Episcopalians throughout the diocese will celebrate a unique “Nebraska Liturgy” on Sunday, January 7, 2018 to mark the beginning of the diocesan sesquicentennial. In a letter to the diocese, the Right Reverend J. Scott Barker encouraged Nebraska Episcopalians “to raise their voice in beautiful common prayer to the glory of God in Christ, and in thanksgiving for this special place that we call home.”
The liturgy was created by a committee of clergy and laypersons, chaired by the Very Reverend Craig Loya, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Omaha. “The committee’s goal was to create a liturgy that celebrated our unique and rich heritage as Nebraska Episcopalians,” explained Loya.
Designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of congregations of all sizes, worship materials were developed to highlight both the sesquicentennial theme and the lectionary readings for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord. Members of the committee produced a collect, prayers of the people, blessing, and dismissal. Prayers for the day weave evocative historical and geographical images with the words of Nebraska authors and poets, including Willa Cather, Black Elk, John Neihardt, Ted Kooser, Mari Sandoz, Kent Haruf, and Charles Fort.
Nebraska hymn poet, Rae E. Whitney, composed a new hymn for the sesquicentennial celebration, “Sing God’s praise, Episcopalians!” Paired with a familiar tune (Stuttgart), the hymn is designed to be accessible for all congregations. An alternative version which can be sung throughout the sesquicentennial year is also available for general use.
For parishes with choirs or vocal ensembles, a newly published anthem by the Reverend William Bradley Roberts is available. The anthem, “Christ When for Us You Were Baptized” is downloadable from St. James Music Press (www.sjmp.com) at no cost, and parishes may make as many copies as needed. A downloadable recording is also available. “A common anthem allows us to create a virtual diocesan choral festival, with choirs singing together across Nebraska,” noted Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor at Trinity Cathedral. “Although we are separated by vast distances, music draws us together and celebrates our common bond of service as Episcopal church musicians.”
All liturgical materials, including music, and detailed information are available online at http://q150.episcopal-ne.org/the-nebraska-liturgy.html. Parishes are encouraged to download these materials now and use them on January 7th. The website also includes all necessary information regarding copyright permissions, including a license to reproduce one recommended hymn from Wonder, Love, and Praise, a supplement to The Hymnal 1982. Email links are provided for anyone seeking assistance in accessing or using the materials.
“We are spread out over a large and beautiful state, and we follow Jesus in vastly different ministry contexts,” stated Loya. “Our hope is that the Nebraska liturgy fosters our sense of common identity and shared mission as we move together into God’s future.”
Marty Wheeler Burnett, D.Min.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot of Blade Runner 2049.*
One of the fun things about having friends who watch the same kinds of movies you do is the dialogue that happens when two of you have different responses to the same film. Sometimes I love a movie and my conversational partner had some reservations (as with Wonder Woman, where two different interpretations of the killing of Ares within Diana’s moral arc led to my assertion that the movie had a good argument for best superhero film ever and my friend’s thought that it couldn’t claim much more than best DCEU movie). Sometimes we can argue about the reasons for a movie’s badness (would Suicide Squad have been most improved by more Joker or less?). Most interesting is when one person likes a movie for certain reasons and another dislikes it for a completely different set of reasons.
Such was the case in multiple discussions recently about Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 film about a cop hunting and retiring (killing) rogue replicants (robots who look and mostly act perfectly human). My problems with the film mostly related to the plot, which I found complex to the point of distraction and including a number of points of which I simply could not make sense. (To offer one example of a plothole that still bugs me, at one time a replicant working for an evil tycoon is seen stealing evidence from an LAPD station after having killed the lab technician. Later, the same replicant is in the same station, having a conversation with the officer supervising the investigation to which the stolen evidence was relevant. The replicant murders the officer before using her biometrics to access the case files, and again there’s no sign that anyone is aware of or concerned by the felonies the replicant is committing within a police station. The only somewhat convincing explanation I’ve heard is the implication that the LAPD is entirely in the tycoon’s pocket and thus all his employees have immunity, but if that’s the case, he could get the information without leaving bodies behind.)
Three different friends argued that I was looking at the movie the wrong way, that even if I found the plot too confusing and open-ended, I should still be focusing on the film’s virtues. Technically, the film is gorgeous, with every frame’s look crafted to perfection, and any awards it gets for cinematography, production design, and visual effects will be well-deserved. Thematically, Blade Runner 2049 addresses that core human problem of othering: the replicants are not considered people despite being human in both appearance and behavior, and are socially (though not economically) the lowest of the low on earth and used as slave labor on other worlds. The protagonist, K, is a replicant who hunts and retires older model replicants that lack the obedience programmed into newer models, and we see him wrestling with the fact that he is an artificial intelligence who makes a living by destroying other AIs. His relationship with his boss at the LAPD is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has tried, across a power differential, to cultivate genial personal relations with someone from a completely different background (racial, social, economic, or otherwise); even the best-intentioned question can prove extremely awkward. K has a romantic relationship with an entirely holographic AI; although she cannot physically interact with him, their romance is by far the most human interaction between any of the movie’s characters. A scene in an orphanage that bugged me because it ultimately serves no purpose in the plot and adds to an overlong runtime is, in fact, critical: while this huge warehouse is filled with unwanted human children being worked like slaves, K and the evil tycoon are racing (and the latter killing) to find the child of a replicant. Although believed to impossible, if a replicant bore a child it would upend the understanding that replicants were neither human nor alive but also give the tycoon the technology to allow his slave empire to reproduce and thus expand exponentially; the contrast in value between one non-human child and hundreds of human children is startling. My friends’ point is that, if I stop being so concerned with the trees of the plot and start attending to the thematic forest, I’ll find a whole lot to like in Blade Runner 2049.
I hope that those themes suggest many things about how we as Christians might identify and heed the humanity of the dehumanized, interact with our neighbors from radically different backgrounds, and critique the values our society puts on different sorts of human lives. But my purpose in relating these conversations is less about the themes of Blade Runner 2049 and more about the plot-focused way I initially approached it.
Like many folks who were raised in the church, my early exposure to the Bible was mostly through Sunday School stories, some of which get regularly addressed in adult church (Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand) and some of which don’t, at least in my experience (Samson or David and Goliath). As you might imagine, I was the sort of child who poked at the holes in the story (if Adam and Eve had no daughters, how did their sons have children?), but I was also the sort of child who struggled to reconcile some of these stories with what my parents and priest told me was the main idea of the Bible: God loves us and wants us to love God and each other. How does wiping out almost all life on earth in a flood or slaughtering the inhabitants of Jericho fit into God’s love?
