Not one stone will be left: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year B (Annual Meeting) 2018

 We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. In the church, the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which this year falls on December 2. But there’s a sense in which our gospel readings in the weeks leading up to that day help us prepare for Advent. Indeed some preachers and liturgists extend the season of Advent back three Sundays and advocate for a seven-week season of Advent.

There are at least two reasons for this move. The first reason for this extension of Advent is, I suspect, largely cultural. Since retailers replace their Halloween merchandise with their Holiday merchandise, and radio stations and satellite services have already started playing holiday music, extending Advent to the beginning of November is a way of offering a counter narrative to the excesses and consumerism of the Holiday season. The second reason for this longer Advent is that our gospel readings for these three Sundays are drawn from Jesus’ teachings concerning his return. They are what we call Apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic, which derives from a Greek word meaning revealing, emerged in the second century BCE during a period of crisis among the Jewish people. The central chapters of the book of Daniel are the earliest example of this type of literature. It is symbolic, full of strange beings. It presumes a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, in which ultimately, the good will prevail. While it seems to be describing events that will take place at a future time, in fact, it is describing in highly symbolic terms what is happening in the world right now. So, from time to time, after describing some event or some figure, a beast with seven horns, for example, the author will provide a clue, or a hint, and say, “let the reader understand.” Apocalyptic was also the context in which the idea of the resurrection of the dead first became popular, among the earliest clear references to the idea is in fact in the verses from Daniel in today’s first reading.

As I said, the world of apocalyptic is full of fear and danger, and we live in a context which is full of such imagery and events. Whether it’s mass shootings, terrorism, the continuous wars, or the wildfires that have transformed the landscape of California, taken lives, and changed the lives of so many people, our world seems to be collapsing around us. In such a context, Jesus’ words sound ominous indeed.

Today’s gospel, though written about two millennia ago, comes from a time and a community that were experiencing some of the same fear and uncertainty that we face as a world. As I’ve said before, it’s likely that Mark was written during the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation, and either shortly before, or after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We date the gospel to this particular historical moment in part because of the very verses we heard today—the disciples marveling at the size and grandeur of the temple, and Jesus’ prediction of its destruction.

The Jewish Rebellion and the destruction of the temple constituted a cataclysmic change for Judaism. It was also of enormous significance for the tiny community of Jesus’ followers, who were caught in the midst of the conflict. As they looked around at what was happening around them, as they probably fled the violence, they were also reflecting back on Jesus himself, the hopes and faith he had instilled in them. As we have seen throughout this year, Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign. It’s quite likely that many of those in this tiny community forty years later saw in the Jewish revolt and the Roman response, signs of Jesus’ imminent return.

You can almost hear the conversations of that community in Jesus’ words. He warns against false prophets—those who claim to be Jesus, those who claim to know when Jesus will return. All of the catastrophes, the wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and the like. There were people wondering whether these things were signs of Jesus’ return, signs of the end times. Of course, as we imagine first-century Christians wondering about these things, we know all too well that many contemporary Christians, and many in secular society, too, are fascinated with predictions of the end times.

Jesus’ words concerning his return are elicited by an observation of one of his disciples. Let me give you some background. In Mark’s chronology, this takes place of Tuesday in Holy. On Sunday, Jesus and his disciples made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we reenact on Palm Sunday. After that, Jesus went to the temple and looked around.. Then he and his disciples left the city and spent the night in Bethlehem. On Monday, they returned to the temple, and overturned the moneychangers’ tables, after which they returned to Bethany. They came back to the temple on Tuesday where Jesus had a number of encounters with groups of Jews, the chief priests and scribes, some Pharisees and Herodians, some Sadducees. After the story of the widow’s mite which we heard last Sunday, they left the temple again, which is when this story takes place.

Once again, it’s as if the disciples are completely oblivious to what Jesus has just said, or has been saying all along. It’s the sort of remark we make as tourists, “Look at how big the stones are!” It’s the sort of remark I often hear when visitors come to Grace: “Wow, what a beautiful church!” Jesus’ retort may have been intended by Mark to reflect the reality that after Rome destroyed the temple, not a single stone was left standing but it’s an important reminder to us as well.

