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.

It might be a vision from God, it might be your stomach growling: A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2019

Today marks the end of the program year for our Christian Formation program. It’s a custom here at Grace that on this day we recognize all those who have worked in our Christian formation program as teachers and as volunteers and to invite the children and youth in the program to participate in our service by serving as ushers, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. Things are always a bit chaotic on this day, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We experience the full breadth and depth of our congregation—its diversity in ages. And we see concretely how our Christian formation program has grown over the last decade. This year we added a second class during the 10:00 service to accommodate that growth, and next year, we anticipate dividing the older group that meets at 9 into separate classes for middle and high schoolers. Much of the success of the program is due to the energy, passion, and creativity of Pat Werk, and also to all those volunteers whom we will recognize later in the service.

That’s all a sign of growth and change at Grace. While we might welcome such growth, it’s also important to recognize that growth brings with it some challenges. We may not know or recognize everyone who worships with us on Sunday mornings; the presence of children in our services can also make things a little more chaotic, and not just on this Sunday morning. And we are struggling with space. As we consider splitting the youth into two classes, finding space for the second class to meet will require some flexibility and creative thinking.

In the book of Acts, we read the story of the spread of the gospel and the growth in numbers of the followers of Jesus in the first years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells us a story full of drama and excitement but he also records some of the conflict that such growth involved. We see some of that conflict here, in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you respected, someone in authority told you to do something you had never done before, something that went against everything you had been taught, would have challenged your very sense of identity, who you were, how you understood yourself, your deepest values? Can you imagine that? How would you respond?

That’s just what happened to Peter. He was staying with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and as he waited for lunch, he had a vision that unsettled him and challenged his very sense of self. A cloth comes down, on it are all sorts of unclean animals. A voice calls to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter refuses. The same thing happens three times, and just as the vision comes to an end, messengers sent by Cornelius knock at the door. Peter and some others go with them. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household, the Holy Spirit comes down on those present, and Peter baptizes them.

We hear the second version of that story, as Peter retells it to the gathered community in Jerusalem after his return from Caesarea. It wasn’t a simple update from Peter to the home office. There was grave concern about what had happened while he was traveling:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, they weren’t bothered that Peter had preached to Gentiles or that he had baptized them. What concerned them was that he had eaten with them. Peter had visited Cornelius, stayed with him for several days, and had eaten at his table. From Luke’s perspective, this all would have been offensive to observant Jews.

Let me take a moment to unpack this. It’s crucial to compare the New Testament accounts with what we know from other sources and in this case, Luke is mis-stating the nature of Jewish practice in the first century. Certainly, observant Jews maintained strict dietary laws—eating only those foods that were clean by biblical standards. That’s what was at stake in the vision Peter had. But the notion that as Luke records a bit earlier (Acts 10:28) “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” is wrong. In 1stcentury Palestine, it would have been impossible for Jews not to have had contact with Gentiles. So Luke is depicting Judaism in negative terms here, and also caricaturing the position of Peter’s critics.

Now certainly there were important issues at stake. We will see the conflict again next week as we hear the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and the so-called Jerusalem council. The question whether Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised and to follow Jewish dietary laws was an important one. From the perspective of 21stcentury Americans, it’s hard to understand what was at stake, and to take seriously the concerns around circumcision. We know how the story ended.

But given the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, we must recognize when new testament texts and their authors present Judaism in negative light and provide cover for contemporary anti-semitism. This is one of those places. It’s obvious to us that circumcision and Jewish dietary laws no longer apply and we regard those who wanted to maintain them misguided. They were in a very different place. The relationship between the Jesus movement and Judaism was not defined. The emergence of two religions—Judaism and Christianity—was not at all an obvious development.

But there are other lessons for us here. We should think carefully about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the ways in which our sacred texts and Christian history have led to persecution, anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust.

