Another update

I received an apology from the Isthmus this afternoon. It turns out that the illustrator did use an image of Grace downloaded from the web as inspiration. Here is an excerpt from my reply:

Thank you. I appreciate your willingness to follow up with this matter. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, given my reaction now to this second cover of Isthmus that references Grace. I’m quite willing to absorb the shots, when they are fair …. I am also well aware that religious institutions deserve much of the criticism they receive in our culture and that it is up to those of us in leadership positions and in the pews to work hard to gain the larger culture’s trust.

We are a long distance from the times when churches and religious institutions were at the heart of our culture and highly respected. The article behind the cover illustration is evidence of that. Still, it’s easy to take cheap shots at churches and religious institutions from the outside and for insiders who have a beef with their leadership to turn to the media for ammunition in their internal struggles. Outside criticism often has a negative effect, circling the wagons if you will.

Grace has experienced all of that over the years. Just as it’s important to defend our image, it is also important to admit to our failures publicly and to accept apologies when offered.

Madison, like all of American culture, needs a robust and watchful press to serve the public interest. Here’s hoping for a productive and challenging relationship with the Isthmus and with all of Madison’s media.

Grace in the press

If you follow this blog, you know that Grace got some negative press in February over conditions in the shelter that is housed in the basement of our education wing. A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the Capital Times that mentioned there is no air conditioning in the shelter. I am more than willing to accept criticism when it’s valid and appropriate. Conditions in the shelter are not ideal, and it’s true there’s no A/C in it, but then there’s no A/C in our sanctuary either. What I don’t appreciate is criticism, even implicit, that focuses on Grace.

So in tomorrow’s Isthmus, the cover article concerns the Roman Catholic Bishop of Madison, and growing criticism from progressive Catholics about his leadership. For some reason, the Isthmus thought it appropriate to include in the cover photo Grace’s steeple. The image is here. Now, I suppose one might argue that the steeple of Grace Church is an iconic image of Madison, indeed of Christianity in Madison. But so far as I know, Bishop Molino has never crossed the threshold of Grace, although he’s welcome any time he would like to visit.

More importantly, Grace is not a Catholic church. Far from it. We are Episcopal and we represent much of what Bishop Molino and traditional Catholics oppose. We ordain women. We welcome any baptized Christian to our services and to receive communion, including those who have been divorced and those who might have remarried. We welcome gays and lesbians. We welcome all who seek a closer relationship to God through Jesus Christ.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not criticizing Bishop Molino. He and I may have very different views, but we are both seeking to live out our faith in Jesus Christ and to share that faith with others. My criticism is with the Isthmus.

I suppose I wouldn’t be so annoyed by Grace’s steeple appearing on the front cover of the Isthmus if we hadn’t bought an ad, welcoming people to Madison area Episcopal churches, that includes in it the image of Grace’s steeple.

The Spirit blows where it wills

In February, The Isthmus published an article by Joe Tarr about the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace Church. It was titled “Bleak House” and it aroused considerable anger among supporters of Porchlight and the shelter. It also raised issues about conditions in the shelter. There were already conversations taking place among churches and social service agencies about homelessness in Madison but the article galvanized interest. For example, we have probably had a half-dozen meetings at Grace about the shelter, homelessness, and what our role as a parish is.

Many people lashed out at The Isthmus. Complaints centered around the author’s unfairness and narrow perspective. Looking back, it’s clear to me that the wagons were circled in protection of Porchlight’s work.

The week after the article appeared, I received a call from someone at Epic Systems. They had read the article and wanted to help. I put them in touch with Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight. A few weeks later, a group of people from Epic toured the shelter at Grace, as well as other Porchlight facilities. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a meeting with Porchlight management and Epic to go over their proposal. As The Isthmus reported this week, Epic is proposing to fund and oversee major renovations to the space at Grace.

Often, when things we love, have deep commitment to, and have worked hard for, come under criticism, our tendency is to react viscerally. We want to protect what we love and work for. But almost every project, every institution, every agency, can be improved. Criticism is not just destructive; it can open up new possibilities. Had Joe Tarr not written that article, Epic would not have become involved.