As I got older, such discrepancies became more evident in the behavior of Jesus’ followers. Just as I got so hung up on the murders in the LAPD that I missed the deeper themes of the film, in college I realized that, with regard to homosexuality, I was so focused on a few Bible verses (whose meaning is more ambiguous than I thought) that I was completely neglecting the ways that loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies might apply. In history classes, it became obvious that, although genocide does not fit with the command to love that weaves throughout the canon, crusaders, conquistadores, and cowboys had nonetheless seized on the plot point of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land to justify slaughtering the native populations of territory they coveted. Because loving God, one another, and oneself is very difficult in practice, we who give the Bible authority in our lives often find it easier to seize on plot details that might offer us exceptions to the commandment, and many reject Christianity entirely because they focus on such hateful stories rather than the overarching theme of love.
So as we read Holy Scripture, I wonder what we’re taking away from it. Are we modeling our lives around recurring themes like mercy, justice, and love? Are we taking our cue from a few plot points that make us feel most comfortable, at the risk of being distracted from the larger themes? Or are we rejecting the whole thing because we’re stuck in the plotholes?
The Rev. John Adams
Eternal God, our maker and redeemer, grant us, with all the faithful departed, the sure benefits of your Son’s saving passion and glorious resurrection that, in the last day, when you gather up all things in Christ, we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
ALLIANCE, St. Matthew’s
Kathryn Lyon Graham
ARAPAHOE, St. Paul’s
BASSETT, St. Mary’s
BEATRICE, Christ Church
BELLEVUE, Holy Spirit
Mary “Trudy” Conley
BLAIR, St. Mary’s
BROKEN BOW, St. John’s
CENTRAL CITY, Christ Church
CHARDON, Grace Church
Linda Bartlett Lonzo
M. Irene Robinson Perreten
Terry Ross Cogdill
COLUMBUS, Grace Church
COZAD, St. Christopher’s
CREIGHTON, St. Mark’s
CRETE, Trinity Memorial
DE WITT, St. Augustine’s
ELKHORN, St. Augustine
FALLS CITY, St. Thomas
FREMONT, St. James
GORDON, St. Mark’s
GRAND ISLAND, St. Stephen’s
HARRISBURG, Good Shepherd
HARVARD, St. John’s
HASTINGS, St. Mark’s Pro Cathedral
HOLDREGE, St. Elizabeth’s
HYANNIS, Calvary Church
KEARNEY, St. Luke’s
KIMBALL, St. Hilda’s
LEXINGTON, St. Peter’s
LINCOLN, Church of the Holy Trinity
Mary Jean Andrews
LINCOLN, St. David’s
LINCOLN, St. Mark’s on the Campus
LINCOLN, St. Matthew’s
Kathleen Mary Sewell
McCOOK, St. Alban’s
Michael C. Connely
Sherrel Lou Adams
Nancy S. Haller
MITCHELL, Holy Apostles
Julie Ann Edwards
MULLEN, St. Joseph’s
NEBRASKA CITY, St. Mary’s
NORFOLK, Trinity Church
Charles F. Parks
Charles Robert Hales
Wanda M. Mosier
Mahlon (Rudy) Nuttelmann
NORTH PLATTE, Our Savior
Byron O. Neiman
Merle F. Axford
Barbara Ann Johnson
Betty R. Levine
Dean G. Candea
Beatrice M Ugai
Catherine “Katy” Varicak
OGALLALA, St. Paul’s
OMAHA, All Saints
OMAHA, Church of the Resurrection
Virginia M. Fulton
Craig Thomas Reisser
OMAHA, St. Andrew’s
Lorene “Rene” Reed
James L. Johnson Sr.
OMAHA, St. Martin of Tours
OMAHA, Trinity Cathedral
OSHKOSH, St. George’s
PAPILLION, St. Martha’s
Logan Edward Sueper
Betty B. Proctor
PLATTSMOUTH, St. Luke’s
RUSHVILLE, St. Mary’s Holly
John Frank Wheeler
Kathryn Lyon Graham
SCOTTSBLUFF, St. Francis
SEWARD, St. Andrew’s
SIDNEY, Christ Church
TECUMSEH, Grace Church
VALENTINE, St. John’s
Priests Deceased Since Last Council
The Rev. Lyle F. Martin
The Rev. Phillip E. Chapman
The Rev. Don Overton
Deacons Deceased Since Last Council
(The following is Rev. Mavis Hall’s presentation of the Bishop’s Cross at Annual Council to The Very Reverend Catherine Scott.)
I have the privilege of introducing this year’s clergy Bishop’s Cross award recipient. This person is someone I have looked up to as a mentor and friend for many years. Someone who helped me navigate the ups and downs of the ordination process, offering me invaluable encouragement and advice, born from personal experience.
Quiet and unassuming, with a sly wit, this person has been a valuable asset to the Diocese of Nebraska for over 20 years. Arriving here in 1995, this person first served at St. Matthew’s Church in Lincoln, and then moved on to serve as the Rector of St. Luke’s in Plattsmouth and as the Ministry Development Coordinator for the Diocese, working tirelessly to provide congregations across the Diocese with the tools and opportunities to seek new ways of expanding their ministries.
This person then went on to serve the Church of the Holy Trinity in Lincoln and finally as the first female Dean of the Pro-Cathedral in Hastings.
Over the years she has served as a ground-breaking role model for all clergy, following her heart into ministry at a time when women were just beginning to be ordained and faithfully following Christ’s call throughout her career. And by doing so she touched innumerable lives over the years.
Most importantly, she has been a loving partner to her husband Bob, a supportive mother to her children, Nick, Christy, and Tom, and a doting grandmother.
I am pleased to present this year’s clergy Bishop’s Cross Award recipient, The Very Reverend Catherine Scott.
(The following is Fr. Benedict Varnam’s presentation of the Bishop’s Cross at Annual Council to Sandra Squires.)
Right Reverend Sir; members of the Annual Council; friends and family and visitors;
One of the greatest privileges that clergy experience is to have a set of tiny windows into lives that are so richly lived by the people in the communities we serve.
I am very happy to assist Bishop Barker in presenting here someone living that kind of rich life, who has truly taken up the commitments of our baptismal promises, especially the great love of neighbor that we commit to in our vows, to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being.
When Bishop Barker invited me to assist him in presenting this year’s recipient, he not only reminded me urgently of the secrecy of the award – and the great tradition of building only slowly to the revelation of who will receive it this year – but he also wrote about this year’s recipient in particular, that this person
“is and has been an extraordinarily faithful servant of Jesus and the Episcopal Church in innumerable capacities and over many, many years.”