It’s not about the stones, even if it is our responsibility to make sure the stones of this building remain intact. The Jewish temple, Grace Church, are supposed to be places where people encounter God, where they experience the love of Christ and are transformed by that encounter. The beauty of our spaces, both inside and out, are meant to offer such opportunities, to invite people into relationship with God.

One way of thinking about all those encounters Jesus had with Jewish groups in the temple before this, from the moneychangers to the chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees, is to see them as challenges to the immediacy and accessibility of people to God. Spaces create barriers; institutions establish and maintain boundaries, communities dictate who’s in and who’s out. Jesus challenged all of those efforts to limit accessibility to God, to set boundaries. The threat he posed was part of what led to his arrest and execution.

2000 years later, those tendencies remain. We focus on the stones, not on God. Sometimes, instead of being a means of access to God, the building becomes our God, and we worship it or focus all of our energies and attention on it rather than on what it is supposed to be. Sometimes, a building can also be seen as an impediment, that it requires resources that might better be expended in other ways, in outreach to the community, for example. Striking the right balance is always a challenge, but I believe we at Grace do that.

I was reminded of the power and possibility of our spaces to connect us with God on Friday evening of this week. Corrie and I were walking on the square just as our bells began to ring at 6:00 pm. Hearing them from the other side of the square wasn’t just a distraction or noise. The sound of the bells reminded me of all that they represent: the faithful people who installed and now maintained them, their sound reminding me of God’s presence in this city, even on a Friday evening.

That is what our spaces should do—our building, our bells, our gardens, all should remind passersby of God’s presence in the world, and invite people to experience and enter into that presence more deeply, whether here at Grace or in other places or other ways in their personal lives.

We don’t know how long Grace Church will remain standing, whether for fifty, or a hundred, or five hundred years. But there will come a time, I suspect, when stone will no longer stand on stone, when there will only be rubble. But until that time comes, in God’s time, it is our responsibility, our mission, to ensure that our buildings and our congregation, are places where people encounter, experience, and share God’s love.

Entering into the Joy of God: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A, Annual Meeting

Today after the 10:00 service is our Annual Meeting. We will be doing the regular business of the parish, business any church, any non-profit, has to do—voting on changes to our By-Laws and Constitution, electing officers for the coming year and new vestry members, discussing the draft budget that will be presented, and other matters. It’s all routine, uninspiring stuff, and in an age when our distrust of institutions and our disengagement from common life is at an all-time high, it’s difficult for many of us to see the point of it all.

But Annual Meetings are also opportunities to take stock, to remember what we have done over the last year and to begin to set a course for the future, for next year and beyond. And that’s what can raise Annual Meetings from the humdrum, the ordinary. Because our structure, our budget, are not only about maintenance, making sure we do things right, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, that we keep the lights on and the building dry. All of that is for another, more important purpose, the mission of Grace Church to share Christ’s love in our neighborhood and in the world.

Today’s gospel reading, the familiar parable of the talents, is the perfect gospel to read at a time like this, as we reflect on the past year and begin to imagine what the future might look like.

The Parable of the Talents is the second of three parables—we heard the first last Sunday—that bring to the end Jesus’ public ministry. They are parables of judgment and warning. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, Jesus’ words become an admonition for us to make shrewd and creative use of the gifts we’ve been given. In fact, so dominant is that interpretation, that the English word “talent” which means gifts, or skills, has its origins in this very story.

Even as we hear this story and internalize its rather unremarkable message, I’m sure that many of you responded negatively to the last words of the parable as the Lord commands his servants, “throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For all its familiarity, there are also elements of the story that are profoundly alienating, especially if we take the master in the story to be a stand-in for Jesus or God. Both its familiarity and this problematic image for God encourage us not to delve more deeply into the story and what it might mean.

In fact, that negative image of God is driven, not necessarily by details in the story itself, but rather by the third slave’s statement: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Now, as the parable stands on the page, the master seems to accept the slave’s judgment of him, but what if read the master’s response with a different tone of voice, with sarcasm?

After all, up to this point, what do we know about the master? He is fabulously wealthy; he leaves his wealth and property behind to take a long trip, putting unimaginable sums of wealth in the hands of his servants. A talent, by some estimations, was the equivalent of 75 yrs of a day laborer’s wages, or to put it in our terms, around a million dollars. He gave them no instructions. Presumably, they were to be custodians of it, to make sure it was there upon his return. And the third servant did just that. Digging a hole and putting it there for safe keeping was a perfectly reasonable response to the task he was given (in fact the rabbis would commend such behavior).

