“I knew that you were a harsh man…” A sermon for Proper 28A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on November 19, 2017, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 28 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

This past Sunday morning I was struggling to balance an argument about the pedagogical method behind the parable with the good news it conveys.  I didn’t do a very good job balancing the two at the 8:00 service, leaning more heavily on my argument that Jesus uses a familiar narrative to draw out and question our assumptions about God than I did on the good news he was offering by pointing to a different truth.  I am not sure I did a great job adjusting the balance in the 10:30 version of the sermon but I think I got closer…

Following,with apologies to those who heard my attempt at the early service, is a recording and a transcript of the sermon I delivered at10:30.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

So some Sunday mornings the task of the preacher is made more difficult by the need to reach back into the customs and traditions of two thousand years ago and make them understandable and relevant to us today living in a much different place and time.  This isn’t one of those Sundays.  As difficult and as distressing as this story is, it’s something that I think we can all grasp and hear pretty easily.  What if the story went this way…

A group of investors gathered together three of their employees and gave to each of them a huge sum of money, a huge sum of capital to invest, and then they went away for a long time.  They came back later to settle the books, to prepare their tax returns, and they summon their three employees.  The first in front of them and says, “I took the money that you gave me and I’ve invested it all in subprime mortgages, and I’ve doubled your money, and here it is!”  And the investors are so delighted they promote that person.  They put them in a corner office with windows on two walls, on the top floor of the building!  The second employee comes and says, “You know I took all that money you gave me and I invested it in payday lending operations, storefronts all across the city, and I’ve double your money, and here it is!  And they’re so excited they promote him too.  He doesn’t get the top floor of the building but he gets a corner office and he gets his name plate on the door.

The third employee comes back says, “I was so afraid that I would mess up, so afraid that I would invest this in something something that would fail, you know the market is just so tenuous right now, what I did was I locked away in the file drawer in my desk to save it for you.  And I’m so glad you gave it to me to keep safe in this way.  Here it is.”  Suddenly security appears in the office with a cardboard box full of everything from this  guy’s office and he’s escorted to the door, and his security card is taken away, and he invited never to come back again.

A story that we can understand and grasp.  Except that once we started to hear the story in this way just like Jesus’s original hearers did, and find ourselves comfortable with the familiarity even if it’s harsh, Jesus is God us right where he wants us.

Because Jesus started this story by saying the kingdom of heaven is like….

Oh… Wait a minute…  the kingdom of heaven is like venture capitalists who abuse people and take advantage of them, and raise money, and were being called to go out and do just that.  That’s what God wants… Ok.  Something else is happening in this story.

Who is it that is the master in Jesus’s parable?  I mean this is a parable.  Jesus says it’s a story about the kingdom of heaven.  So.. it must be God.  Right?  But it doesn’t make sense that God would behave in this way.  So let’s dig back into this story for just a minute.

There is nothing that we know about the first two slaves, the first two employees.  I made up all that stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending offices.  I added those details.  But they’re not there in the Scripture.  The only person in the story that we know anything about is that third slave, and what we know about that person is that they are terrified.  They think that the master is a harsh person who reaps where he didn’t sow, and gathers where he didn’t plan seed…  But there’s nothing in the story that affirms or validates that view.  In fact, what we do know is that the master handed over these huge sums of money, entrusting them to these three people, and had enough confidence in them digest leave town.

The first two slaves come back and they’ve multiplied the money but there’s no sense that they were afraid.  There’s no sense that they did this out of fear.  So there’s just this one person who’s terrified of the master.

So what is Jesus doing in this parable?  Is he telling us what we need to do with our talents our gifts, the resources that we have?  Yeah I think he’s doing that.  But I think there’s something more important happening here, that we have to examine first, and that is what our idea is of God.

How do we think God behaves?  How do we think God interacts with us… because I think that the really outrageous moment in this story isn’t when the master takes everything that the third slave has and gives it to the one with the most.  I think the outrageous moment in this story is when this slave doesn’t recognize the true nature of the gift, and the generosity and kindness, of the master who gives it.

Ok.  So I made up a bunch of stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending.  Let me make something else up just to sort of round things out here.

So that third slave he takes the talent that he’s been given, and he goes home, and he buries it in the ground in the dirt spot where his kid’s feet hit the ground under the swing set.  The grounds already bare there, nobody will notice that there’s a new patch of earth in the yard.  He buries it there and then every night while he’s washing dishes, standing at the kitchen sink, he’s looking out the window at that spot in the ground, and worrying about that talent that’s buried out there.  Is it still safe?  Has somebody found it?  Does somebody know what’s out there?  Is somebody going to come steal it?

