About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

Church Shootings and the peace of Christ

This past week, I facilitated a workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Churches on the topic of gun violence. Members of the Council’s Peace and Justice Commission had put the workshop together hoping to provide resources for clergy and lay leaders to help them talk with their congregations about the constellations around gun violence: domestic violence, mental illness, toxic masculinity, suicide, etc, Our goal was to begin to educate ourselves and others about ways to talk about gun violence in our congregations that get beyond the current polarized debates and see gun violence as a pastoral issue as well as a public health concern.

We included a few items about how churches might respond to the possibility of an active shooter. In fact, participants in the workshop were most concerned about that issue and we spent a lot of time exploring questions around preparedness for an active shooter and balancing our values of openness and welcome with the need for security.

In the workshop, I provided some information about the rise in shootings at houses of worship as well as results of studies examining past incidents.

There have been a number of articles in recent weeks that take a closer look at the dynamics behind church shootings most are not random. The largest number of shootings are related to robberies. Other significant factors include the shooter’s feeling unwelcome or rejected by the church (17% in one study) and mental illness (11% in that same study, cited by CNN)

A recent CNN piece published after the Texas shooting included results from two recent studies:

Drake counts 147 church shootings from 2006-2016. Looking more broadly at all violence at allhouses of worship, Chinn has tallied more than 250 incidents each in 2015 and 2016. Through August, there had already been 173 this year, according to Chinn.”

 

Among the shooters’ motives cited in those studies:

  • Over 25% robberies
  • 17% shooter felt unwelcome at church, or had been rejected
  • 16% domestic violence
  • 14% personal conflict (not family related)
  • 10% mental illness
  • 9% religious bias

The set of resources we offered is available at the Wisconsin Council of Churches website:  It is a work in progress and will be updated.

Two recent articles by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today explore important aspects of the issue. On domestic violence: Kate Shellnut, “A Top Reason for Church Shootings: Domestic Abuse” Christianity Today, November 7, 2017

Among the statistics she cites:

And on the relationship between “God and Guns” in the minds of many conservative Christians: Kate Shellnut, “Packing in the Pews: The Connection Between God and Guns” Christianity Today, November 8, 2017

As I said in the interview, balancing openness and welcome with the need for safety is an important issue. More important, however, is that we remain true to our call to follow Jesus Christ and to share the love of Christ with the world. In a nation awash with guns, where violence seems to be the first recourse in any conflict, our faith in God must overcome whatever fear we might have, and our witness to Christ’s love must include being agents of reconciliation and models of other ways of resolving conflict and building community.

 

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Advent and the Gospel of Mark: A Sermon for Advent 1, Year B

I’ve been fascinated by the power of the season of Advent ever since I first encountered it 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that didn’t pay close attention to the liturgical year, at least not back then. We had Good Friday and Easter, of course, and Christmas but that was pretty much it. Our preparation for Christmas was the same as other Americans’ preparation for Christmas, buying trees and decorating them, Christmas cookies and other tasty items, shopping for presents and the like.

It wasn’t until I was in college, and especially later, as a seminary student and lay person in my mid twenties, that I first experienced the lectionary readings and hymns that are used in these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Coming at them as an adult, and as student of theology, the tone of the season had a powerful effect on me. It still does.

It’s not just that Advent is at least to some degree a penitential season. Here at Grace, we use the same liturgical color, violet that we use during Lent. But more than that, it’s the emphasis in the lectionary and hymnal. The focus is not just on the coming of Christ at Christmas, it has another focus on Christ’s Second Coming.

That’s clear from our readings. The portion of Isaiah that was read is a plea for God’s intervention in history. While it was written by an author who hoped that intervention would come soon, in his own lifetime, Christians have interpreted it and many similar passages from the Hebrew Bible as descriptions or predictions of the Second Coming.

The gospel reading from Mark is from the so-called “Little Apocalypse” chapter 13 of that gospel, which occurs during Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the last week of his life. In that way it connects with the readings we’ve been having from the Gospele of Matthew over the last months which come from Matthew’s treatment of the same material and same period of Jesus’ ministry.

It might be helpful to remind you of some of the important themes of Mark’s gospel as we begin this year of the lectionary cycle. While there continues to be scholarly debate about the relationship among the gospels, for over a century, the consensus has been that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE. Mark is by far the shortest of the gospels and it’s unique in that it starts in media res, in the middle of the story, with Jesus’ baptism. There’s nothing about his birth or origins (although his mother, brothers and sisters do make an appearance) and it ends with the empty tomb. Originally, there were no stories of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. Those were added later. That doesn’t mean that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection—clearly he did. Rather, he wanted to tell a story with different emphases. As an aside, the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, knew the Gospel of Mark and used it, in addition to other sources, in telling their version of Jesus.

Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the most repeated words in the gospel is “immediately.” Everything seems rushed. He typically doesn’t take a lot of time to describe the settings or background. When the same story appears in all three synoptics, Mark’s version is almost always the briefest. I will have a great deal more to say about Mark’s perspective in the coming year. I encourage you, as I do each year, to take the opportunity to read the gospel in its entirety several times over the course of the year. It’s something I do as it helps me remember the overall story arc, as well helps to orient me when I get bogged down in the week-to-week lectionary.

We see Mark’s (oh, and by the way, the names of the gospels are traditional, very ancient from the 2nd century, but we actually don’t know who wrote them or where they wrote them) overarching perspective even here in this “Little Apocalypse.” We call it an apocalypse because it reflects that type of literature and world view, describing God’s intervention in history. Apocalyptic is dualistic—it presupposes a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is pessimistic about the present and immediate future. Things are really bad and they are going to get even worse before they get better. And it assumes that the world as we know it is about to end.

Now what’s interesting about Mark’s version of apocalyptic is that while many of these elements are prominent, signs of the second coming, for example, other aspects of apocalyptic are notably absent—the final judgment isn’t mentioned, and the overall message seems not to be that the Second Coming is imminent, but that it as been delayed, no one knows when it might come, so it’s important to stay awake, be alert, watch.

In that respect, Mark’s message is consistent with what we read from Matthew over the last few weeks. But there’s something else that I find quite intriguing. At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans.

But I think Jesus’ admonition in Mark is sage advice for us this Advent. Keep Watch! Be Alert! I talked briefly last Sunday about looking for signs of Christ’s coming among us. I think that’s part of Mark’s message here.

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God.

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified.

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate.

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty.

For us in this season, let us keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence, be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In whom do we see Jesus? A Sermon for Christ the King, 2017

We are at the end of the liturgical year, the end of our reading of the Gospel of Matthew. I find myself reflecting not just on where we’ve come with this gospel but how my reading and preaching of it have been shaped by the challenging times in which we live. Matthew’s underlying theme of an embattled, perhaps persecuted Christian community called to ethical purity and discipleship is an appealing vision for those of us who seek to live out a Christianity shaped by Jesus’ teachings, ministry, and death, rather than the so-called Christianity based on greed, white supremacy, and nationalism that seems ascendant in our day. Continue reading

Thanksgiving

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the
fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those
who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of
your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and
the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. BCP, p. 246

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen. BCP, p. 101

Entering into the Joy of God: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A, Annual Meeting

Today after the 10:00 service is our Annual Meeting. We will be doing the regular business of the parish, business any church, any non-profit, has to do—voting on changes to our By-Laws and Constitution, electing officers for the coming year and new vestry members, discussing the draft budget that will be presented, and other matters. It’s all routine, uninspiring stuff, and in an age when our distrust of institutions and our disengagement from common life is at an all-time high, it’s difficult for many of us to see the point of it all.

But Annual Meetings are also opportunities to take stock, to remember what we have done over the last year and to begin to set a course for the future, for next year and beyond. And that’s what can raise Annual Meetings from the humdrum, the ordinary. Because our structure, our budget, are not only about maintenance, making sure we do things right, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, that we keep the lights on and the building dry. All of that is for another, more important purpose, the mission of Grace Church to share Christ’s love in our neighborhood and in the world.

Today’s gospel reading, the familiar parable of the talents, is the perfect gospel to read at a time like this, as we reflect on the past year and begin to imagine what the future might look like.

The Parable of the Talents is the second of three parables—we heard the first last Sunday—that bring to the end Jesus’ public ministry. They are parables of judgment and warning. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, Jesus’ words become an admonition for us to make shrewd and creative use of the gifts we’ve been given. In fact, so dominant is that interpretation, that the English word “talent” which means gifts, or skills, has its origins in this very story.

Even as we hear this story and internalize its rather unremarkable message, I’m sure that many of you responded negatively to the last words of the parable as the Lord commands his servants, “throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For all its familiarity, there are also elements of the story that are profoundly alienating, especially if we take the master in the story to be a stand-in for Jesus or God. Both its familiarity and this problematic image for God encourage us not to delve more deeply into the story and what it might mean.

In fact, that negative image of God is driven, not necessarily by details in the story itself, but rather by the third slave’s statement: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Now, as the parable stands on the page, the master seems to accept the slave’s judgment of him, but what if read the master’s response with a different tone of voice, with sarcasm?

After all, up to this point, what do we know about the master? He is fabulously wealthy; he leaves his wealth and property behind to take a long trip, putting unimaginable sums of wealth in the hands of his servants. A talent, by some estimations, was the equivalent of 75 yrs of a day laborer’s wages, or to put it in our terms, around a million dollars. He gave them no instructions. Presumably, they were to be custodians of it, to make sure it was there upon his return. And the third servant did just that. Digging a hole and putting it there for safe keeping was a perfectly reasonable response to the task he was given (in fact the rabbis would commend such behavior).

