have shelter guests wander into our services in search of a warm space to hang out. I would instruct our ushers to leave them be and only ask them to leave if their snoring became a nuisance. The first Monday evening of each month, we welcomed shelter guests and others from the community into our parish hall for a sit-down meal with live music. Long after finishing their meals, you could see some men lingering to listen to the music, often with volunteers (teenagers, twenty-somethings, even women in their 70s) sitting next to them, sharing the joy of live performance and a bit of common humanity.

Certainly, we would find abandoned belongings, trash, and other items on our property. But the urine on our stone walls is as likely the product of college students wandering home at bar-time as it is from a homeless man who can’t find a public restroom. The occasional intoxicated person sleeping it off on our steps or the individual experiencing a mental health crisis may not have been a shelter guest the night before or indeed ever. I doubt the number of such incidents was greater at Grace than at any other downtown property. Unfortunately, no corner of our city or nation can be completely safe from all threats.

Living, working, worshiping in close proximity to a homeless shelter presents challenges but those challenges should be shared by the whole community, not just by a few neighbors. As a city and a county it is our responsibility to provide a welcome environment for all who live here, whether their residence is a homeless shelter or a luxury condo. If the purchase of the Zeier Rd property is approved or if another site is chosen, I pledge to do what I can to help the shelter’s immediate community welcome their new neighbors.

Sincerely,

The Rev’d Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser

Beloved Community in a world of violence: A Sermon for Easter 3B, 2021

            
Easter 3

April 18, 2021

            The news is horrific; driving us to depths of despair, anguish, outrage and anger. We feel impotent as we watch the spiral of violence continue. The senseless killings by police officers of unarmed civilians: Daunte Wright in the Twin Cities, a 13-year old boy Adam Toledo in Chicago, high school student Anthony J. Johnson, Jr in Knoxville. All this while the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd unfolds in Minneapolis.

            But there’s more. It’s not just police officers. It’s also ordinary people, usually white men, of course, killing innocent bystanders or coworkers, or family members. Mass shootings every day, it seems. Just in the couple of weeks, in Indianapolis and Rock Hill, SC. We woke this morning to news of a shooting at a bar in Kenosha—3 dead, 2 wounded. The Gun Violence Archive has identified 148 such mass shootings so far in 2021. There are no words. I have no words. 

This culture of death, this lust for violence is not new. But in this season of Easter 2021. It is a time when we Christians remember the death of Christ in another culture of violence, that of the Roman empire. More importantly, it is also a time when we celebrate his victory over death and violence through his resurrection. His resurrection strikes at the heart of the culture of violence that rules our world, the evil that threatens our existence as humans. 

Still, with the news of the world swirling around us, our faith in resurrection, in new creation, our hope for a new world being called into existence through Christ’s resurrection; well, all of that can seem fanciful, hollow, meaningless. What is appropriate joy in resurrection in the face of the violence that vulnerable communities, vulnerable people are experiencing daily in our society? I’ve often heard bishops or that category of people now called “thought leaders”—apparently we have them in the church, too—I’ve often heard such folk proclaim that we are “Easter people.” Well, what on earth or in heaven does it mean to be “Easter people” when all around us people are suffering and dying?

As I’ve been pondering these things over the last couple of weeks, my attention has been drawn to the Epistle of I John which we’ve been reading in the Sunday morning lectionary but also, coincidentally, in the daily office lectionary. There are three letters of John in the New Testament and scholars associate them closely with the Gospel of John, although it’s unlikely that they were written by the same person. We do hypothesize that they are products of the same community because so much of the language and imagery used in the letters reflects language and imagery in the gospels. They also reflect many of the same concerns as the gospel.

But it also shows a certain distance or development from the gospel. The anti-Judaism that is at the heart of the gospel of John is not so evident in the 1st letter of John. Instead, other concerns take center stage, particularly concerns for false teaching. Leaving those concerns aside, one can detect at the heart of the letter a desire to connect the life of the community with the love that the author sees at the heart of the relationship between God and Christ. We see that to some degree in today’s reading: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” 

But that theme comes out even more strongly in verses we will hear over the next two weeks. From 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or from John 4, the reading for the 5th Sunday after Easter: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” 

Or a few verses later: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them”

Well, you get the picture by now. A community of love brought into being by God’s love, sharing God’s love with one another and through that love knowing God and abiding in God. 

