Annual Council Scottsbluff & Gering
Mark 10:46-52 October 26, 2018
Right Reverend and Dear Friend –
I write in October of the year 2018 for the sesquicentennial celebration of the diocese you now serve. This may seem like an impossibly distant past to you – this age of which you could only know through reading a history book. The Gospel text for the celebration for which I am writing is the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” who memorably calls out to Jesus, “I want to see!” From that Gospel cry, let me tell you what I see.
As I sit down to begin, it is a stunning late autumn afternoon in Nebraska. The sky is deep blue – almost cobalt – and the fallen leaves rustle with every gentle breeze that sweeps across the roads and the fields. The leaves still turning in the trees are shimmering brilliant scarlet, orange and gold. Our weather is unsettled, and that makes me wonder and worry about yours. Ten days ago, a whole bunch of snow fell across a great swath of the diocese – a too early storm that complicated an already soggy and slow harvest. That snow fell wet and heavy – so brought down limbs and trees that caught too much weight in their leaves. It was a mess.
The wonder and the majesty of this land seems like the right place to start.
Nebraskans are especially appreciative of the beauty of this place, and keenly attuned to the rhythms of the natural order, including the changing of the seasons and the life cycles of their crops and livestock. One of the first things I learned when I became the Bishop of this place was that I would not be needing to teach anyone about the grandeur of God’s creation, nor what it means to be a mere creature of that same God. Instead it is the people of Nebraska who have been teaching me for the last seven years about the miracles of nature, the right place of a human being in this lonely landscape, and God’s providence over it all.
Some of my most vivid memories of this ministry have been those moments traveling the state when I have happened upon wonders both great and small that have reminded me of the miracle of God’s handiwork, and the privilege of having been born here and called back home, after a time away, to live and work. I remember seeing my first-ever dust devil! It was in the springtime, and I was so hopped up worrying about tornados that I about jumped out of my skin when a dark brown cloud suddenly twisted right up next to me as I was zooming by a recently plowed field off interstate 80. The cloud was fifty feet high anyway – and it was sucking up dry dirt and spewing it out all around that field and the Interstate. It was a marvel.
I remember an afternoon driving down highway 97 from Mullen towards North Platte right at sunset. Canon Easton (my Canon to the Ordinary) said, “I hope we see an antelope,” and not two minutes later, the pick-up startled an antelope that was hiding in the ditch just off the road. She raced us for almost a mile – caught between the road and a barbed wire fence. I could not believe the speed and grace with which that creature moved, nor will I forget the final glance we caught of her little charcoal-swiped nose and
blunt black horns, before she found a way under that fence and off into the tall grass to hide once more.
I remember driving out to a Sandhills ranch on the day that a full solar eclipse slouched in a diagonal shadow all across the whole diocese from Chadron to Falls City. I kept my expectations low (there’d been a whole lot of hype in the build-up that summer), but when the disc of the sun finally blinked all the way out that day and a gloaming suddenly appeared at every compass point on the horizon, and the crickets started chirping because they thought it was time for us to go to bed…well, I cried right along with the rest of them. (A “rest of them” I might add, that included a bunch of cowboys half drunk at 11 in the morning, and who looked like they might have been as surprised by the tears on their cheeks as they were by the suddenly dark sky.)
This place! This place is just as beautiful and full of the wonder and majesty of God’s handiwork as absolutely anywhere else on this whole amazing planet.
I sure hope that’s still true. For all our appreciation of that beauty in this here and now we have not been honest about how fragile it all is … about the full extent of what it means to be stewards of creation and the true nature of the work entrusted to us by God as caretakers of this garden. I know that humans beings have always taken a toll on creation and I have no doubt that change is a part of what it means that our God is alive and in charge of our world, but in this last generation, it seems there has been a shift.
Now we know beyond the shadow of a doubt what great an impact human beings have on the delicate balance that exists between the plants and animals that all coexist in our fragile ecosystem. And we’ve been too slow to admit that the patterns of the lives we
lead are unsustainable … that if we don’t change how we live the generations that follow will not have the same possibilities or the same choices.
I am sorry for that, and I hope you can forgive us. I wonder if corn still grows in Nebraska. I wonder if we still have antelope.
I’ll bet you’re asking yourself about the people here. That’s what I would ask about, if you could tell me of your life. They are amazing, these people.
In a time and place when increasing numbers of folks have only a vague notion of whether God is real, and most of whom would be hard pressed to point to anything at all about their behavior that suggests they actually believe in God, I work every day and visit each week with people who pray and sing and serve and read the Bible, and who in a dozen, dozen ways say and show that they are really trying to make the words they say in church on Sunday morning a guiding star by which to steer their lives the rest of the week.
In a time and place where the culture that surrounds us is either openly hostile to the teachings of Jesus – or more often has twisted those teachings into an image of the worst prejudices, fears and desires of our present moment – I work every day and visit each week with people who are deeply committed to the idea that every human being is
created in God’s image. People who believe that Jesus can be found most especially and reliably in the lives of those cast to the margins by the powerful, and that really and truly loving after the fashion of Christ is hard, hard work and the highest calling of human life.
And in a time and a place where the church is often said to be dying – or even dead – I work every day, and visit each week, with people whose best thoughts, hopes actions are a determined shout to heaven of, “Not so!” And so they go to church meetings and care for church buildings and read church publications and try – first and foremost – to love the precious, weird and wonderful brothers and sisters who are part of their local church communities and so are most especially entrusted to their care.
These people inspire me and amaze me every single day of my life. I’ll imagine that’s true for you, too!
We have a strange and holy job, don’t we? There is the tension of trying to be faithful about speaking hard truths in the name of Jesus when folks need to hear them, juxtaposed against the equally deep need our people have to hear and know that they are treasured and beloved of God no matter what. There is the difficulty of knowing when to stand firm in inherited teachings and traditions that have guided us for centuries and more and when to try some bold, new thing, trusting in the presence of God’s living and Holy Spirit to show us the way. There is the constant stripping away of the ego, as we’re reminded day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour that we’re probably not really worthy of the office we inhabit, nor the kindness and the love with which we’re showered.
But on the other hand – on the other hand – what an unbelievable journey, and privilege and delight is this ministry! To visit these cherished, sacred spaces, on a constant pilgrimage from one site to the next all across the Nebraska landscape, every one holy … every one unique. To be welcomed into the lives of the faithful people of God with such incredible kindness and generosity: the warm embraces, the little gifts, the potlucks. (The potlucks! If those groaning tables of every grandmother’s best recipe and every child’s favorite treat are not a eucharistic foretaste of the banquet table in the Kingdom of Heaven then I don’t know what is!)
And to be welcomed. To be welcomed right into the middle of their precious lives and their most intimate moments. As little church vestries work and pray to imagine what Christ calls them to in this generation. As teens stand with knocking knees and trembling hands before their church families and promise to follow Jesus for the whole rest of their lives. As we shout out at the funerals of beloved saints who have gone before the most incredible, improbable and hope-filled words of all time: “Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” It’s a crazy cool job, isn’t it?
Strange and holy.
My dear friend, I wish you well in the impossibly remote land of the Diocese of Nebraska as you help celebrate our tri-centennial. I want you to know that we thought of you, and we hoped for you, and we prayed for you 150 years ago.