And so once everybody’s asleep and the streetlights come on, he sneaks outside into the backyard and he checks just make sure that the soil’s not disturbed.  Something really awful has happened to the gift that was given to this third slave.  It’s suddenly become curse.  He’s so obsessed with losing it, is so obsessed with somebody else finding it and taking it, that he’s buried it somewhere where it’s no good to anybody, and he thinks about it all day long, even when he is at work.  And all of this is happened because of his understanding of who the master is, an understanding that’s not validated anywhere else in this story!

So, how do we understand, how do we relate to God and gifts that we’ve been given.  Do we hide them, hoard them, stow them away somewhere, for fear that we might make a mistake and be judged for using them incorrectly?

I talk to people once in a while who are making big decisions about their life, their vocation, their work, and often folks will tell me that they think there’s only one right answer to the equation that sits before them; that they have to figure out exactly the right thing to do here and now, and they have to have that trajectory mapped out for the rest of their life.  I wonder sometimes if that’s because they have an understanding of God that’s similar to the understanding that this third slave has.  What if instead of a single point on the horizon, a single right answer, God was the entire horizon, not just that one point.  What if there were multiple paths to that horizon and at the end of any of those paths you would find God and God’s joy, and God’s delight in what you have done with those gifts.

Suddenly we stop acting out of fear, out of concern for making a mistake, and we get the ability to revel in, to be excited about, to explore the possibilities that God has laid before us.  And we know that any one of these paths that we might choose will make God happy, will bring God’s delight, will raise God’s joy.  And all of that is true, I think, because we know that God is already happy, and delighted, and already finding joy in who we are.  Here’s why we know that.

We know that God came to us as an infant born in a manger, an infant born helpless needy, dependent on us.  God loves us so much that God was willing to put God’s self in our hands.  That’s about as far from this money grubbing, greedy, angry, judgmental master as you could get.  And God did all of that before we had a chance to do anything with any of the gifts that we’ve been given!  God is already here loving us, delighting in us, finding joy in who we are, and just watching with delight, and probably a good sense of humor, to see what it will do with all of these things.  Kind of like a parent of a newborn child.

So here we are at the end of the season after Pentecost, about to enter into the season of Advent, and I think that child born in a manger, out there on the horizon, should be creeping into our minds already as we examine the way we feel about the God whom we come to meet in this place.  Do we kneel at this rail seeking connection, seeking acceptance, worried that we are not part of all of this?  Or do we come to this rail and Neil and hold out our hands to receive the sign and symbol of God’s ongoing presence in our life knowing, knowing, knowing that we are beloved?  I think the answer to that question makes a huge difference in the way we walk into the season of Advent.

Amen

 

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On the Road Between Jerusalem and Emmaus: A sermon for Easter 3A

This sermon, offered on April 30, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes.  What follows is a transcript of the recorded sermon.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.

Please be seated.

 

So I don’t know if it feels this way to you. It feels to me like it was forever ago… But in reality it was only two weeks. Two weeks ago we gathered here three times on the same weekend, Saturday night and twice on Sunday, there were beautiful flowers on the ledges up front here and in all the windows, we had extra musicians up front and the choir sounded amazing. There was a palpable sense of the Spirit in this room, and between those three services 400 people came to church here at St. Andrews. It was amazing. It was just two weeks ago.

Now I don’t know about you, and I’m sure that people say this every year, and I may have said this last year too, but this past year has seemed particularly difficult to me. And so my guess is that those 400 people came here that weekend with a lot of questions in their hearts and minds;

Wondering if the tomb was indeed still empty;

Wondering if we could continue, in the light of all that’s going on around us and the world, to put our faith, our trust in, to continue to believe in the one who came to show us that we are beloved of God and that God is well pleased with us;

Who came to teach us that we are all worthy of dignity and respect;

To show us beyond doubt that nothing could ever separate us from God’s love;

And that we will never, never be alone.

There was a lot at stake that weekend: our faith, our trust, our belief… and we came here to this place to reaffirm what long to know and believe and to trust… two weeks ago… two weeks ago.

Well, in today’s gospel story we have Cleopas and his companion, so let’s just assume for the moment that it’s Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas, and it is the exact same day that the tomb was discovered to be empty. Not two weeks later. This is the same day and Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas received the same message that we heard two weeks ago. The women who had gone to the tomb came running back to say that the tomb is empty and we’ve seen a vision of angels who told us that Jesus has been raised from the dead!

Now a few lines before the passage we read today we hear that all of the disciples gathered together heard the women’s testimony as an idol tale. And if you go back and look at the original Greek what they really thought it was, was nonsense. Nonsense. It was so far beyond what they could imagine or believe they decided that it was nonsense. And here are Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas on that same day making the 7-mile hike from Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus defeated and broken. When Jesus encounters them on the road they say, “but we had hoped…” “But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” And now their hopes are dashed. The same day!

