About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

Protests, Pandemic, and Parish Ministry

Over the past few days, I have struggled to put into writing the feelings that welled up in me when I arrived at Grace Church on Tuesday, June 2 and saw the devastation on Capitol Square and State St. from the riots the night before. It was the third morning in a row that I had come down to Grace, the first time since early March that I had been downtown on three consecutive days. I had come to make sure Grace Church property was ok. Fortunately, we were spared the violence and destruction.

But just a few feet away, it was a different story. The graffiti and broken windows along W. Mifflin St. and State St. continued onto N. Carroll with the History Museum also a target for protesters. Lady Forward on the Capitol was drenched in red paint.

I have watched in horror and anger as the scenes of violence and destruction fill our media. Peaceful protests against the murders of unarmed African American civilians by police have turned into violent rampages destroying property and the livelihoods of people who were already suffering from the economic impact of the pandemic. Instead of working to calm us and bring us together, the President seems to be fanning the flames of violence and uses teargas and brute force to clear a path for a photo op in front of an Episcopal church.

I have a profound sense of helplessness and foreboding as I witness events unfold both nationwide and here on Capitol Square. Grace Church has been a symbol of Christ’s love on the square for more than 150 years and we are called in this time to continue to share that love, to work for justice and reconciliation, and as we repent for our sins to ask God’s forgiveness and the strength to amend our lives.

Ever since I became Rector of Grace, I have been urging us to seek our mission in our neighborhood and we have done that. We have hosted the men’s homeless shelter for over 35 years, a food pantry for over 40, and in the last decade we have opened our doors to concerts, protesters, press conferences, and gatherings of all sorts. We are engaged in important anti-racism work through our Creating More Just Community task force and our Outreach Committee is exploring new ways of serving Christ in our neighborhood and throughout our city.

But as I’ve reflected on the images I’ve seen of the demonstrations and rioting, the looting, and as I’ve seen for myself the graffiti and boarded up windows on Capitol Square and State Street, I have been disturbed to the core of my being. I’ve never made much of those surveys that proclaim Madison’s desirability as a place to live but it has been my home for almost 11 years. I have loved living here. But the graffiti and broken windows remind me of the stark reality lying beneath the veneer of beauty, progressive politics, and gourmet restaurants. The deep racial and economic inequities of our city and county are the foundation on which everything else is built here. I’ve seen those realities first-hand as I’ve worked with homeless people and with people of color who are trying to make ends meet in an expensive city on minimum wage jobs or struggling with a criminal justice system. The violence that broke out in Madison earlier this week is a reflection of the violence we don’t see; the violence perpetrated by racism on the bodies and lives of African Americans every day, in the pricks of micro-aggressions and the institutional violence of schools that fail to educate African American children and an economy that discriminates in every way against African Americans.

In the middle of the chaos stands Grace Church, a silent symbol of Christ’s love and a testament to faithful generations who have worshipped here and supported our ministry over the decades. As I’ve said many times before, our spiritual ancestors who chose to build a church on Capitol Square had a particular vision of civic and religious community, one in which the Christianity of the mainline was a pillar of civic engagement, one of the ways in which community norms were maintained and articulated.

That nineteenth century vision of civic community has not survived into the twenty-first century. The political divisions that have been a hallmark of Wisconsin have torn at the fabric of our state and city. The vibrant public square envisioned by the first Madisonians and still evident from time to time in the recent past—the Dane County Farmer’s Market and Concerts on the Square being two examples—has crumbled under the divisions: competing demonstrations from different sides of the political spectrum. At times, we have sought to be a bridge across that divide but at the same time, we have consistently advocated for policies consistent with biblical concern for the stranger and alien, the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed.

Events earlier this week in DC are evidence of another version of the relationship between the Episcopal Church and our political system—as a prop for violence, hatred, and corruption. If we cannot clearly and consistently preach Christ crucified, who was reconciling humans to each other and to God, who challenged the forces of violence, oppression, and empire, who himself died as a victim of injustice, oppression, and empire, we will no longer be faithful to the gospel with which we have been entrusted, to the God whose image we bear, and to the Christ who was executed because he challenged the powers and principalities.

I have remarked in sermons and conversations with others that COVID-19 has led to an abandonment of the public square. On the few times I visited Capitol Square over the last two months, the silence and emptiness of the square was palpable. Often, the only sound was the bells ringing the hours from Grace’s tower. The depopulation of the square was eerie; devoid of people, the square seemed like the set of a post-apocalyptic film. Our building is almost as empty as the square itself. Public worship is suspended; the homeless shelter has moved to the Warner Park Community Center; and our pantry is operating with a skeleton crew of volunteers.

But we cannot abandon our ministry and mission here. It is more important than ever. With our congregation dispersed throughout the city and the county and our meetings conducted almost entirely via the internet, it might be easy for us to adopt one of those clichés about the church being the people and not the building. We are a parish, which is not just a gathering of people. It is also tied to a location. In our case, it is tied to downtown, to Capitol Square.

Even in our current circumstances with no in-person worship and virtual gatherings, we are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ in our community. We are called to love our downtown neighbors. The frightening reality of looting and destruction is happening in our neighborhood. Our neighbors are hurting even as the demonstrations proclaim loudly the suffering and injustice borne by the African-American community here.

Madison will be hard-pressed to find a way forward after the events of this week. Fear and anger, the images imprinted on our brains will not go away as easily as graffiti removed or broken windows replaced.

