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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and for: A Homily for Evening Prayer on Palm Sunday

The Gospel is Luke 19:41-48.

 

So many of us are weeping right now. We weep for lost jobs and income, for relationships that are strained because of social distancing and isolation. We weep for missing the usual rhythms of the spring—March Madness, high school and college seniors going through the rituals that lead to graduation. We weep for a world we sense we may have lost, for those who are suffering and have died. We weep because we cannot observe Holy Week in all the familiar and powerful ways and because the joy of Easter will be tempered by empty churches, no gatherings of friends and family.

Our gospel reading, from the gospel of Luke, is one of those vignettes from the last week of Jesus’ life that we rarely notice, or might not even know. It’s a story told only by Luke and it’s place immediately after the Triumphal Entry—or perhaps “Entry” is not the right word for it. Because in Luke’s telling, the scene we recall on Palm Sunday takes place outside the city, on the path down from the Mt of Olives. It’s after that that Jesus stops, looks over the city and begins to weep.

Jesus weeps for its coming destruction. We can imagine Luke, writing perhaps a generation after Jerusalem’s destruction, still mourning the temple’s destruction and the exile of many of the city’s inhabitants, we can imagine Luke wishing there had been some way to avoid that violence and tragedy, and having Jesus weep in advance for all of the carnage and loss.

We saw Jesus weeping in last week’s gospel as well—the story of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus wept at the death of his friend and as he experienced his own deep grief and the deep grief of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. Perhaps he was also weeping for what he might have done and didn’t. Had he come earlier, as Martha reminded him, Lazarus would likely not have died.

Holy Week is a powerful, emotionally wracking week in the lives of Christians who follow the daily rituals. There’s the high of the Palm Sunday procession followed immediately and abruptly, with the reading of the Passion Narrative. We enter into Jesus’ final days. We accompany him to the temple as he teaches and debates with other religious leaders. And finally we come to Maundy Thursday—the Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest, his trial and crucifixion, his death and burial.

Our church’s rituals help us enter into these events. We aren’t simply imitating them or remembering them, through our liturgy, we become participants in the great mystery of our faith, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events and those rituals will take on new, very likely different meaning this year, as we experience them not as a community gathered physically, but very often on our own, as individuals or as families. Perhaps many of us will not even take time to notice them, or to participate as we might in other years.

Perhaps for you, as I am sensing it will be for me, the emotional weight of being separated from the gathered body of Christ will be simply too great for me to attempt any pale imitation of the great liturgies of our church—especially the Great Vigil of Easter.

Like Jesus, and perhaps like many of you, I am weeping this week, weeping for Jerusalem, for the church, for the world. I am weeping for the world we have lost and the great suffering that is taking place. I am weeping because I will not be able to enter into the liturgies of Holy Week in the way I have done in previous years, that I will not be present with other Christians as we wash each others’ feet, remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, and celebrate his resurrection with the Lighting of the New Fire, the exsultet, and everything else that makes the Great Vigil of Easter the highpoint of the liturgical year.

I am weeping, but I am not alone, for Jesus weeps, too. He weeps for all of us, for our church, and for the world. He weeps for the dead and the dying, the lonely and the fearful, and for all those who are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others.

This is our Holy Week this year, this is the way of the cross we are walking. But even as we walk with heavy hearts and feet trembling with fear, we are walking this way with Jesus—and the cross is not the end of the story, nor is the tomb the final act. Christ is raised from the dead. His victory over death is a victory over all the forces of death and evil that we face. We may be alone, but he is with us, fighting for us, and through his death and resurrection, he has already claimed victory. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tombs and Resurrection: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020

This is the now the third Sunday that we have gathered virtually instead of physically, and even as we are growing accustomed to life in time of pandemic, the difficulties presented by our isolation, by “safer at home,” the disruptions to our lives, world, and economy are only now becoming real to us. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many of us are trying to juggle childcare, home-schooling, and our own work schedule. We worry about our loved ones and our futures. And the virus itself is coming closer, touching our community now for the first time as we learn of friends, relatives, or acquaintances who have tested positive, are hospitalized, or even have died.

