Evangelism and Sacred Space: Sabbatical Update 1

I’m a week into my sabbatical and have a few minutes to reflect on what I’m doing and where I’ve been. I’m calling my sabbatical project “Evangelism and Sacred Space,” which may sound exciting or off-putting, or both. Briefly put, I’m interested in how churches can respond to the rapidly changing religious scene in twenty-first century America, with growing numbers of people no longer identifying themselves as religious or as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In addition, people who do self-identify as religious or Christian are practicing their Christianity very differently than previous generations, with much lower regular attendance and institutional commitment. These trends have radical implications for congregations and denominations.

But those demographics are only part of what intrigues me. In Madison, for example, there is significant population growth downtown with millennials and retirees drawn to the restaurants, entertainment, and lifestyle of a vibrant downtown. So a second piece of my interest is in city planning and urbanism, specifically how can churches participate in creating vital neighborhoods and communities. Many city planners talk about “third places,” spaces in addition to home and workplace where people can find community and connection. Churches are often cited as examples of third places but it’s rare that churches actively think about how they can create such spaces for people besides their own members.

It seems to me that some churches have something to offer, namely sacred space. To enter a space like the neo-Gothic Grace Church, for many people is to enter a space unlike any other they experience regularly. The beauty and transcendence of such spaces call out to the deep yearning in our souls for God, even if we have no vocabulary to describe that yearning. Opening our doors, truly becoming a “third space” for Madison, is not just about creating community, it is about inviting people into a spiritual journey, the goal of which is God.

Finally, I am interested in finding ways to deepen and broaden community across the divides of race, class, and religion. At Grace, we have been exploring for several years how we might address the deep racial inequities and divisions in Madison. We have also sought to be a witness to the positive value of interfaith work. I hope to learn from others who are doing similar work.

My travels will take me up the East Coast from Richmond to Boston, to Seattle and Portland, and finally to San Antonio, where I will join my wife at the American Academy of Religion meeting and hopefully find time for a quick trip to Austin.

At the end of it all, I hope to be able to share with Grace and with anyone else who is interested some of my reflections on what I’ve learned, and some questions that might spur our own future work.



God, grant us justice: A sermon for Proper 24, Year C, October 16, 2016

Today is an odd occasion in our common life. At the end of services today, I will embark on a six week sabbatical. It will be the longest period you and I will be apart since I came to Grace in 2009. It will also likely be the longest period during which I will not celebrate the Eucharist since I’ve been ordained a priest, and the longest period I will go without preaching in more than 15 years.

I think of preaching as a conversation you and I are having together over these last years; an ongoing conversation around scripture. Granted, it’s mostly a one-sided conversation with me doing the talking, but many of you share feedback with me and your concerns and questions help to shape my preaching. Over and above that, as you know, my preaching reflects our engagement with our cultural context and as I leave during an especially critical and fraught election season, I will miss the opportunity to reflect with you through the gospel on current events.

Today’s gospel reading seems especially appropriate for our current moment. At its heart is a brief, simple, yet fascinating parable. A widow repeatedly comes before a judge and cries out to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” But the judge refuses. It’s hard to listen to this little parable and not draw connections with our present cultural and political moment. In an age where it seems the justice system is rigged for the wealthy and powerful; where bankers get off easy and African-American are incarcerated for the same offenses that whites receive probation; at a time when Voting Rights are under assault, when victims of sexual violence are blamed and ignored, the plight of the woman in our story seems all too familiar, all too real.

Grant us justice!

We have heard over the last three years about the deep racial injustice and inequities in our state and in our county; about the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the African-American community; the economic inequality, the racial gaps in educational achievement and life expectancy. We have heard the cries for justice from that community, and too often we’ve turned our backs to their suffering, shut our ears to their cries, or joined with those who claim that the statistics lie or are misleading.

Grant us justice!

Our hearts break as we see images of the devastation in Aleppo; the senseless violence and horrific suffering. There seems to be no end in sight, no end too to the lengths to which those perpetrating the violence would go to regain control. Outsiders seem impotent to affect the situation, to bring about a ceasefire or resolution to the conflict.

Grant us justice!