Thanks to him, to Epic, and to everyone who works so hard to help make the shelter a place of refuge for homeless men.

We never know what might emerge from things that on the surface seem negative. As Jesus said in John 3: “The [Spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany


Grace Church

Last Epiphany, 2010

February 14, 2010

I’m sure that by now most of you have seen or heard about the article from this week’s Isthmus about the homeless shelter. If not, it’s posted in the back and is available online. I urge all of you to read it. I knew it was coming out; I wasn’t quite sure when it would appear, and I certainly had no idea of the content. But Thursday morning I got up around early and was working on a couple of projects. I kept checking their website to see if anything was on line. Then I saw the cover and the headline: “Bleak House: Grace Episcopal’s homeless shelter is a dispiriting place.” And my heart sank. I still had no idea what was in the article, so when I came to the church, I stopped by Barrique’s to see if they had copies of this week’s issue yet. I went to the office and read the article.

I’ve preached about the shelter a good bit already in the months I’ve been here and if you visit my blog, you’ll read more of my ruminations. Seven months is not a long time to develop a perspective on one’s ministry in a new place, but it has become clear to me that right now, a good bit of my job is going to be involved in the issue of homelessness. I didn’t expect that, and I’ve had more than one parishioner say to me that they wished I hadn’t already gotten so involved in it.

I wished I hadn’t as well. I certainly didn’t expect it. Coming in, I suppose I thought that having a homeless shelter, run by an outside organization, would give me a little cache, my ministry a little edginess, without actually having to be very involved.

But I quickly learned that wouldn’t be enough. As winter came on, and as I walked past the line-up night after night, I began to be more and more troubled by what I saw, more concerned about what I heard, more passionate about what was going on. And I learned that there were others who were also becoming more involved and more passionate. Perhaps we are close to achieving critical mass. I don’t know.

The headline on the article was troubling. I immediately shot an email off to the author to complain about it, and he assured me that there would be a clarification in the next issue. For better or worse, it’s not “our” shelter. We rent space to Porchlight, but of course we bear responsibility as Christians for the treatment of the guests and for the kind of hospitality that is shared there.

The shelter is a reflection on us as a church. The conditions in it, the treatment of the guests by Porchlight, all say something about how we understand and live out our call to be Christ’s body here. That’s why that headline should bother us. My first reaction was quite natural, to get defensive, to attack the messenger. Perhaps yours was as well. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of truth in that headline: the shelter is a dispiriting place. I hear it almost every day from the men who stay there and we at Grace share in the responsibility for what it has become over the years.

Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not placing blame or criticizing the past clerical or lay leadership of Grace, nor Grace’s membership. I’m not interested in exploring or analyzing the history of the relationship between Grace and Porchlight. I learned quickly that Grace is a complex institution that requires a great deal of energy, time, and commitment to keep going. We can’t do everything that needs to be done. We don’t have the resources: financial, human, spiritual, to do everything. So people have to make difficult choices about where to spend money, where to invest time and talent. You might have called a rector whose passion for the gospel and ministry lay elsewhere and would have focused her energies and your attention on different projects. Instead, you called me.

The story broke as I was thinking about my sermon for today and beginning to look ahead to Lent. As I pondered Luke’s gospel for today and thought about the situation of the shelter guests I remembered the quotation from Matthew’s gospel that I was quoted as referring to in the article: The church’s job, I said, is to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. I was alluding to Matthew 25 to the parable of the sheep and goats, and Jesus words’ “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” I’m perfectly comfortable thinking about encountering the face of Christ in the homeless, the hungry, in victims of violence and oppression, even in the faces of those suffering in Haiti. Yet I wonder whether my comfort is too comfortable, whether I fully understand what it means to encounter Christ in those faces.

I’ve said repeatedly these past weeks that Epiphany is a season during which we celebrate God’s glory and presence in the world, and above all the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who makes God’s glory and presence manifest in himself. The season of Epiphany always ends with a reading of the gospel story of the transfiguration, that eerie, otherworldly encounter of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on top of a mountain.