So here we are, two weeks later, and I think it’s fair and appropriate to do a little check in… “How you doing?”   We all left here two weeks ago enlivened, lifted up – I mean we were so excited we went outside and we hunted for Easter eggs. We went home and ate chocolate Easter bunnies. We made ham and lamb and all sorts of things and had meals with the people that we love… But here is two weeks later and I’m wondering if the world around us has started to kill that buzz yet. So how you doing?

I think there’s something really important in this story that only Luke shares with us. And that is the reality that it’s hard. Even for those early disciples who were there in his presence, who heard this word from Mary and the rest of the women, it’s hard cling to that state, and that trust, and that hope, in the face of the pain and the suffering that we experience and that we see in the world around us.

Something remarkable happens in that story. Jesus encounters them on the road to Emmaus in the midst and depth of their grief but he doesn’t leave them there. And this is how he pulls them out.

He shows up and they say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the things that have happened?” And he says, “What things?” Tell me what’s on your heart. Tell me what’s bothering you. Tell me what you are struggling with. And they tell him the story… and then he proceeds to remind them of different story, a larger story, the story that describes who they are and whose they are. He digs into their sacred Scriptures and points to all of the things in those sacred stories that describe the necessity of what’s happened in the last three days.

Then they invite him in to spend the night, and they sit down at the table, and Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks, it and gives it to them. So there’s a pattern, there is a rhythm there. There’s an order you should recognize.

Yesterday morning when we were here rehearsing with the choristers who are up there in the balcony supporting us in worship this morning we walked through the ordo, the order of our worship. And here’s what we talked about.

We gather together and we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” We declare God’s presence and we start to pay attention in a very specific and intentional way. And then we say, “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” We open ourselves up. We open our lives to God, and offer what’s hurting, what’s broken, what needs to be mended and reconciled.

And then, we hear from the Old Testament the stories that describe who we are and whose we are, and we responded by saying a psalm together.

Then we hear a story from the New Testament and we respond to God’s missionary outreach through those words by singing another song.

Then we hear the story from the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’s life. And we try very hard to break those open and make those relevant to who we are here and now.

And then we will stand up and will say the Creed. Here’s what we believe about the God with whom we’ve been in dialogue and conversation.

Before you know it were taking that bread and we’re blessing it, and were breaking it, and we’re sharing it.

For Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas this was such an eye-opening moment, it was such a revelation, that they dared to make that 7 mile journey, after dark, back to Jerusalem to share with the rest of the disciples how the whole world had been changed for them by this meal that they shared with Jesus; how their eyes had been opened and they knew the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

So a couple of minutes ago I said we needed to check in, we needed to see how everybody’s doing two weeks after we celebrated the feast of the resurrection. If you feel the never ending gray skies, and the events of the world around us; wars and rumors of wars, and all of the stuff that fills the news, bearing down on you, threatening to squash the joy that we felt on Easter day… then this is the place to be!

This is the place to be, where we can offer to God our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our pain, our loss; and our joys, and our successes, and our celebrations, and our loves. And then be in dialogue with God through our holy Scriptures; being reminded of who we are, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being… And then we participate in that sacred meal; the taking, and blessing, and giving of bread.

I think there are a couple of caveats to all of this, to this process. First of all we have to be prepared to say what things… what it is that we have on our hearts, and in our minds. We have to be prepared to open ourselves and be vulnerable. To say I’m struggling, I’m wrestling, I have doubts, I have fears. And then to engage in those Scriptures as if they were our own story. And then to come to this table ready to be fed and to be sent on that road back to Jerusalem, back to share the story, back to give to others what has been given to us.

The most important thing I think though in all of this is the sanctification, the acceptance, the embrace of how difficult this path can be. Walking from Emmaus to Jerusalem, and back to Emmaus, and back to Jerusalem. We’re bound to go back to Emmaus and have to make our way back to Jerusalem yet again.

Maybe there are some people for whom a switch is thrown, a light comes on, fingers are snapped; and all of the doubt, and pain, and struggle that we experience in this life goes away. But I haven’t met that person yet. I wish I could tell you that was my story but it’s not. The thing is we don’t have to feel bad or guilty for finding ourselves back in Emmaus.

What we need to do is come to this table, to come to this gathering and share those stories, and hold out our hands, and receive that bread, so that our eyes can be reopened, and we can be reminded; we can come back to ourselves, and go back out into the world.

So here we are this morning. I don’t know if you’re still in Jerusalem. I don’t know if you are in Emmaus. I don’t know if you’re somewhere on the road in between or even which direction you’re facing at this moment. But wherever it is that you are Jesus will meet you in that place. And you are beloved, and with you, no matter where you are on that journey, God is well pleased.

