Reflecting on a decade of shared ministry 1

As I approach the tenth anniversary of my shared ministry with and at Grace Episcopal Church, I am amazed by what we have accomplished and by how much I have changed and learned over the years. I remember the fear and excitement I felt when I walked through the doors of Grace for the first time as its rector. I remember the challenges we faced, all of the uncertainty, all of the rebuilding of trust that needed to take place in the wake of the previous years’ trauma and conflict. I remember also those leaders who are no longer there, who have moved or passed on to the larger life, such as Sally Phelps who was Senior Warden for the first months of my tenure.

I like to tell people this. When I was working through the ordination process in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina from 2002-2005, if someone had asked me about my dream job, I would have replied, “a downtown historic church with an active homeless ministry in a city with a major university.” On August 1, 2009 I began working in my dream job. Ten years later, it still is. There are constantly new challenges, new people to meet, new opportunities for learning, new opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Days like today remind me of that.

It began with a meeting of the Community Advisory Team of the Beacon, the Day Resource Center operated by Catholic Charities. The effort to site and operate such a facility was a focus of my work for a couple of years as the lack of such a facility put enormous stress on downtown churches and put the lives of people experiencing homelessness at risk. At some point, I finally gave up as it seemed such a facility would never materialize, and then out of the blue, the miracle happened. A site was located, Catholic Charities received the contract to operate it, and now, nearly two years after it opened, it is seeing an average of over 200 guests a day. Supporting it, even if only by attending quarterly meetings of this group, is a blessing. Hearing about its successes and helping in some small to address challenges is incredibly rewarding.

In the office later, as I was working through the email accumulated over the weekend, I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, the chaplain at Capitol Lakes, who requested I come to administer last rites to an Episcopal resident. I walked the two blocks, administered the rite, and returned to the office and to that email inbox that had continued to grow.

Lunch was a lovely conversation with my downtown (Protestant) clergy colleagues. When I arrived in 2009, while I was warmly welcomed by my Episcopal colleagues, I had no contact with my neighbor clergy, except that I initiated. I resolved that I would reach out when new clergy came. Now, I’m the veteran. Of the other three at the table, one is in his fourth year; one started just a few weeks ago. In addition to the simple joy of getting to know each and spending some time together, we talked about the issues that we all share, most significantly, the challenges of ministry with and among people experiencing homelessness.

I’m writing this from a coffee shop on Monroe St., where I am holding open office hours on Tuesday afternoons throughout the summer. One of the emails I sent earlier in the day was to the chair of the Personnel Committee to let her know that I would be working on staff ministry reviews if I was undisturbed by visitors. Fortunately, for that task, I was able to finish the ones I was working on. By the way, the office hours experiment has been a success. Not only have I had visitors and conversations I would not otherwise have had, last week the presence of two newcomers to Madison and Grace, both recently retired, was an opportunity for them to connect with each other as well as with me. And in between visits, I’ve been able to get a lot of work done without the distractions of the office.

One of the things I did before beginning this post was to go back to my blog archives from 2009. I was curious whether I wrote much about the beginning of my ministry. The answer is no, except for in my sermons. The transition to full-time parish ministry wasn’t particularly difficult. What was challenging and unexpected was simply the level of administrative detail, the constant new challenges of ministry in an urban environment. Nothing could have prepared me for that or for the ways in which those challenges, and the changing city itself would affect my ministry.

In some essays over the next few weeks, I hope to reflect on some of the themes I detect in my and Grace’s shared ministry over the last decade: homelessness, our relationship with the political life of city, state, and nation, racism, and the transformation of American Christianity. All of these are themes I’ve preached and written about over the years, but I think it would be helpful for myself and others to reflect on them in light of our past experience as we think about the future.

The last ten years have been exciting and challenging. They have been difficult at times, and there were periods where we weren’t certain that Grace and I were a good fit. I have caused pain to others and have suffered some pain as well. But through it all I have sensed God’s presence in my life and in our common life, ministries, and outreach. We have sought to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, to be his body in this place, and to be a place of healing, hope and witness to Christ’s redemptive love. I pray that we continue to do all of this in the years to come, with God’s help.

Lord, Teach us to pray: A Sermon for Proper 12C, 2019

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with people about prayer. Even people who have deep and intense prayer lives often struggle with prayer and seek to become more prayerful. Many others, like myself, feel wholly inadequate in our prayer lives. We struggle to find language to address God, we struggle to be authentic before God; we struggle as we seek to listen to God. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with prayer. One of the first courses I had in Divinity School was “Constructing the Concept of God.” I quickly learned that it was difficult to pray to a concept I had constructed. Continue reading

In the heat of the day: A Sermon for Proper 11C, July 21, 2019

Well, that was quite an exciting day or two around here, wasn’t it? On the hottest day of the year so far, a downtown power outage that lasted for hours. Fortunately, power was restored before too much damage took place. Around here, all of the meat in the pantry freezers was safe, and power came back in time that the nave was at a comfortable temperature for Friday afternoon’s wedding rehearsal. Still, it was kind of eerie driving downtown on Friday—the streets were practically empty, and between the heat and the power outage, there was almost no one walking around. The only lingering effect here at Grace is that the internet is down. Continue reading

A man lying in a ditch, stripped, beaten, left half-dead: A Sermon for Proper 10 Year C

A man lying in a ditch, stripped, beaten, left half-dead.

What contemporary images come to mind as you hear that description? Perhaps a homeless man, there’s likely at least one right now laying on one of the terraces surrounding the church, trying to sleep, seeking a little shade, a little comfort from what promises to be a hot, hot day. He’s certainly been abandoned, and yes, left for dead, by our merciless, uncaring, and unforgiving society. Or perhaps other more distant images come to mind—the bodies of a father and son who drowned as they tried to cross over into the US, or the many videos and images we’ve seen of children in cages, people crowded together in inhumane conditions… Continue reading

Peace, Protest, Hospitality: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year C, 2019

We have come to that section of Luke’s gospel which relates his long journey toward Jerusalem. In the past few weeks, we have seen him teaching and healing in Galilee, crossing over the Sea of Galilee to heal the Gerasene demoniac. Last week, we were told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and we heard that strange story of him sending his disciples ahead of him into Samaritan towns that refused to welcome him. Strange, because James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable villages. Continue reading

What demons bind you? What fears affect you?

Learning the languages of Pentecost: A Sermon for Pentecost, 2019

When I was twenty-one years old, I studied abroad for the year in Marburg, Germany. My trip there marked the first time I had ever flown on a plane, and while I knew I would be greeted by a friend when I landed, I was terrified. I had studied German for four semesters in college and while I could read with some facility, my speaking ability was quite limited and I my aural comprehension was weak as well. In the year I spent there, I gained considerable fluency that returned when I spent another year in Germany a decade later, and even when I traveled back some years ago. Continue reading