Bringing Good News: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

A week ago Saturday, the vestry held its annual retreat, gathering to reflect on the previous year, to strategize and dream about the future, and to do the usual business of the first meeting of the year. We were meeting at a significant moment in the life of our congregation. As most of you know, there is in the works a proposal to develop much of the block on which we are located, with the center of the project a proposed new State History museum. That development may affect both our property and our congregational life. In addition, we have seen significant growth over the past years, bucking the overall national trend in the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity in general. We are located in a downtown that continues to experience development and growth in population, while many of the challenges that we face as a city are most evident in our immediate vicinity—racial and economic inequities, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing, and Wisconsin’s broken and oppressive criminal justice system. Continue reading

Agile Grace?

This year, members and groups at Grace, from the Vestry on down, have been reading The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I reached for it when I was looking for something that would change the conversation at Grace. We’ve done a lot of good work during my nine-years’ tenure here. We’ve welcomed lots of new members, seen significant growth in our Christian Formation program for children and youth, undertaken the first major renovation and capital campaign in 30 years. We have a task force, “Creating More Just Community” that is focused on issues of racism and inequity and is doing significant advocacy work around criminal justice reform through MOSES and has also formed partnerships with the Madison Jail Ministry.

We could do and must do more. My goals in this process are two-fold: 1) to leverage our location and building to connect with our neighborhood, and especially our neighbors at the State Capitol; and 2) to move beyond our walls and our property and build relationships with our neighbors in places and contexts other than our building. But to do that, we need to think beyond and outside our walls.

The former goal is rather obvious but nebulous and at the same time a potential mine field given the current dynamics in our state and nation concerning the relationship of Christianity and the political sphere. Our Creating More Just Community group is working on it, having reached out to legislators and legislative staff, and through our connections with other groups, we’ve hosted a forum for governors’ candidates, numerous gatherings on criminal justice reform, and are currently hosting the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.

The second goal presents its own set of challenges. While our building and our lovely courtyard garden are an enormous asset. We have, quite literally, the best location in the city, even if we don’t have adequate parking. We are beautiful, visible, and those who enter our spaces, whether it’s the nave or our gardens, experience beauty and transcendence, and a palpable sense of the divine.

We’ve been here for 175 years. Our nave was completed in 1858. It’s the oldest building on Capitol Square; the oldest church in continuous use in Madison. Its stone walls speak of stability, permanence, immobility. What might agility look like in our context?

Today, after our 10:00 service, we had the first of what will likely be a number of conversations about our future, about adapting and innovating our ministry and mission for the next decades. Almost 50 people participated. There were people who have been members of Grace for decades. Others who participated have been attending for only a few months; one person, a neighbor, has attended a few times over the years, but had the courage to join our conversation and to participate.

We heard stories; stories of how people came to Grace; the familiar, and powerful story of how the Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984, on a one-year trial basis (It’s been here ever since). We heard the story of the food pantry, and of the people, the visionaries who created it and those other visionaries who advocated for the shelter.

We talked about our neighbors–the many 20 and 30 somethings who live in our neighborhood and are looking for community and connection, and looking to help those in need. We talked about the demographic and cultural changes facing Christianity in the US, and Grace Church.

Vilas Guild Hall, constructed in 1894 as a memorial to Cornelia Vilas, was filled with the sound of animated conversation for almost an hour. We didn’t make it through all of the questions I had laid out to guide our conversations but conscious of the time, I began to bring the meeting to a close.

It was at that minute, as I began talking about next steps, about having a welcoming process in place before the fall, that someone stopped me and said, “Let’s get started right now. If you’re interested in forming a welcoming committee, come over to this table after the meeting’s over and we’ll start making plans.”

We have a great deal of work to do. Welcoming visitors is only one of many tasks ahead. We need to get out in the neighborhood, talk with the people who live, work, and play here, to listen to their needs, their passions, and dreams and find a way of connecting their stories with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can do that successfully, we will be well on our way to becoming more faithful followers of Jesus and showing others the transforming power of Jesus’ love in their lives and in the world.