I want to focus on two aspects of the master’s behavior—his generosity, and his departure. First, generosity. It’s obvious that this is a parable of the Last Judgment, that we are to see in the master, God, or Jesus Christ. If that is the case, then it is stunning to consider the sheer generosity of the master’s behavior. He gave to three servants a total of something like 8 million dollars, no strings attached, to take care of until his return. There was no one watching what they might do with it, no detailed instructions, no warning involved.

In that sense, the Master is very like the God we know—who created the world and us in it to care for it, to tend. Out of God’s sheer generosity, and imaginative creativity, God created us, to be God’s stewards, to share in that creativity and generosity.

And so the first two servants did just that. They responded to God’s generosity and creativity with creativity of their own. From the gifts God gave them, they created more and were rewarded, with the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master.”

The second thing the Master did was depart from the scene. It’s one thing to be given an opportunity to showcase your creativity. It’s a completely different thing to be given free rein to express that creativity, not to have to worry about the watchful and disapproving eye of your boss or Master. To create in freedom and joy, to be able to explore the possibilities that present themselves with the gifts from God, a wonderful feeling and experience.

Contrast that with the third slave, whose behavior was dominated by fear. He knew that his master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not sow seed, and his imagination was imprisoned by that fear. For him, the master never left, his judgment loomed over him all of this years as he asked himself the question, “What happens if I lose that talent?”

His fear froze him, and in the end, his fear made his prediction come to life—he was cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We have been blessed with incredible resources at Grace—a beautiful building and grounds on one of the prime locations in all of Madison; we are stewards of financial resources bestowed upon us by generations of Grace members over the years, we have a gifted and committed membership.

At this moment in our common life, as we contemplate the future and survey a rapidly changing landscape, as our downtown grows and as traditional Christianity collapses around the country, we are at a decisive moment. We can act like the third slave out of fear and husband all of those resources to make sure they are available for future generations (even if it is quite uncertain whether those future generations will exist) or we can venture forward, in creativity, imagination, and generosity, responding to God’s love and grace with love and grace of our own, and use our resources to reach it in new ways, with new energy and imagination, to connect with our neighors and the wider world. If we do that, we will certainly enter into “the joy of our Father.” Thanks be to God.

 

Entering into God’s Joy: Annual Meeting 2017

 

 

Rector’s Report, Grace Episcopal Church Annual Meeting, November 19, 2017

The marvelous slide show we just saw, created by our own Peggy Frain, has shown images of all the things that we’ve done over the last year, our outreach projects large and small, our fellowship and worship, our open houses and opportunities to connect with the community. I would love to know how many people have come through our doors over the last year, were served by the Food Pantry, slept in the men’s shelter, enjoyed the beauty of our courtyard garden, attended a wedding, a service.

 

We are a relatively small congregation with amazing resources—a prime location on Madison’s Capitol Square, a building that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and with our recent renovations, more accessible and inviting than ever. We have financial resources that many congregations much larger than ours do not have. And we have our members, a group of incredibly talented and committed people who do everything from pick up trash to advocate the legislature for criminal justice reform.

 

It is appropriate, in this season of Thanksgiving, to take a moment and give thanks for those resources that make all of this possible, the people, the building and gardens, the financial gifts and stewardship of so many over the more than 175 years of our existence. We have much to celebrate. We should be proud, not only of what we have done this year, but proud of our impact on the wider community. For ultimately, that impact is also part of who we are, part of our mission—to share the love of Jesus Christ.

The video/slide show that we presented helps us to remember everything that we’ve accomplished over the last year. Wonderful events like the Annual Christmas Pageant, or our welcoming of people from throughout the city and much further at Open Doors Madison, the Halloween Open House or during the Women’s March on Washington. There’s the scarf tree project, the Little Free Library, our work with the Madison Jail Ministry, the Beacon. There’s our Food Pantry and Porchlight’s Drop-In Men’s Shelter.

We have an amazing staff who are growing into their roles and using their creativity, skills, and talent to expand those roles, help to build a stronger congregation and more effective outreach into the community. I’d especially like to thank our Parish Administrator, Christina, who is the sparkplug and catalyst for everything we do here, supporting all of our work, helping us to accomplish big ideas, and remove roadblocks that arise. Our Food Pantry Coordinator, Vikki Enright, in less than a year has put her own stamp on the pantry, especially by building connections in the neighborhood and wider community, and connecting with a donor network that includes downtown businesses. Peggy Frain, whose creativity is an inspiration—just think of that slide show we just saw, and Pat Werk, who is constantly coming up with new ideas, and her boundless energy and enthusiasm turns those ideas into reality. Many of them, if not most, are as much about connecting with the community as they have to do with her official position description as Christian Formation Director. And I would also especially like to thank Deacon Carol Smith, who in many ways is the heart and soul of Grace Church, quietly and compassionately offering pastoral care to those who need it, and jumping to help other staff and programs whenever asked.

