On being sent out: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year B, 2015

By now, most if not all of you have heard the news coming out of the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Among many other resolutions passed and the election of a new presiding bishop, the items that got the most attention outside of the church from the mainstream media, were the resolutions concerning marriage—the change in the canons, removing the reference to man and woman in the definition of marriage, and the approval for trial usage of new rites for marriage.

We are not of one mind on these issues. Some of view these changes positively, as signs the church is responding to cultural change, embracing and welcoming diversity. Others are much more cautious, even opposed, struggling to understand how these changes fit in with scripture and tradition. While Bishop Miller has suggested that congregations may use these rites when they become available on the first Sunday of Advent this year, as a congregation we will have to discern where we are and how we might move forward together as the body of Christ.

If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to stick around after service today and join me in the library for a conversation. Bring your questions and concerns as we talk together about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church as well as marriage equality. This conversation is not just about gender and sexuality, it is about hospitality and mission, two themes that find resonance in today’s gospel.

Jesus comes home in the first section of today’s reading and isn’t welcomed with open arms. Remember that he has been on the road, visiting the towns and villages of Galilee, but also crossing the lake and working in Gentile territory as well. He has healed people, raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, cast out demons, and taught crowds. Now he’s home, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaches. The response from the community is astonishment. They know this guy, he’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary. They know his family and wonder where he gets off talking with such authority and performing the mighty acts they’ve heard about. Their response of astonishment and offense seem to limit Jesus’ ability; instead of performing “deeds of power” similar to those he has done elsewhere, in his hometown, he only heals a few people by laying hands on them.

Jesus resumes his itinerant ministry, teaching and healing, and as he does, he commissions the twelve to share in that ministry. Like Jesus, they traveled about, healing the sick, casting unclean spirits, and preaching repentance. Indeed, these are precisely the same activities that Mark shows Jesus doing in the preceding chapters. The disciples become an extension of Jesus’ himself, proclaiming the coming of the reign of God, and in their actions, offering a foretaste of that reign.

But there’s more. In addition to sending them out and empowering them, Jesus gives them instructions on what to take with them and what to do. They’re to take no provisions with them, no bread or money, to wear sandals and not even carry a change of clothes. In fact, so puzzling are these instructions that when telling the story, Matthew and Luke change the details. In Mark they are to carry a staff and wear sandals; in Matthew and Luke, they are forbidden either sandals or a staff. But all three agree that if they come to a place that rejects them, they are to leave, and as they leave, shake the dust off of their sandals, symbolically demonstrating their rejection of that place.

On one level, these instructions reflect a central concern in the first century or so of Christianity, the local community or congregation responsibility to provide for its leaders, especially for itinerant evangelists. Paul addresses such issues in his letters, stressing at times that he was paying his own way; and in Christian sources outside the New Testament, we see similar instructions for the lifestyle of evangelists. And over the centuries, these instructions have provided inspiration for movements like that led by St. Francis of Assisi, who sent his followers out two by two, and instructed them to wear sandals, no belt, and take no money with them.

We may get caught up in the specificity and simplicity of Jesus’ instructions as well as the dramatic image of disciples shaking the dust from their sandals as they leave a place that rejected them. These details reflect two larger themes that deserve our attention. First, mission. The very word comes from the Latin word, “to send.” Here Jesus sends the twelve out. They are doing the very things that Jesus has done; they are extending his ministry, his proclamation, his presence, and his healing, in places where he cannot go. They are expanding his influence and message.

The second theme is hospitality. Jesus is not welcomed back home—they take offense at him—and apparently because of this response, he is unable to do in his hometown all of the things he can do elsewhere. Jesus instructs the twelve on how to receive hospitality, and what to do if they don’t receive it. It’s that aspect of hospitality that we don’t often think about.

When we talk about hospitality, we tend to emphasize how open or welcoming we are or should be. We think about how we greet newcomers, how we embrace people unlike ourselves. All of that is important, of course but it comes from a position of privilege. We are the ones to whom guests come, we are the ones opening our doors, inviting others in. That’s not what Jesus was talking about here. He was giving instructions on how to receive hospitality.

The disciples he sent out had almost nothing—no food or money, nothing by the clothes on their back, their staff and sandals. They were dependent on the kindness of strangers, for shelter and for food. As recipients of hospitality, they were vulnerable. It’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself, as anyone who has ever had to ask for help can tell you.

Can our hospitality embody such vulnerability and openness? Can we let go of our privilege and comfort and welcome the possibility of change when we welcome the stranger? Can we be open to their gifts and experiences, open to relationship based on vulnerability and openness, rather than requiring them to conform to our expectations?

We have talked a great deal about hospitality here at Grace; we are talking about issues of diversity and welcome, of reaching out to our neighbors, but most of those conversations are one-sided. We are talking to each other, but not to people beyond our congregation. We are thinking about how we might be more welcoming and do more outreach in our neighborhood and the community but what we are not asking people outside our doors what their needs, and gifts, are. Can we receive what they have to tell us?

