Disruption and the Call to Mission: Rector’s Annual Report for 2022

Whether or not you have an account on Twitter, you’ve probably heard something about the turmoil in the company and on the platform since its sale. I’ve been on twitter since 2011 and over the years, I have taken advantage of the ability to connect with diverse people across the world and with varied interests. I have gotten to know Episcopalians across the country and Anglicans all over the world. I’ve been able to connect with thoughtful Christians from other traditions, with academic communities like historians and religious studies scholars. I have learned a great deal, received and offered support in challenging times. In spite of the disinformation and toxicity often prevalent there, I have also used it as a primary source of news, especially as events unfolded in real time. Like many others, I am worried about the future of the platform, and of those communities of which I was a part. Will I lose touch with many of those people? Will the knowledge I gained from them no longer be available to me? Will I stay, or like so many others, will I seek out different means of making connection, learning and growing as Twitter changes and perhaps collapses?

It strikes me that there are lessons for the church in the collapse of Twitter. For many of us on the platform, we were active in spite of the challenges it presented—the racism, the trolls, the bullying, the lies. In and amongst all of that, there emerged places of joy, fun, support, wisdom. And we feel the uncertainty and the loss as we wonder whether other venues might offer similar opportunities for relationship, connection, joy, and learning. Likewise, we are beginning to discover that in the wake of all the disruption caused by the pandemic, the church, Grace Church can continue to be a place of spiritual sustenance and deep, meaningful relationships, that we continue to attract newcomers who are seeking connection with others and with Christ, and that there are new opportunities to reach out into the community and the world to share the Good News.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Grace’s staff—first and foremost to Parish Administrator Christina. We all know how hard she works and her deep commitment to Grace’s ministry and to its members. Her administrative skills and her deep knowledge of Grace make my job much easier. Our musicians, Berkley and Mark contribute so much to our worship and to our congregation. Their flexibility and creativity over the last years have helped to make our worship a means of encountering Jesus Christ, whether in-person or remote. We have learned over the course of the pandemic the importance of continuing to offer a live-stream experience, and our tech team, led by James Waldo with the assistance of Steve, Marshall, and Clay, help us connect with our members who are unable or uncomfortable attending in-person worship. Mary Ann Nannassy, who is working in the kitchen today, has helped to build community by organizing coffee hour each week and providing space for relationship-building. George Decker, who came on board this year, and some of you are meeting for the first time today has been an invaluable addition to staff as our Communications Coordinator. Vikki Enright and her team of volunteers continue to feed the hungry through our Food Pantry. Her hard work, resilience, and adaptability have led the pantry through these difficult years and she is a powerful witness to our church’s commitment to outreach and to serving the most vulnerable in our city and county.

I would also like to extend a word of thanks to our clergy. Deacon Carol continues to support my ministry and the people of Grace in countless ways, small and large. Her pastoral gifts help us all to keep connected and her contributions to our worship are often noticed by me only when she is away, as she has been several times this past year supporting Bishop Lee’s visitations to other parishes. John Francis has brought energy and creativity to our team. The relationships he has developed in the past have brought new experiences and new visibility to Grace, through the visit last month of Shane Claiborne, and on Friday night of Bill Miller. With the help of volunteers, he has successfully restarted our Christian Formation program for children. I look forward to supporting his ministry and growth in the coming year.

Among the transitions that we will experience this year is David Lyon’s stepping away from active leadership in parish administration. A Vestry member, then treasurer for three years during an especially difficult period, then Senior Warden for two, and in 2022 a return gig as Treasurer. I think we can all say, “Well, done, Good and faithful servant”—and that he deserves his rest from the labors and spreadsheets. Tom Felhofer has served as Assistant Treasurer for the last year and will be moving into the Treasurer spot.

At the heart of our common life and ministry are, the people of Grace. Our lay leadership continues to excel. I’m deeply grateful for Jane Hamblen’s leadership as Senior Warden. Her wisdom, sensitivity, and attention to detail complement my own strengths and make up for some of my weaknesses. As junior warden, Kara Pagano has put her unique stamp on the position and on Grace. She has led the effort to create a Parish Life Committee and to offer opportunities outside of Sunday morning for people to connect with each other. I would like to thank outgoing vestry members: John Johnson and Mike Edwards who have helped to lead the parish over the last years, asking challenging questions, offering the wisdom and insight of many years of work in complex organizations outside of the church. Thanks as well to Suzy Buenger, who was elected to fill a partial term and could have stepped down but agreed to run for a full three-year term. 