It’s language like this that gives rise to images like the Beloved Community, a term so often used by our Presiding Bishop to call us into deeper relationship with each other and with God in Christ. What beloved community looks like depends on the circumstances of each congregation in their particular contexts. For us at Grace it may look very different than it does for our fellow parishes in Madison or across the diocese of Milwaukee. 

It’s not just about the congregation, however. It’s also about each of us individually. How do we embrace God’s love; entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ; growing more deeply in the knowledge and love of Christ, committing ourselves to follow him? 

It’s clear that our city, our nation needs beloved communities making God’s love incarnate in the world; sharing God’s love with the world. It’s also clear that it will not be easy. The forces of evil and empire are arrayed against it. There’s an image that was widely circulated on Twitter yesterday. A church in Brooklyn Center, MN, where Daunte Wright was killed, had been offering sanctuary to those injured by the police in the protests there. In response, the police surrounded the church, standing three or four deep to ensure that no one could seek help or safety there.

Stephanie Spellers, who is the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, recently published a book, The Church Cracked-Open. Written in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the nation-wide protests that erupted, Spellers reflects on the disruption to traditional institutions, especially the church, as membership has declined. Coupled with the disruption caused by the pandemic and the long-overdue reckoning with racism and white supremacy, she uses the image of a “cracked-open church” to describe the new possibilities emerging in this moment. Being cracked-open means that as the old structures decline and collapse, there is room for new possibilities, for creativity and imagination as we seek to embody God’s love in the world.

As the old dies and falls away, God’s love beckons to us, inviting us into a future that imagines a world remade as beloved community. We see that happening even here in Madison. This week, the outreach committee heard from Laura Ford-Harris, who is leading the new Boys and Girls Club space on Capitol Square. Their presence here is a sign that as we rebuild the downtown after the pandemic and the protests, we can imagine and bring into being a neighborhood where all are truly welcome.

As we listen to First John’s invitation to us to become beloved community, to love each other and the world as God loves us, may we abide in that love, share that love, and above all may we learn to live that love in our relationships with others, with our neighbors. May the love we share create beloved community, at Grace, in our neighborhood, and in the world.

He is not here, he is risen: A Sermon for Easter, 2021

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

The traditional Easter acclamation rings hollow in empty churches today. Whatever joy we may feel on this Easter is tempered by the reality of our celebration. Instead of a church packed to the rafters, with most of us dressed in Easter finery; instead of brass, choir, and the voices of hundreds singing “Hail thee, festival day” and “Christ the Lord is risen today” we have soloists, recordings, livestreamed worship. Most of us are sitting at home, on our couches or at a kitchen table dressed in comfortable clothes or even, perhaps pajamas, with a cup of coffee instead of a hymnal in our hands. 

Yet all around us are also signs of new life and reasons for hope. As the pace of vaccinations continues to increase, we can glimpse and begin to plan for life after pandemic, and lockdowns, and isolation. Spring seems to be on its way. The bulbs in our garden are beginning to show flowers, and there’s clump of daffodils blooming in the courtyard garden here at the church. We are also beginning to make plans to return to public worship in the near future.

Still, the waiting continues and many of us remain anxious about the present and the future, even as we chafe at the continued restrictions and limits on our activities. It’s a difficult time, an in-between time, a time of waiting. 

The gospel of Mark was written in just such a time of waiting and anxiety; written for a community struggling to find a way forward in uncertain times, in the midst of violence, and as the old faith that had brought them into being as followers of Jesus was running up against new realities and new challenges.

The challenges facing Mark’s community are symbolized by the gospel’s ending, here, at the empty tomb. Mark leaves us hanging with the sentence: “And the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” 

Now, this is no way to end a gospel, no way to tell the story of Easter and of resurrection. If you go to your bible and look up Mark 16, you will see that in most English bibles the Gospel of Mark doesn’t in fact end with v. 8, but has 8 additional verses, often set off in brackets or with asterisks. For while the earliest and most reliable manuscripts end with verse 8 and the women’s silence and fear, very quickly editors and copyists sought to provide a more suitable ending to the gospel, one that included appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples.

But imagine those women as they came to the tomb. Mark tells us that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, that they had walked with him and the other, the male disciples, learning from, watching him as he healed the sick and cast out demons. Mark says that they had ministered to him along the way. They had heard him proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. They had been among the small group that had staged what we call “the triumphal entry into Jerusalem” casting their coats and tree branches on the road as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, a clear allusion to the Davidic monarchy.