But let’s try to enumerate the innumerable, just a bit.
Let me begin by saying this recipient is a faithful member of our congregation at St Augustine’s.
- This is someone whose life of prayer and presence at worship are visible and steady.
- This is someone who clearly cares about the people in our church family, and listens well over the conversations at coffee hour or after an event.
- This is someone who is faithful in encouraging others, in celebrating the joyous, in comforting the hurting, and in serving as a champion for those facing real challenge.
- This is someone who always notices the visitor or stranger in our church, and makes time to say hello and learn more about them.
This person sees the needs in our community, often bringing to my attention someone who is quietly struggling and might need a visit. And I have also seen the impact of our recipient’s own work offering comfort and support to members of our church and members of our diocese. This is faithful companionship in the holiest tradition of Christian community: to walk with others through the hardest parts of their journeys.
I have also rarely seen someone this dedicated to personal growth and study. Although possessing several degrees in a rich field of study, this person continues to read, to attend adult formation studies, and to reflect with me and others on the texts from Sunday, the content of sermons, and books, DVD lessons, and other work.
Our recipient also understands that there is a natural political life to any group of organized people, but who has been able to look at that political life within the church, and see in it not a place for gossip, not a possibility for self-promotion, but rather the opportunity for us to do more together, as Christ’s Body the Church, than we could accomplish as individual persons or individual parishes.
That has been true in our parish; that has been true in our diocese; that has been true in a professional career; and that has been true in work done with national groups.
Let me speak about our recipient’s professional career, spent in a field that was dedicated to others. This work celebrated diversity, and also engaged it honestly, asking hard questions about who was not part of the conversation and why. This work sought to help those who held power and authority understand the realities of those who did not.
The field of study was education, and our recipient holds a Doctorate in it, with special attention to older youth and adults with disabilities.
Throughout a career in education, this work also included teaching on special education administration, women’s studies, Native American studies, and human relations.
It is to her credit that she did not remain satisfied merely with teaching others on these topics, but also spent time challenging the enrollment structure at her own university, calling into question how they might ensure that opportunities to take up teaching as a career were presented in a way that promoted a diverse student body to be trained as the future leaders of higher education.
Suffice to say that her professional work was done with a set of commitments that we honor within the church: that Christ’s Body has many members, all of whom need one another.
But if you need further clues, let me tell you where you might have glimpsed her tireless, effective work closer at hand:
- Our recipient has steadily been a member of this Annual Council, offering her voice to the conversations we have here.
- Our recipient is an avowed member of the Daughters of the King, and regularly works with others throughout the Greater Omaha area.
- Our recipient has served in the Women’s Ministries of the Episcopal Church, including recently as a president for ECW of Province VI, and as a member of the Episcopal Church’s delegation this year to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
- And our recipient has faithfully served on the board of the United Thank Offering, currently as its president, in which role she not only convenes international conversations covering everything from creating a culture of gratitude to assigning particular grants, but also spent her time this week gathering table stands from St Augustine’s to borrow for this Council, so the resources of UTO wouldn’t have to be spent buying them up.
Our recipient is Sandra Squires, who fills her free time with gathering others into community and fellowship.
Our recipient is Sandra Squires, who made the work of her career the needs of those our world would rather not slow down long enough to consider.
Our recipient is Sandra Squires, who has given her time, talent, and being to a generation of young people who have grown up in this diocese.
Our recipient is Sandra Squires, who has over and over again taken up the responsibility of positions in our diocese, province, and national church in order to move us closer to God’s coming Kingdom.
And our recipient is Sandra Squires, who told me mere days ago that she knew long ago that she could do more ministry as a layperson than if she had become a member of the clergy.
She loves God; she loves neighbors:
Friends, please join me in honoring the ministries of Sandra Squires, well-deserving of this year’s Bishop’s Cross.
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – Matthew 22: 21
Well, given the challenges of loving one another across our political differences that I mentioned in this morning’s Annual Address, you can probably imagine how thrilled I was to see that the Gospel reading appointed for this occasion is precisely about the relationship between our Christian faith and our duties to the nation in which we live!
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This here is a trap. It’s a “gotcha” question in modern media parlance. Because the crowd Jesus is speaking to that day is a divided crowd. Some of them are basically in favor of what Caesar’s rule is up to and so are OK paying taxes to support the Empire, and the other bunch are opposed to Caesar’s claims to authority – divinity even – and so are roundly opposed to paying the taxes asked of them. Everybody listening that day expected Jesus to answer the question posed in such a way as to lend credibility and support to one side of this heated debate or the other. He’ll either support paying taxes and so tick off the Pharisees … or he will weigh in against paying taxes and so alienate the Herodians …
But either way, half his listeners are sure to head home pleased, while the other half will head home ticked off. Because it’s a gotcha question. It is a trap.
As is so often the case, Jesus utterly confounds the expectations of his listeners with his answer to the question posed that day. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
Both Caesar and God make valid claims on your life, says Jesus. It’s not a question of simply choosing one over the other. There are obligations you owe to your government, and it is right and good to pay that debt. But there are obligations too, that you owe to your God. And those obligations also must be met. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
“The answer that Jesus gave them,” writes the Reverend Doctor Marvin McMickle, “is as confounding and compelling today as it was in the first century.” Jesus suggests, “that his followers have a dual allegiance, both to the teachings and commands of God and to the government under whose flag and laws they live.” This is a notion that presents Jesus’ modern-day disciples with a challenge, says McMickle. For Jesus’ teaching here sets an unavoidable question before us: “What do we owe? And to whom?”
If we don’t find ourselves asking these questions – and wrestling with the application of our answers in our actual lives – then we may not be paying close enough attention to the world in which we live and the cares and concerns of this day. You sure don’t need me to tell you, that we dwell in very challenging times:
– We live in a culture that tolerates – even glorifies – violence of every sort.
– We live in a country in which racism and xenophobia are ascendant, and increasingly tied to circles of power in government and business.
– We live in a moment in which our advances in technology and our lust for comfort and wealth have combined to put our fragile earth – and indeed, the entire human population of this planet – at risk of environmental disaster from which we may never return.
– We live in an era in which access to the American Dream is available to fewer and fewer and fewer of the citizens of this nation. And where our reputation in the wider world as “the city on the hill” is being eroded year by year like sand cliffs on the ocean’s bank.
We live in very challenging times. And as Americans – and as Christians – we want to do the right thing. So what do we owe – and to whom?
It seems to me that perhaps our greatest obligation to our state in a moment like this, is simply to be fully engaged, knowing that our elected officials and the policies we pursue – whether at city hall or in Washington DC – will have a profound impact on the real human lives that hang in the balance of this moment.