Know that though we dwelt in a time of extraordinarily fast change and deep challenge in the life of Christ’s Church, we did our level best to seek and serve Christ in our day. We read our Bibles, and worked to support one-another as a community upon whose life the treasured stories of our sacred book placed a duty and a call. We prayed our prayers, both the beautiful inherited poetry of the generations that went before, and the earnest, humble and heartfelt entreaties that we offered in graces at our tables, in devotions before meetings and at our bedsides each night. We cared for each other and we cared for our neighbors, imperfectly and sporadically to be sure, but by God we tried, believing as we were taught that loving a neighbor is loving Christ himself. And we labored – how we labored – to simply keep being the Church, by celebrating and sharing in worship every week, by teaching our young people the stories and traditions of our Episcopal way, by proclaiming to our friends and neighbors – equally in our smallest towns and our largest cities – that we are followers of Jesus Christ: who lived for us, and gave his life for ours and by whose presence and power we are even still becoming a whole new creation.
We wish you well, dear friend, from the distant past. May the people of God in the Diocese of Nebraska in the year 2168 be richly blessed. Know that we thought about you one hundred and fifty years ago and that we prayed for your well being and that of our Church …
And that we now look down on you with pride: our own course finished, our work now done.
Faithfully Yours –
+ J. Scott Barker, XI
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ –
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the holy one, Jesus Christ.
Happy Anniversary! This meeting of our Annual Council is the culmination of a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. It was 150 years ago this month, on October 9, 1868, that the General Convention voted to accept our request to be admitted as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. It’s a fun footnote to know that in order for a territory to become a diocese, the Episcopal Church required a “convention” of parishes meet and make that formal request. Nebraska was nearly denied status as a diocese because, when we met, we called ourselves a “council” instead of a “convention,” a move for which the larger church chastised us. To this day, we are the single diocese in all the 111 dioceses of the Episcopal Church that has an annual council instead of an annual convention. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re wonderfully independent or because we’re just a little bit rebellious, but either way, it’s pure Nebraska!
It’s been a great year remembering and celebrating our history in this place. We kicked off our anniversary with a visit from our Presiding Bishop, who came to Nebraska on the first weekend of 2018. Though he had a cold at the time, the irrepressible Michael Curry was an electrifying and inspiring presence for all those who made the journey to Omaha to come see the leader of our Church. We got great media coverage of the Presiding Bishop’s visit, partly because a resident bat from Trinity Cathedral awoke during the PBs Sunday sermon, and swooped around the sanctuary while he was preaching. Bishop Curry – unflustered – told the congregation he was pretty sure we were seeing the Holy Spirit Dove that morning. But for those of us who were close to the action: that was one hairy dove!
Our visit from the PB turned out to be a coup even beyond our expectations because just weeks after he came to Nebraska, he took another jaunt – this time to London – to preach at a little wedding that was being thrown in the land of our Anglican ancestors! We’re blessed that he came to see us when he did. Now that Bishop Curry is an internationally known rock star for Jesus, it’s a little harder to book him!
On the same Sunday morning, the Presiding Bishop was here, we gathered in our local churches all around the diocese for a special Nebraska Liturgy. With beautiful prayers and music composed especially for that day and this year, we raised our voices together to begin our sesquicentennial in common prayer.
In the springtime, our anniversary celebration continued with two joyful and unique gatherings. In April we celebrated “Cranes and Common Prayer” in Kearney, a day which included prayers and song and feasting … and some of the most delightful and moving storytelling I’ve ever participated in here in DioNeb. With June came “Pray, Walk, Do” which though it fell on a blazing hot day did not deter a great, big crowd from coming out and participating in a 5K walk/run, and a massive post-race breakfast feed on the shores of Lake Zorinsky. We capped off that gathering with beautiful prayers for our saints who’ve gone before, and for our continued faithfulness as a diocese of the Church.
This Annual Council is the culmination of our year-long anniversary celebration. Over the course of the next 24 hours, you can look forward to hearing more tales of our storied past and our spirit-filled present, as well as a keynote address from a modern-day Nebraska hero who truly needs no introduction. All along the way over these precious hours together, we will join as a big Nebraska choir to sing our special sesquicentennial songs – and pray our special sesquicentennial prayers – for one last time.
This is the place to thank some of the key players in this jubilee year. Brother James Dowd, Canon Liz Easton, Karen Burkley, and Diny Landon were the support team that helped welcome Bishop Curry to DioNeb, while that same weekend Dean Craig Loya, Father Chuck Peek, Marty-Wheeler Burnett and Rae Whitney did the Lion’s share of work pulling together our special Nebraska liturgy. Archdeacon Betsy Bennett, Father Chuck Peek, Bill Brush and the folks from Saint Luke’s and the Central Deanery lead the charge for Cranes & Common Prayer. Father Ernesto Medina – with great support from the folks at St Martha’s – masterminded Pray, Walk, Do. And Jo Berhens, our diocesan historiographer, organized the terrific series of reflections on the lives of Nebraska saints that have been featured on Facebook and in our diocesan publications over the course of the year. Tales which have not only reminded us of times now past but inspired us to be still more faithful disciples today.
Behind all this, was the ministry of the amazing Noelle Ptomey, who volunteered two years ago – when everybody else was looking at everybody else – to Chair the entire celebration of our 150th Anniversary. Noelle was gracious, collaborative, inclusive and tireless in her efforts to help us throw this year-long party. Will you please join me in giving thanks to Noelle and to all those who helped us celebrate so well over the course of this special year?
It has not been just sesquicentennial celebration since we last gathered as the Annual Council a year ago in North Platte. Here are some of the other highlights of the past year in DioNeb …
In January, several groups of Episcopalians gathered to be part of the women’s marches that were held all across Nebraska. Against a political backdrop that continues to divide us as a nation, a state, and often even from our closest friends and neighbors, it has been challenging at times to know when to organize and to make sure that the voice of the Church is heard in the public sphere, and when to heed Jesus’ call for unity, and err on the side of maintaining peace and stability in this body. In the case of a march organized to support women’s equality in every sector of our common life, and to condemn violence against women of any sort (including in our nation’s political discourse) the presence of the women and men of the Church joining together to participate in those January women’s marches was a no-brainer.
Women were among Jesus’ closest and most intimate companions and disciples; women were the most stalwart and courageous of Jesus’ friends at the time of his persecution and death; women were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were among the most generous and faithful supporters of the early church. And Jesus himself, again and again, lifts women out of poverty, powerlessness, marginalization and every situation where by coercion or violence they are being harmed by the empire or the religious authorities of the day. It is my sincere prayer and expectation that though we have often failed in the past, our Episcopal Church will always stand with women, and that includes continuing to strive towards still fuller inclusion and justice in this denomination around issues like fairness in hiring practices, parity in compensation, and representation in the House of Bishops.
I hope and expect that this January, we will march again.
In the spring, Canon Easton and I made a week-long pilgrimage to the panhandle for our Western Residency. This journey has become a fixture of diocesan life and our diocesan calendar over the last six or seven years, and I am not sure whether the folks who do the visiting or the folks who host the visits are more enthusiastic about – or have more fun with – this annual event!
As an example of what these visits look like, let me tell you about our sojourn to Saint Mary’s in Holly on a Friday evening in late May. The sun was still pretty high when we pulled off highway 87 into the church lot, but a couple of folks were already present at St Mary’s, pulling together drinks and desserts for the evening to come. The diocese bought barbeque from EJ’s in Chadron to help with the potluck, and so our first order of business was to unload from the truck about two tons of pulled pork, coleslaw, and baked beans!