I’ve never found this story particularly compelling, probably because I’m not generally fond of those stories that emphasize Jesus’ divine nature or his miraculous powers and this one has nothing to redeem itself like the healing of someone who is blind or deaf or possessed. Instead, it seems to be all about the divine and kind of gratuitous at that, with the appearance of Elijah and Moses.

That might seem to contradict much of what I said last week about experiencing God, as Isaiah did in his vision, as Paul did on the road to Damascus, and as Peter did in the miraculous catch of fish. Each of them was transformed by the experience, each was humbled, each was called. They were other-wordly experiences. The difference, it seems to me, is that in the transfiguration we have two odd and unbelievable events—the first is the transformation of Jesus. Luke doesn’t call it transfiguration, saying only that the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. The second event was the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah.

The Transfiguration confronts us directly with the problem and the mystery of Jesus Christ’s divinity. But it does so in a curious way. On other occasions, with the miracles, for example, the demonstration of Jesus’ power is on behalf of someone else, to heal them, to restore them. In this case, the demonstration of Jesus’ divinity is for no reason, or perhaps only to show forth Jesus’ divinity.

But to focus only on what happens to Jesus is to miss some of the significance of the story. Luke’s version is unique in several respects. First, only Luke mentions what the three talked about—“Jesus’ departure.” Literally, the Greek reads “exodus.” So not only are we put in mind of the children of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness by the presence of Moses and the mountaintop setting; there is a connection here as well. And of course it is important that even in the context of a transcendent event like this, we are reminded of what is to come, of the cross and Jesus’ suffering. Another important point made by Luke is in the description of the disciples. It’s not at all clear what is meant here. The NRSV reads “they were weighed down with sleep, but since they were awake they saw his glory. Again, one is put in mind of Gethsemane, and of the same three disciples in Luke, sleeping, because of grief. In the midst of this glory, we have a foreshadowing of the cross.

Indeed, just a few verses along in the gospel, Luke will write: “And Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  It’s a journey we will be walking with him in the coming weeks—the journey to Jerusalem. Lent is a time of reflection, penitence, and preparation for Easter. The glory of Christ that we experience in the resurrection, the glory of Christ of which we have a foretaste today in the story of the Transfiguration, is also the glory of the cross.

Lent has been most often seen as a time for individual focus and reflection, an opportunity for each of us to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is appropriate, however, that we thank of it as a communal experience as well, that our journey is not one we make alone, but with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is fitting, then, that as part of our Lenten devotion in the coming weeks, we reflect together on our shared responsibility for Madison’s homeless. I would like to begin that process of reflection by inviting you to join me next Sunday at 8:45 in the library for an initial conversation. I don’t know where that conversation will lead us but I pray that together we will discern where God is leading us.

Peter wanted to build booths on the mountain so that he and the other disciples could continue to bask in the glory of the presence of Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ. He wanted to linger there, as we want to linger in the joy and glory of Epiphany. But the memory of this event will have to suffice for a time, as we make our way through Lent toward Easter and the greater glory of the sorrow and suffering of the Cross transformed into Easter.

Bleak House: Grace Episcopal’s Homeless Shelter a dispiriting place

That’s the headline I woke up to this morning. Here’s a link to the front page. Rather dispiriting, don’t you think? I shot an email off to the author of the article before reading it; it wasn’t yet on the website. By the time I got to the office, copies of The Isthmus were available. The article by Joe Tarr was well-researched, well-written, and balanced. He spent a night in the shelter to get some first-hand experience of what goes on there.

In a return email, Joe assured me they would make a clarification in next week’s issue, but anyone reading the article would quickly realize that the shelte is run by Porchlight, not us; and that it is ours only because we rent the space.

Still, part of the headline is true. The shelter is a dispiriting place, and we need to shoulder some of the responsibility for that.

There is a great deal of energy bubbling up in the downtown area around the issue of homelessness and the shelter and I am very hopeful that there will be some substantive changes. Several innovative ministries and outreach programs have developed recently and the growing concern over conditions in the drop-in shelter may lead to some change there too.