The erasure of sacred space at the Dane County Jail

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a spirited conversation of clergy and formerly incarcerated persons discussing the importance of spiritual care and sacred space in institutions of incarceration. The Dane County Jail is about to undergo long overdue renovations with a price tag of $76 million. It has come to the attention of chaplains and community members that current plans do not include dedicated space for worship or other religious gatherings.

On one level, this erasure of sacred space from the jail could be seen as another example of the departure of religion from public life and a sign of its waning significance in American culture. With fewer people participating in organized religion, why bother spending money on a space dedicated to worship and spiritual reflection? Religion and spirituality are simply a lower priority than other uses—such as mental health, physical fitness, and the like.

But I think there is something more significant at play. One of the themes that emerged from the panel discussion was the uniqueness of sacred space in an institution of incarceration. “Sacred” comes from a Latin word which means “to set apart.” In an institution where every aspect of one’s life is monitored, where one has no privacy, no silence, where surveillance is constant and absolute, having a place apart from that where one can attend to one’s spiritual needs without interruption or intrusion, is space that is at least for a brief time each week, free from the power of the carceral state.

In sacred space, people can sit, pray, worship. They can be still and know God. They can listen to the rhythms of their hearts, the yearnings of their souls, without the distraction of noise from people in the surrounding bunks. In sacred space, they can sense the moving of the Spirit in their lives, and respond accordingly. In sacred space, they can draw strength from others who are seeking the same solace, and receive counsel from supportive chaplains.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s office argue that there simply isn’t enough space, that other needs take precedence—medical beds, mental health, addiction. To separate out spiritual needs from other needs is misguided and unfortunate. In many cultures, spiritual health is deeply connected to mental health and physical health; one can’t heal the body without healing the soul, and if the soul doesn’t receive the attention it needs, neither body or mind can be fully healed.

It was clear from the formerly incarcerated people who spoke on Sunday, and clear too from my many conversations with formerly incarcerated persons, that many interpret their journeys spiritually, that they see the decisions they made that brought them into contact with the criminal justice system, and their experience in prison and jail, in spiritual terms. They see God at work in their lives, or their punishment as connected with their own sins and God’s forgiveness. To deny them space in the Dane County Jail to process their lives spiritually, to connect with others who are sharing similar journeys, and to find the solace provided by a religious tradition, is to rob them of one of the most important resources they need to transform their lives.

It’s unfortunate that the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and our Dane County elected officials do not care enough for the men and women incarcerated here that they are willing to commit resources to meet the spiritual needs of jail residents.

The Capital Times’s coverage of the Sunday event is here.

More background from Isthmus here.

The campaign to accommodate spiritual needs at the Dance County Jail has a facebook page.

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Feeding bodies, sharing God’s presence: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year B, 2018

Jesus worked miracles—signs, to use the language of the Gospel of John. This fact is the sort of thing that can make twenty-first century Christians squirm in their pews. Oh, I know, most of us probably would say sure, Jesus did some amazing things, but magically creating so much bread and fish that 5000 people were fed, that there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets, is just a little bit beyond the realm of belief. And that Jesus walked on water? That story is so farfetched that it’s become symbol of unbelievable holiness or perfection. We say of someone who’s just perfect in every way, “They walk on water.” Continue reading

Are we prophets? Are we prophets’ children? A Sermon for Proper 10B, 2018

I get uncomfortable whenever I hear progressive Christians talking about being prophetic. In my experience, it usually means little more than making political statements that have more to do with American partisan politics than with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s only one of the ways in which Christians misread the traditions of biblical prophecy.

We tend to see the prophets through the eyes of Handel’s Messiah or the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. On this view, the prophets were mostly about predicting the coming of the Messiah, and their importance for Christians lies in the fact that the appearance of Jesus is both a confirmation of their predictions, and that they offer key insights into who and what Jesus is.  Continue reading

St. Paul’s conflicts and our own: A sermon on Prayer Book Revision for Proper 9B, 2018

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Austin, TX. It takes place every three years, bringing together bishops, lay and clerical deputies from every diocese to oversee the life of our church. It is the ultimate governing authority of the Episcopal Church, so it has the final say over matters of doctrine, governance, and even our worship.

On Friday, the House of Deputies passed a resolution authorizing comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Last accomplished in 1979, prayer book revision is always challenging, time-consuming, full of conflict. While the current timeline suggests the completion of the work in a decade or so, it may be that like our conversations and conflicts over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including marriage, will dominate our common life as a denomination for the next decade. It’s worth pointing out that for this process to move forward, the House of Bishops will also have to approve the resolution for prayer book revision.

If you are interested in these matters, I invite you to join me later this morning in the library where I will answer questions and offer opportunity for your reflections. In the meantime, I would like to ask you a few questions:

  • How many of you own a book of common prayer?
  • For those of you who own one, do you know where it is? When was the last time you opened it?

In my experience as an Episcopalian, lay and priest, it’s my sense that we tend to have a great emotional attachment to the book of common prayer as a symbol, and also to the language of the liturgy, but that most of us don’t engage with it in any significant way in our personal spiritual lives or with the theological perspectives offered there. That is to say, we are not “shaped” by its theology and spirituality, as we are intended to be.

The presenting issues for revision are fairly clear. Many of us struggle with the gendered language in the liturgy and in the Psalter, and we also struggle with the patriarchal and hierarchical language. In addition, there are debates about the revising the marriage rite in the BCP to make it inclusive of same gender couples. But once you begin looking at revising the text, certain theological debates will quickly explode—the atonement, for example.