I want to focus on two aspects of the master’s behavior—his generosity, and his departure. First, generosity. It’s obvious that this is a parable of the Last Judgment, that we are to see in the master, God, or Jesus Christ. If that is the case, then it is stunning to consider the sheer generosity of the master’s behavior. He gave to three servants a total of something like 8 million dollars, no strings attached, to take care of until his return. There was no one watching what they might do with it, no detailed instructions, no warning involved.

In that sense, the Master is very like the God we know—who created the world and us in it to care for it, to tend. Out of God’s sheer generosity, and imaginative creativity, God created us, to be God’s stewards, to share in that creativity and generosity.

And so the first two servants did just that. They responded to God’s generosity and creativity with creativity of their own. From the gifts God gave them, they created more and were rewarded, with the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master.”

The second thing the Master did was depart from the scene. It’s one thing to be given an opportunity to showcase your creativity. It’s a completely different thing to be given free rein to express that creativity, not to have to worry about the watchful and disapproving eye of your boss or Master. To create in freedom and joy, to be able to explore the possibilities that present themselves with the gifts from God, a wonderful feeling and experience.

Contrast that with the third slave, whose behavior was dominated by fear. He knew that his master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not sow seed, and his imagination was imprisoned by that fear. For him, the master never left, his judgment loomed over him all of this years as he asked himself the question, “What happens if I lose that talent?”

His fear froze him, and in the end, his fear made his prediction come to life—he was cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We have been blessed with incredible resources at Grace—a beautiful building and grounds on one of the prime locations in all of Madison; we are stewards of financial resources bestowed upon us by generations of Grace members over the years, we have a gifted and committed membership.

At this moment in our common life, as we contemplate the future and survey a rapidly changing landscape, as our downtown grows and as traditional Christianity collapses around the country, we are at a decisive moment. We can act like the third slave out of fear and husband all of those resources to make sure they are available for future generations (even if it is quite uncertain whether those future generations will exist) or we can venture forward, in creativity, imagination, and generosity, responding to God’s love and grace with love and grace of our own, and use our resources to reach it in new ways, with new energy and imagination, to connect with our neighors and the wider world. If we do that, we will certainly enter into “the joy of our Father.” Thanks be to God.

 

Entering into God’s Joy: Annual Meeting 2017

 

 

Rector’s Report, Grace Episcopal Church Annual Meeting, November 19, 2017

The marvelous slide show we just saw, created by our own Peggy Frain, has shown images of all the things that we’ve done over the last year, our outreach projects large and small, our fellowship and worship, our open houses and opportunities to connect with the community. I would love to know how many people have come through our doors over the last year, were served by the Food Pantry, slept in the men’s shelter, enjoyed the beauty of our courtyard garden, attended a wedding, a service.

 

We are a relatively small congregation with amazing resources—a prime location on Madison’s Capitol Square, a building that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and with our recent renovations, more accessible and inviting than ever. We have financial resources that many congregations much larger than ours do not have. And we have our members, a group of incredibly talented and committed people who do everything from pick up trash to advocate the legislature for criminal justice reform.

 

It is appropriate, in this season of Thanksgiving, to take a moment and give thanks for those resources that make all of this possible, the people, the building and gardens, the financial gifts and stewardship of so many over the more than 175 years of our existence. We have much to celebrate. We should be proud, not only of what we have done this year, but proud of our impact on the wider community. For ultimately, that impact is also part of who we are, part of our mission—to share the love of Jesus Christ.

The video/slide show that we presented helps us to remember everything that we’ve accomplished over the last year. Wonderful events like the Annual Christmas Pageant, or our welcoming of people from throughout the city and much further at Open Doors Madison, the Halloween Open House or during the Women’s March on Washington. There’s the scarf tree project, the Little Free Library, our work with the Madison Jail Ministry, the Beacon. There’s our Food Pantry and Porchlight’s Drop-In Men’s Shelter.