– Surely that means that we need to vote, in every election, and not just for the candidate who excites us, but for the candidate who we honestly believe will contribute the greatest good to our larger commonwealth.
– Surely that means we need to pay attention. Our government is a complex and fast-moving operation and it is making decisions that will affect our lives and those of others in this fragile moment and for decades to come.
– Surely that means we need to be in relationship with those we’ve elected to office and those who are on the payroll we underwrite with the taxes Jesus sanctions paying. If you think the women and men who represent you in the halls of power are doing a good job, let them know … and if you feel otherwise, tell ‘em.
– And surely that means that we have to march: we have to march into our city council chambers … we have to march on our school board meetings … and when our elected officials and the policies the pursue fail to realize what is right and good for the people of God in this nation and beyond, we need to march into our streets.
(And if I may: don’t fool yourself, as I have, by imaging that posting on Facebook counts as authentic political engagement. At best, you’re calling out into an echo chamber, and at worst, you’re clubbing those with whom you disagree instead of talking to them.)
Get engaged. Take some responsibility. Render unto Caesar what is due Caesar.
We are free moral agents and the decisions we make every day matter: From how we treat our neighbors, to what charitable causes we will support, to what we watch on TV. From to the food we will feed our families, to who we will vote for in the next election, to what companies we will support in the products we buy. From the schools will we choose for our kids, to the neighborhoods we choose to live in, to who we will pray for and who we name as our enemy …
We are free moral agents … and the decisions we make every day matter.
So what do we owe? And to whom?
One terrific blessing of my line of work is the fact that almost every Sunday morning, it’s my job to lead the people of God in the recitation our Baptismal Covenant. I count it a blessing because that means I am constantly reminded of the details of our shared commitment to Christ as disciples and as his present-day Church on earth. As followers of Jesus, we make extraordinary promises about how we will follow him in the world, promises founded on the beliefs we embrace as Christians, the verities we proclaim when we say the Creed together in worship every week:
– We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
– We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son who was born of the Virgin Mary … who rose again on the third day.
– We believe in God the Holy Spirit … and saints and the forgiveness of sins … and life everlasting.
Claiming these truths – embracing them as real and meaningful to us – is the foundation of Christian discipleship. That’s where it all begins for us.
But this is NOT where Christian discipleship ends. You might think that from watching TV preachers and talking to friends who attend churches where every single Sunday’s sermon is addressed to the “unsaved” and where being “born again” is the high point of the Christian journey. But in our Episcopal tradition, discipleship is not just about what you believe – or even about what Christ has accomplished for you in his sacrifice on the cross – it is about how we will live in light of these things.
It is a privilege and a solemnity to watch and listen as the Church raises its voice on those occasions when because of a Baptism or a Confirmation, we join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own Baptismal covenant. It feels weighty to me because those words are not merely about what we “believe” to be true about God, they are also promises about how we will act in light of those truths.
Almost every single Sunday of my life, I see you standing together and boldly and publically affirming that you will act as stewards of creation … as caregivers to the hurting and the lost … as champions for what is good and right. I watch and listen as you call out, “We will!” in answer to questions like:
Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace on the earth?
These are not affirmations about what we believe my brothers and sisters. This is not head work. These are affirmations about how we will live. These are commitments about how we will act. These are promises to be engaged … and to march!
I get that there are “dual allegiances ” in our lives. I get that the work of deciding what you will say and what you will do in any given situation that demands a moral decision can be “confounding” work. But remember whose you are:
Remember who created you. Remember who sustains you every day with what you need to live and thrive. Remember who it was that gave his very life for you, so that you might live in God’s love forever.
What do we owe? And to whom?
You belong to Jesus Christ. Before any family relationship … before any political affiliation … before even your allegiance to flag or country …
You have been buried with Christ in his death … and you have been raised with him into living a whole new kind of life. We owe it all to him.
Will you now march forth from this place, and remembering the promises that you’ve made as disciples of Jesus, render unto God what is God’s?
+ J. S. Barker
Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska – 2017
My dear Brothers and Sisters and Christ –
Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus. This morning, I want to share three stories with you that illustrate a challenge, a strength and a sign of hope in this moment of our common life. Then I want to talk a little bit about the year to come and three of the prospects before us that will invite change and growth, and I will close with a word or two of thanks.
Our last Annual Council was held almost exactly a year ago. You’ll remember we were at the height of a Presidential campaign season that felt different to us than any such campaign in recent memory. We seemed to be more deeply divided about the candidates before us than was usual, the debate in the public sphere seemed courser than it had been in the past, the fact that we could not see eye to eye on what was simply “factual” seemed disorienting and disappointing.
So the election happened. And we have a new President. And thank goodness things settled down right down after that, and all that acrimony came to an end!
A couple of weeks after the election, I was at Saint Andrew’s in Omaha for my annual Sunday visit. The Bible readings for the day invited some reflection on the faithfulness of those in power and the place of the Church in the public sphere. I made my best effort to speak to the issues of the day, which included being critical of the newly elected President in some areas where his deficits are real, and being critical of the people of God in the Church, where I thought we were clearly failing in our calling to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
At the end of that Sunday morning, I received a number of requests for copies of my sermon from people who said they heard exactly what they needed in that moment … but I also received a number of comments like this one, which was scrawled on an empty Bishop’s Discretionary fund envelope that had been dropped into the collection plate. Someone had written: “I disagree with everything the Bishop says.”
Right to this very day, it remains a new and difficult challenge in our church communities, to love one another even despite our sometimes profound differences, and to locate and inhabit some shared common ground by way of connection and action as followers of Jesus.
As we’ve journeyed together through this past year, I have come to believe that the problem – the real challenge before us – is not about the positions of any of our elected leaders or even the increasingly divisive nature of our public discourse and the segregating alga rhythms of Facebook … the problem is that we don’t actually know very well the teachings and witness of Jesus Christ, and that absent an intimate familiarity with that Gospel, we are not only poorly equipped to judge for ourselves what is “right” and “wrong” in the political realm but we have little to bind us together as people of faith when we’re working through the challenge of loving our brothers and sisters whose background, experience, and dreams are different than our own.
I can’t think of a single issue – at least of the sort over which we’re so deeply and easily divided – that does not have a moral dimension and so is not the appropriate “business” of the Church. If we’re doing our job, we will evaluate and respond to the actions of our elected leaders and our government in church. Our shared responsibility – in this moment, is to dig much more deeply into the teachings of Jesus – and to follow him more nearly – so that with consciences informed by God’s word and our community of faith, we can take stands in public that are consonant with what we say we believe as disciples of Jesus … and how we promise to act, as disciples of Jesus.