We often look at the story of Acts, the spread of the Gospel, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the resistance to that from certain parties and interpret our own experiences and the life of the 21stcentury church in light of that narrative. How many times have people said when change is happening in the church, that the Holy Spirit is moving or doing a new thing? When the question is asked that way, the speaker always is advocating that change is good, that the innovation is a faithful adaptation of our faith to new realities.

I’m not so sure. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy that I’ve always found helpful here. The text is addressing the rise of false prophets and raises the question of how to distinguish true from false prophecy. Well, the answer that’s offered isn’t particularly reassuring—basically the advice is to wait and see whether the prophecy comes true. In other words, you can’t really distinguish true and false prophecy until after the fact.

Our congregation is experiencing change. The Episcopal Church is experiencing change, Christianity in America and worldwide is experiencing change. We may be uncomfortable with some of those changes; we may welcome them but as faithful Christians our ultimate task is to discern the work of the spirit, to listen to scripture and tradition, to pay attention to voices on all sides of an issue, and seek God’s wisdom and will in the midst of it, recognizing that our perspective might not be correct in the long run.

And the vision we receive, the voice that tells us, “Get up, kill and eat” may be heaven. It may also be our stomachs growling.

 

 

 

 

The Disciple named Tabitha: A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2019

When I was a boy, one Wednesday a month, my mother would drop me off at my grandfather’s house to spend the day while she took my grandmother and my sisters to the church to what was called “Sewing.” The women of the church gathered together to work on quilts, comforters, and other sewing projects that would be donated to relief sales or sent to people in need—after natural disasters, for example. I’m not sure when or if the custom ended, if it died out like so many other customs did with our changing culture. Continue reading

The Anglican Communion: Why even bother anymore?

In the run-up to the Lambeth Conference 2020, there has been a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing among US Episcopalians about the actions, invitations, and statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

For those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of Anglicanism, the Lambeth Conference is one of the so-called “Instruments of Communion” that connect the various churches that claim affiliation with the Anglican Communion. It is a conference of all Anglican bishops, held every ten years (although delayed this time because of strained relationships over full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church). All of the bishops gather to build relationships and attempt to make statements on various topics of perceived importance. Traditionally, one of the high points of the conference is tea with the Queen.

The last twenty years have seen increased conflict within Anglicanism over matters of sexuality. The conflict was exacerbated when Gene Robinson was ordained Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the first openly gay bishop in a long-term relationship. That precipitated the departure of a number of dioceses and congregations and led to the formation of the Anglican Church of North America. More recently, the Episcopal Church authorized rites for same-sex marriages.

As preparations for Lambeth accelerate, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he would not issue invitations to the same-sex spouses of bishops, a decision that aroused the ire of many in the Episcopal Church and led to statements from the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies of General Convention, Executive Council, and the House of Bishops.

Another of those “instruments of communion”–the Anglican Consultative Council–is currently meeting in Hong Kong. News was made when the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that the body couldn’t discuss his disinvitation of certain spouses because of British law. Unsurprisingly, this statement was met with outrage by all of the usual suspects.

In addition, Archbishop Welby has invited representatives from the Anglican Church of North America to attend as “non-member observers.” The invitation was met with derision from the leader of ACNA, Foley Beach who wrote in response:

For the Anglican Church in North America to be treated as mere “observers” is an insult to both our bishops, many of whom have made costly stands for the Gospel, and the majority of Anglicans around the world who have long stood with us as a province of the Anglican Communion.

At this point in my life and ministry, I find all of this more amusing than concerning. As a parish priest approaching ten years in my current cure, local issues far outweigh issues of national or international concern. In addition, my closest clergy colleagues are pastors of congregations of other denominations as we work together to address matters that cross denominational boundaries like homelessness, racism, and economic inequity. With the deep political and cultural divisions in our country, with white supremacy running rampant and resurgent anti-semitism expressing itself in killings in synagogues, with the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants, with climate catastrophe, whether the spouses of bishops are invited to a Lambeth conference seem of little importance in the larger scheme of things.