We have an amazing staff who are growing into their roles and using their creativity, skills, and talent to expand those roles, help to build a stronger congregation and more effective outreach into the community. I’d especially like to thank our Parish Administrator, Christina, who is the sparkplug and catalyst for everything we do here, supporting all of our work, helping us to accomplish big ideas, and remove roadblocks that arise. Our Food Pantry Coordinator, Vikki Enright, in less than a year has put her own stamp on the pantry, especially by building connections in the neighborhood and wider community, and connecting with a donor network that includes downtown businesses. Peggy Frain, whose creativity is an inspiration—just think of that slide show we just saw, and Pat Werk, who is constantly coming up with new ideas, and her boundless energy and enthusiasm turns those ideas into reality. Many of them, if not most, are as much about connecting with the community as they have to do with her official position description as Christian Formation Director. And I would also especially like to thank Deacon Carol Smith, who in many ways is the heart and soul of Grace Church, quietly and compassionately offering pastoral care to those who need it, and jumping to help other staff and programs whenever asked.

All of this is outreach. Over the last year and a half, the Outreach Committee has been gathering information from our congregation, from the leaders of our various outreach programs, and from other stakeholders in the community about the effectiveness of our current programs and what new opportunities and unmet needs exist in our neighborhood. You will hear a bit more from them in a few minutes, but I anticipate that one of our main areas of focus in the coming year will have to do with discerning the next steps in this process.

The Toward a More Just Community task force has been inspirational in the ideas and excitement it has generated, the relationships its members have created with members of other communities of faith, across the racial divide, and especially the Madison Jail Ministry. Their current work as they seek ways to build relationships with legislators and staff at the State Capitol to build relationships across the deep divides in our state, racial, urban-rural, and political could ultimately be transformative, not just in our city and state, but nationally.

There are other equally transformative efforts underway at Grace. New interior signage will provide the final touches on our renovation and new exterior signage will not only offer improved way finding but will increase our street visibility. And something that we’ve let languish too long will be restored—Our bells, we have 23 of them have needed maintenance for many years. Many we can’t play at all because the electrical system that operates the bell-ringers is out of date and out of repair. Thanks to new member Peter Schultz-Burkel and a few others, we are working with a number of vendors as we seek to bring them back into working condition. New technology would allow us to program them to ring at the beginning and end of services and for special events like weddings and funerals. Bells not only announce our presence in the neighborhood but serve as a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our lives and city. I see their silence and neglect over the last years as a symbol of our shyness, our unwillingness to proclaim boldly who we are and who Jesus Christ is.

Greg Rogers, who with his wife Jan, have led the effort to maintain and improve our gardens shared with me something that happened this week. He was stopped by someone who had come to Grace for an AA meeting. He thanked Greg for the beautiful gardens which meant so much to him. He went on to thank Greg for all that we do, saying, “When I needed food, I came to your pantry; when I needed somewhere to sleep, I used the shelter. Now, I come to AA meetings here. I might not be alive if it weren’t for you.”

We have done a great job of opening our building to the community, of using it to help people in need and to offer a space of beauty and spiritual respite in a busy city. In the coming months and years, we will continue to ask the questions that drove our renovation project: How can we make our buildings more accessible and inviting to the community? How can we use this asset to connect with our community? What new possibilities for connecting are coming to light? In so many ways, the things we’ve done this year—from the scarf trees to Open Doors, the Halloween Open House, the Little Free Library, even our lighting display, are all intended to connect with our downtown neighborhood, to help our neighbors see us in new light and new ways, to invite them to think of and experience Grace as a place of beauty and spiritual respite.

But now, I think we have to begin to explore another set of questions. I have emphasized the changing nature of Religion in America for almost as many years as I’ve been your Rector. The decline in the Episcopal Church, the decline in American Christianity has been precipitous over the last decade or so. A study that was released just this past week confirms these trends. The largest grouping in American religion is not Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or mainline Protestant. The largest grouping is now the religiously-unaffiliated, those who claim no membership or adherence to any religious tradition. That’s remarkable in itself but it for me it raises other questions.

In my sermon this morning, I talked about taking risks, about a God who is by nature creative but who has created us to participate in that creativity by giving us space to imagine, explore, create for ourselves and for God. Grace Church is blessed with one of the best locations in the city; with a beautiful and historic building, lovely grounds, and skilled and committed congregation. But none of that will ensure our survival, let alone a faithful witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

We cannot expect that people will come to church simply because we open our doors. We cannot expect that we will maintain stable membership; that our members will be able to fund the programs that are important to us now. We can’t expect that “membership” will be a meaningful term in twenty or thirty years.