Families soon began to arrive for the evening’s activities, which included baptizing a little new baby who belonged to a local ranch family, feasting together in the church undercroft and gathering for an old-fashioned hymn-sing organized by Father John Adams and for which we imported a local organist for the evening. Probably 50 people came out that night, which meant little St. Mary’s was full-to-bursting, and that when we raised our voices at the hymn-sing to praise Jesus together, we could surely be heard beyond the walls of the church and all out into the stunningly beautiful landscape of that part of Sheridan County.
I’ve noticed that when church worship is felt as a duty – and when church people aren’t very deeply connected to their brothers and sisters in the parish – people tend to disburse very quickly after a morning or evening service. No surprise that when Canon Easton and I finally threw in the towel to drive to the next place that Friday night, there were still a half dozen cars and pick-ups parked on the lawn at St Mary’s, and a big, tight group of folks still standing in the setting sun outside the parish doors: talking, laughing and being the Church.
This is one small example of the sort of intimate moment and celebration that best characterizes so much of our shared experience as Nebraska Episcopalians. Note well my brothers and sisters: God the Creator, Son and Spirit are routinely and wonderfully manifest in such a gathering, whatever the occasion and whatever the locale.
In July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Austin, Texas. Like many folks, I am ambivalent about our General Convention. I think it’s too long, too big, too expensive and not very representative of what the Episcopal Church looks like in real life. I have advocated – and will continue to be an advocate for – some real change around this inherited, cumbersome structure. But having said all that, General Convention provides a unique opportunity for us every time it meets, because it is populated by a whole bunch of faithful, sincere, and hopeful Episcopalians who have taken two weeks off from their homes and jobs to try to advance the cause of Christ in and from our larger Church.
Thanks to the hard work of those people – including a superb deputation from your Diocese of Nebraska – I think we did a credible job this year as a General Convention. We passed a responsible and lean budget for the larger church’s coming three years, that aims to continue the work of pushing Church resources towards the local level and funding the Presiding Bishop’s mission priorities of Evangelism, Creation Care and Racial Reconciliation. The witness and ministry of women was front and center at convention, and legislation was passed to help support fairness around hiring and compensation of women serving across various church ministries. Likewise, our disciplinary canons were changed to help address misconduct and abuse and to better care for survivors of abuse in the church setting. We re-admitted the Diocese of Cuba to the Episcopal Church (after we had unceremoniously severed ties with the island in 1966 at the height of the political tensions between Cuba and the US.) This move was cause for a huge outpouring of joy, especially among the large Afro-Caribbean population of our denomination. And in a legislative compromise, we decided not to begin the process of updating the Book of Common Prayer, but rather to encourage and enable much broader and more creative experimentation with prayer and liturgy in our local contexts, as a way to begin imagining what the next BCP should be.
That work has already begun with the publication and sanctioned use of expansive language Eucharistic prayers that are now being used in several parishes in the diocese. And as a next local step, I have appointed Father Steve Lahey of St. Matthew’s in Lincoln to the position of Canon Theologian for our diocese. We’re even now receiving the names of individuals both lay and ordained who would like to be part of the team that will help oversee our efforts to explore new liturgical forms here in DioNeb. If you have gifts as a theologian, a liturgist, a writer, a poet, a musician or an intercessor – and would be interested in serving in that capacity – you can still let me know!
Two highlights from earlier this autumn and the concluding months of our sesquicentennial year bear noting here.
In September, Becca Stevens – an Episcopal priest from Tennessee and the renowned founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms – came to Nebraska to help us celebrate the opening Magdalene Omaha and Thistle Lights.
Now Magdalene Omaha is not an Episcopal Ministry, nor is it, in fact, a “Church ministry” in the strictest sense of the term. But Magdalene Omaha was the brainchild of Deacon Teresa Houser, who I know credits this body with being among the first and strongest supporters of her vision to serve women who are the survivors of rape, incest, domestic violence or sex trafficking, and are doing the hard, hard work of starting life anew. And Magdalene’s board is populated by a number of Episcopalians including Dean Craig Loya who serves as it’s President. And when Becca came to Nebraska, the sold-out crowd who came to hear her speak was brimming with members of our church who had driven from all around the diocese to be part of that special evening.
Some of the best and most faithful ministry the Church does is work that starts in the parish and is then handed off to the larger community. Or work that happens in collaborative partnerships between church groups and community groups who find creative ways to serve together … or work that just happens to be done by Christian people, who care and serve because they are disciples of Jesus. In the end, it does not matter whether the Episcopal Church somehow gets “credit” for community initiatives that feed the hungry, house the homeless and heal the broken-hearted. What matters is that Christ is met and served in such work and that the people of God are doing their part to support it.
I asked Deacon Teresa if she could share some measure of the lives impacted by the ministry she been leading us in over these past few years. Many, many of you have contributed to the Friends of Tamar, which was a precursor to Magdalene Omaha and has become, in the words of Deacon Teresa, “a full diocesan effort.” 20 Episcopal Churches of this diocese have worked with local social service agencies to determine the best ways to support the local needs of women who are the survivors of sexual violence. And that little seed of an idea that launched Friends of Tamar: helping women who are leaving an abusive situation to escape sexual violence with a suitcase of toiletries and clothes? Since Christmas Eve of 2014 when a woman (miraculously enough named “Mary”) received the first suitcase, just sort of 900 bags have been delivered in the metro area to help survivors.
Deacon Teresa will tell you more about what’s going on with Friends of Tamar and Magdalene later at this Council, but the encouragement I want to offer is to point to what can happen when one person – with the support of the body of Christ – has an idea about loving, serving, caring for or supporting their neighbors in need.
I don’t know how often I am asked about how to make a difference, or how to grow the Church, or what God might be calling us to in this here and now, but surely this story shows us a pattern for that work:
Open your eyes and hearts to your neighbors who need to experience the love of God. Get to know those folks, and help your churches get to know them. And then find a way to leverage the passion and power of the body of Christ that is your local congregation.
Later in this Council, you’re going to hear from a half dozen folks who have started local ministries that are having a real impact in terms of loving and caring for church neighbors and contributing to the sense of identity and mission in the parishes where these ministries are being carried out. I hope you find real inspiration from these mission moments. Truly – the Church is the sleeping giant of this age in America. There is nothing we cannot accomplish if we put our hearts, minds, and prayers to the task.
Two years ago at this gathering, many of you met Brother James Dowd for the first time. Though I knew Brother James to be sincerely faithful and just a ton of fun, I was also – truth be told – just a little worried about how you all would react to a be-robed monk, whose great passion in life is embodying and teaching about prayer. Well, I need not have worried – and who could have imagined all that was to come!
The former New Yorker and theater guy fell in love with our Nebraska landscape and with all of you. You, in turn, welcomed Brother James with open arms as he drove around this state to visit our parishes and come to know us more deeply. And in relationship together, we quickly discovered that we all have a hunger to learn to pray better and from that to find ways to serve Jesus more deeply … a desire so widely shared that it could only be a call of God on our common life.