Hurricane Matthew has devastated Haiti. The destruction of that island by natural disaster, coming on top of three centuries of neglect, oppression, and exploitation.

Grant us justice!

Grant us justice! We can put ourselves in the place of the widow. Many of us have struggled for justice for years—protesting in the streets in 2011, or last year after the shooting of Tony Robinson. We have struggled for justice, but it seems further away than ever before. Indeed, at this cultural moment, true justice seems under threat in our country in ways it has never been before. We are fearful, disheartened, in despair.

When we hear this parable, the widow’s pleas reverberate across the millennia, echoed by countless millions over those centuries who have cried out for justice. Her pleas echo today; her voice joined by all those who cry out for justice in an unjust world. We hear her pleas; we know her suffering; we even think, across the millennia that we understand this little parable.

But do we? For that matter, did Luke? If you look closely at the context, Luke’s introduction to the parable raises difficult questions about the parable’s meaning. He says that Jesus told this parable to instruct the disciples about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” A laudable sentiment indeed but it would seem to force a particular interpretation on to the parable.

Luke wants us to allegorize it; to see the judge as God and the pleading woman as a persistent prayer. But if that’s the case, then God doesn’t come off very well. Jesus describes the judge as unjust and no respecter of persons. The judge uses the same language of himself and indeed, he relents only because he’s tired of the woman’s constant pleading and wants to get rid of her. Is that an image of God with which you are comfortable? Is that an understanding of the efficacy of prayer that makes sense? If you keep at it long enough, you’ll eventually wear God down and get what you want.

Let me add another layer to our effort to make meaning of this. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the biblical world. There are numerous stories in the Hebrew bible and even the gospels that show them living on the margins of society. If they had no male relatives who could or would take care of them, they were left to struggle on their own. So Naomi and Ruth in the book of Ruth, return to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem and glean in the fields for their food. During a famine, Elijah encounters the widow of Zarephath who is down to her last bits of oil and flour and is preparing a last meal before she and her little son die of starvation. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is consistent in its commitment to care for widows and orphans and the Hebrew prophets railed against the injustice and maltreatment of these weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

So in this light, the parable becomes a story of a vulnerable, marginalized woman, who has been wronged in some way. Perhaps she’s been robbed of an inheritance or had land taken away from her. She seeks redress in court; some commentators posit that the judge may even be a male relative, whose special responsibility it would have been to help her. But the courts are stacked against her. The rigged system ignores her and it’s only because of her persistence, the inner strength that keeps her coming back, again and again, that eventually wears the judge down.

On this reading, of one wants to allegorize it, God is not the cruel and unjust judge but God is the persistent widow. Like the Hebrew prophets, the widow continues to bear witness against the injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society. Like Jesus who is about to enter Jerusalem and challenge the imperial of Rome, the widow bears witness to God’s justice against the injustice and oppression that dominate. The widow becomes a model for us, and a beacon of hope. Our cries for justice do not go unheard.

In the midst of all of the injustices and suffering that surround us; when we may be overwhelmed by despair at the tone of our current election season; God hears our cries. When we may be fearful at the violence and hate that is bubbling up around us, we can be sure that God hears our cries for justice.

For in the midst of all of the suffering, violence, and injustice, there are signs and evidence of change. Here in Madison, after years of setbacks and struggle, the county seems to be a few months away from opening a permanent Day Resource Center; and after more than thirty years here at Grace, there is a real possibility of a permanent men’s homeless shelter designed for that purpose with adequate space and facilities to accommodate the need. I couldn’t have imagined either of those things happening three years ago; five years ago. One might say it’s a miracle.

Do not lose heart. It is so easy to fall into despair, to look around in our lives, our community and around the world and see the signs of violence and injustice; to be overwhelmed by it all and lose hope.

Our God is a God of justice and love and even in the midst of the greatest injustice and suffering, our faith proclaims that God is present. Our faith proclaims that we see God most clearly in the midst of violence, injustice, and suffering. In Christ’s death on the cross, we proclaim that God is present. Our faith proclaims that in his suffering, we see Christ’s love. Our faith proclaims that Christ overcame death and the grave; that God is making all things new.

God is here, in the midst of our struggles, our despair, our pain; in the midst of injustice and oppression. In God’s time, God will make all things right.