So come to this table. Be nourished and fed for the journey. Take a look around you at your companions on the way. Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas… I see a lot more people on the road than that…

Amen

Love Your Enemies, Change the World: A sermon celebrating the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, delivered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 15, 2017 began with an audio excerpt from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies.”  You can find that audio excerpt here.

The Gospel assigned for the Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and referenced in this sermon, can be found here.

 

 

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them.   Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

Excerpt from “Loving Your Enemies,” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on November 17, 1957

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Please be seated.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words in a sermon that was delivered at the Dexter Ave., Baptist Church on November 17, 1957, almost 60 years ago. Just eight years later in 1965 in the middle of the civil rights movement, as this nation grappled with his character and nature, we watched in horror, the world watched in horror, as a group of peaceful protesters attempting to march to Selma were set upon by dogs and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement that focused around him, the movement in the center of which he stood, brought this nation to its senses and a lot has changed since that time. Tomorrow all across this country, in state houses all over this land, here in Madison, people will gather to celebrate the witness, and the life, and ministry of Dr. King, and his achievements, and the progress that we have made.

But even as songs are sung, and prayers are prayed, and speeches are spoken tomorrow, we all have some concern and perhaps even some fear in the back of our minds. We have come a long way but we had not yet reached the finish line. We have seen in this nation that racism still exists, that inequality still exists; that people are oppressed, and held back and held down, because of the color of their skin, the faith that they hold, the people that they love. So we know that there is still work to be done.

Dr. King in his sermon tells us to love our enemies and he is in that moment harkening back to the gospel reading that we just heard, The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke. And so in this increasingly secular age we might find some comfort and maybe even some humor in the fact that the entire nation will take the day off tomorrow to celebrate a preacher who is telling the story of God’s saving grace and love for this world.

But even in the midst of that solace, and comfort, and or humor, our concern persists for all the work that has been done, for all the time that has past, for all the people who have gone before us pressing this fight.

How can we pick up that agenda and carry it forward.

Make no mistake it is ours to forward. We stand in this place, we kneel in this place, and we proclaim that we are all one; children created at the hand of the same loving God. And we proclaim that nothing we can do can ever separate us from that love. Nothing that separates us by birth, faith, loves, tradition, country of origin, color of skin, can ever separate us from God’s love and should never separate us one from another. We are one! We proclaim that here. This is our call and our vocation, the narrative that lies at the core of who we are, and we should be proclaiming that truth and telling that narrative in every place where two or three are gathered. It is our vocation and our calling to work to realize the vision, the dream that God holds for all creation, the vision and the dream that Jesus made manifest in this world, the vision and the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King worked so hard to realize.

How can we do that? How can we, in this time that seems to be so polarized, where our public discourse is so extreme and angry, how can we make a difference? How can we move the needle? How can we bring people together again?

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to be good to those who hate us, to pray for those who abuse us. He said this pretty early in his ministry and I don’t know that these are the commandments that I would have led with in trying to gather a following or to win over people’s hearts and minds. These are perhaps some of the hardest things that Jesus says to us. But then as we watch and listen to his story he lives them out.

I’m going to conflate the words for forgiveness or forgive and love here. I think that we might argue a little bit about the chicken and the egg. Do we have to love someone before we can forgive them or do we have to forgive someone before we can love them. I think that probably Jesus, and even Dr. King, would argue with us that these two behaviors, these two ways of being, are one and the same. You can’t have one without the other. And so I am confident in this conflation this morning.

Jesus hangs on a cross. He allows us to betray him to humiliate and torture him. And then to hang him on a tree and watch him die. He does all of this so that we know without a doubt when he comes back and continues to love us, despite the very worst that is within us, that there is truly, as Paul will say later, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Having experienced us at our very worst we are left with no, no fantasies to harbor that we somehow live outside of the grace and light of God’s love.

Charles Hefling, biblical scholar and theologian, in an article entitled Why the Cross, published in the Christian Century in March of 2013, says this about forgiveness, about what Jesus does on the cross, and in his resurrection:

“Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of (deserved) punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.

Certainly Jesus had every right, in our anthropomorphized sense of God’s justice, to insist that those who had abused him, and abandoned him, and murdered him be punished. And certainly people who were on the Edmund Pettis Bridge had the right to insist that those who had so injured them punished and held to account. But Hefling goes on to tell us:

“If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that.   If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine.”

Hefling seems to be telling us that it is in our best interest it’s a rather pragmatic step to forgive and to love our enemies because to failed to forgive and love them we will be somehow damaging ourselves.

But even here that understanding of forgiveness and love sell short the way that Jesus loved us and the way that Dr. Martin Luther King and the people who walked on that bridge that day prosecuted their movement.

Hefling tells us:

“On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation.”

