The Evangelism of Sacred Space

I’ll be taking a sabbatical this fall! Here’s the full text of my communication to members of Grace Church concerning my plans:


May 24, 2016, The Commemoration of Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church, First Bishop of Wisconsin, and first Episcopal clergy to lead services in Madison Wisconsin (1839)

At its meeting on May 11, the Vestry of Grace Church approved my sabbatical leave for October 23-November 27, 2016. My letter of agreement with Grace provides for a week’s sabbatical leave for every year of service and each year our operating budget sets aside one week’s salary and benefits for a sabbatical fund that will be used to defray my expenses. The letter of agreement also specifies that my sabbatical be taken after 5 years of service. I delayed it because of our work on the master plan, capital campaign and renovation. Sabbaticals are intended to offer clergy the opportunity to reflect on their ministry and develop new or enhanced skills or expertise.

During my sabbatical, I hope to lay the groundwork for the next phase of common ministry. I will explore a series of interrelated issues. First, we live in a rapidly changing religious landscape. With the increased presence of non-Christian religions and especially the rise of the so-called “nones” (those who identify themselves as having no religious commitment or affiliation), and the decline of mainline denominations, the future shape of denominations like the Episcopal Church or local congregations like Grace will be transformed. Second, as our society becomes more diverse ethnically and racially, how do we create communities that embrace this diversity and how do we reach out across the deep racial and socio-economic divisions in our city? Third, I’m intrigued by the ways in which sacred space can become a means for outreach and community building. The beauty of our courtyard garden or an encounter with the silence and grandeur of our nave can become experiences of the divine. To bring these three issues together, my sabbatical project is tentatively entitled: “The Evangelism of Sacred Space.”

To that end, I will spend my sabbatical to visit churches in other urban areas that are especially effective in developing creative ministries for our current religious context. My travels will take me to Washington, DC., New York City, Cambridge, MA, as well as to the Pacific Northwest. Included in my time away will be a retreat at the Society for St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge and the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Antonio.

I anticipate learning a great deal about how churches are engaging with their neighborhoods and responding creatively to our changing religious landscape, and I hope that ideas and processes I encounter can be adapted for our ministry and mission here at Grace. In addition to planning my travels, I am also making plans to provide for pastoral care and worship during my absence. I hope to be able to share those plans with the congregation by the end of June. I give thanks to God for all we’ve accomplished over the last seven years and for our continuing shared ministry.

God’s playful delight: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2016

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also the day when we mark the end of our program year. At our 10:00 service, some of our children and youth will be assisting in the service in more expansive ways than is typical. They will read the lessons, serve as ushers, and be Eucharistic Ministers. We will also recognize all of the volunteers and leaders who work so hard throughout the year to make our Christian formation program a success.

We do these things on this day because the church tends to follow roughly, the academic year and with graduations occurring at UW and the high schools in these last weeks of May, and many of us looking forward to travel plans this summer, the pace of life at Grace will begin to slow. That’s a welcome development after all of the hard work and excitement that we’ve experienced over the last few years.

Still, not everything will come to an end. Even as we mark the ending of our program year, other activities are ramping up. The long moribund Outreach Committee has been re-invigorated and will have its initial meeting after the 10:00 service today. This summer will be a time when we plan carefully and lay the groundwork for some new programs and new ministries that we hope to roll out in the fall.

While all of this is going on, it’s actually remarkably fitting that we reflect a bit on the Trinity today. This is the one Sunday in our liturgical year when we focus on one of the doctrines of our faith. In many ways, the Trinity is that element of our faith that distinguishes us most clearly from our monotheistic brothers and sisters in Judaism and Islam. For while we agree with them on the central confession that God is one, for us Christians, the Trinity is our effort to explain and understand how we experience and know God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as well as God in Godself, and how the threeness of God relates to the one-ness of God.

I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you—it would take much more than the 10 or 12 minutes available to me in a Sunday sermon. Instead, I would like to explore a little bit some of the implications for our faith and shared life of this belief that God is three in one. I would like to focus on two elements in this, first, that inherent in God is community, fellowship. And second, that God is creative, that God’s power and love flow out of Godself into the world and into us.

First, that God is, by nature, a God who seeks and is community. Just as we rejoice when we welcome and recognize the gifts and talents of the younger members of our community, just as we celebrate the presence among us of people from diverse backgrounds, just as we embrace strangers and visitors, the life we share in community is a reflection of and witness to the life of the God who is One in Three, unity in trinity. And as our gospel reading reminds us. The ongoing life we share is a life in which we experience God’s continuing presence and guidance, and that the questions and struggles we face as a community are resolved through the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence and leadership among us. The gospel reminds us that that our struggles to be faithful, our doubts, uncertainties, our conflicts are overcome when we listen to each other, listen to the Holy Spirit, and discern the movement of God among us. When we do that, the future opens up in all of its possibility and creativity, and we move forward in ways we cannot imagine on our own. We experience the creative power of God at work in and through us.

Indeed, at the heart of the Trinity is creativity, creativity that flows out into the universe, flows out into us. We see that creativity at work and at play in today’s reading from Proverbs. The reading from Proverbs is a poem of Wisdom. Wisdom, personified here as female is speaking:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

We may find it hard to imagine Lady Wisdom taking her stand at the crossroads, beside the gates of the town. Such imagery may bring to mind the sort of protests of which we are familiar around here, but that’s a little misleading. In the biblical tradition, the city gates or portal was the place where justice was meted out; where injustice was decried and people who had been wronged received their due. The crossroads or marketplace was a place where ideas were exchanged, decisions affecting the community decided. So here, Lady Wisdom is proclaiming her role in creating community. She speaks from the centers of human life, from and about economic and social relationships.

