The Future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin

Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best. There have also been enormous changes in society and the church since 2003. The debate over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, a debate that was intensified by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. From time to time, Bishop Miller reminds us that consents to his election were voted on at the same General Convention that voted on Bishop Robinson. Since then, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and the approval by General Convention of rites for the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American achievement mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. The Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American … mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. I’m told that the Diocese of Eau Claire currently has 3 self-sustaining parishes with full-time clergy. An effort some years ago to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac failed when it was voted down by a single vote in the Diocese of Eau Claire. Its current bishop, retired from a previous diocese, and serving part-time, is facing mandatory retirement in 2021. At its convention last weekend, the diocese was unable to commit itself to a plan moving forward; instead it will continue to study its options.

With the mandatory retirement of Bishop Lambert of the Diocese of Eau Claire, and Bishop Miller’s announced retirement in 2020, it seems to me that now is the perfect time for Wisconsin Episcopalians to ask some difficult questions and move courageously and creatively into the future. Unfortunately, it seems no one is interested in addressing these questions.

I have no idea who could facilitate or even compel the conversations that we need to have across the state and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I am about to step down after six years on our Diocesan Executive Council. I am not sure whether I can offer any leadership on the diocesan level. My energies are focused locally—on building relationships with our neighboring congregations and with their clergy, and ecumenically—on helping our declining mainline denominations strategize about how we might work together toward a new future for our ministries.

Sometimes, I wish there would be someone from the denomination who could come in and compel us to have the difficult conversations. More importantly, someone to help us imagine a new future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. I feel like we are about to squander an incredible opportunity to do something quite new and something that might give us new energy and new spirit to face the future.

If I were able to shape matters, I would require conversations among the Dioceses of Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Fond du Lac before allowing the Diocese of Milwaukee to begin its search process for a successor to Bishop Miller. Such conversations might help us all to discern a vision for a future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin.

I pray that in the months to come Episcopalians in Wisconsin have the courage and faith to think boldly and to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions.

Communion of all the saints: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2019

The Episcopal Church I first attended regularly was St. Paul’s, Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was constructed in the early 20th century, on the site of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire. As was the custom in England, and in many colonial towns, St. Paul’s churchyard was also a graveyard. To enter the building, you walked along a sidewalk that cut through a jumble of old headstones, some of which dated back to the late 18th century. It was a reminder of the church’s history, of all those who had worshiped there over the centuries. Continue reading

God, have mercy on me, a sinner: A Sermon for Proper 25C, 2019

 

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. So begins the little parable that we hear today in the gospel reading. The temple was the center of Palestinian Jewish life in the first century. It was where necessary sacrifices were made; it was where pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish year. It was also the nexus between Roman imperial power and the institutions of Judaism, especially the priestly caste. Continue reading

From gratitude to faith: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year C, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently. It is a concept central to the biblical tradition but it’s not something we often connect to the Christian faith. In fact, it may be that we only think about gratitude one time a year, around Thanksgiving. Our worship is full of thanksgiving—indeed at the heart of the Eucharist is thanksgiving as we offer thanks to God for all that God has given us, and especially the gift of God’s son.

Gratitude is subversive. We live in an anxious age, as we worry not only about the future of our world and our nation, but we worry about our own futures as individuals and families; we worry about our safety and security. As our anxiety grows, we tend to turn inward and become self-protective, hoarding what we have and envying those who have more.

We may be parsimonious in our gratitude, viewing the gifts we give and receive only in terms of their value. Like Sheldon in the TV show Big Bang Theory, we may even dread giving gifts for fear that the gift we give may not be as valuable as the gift we receive, so we remain in debt to the giver. Or to use a phrase we’ve heard a good bit recently, we think of giving in terms of quid pro quo.

In our gospel reading, we see a story of healing that becomes a story of gratitude and faith.

On the surface, it’s rather a simple and straightforward story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks; a biblical example of the imperative to send thank-you cards. In fact, it’s much more than that. It’s a story that models the Christian life.

There are a number of very interesting things about this story. One is the context in which Luke places it. I’ve been stressing for these last months that we are in the middle of a section of Luke’s gospel that is shaped by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Way back in Luke 9:51, Luke tells us that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re in chapter 17 now, and Luke begins this episode by reminding us that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. It’s the first time, he mentions that fact since 9:51.