So, we are going to be enmeshed in conversation and most likely conflict in the coming years as we discuss and implement liturgical revision. It’s going to be heated, both on the denominational level, and quite likely, here at Grace, and thinking about how we have those conversations, how disagree with each other, will be an important part of the process.

It’s fortunate, then, that we have before us this reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. For in it he discusses both his own spiritual experience and addresses the deep and bitter conflict in which he has been engaged with this little group of Christians he founded years earlier.

We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.

Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.

This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.

He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.

Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.

We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.

So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.

We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Sometimes, we think we know it all. Sometimes, we think our perspective is the right one, the only legitimate one. Certainly, Paul thought that a great deal of the time. But at the heart of this text is a very different experience and understanding—that power is made perfect in weakness; that in Christ’s weakness and suffering, we see God. Paul was trying to say that what mattered most was not education, or background, or intellectual capacity, or ability to debate and score points. What matters most is Christ crucified.

It’s an important, perhaps the most important thing to comprehend as we try to grow more deeply in our Christian faith; but it may also be the most important thing to remember as we engage in conversation and find ourselves in disagreement with our fellow Christians. To be open and vulnerable to them, to recognize, like Paul, that whatever the experience and knowledge we have from Christ, there are things about it we can’t share with others, parts of it we can’t describe or name.

And to bring that openness and vulnerability as we listen to each other, as we hear their experiences, their joy and pain, may help us all of us to grow more deeply in the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ. I hope we experience this next season in the life of our congregation and the larger church as an opportunity for growth and building deeper relationships among ourselves and through those experiences to welcome and embrace those who seek to walk with us on this journey.

 

Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928…

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General Convention 79: The view from Madison’s Capitol Square

My twitter and facebook feeds are full of posts from real and social media friends who are traveling to Austin, TX for the Episcopal Church General Convention. I’m not among those who will be attending. In fact, I’ve never attended General Convention. As this one approaches, by my calculations the ninth since I joined the Episcopal Church, I am fascinated by how my engagement with this triennial event has changed over time.

Early on, I’m not sure I even knew what it was or cared very much about it. It wasn’t until I entered the ordination process and began getting involved on the diocesan level that I began attention. Coincidentally, that was right around 2003, when the decade-long conflict that began with the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, broke out. As that conflict continued and as the debate over same-sex marriage also exploded, I paid close attention to events at General Convention and the discussions and jockeying that occurred in the months leading up to the meetings.

This year feels quite different. It’s not that there are no controversial issues on the table: prayer book revision, several resolutions about marriage rites, and addressing sexual harassment in the Church are all important and likely to gain attention outside the confines of The Episcopal Church.

I know there are many who are passionate about General Convention. It is an important aspect of our Church’s governance and for many it is an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. I’m grateful for both aspects of this gathering, for the work that takes place and for the relationships it nurtures.

At the same time, I find myself less interested in what will take place there. I think there are a couple of reasons for this lack of interest. First, I have been in my current position for nine years. The longer I stay here, the more focused my ministry becomes on my local context. Madison is confronting a number of serious issues: homelessness, of course, which because of the presence of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter here at Grace is always at the top of the church’s and my list of priorities. In addition, Madison, Dane County, and the State of Wisconsin have among the most significant racial inequities of any state in the nation and closely related to that is mass incarceration which affects us through the presence nearby of the Dane County Jail.

In addition, since 2011, we have been at the epicenter of political conflict in our state and by extension the nation. Since the protests that erupted around Governor Walker’s plans to transform the State of Wisconsin into a laboratory for conservative policies, hardly a month goes by without rallies on the streets and sidewalks outside our doors. Just last week, as we were celebrating and blessing a marriage, outside our doors thousands were rallying as part of the nationwide Keep Families Together effort. I have participated in more such rallies in my nine years of ministry here than I did in the previous five decades of my life.

Finally, as I continue to work in Madison, my relationships with clergy of other denominations and my ecumenical engagement have become as important, if not more so, than my relationships with Episcopal clergy and the larger church. I have participated on commissions of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for most of the time I have been here and have been nurtured by relationships formed with clergy colleagues there and in Madison. As denominational structures continue to transform in the wake of the demographic and cultural decline of mainline Christianity, such relationships and ecumenical partnerships may become more important.

 

I suppose what I’m saying is that context matters. As my tenure at Grace lengthens, the relationships I have built with parishioners and the wider community come to matter much more. The problems and challenges of our city take center stage, and my capacity to engage creatively and effectively with those challenges and opportunities grows. It’s not that the denomination as a whole, nor indeed the worldwide Anglican Communion, no longer matter to me, but rather, I experience those larger entities through a perspective increasingly shaped by my local context.

I am looking at General Convention from the corner of N. Carroll St. and W. Washington Ave., in Madison. So even as the work of General Convention goes on, I will also be doing the work of ministry, administration, and advocacy in this place, grateful for that work and calling, and grateful for all of those others called to do the work of the larger church. My prayers are with and for them.

Transgressing Boundaries: A Sermon for Proper 8, Year B, 2018

As we work through the Gospel of Mark this year, two key structural themes worth attending to are geography and boundaries. One of the challenges presented to us when we read the gospel primarily, perhaps only by means of the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, is that it’s often difficult to grasp the significance of these larger themes.

So, for example, geography. Today’s gospel provides us with precious little geographical orientation, only the phrase “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side.” Continue reading