We have to take risks. We have to venture out into the future, asking what God is calling us to do and to be in the next era of our life as Grace Church. We need to ask if there are new ways that we might connect with our neighbors downtown, to build relationships and encourage people to follow their desire to connect with God. We need to take risks with the resources we have, to reimagine how they might be used most effectively in this vibrant city and in this changing religious landscape. We need to focus our attention on those outside our doors today, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

I hope that in the coming year, you will join with me as we discern our way into this exciting and uncertain future. Let us explore how we might use all of our resources to take risks as we try to connect in new and creative ways with our neighbors in this city. As we do this work, may we continue to be grateful for all that God has given us and conscious of our task to be wise stewards of those gifts. May we also be courageous and creative in our thinking, and responsive to God’s call to be faithful witnesses to the love of Christ in an ever-changing world.

 

Rector’s Annual Report

This is the fifth time I have come before you at Annual Meeting to give a report. I wonder whether that is as surprising to you as it is to me. In some respects, it seems like only a few days ago that I first walked through the doors of Grace Church; in other ways, it seems like we’ve been working and worshiping together for a very long time. Grace Church will celebrate the 175th anniversary of its organization as a parish in the coming year, and seen from that perspective, my tenure as rector is barely worth mention in our parish’s history. Historical perspective is always humbling.

In many ways, the past year has been consumed with work around the master plan. Later in today’s meeting, you will receive an update on where we are at—many of you have already had a chance to look at the revised plans for a first phase of renovations. We will also hear about the feasibility study for a Capital Campaign that will take place in the coming weeks. Throughout this process, I have challenged us to view any renovations in light of our mission here on Capitol Square. Even more important, we should be asking how our plans might help people in Madison, our friends, neighbors, and strangers, to connect with God, to encounter the sacred, and to develop and deepen their relationships with Jesus Christ. This is evangelism, even if most Episcopalians think that’s a dirty word. It might seem odd to think about our building as a tool for evangelism, but by opening our doors to the community, we are also opening up the possibility of conversations about God and encounters with God.

Evangelism has to be about more than opening our doors. It begins when we go outside our walls and into the community. When I stand outside on the corner before services, I do it to greet you as you enter; but I also greet those who are walking toward other destinations. On Ash Wednesday, when I offer to put ashes on the foreheads of passers-by, I am inviting them to think about the sacred in the midst of their daily routine, to encounter the divine in the middle of their day, in the middle of their week. I am inviting them to ponder time and eternity. When I walk into a coffee shop and the barrista asks me if I am an Episcopal priest, I invite her to enter into a conversation about where she is now, where she came from, and how her life now might be a place where she experiences the love of God. I cite these examples not in order  to invite you to think about how the encounters you have each day, how your daily routine might be a place where your friends, acquaintances, and coworkers might experience the love and grace of God.

A couple of weeks ago, a parishioner told me about a conversation he’d recently had with a co-worker. He was asked, “So, you’re a pretty smart guy, you’ve got it together, why do you go to church?” And he didn’t know what to say in reply. No doubt some of you could share similar stories; some of you might even say that your co-workers, your friends, don’t know you go to church. Now there are several reasons for this. One is that there are large portions of our culture for which Christianity is meaningless. They have no idea why one might go to church. Even worse, if Christianity does mean anything, it means narrow-mindedness, religious and political conservatives, opponents of LGBT inclusion, gay marriage, and the like. In our context, it’s very difficult to know what to say, how to talk about our faith when we’re not sure how it will be heard or whether we’ll be understood. Let’s work together in the coming year on becoming more open to talking about our faith, more open to asking the hard questions, and inviting others to explore those questions with us.