They had watched as he turned over the moneychangers temples and silenced his opponents with clever debating tactics. And then, had they been there at the last supper? Mark doesn’t tell us, but they were at the crucifixion, watching from afar. 

All their hopes were dashed; their grief at the execution of their beloved teacher and friend overwhelming. And like Jesus, they were probably alone. The male disciples, easily distinguished by their Galileean accents were laying low, probably trying to figure out how to escape the city and Roman troops without notice. 

But the women came to the tomb, as women have done for millennia; to grieve, and to once again, minister to their loved one, to prepare his body for burial. It was probably a mourning ritual they had done before for other loved ones, but likely none was done with the grief and despair that accompanied them this morning.

And then, an empty tomb, a man clothed in white telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that they were tell the others and go meet him in Galilee. 

Why wouldn’t they be afraid? The tomb had been robbed of their loved one’s body; they received a strange, incomprehensible message, they were to take the risky journey out of their hiding place in the city and go back to Galilee. 

Mark leaves us hanging with this grief and fear. He leaves us frustrated, unsatisfied. Why did he tell the story this way, why doesn’t he end it on a high note with all of the blockbuster special effects we’ve come to expect?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question, to go back and read through the gospel again, full of mystery and ambiguity, to wonder and imagine what he might want his readers to know about “The good news of Jesus Christ, son of God”—a gospel that begins with certainty and ends here, in fear, terror, amazement, silence.

We are like those women, peering into an empty tomb. We are looking back, in fear, despair, disappointment, and anger. More than a year of disrupted lives, suffering, isolation. Two Easters now observed, I won’t say “celebrated” with live-streamed worship. More than a year since many of you have tasted the body of Christ in the sacrament; a year away from friends, family, the body of Christ gathered in community.

Our yearnings are clear, we can feel them in the marrow of our bones. If not to go back to the way things were in 2019 but an intense desire to return to this place, to public worship, to singing, and fellowship.

You are peering into an empty church as those women peered into an empty tomb. The same message resounds: “He is not here, he is risen!” 

We are being called not to return to the past, but to make our way into the future, to meet Christ, not at the empty tomb or in the empty church, but out there, in Galilee, in the streets and neighborhoods of our city, in the world. We are called to imagine a new church, a new community, inspired by the risen Christ helping to heal and rebuild our city and the lives of our neighbors. 

We are called to meet the risen Christ who is going before us into the future. There we will see him, for he is risen. There we will encounter the risen Christ in the new life and new world that is emerging through his resurrection.

That Christ is risen gives us hope. That Christ is risen reminds us that the powers of evil, Satan and his forces, do not have the last word, will not vanquish. That Christ is risen shows us the possibility and reality of new life, of new creation, of God’s reign breaking into our lives and into our world, making all things new, remaking us, in God’s image.

That Christ is risen  gives us strength and courage to imagine a new world emerging, new community where God’s justice reigns, where prisoners are released, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, where the barriers that divide us crumble. 

That Christ is risen gives us hope and courage to build a new community, to rebuild our neighborhood justly and equitably. We see signs of that already in the recent announcement that the boys and girls club will be our neighbors on Capitol Square, a symbol that this neighborhood belongs to our whole city, not just the few.

May we have the courage and hope to heed the call to go out and meet the Risen Christ where he is; and in our encounters with him, may our hearts burn with love and hope as we are healed and as we work toward the healing of our city and world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

A Poem for Holy Saturday: “Sepulchre” by George Herbert

Sepulchre, by George Herbert

Oh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

He loves us to the end: A homily for Good Friday, 2021

            
Good Friday

April 2, 2021

            A second Good Friday, a second Holy Week observed in strange and unsettling circumstances. The numbers are staggering, more than 550,000 lives lost in the US. The losses we have all experienced, isolation, jobs, routines, what used to be ordinary and common-place—a gathering with friends, a meal in a restaurant, seem strange indeed. The familiar rituals have become unfamiliar, the usual observances suspended because of pandemic and restrictions on public worship. We struggle to connect our current lives and world with the religious lives we have known in the past. We struggle to connect the suffering we are experiencing, and the suffering in the world around us, with the familiar, dramatic story of Jesus’ arrest and execution.

But there are resonances if we pay attention. As we worship today, the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd, is taking place less than a half-day’s drive away. This week we have heard the testimony of bystanders who watched, bore witness, and shared the last minutes of George Floyd’s life. The Tuesday night group that read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree may see those resonances and make those connections between the crucifixion of Jesus, the widespread practice of lynching, and the death of Floyd and so many other African-Americans at the hands of police officers who too often face no consequences for their actions.