Do not lose heart!





Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.


State of Emergency, State of Joy: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year C, 2016


As you know, today is the fifteenth anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s growing increasingly difficult to remember the shock, horror, and fear that we felt as we watched the events unfold that day and in the weeks and months that followed. It’s hard to remember the unity and sense of purpose that was shared across party lines and throughout our nation as we struggled to make sense of and respond to the devastation and grief.

A little news item I came across this week reminded me of all that, not only the events themselves but the way our nation has changed. The White House announced that President Obama was extending the state of emergency that President Bush had declared on September 11, 2001. Think about it. We have been in a state of emergency for fifteen, now going on sixteen years. The surveillance state, the eternal war, the militarization of our society and police, torture, Guantanamo—all of it has become routine. It’s hardly a state of emergency, or perhaps to put it better, the USA has become an “Emergency State.” So much of what we’re seeing in our political processes, the breakdown of our institutions, our deep divisions, I think can be traced back to forces unleashed by 9-11. Until we make an honest reckoning with ourselves, with the violence and injustice that we’ve perpetrated, with the harm we’ve done to our culture’s norms and values, we are doomed to wander in this wilderness. Continue reading

Loving the Strange: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year C


Radical Hospitality.

All are welcome here.

Inclusion. Diversity.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

These buzz words and slogans are everywhere. In public discourse and especially among progressive Christians. Hospitality comes up in conversations around ethnic diversity and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. If you were to read current literature on congregational growth and vitality, hospitality is always one of the key themes. Like many other churches, at Grace we pride ourselves on our hospitality. If you’re visiting today, join us for coffee hour to test whether we put our words into action. Continue reading

A Bent-Over Woman, a Bent-Over People: A Sermon for Proper 16, Year C


Have you been watching the Olympics? I didn’t think I would this year; the hype, the scandals, the doping, the over-politicization of them, the hyper-nationalism and flag waving have all gotten to me over the years. So the first few days came and went without me watching any of the events. But then, one night, we were tired and it was too late for us to begin one of the movies or tv shows on our watch list, so we went over to NBC. And then I remembered why the Olympics can be so wonderful, inspiring, and awesome. We watched men and women running, a little pole vault, and caught the tail end of the women’s gymnastic competitions. Continue reading

Strangers, Foreigners, Immigrants, Refugees: A sermon for Proper 14, year C

We have watched the Middle Eastern refugee crisis unfold before our eyes, on TV and in the internet as some 13.5 million residents of Syria have been displaced by the 5-year civil war, half of them fleeing the war-torn nation for asylum elsewhere. In 2015, Europe, that is to say the EU, saw more than 1.3 refugees, a number more than double the previous high set in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These numbers are staggering and the scope of the human tragedy are incomprehensible to most of us. More familiar to us is the backlash—the calls to halt all immigration Most of the world watches this enormous tragedy unfold with cold hearts and a sense of helplessness in the face of its magnitude.

We are a nation of immigrants, at least that’s the myth we tell ourselves, but the truth of the matter is, that for most of us, those who come from families who have been here for generations and came originally from the British Isles, or Northern or Western Europe, we have settled very comfortably into the places we live. Even if we aren’t originally from Madison, it’s likely you’ve thought, as I did yesterday morning while riding bike along Lake Monona and enjoying a beautiful, seasonable summer day, that Madison is a wonderful place to live, and that I would rather be here than most any other place I’ve lived.

In spite of that, in spite of the beautiful day and the beautiful scenery, as we biked Corrie and I noticed something else. While the overwhelming majority of those biking along Lake Monona were white, African-Americans were there as well, individuals and families, fishing along the shore. No doubt some of them were there simply to have fun. It’s very likely that others, perhaps most, were hoping to make a meal or more of what they caught. Amidst the beauty of a leisurely Saturday, we were reminded again of the deep racial divide in our city, the parallel worlds, the parallel communities in which we live.

The conflict over immigration here and in Europe is connected with another conflict, that over our nation and culture itself. We see evidence of that conflict in the anger and fear that are expressed by so many, by the rancorous arguments over our criminal justice system and policing and our current election season.