And so fast forward to a Friday evening just a month ago, on which 150 people gathered to celebrate “Foundation Day.” And open a Benedictine monastery and an adjacent program and home for young adults who wish to spend a year learning more about service and prayer, all on the campus of Church of the Resurrection right here in DioNeb. Brother James will say more later today, but I want to say what joy we share in his discernment to stay with us, what power lies in the witness of the people who have become the community that is The Benedictine Way, and what inspiration and hope that nascent community gives us as we seek to be shaped as people who will pray better, serve more bravely and love more deeply.
There is plenty more going on in this 150th year of the Diocese of Nebraska.
Our Bishop’s Society continues to support The Curacy project, through which we’re attracting great young priests to come to Nebraska for a season and who in turn gain an absolutely unique experience of priestly life in their first-ever calls. Our summer youth camp for kids – Camp Canterbury – continues to be a deeply joyful and authentic experience of Christian community for our youth. And the camp has grown so much over the last few years that we may soon be facing the challenge of too many kids wanting to spend a summer week learning more about Jesus (a challenge we shall be happy to meet!)
And not incidentally – remember a year ago when I reported that the larger Episcopal Church had released its data about church giving and attendance across our denomination? Last year, it seemed like a miracle to be able to report that Nebraska was the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the Episcopal Church. Well – you did it again! Of those 111 dioceses of our world-wide Episcopal Church, there were exactly 12 that measured increased attendance when the stats came out earlier this fall, and once again the Diocese of Nebraska was counted as a member of that distinguished group. For the second year running, we grew. We grew.
Let me say as I did last year that every one of you – no matter the size, shape or health of your church family – contributes to that impressive statistic. Every time you come to worship on a Sunday morning – every time you invite a friend to come and see something that’s happening at church – you play your part in helping us to grow. Keep up the good work!
Just a little later on this morning, we are going to consider two resolutions that appear on page 17 in your yellow book. These are the edited articles of our diocesan Constitution that we worked on at last year’s annual council to re-organize our governance structure. We eliminated our Executive Commission, and re-structured the Bishop & Trustees of the diocese to allow for fuller elected representation across the spectrum of our diversity around life experience, talents, Nebraska geography and all the rest. One of the rules of our polity as that when we are adopting a change to our Constitution, two Annual Council’s running need to vote for exactly the same change. I want you to know that I am very enthusiastic about the re-structuring we’ve accomplished, and that I do encourage your vote to affirm the work we did last year without amendment. I’m confident that we’ll be a more efficient, representative, and harder working governance team once this change is made.
Finally – I want to acknowledge your diocesan staff, and all of you.
Many of you have visited our diocesan offices over the course of this past year. There, you will find a group of both full and part-time people who are not only hard working and conscientious employees, but are deeply committed followers of Jesus and earnest friends one with another. I am sure that if you’ve ever walked through our doors, you were met with a smile, encouraged with a prayer and witness to a little community that actually endeavors to be the Church first and foremost. I am so grateful for the support and companionship of Kyle Smith, Lachisha Baskin, James Dowd, Beth Byrne, and Canon Liz Easton. They make coming to work a joy every day, and they work hard serving all of you with extraordinary faithfulness and commitment.
And last of all – to all of you gathered here this morning, who are representative of 53 church communities planted all over the 77,000 square miles of this state and composed of the several thousand women, men, and children who have committed themselves to be a part of the Episcopal Church in this time and place. To watch you, to work with you, and to serve you is just an extraordinary blessing. The determination and labor you bring to the project of loving each other is a powerful witness of the reconciling love of Christ. The commitment and pride you bring to the task of caring for your communities and serving your neighbors is an inspirational act of discipleship. And the hope with which you face the challenges of this moment is nothing less than an act of extraordinary faith in God’s providence … and God’s grace.
It is a privilege and a blessing to stand with you in this time and place. Thank you for all that you do and all that you give and all that you are.
Submitted this 26th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2018,
In the City of Gering
+The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Easter Day – Year B
And Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was [him.]
– From the Gospel According to St. John
I know that you carry a lot of extra stuff with you into the church on Easter morning. Some of it can seen: fancy dresses, new shoes, great hats, cards and gifts and candy, the skeptical friend or relative, a check for the church … a posy. But the biggies – the stuff we carry here with us today that is really substantial – are all the invisible things that we bring here with us.
Like any great holy day: Christmas, a wedding anniversary or a birthday – we greet this day and come to this place with a ton of memories. I remember dazzling Easter outfits to celebrate this day, including my first ever necktie – a snazzy red, white & blue striped clip-on – that was part of an ensemble Johnny Whitaker peddled to his young fans in about 1971. I remember dying eggs, and how those tiny grey and brown tablets would dissolve into brilliant, shimmering glasses of pure color, a rainbow on the kitchen counter, that made the house smell like vinegar for a whole day. I remember long Easter egg hunts both in and out-of-doors and how I used to beg my mom to give me hints about where to look, because she and dad hid the eggs too well. One year in response to my pleas she told me to “go blow your nose” about ten times, before I realized that that was the hint! The egg was in the bathroom tissue box.
My memories beyond childhood shift to church and the dinner table. I remember serving the altar as a high school kid and always feeling welcome in that work even though I was prone to asking snotty questions of the priests and to wearing bright purple sneakers that poked out from under my acolyte robes. I remember my first Easter in college – and having to find a phone book and call all around town to figure out where an Episcopal church might be and at what time they might be worshipping on Sunday morning.
I remember seminary, and gathering around our apartment table to which each of our best friends brought the Easter dish from home that they missed the most. Nathan brought “butterhorn” rolls from Maine and Lisa brought chicken curry from Dallas and Sara brought a lamb-shaped cake from Chicago covered with coconut for white fur and adorned with a single red jellybean for a great bulging eye. We all come this day with such memories. A potent brew from the past that we carry with us all the time. Memories of which we are particularly cognizant on a holy day like this.
We shoulder a lot of hope on Easter too – lugging it into this place and to all the different gatherings to which we may travel later on today. Our hopes run the gamut. For some of us, it’s all we dare to imagine that we’ll get through the day without some calamity rearing up in the hours ahead. Some of us will be happy if the new Easter pants don’t get ripped in the churchyard after the service, if Uncle John can just restrain himself from drinking so much wine at dinner that he starts insulting everybody, if the weather holds so that the drive back west on Interstate 80 isn’t awful. Some of us hope for more than just averting disaster. Maybe Tom will make the connection in Pittsburgh and make it to brunch after all. Maybe the weather will stay nice and the yard will dry out and the kids will be able to run around outside a little bit. Maybe dad will feel well enough to come to the table and sit with us…
Maybe the sermon won’t be too long!
We shoulder a lot of hope on a day like this – we lug it around this place and everywhere we’ll go.
The other thing we carry around this Easter morning is pain. In these last few days around here, a boy took his own life and a beloved father died after a long illness. A wife filed for divorce and an old friend lost her car insurance. A dad is fighting cancer every day and a daughter has a bad cold. A business is failing, and a beloved teen is seriously messing up in school. And that’s just the stuff I happen to know about.
The truth is that it’s a rare human life that’s not touched by some kind of sadness or hurt at any given moment. If you have friends and if you are serious about trying to love others in your life, then you will be heartsick and blue on many days. Even Easter mornings.
We carry a lot of extra stuff with us into the church on Easter morning. Some visible. Some invisible. But we’ve definitely got our hands full.
