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.

Great is your faith: A homily for Proper 15A, 2020

I’ve sensed a shift in myself over the last few weeks. As the pandemic continues with no signs that we will be able to return to any semblancy of what we used to regard as normal life any time soon, I’ve moved out of crisis mode and begun to think about what our programming, worship, and other activities might look like in the coming months and year. I met with our music staff last week to begin talking about expanding our music offerings in the fall and to look ahead toward Advent and Christmas as we think about how we might observe and celebrate the seasons without in-person worship.

We’re working on other things as well. I’ve had conversations about Christian formation, both children and adult. We’re wondering what an annual meeting might look like; colleagues in the diocese are hosting discussions about stewardship and Christian Formation as well. It’s been over five months since we’ve gathered at Grace for in-person worship and I’m doubtful that we are half-way through this ordeal.

It’s so disheartening, isn’t it? Not just church, of course, but all of life has been upended. There will be no Badger football this fall, no concerts. What school will be like is still very much in the air, not to mention classes at the university. We long for some semblance of life as it was, to gather with friends or to go to restaurants and movies, and even as we try do those things now. For many of us things are even worse than that, with unemployment and uncertainty around housing and food security.

It’s enough for us to want to cry out like the woman in today’s gospel story, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And like the desperate woman who had exhausted all options in her desire to help her daughter, Jesus’ silence in response doesn’t cut it.

This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.

This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.

One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her and dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.

There is a great deal one could say about this story. It raises a lot of questions—about Jesus, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel, about the extent of Jesus’ ministry, about his self-understanding. And if you’re interested in some of those questions, I encourage you to go to my blog and look up my sermons from previous years on this text.

But today, I want to focus on one moment—the woman’s reaction when Jesus doesn’t respond to her and when his responses to her don’t satisfy her. She doesn’t settle for his silence or his attempt to silence her. She persists. She kneels down and prays, “Lord, help me.” And when he seems to dismiss her with the saying, “It is not right to the children’s food to dogs,” her response is to say that “even dogs eat the scraps from their masters’ tables.”

We are in difficult times. I don’t need to tell you that. I’m not even going to recite the litany of everything that’s going on right now. As Christians, we are people of prayer. We ask God’s help for our loved ones and for ourselves, for our nation and for all of those who are suffering. But often our prayers are little more than words that cross our lips, pious statements that we make or read because well, that’s what we do after the creed and before the confession of sin.

But right now, many of us may find ourselves praying because there seems to be little else we can do. We’ve exhausted all of our options, we ourselves are exhausted. We may even cry out, or want to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

If we have said those or similar words, we may have been at the very end and not really expecting a response from God. We are greeted with silence, and unlike Elijah in last week’s reading from I Kings, we don’t even hear a still, small voice.

Silence, or as in the woman’s case, a rebuke—perhaps when our prayer isn’t answered, the rebuke we hear is from the voice inside of us that says we deserve all this that we’re getting. The Canaanite woman didn’t accept the silence; she didn’t accept the rebuke, she persisted.

And because she persisted, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter. Maybe, just maybe, those unsettling, disappointing conversations with God we call prayer can bring us to new discoveries and deeper faith. Maybe, when we wrestle with God, when we challenge Jesus, it’s not that we change God’s mind, but that a new, deeper relationship with God opens up to us. Whether or not our suffering ends, by returning to God again and again in prayer and petition, we hear God say to us, “Great is your faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud noises and sheer silence: A Homily for Proper 14A, 2020

There are biblical texts that are so familiar to me that I feel like I know them word for word, at least in the NRSV version. That’s partly because I taught Intro to the Bible at least 20 times over the years. It’s also because I’ve been preaching regularly for fifteen years now, which means that I’ve been through the three-year lectionary cycle 5 times. But with parents who took their children to church at least three times a week while I was growing up, my history with these stories goes back much further—some of them seem as though they have entered the very marrow of my bones.

That’s certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s drama and special effects made it a standard of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. It’s also true of the story from I Kings—Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. I know I’ve got a sermon on it somewhere in my files but curiously I couldn’t find it—which means I’ve never preached this text at Grace.

It’s a story full of emotion and theological significance. Elijah, the great prophet of Israel has fled to this place, Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. He had just won a contest with the prophets of Baal, and should have been basking in victory and in God’s victory over the Canaanite deity. Instead, King Ahab put a bounty on his head and Elijah had to flee the kingdom. Fearing for his life and despondent about his failure to convert king and people, Elijah came here as the text says, to die.