Even more interesting is the fact that this episode involves a Samaritan. At the outset of the journey, the first town Jesus and his disciples come to is a Samaritan village, which refuses to welcome them. The disciples want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy it, but Jesus simply goes in a different direction.

There’s another mention of a Samaritan as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem—earlier in the Gospel he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.

Think about that story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what scripture says and he responds, “Love of God and neighbor.” When the lawyer pushes Jesus, asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan—an example of neighbor love. Perhaps our story serves as a bookend to that one. In this instance, the healed Samaritan is an exemplar of love of God

Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”

This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. Although he was a Samaritan, reviled and regarded as ritually unclean, as a leper, it seems that he was part of that community of lepers who came together because of their shared plight. Now, as a healed leper among healed lepers, his otherness as a Samaritan would stand out.

What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option. No certificate from any Jewish priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.

The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”

The Samaritan realizes he’s healed, turns back, prostrates himself, and gives thanks to God. Those gestures are also of great significance for Luke’s gospel. It’s the same language Luke uses to describe the actions of the shepherds as they returned to their fields after having seen the birth of Jesus. It’s also the way Luke concludes the gospel. After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in great joy and praised God in the temple.

When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.

So this story is about us moving from need, to gratitude to faith. Like the lepers, we have all cried out in some way, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” Some of us have had our prayers answered. We have experienced healings. Others have cried out as faithfully and as desperately, but have not received healing.

Many of us right now may be struggling to be thankful in the midst personal or global crisis. We may be wondering whether we will have enough money for the rest of the month, wondering where our next meal is coming from, anxious for loved ones, or ourselves.

 

In the midst of all that, whatever struggles you might be having, we might be crying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” But at the same time, is it still possible for us to offer thanks to God—thanks for life itself, thanks for the gifts that God has given you? And if you can give thanks, can you feel your heart open just a bit wider, more open to the world, to your fellow humans, to God? Practice gratitude, by offering God a simple, thank you, each day, throughout the day, and in time, you will come to experience so overwhelming a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, that deepens your relationship to Jesus, and as it did for the leper, saves you.

 

 

 

“All things were made for Him”: A Sermon for the Blessing of the Animals, 2019

Genesis 9:8-16
Colossians 1:15-20
John 1:1-5

 

Each year on the first Sunday in October, we observe the Blessing of the Animals. It’s fun, chaotic, and a way for many of us to acknowledge ritually and religiously the important role our pets play in our lives, the blessings they are to us, and our responsibility to care for them.

We choose this day because it is on or close to October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the popular, beloved saint who was known for his affection for animals. Stories about his care for animals abound. He preached to the birds, he tamed the wild wolf of Gubbio, turning a predator who had terrorized a town into a peaceful vegetarian. Among the few texts that are attributed to him is the Canticle of the Sun, a translation or paraphrase of which we sang as our opening hymn. In the original version, Francis sings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

It’s easy for us to over-sentimentalize both St. Francis and our love of animals, and easy for us, as in so many areas of our personal lives, to fail to see connections between the animals we love and care for, and the whole creation of which we are a part.

Today, rather than focusing on St. Francis, or on our relationships with our beloved animal companions, I want to reflect on the larger issue, and the great challenge we face as human beings on a planet in the midst of dramatic climate change. Our collect, lessons, prayers of the people and confession come from resources approved for use by General Convention 2018. These particular propers focus on the kinship of all created things in Christ and seemed especially appropriate for this day on which we also remember St. Francis, who praised Brother Fire, Sister Earth, even Sister death.

We’ve been confronted this year with imminence of climate change: the sight of fields left unplanted after the unprecedented wet spring we had, images of the Amazon rainforest burning; news of melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic. I realized that while many of us at Grace are concerned about the environment and probably even participate in advocacy efforts around climate change and similar issues, it’s not something we’ve talked much about over the years.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that in a congregation our size there are limits to what we can do; and with our advocacy and work around racism and homelessness, creation care might seem to be something for others to take on—or perhaps if some among us are so inclined, they could pursue these issues as a group within Grace. The Episcopal Church has produced a wealth of resources around creation care, materials on education and advocacy that would be a good place to start.