Full of fear, worried about today and tomorrow, wondering whether life will look at all the same on the other side, if we ever make it to the other side of the pandemic, we gather to worship, to listen to words of comfort from scripture, to pray for ourselves and for the world.

We may even remember that it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. If you’re like me, most of the Lenten disciplines you began in February have fallen by the wayside as they seemed like meaningless gestures next to everything we have had to give up-the easy sociability of friends gathering, a restaurant meal, Sunday worship, the Blessed Sacrament.

Yet it is Lent, the 5th Sunday in Lent, and although the Lent of COVID-19 will continue for many weeks, liturgically we are drawing near to Holy Week, near to the cross and the tomb, nearer to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection

As if a foretaste of the great joy of Easter, deferred though it may be this year, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And for us in our place, behind closed doors, isolated from the world and from physical connection with our fellow humans, it speaks to us.

The poignancy of Mary and Martha’s fear and grief touches us even as the apparent callousness of Jesus’ response to them offends. They send word to him that their brother, Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Instead of changing his plans and going to be with them immediately, Jesus tarries for two days, a long enough delay that Lazarus is dead and buried by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany.

Then come the recriminations. We understand Mary’s anger and frustration—Lord, if you had been here he would not have died. But instead of sitting with her in her grief, Jesus turns this moment into an object lesson about his identity. “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in m will never die.”

Words, words. Sometimes in John’s gospel, even the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most profound words that Jesus says can come to seem less than connected with our lives. He says so many things, so many times he says the same things in slightly different ways, or uses the same words or images again and again. The words may begin to wash over us, or worse, we may simply tune them out because they don’t speak to, or for, us.

After the words, actions. The group goes to the tomb. Suddenly, words matter; suddenly the reality of it all hits home. Jesus tells them to roll the stone away. Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days; that the stench will be overwhelming. And now we are in the presence, the overwhelming power of death. Even if we’ve never come near a dead body, or opened a tomb, we can imagine what’s going. We’ve seen enough movies, we’ve watched enough TV to know what is happening, what has happened.

Yet the stone is rolled away. And Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” He comes out, a dead man walking, and Jesus tells them to unbind the graveclothes from him. And we get the punchline. “Many of the Jews believed in him”

A story of miraculous power, of resurrection and life. A story of faith, Mary’s, and Martha’s, and the bystanders who came to faith. A story of love—of two sisters for their brother, and the love of Jesus for his friends. A story of death, and grief, and deep, deep feeling. All those adjectives used of Jesus here: “Jesus greatly disturbed and moved in spirit” Jesus began to weep, and again, repeating that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” All of these powerful emotions given to Jesus the Son of God at a time of the deepest distress of his friends.

Like Lazarus, we are in tombs, tombs of isolation, despair, anxiety, and fear. We don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know whether the pandemic will touch us more deeply and closely. We can’t see beyond the next few days or next few weeks.

But we are not alone. The one who is resurrection and life calls to us, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls to us to come out of our tombs of anxiety and despair. The risen Christ is with us here and now. He has conquered death and gives us life.

I pray that in this time of loneliness and fear, when we are separated from our friends and family, separated from the gathered body of Christ, that we listen for the voice of Jesus. It is a voice that calms our fears and gives us hope. It is a voices that offers us strength and life. And may we look forward to the day when, emerging from the tombs of isolation, we are freed from the bindings that restrict us by the loving hands of our fellow believers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

Annunciation by Denise Levertov: Poetry for the Feast of the Annunciation

“Annunciation” by Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
HymnGreece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

Jesus’ Healing Touch: A Sermon for 4 Lent, 2020

My sermon from 2017 is here

My sermon from 2014 is here

A blind man sitting by the side of a dusty road. It’s likely something that he did every day, sitting there, presumably begging, although we’re not told that in the text. Born blind, he had struggled with that challenge all his life.

Jesus and his disciples were passing by. We may assume that the blind man wasn’t alone, that there were others congregating with him, as beggars, panhandlers do, in places they hope have lots of foot traffic. And like Jesus, when we see them, we very likely pass by as well.