There are other resonances, too, that echo through the centuries. In the vitriolic Anti-Judaism of the Gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus’ death, and in fact, of so many other episodes in the gospel, we see the roots of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that forced Jews into hiding during Holy Week in fear of the violence that Christians might visit upon them. We see the roots to of the Holocaust, and of the revived anti-semitism in 21st century America.

And the crowd, stirred up into a frenzy by politicians and religious leaders seeking to use them for their own purposes, well, we have seen the seductive power of crowds and of mass violence. Or the desire to find a scapegoat for our own troubles and suffering, and lashing out at Asian-Americans, or succumbing to conspiracy theories.

The hatred, violence, fear, and anxiety we experience in the world find parallels in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and even if we want, for a day at least, to put all those other things out of our minds in order to focus on the profound and powerful death of Jesus, we bring with us those events, our context and world, our suffering and our deepest fears, into our spiritual lives, into our encounters with the cross of Christ.

There’s a tendency in Christian devotion to focus on Christ’s suffering, the pain, the blood he shed. We see that tendency in the high culture of medieval and renaissance art. We see and hear it in the hymns that are being sung today—O sacred head sore wounded, and the Pange lingua. We hear it in the revivalist and gospel songs of 19th and 20th century American evangelicalism. For some of us the focus on Jesus’ suffering, his pain, the blood seems morbid and overdone. It may lead us to want to avert our eyes, turn away, even ignore the events of Good Friday.

Still, the story we heard just now, a story that many of us know so very well, not only through the words of the gospel writers but through the centuries of Christian reflection and devotion on it—the art, the hymns, the popular cultural appropriations, and even the movies, is a story that is gripping, powerful, and disturbing. As we hear it read again, as we contemplate its imagery, listen to the hymns, images powerful, painful, emotional pass fleetingly through our minds, perhaps catching our attention for a moment, more likely vanishing to be replaced by other images, visual or verbal.

While our minds and hearts, like our tradition, may focus on the manner and extent of Christ’s suffering on the cross, it’s surprising that the gospel writers themselves pass over the crucifixion with relatively little attention. It’s almost as if the crucifixion takes place in the background. The focus seems to be on the responses of the crowd and the executioners. Of Jesus’ suffering, only his thirst is mentioned in the gospels, and immediately after that, his death.

All our focus on Jesus’ suffering, which is often intended to increase our feelings of guilt, shame, and need for repentance, can distract us from other aspects of the cross, the way the gospel writers tell the story, the way they want us to understand what is happening and why. 

Which brings us back today to other themes from John’s gospel, powerful images and words that are often obscured when we focus too much on Jesus’ suffering and on human responsibility for his suffering and death. 

For the gospel of John, the cross isn’t ultimately about Jesus’ suffering but about his glorification; the cross isn’t a focus of our own guilt and shame, but a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. But more than that, the cross is a symbol, indeed the very fact of God’s love. 

For God so loved the world, the Gospel writer says, that God gave his only son. 

And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself, Jesus says, in reference to his crucifixion, being lifted high on the cross.

And then, as we read last night at our Maundy Thursday service, “Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

He loved them to the end. His love for us, for the human race, for the world, brought him into confrontation and conflict with the powers of the world, the religious establishment and the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. His love brought him here, to trial before Pilate in a kangaroo court where the verdict was foreordained by the interests of empire. His love for us, for the world brought him here, to this place of execution.

It’s a love that is incomprehensible, unimaginable, that offers us and the world the possibility to hope for a different kind of world, where power, greed, oppression, and self-interest hold no sway but where love invites us to imagine we ourselves giving our lives for others: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As we contemplate Christ’s love for us, expressed in his crucifixion, may we open our hearts to receive and to be embraced by that love. And may that love inspire us, move us to share that love, to express Christ’s self-giving love in the world around us. May it give us hope that our world might be redeemed and transformed by Christ’s love, breaking down the barriers that divide us, bring justice to those who are oppressed, hope to those living in fear and anxiety. May we be Christ’s love, binding up wounds, mending the broken-hearted. In this world where so many are overcome by suffering, oppression, fear and despair, may Christ’s love shed abroad by us show us the way from cross to resurrection, from despair to hope, from death to new life, into beloved community, and a world created anew.