Our current situation invites us to respond in the way that Jesus challenged his listeners in his preaching: Metanoia. It’s a word that has traditionally been translated as “repent” or “repentance.” And we have a great deal of that to do. But more than that the word literally means “change your mind” or rethink. We must reorient ourselves—reorient our understanding of what it means to have faith in God in Christ, reorient our understanding of scripture, and reorient our roles as human beings and as Christians in the world.

There is a longstanding assumption in Christian theology, and among ordinary Christians, that when God created the universe and human beings, God created us to have dominion over all creation. That has led to our rapacious exploitation of natural resources, or willingness to exploit everything in creation for our use and benefit, our presupposition that we as human beings are outside of, exterior to creation and have no part or role in it. All of this derives at least in part from that commandment in Genesis 1: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and have dominion over it.

There is a second creation story, in Genesis 2, and it is rather different in its focus and meaning. In that version, God plants a garden and creates a man out of the dust of the earth to take care of it. God then creates all of the animals as possible helpers or partners for the man, and finally he creates the woman from the man. In this version then, human beings are literally part of the created order—made from the dust of the earth, connected with all living things, and participating with God in the ongoing work of creation as God’s stewards of creation.

It’s that story that I think offers us helpful ways of connecting our faith, our understanding of God and the created universe, with the urgent need for human beings to re-orient ourselves, to change our minds and take action to preserve the earth for future generations. As stewards of God’s creation, we are created and called to care for the created order, to tend it, to continue God’s work of creation.

Our lessons encourage us to think about our connection, even kinship with the created order. From God’s promise to Noah and his descendants that God would not destroy the earth, through the psalm, with its trust in God’s care for all of the created order, “you feed both man and beast, O Lord.” It also uses imagery from nature to describe God’s righteousness and God’s love toward living things, including humans.

The reading from Colossians and the Gospel, those first few familiar and powerful words from the Gospel of John, introduce a uniquely Christian perspective to our understanding of the relationship between God and creation. Creation happened through the power and work of Jesus Christ, the Word. Colossians makes a bold point: all things were made in and through him, that is, Christ; indeed, all things were made “for Christ.” What would it be like to understand all of creation, all living things, from the smallest plant or microbe, to the majestic Rocky Mountains, the Amazon rainforest, as being made “for Christ.” I daresay we would think and act rather differently.

I know there are Christians who believe that if or when our planet becomes uninhabitable, Jesus will return on a rescue mission to save the faithful from destruction. It’s strange because every biblical description of future bliss is an extension or improvement of our current existence. Think of the great vision of the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

 

One wonders what a vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of God’s reign, a vision of a created order restored and perfected when God’s righteousness and justice prevail, when Christ reigns in majesty, one wonders what such a vision would look like or would include if the earth, the planet given us by God to tend and nurture, can no longer sustain life.

We are called to metanoia—to conversion. To quote Pope Francis, who wrote in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si“:

This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works …   It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.

If and when we experience creation in that way, to discover God in the world around us as well as in our soul, we will be well on our way to becoming more fully human, more faithful to our calling as Christians, and become more completely shaped in the image of the one who created us. May God give us the grace to grow into that image and calling.

 

 

 

All the Lazaruses in our doorways: A Sermon for Proper 21C, 2019

You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council. Continue reading

Serving debt, serving wealth, serving God: A Sermon for Proper 20C, 2019

Debt. We all have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most of us have in the past, or currently have, socially and morally respectable debt like a mortgage. Many of us have other forms of debt—credit card debt, the loans we owe on our vehicles. Some of us have experience with more crushing forms of it—student loans, for example, which have skyrocketed and put many millennials in difficult circumstances. Then there is medical debt, which in too many cases can lead to bankruptcy.

Even if we don’t have direct experience with the sort of debt that can only lead to bankruptcy, it’s very likely that we know people who are deeply affected by it, in many cases through no fault of their own, except perhaps by deciding to get a college education or going to grad or professional school, or having the bad luck of becoming seriously ill. The amounts are mind-boggling: Forbes recently estimated that there is more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, owed by some 45 million people. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 4 Americans struggled to pay a recent medical bill. Continue reading