But God had other plans. What happens next is remarkable. If you were to go back and look at Exodus 19, which is the story of the Israelites’ arrival at Mt. Sinai after fleeing the Egyptians, you would read about God’s appearance to them. There was an earthquake, a mighty wind, a fire. And then God spoke.

Here, centuries later, at the same place, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave so that he can pass by. The text then reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

The contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the first instance God appeared to Moses and the Israelites in earthquake, wind, and fire. Now God appears to Elijah after all of the special effects were over, as if to say that God is present not in the powers of nature, but in the power of words and silence. What comes next is a recommissioning of Elijah and an anointing, of him, the kings who will come after Ahab, and of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.

There are significant parallels here with the gospel story. It occurs immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand-remember that the immediate context for that was Jesus receiving news that John the Baptist had been beheaded and his desire to go to a deserted place. Thwarted by the crowds, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead, while he went up the mountain to pray.

The disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and are caught up in a storm. They struggle all night. When morning comes, they see Jesus on the water, walking toward them. Thinking they are seeing a ghost, they become frightened (first mention of this emotion in the story.” Jesus greets them with words that are common in biblical encounters of divine and human: “Be not afraid.”

But then comes an even more dramatic and significant dialogue. Peter enters the water, begins to sink, and cries out, “Save me!” Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they arrived back in the boat, the storm ended, and the disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

These two stories speak powerfully to our situation. How many of us feel like we are drowning in a storm-tossed sea, that we’ve been in this mess forever and there seems to be no way out? How many of us are calling out to Jesus, “Save me!” right now? How many of us are doubting whether he is reaching out to take hold of us?

How many of us have been speaking truth to power? Advocating for justice and equality, crying out against corruption, and intolerance, and cruelty? How many of us are ready to give up as we watch the forces of evil grow and crush those who are working against injustice and oppression? How many of us want to flee out into the wilderness and die as Elijah planned?

Despair, fear, drowning. Those are all obvious responses to our situation. There seems to be no way out and the crises seem to heap up one on another with no end in sight.

Still, God came to Elijah in the wilderness, when he was at his weakest and deep in despair. God came to him, spoke to him, and empowered him to continue his work.

As Peter was drowning, he called out “Save me!” and Jesus reached out his hand and took him.

We can’t do it on our own. We should be at the end of our rope, sapped of energy and hope. We should be down in despair. But even here, when things look most bleak, when the storm rages most furiously, God is here.

Can we see him? Can we hear him? After earthquake, wind, and fire, after the sound of sheer silence, can we hear God speaking to us? In the midst of the storm, as we feel ourselves drowning, can we see Jesus’ hand reaching out to us, to save us?

God comes to us, in the middle of life, in the middle of our experiences, the suffering of the world, injustice and oppression. God comes to us, offering us grace, mercy, and love, to restore us and strengthen us, and to prepare us for the journey ahead. May we feel God’s healing and comforting power in our lives and may we respond in faith to God’s call to us to hope and to work for justice and peace.

A deserted place of healing and abundance: A homily for Proper 13A, 2020

Among the many challenges over the past months of safer at home, self-quarantine, and the suspension of worship, has been the sense that we are losing a sense of connection, not only with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, but with the very place where we worship, Grace Church. I was reminded of that fact a couple of days ago when we made a test run of our new hearing loop that has been installed in the church. Two long-time parishioners entered the church for the first time in four months to test the new system with their hearing aids. The good news is that everything worked great. At the same time, both mentioned how much they had missed the church and how good it was to be able to be in it again, if only for a few minutes.

Live-streamed worship is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can see the space, hear the liturgy, and listen to the organ and soloist. But there’s so much missing—the sense of the light refracted through the stained glass windows, the unique and familiar smells of an old church, the sounds of the floor creaking, or the pews as we sit and move around.

Place is important geographically as well. And in this time of pandemic and protests, the presence of Grace Church on the square is a reminder of our mission to help heal our city, and to share the good news of God’s love in the midst of division and suffering.

While we may not think so, place is always important in the gospels. There’s Jerusalem, of course, and I have mentioned repeatedly the importance to the synoptic gospels of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with that growing sense of drama as he draws nearer to his fate. But geographical references are important in other ways. In today’s reading, we are told that “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t that deserted because crowds soon gathered around him. Still, we should imagine it to be something like a wilderness, far enough from any town to make traveling difficult, and remote enough that there were no easy provisions to be had.