Hospitality and mission; there’s something else we ought to reflect on in all of this. We see Jesus rejected because apparently his preaching offended the townspeople. We see Jesus telling his disciples what to do if they’re rejected when they come in his name. Can we imagine ourselves offending others in Jesus’ name? Can we imagine being rejected because we have said, or done things, that make our neighbors uncomfortable?

The most discomfort we might have is hearing these words of Jesus, as he tells his disciples, tells us, to go out and do his work, to travel lightly, to receive what others have to offer, to be ready to receive rejection. It may be uncomfortable, but Jesus is sending us out. When we say the prayer after communion, we accept that responsibility, “Send us now into the world in peace … to love and serve you.” May we accept that mission, may we do his work.

A Flour-Barrel Altar and the Mission of the Church

A Homily for the

175th Anniversary Celebration of the first Episcopal worship in Madison

July 29, 2013

This afternoon, I immersed myself in Madison’s early history, trying to get some feel for what it was like to live here in the late 1830s. I also hoped to get some sense of the people who organized the first Episcopal worship service that we commemorate this evening. Madison in 1838 was still a very small town. In the winter of 1837 and 1838, there may have been no more than a few dozen people living here. More came in the spring of 1838 as the territorial capitol was being built, land speculation taking place, and people moving here to seek their fortunes. But still the little store that became for a day “First Episcopal Church of Madison”—as eyewitness Simeon Mills later called it—could probably accommodate most of Madison’s population. It was a quite simple affair, with benches made out of planks, and empty flour barrel serving as the base for the altar.

The service was occasioned by the arrival of missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper who was seeking to reach out to whites on the frontier. He was travelling from Prairie du Chien to Green Bay, where congregations, or at least ministries, had already been established.

As I read these accounts, I wondered what those who were at that service imagined for the future of the church in Madison? Did they hope to see a building like Grace on the corner of Capitol Square? Did they imagine that one day there would be not one but four parishes in Madison, in addition to the Campus Ministry?

As I’ve thought about the last 175 years, I suspect that the place we are today as a church and a society would be incomprehensible, unimaginable to past generations of our fellow Episcopalians. All of us worship in buildings that were built by previous generations, with an eye to the possibility of growth and expansion. Those who built our churches were building for institutional stability and permanence. They were building for the future, for us, and we are both heirs and stewards of their efforts.

But what strikes me more than all of that is the image of that first worship service with benches made of planks and a flour-barrel altar and a bunch of reverend gentlemen (as Mills labeled them) unable to pitch a tune. Oh, and the store was still not complete. One side was open to the street. The space and the service were simple and makeshift. None of it would have pleased our theological, liturgical or aesthetic sensibilities.

What unites us with those who gathered 175 years ago? Well the very same things that unite us across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion—the fact that we have bishops and our common liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer. While there are many differences between tonight’s liturgy and most contemporary Episcopal services, the Eucharistic prayer itself is found almost word for word in Rite One of our BCP. We share one more thing, across the centuries and across the world, our common faith in Jesus Christ.

I like that image of a half-built store with plank benches and a flour-barrel altar. I like it because it reminds us not of who we are or where we have been, but it calls us forward into new ways of being church and religious community.

In the gospel we heard, those familiar words from the Great Commission, we are reminded of who Jesus calls us to be and where Jesus calls us to go.

Our buildings, our institutions, our identity, are all very comfortable things. Even the prayer book and hymnal are like security blankets. The language of the liturgy, the familiar hymns wash over us, reassure us that our worship and our church are stable and permanent things. We know we are called to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, but for most of us, clergy and laity, that means tending to ourselves, our worship, our buildings, our fellow members. We hope that visitors will make their way to our services, and that if they make it through our red doors once, that they will return. We hope they will do that, so that they can become members of the choir, or altar guild, or even vestry, and let us rest.

But Jesus calls us out into the world, to proclaim the gospel in all nations, to make disciples. He has sent us out to share the good news of God’s love on street corners, in cafes, and, yes, in storefronts, and social media. Jesus has not called us to build institutions, or staff committees, however important that may be. He has not called us to tend to our selves and our needs. He calls us to go out into all the nations.

Miranda and Paula have just returned from Tanzania and I’m sure they will have much to share about their time there, the church there, and how we can connect. But mission is not just about distant lands and places. Mission begins on the other side of the doors of our churches. Mission begins when we come to terms with the reality that we are increasingly living in a secular, post-Christian culture. That’s more true here in Madison than in many other places in Wisconsin or across the country.