The Anglican Communion is a product of British Empire and colonialism. Its persistence is evidence of the continuing legacy of that history. American Episcopalian continued infatuation with it seems to be as much about the continued appeal of English culture and history, as well as the monarchy. Where our privilege is vanishing before the incessant tide of secularism and Christian nationalism, the fantasy that our church, as small as it is, has global significance because of the “worldwide Anglican Communion” is both persistent and attractive.

Still, I wonder whether it’s time to move on. The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the larger Anglican Communion seems more abusive than life-giving. We want to be accepted as full members. When the Archbishop of Canterbury or some other entity treats us as second-class, we react with outrage. What if we just went our own way?

The “Instruments of Communion” are products of the Age of Imperialism and Colonialism, and the post-World War II efforts to build certain kinds of international institutions. Many of those institutions are showing signs of collapse–the European Union is one prime example.

My question is: In the absence of such formal structures, what might relationships among Anglicans look like? I suspect very much like they look right now on the ground, with work being done by individuals, ecclesial entities, and dioceses across the globe, building relationships of trust and support that are informal but sustaining. Globalization means many things, but one of its products is the ease with which we can connect across the globe via social media and shared interests. Maybe instead of spending all of our energy licking our wounds over our treatment in the run-up to Lambeth 2020, we should work at building those other relationships that aren’t dependent on the Archbishop of Canterbury, gatherings of bishops, or instruments of communion.

Furthermore, in the face of reports that membership in religious bodies has hit an all-time low in the US, maybe it’s time for us to get over the presence of ACNA. There’s a new ACNA congregation in my neighborhood, which I discovered by the postcards they send out before Christmas and Easter. Initially, I felt some anger at the thought of invaders encroaching on our territory. This past Easter, as I was driving home and saw their sandwich board out at the street, I felt gratitude for their witness and prayed silently for their success. With an overflowing crowd at Grace that day, and feeling the exhaustion after Holy Week, I know we can’t reach everyone who is desperate for God’s love in our city, and if my ACNA nieghbors can reach some, I welcome their presence.

Easter Wings by George Herbert: Poetry for Easter

Easter Wings

By George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

 

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Easter Encounters, Easter Relationships: A Sermon for Easter, 2019

I’ve long been fascinated with cemeteries. When I lived in Massachusetts, I loved to walk through old graveyards—the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston, or the old graveyard in Newburyport. They are places of history and witnesses to the lives of those who are buried there.

As a priest, I’ve buried people in family plots in almost forgotten cemeteries in Greenville, SC, or in rural cemeteries throughout Southern Wisconsin. But increasingly, as our culture changes and we are less connected to family and to place, we find other ways to remember our loved ones and the notion of visiting a cemetery to mourn or remember a dear friend or family member is increasingly uncommon.

Not so in the first century. Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb while she was still raw with grief. The other gospels offer an explanation for the appearance of the women at the tomb—they come to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and ointment for burial. Mary Magdalene came to the to grieve. Her grief is the grief shared by humans everywhere at the loss of a loved one. It’s a grief we’ve all experienced. No doubt, some of you carry such grief in your hearts this morning.

But her grief is especially familiar to those who have lost friends and family members in an untimely fashion, and especially those who grieve the deaths of those they love because of the violence, oppression, and hate of other humans. No doubt, in her grief is also fear, and anger, impotence and rage.

Imagine her surprise, her horror when she discovers that the tomb is empty, a final indignity to her friend. He couldn’t even be allowed to rest in peace. In fear and anger she runs to her friends, to tell them what has happened, to share the outrage. Peter and the other, the beloved disciple run to see, look at the empty tomb, see the discarded grave clothes and leave.

Mary stays behind, lingering in the garden, lingering with her fears and doubts, lingering with her dashed hopes. The angel tells her what has happened—but she cannot take it all in. She can’t understand the meaning of his words. And so she turns. She sees the gardener, deciding to ask him where Jesus’ body was taken.