We can only imagine that on that very first Easter Day – the one we heard about in this morning’s Gospel reading – Mary and Peter and the others, came to that tomb with their hands full too. They may have been carrying burial ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body which they’d been unable to do in their haste to get him into the grave before sunset on Friday night. They may have been carrying memories: of Passover celebrations from better times … of traveling, eating and serving on the road with their friend … of all the wise things he said and did in their short time together. They were certainly bearing some extraordinary pain. At the death of their friend. At the scary and tortured way in which he died. At their own failure to stand by him at the end: falling asleep in the Garden, denying him at the palace, even the awful knowledge that one of their own inner circle had betrayed him to the authorities.
And hope? Maybe. A little. Maybe they hoped the guards would leave them alone as they prepared Jesus’ body? Maybe the hoped the Sanhedrin would be satisfied with destroying Jesus, and would let his followers be? Maybe they hoped their old jobs would still be open when they returned to their homes? We can only imagine all that those disciples carried on that first Easter Day.
It’s a weird thing that happens when Mary meets the risen Jesus on that first Easter morn. I don’t know if you noticed what happened when we read that part of the story this morning? Mary is crying at the empty tomb and wondering whether someone has stolen Jesus body. And then, the story says:
She turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” And Jesus said to her, “Mary.” And she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni?”
How can this be? Mary was one of his best friends. She’d known him for years. You know what it’s like when somebody you love has just died – not recognize them if they rose from the dead and spoke to you? Good Lord that’s what we dream of in such moments. That’s what we yearn for with every fiber of our being.
Partly Mary is surely overwrought and overburdened. Her load is too great and she is too saddened and too frazzled to she what’s happened. But more that that: Mary does not recognize Jesus because he is changed. Jesus has been transformed somehow by the experience of living and dying and rising from the dead. Jesus is not the man he was! Like a reticent church-goer who gets talked into going on a mission trip and comes back a whole different woman. Like a gravely ill man who fights his way out of the hospital and back to health only to discover that all his priorities are different now … the risen Jesus is changed. He is not easy to recognize. And that is still true today.
He’s here beloved! Right here in our midst in this little old church on this Easter Day. But like Mary we come here carrying to much stuff that we may be too burdened and frazzled to know him when we see him. With so many preoccupations and expectations and pains and burdens and regrets and “should haves” and shame. And so much sadness. And so many hopes and dreams and expectations grounded in nothing but fantasy, maybe we’re distracted from the amazing truth: he is risen. He is alive. And he is present in this particular holy and transforming moment. He is with us in this right now.
Some years ago I heard an Episcopal priest preach about resurrection at the Washington National Cathedral. Father Andrew Wyatt said in part that belief in the resurrection happens by faith:
Not what is asserted against reason as an act of will, but what lifts us into just and compassionate strength when reason can take us no further…
This is the realm of hope. Not what is wished for to escape our sullen despair, but what is affirmed as even now becoming true before we perceive it…
This is the realm of love. Not what is bartered in the marketplace of personal desire, but the promotion and protection of each other far beyond mere justice … whose cost to our self is not even notice in our good will and active delight in all God’s cherished and fragile creatures.
Christ is risen. And he can be present for us, and ours lives can be changed way beyond our hopes and dreams, if we but have the eyes of faith to look for him here.
He is risen when we gather in church parish halls every Sunday, welcoming strangers like long lost brothers and sisters, with coffee and treats and an earnest desire to connect with each other and support one another in a way that will make life better.
He is risen in our schools & workplaces when we make amends with someone we’ve hurt: when we summon the grace and courage to face our fault and say we’re sorry and set aside our self righteousness and petty need to always be right and always look good.
He is risen at our bedsides, when we have the faith to pray. When we remember to credit thank God for the great blessings of our lives. And perhaps even more, when we somehow find it in our hearts to pray in the worst moments of our lives.
He is risen when we can smile and laugh with a dying loved one at their sick bed. He is risen when we shout “Alleluia” on a funeral day.
He is risen when we come to the altar rail every Sunday. When we kneel down, and bow our heads, and dare to hope that plain old bread and plain old wine really could be transformed in this place … really could become for us food with power to nourish us like nothing we’ve tasted before, giving us forgiveness of our sins, strength in our weakness and everlasting salvation.
He is risen right here and right now. And he is calling you by name. Mary, Debbie, Sarah and Michael. Anne and John and Andy and Doug. Kurt and Melissa and Teresa and Dan. Chase and Joe and Rosanne and Ethel.
He is calling us by name every one, inviting us to let go of everything that keeps us from knowing him, and loving him, and being with him today and every day. He’s calling us by name and inviting us to see what happens when we look through the eyes of faith, and join our voices with angels and archangels and saints and martyrs and all the company of heaven, shouting out the news for which we long … for which we live: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
+ Bishop Barker
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Shape of Water.*
In this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the more memorable lines was from Pakistani-American comedian (and Best Original Screenplay nominee) Kumail Nanjiani, who in a montage about increasing diversity in Hollywood said “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” In a time when it feels like certain demographics of Americans are all but at war with others, Nanjiani reminds us that isn’t difficult to view another person’s story and identify with them even if they do not look like you. The popularity of Wonder Woman and Black Panther demonstrate that a well-told superhero movie can resonate with a wide audience (including white males) even when it’s white women or Black people who can most easily see themselves in the protagonist and the white dudes are reduced to supporting roles.
This year’s Best Picture winner, however, takes Nanjiani’s line a step further, not only decentering the straight white dude but laying bare his sins. The Shape of Water is often described as a modern fairy tale, telling the love story between a mute cleaning lady and the fish-man being experimented on at the lab where she works in 1962 Baltimore; although the film incorporates elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of those genres. The Shape of Water is best understood as a mid-century creature feature remade with a contemporary eye: there is nothing in the movie to suggest that the villain wouldn’t have been the hero if it were made fifty or sixty years ago.
Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, comes to the lab with what’s referred to as the asset, an amphibious humanoid that he captured in South America; his military superiors hope that the asset’s physiology will yield knowledge allowing the United States to regain the advantage in the space race with the Soviet Union. Strickland bears all the hallmarks of a Cold War protagonist: straight, white, male, with a successful military record and a good home life, and never questioning that he is the hero of his story. He self-identifies as “decent,” and makes genial small talk with the help. He has a comfortable, fairly new house in the suburbs where he lives with his lovely wife and well-behaved children. He is Christian (of an unspecified background) and cites the Bible in the course of his work. He is dedicated to his job, and if he seems too suspicious of the scientists or cruel to the asset, his hatred of the Russians and violent history with the creature readily excuse him.
But writer/director Guillermo del Toro exposes the dark realities of such white masculinity that Cold War movies usually ignored. Strickland’s small talk is crude, and by casually discussing urination habits with two cleaning ladies, he is at best exhibiting extreme tone-deafness and at worst committing sexual harassment. He treats his wife and children as objects, and propositions the mute cleaning lady in the hopes of fulfilling his fantasy to have sex while the woman is totally silent (which definitely is sexual harassment, and of a particularly concerning sort because of the power differential between the characters). The only evidence of his religion is when he cites Genesis to identify the asset as an affront to creation and the story of Samson and Delilah to intimidate a cleaning lady in her own home; if his faith taught him to love his neighbor at all, he only does so within a very limited definition of ‘neighbor.’ He gladly shoots and tortures not just the asset but several people after his superior reminds him that the only “decency” they care about is not screwing up.