For every single one of us, this will and should constitute a challenge to our partisan politics and identity as people of faith.
During Lent and Easter of 2018, our Presiding Bishop is inviting the whole Episcopal Church to participate in, “The Good Book Club.” Over those several weeks, we’ll read together the Gospel according to Luke and Luke’s story of the earliest Church as recorded in his companion Book of Acts. I am issuing an invitation right now, to the whole Diocese of Nebraska to join in that work. Let’s read the Gospel together. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with what Jesus teaches about things like serving the poor, caring for refugees, responding to violent behavior, paying taxes or disagreeing with a brother or sister in Christ.
I am certain that such a read will challenge us all, enlighten us all, and help restore a foundation of shared, real “Christian values” on which we can build in the year and years to come.
Somewhere out there in your midst is Mother Katie Hargis, who is our brand new Pro-Cathedral Dean, and who arrived here in DioNeb just in the nick of time to join us for this Annual Council weekend. Dean Katie is actually one of three new Rectors who has recently relocated to the diocese of Nebraska and so brought to a wonderful and successful conclusion three long and prayerful searches for new parish clergy leadership. Along with Katie, it is a great pleasure to welcome to DioNeb Mother Amanda Gott – now serving at Saint Matthew’s in Lincoln, and Mother Stephanie Swinnea – serving at Saint Luke’s in Kearney. We’re so glad you are all here.
We often say that the parish churches of the Diocese of Nebraska are “scrappy.” By that we mean that despite our modest numbers and resources, we still find ways to care for one-another meaningfully, to serve one another faithfully, and to love one another graciously. If we were to write out the scrappy formula, I think it might be: “deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy.”
The story of Dean Katie’s recent move to Nebraska, tells this tale in a wonderful way. A search for a new church rector can cost a bunch of money – and the people of our Pro-Cathedral worked diligently during their search process to manage their expenses without compromising on doing the job right and well. Part of that was trying to imagine how to relocate the newly tapped Rector without collecting bids from big commercial moving companies and paying $10,000 for an interstate truck move. How to handle the cost of relocating Dean Katie from the Diocese of Western Kansas to the Diocese of Nebraska?
On the first Sunday in October after church, nine folks from the Pro-Cathedral drove down to Dodge City, Kansas in three pickups and with two trailers. They spent the night, and then on the next morning, they all worked together to load Dean Katie’s gear into the trucks and later in the day, to drive it all up to Hastings. When the crew of now ten got to Nebraska, they were met at the Dean’s new place by a dozen more Pro-Cathedral folks who came to help unload and get their new leader all settled in. When it turned out at the last minute that Dean Katie’s rental was not quite ready for occupancy, our team called an audible, and quickly found garage space in which her stuff could be stored. When that work was done, dinner was provided for all the troops.
A week later, a dozen ready and willing souls showed up once again to get those garages emptied out and to get Dean Katie (finally!) settled into her new digs. At the conclusion of the move, yet another feast materialized, and all ate to their heart’s content and toasted a job well done.
Loving, caring, serving Christ in others and making a difference in the world God has entrusted to our care: this work to which we have committed ourselves does not take hundreds of people, or thousands of dollars, or extraordinary gifts of business smarts or theological acumen to be well done.
We are a strong diocese in part because we are a scrappy diocese! We are a people who find ways to use the resources we have at hand – even when they might seem modest or insufficient to meet the challenges of the moment.
“Deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy!”
A Word of Hope
About three weeks ago, I got an email from the department of the Episcopal Church that tracks data. I get that note at about this time every year, and every year -going back since I began my ministry twenty-five years ago – it’s always a hard letter to read, presenting sobering numbers to digest.
The Episcopal Church has been in numerical decline for more than 30 years straight. We’ve lost over a quarter of our members since 1980. Here in the center of the country – where disappearing small towns have their own set of hard challenges quite apart from the challenges we face as a denomination – things are even harder. By the main statistical measure of health – average Sunday church attendance – the Diocese of Nebraska has not seen an increase in many, many years. So when that email came, I was not surprised to read the executive summary of the report.
In 2016 – the last year for which we’ve got all the data nationally – there were fewer Episcopal Churches than there were the year before, fewer Episcopalians than there were the year before, and lower average Sunday attendance than there was the year before. With a heavy heart, I clicked to the page that detailed our church demographics here in Province 6 – the Province that makes up most of the beleaguered middle of the country. As expected, when I scanned the average Sunday attendance column for the province, things looked pretty grim. As I looked down the columns, it was one sad statistic after another: declines from 3% to 5% and more. Wyoming was a bright spot in the Province, showing 0.8% growth … a little less than 1%.
And then there was Nebraska. Nebraska. With our little community of 53 churches, about 2/3 of which are in those tiny Midwestern towns and fully half of which worship fewer than 25 people on a Sunday morning. Let me tell you what the report said about us: from 2015 to 2016, the average Sunday attendance in the diocese of Nebraska increased by 3.5 %. Which makes us – at least in the last year for which we have data from the home office – the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the whole Episcopal Church.
Now let’s not lose our heads. Being one of the fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church is like being one of the tallest skyscrapers in Topeka …
And average Sunday attendance is not the only measure of growth and success in the church landscape.
But I do take that measure as a sign that we are on the right track together. And I want you all to know that every single one of you plays a part in that success. The five churches across the state that are adding members to their rolls in double digits every year are leading the way, but there are in fact 24 parishes in Nebraska who’s Sunday attendance rose by at least one person in that latest report.
We can celebrate, and learn from, all those communities, both east and west, rural and urban for the modest growth they’re experiencing. And we can celebrate all of you too:
– Because every time one of you crawls out of your warm bed on a cold December Sunday because you need Communion …
– Every time one of you shows up on our Sabbath day because you care about your brothers and sisters in Christ who are your church family …
– Every time one of you pops into some sister church in some other town when you are visiting friends or relatives elsewhere in the sate …
And most of all, every time one of you invites a friend to come see what it is about your church community that keeps you coming back, week after week and year after year, you contribute to building up the body of Christ, and being part of a diocese that is suddenly, wonderfully, showing our Episcopal Church that by the power of the Holy Spirit there is always hope, even out here middle America!
Now – a couple of exciting things to share about the year to come.
2018 is the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. We’ll be celebrating that sesquicentennial over the course of the entire year, kicking off that celebration on the first weekend in January when our Presiding Bishop will visit Nebraska on a Saturday night to lead us in worship and conversation about this moment in our Church and our calling as members of the Jesus Movement.