There are challenges ahead. As detailed in the report from the Roof Committee, we are looking at a significant fundraising and construction project in the next few years. We don’t know exactly how much time we have but the wise course forward is likely to move ahead now rather than wait. We have the expertise in the congregation and connections in the community to help us achieve our goals, to hand down to future generations a structurally-sound building and to ensure that our beautiful church will remain in excellent condition as it approaches the 200th anniversary of its construction. 

We are discerning what God is calling us to in the coming years. The departure of the men’s shelter at the beginning of the pandemic left not only empty space in our building but also meant that a ministry at the heart of our identity, and our standing in the community left our hearts empty as well. The conversations that have occurred over the last month with widespread congregational participation will help us listen to the Holy Spirit and discern new opportunities. The changing fabric of the city, new patterns of work and life caused by the pandemic, the deep racial and economic inequalities, and the challenges of affordable housing are issues shared by many cities throughout the country and world. How can Grace Church be model of Christ’s love in the heart of the city?

One way we do that is through our space. Once again, we opened our doors to the community on this past election day. Thanks to the spontaneous efforts of a group led by Steve Webster, we offered Grace as a place of spiritual respite and comfort on a very stressful day. Even if only a few people came through ours that day, it was an important witness and gift to the community. We don’t know how many lives are touched by our presence on the square. The gardens, now expertly overseen by John Andrews are a place of welcome for all.  

I recently had a conversation with Christian Overland, Director and CEO of the Wisconsin Historical Society during which he updated me about plans for the new history museum. They hope to begin construction a year from now. That project promises to bring new life to the top of State St. and our block of N. Carroll and we will be involved as planning for the museum proceeds.

In your Annual Meeting packet is information about Land Acknowledgement. To talk about our property without reference to its history before the lots were purchased in 1847 is to erase thousands of years of earlier human presence on the land and the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk. As you know, over the last two years we have been learning about Native American history and about the Native American communities of Wisconsin. That work continues as we will welcome Mark Charles, co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery for a series of events in January. We are also exploring what sort of restorative actions we might take that would support the thriving of Native Americans in Wisconsin.

Another area where I have spent considerable time and energy over the last year and will continue to demand my attention in the coming year is the Wisconsin Episcopal Trialogue. The three dioceses of Wisconsin are discerning the future of the Episcopal Church in this state. I am helping to lead one of the task forces involved in these conversations: The Parish and Regional Engagement Task Force. Considerable work has occurred behind the scenes and in the next few months, much more information will emerge. A decision on whether to move forward on re-unification will probably come some time in the spring of 2023. If the decision is to move ahead, votes will be taken at the three conventions next fall. 

We may mourn what we lost over the past three years; we may struggle to understand all that is taking place in the world around us, we may worry about what is to come. I think it’s appropriate that our Annual Meeting takes place on Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Just as it brings to an end the liturgical year and looks ahead to the Season of Advent, it is also a reminder that Grace Church, is held in God’s hand, under the reign of Christ, that whatever might come, Christ will continue to reign. May we go forward into the new year in the sure and certain faith that Christ reigns, and may we commit ourselves and Grace to work toward the coming of his reign in our lives and in our city.

Past, Present, Future: A Sermon for Proper 28C, November 13, 2022

As I began looking over the lessons for today, I began to experience a powerful sense of disorientation. It was like a movie that was full of flashbacks and flash forwards, leaving the viewer confused and uncertain of what was happening when, and hoping that it would all get resolved in the final reel. 

Let me explain. There’s that wonderful passage from Isaiah 65, in which the prophet describes a vision of a new heaven and a new earth; a new Jerusalem full of joy, where there is no weeping nor untimely death; where the wolf and the lamb feed together, and the lion eats straw like an ox.

The prophet, writing after the return from Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE, is looking ahead to a messianic future where God has made all things new, right, and just. Contrast that with the gospel reading. Our gospel reading dates from some 600 years later. Luke is writing at the end of the first century, or perhaps even early in the 2nd, is describing the last days of Jesus’ life, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples spent the days of this last week in the temple, where Jesus overturned the tables of moneychangers, taught, and debated with various religious leaders and groups. 

The temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, had been greatly expanded and renovated by Herod the Great, a building project that began decades earlier and was probably still underway when Jesus and his disciples arrived. It was, by all accounts, magnificent. It would have dominated the landscape and pilgrims would have been able to see its marble walls gleaming in the sun from miles away.

But, as the disciples, tourists from the hinterlands of Galilee, looked at it for the first time, exclaimed in awe at its beauty, Jesus predicts its destruction: Not a single stone will be left standing on another. And he was right. In 40 years, around the year 70, the temple would be destroyed by the Roman legions as part of their suppression of the Jewish rebellion. Ultimately, all that would be left was what remains now, the wailing wall, as it’s called, part of a retaining wall that had supported the temple itself.

That wasn’t all that Jesus had to say. He went on, as we heard, to predict a very different future than the peaceful , abundant, and joyous one described in the Isaiah passage: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

There is a more helpful message in the midst of the doom and gloom. Jesus urged his followers not to be terrified when they heard of wars and rumors of wars. And though he predicted his followers would suffer persecution, he promised that he would give them strength, courage, and the words they would need to testify to the truth of his message.

Luke was writing decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, decades after the destruction of the temple and the ruthless suppression of the Jewish rebellion that likely forced many of that second or third generation of Christians to flee Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The early expectation that Jesus would return in glory and power to establish God’s reign was slowly giving way to disappointment and bewilderment as Christians began to rethink that belief and develop theological coping mechanisms that would allow their survival into the future. 

So to summarize, there’s an confusing, disorienting relationship to time and to history evident in these passages. This feeling of disorientation may be familiar to us. It’s not just the semi-annual changing of the clocks that requires our bodies to reorient themselves to the cycles of waking and sleep. There are all the ways in which our technology and lifestyles have collapsed traditional categories and experiences. We know what’s happening half-way around the world as it’s happening. Video and social media posts bring the experiences of war, natural disasters, and other events onto our screens and into our lives.

The dislocation and disruption of the last years have also contributed to that disorientation. The pre-pandemic world seems like a mirage,  a fantasy that bears little reality to the lives we live now, the world in which we live, even as we desperately try to recapture that world in so many ways.

And still, in the midst of that disorientation, time marches on. We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Christian year. Our readings are preparing us for that season of preparation. Advent is a time when we look ahead to Christ’s coming, both his coming at Christmas and his Second Coming in power and majesty. It’s a time of joy and hope but it is also a time of reflection during which we are called to open our hearts and cultivate the soil of our souls in advance of both of Christ’s comings.

Advent’s imminent arrival reminds us that the world we inhabit, the time that we inhabit, are transformed by the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Christ into the world. As we pass through the liturgical seasons year after year, from Advent and Christmas through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, we remember, we reenter that story of Christ’s coming, his death and resurrection, making it present to us, making it our present. But simultaneously the time and place of the world around us have their own rhythms and pace, their own presence.

The disruption and disorientation of our scripture readings careen us back and forth across different possible futures: a new heaven and a new earth; wars and rumors of wars. As they disorient us they also offer us orientation, toward Christ—toward the coming of Christ, the moment that transformed and continues to transform all of history. 

We long for permanence. We want stability. The thick stone walls and spire of Grace Church are testimony to the presence of God’s people in this place over the last almost 200 years and many of us work hard to ensure that this place, this congregation, survives and thrives long into the future. Its sturdy structure gives us confidence, assurance, and hope. How often have we, like those around Jesus, praised its beauty?

The future may fill us with fear. We may mourn what we have lost; the past that we remember or half-remember. We may wish the world hadn’t changed, and that the rapid changes taking place would stop. We may worry about our own futures, the futures of our children and grandchildren, the future of the planet.

Christ promises to be with us, to be present with us, to give us, as he says in today’s gospel, word and wisdom to confess our faith in the midst of the world’s suffering. Christ is with us now, present among us. In word and sacrament, the disorientation of the world and of time, are reoriented toward the one who created time and redeems time; the one whose coming we await, and who comes to us now in the Eucharistic feast. Thanks be to God.