As a straight white dude, The Shape of Water thus presents a twofold challenge. First, to get into the story I must empathize with two women (one mute, the other Black), a gay man, an undercover Russian, and a fish-man. At this point, I’ve enjoyed sufficient entertainments with protagonists who don’t resemble me that this isn’t really difficult, except insofar as I forget that it’s still unusual for folks who aren’t straight white dudes to watch protagonists to whom they can readily relate. The second, harder challenge is to accept that not only does the villain look like me but everything he does would be considered acceptable and heroic by straight white dudes of his time, and indeed there are many straight white dudes today who would consider Strickland a hero for his military service and obedience, stable home life, Christian decency, and enmity toward Russians and inhuman creatures.
All of this is relevant because straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church today face the same two challenges. In the past forty years, we have grown increasingly comfortable with clergy who are homosexual, female, and/or come from non-Caucasian racial and ethnic backgrounds, and I hope and believe that most straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church have no problem seeing those who do not resemble them as their pastors and priests. But there is still much work to do, both in promoting full equality (for example, increasing the number of female bishops and eliminating the pay gap between male and female priests) and in fully incorporating children of God across less-well-trod lines of difference (such as those who are transsexual, gender-nonconforming, or facing physical disabilities).
With regard to some of the ways straight white dudes have acted as villains in the past, the Episcopal Church (and some Dioceses, parishes, and other institutions thereof) has already begun the hard work of listening as those sins are named, identifying and recognizing those whose voices were disregarded in the past, and crafting policy to address such problems going forward. Right now, for example, the University of the South is studying how its sinful racist history is encoded on its campus and considering how the work of racial reconciliation might progress. But there is much of this work still to do, and it is painful both to tell and to hear. In January, the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies issued a joint letter calling the Episcopal Church to examine and repent of our history of sexual harassment and discrimination. At the end of February, the President of the House of Deputies appointed a special committee (including two Nebraska clergy among the forty-seven members) to draft legislation for this summer’s General Convention considering gender in our theological language, addressing gender inequality in pay and benefits, and creating a truth and reconciliation process to bring our sexist sins into the light of God’s truth, among other things.
Such processes invite straight white dudes in the Church to listen to those who have been disregarded, to loose our historical grip on power, and to empathize with those who differ from us. It takes a certain mental flexibility to relate to stories that differ so greatly from our own, and a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude to hear of the sins committed by folks who look and perhaps think like us without becoming defensive, but as Kumail Nanjiani reminded us, it shouldn’t be that hard, especially when we do so with God’s help.
The Rev. John Adams
Many congregations participated in the learning of Invite*Welcome*Connect, led by ministry founder and director, Mary Parmer, the first weekend of March. We generated a plethora of ideas and ideas for our congregations on how to invite people into our midst, how to greet them with hospitality once they are present, and how to engage them in the ministries and programs of our congregations. Then, we came home.
At St. Andrew’s we have held an organizational meeting on Palm Sunday lead by Sharon Kryger (email@example.com), chair of IWC for our congregation. The group watched a video from Mary Parmer to remind us of the purpose of this ministry, and to acquaint those who could not be with us for the learning. Following the video, the group broke into three teams – INVITE, WELCOME, CONNECT. Each team identified short term goals, some with deadlines. And each team has a convener who will call the next meeting.
So, now what?
Below are a few suggestions you might want to consider for your “next steps.”
- Invite as many people as you can to be involved with IWC. We used small notebooks for folks to sign up. It’s a good chance practicing the invite part of our ministry.
- Get together for a “pep rally.” The videos and resources on the IWC site are open source. Use them liberally! invitewelcomeconnect.com. The overview video can be found here: (http://www.invitewelcomeconnect.com/menu-1-3/). Show this to your teams. Get them excited.
- Break into small groups by interest area – INVITE, WELCOME, CONNECT. No fewer than 2 -3 in a group. Remember, Jesus sent the disciples 2 by 2 into the world. This is NOT a solo ministry! This is the “agenda” we used for our first meeting at St. Andrew’s:
- Add to Ideas
- Prioritize Ideas
- Identify the low Hanging fruit
- First steps
- Longer term Projects
- Down the road…
- Complete charts
- Look at the ideas that were generated at the seminar. If you didn’t attend, please refer to the resources on the IWC site – there are checklists and TONS of ideas. What are you already doing? What can you implement easily? Where is the low-hanging fruit for your congregation?
- Give yourself one or two things that you can accomplish between Easter and Pentecost. Assign someone to be the lead for the initiative(s) and a team to help implement. Identify something doable – don’t go for a complete system overhaul right now!
- Do it!
I know Bishop Barker would like to hear what successes you have in your congregations as a result of your work with IWC. Mary would definitely like to hear your stories! If you have a story to share, please consider putting it on video (your camera phone is fine!) and sending it to me. I will forward it to Mary.
Blessings in your work. Please let us know what you need to keep the momentum high.
The Rev. Diane M Pike firstname.lastname@example.org 402-391-1950
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Omaha
A week ago, those of us who observe Ash Wednesday and want to encourage others to practice those things that give us a holy beginning to Lent were wondering how much of a shadow Valentine’s Day would cast over the beginning of Lent in the greater culture. What would people be thinking about Wednesday evening — hearts and flowers, or the beginning of our forty day wilderness journey? By evening, though, the nation’s focus was on yet another in a series of horrible acts of violence, this one a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed seventeen people. Once again, American children were killed at school. Once again, our nation’s leaders were big on thoughts and prayers but not so interested in talking about what substantial policy changes they proposed to help protect our children from deadly violence at school.
We are in the wilderness, and not just the figurative wilderness of our Lenten journey. We are lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and frightening. Taken as a group, the adults of our nation have forsaken our responsibilities to our children. We have said we love our nation’s children even as we allow greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins to keep us from having policies such as those in other nations that would make our public places, including our schools, much safer places for children.
That we Americans allow sin to keep us from protecting our children is no new revelation, of course. We have been in the wilderness a long time, watching global temperatures rise along with concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere while greed and sloth and probably several other deadly sins keep our leaders from developing policies that could mitigate the effects of climate change.
Much has been made of the hollowness of “thoughts and prayers” without action after events like mass shootings. Prayers of confession and repentance, though, necessarily result in action. Truly changed hearts result in truly changed lives. Truly changed hearts in our nation’s adults would produce genuine love that would not let sin get in the way of protecting our children. That said, we as a culture are far from that point of conversion. So long as a short-sighted desire for a perceived private gain trumps any impulse toward the public good in the hearts of voters and the people they choose to develop our public policies, we will remain in the wilderness.
At its best, the wilderness is a place where so much is stripped away that we see ourselves as we are — our sins along with the gift of being beloved children of God — and repent. This is why many Christians choose some sort of discipline for Lent that echoes the wilderness experience; that wilderness experience can bring us closer to God when it results in penitent hearts. When we see clearly who we are and the things that tempt us and then choose to turn our backs on the temptations, we are ready to leave the wilderness.
But some of us won’t even acknowledge that we are in the wilderness. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of our situation, if we pretend that we can continue living as we do and putting our sinful desires before our love of God and our neighbors — including our children — we will remain stuck in the wilderness, lost in a place that is empty and disorienting and, if only we would let ourselves feel it, frightening.