You are choosing to absorb the infection, to contain its self diffusion, to end the cycle of retributive violence that holds us thrall. To end the violence that perpetuates itself, begetting violence, violence begetting hatred, hatred feeding violence.

What Jesus did on the cross some two thousand years ago changed the world and offered us a different way to be, a different way to live in community with one another. And what The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. John Lewis and the people who marched on their way to Selma and marched in countless other cities changed this country. And in fact, changed the world.

Loving our enemies, loving our neighbors as ourselves has that potential change to world. We are not just called to love the people who are lovable, the people who look like us, dress like us, believe like us, and love like us. We are called to love everyone. And that includes the people who we find challenging and difficult. It includes the people who disagree with us, and the people with whom we disagree. Loving those people means listening with open ears and open hearts. Listening not to respond but to learn, to understand.

Jesus speaks to us through Luke’s gospel some 2000 years ago and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King speaks to us from 60 years ago in a Baptist Church, and tomorrow he will sing and pray and give teaches all of which should be calling us love, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and even, even in this time of the fear and division, to love our enemies.

Amen.

A Sermon for Ascension Day

A Mad City Episcopalian

The readings for this day offer us some interesting images….

In the Acts of the Apostles we read:

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

From the Gospel of Luke we read:

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).

Hmmmm….  Rising up into heaven on a cloud or slowly fading into the mist…  Do either of those images work for you?  How about Albrecht Durer’s wood cut showing the disciples gathered around looking upward, with Jesus’ feet just visible inside the frame at the top of the image?  Does that work any better for you?

There is a real risk that the difficulty that we experience with these images will keep us from exploring the meaning behind them.  That would be very sad…

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Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church 2016 State of the Parish Report

Good morning.

This morning as we gather for our Annual Meeting and to hear the State of the Parish Report our hearts are heavy with news from around the world. We have been shocked by events in Paris France, and, although somehow our media has not given them equal coverage, by similar events in Beirut Lebanon and Baghdad Iraq.

We have business, mandated by our by laws, to which we must attend this morning but before we do that we need to take a moment to attend to our true vocation as the church.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you

Let us pray.

A prayer for Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad

November 13, 2015 by Presbyterian News Service Leave a Comment

God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance,
in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss,
we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.

In these days of fearful danger and division, we need to believe somehow that your kingdom of peace in which all nations and tribes and languages dwell together in peace is still a possibility.

Give us hope and courage that we may not yield our humanity to fear..,
even in these endless days of dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.

We pray for neighbors in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, who, in the midst of the grace of ordinary life–while at work, or at play, have been violently assaulted, their lives cut off without mercy.

We are hostages of fear, caught in an escalating cycle of violence whose end can not be seen.

We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope: that those who have been spared as well as those whose lives are changed forever may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the days of recovery and reflection that come. We give thanks for strangers who comfort the wounded and who welcome stranded strangers, for first responders who run toward the sound of gunfire and into the smoke and fire of bombing sites.

Once again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord? We seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have tolerated enmity and endured cultures of violence with weary resignation. We grieve the continued erosion of the fabric of our common life, the reality of fear that warps the common good. We pray in grief, remembering the lives that have been lost and maimed, in body or spirit.

We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering; wisdom and diligence among global and national agencies and individuals assessing threat and directing relief efforts; and for our anger and sorrow to unite in service to the establishment of a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror will not hold sway over our common life.

In these days of shock and sorrow, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to the movements of your Spirit, who flows in us like the river whose streams makes glad the city of God, and the hearts of all who dwell in it, and in You.

In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray, Amen.

by Laurie Ann Kraus
Coordinator, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

This is the ninth time that I have had the great pleasure and privilege of standing before you to offer the State of the Parish Report, to call out our achievements and strengths, to name our challenges, and to articulate a vision and goals for our future. I really do love this moment because, if we look beyond the requisite numbers and statistics, the State of the Parish Report is an opportunity for me to tell our story, the story of “We.”

I am going to offer some numbers and statistics in the next few minutes, but standing here in the pulpit, as we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, it is the story that I want to share. The numbers will have to wait for a just a bit.

It’s awfully tempting to be anxious. The Barna and Pew Research Groups, trusting polling firms, have told us that the mainline is on the decline. Fewer people declare affiliation with the church every year, attendance and membership are on the decline, churches are closing their doors and selling their property all across the country.   But I wonder… Numbers are useful but they can be deceiving. How you ask the questions, how you present the results can have a big impact on the story that those numbers tell.

I wonder if across the church people aren’t doing what we have done over the last several years, trying to make those numbers more useful we have tried to be more honest about who is here and who is not; removing from our active roster folks who haven’t been here for a long time, adult children of parishioners who are married and living out of state, people who have drifted away and haven’t been seen for the last three years. We still have those names in our books but we list them as inactive. Our membership numbers seem to have declined but the truth is that they are just more accurate. Our core membership numbers remain remarkably constant.