We are again living on a frontier. The institutions, even the way of life that seemed to be so stable and certain a few decades ago are increasingly fragile, often broken. That’s true of our political system. That’s true of our sense of being a civic community, of sharing a set of common values and purpose. It’s true of our economy that is increasingly rigged so the wealthy become wealthier. It’s true of our churches, especially the Episcopal Church, that has lost the central place it held in American culture and society for so many years. It’s true of our churches even though Grace continues to occupy a prominent space on Capitol Square.

We are on a frontier, and the path forward for us is as uncertain as it was for those who set out to make new lives for themselves in the Wisconsin territory 175 years ago. The old certainties are gone. We can’t expect that if we package our worship and ministries in just the right way, that people will join us and our churches will grow. It’s not a matter of worship style, or marketing, or finding the perfect curriculum for Christian formation. In our society, many people have stopped looking for a church home. Many who are seeking meaning in life have no notion that they might find such meaning in Christian community. They don’t know the vocabulary, they don’t know the rules, they can’t imagine themselves embraced by God’s love in the body of Christ.

That’s the frontier on which we live, the future that we face. Jesus calls us forward into that future, to do his work in the world, to reach out and do what Christians have done for nearly two thousand years, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach. What that might look like, is anyone’s guess. What the Episcopal Church might look like in Madison in 50 or 100, or 175 years, is beyond my imagination. But if I had to guess, I would wager that it would look more like that storefront in which we began 175 years ago, than the church in which we worship tonight.

On that frontier, in that uncertain future, Jesus promises to be with us, always, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.

 

A New Community, A New Commandment: A Sermon for Easter 5, Year C

Today is an exciting, scary day in the life of Grace Church. After nearly nine months, after several iterations of plans, after dozens of meetings, hundreds of conversations, thousands of emails, we will finally get to see the master plan that has been developed by Vince Micha and his team from Kubala Washatko Architects. Many of us are eager for today’s worship to conclude so we can get on to the main event. Others, I’m sure, are either totally unaware what a master plan might be and how it might affect Grace Church, or don’t care one way or another. Some of you might be thinking that to focus on bricks and mortar is a diversion from what the church really ought to be about. That’s a legitimate concern and unless our renovations are connected to our mission in the world, if our renovations are only designed to make us more comfortable, then we are falling far short of the people God is calling us to be. Continue reading

Master Plan and Mission

We’ve been working with Vince Micha and the Kubala Washatko Architects on a master plan for renovations of Grace Church. Today, they made a presentation of plans with budget numbers. In my opening remarks, I sought to connect the master plan with Grace’s mission. Here is what I said:

Where Anglican tradition engages the contemporary world, Grace Church
opens its doors on Madison’s Capitol Square, inviting all to join us in sharing
the love of Jesus Christ in worship and in outreach to our neighbors and the world. –Grace’s Mission Statement

I took a call this week from someone who was looking for space to use on Saturday morning. A group of runners in Crazylegs wanted to gather for prayer before the race. I mentioned the courtyard but pointed out that there was nowhere to sit and because of logistics, we couldn’t offer them anywhere inside the building that day. Later yesterday, in addition to the food pantry in the morning, in the evening AA met. There was also a dance in the guild hall and a free concert in the nave. Yesterday was a typical Saturday in many respects: several things going on, each of them facing obstacles of one sort or another but still drawing in a few dozen or a hundred people, not counting the guests that slept in the shelter last night. But remember, outside our doors on Saturday morning were the Dane County Farmers’ Market and Crazylegs. Thousands of people passed by Grace Church yesterday as they do every Saturday and during all of those weekends when there are festivals or parades or athletic events that wreak havoc with our parking. Thousands of people passed by our doors but did they notice? Did they try to come in? Was anyone in all those crowds trying to make a spiritual connection?

We are gathered today to hear from Vince Micha and his team about their master plan for renovations. We will also have some rough estimated numbers to go with the phases of the plan. At the end of our time together, Senior Warden Mary Ann Cook will speak briefly about the next steps in the process. She will also talk about fundraising. There are important questions about the financial side of this master plan that need to be addressed. The Vestry is working on all of that and will be communicating with the parish about all of those matters. But this meeting will focus on the architects’ presentation and on your questions related to the plan.

The Master planning process began in a desire to renovate and upgrade aspects of our physical space—the undercroft, restrooms, accessibility, and the like. Over the course of the last eight months, many of you have been engaged in sharing your ideas about our space, our needs, and your hopes for the future. The architects have listened carefully as they developed their plans in response to the themes they heard and these plans are both a response to what we’ve said as well as their vision of what our mission and ministry might look like in renovated space.

But that’s not the end of the process or the end of our conversation. I read our mission statement a few minutes ago. We need to ask several questions. 1) does this master plan embody our mission? Does it help us open our doors? Does it help us share the love of Jesus Christ with our neighbors and the world? If it does, wonderful! If it doesn’t or if it could be improved, then let’s work on that.