Sabbatical as Liturgical Tourism

In my last sermon before departing on sabbatical, I mentioned to the congregation that the six Sundays I would be away from Grace would constitute the longest break from presiding at the Eucharist since my ordination in 2006. Indeed, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Sundays since my ordination on which I had attended church services in which I was not participating in some leadership capacity. 

But it’s not just been Sunday mornings. During my sabbatical, I have been something of a liturgical tourist. I’ve worshiped in a number of different cities and settings, experienced different worship styles and worshiping communities within the same congregation. This week, I have been immersed in the prayer and worship of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

I have enjoyed the variety of worship styles and the diverse worshiping communities. There was the familiar—the Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, hymns from the Hymnal 1982. There was the new and different—services based on the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, from the Community of Iona, new and powerful hymn texts. There were also memories from my past—the first time I’ve sung “How Great Thou Art” in many, many years. And there was the surprising—baptisms in which the presider sat babies down in the font to baptize them and then raised them above his head in exuberant celebration.

In a way, all of it was strange. To sit in a pew, to open a service bulletin wondering what I might find, to look around the congregation and see only unfamiliar faces; to pay attention to the new space in which I found myself; to ask, “what were the architects and people thinking, why did they choose this style and how has this style, this space, shaped the congregation? How has the changing historical context, the changing neighborhood, the changing congregation, adapted and transformed this space for their spiritual needs?”

For “Street Church” with its lack of defined space, other questions. With no boundaries defining the space, and little demarcation between Eucharist and lunch, how does that openness invite participation, welcome the marginal, the unknown, the stranger?

It’s been a great gift to worship in so many contexts with so many people. To let go, to not worry about what was going to happen next or whether everyone who was scheduled would be there, whether the details were in place; to sit, and stand, sing, and pray, to receive bread and wine as a stranger, surrounded by strangers, and yet, in spite of it, to be welcomed at the table and with these strangers, as we eat Christ’s body and blood, we are, we become the Body of Christ.

As the weeks have passed and as the number and variety of my worship experiences has increased, I’ve deepened my appreciation for the flexibility and power of Episcopal worship. To worship in all those different contexts with thousands of people coming from very different places and living very different lives, is to experience one of the great strengths of the Episcopal Church. Our worship brings us into the presence of God and brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. In worship, we experience the love of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The miracle is that this happens whenever, wherever we worship. The wonder is that all of those people who worship among and with us, can experience all of that, come to experience all of that. It can happen with beautiful music sung by professional choirs; it can happen when a few people sing “Amazing Grace” haltingly and off-key in a Washington Park. It can happen in glorious vestments and beautiful churches. But we can also experience God’s presence, the love of Christ, and become the Body of Christ in a warm smile or a hand tenderly placed on the shoulder of a sobbing woman at the altar rail.

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

Inviting people to church

People who come to Grace for Sunday morning services know that I like to stand outside on the corner of W. Washington Ave. and N. Carroll before services, to welcome them in. Few probably know that I am also inclined to invite passers-by. Sometimes I make a joke about it, as I did a few weeks ago when a group of runners came by. I assured them there was no need to hurry, they were five minutes early.

Inviting friends, neighbors, coworkers, even relatives to church is not something most Episcopalians like to do. The very word evangelism strikes fear in our hearts. We worry that we might offend someone.

ECF’s Vital Posts has two interesting posts on inviting people to church:

Here’s Mary Parmer talking about how a simple invitation from a friend was life-transforming.

Here’s Richelle Thompson on an Episcopal Church that passed out gum to its members with the message: “It’s up to you to invite someone to church on Easter Sunday.”

And finally, advice from a visitor. It’s well worth reading.

So, anyone going to issue invitations to services this week? Have you ever invited someone to church?