The reason Jesus sought seclusion comes in the previous section of the gospel. There, Matthew tells of Herod killing John the Baptist, and it’s in response to that news that Jesus withdraws. The feeding of the five thousand takes on additional significance in light of this. We are offered a contrast between these two scenes, which reflect not only the difference between Herod and Jesus, but also between Herod’s court and the gathering around Jesus, the celebration of Herod’s birthday that culminated in the presentation of John the Baptist’s head on a platter with Jesus’ healing the sick and teaching the crowd, and finally offering them loaves and fishes. It’s the contrast between the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and God’s reign. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness calls to mind earlier stories as well—especially the Exodus, when the Israelites feasted on miraculous manna and quail after God delivered them from bondage to another empire, that of Pharaoh and Egypt.

Think of the contrast between those two scenes. On the one hand, a royal banquet, with all of the power and wealth on display, indulging every appetite and desire. It was meant not only to celebrate the birthday of Herod, but like all such banquets in the Hellenistic world, it was meant to display his power, and symbolize his place in the Roman order, as well as the places in that hierarchy of everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, a deserted place, where a crowd gathered to hear Jesus. There was no power and wealth on display. Instead, what was visible was Jesus’ compassion and gift for healing, restoring health to the diseased and infirm. And then, instead of exotic foods gathered from across the empire, a few loaves and fishes.

 

Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.

In this contrast between royal banquet and simple meal we are offered a symbol of the world in which we live today. At a time when our political elites dither and some display their power and wealth even as they amass greater amounts, millions are threatened with eviction, food insecurity, and the end of unemployment insurance. Already we are seeing longer lines at food banks and pantries across the country. The poor grow poorer while billionaires grow wealthier.

Perhaps we look with a bit of envy on the ostentatious consumption by the 1% but as we gather around the Lord’s table, we are offered the abundance of bread and wine at the Eucharistic feast. We eat the bread of angels and it is food enough.

As we eat and are satisfied, we are also called—to offer food to the hungry, to fight for justice, and to call out the hypocrisy, oppression, and exploitation of the economic system that has left so many behind. May we invite all to partake of the food offered here, to eat and be satisfied, transformed by the vision of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus and by the Eucharistic feast.

 

 

Sighs too deep for words: A Sermon for Proper 12A, July 26, 2020

Early on in the pandemic, I read a number of essays comparing our situation in lockdown with the lives of hermits who abandoned life in community to live in solitude in their search for deeper relationship with God. The tone of the essays was usually encouraging—offering the reader resources for deepening their spirituality in the face of this new situation. But the reality of life in lockdown, and even now as the limits on our movement and activity are being lifted, is rather different. For myself at least, the stresses and anxiety of the moment, the fear of pandemic, reading the news of the spread of illness, protests, and everything else, have left little space for deeper relationship with God.

With worship relegated to livestreaming, the suspension of the Eucharist, the lack of physical gathering with God’s people, the inability to sing hymns, my spiritual life has been something of a wasteland. It’s only the comfort of the daily office, morning prayer, that sustains me. Words written hundreds of years ago, updated, but still they speak to and for me. The psalms continue to inspire me and provide language with which to approach God, and language that often describes or names my feelings and desires. Cultivating a prayer life these days is both exceedingly difficult and indispensable.

In Romans 8, St. Paul has some interesting and surprising things to say about prayer:

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.

Prayer isn’t always easy. Finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, To grope for language to address God, to express our uncertainties and doubts about God to express them to God, none of this is unique. It is part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.

It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection.

Especially now, with all of our anxieties and fears, with all of the new tasks and responsibilities—child care and schooling, work from home that has collapsed the boundaries from the world of work and our home lives, the challenges of connecting with friends and family. We may be largely confined to home, but our lives are busier than ever, and finding time to pray, finding the quiet to pray may be impossible. And so, the idea that the Spirit may intercede on our behalf, may pray with and for us, can be of great comfort.

But that’s not all that Paul says in this passage. As he draws this section of the letter to a close, his rhetoric and language rise to a crescendo as he asks a series of questions:

 

Who is against us?

Who brings a charge against us?

Who condemns us?

What separates us from the love of God?

The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.

We are not alone. We don’t need to try to figure everything out; we don’t even need to worry about finding the right words to express our fears or doubts, or our faith.

What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Groaning in Hope: A Sermon for Proper 11A, July 19, 2020

It makes me want to scream. But I also have a sense that I am growing numb to the suffering in the world around us. As the numbers of death from COVID increase exponentially and the measures necessary to combat it mired in partisan conflict, as our planet burns with 100 degree temperatures in the Arctic; as the streets of our cities continue to see demonstrations and nameless uniformed thugs kidnapping protesters in Portland, the relentless beat of the news and our own need to survive incapacitate and paralyze us. The Christian faith, our scriptures, tradition, and worship, seem to lack the resources to feed our souls and inspire our action toward a better future.