There’s a second set of questions that we need to ask. As a number of people have observed, the master plan reflects our current mission and ministry, our current programming. Well and good. But what will our mission, ministry, and programming look like in ten years? Is the master plan flexible enough to adapt to our changing needs and a rapidly changing culture? If it is, wonderful. If not, …

There’s often a tendency, well, I’ll call it a temptation, to distinguish between a congregation’s operating budget and physical plant on the one hand and its ministry and mission on the other. As I’ve said before, I think that’s wrong because it fails to take into account the vision of those who built this church and it fails to take into account the role our physical space plays in our community. There was a lot of open space in Madison when Grace Church was built. It could have been located almost anywhere, but this corner was chosen. Also chosen was a particular architectural style that sought to convey a message in the 19th century city landscape. Our fore-parents had a clear vision of what an Episcopal Church was in a 19th-century state capital. Their vision may no longer have quite the relevance it had 150 years ago. It may be that what we are doing is recasting a vision for an Episcopal Church in a state capital in the 21st century.

One way of asking this question is “How can Grace Church be a blessing to our community?” We have been blessed with a beautiful building, a spectacular location, a long history of civic involvement, and important outreach efforts. How can this master plan help us bless our community?

I would like to highlight several areas of focus that I think should engage us as we move forward with our masterplan.

1)    Helping people connect with the sacred, to find in Grace and in our programs opportunities to deepen their spiritual journeys. Of course, we already do that, through our worship and other programming. But what more can we do? Can our courtyard can become a place for gathering, even meditation? Can  we find ways of balancing security needs with making our nave or chapel open for visitors during the week? Can we, through redesign and greater accessibility, open our doors for outside groups to use our space more regularly, and at the same time develop worship, fellowship, and learning opportunities that take place at times other than Sunday morning and are attractive to those who live or work downtown, especially perhaps to young adults?

2)    Space to experience beauty—We have built a successful concert program “Grace Presents” thanks to the vision and hard work of Bruce Croushore and others, including the late Steve Smith. How can we foster the arts in other ways? Can we create space for exhibiting the visual arts, perhaps drama, encourage other concerts, even a resident performance group? How can we move beyond being a concert venue and become a community that encourages artists to engage the sacred both for the wider community and for themselves?

3)    Can we explore new ways of engaging the community and fostering dialogue and conversation about the role of religion in contemporary life? Our presence on Capitol Square next to the state capital and in the heart of a vibrant city is an opportunity for us to engage our civic community in conversations about the common good, about meaning and value, about the sort of community we want to create in this city and this state. All of these are contentious issues but the question for us is whether we can imagine Grace becoming a place where people of different points of view and perspectives, people from different segments of our community, with different assumptions and values, can come together for conversations that could seek commonality rather than division, hope instead of despair, and unite around a vision that seeks the good of all, not just of a few.

These are ambitious goals, big ideas. They are a combination of things I’ve heard from you over the past months and years, ideas percolating in the conversations around coffee hour, at vestry meetings, and as we’ve talked about the master plan. We might not be able to accomplish all of them, but if we do, and if the master plan helps us to accomplish them, then we will be a blessing to our neighborhood and to the wider world.

 

Fear of failure: Apple and the Church

I came across this quotation on a blog I recently discovered (More than 95 theses) :

“In my time working [at Apple], I must personally have seen years-worth, probably decades-worth (and, from afar perhaps even centuries-worth) of work simply discarded because it turned out not to be ‘right’ or ‘good’. This was done with very little animosity towards the people who did the work. There was a distinct difference between working on something that turned out bad and had to be discarded (fine – admirable, even) and doing bad work (bad)…I think this highlights two things that many other organisations would do well to learn. First, what you have is what it is, it’s not the effort that was put into it. If it’s not worth keeping, it’s not worth keeping. Second, if you want the best results, you need to give good people the room to start over without feeling like they are failing.”- Jamie Montgomerie: Apple, Failure, and Perfect Cookies (via buzz)

I spent some time re-reading Grace Church’s history yesterday morning as part of my thinking about Grace’s future. I was reminded of the ebb and flow of parish life, growth and decline, conflict–all of those things that make up the history of any human institution. But I was reminded of something else. Rectors in the late nineteenth century celebrated services in Middleton, Mazomanie, Vienna (township, I suppose) and in other outlying communities. In some of these places missions were organized; in others, no formal structures were created. The only one of the places mentioned that now has an Episcopal Church is Middleton, St. Dunstan’s, which was founded during the post-war boom. Was the mission in these areas successful? Baptisms, weddings, eucharists were celebrated; priests were raised up here and there. Were the efforts failures?
Good work was done; that it didn’t result in lovely church buildings and thriving parishes is quite beside the point. What sorts of ministries and mission is God calling us to create in the coming years? What risks should we take? What experiments should we make?