Average Sunday attendance is another number that gets a lot of attention but which needs some interpretation. Is ASA really a measure of vitality and membership? It used to be that regular church attendance meant showing up every Sunday. It was almost obligatory in our culture and society that you be in church on Sunday morning. What we know about ourselves is that “regular” attendance means something different today than it use to. Even our most committed and involved members find it hard to be here every Sunday. Kids sports take place on Sunday morning, families are spread across greater distance and we have to travel to be together. “Regular” Sunday attendance for many of us is now once or twice a month. So is Average Sunday Attendance really a measure of church vitality and strength.

The pollsters will tell us that fewer people are claiming affiliation with the church an that the number of people who do make that claim are at dangerously low levels. But we know that if all of the people who used to claim that they were affiliated with a church, if all of the people who told the pollsters that they were “regular” church attenders, actually showed up on a Sunday morning parishes across the country would need to set up overflow seating in their parish halls and parking lots.

Numbers can be useful but they can also be misleading. A better measure of congregational vitality, of the health of a church can be found in their story. Here is the story that we have to tell about ourselves.

For the last year we have gathered to celebrate. A parish in its one-hundredth year on the near west side of Madison we invited the community to celebrate with us: Special events, concerts, beautiful original settings of the mass, parties, and a picnic marked the joy and the love we share in this place.

In that year of celebration we came together to help secure our future. Dreaming if what we might be, of the ways that God might use us in our second century we raised close to 1.4 million dollars to renovate, repair, and restore our campus. Faced with some difficult choices, the need to prioritize our needs, interests and dreams we engaged in a process that was transparent, open, collaborative, and fair. That process led to a remarkable moment. The Vestry, after months of prayerful listening found came to consensus around the scope and cost of a project that will allow us, and those who come after us, to continue God’s work here at 1833 Regent Street for the next one hundred years.

This is a challenging time for the church. The context in which the church pursues its mission to share the good news of God in Jesus Christ is changing at a remarkable pace. There are those who believe that we cannot survive, but looking around me I have to say that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated!

This is my ninth state of the Parish Report, my ninth opportunity to tell the story of “We,” my ninth opportunity to call out our achievements and strengths, to name our challenges, and to articulate a vision and goals for our future.

So here is another story that needs to be told this morning.

Fifteen years ago, when Patrick Raymond was in his third year as Rector of Saint Andrew’s, he and the Vestry knew that one full time ordained person could not support all of the ministry, programming, worship, and community that this congregation needed and wanted. The Rev. Pat Size joined the staff in 2001 and helped to establish and manage a Pastoral Care Ministry, a Healing Prayer Ministry, and created an Adult Formation Program called Journey in Discipleship.

When Pat left Saint Andrew’s at the end of 2003 to become the Missioner to the Hispanic Congregation at Grace Church Saint Andrew’s turned to the Rev. Deacon Susan Mueller for help. Susan had come to Saint Andrew’s as a Deacon in 2001 and in 2003 she joined the staff as a part time Pastoral Associate.

Susan retired from her position at Saint Andrew’s in 2010 after nine years of ministry among us, seven of them as a member of the staff. We were very concerned about our ability to lure a candidate with those qualities and skills to Madison for a part time position. Fortunately we didn’t have to look very far to find the right person.

Leigh Vicens graduated from Virginia Seminary in 2009 and returned to Madison to finish her PhD in Philosophy. Ordained a Deacon that spring Leigh came to Saint Andrew’s as a part time intern, paid a nominal stipend by the Diocese of Milwaukee in July of 2009. When Susan Mueller retired Leigh joined the Saint Andrew’s Staff as part time Pastoral Associate.

Leigh finished her doctoral degree and accepted a  teaching position at Augustana College in Sioux Falls S.D. in 2012. We bade her farewell in June of that year. We were once again faced with the prospect of looking for someone with very special personal circumstances that would allow them to come to Madison and join us for a position that was only half time.

Our concern was compounded by the fact that we were losing two members of our staff that June. Kate McKey, who had served as our part time Youth Minister for the past three years, was also leaving.

After prayerful consideration and deliberation we decided to roll both the half time associate position and the Youth Minister position into a single, full time, clergy position. We wanted to be able to draw gifted and qualified candidates to Madison to join our staff. We understood that a full time clergy person would be in a position to fully invest in the people in, and the life of, our community. And we wanted to create a position that would allow the right candidate to become a long term member of our community allowing them to form and nurture deep and effective relationships with the community and people of Saint Andrew’s. We knew that this change would be a financial stretch for the parish but we were convinced that this was the right strategy for our future together.