But the disciples took notice. Not of the man’s suffering or need; their theological curiosity was piqued. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Were the disciples bored? Were they hoping their question would inspire Jesus to offer a lengthy discourse on the nature of sin, suffering, and divine justice?   Or did this question come from a genuine place of concern on their part? If so, why the blind man? What was about him that drew their attention?

Meanwhile, the blind man is just sitting there by the side of the road, undoubtedly hearing the question and the response. It’s pretty belittling, don’t you think? Unknown passers-by, asking whether your blindness was a result of your or your parents’ sin. They’re not interested in you, not interested in your difficult life. They could care less.

And at first, you’re sitting there, overhearing the callous conversation, and the teacher seems no more interested in you than any of his disciples are but at least he puts the blame for your blindness not on your or your parents’ sin.

“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Is that any word of reassurance? But then, and again, you don’t know what’s going on because you’re blind and there’s no one to narrate the action, you feel these hands smearing your eyes with mud.

What’s going on? How can someone invade your personal space like that and mess with your face, your eyes? But he hears this unfamiliar voice telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and perhaps only because he wants to get rid of the mud on his face, he obeys. As he does it and as he returns, he is able to see.

Now there’s lots more to this story. It goes on for 41 verses with many characters, plot developments, and debate. If you would like to know my take on this story from previous years, I direct you to my blog, where sermons from past years are posted.

Instead, I want us to focus on the blind man, and on Jesus. We are like that blind man. We are in the middle of a situation none of us could have imagined and for which none of us have prepared. We can’t see into the future; we can’t really even see tomorrow. We are helpless, alone, isolated. We are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. And we are impotent. We can’t control our environment. I went out for a walk yesterday and while I was vigilant in practicing social distancing, many bikers and joggers on the bike path were not.

And there are those voices, like the disciples, in our heads and in our media, asking questions about the pandemic, seeking to lay blame, on our government, on China, or perhaps even blaming ourselves or God.

In our isolation, in our fear, in our blindness, Jesus comes to us, touches us and gives us sight. He gives us hope, courage, and strength. Jesus is the light of the world. He is our light. Shining in the darkness of these difficult days, Jesus offers us healing and hope. His touch comes to us, breaking the barrier of social distance and isolation to open our eyes and fill our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God’s love poured into our hearts: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2020

My beloved friends in Christ, I come before you in these strange circumstances, as we face danger like none we have ever known before, in the midst of overwhelming fear, anxiety, and growing isolation. Even as we struggle to make sense of all of this, struggle to figure out what to do, struggle to survive, we also see signs of God’s grace and mercy. I am so very grateful for your prayers for me, our staff and lay leadership as we work to respond to this situation. I am grateful for the volunteers who offered to help with the phone tree that was implemented yesterday, to provide us with yet another means of communication. I’m grateful for Vikki and the food pantry volunteers who continued that vital ministry in these difficult circumstances. I’m grateful for others who have reached out with words of encouragement and offers of help.

These are trying times, made especially so because our human instinct to come together, to gather in the face of crisis, is made impossible by the need for social distancing. The comfort and strength we gain by meeting together is lost to us. That is one reason I decided to offer online worship this morning; as a way to gather, if only via the internet, to hear familiar words and say familiar prayers, to gain strength and to receive grace from the Eucharist, even if we can experience it only visually and spiritually.

When we gather, our fellowship seems easily to nurture community. We greet each other, share polite conversation, shake hands while passing the peace, talk during coffee hour. But ours is primarily a Sunday congregation; most of us have other relationships with friends, family, and coworkers that sustain us and support us. We don’t often pay close attention, tend, or nurture any of those relationships. Proximity makes such relationships relatively easy to maintain. Now we are in a different situation. Our physical separation means that we must find new ways to build and nurture relationships. We must be more attentive, intentional. It is my hope that our experience in the coming days and weeks will create new and deeper connections that will continue when we are once again able to gather together physically.

I was moved by the power and relevance of Paul’s words in today’s reading from Romans: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” May we gain strength for the days to come from these words and may we all experience the hope that comes from the love that God pours into our hearts.”