On the next day, we’ll officially begin our anniversary year by lifting our voices in common prayer across the diocese, worshipping on that Sunday morning with prayers and song specially written for the day, for the year, and for Nebraska! In fact tonight you will be part of the world premiere of one of those pieces, as we’ll sing together at our Festival Eucharist a hymn composed to celebrate our 150th by Nebraska hymn writer (and Bishop’s Cross recipient!) Rae Whitney.
Later on in this council, Noelle Ptomey – who is graciously and capably leading the charge as chair of our sesquicentennial committee – will tell you a little bit more about all we have in store for our 150th.
During tomorrow’s council business session, you will have the chance to consider legislation designed to simplify the governance of our diocese.
This is the culmination of better than three years of work, as your diocesan leadership – including especially the members of your Bishop & Trustees and your Executive Commission – have met jointly, examined the governance structures of other dioceses, studied the needs of DioNeb in the moment and prayed sincerely to know the will of the Spirit. I am very grateful to the many people who’ve engaged this work over these past few years, and I want to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to the Reverend Marisa Thompson and our Chancellor Woody Bradford, who took up the challenge of leading much of this work and conversation on behalf of us all.
I want you all to know that I am in favor of passing the legislation we’ll see later on at council, and so simplifying our governance structures. It’s my belief that our present organization as a diocese has too many moving parts – and requires too many people – to do the relatively straightforward work of managing our financial resources and sharing in the task of visioning and implementing our diocesan ministries.
If we can do what we need to do with half as many people at the table, that will liberate a bunch of talented, passionate and faithful folks to engage in the critical work of serving Jesus in local parishes, or in diocesan ministries that are more directly related to serving he poor, healing the sick, spreading the Gospel and building the Church. If you’ve not already done so, take a look at that legislation which is included in your registration packet, get talking with the folks at your table, and let’s see if we can’t figure a way to make a change that’s been a long time coming.
It’s been awhile – better than twenty years in fact – since the diocese has led an effort to plant a new church community.
The prospect of engaging that possibility is especially exciting in this moment when so many new and creative incarnations of “church” are being planted and tested all over the US, and not just in our Episcopal Church, but in all the variety of denominations and non-denominations that make up the larger body of Christ. I’m pleased to announce that the diocese of Nebraska has been awarded a grant by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (that’s the fancy name for The Episcopal Church!) to help us study and pray about the prospect of establishing a new church in DioNeb, work which we will commence before the end of the 2017 calendar year.
It’s a good bet that a church for the new millennium won’t look much like a church of 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Though it’s possible we’ll discern a need to erect a new building with stained glass windows and a steeple – and call a full-time priest to help fill the pews – ‘church plants” in 2017 often sport a very different look. What is certain is that the Church we start after praying, studying and dreaming together, will be a church that is representative of the kind of faith and values that already distinguish this diocese and the wonderful people who live and serve here.
It’s a sure thing that it will take some time to pray and study our way into discerning the Spirit’s call around starting a new Nebraska church – and we will surely need the support of any number of you who are excited about the prospect of building some new, relevant and faithful version of a church for the 21st century. Stay tuned. And by all means, start praying for this work even now!
Before I move to closing and some words of thanks, I want to tell you about one more locus of the Spirit’s movement – and of hope for the deepest kind of growth – that now lays before us.
Hard to believe that it was only one year ago that Brother James came to our Diocese of Nebraska from New York, via South Africa. Most of you met him for the very first time at last year’s council, and though he quickly won us all over with his love of Christ, his love of life, and his passion for teaching us about prayer and service, even so, I know that there was some head scratching going on. What do we need with a monk?
Now twelve months on, and – I don’t know – probably 30,000 miles later – I think we all agree that we’re blessed beyond measure by the presence of our beloved brother James in this place.
And so it’s with particular delight that I can share the news that Brother James has discerned a call to make his home with us here in Nebraska for the foreseeable future and to help lead us in building a brand new ministry of prayer, service, and formation.
We’re even now pulling together the pieces of what we’re calling the Benedictine Service Corps. The vision for this ministry is to invite young adults – both women and men – to come live with us for a season here in the Diocese of Nebraska, in a community structured after the fashion of Saint Benedict and in the tradition of the ancient monastic ministries of the Church.
We’ll be looking for people who have a sense of calling around deep prayer, care for the poor and for creation, and community living … not necessarily monastics, but rather people who are called to live in an intentional Christian community for just a year or two. Picture 3 or 5 folks to start: praying together daily, eating meals in common, sharing expenses and all serving in churches and local ministries of care and service to those on the margins. We hope to plant this community in urban Omaha to begin, and we will build it with the intention of serving in – and expanding to – greater Nebraska in the months and years to come, ultimately making the Benedictine Service Corps a ministry with a commitment to the entire Diocese of Nebraska.
By all means, grab Brother James here at council if this vision of a community of prayer and service appeals to you. We’ll need folks with talent and passion in everything from plumbing and painting to preaching and praying to make this thing happen …
And at this time, we most especially need to connect with people who will help us in recruiting the first members of this new community.
I wish to close this morning by saying thanks.
Thanks first to the wonderful people with whom I work every day and who minister with such passion on your behalf.
I just mentioned Brother James and all that he’s given of himself to the people of this diocese. I am sure we’re a more deeply prayerful staff – and that I am a more seriously prayerful bishop – because of his witness, support, and friendship. You, my brother, have my great admiration and gratitude.
Though her position is entirely a volunteer one, Archdeacon Betsy Bennett comes into the office every week to participate in our Tuesday morning staff meetings and help support the wider ministries of DioNeb. She’s been a tireless advocate for those living on the edge – and for the care of creation we’re called to as followers of Jesus. She is a wonderful contributor to this community.
Lindsey Rowe has served as our Diocesan Administrator since April of 2014, and in that role has managed everything from the day-to-day operations of the diocesan office, to bishop’s annual visitation schedule, to meeting and event planning – including pulling together this and each year’s Annual Council. Many of you will have read the news we shared last week, that Lindsey has submitted her resignation and will be moving on to a tremendous opportunity as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of Immanuel Health Systems Pathway’s, Program in Omaha. Know that Lindsey has lead with her deep affection for all of you as a life-long Nebraska Episcopalian whose love for the churches and the people of this diocese is unmatched. We will miss that devotion … and her unflappable calm in the face of the many minor crises that punctuate diocesan ministry. Thank you, Lindsey. You will be missed.