One of the things that has struck me about Grace’s uniqueness is the presence among us every Sunday of people who are visiting for the first time, or perhaps second or third. Even last week, when many of you stayed away because of the Marathon, there were people at both 8:00 and at 10:00 who were relative, or absolute newcomers. Some Sundays, especially in the summers, I’d guess that up to 20% of our 10:00 attendance are people who are unknown to me. That’s quite remarkable. Now, many of those who visit us are here for a short time—the weekend, a business trip, what have you. Many others are trying us out or have come because there’s something going on in their lives that makes them want to attend services, seeking God. We do a pretty good job welcoming visitors. Some of you have taken responsibility to seek out unfamiliar faces, introduce yourselves, and engage in conversation. What we’re less effective at is bringing visitors into our community. We struggle at incorporating those new people into the body of Christ. In the coming year, I hope to make this a priority for the new vestry and I also encourage you, if this is something that you’re interested in, to contact me about how you might get involved.

Outside our doors is another immense opportunity. The thousands of young adults who make Madison their home, college students, of course, but also grad students, young people who have chosen to make Madison their home because of its opportunities for interesting work, outdoor activities, and vibrant culture. I’ve probably mentioned this age group in every annual report. They weigh heavy on my heart because I believe that Grace can offer young adults a rich spiritual life, opportunities for outreach, and connections with other demographic groups that are rewarding and fulfilling. I’m calling on those of you who share this passion to work with me on developing new opportunities for worship and community that would focus on young adults.

The entire report is available here: Annual Report_2013

Annual Meeting: Now it’s time for a few days off!

Annual Meetings are necessary things, but it’s not always apparent why. We elected wardens, vestry members, diocesan and convocation delegates, heard about our financial situation and the draft budget for 2012. Ideally, they should be a time to reflect on where we’ve been over the past year and to talk about plans for the coming year. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on my own tenure at Grace. This was my third annual meeting and so, in some ways, I suppose, we are entering into a new phase in our shared ministry.

Here are some excerpts from the annual report I gave to the parish today. Blog readers will recognize many of the themes.

The news is dire. Church membership and attendance are going down. Membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped below 2,000,000, a 16% decline between 2000 and 2009. Average Sunday attendance has declined even more precipitously—23% in that same period. Closer to home, membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee has shrunk by a third. Here at Grace, while membership has declined, attendance has remained rather stable and perhaps even ticked up in the last few years.

But it’s not just the Episcopal Church. All of the mainline denominations are getting smaller and even the Southern Baptist Convention has seen decline in membership in each of the last four years. Wider studies bear witness to this phenomenon: more Americans than ever before, as many as 20%, claim no religious affiliation.

To begin the annual rector’s report with these statistics may seem a bit odd, even depressing. I cite them not as an excuse or explanation, but to help us understand the world in which we live and the reality that faces us. Whatever struggles we have are shared by churches across the country, in all denominations and traditions. At the same time, Grace is positioned well to meet the future, to adapt to this changing environment and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in a fearful and hurting world.

This new reality invites us to experiment with new ways of being God’s people. Old patterns and structures, no matter how well they may have worked in the past, may no longer be adequate to reach people. We have already begun to do just that.

One of the most important ways in which we can experiment is through cooperation. Thanks to Andy Jones, Rector of St. Andrew’s, who reached out to me and to Paula Harris, who began as Rector of St. Luke’s on the same day I did, the Madison Episcopal Churches have forged new bonds of fellowship and have begun to cooperate in joint ministries. The Madison Episcopal Teens, or MET, as it is now called began as our attempt to create a youth experience for our teens that could achieve critical mass and create relationships and community across parish lines. Now under the direction of our own Lauren Cochran, MET meets monthly, with average attendance of 15 from at least four parishes. Thanks to the vision of Michael Ramsey Mulshoff, a group representing four parishes began meeting to talk about ways of making our congregations more inviting to LGBT persons, and especially to teens struggling with sexual identity. Eventually this group took the name Gay Straight Episcopalians, participated in Madison’s Capitol Pride march. Over the years, we have cooperated on Vacation Bible School and Lenten programming. We will continue to seek out ways of cooperating on outreach projects as well as formation.

The past year has also seen increased ecumenical cooperation. Grace became a gathering place for clergy and people of faith during the protests, and with the help of other clergy I organized a successful interfaith service on the tenth anniversary of 9-11. These are important steps, but more important are other efforts to find common ground and cooperate on ministry and mission. I convened a meeting of representatives from the four downtown churches this fall as we began conversations about the effects of the library and capital closures on the downtown homeless population. I hope that meeting is a first step in a developing relationship among our parishes. We also welcomed to our services the Rev. Franklin Wilson of Luther Memorial Church, and although our relations with LMC were strained by the proposal for development of the St. Francis House site, we will continue to work on ways in which we might cooperate. Next week, representatives from the Lubar Institute will be presenting an adult forum on interfaith relations and I hope many of you will participate in that session. For all of the differences among the religions, in some respects we have more in common with one another than with the secular outlook that pervades much of our society.