 

Today’s gospel reading offers insight into our situation. The story of the Samaritan woman is a familiar and beloved story. It’s a story full of symbolism and like so many stories in John’s gospel, it gains deeper significance and meaning when we read it in light of the rest of the Gospel. So for example, we could contrast Nicodemus, last week’s gospel reading, with this story. Nicodemus was a Jew, a Pharisee, the consummate insider. He came to Jesus by night. The Samaritan woman was the consummate outsider, both in her own community and in relation to the Jewish community. Yet her encounter with Jesus took place in the blazing midday sun. Is this an allusion to chapter 1: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome (grasp) it”?

Or perhaps another allusion to chapter 1. After John the Baptist identifies Jesus to his own disciples, pointing to him and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Andrew and another one follow Jesus. When Jesus notices them, he asks, “What are you looking for?

They respond, “Where are you staying?”

To which Jesus responds, “Come and see.”

In this story, after her encounter with Jesus, the woman runs back to town and tells the people, “Come and see.” She is the first to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the first to share the good news of Jesus with others, the first evangelist.

But there’s more to the story than that. And it’s hard not to read our own situation into the Samaritan woman’s experience.

Social distancing, a concept that was unknown to us two weeks ago is now on our minds constantly. But even if we didn’t call it that, social isolation and ostracism has been common throughout human history. Indeed, the Samaritan woman herself experienced social isolation. She came to the well in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the day, alone, because she was marginalized by her community. Tasks like these were most often communal ones in premodern, rural cultures. Women who had to do the same thing did it together, so women would come together to the well, chatting, gossiping as they did. It was a time of fellowship. But this woman, because of her status came to the well by herself.

But when she arrived, she discovered someone else was there. And when he asked her for water, she practiced social distancing on him, reminding him of religious and cultural convention that prohibited their conversation, and prohibited him from drinking water from a jug that she had touched. Contamination, you see.

As their conversation deepened, they broached the cause of the division between Samaritan and Jew. Samaritans had built a temple to worship God on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews believed the only temple where valid worship could occur was Jerusalem. As they continued to chat, Jesus said:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

I am saying this in an empty nave, a place where people have worshiped for more than 160 years each Sunday. It is a place that we cherish; a place we gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is a place we love; it is a place where we encounter God, where we are the body of Christ. But today and for the foreseeable future, we will not be able to gather here for worship and fellowship. Our relationships with God and each other will be nourished not by hugs, or by bread and wine, but by all of the ways we connect thanks to modern technology—the telephone, social media. Even as we often criticize such technology for distracting us or for loosening the ties that bind us to our faith or our communities, now, we are going to have to rely on that technology and learn new ways of connecting.

Worship in spirit and in truth. It’s almost as if we are given a way forward. Jesus is reminding us that the building doesn’t matter all that much. He’s reminding us that in spite of the fact that Christianity is an embodied religion, that we worship a God made flesh, who lived among us, a God whose body suffered like ours do, a God who died like we do, but was raised again, worship and relationship happen in other ways, too.

May we find ways to nurture and deepen our relationships with each other and with God, and may we find ways to share God’s love in these difficult days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources for online worship, March 15, 2020

A link to our facebook page: You may also search for it on Facebook: @gracemadisonwi

A link to First United Methodist Church’s livestream (I’ll be joining their clergy for informal worship at 9:00 am).

our service bulletin for this Sunday.

A link to the online Book of Common Prayer.

We will begin with the Penitential Order Rite II, followed by the Eucharist

Prayers for Spiritual Communion (from Forward Movement Publications and St. Augustine’s Prayerbook), intended for use when it’s impossible to receive the sacrament. You may pray them while I’m consecrating the elements today:

National Cathedral’s streamed worship (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is preaching

A little background about our efforts toward a new shelter

I didn’t sleep well last night. I rarely do on Saturday nights because I’m always a bit worried about Sunday. I worry whether my sermon will proclaim the Gospel and feed the souls of the people who gather at Grace. I fret about the logistics of worship. I wonder whether there will be people missing from the pews or whether I will learn of serious illness or the death of a member.

Last night, I was worried about something else. I knew Dean Mosiman’s article on our nascent efforts toward a new men’s shelter was going to be published today and I was worried about what would appear in it and what the public’s, and Grace members’ reaction would be. He had spent an hour interviewing me for the piece a couple of weeks ago; and we spent around a half hour on the phone on Thursday as he talked through the article, checked facts, and whether I was comfortable with the quotes from me he was using.