All of this is outreach. Over the last year and a half, the Outreach Committee has been gathering information from our congregation, from the leaders of our various outreach programs, and from other stakeholders in the community about the effectiveness of our current programs and what new opportunities and unmet needs exist in our neighborhood. You will hear a bit more from them in a few minutes, but I anticipate that one of our main areas of focus in the coming year will have to do with discerning the next steps in this process.

The Toward a More Just Community task force has been inspirational in the ideas and excitement it has generated, the relationships its members have created with members of other communities of faith, across the racial divide, and especially the Madison Jail Ministry. Their current work as they seek ways to build relationships with legislators and staff at the State Capitol to build relationships across the deep divides in our state, racial, urban-rural, and political could ultimately be transformative, not just in our city and state, but nationally.

There are other equally transformative efforts underway at Grace. New interior signage will provide the final touches on our renovation and new exterior signage will not only offer improved way finding but will increase our street visibility. And something that we’ve let languish too long will be restored—Our bells, we have 23 of them have needed maintenance for many years. Many we can’t play at all because the electrical system that operates the bell-ringers is out of date and out of repair. Thanks to new member Peter Schultz-Burkel and a few others, we are working with a number of vendors as we seek to bring them back into working condition. New technology would allow us to program them to ring at the beginning and end of services and for special events like weddings and funerals. Bells not only announce our presence in the neighborhood but serve as a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our lives and city. I see their silence and neglect over the last years as a symbol of our shyness, our unwillingness to proclaim boldly who we are and who Jesus Christ is.

Greg Rogers, who with his wife Jan, have led the effort to maintain and improve our gardens shared with me something that happened this week. He was stopped by someone who had come to Grace for an AA meeting. He thanked Greg for the beautiful gardens which meant so much to him. He went on to thank Greg for all that we do, saying, “When I needed food, I came to your pantry; when I needed somewhere to sleep, I used the shelter. Now, I come to AA meetings here. I might not be alive if it weren’t for you.”

We have done a great job of opening our building to the community, of using it to help people in need and to offer a space of beauty and spiritual respite in a busy city. In the coming months and years, we will continue to ask the questions that drove our renovation project: How can we make our buildings more accessible and inviting to the community? How can we use this asset to connect with our community? What new possibilities for connecting are coming to light? In so many ways, the things we’ve done this year—from the scarf trees to Open Doors, the Halloween Open House, the Little Free Library, even our lighting display, are all intended to connect with our downtown neighborhood, to help our neighbors see us in new light and new ways, to invite them to think of and experience Grace as a place of beauty and spiritual respite.

But now, I think we have to begin to explore another set of questions. I have emphasized the changing nature of Religion in America for almost as many years as I’ve been your Rector. The decline in the Episcopal Church, the decline in American Christianity has been precipitous over the last decade or so. A study that was released just this past week confirms these trends. The largest grouping in American religion is not Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or mainline Protestant. The largest grouping is now the religiously-unaffiliated, those who claim no membership or adherence to any religious tradition. That’s remarkable in itself but it for me it raises other questions.

In my sermon this morning, I talked about taking risks, about a God who is by nature creative but who has created us to participate in that creativity by giving us space to imagine, explore, create for ourselves and for God. Grace Church is blessed with one of the best locations in the city; with a beautiful and historic building, lovely grounds, and skilled and committed congregation. But none of that will ensure our survival, let alone a faithful witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

We cannot expect that people will come to church simply because we open our doors. We cannot expect that we will maintain stable membership; that our members will be able to fund the programs that are important to us now. We can’t expect that “membership” will be a meaningful term in twenty or thirty years.

We have to take risks. We have to venture out into the future, asking what God is calling us to do and to be in the next era of our life as Grace Church. We need to ask if there are new ways that we might connect with our neighbors downtown, to build relationships and encourage people to follow their desire to connect with God. We need to take risks with the resources we have, to reimagine how they might be used most effectively in this vibrant city and in this changing religious landscape. We need to focus our attention on those outside our doors today, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

I hope that in the coming year, you will join with me as we discern our way into this exciting and uncertain future. Let us explore how we might use all of our resources to take risks as we try to connect in new and creative ways with our neighbors in this city. As we do this work, may we continue to be grateful for all that God has given us and conscious of our task to be wise stewards of those gifts. May we also be courageous and creative in our thinking, and responsive to God’s call to be faithful witnesses to the love of Christ in an ever-changing world.