In this moment, we are called to continue to witness to the love of Jesus Christ. We are called to continue to work for justice and reconciliation. We are called to be the church on the corner of N. Carroll and W. Washington. We are called to offer a vision of God’s beloved community that welcomes all and brings healing to the nation. We are called to weep, to lament, to mourn, and to be prophetic voices in our community, on the square.

 

Speak the Word of God with Boldness: A Homily for Evening Prayer on the Feast of Pentecost

The texts for Evening Prayer are Acts 4:18-21, 31-33 and John 4:19-26.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. At the Eucharistic liturgy on this day we always here the story of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the disciples on this day as tongues of fire, and of their transformation from a group of puzzled and disoriented followers of a Jesus Christ who had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, to a band of missionaries, evangelists, and healers, who went into all the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and making disciples.

It’s a powerful story and even at a distance of 2000 years we are quickly caught up in the excitement and strangeness of it all. On this day when we celebrate the flames of the Holy Spirit burning in the hearts of the faithful, we also lament the flames that are burning in cities throughout this nation, and even here in Madison last night, as we watched on live video a police cruising being burnt.

There are many kinds of flames, flames of passion and love, flames of hatred and violence, and at this moment in our nation’s and city’s history, we are anxious and fearful. Many of us are outraged, not just by the all too familiar stories of police killing unarmed people, but by the scenes of militarized police attacking peaceful demonstrators, and also of those few instigators of violence who want to burn everything down, or by inciting violence, bring destruction on our communities, our cities, our nation.

We grasp for an appropriate, faithful, effective response to the injustice, racism, and violence we see, wondering how we as individuals or as the body of Christ might offer a witness to Christ’s love in the midst of this ongoing tragedy. The reading from Acts for the daily office seems especially fitting for our situation. It’s early days in the little Christian community. The disciples are still in Jerusalem, still worshipping in the temple, still figuring out what they are supposed to do, and how they should go about it. In chapter 2, there’s the coming of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 3 offers an account of an event that took place some time after Pentecost. Peter and John were going into the temple for daily prayer when they encountered a lame man who was brought by others to beg at the entrance. They heal him, and then go into the temple and preach.

Today’s reading picks up after that. They were arrested in the temple for preaching and brought before the council for a hearing. Peter’s testimony, and the presence with them of the man who had been healed forced the authorities to release them. It’s here that our reading picks up with Peter’s response to their demand that they no longer speak publicly about Jesus. Released from custody, Peter and John returned to the gathered community, and instead of retreating or keeping their heads down, the faithful prayed that God grant them the strength “to speak the word with boldness.”

And then we are presented with that powerful image of the believers “who were one heart and one soul” and all things were held in common. Hearing that description of a community united not only theologically but materially, sharing all possessions, confronts us with the vast chasm that divides the image of that community with what we see in our own city and nation. Economic and racial inequities persist, with the effects of those inequities being on full display thanks to COVID-19. Not only the way the disease hits and kills communities of color disproportionately, but that many in those communities are forced to put their own lives at risk as they seek to survive and earn money.

We see these inequities. At Grace we have been talking about the deep racial inequities in Dane County and Wisconsin for over five years but we seem to have little to show for it. Our consciousnesses have been raised, our white liberal guilt assuaged from time to time by the efforts members of our congregation have made, by the programs we have supported and organized, and by our involvement in organizations like MOSES, an interfaith group that is advocating for criminal justice reform. We have had dialogues on racism, hosted press conferences and other gatherings. We have done a great deal.

But little has changed. The inequities persist in spite of all our efforts and the efforts of so many others who are working toward a more just city and nation.

And now we are dispersed, prevented from gathering physically, sensing that as a community, the bonds that unite us are increasingly fragile, as “virtual” as our worship. I find it increasingly eerie when I go downtown. While the streets and sidewalks are not nearly as empty as they were a month or two ago, there’s still a very strong sense that the city has been abandoned. The Capitol Square, the public square is empty and silent. And next to the public square, the church is empty and silent as well, except for the bells that ring the hour.

In this time of suffering, fear, anger, and violence, we are called to speak boldly and to be a healing presence. We must find the strength to speak and to call our community to justice. We must find the courage to bear witness to injustice and oppression. And we must be present, for only in our presence can we do what we must do, which is to listen to the suffering voices of the oppressed and afflicted, to hear their stories. And we as we listen, we must look for signs of Christ’s presence among those voices and stories. For on the cross Jesus suffered as one of them, and they, communities of color, victims of injustice and oppression, are the crucified classes of our time.

As we discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us, as we seek to be faithful to God’s call and to respond to our community’s need, as we reimagine our identity in this new era, may the Holy Spirit guide us, giving us the strength to speak boldly and the wisdom to listen deeply and carefully.

 

 

 

 

 

I will not leave you orphaned: A homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2020

May God take our minds and think through them. 
May God take our lips and speak through them. 
May God take our hands and work through them. 
May God take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

 

“We are in unprecedented times.” How often have you heard or read that or a similar phrase over the last two months? We are living through something none of us could have imagined a year ago, an economic collapse deeper than the Great Depression, a disease that is devastating in its effects, with no cure or vaccination. For us as Christians, we are not able to worship together, to celebrate or receive the Eucharist.