I had met Dorota Pruski as a member of the Diocesan Commission on Ministry in 2009 when she came before us for her final interviews in the discernment process. I remember remarking to my colleagues on the commission that, in four years when she finished her seminary training, some parish was going to be very lucky to have her serving among them. When I ran into her in Indianapolis at the 2012 General Convention I was again impressed by her poise, her thoughtfulness and now by her understanding and articulation of the complex issues facing the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion. Dorota was just finishing her second year at Virginia Theological Seminary and I jokingly asked her if there was any way that she could graduate a year early. She laughed, said no, and then asked why I was asking. I told her that I was looking for full time help “now.” She laughingly replied by asking if I could wait a year and I said, “I could but I would be dead!” The Rev. Shannon Kelly, a mutual friend and former Chaplain at Saint Francis House was part of the conversation and she laughed and asked, “Why don’t you just get some interim help for a year?” Later that day I forwarded the job description to Dorota saying that if she was interested I would love to have a conversation.

A conversation over lunch led to a conversation with the Bishop and with our Diocesan Deployment Officer. Those conversations led to conversations with the Vestry. Dorota came to visit Saint Andrew’s that August, worshiping with us, meeting with the Vestry, having lunch, dinner and breakfast with leaders of the parish, members of the Youth Group and their parents and finally on Monday afternoon another lunch with me. That fall Dorota was the only member of her seminary class to begin their senior year with a signed letter of agreement, a parish having called and anxiously awaiting her arrival!

Three years later we see the wisdom and the fruits of the decisions that we made in 2012. I told Dorota when we first talked at that General Convention in in Indianapolis that I wasn’t looking for an employee. I was looking for a partner in ministry, someone who would share fully in the exercise of priestly ministry and in the life of the community. The unique partnership that we share is a powerful manifestation of character and ethos of this place. We are a collegial and collaborative community, working together to support one another as we discover our individual and corporate gifts, callings, and vocations. People who experience Saint Andrew’s for the first time often marvel to me at the genuine care and affection that we have for one another, that this is a congregation of people that truly like one another. They feel the depth of our connection and they want to be a part of the communion that they feel here. None of that happens by accident!

Having Mother Dorota with us, a second full time priest, allows us to do and be more than we could be if I was the only full time member of the staff.  We have more hours to devote to the many and varied programs and ministries that bring us together in fellowship as we work to live out our vocation.  We have more hours available for pastoral care, to visit people in the hospital, to take communion to people in their homes, to sit together listening and caring deeply for one another as we journey together.  Having two full time priests on staff means that we have double the hours to meet with parishioners, forming and nurturing relationships, and to recognize and facilitate potential relationships between members of the community who may not realize that they have dreams, concerns or vocations in common. Having two full time Priests means that we have double the hours to meet with ecumenical partners and leaders in the larger Madison Community, with the Diocese of Milwaukee and with the Episcopal Church at large.

Having two full time Priests, one from column A (look deferentially at Dorota) and one from column B (gesture towards self), means that we have a priestly presence at the altar and in the pulpit that reflects and represents the diversity of our life, our parish, and of creation. That diversity at the altar and in the pulpit, the affirmation that it offers to the people who walk through our doors is an important symbol of who we are, what we believe, and how we care for one another in this place. That diversity of voices at the altar and pulpit also makes each of our voices stronger – Dorota and I learn from one another and make each other better. So the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is clear that the decisions that we made in 2012, to call a second full time priest to join us, to wait a year while Dorota finished her seminary training, to invest in someone who could then invest in us were the right decisions.  We are today more than we could have been without her.  There is an important lesson in all of this.  When faced with difficult questions we consistently make good decisions for the life, vitality and future of this community.  We have another decision to make and we need to make it now.

We knew when we called Dorota that adding a second full time priest to our staff was a financial stretch.  Combining our half time Pastoral Associate and our part time Youth Minister positions left us $36,000 short of funding a full time Priest.  The Diocese of Milwaukee’s program for underwriting the salary of newly ordained clergy softened that blow to the budget by $12,000 a year for the first two years, but we knew when we adopted this strategy that we needed to grow our revenues in order to support this new position on the staff.  Since deciding to add a second full time priest in 2012 our pledges have increased by about $15,000. We are growing our revenues but we are, as the cost of maintaining our programs, our building and our staff increases, falling further behind.  We are projecting that we will end 2015 with a deficit for the third year in a row.  The Vestry has worked very hard to be responsible stewards of the gifts that we receive.  We have cut programming and maintenance budgets each of the last three years, trimming costs to the point that there is nowhere left to cut but the human resource line.  So now, waiting for the final pledges for 2016 to come in, working to develop a budget for next year, we are once again, faced with some very difficult decisions.