Next October, Diocesan Convention will be headquartered in Middleton, but we are already making plans to celebrate the Convention Eucharist here at Grace. Convention will be an opportunity for us to work even more closely together as Madison Episcopalians, and to highlight that cooperation to the rest of the diocese.

In addition to experimentation in our relationships outside the parish, this year has also been a time of experimentation within the congregation. The book of annual reports records many of the achievements in our ministries and programs. I would like to highlight three. First, thanks to the vision and hard work of Junior Warden Bruce Croushore, Grace Presents, our concert series has gotten off to a marvelous start. Experimenting with different kinds of music from classical to Gypsy Swing, and with different times including Saturday mornings and most recently a Wednesday evening, the series has opened our doors to new audiences and created a space where musicians can offer their gifts and skills.

With the retirement of the Rev. Pat Size last year, the Hispanic Ministry could have ended, but its membership decided to continue. Mary Ray Worley has provided much needed leadership and organization, and that group continues to show its strength, resilience, and passion for being a Spanish-language presence on the Capitol Square. Lay leadership has developed to officiate at Morning Prayer and to offer meditations during those services. In addition, the Rev. Charles Granger has recently stepped forward to offer regular Spanish-language Eucharists at 12 noon on Sundays.

Growing out of conversations around pastoral care, Darby Puglielli has gathered a group of people to meet each Monday to pray together. The presence of this prayer group at Grace may be a spark for all of us to deepen our prayer lives, both for ourselves and on behalf of others and the church. Prayer helps to bring us together, and even if you aren’t able to join with the group at Grace physically on Mondays, you may pray with them at home, work, school, or wherever you might find yourself.

Each of these efforts has been led and nurtured by lay people. The staff and clergy have offered assistance, insight, and moral support, but most of the envisioning, planning and implementation has been done by lay people. That fact reminds us of the power of lay people to develop and sustain ministries and programs, to catch sight of a vision and to make that vision a reality.

As we look ahead into 2012, it is important that we capitalize on the momentum we have already gained, and seek new ways of expanding our efforts to engage the wider community. One crucial step in that process is to make our space more inviting and welcoming to visitors. The last major renovation of our facilities took place almost twenty-five years ago. Crucial areas of our program and ministry—the undercroft which is home to our nursery and Sunday School, the reception area, to cite two examples—need to be re-imagined as places of invitation and welcome. In the coming months, our Aesthetics Committee and Buildings and Grounds will develop a plan to create in those areas spaces that invite the our congregation and the larger community to make them spaces of respite, life, and sanctuary for the twenty-first century.

The presence at Grace for the next year and a half of the St. Francis House Episcopal Campus Ministry is also an opportunity for us to think carefully and creatively about outreach to young adults. We already do that well. Someone recently mentioned to me after a 10-O’Clock service that our young adults embrace and engage young adult visitors enthusiastically. The fact of the matter is, however, that for many young adults, Sunday morning services are never going to be the center of their spiritual lives. We need to think about ways of engaging them in non-traditional ways, and at non-traditional times. With the help of a new full-time chaplain arriving some time in the New Year, we may be able to create other opportunities for worship, outreach, and spiritual development among college students and young adults.

One of our greatest strengths is our liturgy and worship, thanks to the strong music leadership offered by Berkley and Greg, and all of those people who are involved in preparing and offering worship—from the altar guild, to acolytes, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. I cannot tell you how many times visitors tell me how wonderful our services are. Still, we need to do more, explore ways of making our worship more accessible to outsiders, more meaningful to all, and ensure that what we do on Sunday morning and at other times speaks to the deep spiritual needs of our culture, needs that may not be met in traditional ways. For example, our new sound system will allow us to offer our services online which may allow us to connect both with parishioners who are unable to attend on Sunday morning and to reach out more widely into the community. In addition, during Advent, and if successful on a continuing basis, we will offer a weekly  evening Eucharist.