As you know, Beth Byrne manages the finances of our diocese. She does that work with the perfect balance of uncompromising attention to the details of our numbers and a deep faith in the Spirit’s guidance over all that we do. You’ll get to hear her do her thing at length, later on in this council. Beth has also adapted with superior grace to a job description that has changed and grown substantially over the course of her seven years of service. Whether it’s in her role as Comptroller, Property Manager, Investment Advisor or Financial Secretary, we are entirely reliant on Beth’s skills and hard work to be faithful stewards of the gifts of money and property that God has entrusted to our care. I am so grateful for her service.
Father Phil Chapman died recently and will be terribly missed by us all. One of many things Father Phil taught me – this was in the signature line of every email he ever sent – was to “travel in pairs and worship in groups.” That notion of “traveling in pairs” comes from the Gospel of Luke, in which is told the story of the first time Jesus “sends out” his followers to do his ministry in the wider world. Jesus commissions the disciples in pairs … he bids them “travel light” … he tells them not to stay in any one place for too long, but rather, to keep on moving.
I am so blessed – we are so blessed – that Canon Liz Easton read that part of Luke’s Gospel and has been willing to ride alongside me for three and a half years now. I hope our partnership is seen as a model for how to be a joyful and effective disciple of Jesus in this time and place for that is our shared intention. And I can tell you that I am a much better bishop – and Nebraska is a much stronger diocese – for the hard work and faithfulness of our Canon, with whom it is my great privilege and blessing to share in the leadership of the Church.
In addition to the folks on your diocesan staff, and as a close to this over-long reflection – I need to thank ALL of you.
I want to express my deepest appreciation to the clergy leaders of this diocese – priests and deacons both active and retired – who have chosen to make this place your home. I’ve lived and worked in four different dioceses as an adult, and nowhere – no place else – compares to Nebraska for the sincerity, the determination, the faithfulness and the tireless work offered by our college of clergy. You are the finest women and men I have ever worked with, and it is such a blessing to serve with you.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, thanks to all the rest of you – the lay leaders of this Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska gathered here this morning – and to the thousands of your fellow Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. I am daily inspired by all that you give, and all that you do, to build up the kingdom of God, to make Jesus known in the communities in which God has planted you and to be the Church.
This is my 7th Annual Council as your bishop, and I am as excited and proud to be here with you as I was at my first Annual Council (here in North Platte!) six years ago. It is the great blessing of my life to have been able to come home and to serve in this place that I know and love best in the whole wide world. I cannot think of anyplace else that I would rather be. It is no exaggeration to say that every day in this job is full of wonder and joy, and I am so hopeful about the future to which God beckons us as the Episcopal Church in Nebraska.
Submitted this 20th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2017,
In North Platte
+ The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Have you ever just started out on the wrong foot in some situation, or in some new relationship? I had that happen recently when I started my chaplain internship at the hospital: It was about two weeks in, and my first night working with a particular chaplain I had not yet met in person. When I got into the office, she was out in the hospital somewhere, and so I picked up the phone on a desk and called her to let her know I was reporting in for duty. “WHY ARE YOU CALLING FROM MY PHONE? WHO WOULD CALL ME FROM MY OWN PHONE?” she said, in a voice just like that…Let’s just say it went downhill from there; it took a lot of time and effort to fix this relationship that started off all wrong.
Very sadly, I think that’s what our relationship with the Ten Commandments is like. From the beginning, because we call them “Commandments” and because we have childhood memories of Sunday School material with those two tablets of stone that start off with either “You shall…” or “You shall not…” we’ve begun our relationship with them as if they were a set of clean-cut rules, simple laws…as if they were commandments from a brigadier general to privates, or from a monarch to peasants….We need to do some hard work and effort and time to start over with our relationship with the Ten Commandments.
In the Hebrew Torah, as we see in today’s reading, the Ten Commandments don’t start out not with “You shall” or “You shall not” – they start out with God’s proclamation of his saving relationship to Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The giving of the law on Sinai comes after the burning bush, after the escape from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, after the bread from heaven, after the water from the rock…after all the people of Israel have been consecrated to God. They aren’t commands to earn favor or salvation, they are responses! A proclamation by God of the proper responses from God’s community of liberated slaves, responses in thanksgiving for that liberation, responses that lead to a right relationship with God and a right relationship with each other. Because of God’s goodness, because of God’s saving acts and steadfast care and boundless love, these should be our grateful, joyful, responses.
The Ten Responses—that’s what we’re going to call them until this sermon is over—are broken into two halves: the first set describes our response in relationship with God, the second set describes our response in relationship with each other. You can see this division in Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 22 when the Pharisees ask him which is the greatest commandment, trying to trip him up. Jesus says, “The first commandment is love God with all your heart and soul and mind; and the second commandment is just like it: love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God; love your neighbor. Rather than getting into trouble by picking a single one to be above the others, Jesus picks all ten, summarizing them into their two halves.
If this were a sermon series, I’d take each of the Ten Responses and we’d do a ten-week exploration—but, since all I have is a few minutes, I’m just going to do some brief brainstorming with you on one of them. The familiar version of the Third Response says “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain,” or, in our translation today, which is better, “You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.” That newer translation makes it more clear that this response is not about “bad” language—“wrong use” and “right use” of God’s name is about something much more important than obscenities. The Name of God invokes God’s power and God’s presence and God’s purpose. To have “wrong use” of the Name of God is to attempt to make God, to attempt to make God’s power, into a means for our own ends. This third Response, and the first two Responses before it, are talking about all the seductive ways we displace God, who created us and saved us and sustains us, from the rightful place in our lives, and put ourselves first, putting our own will in place of God’s will, putting schemes of our own making before God’s plans—they’re talking about all the ways we instrumentalize God and God’s power for our own use—all the ways we love ourselves more than we love God and more than we love our neighbor.
My friends, there have, as of yesterday, 11,844 gun deaths in the United States this year. There have been 554 children under the age of 11 shot, and 2,479 teenagers (gunviolencearchive.org). Since 2014—in only three years—total firearm injuries are up 50 percent. Shootings of children are up 30 percent. One week ago today, we watched the horror in Las Vegas, the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, unfold before our eyes. A mass shooting is defined as four or more people—since last Sunday in Las Vegas, there have been seven more mass shootings in the United States. One of them was next door to us, in Lawrence, Kansas. My indictment of us all is that for us to say, simply, that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims, is to take the name of God in vain. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is blasphemy in the mouths of us all when we continue to let thousands die rather than threaten the covetousness of those who profit by the gun industry, blasphemy by us all when we put the idol of an idealized second amendment before our responsibilities for each other as Christians. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences—unlike real prayer, which always implicates us in the process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God—prayer is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution. Prayer is a call for action.