The draft budget being presented today projects yet another year-end deficit. It allows us to fund our Associate Priest position for all of 2016. The Executive Committee of the Vestry: the clergy, Junior and Senior Wardens, and Treasurer, will be urging the Vestry to adopt this budget, buying us another year to grow into the strategy we adopted in 2012, to stabilize our current staffing model, and to keep our current clergy team here at Saint Andrew’s.

The Stewardship Committee asked us all to prayerfully consider increasing our giving to Saint Andrew’s this year by at least 5%. A 5% increase would allow us to fund next year’s budget at this year’s funding level. That will help but we all know that everything will cost more tomorrow than it does today. That is why the Stewardship Committee asked those of us who can to prayerfully consider increasing our giving by 20%. That level of increase will help us to restore some of the cuts we have made to our program budget and to begin to restore the financial reserves that we have used to cover our expenses for the last several years.

We made the right decision in 2012, committing to a second full time Priest in our community and to waiting for Mother Dorota to finish her seminary training. Today we can do and be more than we could have without her. Today we are faced with another decision. Increasing our giving will represent a decision to continue with the strategy for growth that we adopted in 2012, to do and be more than we could be with a single full time priest on staff. Not increasing our giving will represent a different decision.

Given our history, I am confident that in the year ahead we will make the right decision for the life, vitality, and future of this community.

Amen.

Sunday at General Convention: A Great Sermon With a Little Back Story

A fabulous sermon by Presiding Katherine Jefferts Schori is even better when you know a little back story. For the last three days people have been wearing purple scarves in solidarity with a movement at convention called “Breaking the Episcopal Glass Ceiling.”

In the 26 years since Barbara Harris, the first woman consecrated Bishop in the Episcopal Church, was consecrated we have consecrated 254 Bishops in the Episcopal Church. Only 21 of them were women.

Those purple scarves where around our necks, in our hearts, and in our minds, and I hope that now they are in yours, when you read the Presiding Bishop’s translation of the words Jesus’ speaks to the little girl he had raised form the dead – “Talitha cum.”

There is another point in her sermon that will benefit from a little back story… 12 years of hemorrhaging… 12 years ago, at the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church we affirmed the election of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire…

Here is a link to the readings assigned for this morning.  Please note that we used the readings in track 2

Here is the link to Bishop Katherine’s sermon

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General Convention – Zero Minus Two and Counting

If you look at the official web site for the General Convention you will see that it is scheduled to run from June 25th through July 3rd. The truth is that everyone is here already and the “work” of convention has already begun.

This morning deputies and Bishops lined up starting at 9 am to be certified (some of us have been certifiable for a long time but that is another story) to register and to receive the iPads that are going to make this a nearly paperless convention. It turns out that it is cheaper to rent an iPad for every Bishop and Deputy than it is to print the reams of paper that have traditionally been handed out during the week and a half of convention. You could see impromptu tutorials in iPad navigation happening all over the convention center as we all work to become accustomed to this “innovation.”

The Exhibit Hall was open at 9 am this morning with displays from vendors, Episcopal Seminaries, outreach organizations and ministries. I walked through the Exhibit Hall about six times today, not because I was looking for something to buy (didn’t spend a cent) but because every time I went into the space I ran into someone else I know but haven’t seen for a while: seminary classmates, colleagues form other dioceses, people with whom I correspond regularly on Facebook but have never met in person. The Episcopal Church isn’t really that big, we are very much like a family, and General Convention is our family reunion.

Legislative Committees began their work today, beginning to sift through the resolutions and proposal that fall under their purview, establishing schedules for open hearing and working sessions that will help to craft the resolutions that finally come before the floor of convention. And as all of this work was happening our iPads were magically populated with files, calendars, resource documents and draft resolutions.

The Deputation from the Diocese of Milwaukee met for an hour tonight to look at the legislative sessions scheduled for 7 am and 7 pm tomorrow, making notes about who would cover each of these sessions that they might report back to the larger group. The day will begin before seven am and will go close to ten o’clock tomorrow night and there isn’t much down time in the schedule between those legislative meetings and hearings tomorrow.

At 9 am both houses, The House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, will meet in joint session to hear presentations from Presiding Bishop The Most Rev. Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori and from the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings.

At ten o’clock the houses will adjourn to their respective halls for a two hour orientation and then at 1:30 we all will reconvene to meet the four candidates for Presiding Bishop. All of that will happen tomorrow, prior to the first “official” day of General Convention.

Check back tomorrow for “General Convention – Zero Minus One and Counting” and then again on Thursday for “General Convention – Day One!”

Peace,

Andy+

There are lots of resources for following General Convention on the Diocese of Milwaukee Deputation’s web site and regular updates will be posted to our facebook page.