And in that moment, everything changes. He calls her by name; the mist of incomprehension is cleared from her eyes, and she knows him, “Rabbouni, Teacher,” she cries out. Suddenly Mary, and all of us, experience the world, our lives made new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The risen Christ transforms her grief into joy. In his presence, she experiences the power of God’s love.

I’m not expecting you to understand or make sense of the resurrection. I am asking you to believe it, to experience it. I’m hoping you’ll experience it like Mary Magdalene did, in that moment that Jesus called her name. I’m hoping you’ll experience that flash of recognition, suddenly knowing Jesus Christ, knowing yourself, and knowing the possibility of resurrection in your own life.

For the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb and a two thousand year old story. It is about relationship, with God in Jesus Christ. It’s experiencing a God who overcomes death, a God who created us and the world, a God who in Jesus Christ is making a new creation in ourselves and in the world. It is a story about a God who doesn’t give up, a God who doesn’t abandon us to our own devices and desires. As Rowan Williams has said, “the resurrection is at least in part about the sheer toughness and persistence of God’s love.”

Last night, we baptized two people; this morning we will baptize two more, Grant and Luke Flannery. They will be baptized by their grandfather, Rev. Floyd Schoenhals, who already knows them intimately and has called them by name many times. In baptism, we are all called by name by Jesus, we all enter into relationship with him, and whoever we are, whatever we have done we are made new in that moment. Called by name, recognized by Jesus Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever.

In our world, there are so many voices, so many people who try to name us, to tell us who we are, and what our worth and value is. We are bombarded by imagery and advertising that holds up impossible ideals of beauty, wealth, and success, that tells us repeatedly, endlessly that unless we do this, or buy this, or have these, we are of no worth. We live in a culture where still, the color of our skin, our national origin, our gender or sexual identity, our educational attainment, defines who we are, what our value is. We internalize those messages and sometimes we are filled with self-loathing, insecurities. Often those messages and identities shape our lives, our futures, our destinies.

When Jesus said, “Mary” he broke through all of the barriers in her life that prevented her from knowing him fully. When Jesus said, “Mary” he removed the mists of incomprehension from her eyes and from her heart. When Jesus said “Mary” he also says all of our names, inviting us into relationship with him, inviting us to know and experience him fully, inviting us to experience the wonder and persistence of God’s love.

Just as Jesus called “Mary,” he calls us, inviting us into relationship, inviting us into experiencing the risen Christ, inviting us to experience transformed humanity, the world made new by the God’s creative love. Jesus calls us by name. He tells us who we are, his beloved children, marked as his own forever.

When the Risen Christ calls us by name and invites us into relationship, the power of resurrection begins to transform us and our lives, making us new creations, remaking us in his image and likeness.

We mustn’t let it end there, however, not with our own experience of the wonder and persistence of God’s love. Like Mary, our joy should be so great, our hearts so overflowing that we want to share the good news of that love, inviting others into relationship with Jesus Christ, calling others by name as he called us by name, making present to them the transforming power of new life in Christ, inviting them to experience the power of resurrection.

Living the Easter story: A Sermon for the Easter Vigil, 2019

A few minutes ago, we baptized Adrian and Roland. If my math is correct, Adrian celebrated his 30thbirthday yesterday; Roland was born on January 15, so he’s just over 3 months old. Adrian has a story he tells about himself, where he came from, who he is. Roland’s story is just beginning and he isn’t able to tell it yet.

But tonight, both of them entered into another story, the story of salvation. We heard some of those highlights in the series of readings from Old Testament, beginning with Creation, the Flood, and the deliverance at the Red Sea. We heard another version of that story in Paul’s description of baptism from the letter to the Romans: Continue reading

Holy Saturday

The Collect of the Day.

Lord God our Father, 
maker of heaven and earth: 
As the crucified body of your dear Son 
was laid in the tomb 
to await the glory that would be revealed, 
so may we endure 
the darkness of this present time 
in the sure confidence 
that we will rise with him. 
We ask this through your Son, 
Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns 
with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever. 
Amen.

From an Ancient Homily:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”