This week, much of our nation was shaken by yet another school shooting. This week also the Bering Sea lost a shocking amount of sea ice, something that should not be happening at all in February. The upshot of these big changes in the Arctic region is that changes in the Arctic create changes in weather patterns further south that promise to be very disruptive. An unstable Arctic means an unstable planet, and an unstable planet means a terrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.
We are in the wilderness. Some of us want to do what we must to get out of the wilderness, and some of us don’t care enough about ourselves or others to even tell ourselves the truth about where we are. Our work is to do our own work of repentance, and then take the news — both the news of the reality of our situation on earth and the good news of repentance and restoration — to others.
For everyone this year, not just observant Christians, Ash Wednesday revealed just how far astray we have gone. Jesus calls us back to the discipline of love that will make all the difference in how we live.
Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennet
You can follow Archdeacon Betsy’s Green Sprouts blog at https://nebraskagreensprouts.blogspot.com/
As an at least somewhat politically aware American, I frequently have thoughts (and come across the thoughts of others) about the relationship between Christianity and the United States of America. One of the most prevalent of these thoughts is the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation,” which depending on whose thoughts I’m reading might mean that our governmental structures are products of (European) Christian tradition, or our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian values,” or the United States is meant to be led by Christians and for Christians, or God chose this nation to bring the divine light to a benighted world, by force if necessary. I find it noteworthy that I have yet to encounter a real argument for the thought that the United States is a Christian nation because it’s the government and society Jesus would have organized. That in turn raises an always interesting thought experiment: what would a truly Christian society, something that would lead Jesus to say “yeah, that’s my Kingdom,” look like today?
The obvious answer is to study the Acts of the Apostles (which I hope we all will be doing this April and May with the Good Book Club), but I find it very challenging to imagine how that earliest church might practically translate into contemporary society. For example, among the earliest disciples in Jerusalem, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32), and that has worked reasonably well for some small, self-contained communes, but not for large nations.
I recently finished the novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. Although it is not talking about a Christian society (and, indeed, does not include a Christian perspective even when people achieve something like immortality by digitally recording their brains), I nonetheless find it a very provocative contributor to this thought experiment. Walkaway is set in a near future where the problem of wealth and power accumulating in the hands of a select few is even more pronounced than it is now and 3D printing has evolved to the point where whole buildings can be fabricated from readily available materials. In such a world, Doctorow imagines increasing numbers of people walking away from their default reality, abandoning dead-end jobs or chronic unemployment, debts and taxes, property and possessions to live in the unpopulated wilderness. The walkaways operate in a post-scarcity economy: by ignoring intellectual property rights around the plans for printing buildings, furniture, food, medicine, and everything else, everyone’s basic survival needs are met and at least some communal comfort is provided without one person’s needs coming at another’s expense. The rich periodically send forces to attack walkaway settlements, killing or arresting those who do not flee, in an attempt to discourage others from walking away and further eroding their power base.
In one of the book’s most compelling scenes, the woman who’s done the most work toward operating a walkaway tavern/boardinghouse returns from the woods to find that another group of walkaways have arrived and begun to reorganize the establishment as a meritocracy (that food, beds, and comforts are doled out according to the work a person does rather than being given freely to all). Their leader, who had previously argued with her about this subject while living there, hopes that she will either accept their changes (under which she easily ranks as the hardest worker) or fight them for control. Instead, she announces her intention to walk away, telling him “You’ve made it clear that you’re so obsessed with this place that you’ll impose your will on it. You have shown yourself to be a monster. When you meet a monster, you back away and let it gnaw at whatever bone it’s fascinated with. There are other bones. We know how to make bones. We can live like it’s the first days of a better world, not like it’s the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Have this place, but you can’t have us. We withdraw our company.” Like the apostles in Acts 4, she and the friends who join her have concluded that people are more important than property and they will always sacrifice property in order to benefit everyone.
What makes Doctorow’s society of walkaways particularly striking is its willingness, in the name of building a better world, to discard ideas about society that I take for granted: that money is a necessary medium of exchange and store of wealth, that a relationship (even if it’s only fictive) exists between merit and power, that competition between people is necessary for societal improvement, that some manner of coercive force is needed to maintain order, that my specialness entitles me to more than you. The resulting society includes a number of features that might fit a Christian nation better than anything in America currently: the behavior of giving people what they need without considering whether they can afford it or do something to earn it (Luke 6:30), the refusal to wield guns or lethally defend property (Matthew 26:52), the mentality that there is an abundance if only we can trust each other to share it rather than hoard it (John 10:10), the understanding that common values are of more importance than common nationality (Galatians 3:28).
In all this, there might well be a contemporary blueprint for following the example of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) or the seventy disciples (Luke 10:4), walking away from the only society we’ve ever known without bag or sandals in order to follow our Lord, but I’m certainly not advocating that (or prepared to do it myself). However, thinking about the juxtaposition of Walkaway and Jesus’ teachings does make me wonder if things that have been part of the United States from the beginning, like our monetary system, our understanding of private property, or our personal and corporate notions of defense, might be actively holding us back from being a truly Christian nation. As one character in the book observes, drawing from game theory, if you expect your neighbor to answer the door with a gun, you’re likely to answer the door with a gun yourself, and vice versa, but that same feedback loop also applies when offering a casserole. As Doctorow put it, “You get the world you hope for or the world you fear – your hope or your fear makes it so.” What fears might we walk away from, in order to be a more recognizably Christian nation?
The Rev. John Adams
When we had kids at home, we used to draw household chores every week. There were eight jobs in the rotation, each written on a little slip of paper we kept in a basket in the kitchen. On Saturday mornings, every member of the family would draw two slips of paper out of the basket. They might say “Vacuum stairs,” “Kitchen” (which meant wiping down and moping the kitchen or “Dog Poop” – you can pretty much guess what that one’s about.) It was a good system because it was fair: over time, everybody drew equally both the easy jobs and the tough ones.
My least favorite chore was “Up Bath.” Whoever drew that chore had to clean the upstairs bathroom top to bottom: tub, toilet, sink, floors – the whole deal. In theory, I didn’t so much mind cleaning the bathroom. I could handle the week-in-week-out family messes. What made that job difficult was the light. The “Up Bath” was the brightest room in our house, and when the sun shone through the window, and all the bathroom lights were on, on Saturday morning, you could see everything. I’m not talking about just the ring in the tub or the soapy stuff on the edge of the sink. I’m talking about the fingerprints on the switch plate where we all felt around in the dark to turn on the light. I’m talking about the mousy little clumps of dust that would get lodged in the deep corners of the room and in the tiny cracks between the quarter-round along the baseboard and the linoleum floor. I’m talking about the tiny streaks on the mirror that appeared after you hit it with the Windex to make the big streaks go away. That bright light in the Up Bath revealed a whole lot of messiness in that room … messiness which needed to be absolutely attacked in order to do the job right.
The truth I know is that to this very day, there are lots of places in our house where such small messes and modest dirty spots are located. It’s just that usually we do not see them. They appear gradually (like those fingerprints at certain spots on the walls and rails), and because they accumulate bit by bit over time, we just don’t notice them as they gradually build up. They are often located in the hidden parts of the house or a room (like the dust bunnies in those deep corners), and so if you don’t go looking for them, you will never see them. Some of those messes we actually choose not to see. If I let it register that there is a leaf just barely poking out of the high gutter over the driveway, then I’ll have to also let it register that I have not cleaned our gutters since we moved into our new home. Way easier just not to think about that at all!