All of this suffering, violence, and injustice is enough to make us want to scream out in anger and frustration, or perhaps groan at the emotional pain all of it is costing us. It’s just too much, there’s no end in sight, and our hope grows dim.

 

And then we read the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. All creation groans, he writes, and “we ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”

Let me try to unpack this a bit. Today’s reading comes from chapter 8. It’s the conclusion of a section of the letter that is focused on the meaning of baptism, sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. And here we see that same theme being reiterated. While that language is also in our baptismal liturgy, I don’t think we usually connect our own experience, our journey faith, our baptism, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that connection is central to Paul’s own understanding of baptism and we would do well to take it seriously. In 6:4 he writes:t herefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Here, when Paul appeals to the use of “Abba, Father” as our address to God in prayer, he’s not just pointing out the obvious; again, he’s making a connection between the life of the believer and the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course; but also Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, where in a moment of deepest anguish, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father.” And so, for all of the exalted language of union with Christ, sonship, and adoption, for Paul, part of our shared experience with Christ is our shared suffering with him.

But Paul doesn’t end there. He goes further, connecting human struggle and suffering in the present with the whole created order. The whole creation groans, he writes. It’s a jarring image to modern ears, I think, because we are so programmed to think of redemption in terms of our own individual souls, and nothing else.

That’s not the biblical perspective. We’re accustomed to think of the world of nature, creation if you will, as a pristine, beautiful, good, that its problems, its suffering, if you will, is the product of human intervention and despoliation. The biblical perspective begins at the same place, with the beauty and goodness of creation but as Paul suggests, it was affected by human action, not our ongoing destruction of the environment, but the consequences of our sin and death. Creation groans, because like we ourselves, it experiences the pain of existence short of the perfection for which God created it. Creation groans in longing for redemption.

Creation groans as well because of sin and judgment. Similar language is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the cries of mourners as they grieve the death of loved ones or in the midst of community crises. It’s also used in the context of communal or personal oppression—one example is in Exodus, where the Israelites groan in bondage. God hears their cries and brings about their deliverance through Moses. In the prophets (Isaiah 24:1-6) the groaning of creation (ecological degradation) is caused by the sin of the people and is God’s judgment on that sin.

The term Paul uses, and indeed his statement in v. 23, that we groan inwardly suggest a suffering so overwhelming that it can’t be described. We’ve all experienced such pain and suffering; many of us are probably rendered speechless by all that’s going on in the world around us.

For Paul, that’s not the end of the story. Instead, in the midst of this suffering, he casts an expansive vision of a new future—of a world, our bodies and souls, redeemed by God. In fact, our groaning may be all the greater because we have begun to experience what Paul will the “first fruits” of that redemption—or faith in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. Through the Spirit, through our adoption, we have begun to experience the new reality and the new life in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that makes the realities of our present lives all the more poignant; the suffering we experience, the sins in the world, all the more painful.

Still, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. In verse 19, Paul uses the phrase “eager expectation”—imagine yourself stretching yourself out to catch sight of the arrival of a long-awaited friend or loved one. We are saved in hope, Paul writes. We have a sense of that new world, the redemption that is promised by God, the redemption that is shown first in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a redemption when the whole world, and we ourselves will be re-created as God intends. It is hope that gives our suffering and our world meaning; it is hope that gives us the strength to bear witness to that vision of God’s redemption. It is hope that empowers us to work for justice and peace.

So as we struggle in these difficult times, as we cry out in anger and frustration, in exhaustion and fear, may we also know hope. Some of what we are feeling is not only loss for what is gone and may not return, it is also a sense that we know the world can change. And we know that there are people who have a passion for justice and the courage to work for it against all odds, like the great American John Lewis who died this week, and whose life, faith, and hope inspire  us. In these difficult times, may our groans become calls for justice, and proclamations of hope, our hope in Christ and our hope that God is making all things new.

I will give you rest: A Homily for Proper 9A, 2020

I can’t tell you how disorienting this all seems. Today is the first time we are celebrating Eucharist at Grace since mid-March. It’s the first time we will have heard the organ, the familiar language, seen this familiar space. And all around us are reminders of the strangeness. There are in various places around this space, lingering traces of the disruptions we’ve been through. Materials from Lent, for example. Do you remember Lent Madness? Continue reading

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.