Balancing Safety and Openness at Grace Church

I was recently interviewed by local news about our response to the recent mass shootings at churches: http://www.nbc15.com/content/news/Madison-area-churches-reassess-safety-protocol-462916823.html

 

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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.

 

Where is Jesus calling us? A Sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

 

Yesterday, we opened our doors during the Women’s March on Madison. It’s something we’ve done before—in 2011 and last year, during the Latino Day of Action. In response to people’s questions yesterday, including a TV reporter, I replied, “It’s what we do; it’s who we are.” Continue reading

Praying for America in a time of hate and fear

I’m on vacation this week but I’ve been horrified by the Orlando massacre and felt helpless and impotent. That a deeply troubled young man, suspected of sympathizing with terrorism, can easily purchase weapons and express his anger by killing dozens, is beyond my comprehension. That his actions will contribute to the spiral of hate, fear and violence in which we’ve found ourselves over the last fifteen years leads me to despair and lament.

What can I as a religious leader do? The ritualized response of politicians, clergy, and ordinary people expressing their “thoughts and prayers” is vacuous in the face of collective belief in the redemptive power of violence and our national worship of guns.  

When I heard that Franklin Graham was coming to Madison, I wanted to offer an alternative witness to his vision for America and Christianity. Bearing witness to that alternative is even more important now in the wake of Orlando, in the context of the presidential campaign, and the hatred and fear that consume us.

 
Tomorrow, Franklin Graham will bring his “Decision America” tour to Madison, the latest stop on his tour of all 50 state capitals in 2016. He will lead a rally on Capitol Square to urge Christians to pray for the United States to return to Christian values. Graham is the son of renowned Evangelist Billy Graham but his tour is much more similar to the tactics and message of the late Jerry Falwell than of his father. In recent months, Franklin Graham has advocated a ban on Muslims traveling to the US as well as the internment of Muslim citizens. He has gone further to suggest stopping all immigration to the US. He is a vocal supporter of North Carolina’s HB 2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which forces transgendered persons to use the restrooms of their birth gender.  

Graham claims his tour is non-partisan (he resigned from the Republican Party last year) but most of his political positions conform to the positions of the most conservative of Republicans. Graham also asserts that his goal is to bring America back to the Christian values on which it was founded. There is no evidence to support his claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, and even if that were the case, we live now in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. Christians must welcome members of other religions and no religion into the public square. Sadly, in the so-called Christian values that Graham advocates, there is klittle that is in keeping with the biblical tradition, the teachings of Jesus or the ethical perspectives of traditional Christianity. 

I do agree with Graham on one matter. Our nation needs our prayers. We live in a deeply divided culture with a fractured political system. We face significant problems as a nation, a state, and city that require creativity, hard work, cooperation, and sacrifice to address. I hope to join with my Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish brothers and sisters to pray for a nation in which all are welcome, all religious traditions are allowed free expression, and where all people, of every national origin, whether heterosexual or LGBTQ, of every religion or no religion, can find a home, a welcome community, and an opportunity to flourish as human beings. I am praying for that vision of America to become a reality and I pledge to join with others who share that vision, of any religion or no religion, to work for its realization. 

Neighbors in Faith: An Interfaith Response to Franklin Graham’s Decision America Tour

On June 15, Rev. Franklin Graham brings his “Decision America” tour to Madison, the latest stop on his nationwide tour of all 50 state capitals in this election year. Graham’s website states the following about his motives:

“I’m going to every state in our country to challenge Christians to live out their

faith at home, in public and at the ballot box—and I will share the Gospel.”

While we agree with the challenge to Christians to live out their faith and to share the gospel, we fear that the vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of America that Graham wants to share has very little in common with the diverse and multicultural nation in which we live.

As Rev. Graham rallies with his supporters on one corner of Capitol Square, we invite you to join us for a very different gathering at Grace Episcopal Church (116 W. Washington Ave.) where Jews, Muslims, and Christians will come together to pray for peace, civility, and the common good, and will share a vision for an America that welcomes people from every nation and religious tradition (as well as those of no religion) and where all people can thrive and pursue happiness.

Our speakers will include Rev. Stephen Marsh, Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church, Rabbi Jonathan Baitch of Temple Beth El, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and Sheik Alhagie Jallow, of the Madinah Community Center (Muslim).

The Facebook event is here.

 

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.

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