Lent is a housecleaning for our souls. A whole season of the Christian year devoted to straightening up the messes in our hearts, minds, and spirits where bad stuff has built up over time. We will use the ancient cleaning methods of penitence, confession, fasting, alms-giving, and self-discipline to let God fix what is messed up and broken with us, and thereby bring new hope, energy and life to our weary souls. The “soul messes” that we’re going after in this season are much like the house-messes that only appear in the bright light. We’ll go after those bad habits that appear gradually and build up over time like fingerprints on the switch plate: the stuff that starts small but multiplies over months and years to become debilitating and dangerous. We’ll go after those things that are “hidden” from the rest of the world – like the dirt in the dark corners of our homes. We will confess those sins that are committed only in our minds and hearts – and so are invisible to our neighbors. We will renounce those sins we commit in private – the stuff we’d never do in the bright light of our public lives. And we will do what we can to take on the stuff that is so big and bad we simply cannot bear to face it at all. The hard histories, shattered relationships, binding addictions and those other truly fearsome messes in our lives that we mostly deal with by not dealing with them at all, so great is our hopelessness of ever being healed and freed from them.
Let’s clean house this Lent. For real.
Maybe you’re a little scared, but don’t be. There is nothing you can confess that God does not already know. There is no sin so great that Christ does not have the power to forgive it.
Maybe you’re a little grumpy and tired. We get defensive and angry when we are convicted of our sins … but I guarantee you that letting God into your life to straighten up what’s out of whack will feel wonderful in the long run.
And maybe you just did not get organized yet about identifying the places in your life where you need God’s help to fix what is broken and to clean things up. No matter. Just start somewhere, and know that your effort to please God does, in fact, please God.
This season is about drawing our chores. We do so in the knowledge that as disciples beloved of Jesus we are ultimately forgiven and free. The work of this season is not about earning God’s favor or working our way into deeper relationship with God, but rather about shining the bright light of God’s love onto the totality of our beautiful but imperfect and ultimately sinful human lives … and giving God the chance through confession, penitence and the forgiving power of Jesus to transform us into whole new people, shining in the bright image of the God who made us.
A Blessed Lent to All!
+ Bishop Barker
Thursday, February 15, 2018
You have surely heard that yesterday another shooting took place in a school – I’m told the 18th time that has happened so far in the 45 days of 2018, or one every 2 ½ days. The emerging story seems to indicate that a young white man about 19 years old legally purchased an AR-15 and quite a bit of ammunition, went to his former school, pulled a fire alarm, and began firing. Actions on the ground may have prevented a worse catastrophe: a janitor redirected fleeing students to safety; a teacher literally took bullets for his students; “lock-down” procedures were used to shelter in place and lock doors. The alleged perpetrator temporarily fled by removing a gas mask and blending in with fleeing students before being arrested.
How does our faith respond?
Friends, since arriving here, I have written about shootings in my weekly reflections at least three times, and preached after several of the larger occasions. If I wanted to, I could find an example each week. Some colleagues in urban ministries name the victims each week in their Prayers of the People. It’s raw, and takes them time. Priests I know have suggested sermons to try to shock us from complacency with such acts as placing an AR-15 on the altar beside the Gospel book and asking which we shall worship. Organized groups in Chicago – a city often cited as a “failure of local gun control” – plead with elected officials for common federal rules and better inter-state enforcement, as an open-secret trade of un-background-checked handguns are bought at gun shows in Indiana, then sold from the trunks of cars to gangs in impoverished neighborhoods, continuing a cycle of violence, no matter how many guns real police work removes from the streets. The companies turn their profits, and turn a blind eye. They lobby elected officials to do the same, and match large campaign donations to that voice.
I am not anti-gun. Many of our members, and certainly many neighbors throughout this and other states, own weapons, and I have every reason to believe the majority of them do so responsibly. (And if you do own firearms and are not taking simple steps of registering them with the police, and securing them in a gun safe or with a trigger lock, so that they couldn’t be used in anger or by an overwhelmed young person who finds it, please take yesterday’s events for what they might always be: the final warning before it is your gun that is misused.)
How does our faith respond?
God has given us minds and the will to use them. When I think of these shootings, I’m aware of the criminology formula, “Opportunity + Motive + Means = Crime.” The opportunity seems constant: people will never cease gathering together, whether in schools or concerts or churches or baseball practice or campaign rallies outside shopping malls.
Part 2, Motive, is a common bogeyman: “Well, that was just one bad apple.” Or “That one was just ‘mentally ill.’” This is a frustrating pairing for the majority of those who manage mental illness perfectly reasonably, but even so, if mental illness is one part of the cause, let us address it, and support mental health research and treatment, especially for adolescents. If isolation is one cause, let us address it, and support school counselors and campaigns like the DARE officers, this time reminding our young people that they all need one another, and encouraging bonds of fellowship and respect. If you believe that motive was the deepest problem here, please call on your representatives to address it.
And let us also, finally, turn to part 3: “Means.”
Over and over again, the means is a gun. Polls show 80 or even 90% of Americans supporting universal background checks, but political officials balk, afraid they’ll lose funding or votes, or that this will be a “slippery slope” that might thereafter ban bump stocks or the AR-15 the way that tommy-guns were banned in the 1930’s. Other objections are raised: that a knife or a bomb or a car can kill. But we license drivers, and regulate fertilizer and monitor bomb-info websites, and a knife doesn’t kill 17 at a time. There are a number of things that can be done, all without preventing responsible gun ownership, which will also make a meaningful reduction in this national sin that has frozen us into inaction. You can educate yourself through Moms Against Gun Violence or Mother Jones or any number of groups, and call your representatives there, as well.
How else does our faith respond?
We pray. But if our prayer is that God will help us forget, so that we don’t experience the pain of these children who have died, or that we put out of our hearts and our minds the truth that our negligence has set a course such that our country is careening steadily towards the next dozen children who will be killed at school, the next score of concert-goers that will be shot from a window, the next domestic abuse that turns lethal because an angry man grabs the gun that his restraining order hasn’t prevented him from legally buying – then we are praying the wrong prayer.
Prayer is supposed to convict and convert us. Not to be “democrats” or “bleeding hearts” or “republicans.” Prayer is supposed to convert us to be better followers of Jesus.
Jesus said “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.” Jesus said “Two swords are enough” when Peter wanted to arm the disciples. Jesus did not call for angels to rescue him from the cross. When Roman soldiers taunted him, and a thief dared him, “Save yourself, and us!” Jesus instead offered a prayer: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But the suffering of Jesus is not there to tell us that we should seek a world full of suffering.
The suffering of Jesus is there to show us how terrible the consequences of sin are, when we do nothing to stop its advance. We who behold the crucifixion of Jesus are called to make the Resurrection of the world the calling of our lives. Today, that means repenting of the sins of negligence and indifference, and taking up the unpopular, courageous work of confronting the resistance to change.
The line doesn’t need to move dramatically: we don’t have to throw every gun into the ocean. But we need to stop this literal bleeding. And the God who calls us through Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves is calling us to join in this work, however carefully, on whichever front.
Pray, and hear what God asks of you, and go forth to do the work that you have been given to do.
The Reverend Benedict Varnum
Priest and Rector
St Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Elkhorn, NE
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge