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

Engaging Islam: One Episcopal parish’s experience

Over the past months, I have fielded many questions from parishioners about Islam. Concerned about terrorism and religious violence, the persecution of Christians by ISIL, many wondered whether violence was intrinsic to the religion. As Islamophobia increased in the US, inflamed by the presidential campaign and in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, people were eager to talk about their concerns and learn more about Islam.

I was reluctant to offer formal sessions on Islam for several reasons. My academic and scholarly commitments as scholar of religious studies made me wary of the venue of a congregational adult forum rather than a college classroom. I fretted that anything we did on Sunday morning would lack the scholarly rigor to which I was committed.As a scholar, I was interested primarily in religion as practiced and lived, rather than the ideal or the doctrinal. I struggled with internal conflict over my roles as pastor/priest and scholar of religion. I was also worried that given our typical practices, a multi-week program would see an ever-shifting audience.  Finally, I was more interested in talking with than talking about Islam. A successful program, I was convinced would draw on Muslim voices to share their faith and their lived experience of being Muslim in the US. In spite of the fact that I’ve been in Madison for nearly seven years, I have almost no contact with local Muslims. Where might we find Muslims willing to share their lives and their faith with us?

Nonetheless, I moved forward with plans for a four-part series, with the help of Deacon Carol Smith, who is largely responsible for programming our adult formation. We laid out four sessions, drawing on expertise from the congregation and the wider community. Professor Anna Gade of UW Madison joined us for the first session. She’s an expert on the global reach of the Qur’an and introduced us to some of what she sees as keys to understanding its significance. The second session was divided between a period of follow-up questions from the previous week as well as other questions people had and a short introduction to Islamic law, offered by a parishioner who is a retired law professor and had taught Islamic law in the context of comparative law classes.

In our third session, we addressed the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Although the Wheaton College controversy had stimulated the original question, this was an opportunity to think more broadly about the relationship between Christianity and Islam and to think about some of the issues in interreligious and interfaith dialogue. As background for this session, I provided a short piece by Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary. Written in the middle of the Wheaton College controversy, McCormack lays out what he takes to be the best arguments for and against the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Perhaps even better, and more thorough, is the work of Miroslav Volf, who has written in a variety of contexts about Islam and Allah. His recent book: Allah: A Christian Response, is especially useful.

Finally, this past Sunday we were joined by Ibrahim Doumbya, a Muslim from Senegal in West Africa, who has lived in Madison for many years. He shared stories of his life as a Muslim in Madison, the struggles to find space and time to practice his religion, and the implications of being Muslim in a nation that is not majority Muslim.

Overall, the series was a huge success. Attendance was higher over the four weeks than for almost any other program we’ve offered over the years. People who attended our 8:00 service returned for the presentations at 11:30. Most of those who attended came back each week and are eager to learn more. We may have follow-up sessions on topics such as religious violence.

What I’ve learned, what I might do differently, and what advice I might have for other clergy and lay leaders attempting to offer a similar program.

Most importantly perhaps, to let go of fear, anxiety, and scholarly prejudices (That’s a lesson I have to re-learn regularly in my ministry). At Grace, there is deep interest in learning more about people of other faiths, willingness to engage systematically and over time, and a sensitivity to the questions raised by Islamophobia and inter-religious dialogue.

Secondly, there are resources in the community and at hand. Reach out to other clergy and ecumenical groups in the community if you lack personal contacts. I remembered after our planning was well underway that the Madison State Journal did a brief series of interviews with Madison-area Muslims in December, 2015. It would have been easy to connect with some of those Muslims through the newspaper and invited some of them to be our guests as well. It is likely that in most other cities of Madison’s size and larger connecting with Muslims is relatively easy. Local colleges and universities will have faculty who teach World Religions, and even if they are unable to participate, they will likely have contacts in local religious communities.

The Harvard Pluralism Project has been mapping world religions in the US for nearly twenty years. It will have information about religious communities in cities and states across America as well as many resources on interreligious conflict and cooperation. I also remembered late in the game that already when I was teaching World Religions, resources for exploring Islam on the internet were readily available. We could have played audio files of Qur’an recitation for example which as Professor Gade reminded us is one of the most important ways Muslims encounter and experience the Qur’an. The Qur’an Explorer is one such site. There are also many videos available, such as the episode on the Hajj from Bruce Feiler’s Sacred Journeys series that aired on PBS several years ago.

I didn’t look for curricula designed for congregations. Late last year, the Wisconsin Council of Churches distributed a study guide that had been prepared by Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. No doubt there are many others.

We live in a time of heightened prejudice and fear. As people of faith and religious leaders, it is our responsibility to help create a civil society, to welcome strangers and foreigners, and to build bridges across religious divides.

A Day overflowing with Latinos

It may have been hashtagged as #DiaSinLatinosEnWisconsin (#daywithoutLatinos) but for Grace, it was a day when we were overflowing with Latinos. And once again, I was caught off-guard. I pay relatively little attention to local media outlets and the past couple of days had been so busy for me that I neglected my twitter feed and facebook as well. In face, it was only thanks to a facebook post from a local candidate that I realized there was actually a contested election in the primary that was held on Tuesday. So I had vaguely heard about the rally that was scheduled for today, but preparing a response was not on my to-do list for this morning (Executive Committee meeting at 8:15, followed by a session with our new treasurer). I hoped to be able to get some work done on my sermon, deal with some emails, typical sort of day in ministry. Continue reading