We’ve been working toward this for over five years. Back when we first began conversations at Grace about long-overdue renovations, we included some tweaks to the shelter facilities in our early plans. We ended not including that work in our capital campaign and renovations for a complicated set of reasons, including the prospects of a major redevelopment of much of the block. At the same time, we continued internal conversations and had some exploratory conversions about the possibility of a new shelter with some stakeholders in the community.

We started those conversations because our concerns about conditions and adequacy of the facility. The basement that is used as shelter is severely overcrowded at intake and at meals. It is not ADA-compliant. Guests are forced to wait outside in inclement weather.  There are permanent “overflow” shelters and inadequate space to provide ancillary services including counseling and case management. On top of all that, the facilities are likely nearing the end of their lifespan.

Over the last years, we’ve talked to business leaders, downtown developers, elected officials, city and county staff, and other service providers. While there is almost universal agreement that the facility at Grace is inadequate, we have been told repeatedly over the years that unless and until we set a deadline for the shelter’s departure from Grace, there will be no movement towards a new shelter.

Our response to that has always been and will continue to be that we will not, nor can we, set a deadline. The men’s shelter came to Grace in 1984-1985 on a one-year temporary basis. It will remain at Grace until a new shelter that is adequate to the needs and designed for the purpose opens. The shelter is central to our identity as a church and it is central to our mission and purpose in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

With no one else in the community willing to take the lead, beginning work toward a new shelter fell on us. We knew that it was well beyond our capacity as a congregation both financially and in terms of expertise. We knew that we would have to bring together a coalition of people who were committed to the effort and could move it forward.

When we first began thinking of who might help us move this project along, we immediately thought of Susan Schmitz, former President of Downtown Madison, Inc. She is committed to working on the issue of homelessness, is widely respected in the community, and has relationships across the city, with elected officials, city and county staff, and downtown stakeholders. As she worked, it became clear to us that moving forward was definitely a possibility, and so we took the next steps of putting together a steering committee that would work on the project.

Meanwhile, a group of shelter providers from the Homeless Services Consortium had begun discussing what a new shelter might look like: what best practices were in place across the country, what Madison’s needs might be, and the like. Members of that group and representatives of Grace Church, as well some additional city and county staff went up to St. Paul to tour Higher Ground, a new shelter operated by Catholic Charities.

That tour was transformative, at least for me. I saw the possibility of what a shelter might, no should look like. It has a roomy reception area large enough to accommodate all guests at intake. There are bunks with space for personal storage and charging outlets. There are areas for “pay-to-stay” where people who have jobs but lack the financial resources to rent can stay and at the same time save money for a security deposit or first month’s rent. Not only did our tour offer a vision of what might be; it also provided a stark and embarrassing contrast to what we have now.

The way ahead is enormously challenging and full of potential landmines. Given my experience with early efforts at locating a day resource center and the neighborhood outcry over the Salvation Army’s redevelopment plans, I know that much could go wrong.

I don’t think we have a choice. As Mosiman points out in the article, conditions in the shelter at Grace are deteriorating and no amount of renovation can overcome its lack of space and inadequacy. The “overflow” shelters are equally problematic and the host congregations are discussing their future plans. The model we have used in Madison for the last 35 years is no longer viable. The urgent need for a new shelter Is a result of the growing population of homeless people, the unsustainability of our current facilities, and the desperate need to provide guests with the services they need to find permanent housing and become flourishing members of our community.

There’s one more thing. As I said earlier, the shelter is at the heart of Grace’s identity as a congregation and central to our mission. When it is relocated, it will leave a huge hole at the heart of who we are. We have been committed to serving homeless men for 35 years. We have received accolades from the community as well as considerable criticism. Even though we are only technically the landlords of the shelter, it is very much part of us. As this process moves forward, we will also be prayerfully discerning how we might continue to minister to homeless people, perhaps in creative, new ways, and also we will seek to hear where God is calling is in the future.

I provide a little more history about the homeless shelter and my reflections on ministry to the homeless in articles here and here.