That conflict extends to our faith as Christians offer their support for one candidate or another, using theological arguments to support their case and bolstering their political position with scripture citations. We may recoil at the statements of pastors whose political views we don’t share. Some of us might be inclined to try to divorce our faith from the world of politics entirely. In this climate, in this conflict, finding a way through the noise, the anger, and the fear, can be an enormous challenge.

The reading from Hebrews may offer us some help in making our way through the coming months. Although called a letter, Hebrews is more likely a sermon. It’s a beautifully written, profound exploration of the meaning of Jesus Christ. Its lofty language, use of symbolism, and reinterpretation of Hebrew Scripture in light of Jesus Christ has fascinated and shaped Christian worship and theology. And in this chapter, chapter 11, the author offers an extensive meditation on the nature of faith, and bolsters his argument with examples from biblical history. Our reading includes only one of the examples, the archetypes of faith, Abraham and Sarah.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. On the face of it, this seems to suggest the old conflict between faith and reason. It seems that we’re being instructed to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In fact, our translation doesn’t really capture what the author is trying to say. First, the word translated as assurance here is elsewhere translated as being. The best translation might be “faith is the reality of things hoped for.”

Likewise, the word translated as conviction in “conviction of things not seen” ought better read “proof.” What the author seems to be saying is not that faith ought to be contrasted with empirical evidence, but rather that it is part of a process that faith moves toward understanding, realizing that which is now beyond demonstration. “Faith seeking understanding” to use a phrase made famous by St. Anselm.

The author gives us then the example of Abraham and Sarah. Here again, the greek isn’t quite clear on whether Abraham or Sarah is meant to be the primary example. By faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when they were called to set out for a place that God promised them; not knowing where they was going; by faith they stayed in the land promised to them, as in a foreign land, living in tents. By faith they received power of procreation even though he was too old and Sarah was barren.” Then we are left with that majestic vision: All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an imaginative leap. The author of Hebrews and those in his audience were comfortable with that idea. As followers of Jesus Christ they proclaimed allegiance to someone who had been executed by the Roman Empire, by their rulers. They belonged to a community whose existence was precarious and by belonging, they renounced their ties to family and became members of a new community. For them to understand themselves as strangers and foreigners was not a difficult leap.

For us, for most of us it is. When we hear those words, “strangers and foreigners” what comes to mind? Do we immediately grow fearful? What do we think when we see a Muslim woman in hijab? Can we imagine ourselves in a refugee camp somewhere, or making that perilous journey from a war-torn homeland in search of peace and city somewhere thousands of miles away? Can we put ourselves in the place of our fellow humans fleeing for safety?

We are comfortable here in this city, in this nation. Our nation and culture have been shaped by Christian values and Christian symbolism. We saw all of that on display at the two conventions last month. We are at home here, and those unlike us are the strangers and foreigners.

To uproot us, to move us out of our comfort zone and our complacency. To recognize that what we should be striving for is not what lies behind us, whether in our own past, or in our nation, culture, or church’s past, but that our goal lies beyond us, beyond our imagination, and like Abraham and Sarah, we can only catch glimpses of it. That is what the author of Hebrews is telling us. That is also what Jesus is telling his disciples in today’s gospel.

Remember, they are on the journey to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ words are advice to his followers for that journey, but his words are also advice to us.

Jesus tells his disciples “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. In the midst of present struggle and uncertainty, in the midst of whatever fears we might harbor for ourselves, our loved ones, the world, Jesus offers comfort and hope. He also confronts us with all the ways we seek to protect ourselves from pain, suffering, uncertainty. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

What are your priorities? What are your deepest passions, your loftiest goals? What are your hopes? Are you like Abraham and Sarah strangers and foreigners? Are you citizens of that other country? Are you like the disciples, striving for the reign of God? Where is your treasure, where is your heart?

To live by the priorities of the Kingdom of God means to allow the words of Jesus to become our beacon and guide, to let them set our priorities. To live that way is to live like Abraham and Sarah, responding to God’s call, and taking hold of God’s promises. No, we might not see the kingdom of God reign on earth, but like Abraham and Sarah, we might see glimpses of that other country, as we embrace the stranger and foreigner, the widow and orphan, as we work to break down the barriers that divide us, to create a more just community, a more just world.