But I’m a historian, a historian of Christianity, and when someone says something like “we are living in unprecedented times” I want to examine that. Indeed, many have reached back to the past in search of parallels to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, or to the Black Plague of the 14th century. Certainly as we think about the future of Christianity, the future of the church, the future of the Diocese of Milwaukee, we might think about how Christians have responded to techtonic cultural shifts like the fall of the Roman empire in the West, or the Protestant Reformation. We sense that the things have shifted dramatically, perhaps even permanently, and the roadmap into the future isn’t clear at all.

As I’ve thought about our situation in these months of COVID-19, I find myself returning to the story of Japan’s hidden Christians. You may be familiar with part of it. During the sixteenth century, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers sailed across the globe, Christian missionaries sailed with them and followed in their paths. Jesuit missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who first went to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India, then to the Philippines and Japan. He died there while preparing for a trip to China. In Japan, Jesuit and Franciscan priests converted thousands before Christianity was outlawed around the end of the sixteenth century. The story of the martyrdom of some of those priests is powerfully told in Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s Silence, which Martin Scorsesemade into a film a few years ago. If you know the story, that’s probably where it ends.

But the story didn’t end there for Japanese Christians. The faithful went underground. They maintained their faith in secret for the next 250 years. Over the centuries of isolation, they developed and adapted Christian rituals to their situation. With no priests, no Eucharist, they continued to practice their faith as best they could. After Japan was opened by Western traders in the 19th century, and Christian missionaries returned, Catholic priests were shocked when native Christians came out of hiding; there were perhaps as many as 30,000. Their faith, their persistence against great odds and at great risk to their lives, remains a powerful witness to us.

As I think about our situation, all of the fear and uncertainty, the challenges that face us, and as I think about all of the challenges faced by Christians seeking to be faithful to God over the last two thousand years, the words of today’s gospel reading provide comfort, encouragement, and admonition. We are again, still, reading from the lengthy farewell discourse in John’s gospel, still at the Last Supper with the disciples and Jesus. Jesus is preparing his beloved friends for his departure—for his crucifixion and resurrection.

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Jesus and the gospel writer are talking about the Holy Spirit here. They use a word here that is unique to this gospel and significantly deepens our understanding of the Holy Spirit—the word in its Anglicized form is “Paraclete,” literally the one who comes alongside us—and advocate in the sense of the one who pleads our case, takes our side, is perhaps the best translation possible. There are other English words that have been used: Comforter, Encourager.

When we think of “advocate” we are apt to think of a court of law, the advocate who pleads our case before a judge. And so when we hear the word used hear, we might think that the Spirit is the Advocate on our behalf before God. There’s no doubt some truth in this—the Holy Spirit as the one who pleads on our behalf to God when we have fallen short, when we have failed to love Christ and keep his commandments as the first verse in our reading tells us.

But there are other ways to think of the Spirit as Advocate. Sometimes, the Spirit comes alongside us and pleads God’s case to us, reminding us who we are as disciples of Jesus, beloved by God and by Jesus, as followers of Jesus called to love him, each other, and the world. It’s easy when there are so many other messages being sent in our world, when the language of fear and despair and hate dominates our world and burrows into our minds, to lose hope and to lose sight of the one who has called us into new life and relationship, the one who has called us to love. Especially now, the Spirit, the Advocate may strengthen us and guide us on the perilous journey that lies ahead.

We can be sure that comes what may, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be with us, guiding us, leading us, comforting us. We needn’t lose heart, or lose our way. We may wish we could go back, we may long for the past, but the Advocate is leading us forward into the future.

There’s another chapter to the story of Japan’s Hidden Christians. When the Christian missionaries came in the 1850s most of the underground Christians came out and embraced the opportunity to worship freely, to receive the sacraments, to learn about the faith they and their ancestors had sought to follow without leadership for 250 years. But some of those indigenous Christians, as they encountered this new and strange Catholic Christianity, became afraid and went back to their villages and homes, turned their backs on the foreigners’ faith and church and instead continued to follow the traditions and rituals that had developed. Fear conquered them; they preferred a familiar past to a new and different future. I encountered this story via a documentary by Chrystal Whelan: Otaiua: Japan’s Hidden Christians.

We are living in the midst of a crisis and we know that there is no map for the journey that lies ahead. Nonetheless we are not alone. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide is walking with us, leading us into the future, assuring us of God’s presence and the love of Christ. Thanks be to God.

 

The Ambiguity of Resurrection: A Homily for Evening Prayer on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020

The gospel reading for the Daily Office on the Fifth Sunday of Easter is Luke 4:14-30.

Even as we are settling into this new uncomfortable routine, I find that I am learning and discovering new things. As much as I miss gathered worship with hymns and Eucharist, I am also discovering the spiritual power of gathering online for the Daily Office, whether it is our Monday-through Friday of Morning Prayer at 9:00 am, or our offering of Evening Prayer Rite I on Sundays. Coming together as we do on Sunday evenings has come to be one of the highlights of my week, and certainly of my day, as it brings together various things and offers an opportunity to ask God’s blessings on what has passed and what will come.

One of the suprises for me in all this is my encounter with the gospel readings for the Sunday daily office. They are, especially in this season of Easter, a familiar yet disorienting set of texts. Familiar, because we encounter many of them in the Sunday morning Eucharistic lectionary. Disorienting because I read them differently in this context because they are taken out of the roughly sequential order of the 3-year lectionary and often, as in the case both today and last Sunday, they include additional verses that provide additional context and possible focus for reflection.

Take the case of today’s gospel. A portion of this reading, verses 14-21 are read on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in year B, the year we read the Gospel of Luke. In that context, it’s clearly meant to symbolize Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s reign, a symbol of the season of the Epiphany, when we explore all the ways God comes to us.

But today is the 5th Sunday after Easter and the significance of Jesus’ first sermon seems less important than other themes that emerge from reading this text in the context of our celebration of Christ’s resurrection, not to mention our immediate context, as well.

The drama and power of that sermon, Jesus’ reading those verses from Isaiah, sitting down, and saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your midst.” The promise of fulfillment, the promise of the coming of God’s reign continues to beckon us. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we see the first fruits of the realization of that promise—the power of God’s reign breaking in upon the world, conquering humanity’s greatest fear: death and the grave.

To end the reading with verse 21, Jesus saying, “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your midst” is to end it on an unambiguously positive, powerful note. We are left with no questions, no uncertainty. But the story doesn’t end there it continues with confrontation, doubt, opposition, and an attempt to kill Jesus. He escapes by passing through their midst. We might imagine a fog descending on the crowd to disorient them and to hide him from them.

So today’s reading ends on a much more ominous note than the reading as it appears in the Eucharistic lectionary. It’s a puzzling story when it’s looked at as a whole and leaves us wondering. In the context of the gospel, it seems to be foreshadowing the conflict that will come between Jesus and the religious authorities of first-century Judaism, and Rome, as well, I suppose. In the context of Eastertide, it reminds us not of the victory of Christ’s resurrection, but of its ambiguity. It reminds us of all those stories that mention the disciples’ fear when they encountered the Risen Christ; all of the stories that emphasize the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus until they heard his voice; all those stories of doubt, and questioning, and wonder.

We tend to emphasize the power of resurrection, the story of God’s victory over death and vindication of Jesus Christ against the forces of evil and darkness. But the truth is more complex than that. “The strife is o’er the battle won” but the war is not over. Evil is not finally vanquished. We live in a world where Christ’s victory over evil and death has only begun, in which the forces of evil continue to do battle.

As we reflect on our lives today and on the struggles going on throughout our community, nation, and world, it’s clear that good has not yet triumphed over evil. The battle still rages. Whether it is in the senseless murder of a young black man jogging down a Georgia road, or the apparent willingness of so many to sacrifice the lives of the weak and vulnerable for their own “freedom;” whether it’s the abandonment by persons in our government of the rule of law and our constitutional norms, it’s clear that the battle between good and evil continues, that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has not finally vanquished Satan and the forces of evil.

The news is dire. Not just the apparent tolerance of the deaths of tens of thousands, or the hate that divides communities and our nation; not just the reality being laid bare of the deep inequities in our society as unemployment skyrockets and people risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to work jobs with low pay. The brokenness of our society is on display for all to see.

Yet here we gather, if only virtually, in the small number of those of us who choose to take these few moments from our day to pray and read and listen. Even this may be as much an occasion for despair as for hope and faith as we wonder what the future holds for our gathering and our congregation.

In all of this fear, and doubt, and despair, we wonder. Yet we are not alone. Jesus did proclaim the coming of God’s reign. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

We are not alone, either in our homes or in this virtual gathering. As the letter to the Hebrews we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who give us strength and hope; a great cloud of witnesses whose faith inspires our own, and we follow Jesus Christ, the great pioneer and perfecter of our faith. May we take heart and trust that God is with us, that through God’s power and justice, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of something completely new; that in his resurrection, we can glimpse a future where Christ reigns over all and all suffering and death are brought to an end. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Spiritual Starvation during Eucharistic Fast

It has been almost two months since I have presided at a Eucharist. In the Diocese of Milwaukee all public worship has been suspended and we are not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. While a similar ban is not in place in all Episcopal dioceses, for the most part there are no public Eucharists taking place throughout the church. In some places, priests are live-streaming Eucharists and no doubt some priests are also presiding at family Eucharists or in small groups. Most interestingly, the National Cathedral’s weekly livestream includes the Eucharist but the participants in the liturgy, even the presider, refrain from receiving the Sacrament. This situation has occasioned much theological debate and controversy. Rather than intervening directly in these debates, I would like to reflect on what this suspension of the Eucharist has affected my own spiritual life.

In fact, to use the word “spiritual” here seems rather odd. While the loss I am feeling in this season is connected with what we moderns and post-moderns call “spiritual,” the depth of the loss is experienced in my body. Christianity is an embodied faith. We believe in a God who became flesh and dwelt among us, a God in Christ who became human and died and on the third day was raised from the dead.

I have struggled over the last two months to connect my religious life, my religious experience, with the ongoing worship life of the Church. I found it especially difficult during Holy Week, a time when we enter into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. Our liturgies take us from the triumphal procession of Palm Sunday, through the Last Supper. We go with Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane. We watch as he is arrested and tried. We kneel at the foot of the cross as he dies and we remember his burial.

I felt like I was going through the motions this year, saying words that were completely separated from ritual actions, wafting in space disconnected from the bodies of worshippers. I could not imagine what a “virtual Great Vigil of Easter” might be and chose not to watch others performing it online. That sense of disembodiment has persisted, even deepened since Holy Week and Easter. Absent the Eucharist, absent the bodily gestures and the participation of the senses, my religious life has become one-dimensional, a mere imitation of the real thing.

A few days ago, I went to the church for the first time in a couple of weeks. We have hired a new staff member and I wanted to greet him on his first day in the office. In addition, there were a couple of other things I wanted to do—to pick up some materials I needed at home, to go through the mail and check my voicemail. I had a few other things on my agenda. I wanted to look at our spaces in the nave and chapel and think about what social distancing might look like there. And there were some uncompleted tasks that I needed to address.

When I entered my office, I saw one piece of unfinished business. The unused palms from Palm Sunday were still in a box on the floor. I moved them over to the spot where I usually leave them for the next year’s Shrove Tuesday burning. As I did, my heart grieved again for the lost Holy Week liturgies.

A few minutes later, I was down in the chapel, thinking about the need to remove chairs to ensure social distancing. I turned and saw the aumbry and faced another quandary I had been mulling for weeks. It’s our custom to consume all of the reserved Sacrament before Good Friday so that the church is emptied of Christ’s presence in commemoration of Christ’s death and burial. We hadn’t done it this year because the church was closed and we didn’t have public services. It seemed to me ironic and theologically troubling that we maintained the presence of the reserved Sacrament during a period when we aren’t celebrating the Eucharist and receiving Christ’s body and blood. I thought that removing the reserved Sacrament from the church would be fitting, given that the Body of Christ cannot gather in that space either. If the body was absent, so too should the Body (and Blood) of Christ be absent.

As I began consuming the consecrated hosts, I remembered that a host hadn’t passed my lips in over six weeks. Having missed the sacrament over that time, I assumed that I would feel something profound and meaningful as I ate. Instead I found myself tackling this task as I had in past years, as a necessary if sacred obligation. Typically, I am much more concerned with finishing the task than experiencing it spiritually. I do usually reflect on the fact that Good Friday is the one day that the Eucharist is not celebrated in the church. While we don’t follow the practice, in many churches there is communion from the reserved sacrament, the “Mass of the Pre-Sanctified.”

Instead of a single day without the Eucharist, it has been 54. In fact, as I consumed the hosts, I paid attention to their bland taste and how they felt on my lips, in my mouth, and as I swallowed them. They were precisely as I had remembered them, bearing almost no similarity to my wife’s home-made bread that I’ve been eating almost exclusively the last two months. Moreover, there seemed to be nothing “spiritual” about my eating them.

I could have left the reserved sacrament, I suppose. Left the body and blood to deal with another day. Left them in an empty, silent church; where dust was gathering and the smells that accompany old, unused spaces begin to accumulate. It seemed right, though, that if the body of Christ could no longer meet in the church that Christ’s body and blood should be absent as well, that the aumbry would stand empty with its door open as it is on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. An empty, essentially abandoned church is an unlikely place to experience the presence of Christ.

 

As I continued to ponder my response to this act, I realized that something else was happening. As important as the Eucharist is to me, as central to my spirituality and vocation as it is, the consumption of the elements is only part of a larger whole, that what I’ve been missing is not only Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine, but the whole experience of the Eucharist. What I miss most of all is the gathered body of Christ, worshiping together with our hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and voices. I miss the bodily gestures of procession, kneeling, standing, bowing. I miss hearing the organ, singing hymns, praying with the community for our concerns and the concerns of the world. The presence of Christ is not confined to the consecrated elements. We experience the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament, in the gathered Body of Christ. I’m beginning to think that we can only fully experience Christ’s presence when we gather physically.

There’s something profoundly unsettling and unsatisfying for me in live-streamed worship. Whether I am leading or participating virtually, it seems disembodied, one-dimensional. Even when it’s done well, it seems a pale imitation of “real” worship—a few singers spaced appropriately cannot create the same sort of experience as a full choir; the presence of a few clergy and readers seems to highlight the emptiness of the churches in which they are performing the rituals. I hunger and thirst for the gathered body of Christ worshipping together.

It’s likely that my hunger and thirst will continue for some time to come. States are reopening; conversations are beginning across the country in churches about what it will be like to return to public worship. It’s clear that whatever happens when we are able to gather again, our worship will look, feel, and sound very different than it did two months ago. We may continue for many months to have to adapt our worship to the reality of COVID-19.

With our traditional worship upended for such a long time, I think it is important that we consider the implications of our new worship practices and experiences on our theology of the body. While it’s easy to think of the zoom desktop as disembodied heads with virtual backgrounds, it’s also the case that real life often interjects itself into those zoom meetings or worship—in the form of noisy children or a cat walking on the keyboard, or for some of us the messiness of the room in which we are working. All of this points to the fact that reality intrudes into our virtual experiences in ways that it may not when we gather for worship on Sunday. Zoom may open us up and make us vulnerable to each other in ways that would make us uncomfortable in Sunday worship.

We are in the early stages of our experience of life with COVID-19. We don’t know how it will affect our communities and congregations, our worship, and even our theology. But we should be open to the opportunities it presents to us even as we lament what we have lost. I am curious to see what sort of embodied religious life will emerge in the coming months and years.

Resources for thinking about re-opening the church

Updated 12 May 2020

On May 13, I’m convening a conversation at Grace to begin thinking about worship, programming, fellowship, and other ministries when we are able to re-open the church. It’s likely that all aspects of our common life and ministry will be affected by COVID-19 for many months, requiring us to make significant changes. I think it’s important that we begin this conversation now because it will take some time for us to understand how radically our worship, fellowship, and programming will change for the foreseeable future.

We know that Governor Evers has extended the “Safer at Home” order until May 26. The state has also published a plan for staged re-opening called Badger Bounce Back: Badger_Bounceback_detailed. With the Governor’s order challenged by Republican legislators, it may be that the order will be deemed unconstitutional. We will need to plan for that as well. At the same time, our decisions will ultimately be guided by the instructions given us by Bishop Miller and the Diocese of Milwaukee.

Fortunately, there are already many resources available to help us have this conversation and to think about the implications for our buildings and programs. I’ve collected some of those here.

New as of May 12:

 

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has been widely shared: WCC Guide to Returning to Church – Ministry During COVID19

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has also prepared a document discussing music in particular: Returning to Church – Church Music final

One of the most useful pieces I’ve read is this: 24 Questions your church should answer before people return.

There’s a helpful article from the Episcopal News Service that surveys dioceses and parishes across the country:

 

Come away to a deserted place: A Homily for Evening Prayer on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2020

The Gospel reading is Mark 6:30-44

“Come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”

There are sayings of Jesus, gospel stories, passages of scripture that I am experiencing very differently in the midst of pandemic than I have ever experienced them before. The realities of our situation, the lengthy isolation, my struggle to encounter Christ in the absence of the Sacrament and communal worship, the tenuous connections we make through our disembodied conversations on the web or phone calls, have caused me to read scripture with new eyes.

So this invitation of Jesus: “Come away to a deserted place and rest a while”—I’ve always heard it as an offer to enter into silence and distance myself from others, to go on spiritual retreat. Such retreats have been restorative; they’ve given me spiritual strength and sustenance to re-enter the world and my vocation with new energy and insight.

But now, such an invitation causes me to recoil, laugh even. The last thing I want is to go to a deserted place. What I crave, what I desperately long for are crowds—the joyous gathering of friends, a full table at a favorite restaurant, a packed worship service. I want the stimulus of a room full of loud conversations, a crowded dance floor.

As we yearn for community, for gathering, for our friends and loved ones, Jesus’ invitation to “come away to a deserted place and rest a while” seems less like an opportunity to flourish and gain strength and more like a punishment. But it’s worth remembering that Jesus wasn’t speaking to us but in this instance to the “apostles”—it’s one of the few times the word is used in the Gospel of Mark. This invitation comes after he has sent them, the twelve out, into mission, into the towns and villages of Galilee. His sending of them was an extension of his own ministry and mission, to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, to heal the sick and to cast out demons.

Now, they are back and it’s likely they need the rest.

But they don’t get any downtime. By the time they arrive at the deserted place, crowds have gathered. Jesus sees them and has compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he taught them many things. Still, it’s a deserted place and as evening comes the disciples worry about providing for the crowd. Then follows the feeding of the five thousand. All ate and were filled from the five loaves and two fishes.

There’s a powerful message in all of this. First, Jesus sees the need of the apostles to rest after their hard work and travels. He encourages them to do just that. But as they are about to rest, they encounter a crowd that has gathered to see and listen to Jesus. Again, Jesus sees the need. Our translation says he “has compassion on them” but the Greek is much more visceral—something like “he felt it in his guts.” He responds to their need by teaching them, filling their souls with the good news.

Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this 4th Sunday after Easter, the gospel reading comes from John 10—Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. Each year we say or chant Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on this day. In today’s daily office gospel reading, we have Jesus using the image of a shepherdless flock to describe the crowd that gathered around him. They are looking for spiritual sustenance, hope, meaning in life. He ends up providing for both their spiritual and material needs.

Even as Jesus attends to the material needs of his listeners, he is also attending to their spiritual needs and pointing to the intimate, may I say, sacramental, connection between the two. The language Mark uses to describe Jesus’ actions: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples…

Taking, blessing, breaking, giving…

That’s the language of the Eucharist, the language of the last supper. The meal, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand draws our attention not just to this meal in this deserted place. It also directs our attention to the supper of the Lord, when we gather at the altar and share in Christ’s body and blood. Indeed, as was implied in Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread, when we gather at table, every meal is potentially a Eucharist, reminding us of Christ’s presence in our world and in our lives. When we share bread and wine with each other, no matter how ordinary or how many times we do it, we invite Christ’s presence among us. When we share our bread with those who have none, when we open our tables and our homes to the homeless, when we pause before we it, to bless our food we invite Christ’s sacramental presence among us.

We are living in a time of Eucharistic fast, when the bread and wine that nourishes our souls, when the gathered body of Christ that unites us is a distant memory and a mourned absence. In a time like this, to sit at table alone, or with our family is not just a reminder of the loss we are experiencing but it is also an invitation to welcome Christ’s presence, to be fed spiritually by him. We may find spiritual solace and strength in remembering and re-enacting Christ’s actions in the feeding of the five thousand. To lift up our eyes to heaven, to take the bread, bless and break it, and to give it to ourselves and our loved ones, may bring us into closer communion with our fellow Christians throughout the world, and with Christ himself.

In our deserted places being sheep without a shepherd, we are not alone. The love of Christ binds us together; Christ is with us in our lives and at our tables.

 

 

They knew their Lord: A Homily for Easter Evening, 2020

The gospel reading is Luke 24:13-35

Could you imagine an Easter as strange as the one we’re experiencing this year? Empty churches, live-streamed worship, virtual choirs. All of the things we associate with this day—new clothes, Easter lilies, brass accompaniment, packed churches—all of those things seem remote memories, more the stuff of fantasy than of the reality we are experiencing. And those memories can be gut-wrenching. As I was looking through photos of Easter at Grace from over the last few years, I found myself grieving that we couldn’t be together as a congregation, that our normal services, the Great Vigil on Saturday night, the contagious joy and happiness of gathering on Easter Day, our voices joined in singing the great familiar hymns of the day, would not take place and that we would struggle to find other ways of observing the day—by joining live-streamed worship from the diocese, or the National Cathedral, or, well, any number of other places. But I’ll be honest with you, even those live-streamed services seemed less joyful and more a reminder of what we’re missing this year, than they are a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s fascinating that we are gathering virtually this evening for Evening Prayer, doing something I doubt any of us could have imagined doing two months ago, or let’s be honest, something that would be unimaginable under ordinary circumstances. It’s our custom to worship on Sunday morning, and on Easter, after that worship to celebrate with family and friends, and have no thoughts to gather for prayer or worship later in the day.

Maybe, just maybe, our gathering like this invites us to see deeper connections between our celebration of Easter this year and the first Easter. Many have observed that the first Easter wasn’t accompanied with brass choirs and large crowds, and joyous celebration. Easter began with women coming to the tomb, in fear and grief, to do what women did—care for the bodies of their dead loved ones.

 

That first Easter ended in much the same way. In John, we’re told that the disciples were gathered behind locked doors, because of fear. In the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, we hear of two disciples returning to Emmaus from Jerusalem at the end of the day. They were full of grief at Jesus’ death and disappointment that whatever they had hoped would occur when Jesus entered Jerusalem ended instead with Jesus’ death.

And here we are. Perhaps not behind locked doors but in lockdown. We are waiting, and wondering, and worried. Think of those two disciples on their way home, trying to make sense of what they had experienced in the past few days, and longer over the months that they had accompanied Jesus. They hadn’t heard the news of the empty tomb and the message that Christ was raised. So they were living in the same fear and uncertainty they had been living in since Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. They might have talking to each other about the things Jesus had done and said. They might have expressed how excited and hopeful they had been. Now, they were probably wondering how to pick up their lives after all that, whether they could return to normalcy, what normalcy even was.

As they made their journey at the end of that day, at the end of that eventful week, they came across a stranger who knew nothing of what they had been through, or what had happened. And so they told him the story, and in response he told them where they really had been and where the history of the world was going.

Kind wayfarers that they were, they invited the stranger to come to their home, to eat with them, relax, perhaps spend the night before continuing his journey. Suddenly as bread was blessed and broken, their eyes were opened and they saw their Lord.

Suddenly, the world changed.

Suddenly grief was joy, sadness hope.

In the breaking of the bread, they encountered the Risen Christ

Suddenly, he was gone, and they were going—back to where they had been. Back to Jerusalem, back to the other disciples, to tell them what had happened to them. In their telling, they were told, of the empty tomb, of Peter’s encounter with Christ, of the promise of faith, and victory over death.

The extravagance and noise of our Easter celebrations often distract us from seeing the silence and uncertainty of resurrection, of simple, profoundly personal encounters between disciples like Mary Magdalene or the two unnamed ones on the road to Emmaus. Disciples who weren’t quite sure what or who they were seeing’ disciples who came to know when they were named by Jesus, who called Mary by her name, and in that moment she knew her Lord.

Or disciples, who in the casual and common blessing and breaking of bread, suddenly knew their Lord who at table three days earlier had blessed, broken, and gave bread, saying, “This do in remembrance of me.”

This is a quiet, confusing, domestic Easter, shared with close friends and family around tables, or virtually via modern technology. But this Easter, our Lord comes to us as he came to Mary at the tomb and to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, intimately, lovingly, touching our lives and our hearts, giving us hope, strengthening our faith. When we see him, recognize him, open ourselves to that encounter with him, our lives change, and our world changes.

 

Christ comes to each of us, calling us by name, offering us sustenance, filling us with hope. The risen Christ has conquered death. His love breaks through all lockdowns and locked doors, binds up our wounds and heals our bodies and souls. May the power and love of the Risen Christ bring hope and healing to us and to the world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ’s suffering and ours: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2020

 

One of my rituals since I’ve come to Grace is to spend most of the morning on Good Friday in the empty nave of Grace Church. On this day, it is completely devoid of decoration. On Maundy Thursday, we strip the altar and the chancel bare—removing all of the paraments, candles, prayer books and hymnals. The Christus Rex that hangs from arch in the chancel is veiled in black. It’s a time for me to reflect on the day, to prepare for the drama and power of the Good Friday liturgy, to pray for myself, for our congregation and city, and for the world. It’s a time of silence, when I leave behind all of the tasks related to Holy Week worship for a few hours, set aside all of the stress and anxiety, and focus on the cross, on Christ’s great gift of love.

Of course, this year is different. The church is empty as it always is on Good Friday morning, but it has been empty for over a month, and it will remain empty for some time to come. Our Good Friday liturgy is live-streamed from my home, unaccompanied by music.

Our observances of Holy Week this year are marked not by the usual rituals and gatherings, marked not by the great hymns of the Christian tradition. Instead, our worship takes place in atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and suffering. The loneliness of our isolation is deepened when we hear the voices of friends and loved ones over the phone or see them via zoom or facetime. We are made aware daily of the suffering in the world caused by COVID-19, and all the ways in which the virus exposes the inequities and dysfunction of our society and world.

In the midst of all of this, our anxiety and fear, our loneliness and isolation, we gather virtually to remember the events of this day that occurred almost two thousand years ago. We pause in the midst of our own struggles, pain, and helplessness to remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

His crucifixion, a bloody, horrific death, often called “execution by torture” because the way that crucifixion caused death-by asphyxiation, often a process that could take days, was reserved by Romans for the most notorious of criminals, revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and the like. It was public, meant as a warning to passers-by of the fate that awaited them if they challenged Rome’s power.

It’s a death that’s alien to us, even if we are familiar with its images. The sort of suffering it causes is known to us only through artistic images or Hollywood movies.

In spite of that, the crucifixion has often been interpreted as connecting Christ’s sufferings with our own, or with the suffering of humanity. One of the most powerful and most famous artistic representations of the crucifixion is that of the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece depicts Christ’s suffering in visual detail, his body riddled with sores, and bleeding. Painted for a hospital for victims of the plague, the sores on Christ’s body looked very much like the sores a plague victim might have, and so, by the patients could find solace and comfort from the suffering that Christ shared with them.

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps that is the only message that we need to hear. Perhaps that is the message of the cross, of Jesus’ suffering and death. That in the cross, we see Christ suffering, but that he is suffering not for himself alone but for us. In the cross, we see Christ suffering with us.

Whatever our pain, whether it is the loss of our jobs, worry about the immediate or more distant future. Whether it is our own illness, the illness or suffering of a friend or loved one, whom we cannot support or accompany right now; whether it’s the death of a loved one, or a friend’s grief at the death of their loved one. Whatever it may be, whatever suffering we might be experiencing right now, Jesus is here with us, suffering with us, taking our pain on as his own.

We are in a dark and difficult place right now, but Jesus is here with us. In the cross, he takes on our suffering; he has taken on the world’s suffering. His great love will carry us through. Even in the death and darkness of Good Friday, and in the silence of the tomb that marks Holy Saturday, Jesus’ love bears our pain and heals our suffering souls. May Jesus’ love break through our isolation, our fear, our pain, fill our hearts, and transform our lives.

 

 

He loved them to the end: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2020

 

It’s all so strange and disorienting, isn’t it? There’s a certain familiarity in the fact that most of us are confined to our homes or apartments, places we’ve lived for some time. We’re surrounded by familiar things, the various items that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes, photos, mementos, and the like. These are all things that tell us who we are and where we’ve been. They help to orient us in the world. The only strange thing is that we are around them all of the time now, or most of the time. And after several weeks of “shelter at home” even the unfamiliar has become familiar. We’ve grown accustomed to working or worshiping on-line. Many of us have overcome our fear of zoom or facebook live, and we are finding new ways to connect with each other.

Still, it doesn’t take much to remind us how strange this all is. Venturing outside, seeing people wearing masks, or noticing the lack of traffic at should be rush hour. The parking lots of stores are empty. I haven’t been inside a store in over 3 weeks. We’re making do with curbside pickup, or deliveries, or mail order.

For me, there’s another level of disorientation, as the grounding I get for my faith by worshiping through Holy Week is missing. I’m floundering a bit, spiritually, religiously. I miss the familiar rituals of Sunday and midweek Eucharist, and now I am experiencing a Holy Week far-removed from the ritual drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

But Holy Week it is even in these strange circumstances. Tonight is Maundy Thursday when we the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We remember, even though we cannot celebrate it ourselves, we cannot eat the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, and proclaim his death until he returns.

Similarly, as our gospel reading indicates, we remember Jesus’ great act of love and service when he got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. When everything is about social distancing, our ordinary squeamishness at the intimacy and strangeness of footwashing becomes even more unlikely, more offensive as we consider the implications of touching a stranger in that way.

Still here we are, gathered via the miracles of technology, to remember and worship on this Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it’s enough for us to think about what both of these acts symbolize and enact—Christ’s love for us and for the world.

This is such a poignant and powerful story, introduced with language that is at once eloquent and pregnant with meaning. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

            Think about it. Jesus knew what was going to happen—that he would be betrayed, arrested, crucified. Knowing where he had come from and where he was going. With that knowledge as background, the gospel writer continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Knowing what he knew, loving his own to the end, what did Jesus choose to do? He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.

Think of those feet, dusty, sweaty, from all those miles they walked. Think of all they had been through as his disciples followed and listened to him. Think of Jesus, touching, washing his disciples’ feet, as a few days earlier, Mary of Bethany had anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard and wiped them with her hair.

It’s something with which we are uncomfortable, even if we admit the potential power of the act; getting on our knees, washing the feet of a friend or a stranger. And for us, now, we can hardly imagine doing such a thing, with social distancing, instructions to wash our hands for twenty seconds, and masks covering our faces when we go outside.

But then, after it’s over; after Judas leaves the gathering of friends to betray Jesus, Jesus has more to say. A new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

In footwashing, in this intimate, offensive act, we see Christ’s love for us. In the foot washing, an act that transgresses so many boundaries, we see Christ’s love for us. We know that Jesus loves us. We see that love here, and on the cross, drawing us to him, drawing the world to him.

We see that love here, as Jesus stoops down, kneels down to act out that love. And as he does that, he provides us an example of how we are to love, by reaching out to others, by transgressing boundaries. He calls us to kneel before each other, and before the stranger, to wash their feet, to care for them, and love them.

Even now, as we rely on Christ’s love for us, as we yearn for Christ’s love across the chasm of isolation and social distancing, he calls us to reach out in love to others, he challenges us to love our neighbors, and strangers, the homeless and the hungry. As we receive the gift of Christ’s love, may we also offer that gift, our own love, to the world.