But Wisdom isn’t just present in human society. She also is present in God, at the creation. She reminds us that it was through wisdom, in wisdom, that God created the universe. She helped to give it order:

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Here, Wisdom describes herself as the master workman, and in the reading we get a strong sense of Wisdom participating in creation in some way, helping plan it or at least observing it. But, wait. There is another possible interpretation here. What’s translated as “master workman” could also mean, “little child.” That offers a completely different meaning of the text. Let’s read that verse again.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was with him, like a little child, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I love that dual image, of Wisdom as a master worker, wisdom as a little child. I especially love that last verse, “I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I think we tend to miss out on something central in God’s nature when we overlook God’s playfulness, delight, joy. In the Psalm from last week (Ps104), a marvelous song in praise of creation, there’s a verse I particularly love:

27 There move the ships,

and there is that Leviathan, *

which you have made for the sport of it.

We see the beauty and wonder in creation, but we also see unimaginable creativity. To think of the wonder of creation as evidence of God’s sheer joy and playfulness, and wisdom, running like a child beside God, as uncontrollable as a four or five year old is when they overcome and overwhelmed by the joy of life.

Wisdom is God’s delight, the delight of a parent for her joyous child. We are God’s delight. When we live in hope and faith, when we open ourselves to the possibility of the future and trust that God is holding our hand as we run headlong, we are God’s delight. As a community, when we open ourselves to God’s creative possibilities, and open ourselves to the gifts of others, we are God’s delight. As a community, when we reach out and grasp the hands of our neighbors and allow them to share with us their joy and their creative wisdom, we are God’s delight. When we do all that, we participate in the creative power and creative wisdom of the Trinity, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


Racism, the university, and the “progressive” city.

Sis Robinson, Associate Professor at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has written an essay about her research on five “hyper-liberal” cities: Madison, Evanston, IL, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. Her conclusions:

My research shows that one reason is white people’s separation from the lives of people of color.  White professionals in these cities can go entire days without seeing any black or brown people. As a result, they don’t see or hear overt racism in their own daily lives, and it becomes easy to believe that it isn’t actually happening anywhere.

Also, many of us white, liberal-minded people consider ourselves “post-racial,” and accept no responsibility for racism in our community.  We understand racial disparity as a systemic issue, but feel powerless to do anything about it.

Indeed, we have also staked our identities on the belief that we live in communities that are open and fair to all. The idea that we need to change the very systems we have been invested in nurturing threatens our very sense of self.

I look forward to reading her book: Networked Voices: Race, Journalism, and Progressive Voices.

The Spirit blows where it will: A Sermon for Pentecost, 2016


Yesterday was one of those remarkable days in ministry that are inspiring and full of joy even if it meant I couldn’t have a relaxing afternoon, or work around the house. In the morning, the “More Just Community” task force gathered for an update on members’ engagement with issues of racism, mass incarceration, and inequity. With the chaplains at the Dane County Jail, we are developing a proposal to engage with prisoners during and after their stay in jail. We heard from members who participated in the Course on African-American history organized by Justified Anger and others who are working to build relationships with other churches and community groups. By the end of the summer, we hope to be able to roll out some exciting new programs and opportunities. Continue reading

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2016


“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Except for the final benediction, these are the last words of the Book of Revelation; the last words of the whole Bible. They provide an appropriate conclusion to Revelation, a text that reveals its author’s discomfort with the present on every page and in which John offers a powerful and attractive vision of a future in which Jesus Christ reigns triumphantly and God has made all things new. Continue reading

The Gates Will Always Be Open: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter


When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School back in the 80s, I worked a couple of summers as a bellhop at a hotel in the Back Bay of Boston. The money was pretty good, and it was a nice break from the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge and Harvard. Plus, the hotel was right next to Fenway Park. I worked evenings, and after punching out, I had to run to make sure I caught the last train (subway) going in. I got off at Harvard Square (this was before the redline was extended out to Alewife), and I still had a fifteen minute walk to my apartment in Somerville. The quickest way was through Harvard Yard, the historic heart of Harvard’s campus. It’s surrounded by walls with more than twenty gates. Now, some of the gates are always open, some are almost always closed, and some seemed to be closed and locked completely randomly. Too often, as I came out of the Harvard Square station at around 12:30 am, the gate closest to the exit I usually used was locked, meaning that I would have to either retrace my steps, or go all around the yard, adding five minutes to my late night walk. Continue reading

The Home of God Is Among Mortals: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2016


I’m somewhat curious to know how many times over the last four or five years that I’ve begun a sermon by making some sort of reference to a milestone in the life of our congregation. As we’ve worked through planning, fundraising, and construction, there have been many moments that have marked another transition in this process—from hiring an architect, to the first presentation of plans, through the revision process, then the fundraising, then more revisions as we shaped our construction project to meet our most important needs and our financial resources. Last July, we celebrated groundbreaking. On the First Sunday of Advent in 2015, we worshiped for the first time in our newly-renovated nave. Continue reading