You remember Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan: before the hated, sinful, foreign Samaritan climbed into the ditch to help the beaten man, a priest and a Levite—two of the holiest leaders in the church—walked by on the other side. I have no doubt, being a priest and a Levite, they offered their “thoughts and prayers” as they did so. Jesus asks which was a neighbor to the injured man, and the answer is: “the one who took care of him.” And, you know why Jesus tells this story? It is in Luke 10, verses 27-37—In these verses, Jesus again summarizes the Ten Responses by saying “Love God, love your neighbor,” and a lawyer asks him, “but who is my neighbor?….who is my neighbor?”
In James chapter two, we hear, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:15-17 NRS). As Christians, for our only response to the personal and national tragedy of gun violence to be “thoughts and prayers” is for us to take the sacred act of prayer and turn it into something profane—to use the Holy Name of God for our own, selfish purposes—to take the Name of God in Vain.
These are not the Ten Commandments; these are the Ten Responses—they are really the Two Responses: Love God, Love your neighbor. Like the lawyer, we seek to justify ourselves, to turn them into commandments rather than responses. We want to know the boundaries of our duties, we want to know when we can check them off as done, and so, like the lawyer, we ask Jesus: “but who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies to us today as he did then: “the neighbor is the one who showed him mercy. Go thou and do likewise.” The issue of gun violence, like all the important problems in our broken world, does not have an easy solution, does not have a single solution. To begin addressing it requires us to see everyone—left, middle, and right—even those on both extremes, as our neighbor, so that we can begin a dialog, and, together, find workable solutions. We are children of God and disciples of Jesus—we must not take the Name of God in Vain—we must not offer our “thoughts and prayers” as we walk by on the other side of the road—We must climb into this ditch and make a difference. Not because we’re commanded to, but because how can we respond otherwise to the gift of God’s wondrous, saving, love? “You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God….” Love God, love your neighbor. These are not commandments, but responses. “Go thou and do likewise.”
St. Martin of Tours, Omaha
October 8th, 2017
*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers of Game of Thrones Season 7, used for illustrative purposes.*
As a priest, and someone who believes in the importance of confessing one’s sins, I should confess that, for the past couple of months, I have been actively cheering for a romance that undeniably violates the Biblical rules of proscribed sexual relations. Specifically, I have been rooting for two characters in Game of Thrones who are aunt and nephew to fall in love and begin a relationship, in direct contravention of Leviticus 18:12 (“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister”).
In my defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Because I read George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Game of Thrones is based, long before the show was even in development, I’ve known Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen for many years, and they’ve been favorites of mine just as they’ve been favorites of many fans of both the books and the show. In addition to being interesting, likeable, and mostly competent as leaders, Jon and Daenerys are two of the few characters who’ve survived to this point that fans can imagine in something resembling a healthy romantic relationship with another character, though to this point in the books the two have never been in anything approaching geographical proximity.
Season 7, however, is the second season in which the show has advanced beyond the books, treating fans to some long-anticipated moments, a few big surprises, and the confirmation of a very popular theory about Jon’s parentage. Up until the end of Season 6, Jon was believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark, the series’ first protagonist, but based on careful study of the books, fans had theorized that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ much older brother, and Ned’s sister. The Season 7 finale not only confirmed the theory but established that Jon’s parents had gotten married in secret.
Over the course of July and August’s episodes, Jon and Daenerys met as potentially rival monarchs, considered the possible shape of an alliance between them, and brought out the best in each other as leaders (and as actors). As we watched the obvious physical attraction growing between them, Daenerys risked her life to save Jon, he pledged fealty to her, and we saw him enter her cabin by night while we listened to voiceover from two other characters putting together the pieces that revealed Jon as Daenerys’ nephew.
For me, and many other fans if the internet is any indication, this raised all kinds of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we love these characters, they fell for each other while ignorant of their familial relationship (how they react when they find out is a mystery awaiting us in Season 8), and we’ve seen how good they are together and for each other. On the other hand, nobody likes cheering on incest, especially when so many of the show’s tragic events are consequences of the ongoing affair between the queen of the realm and her twin brother. In the balance, I’ve concluded that, for Daenerys and Jon, I’m okay with it, even though it does violate my Biblical understanding of acceptable sexual relations.
My purpose in making this confession is not to justify my enjoyment of entertainment featuring plenty of morally reprehensible behaviors, but to wrestle with a deeper issue. In cheering for the incestuous romance between Jon and Daenerys, am I offering grace to familiar, beloved fictional characters that I wouldn’t extend to strangers in real life? Do I condemn a behavior in the abstract only to offer absolution when I know and like the practitioners?
This is a not insignificant problem. The less well we know a person, the easier it is for us to denounce their sin; the better we know someone’s story, the more likely we are to forgive the errors they commit. Although the Gospels don’t explicitly state this, the Pharisees and Jesus embody this tension: the former named tax collectors and prostitutes as irredeemable sinners and avoided them like the plague, while the latter ate with them and loved them as children of God. Once you’ve heard the story of a woman forced into prostitution by her boyfriend or kidnapped and trafficked halfway across the globe, you cannot consider prostitutes a bunch of hopeless, wanton temptresses.
Or look at King David, who abuses his power to commit adulterous rape and has a loyal soldier betrayed to his death to cover it up. Such behavior is really difficult to excuse, and yet, in Judaism and Christianity, David’s story is often told and his egregious sins are absolved. Like Daenerys and Jon, we know and like David enough to continue rooting for him even after what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and he remains a central and revered figure in the history of our forebears in faith.
As followers of Jesus, we must navigate between an ethical Scylla and Charybdis here. There is the danger that, with our friends and loved ones, we know them so well that we will readily excuse their sinful behaviors without considering the real harm they might be doing to themselves or others. But there is an at least equal danger that we will condemn people over a behavior viewed from a distance, without asking for their story or considering the possibility that they made the most moral decision they could in the circumstances.
I noticed this in myself as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. Although I assumed without asking that a friend who chose not to leave was making the right decision, I found myself judging the masses who didn’t evacuate as foolish. It took reading an article that spelled out the reasons interviewees weren’t leaving (such as being unable to afford gas, lacking transportation options at all, and having no place to go beyond the hurricane’s path) for me to understand that failure to evacuate is not just a product of unthinking stubbornness. And as I waited for the predictable headlines about looting, I realized that I had already read the looters’ stories: the same constraints that prevent people from evacuating can also result in a closed store being the only available source of food.
I could go on with examples: I was a homophobe before befriending a couple of gay men in the Episcopal campus ministry, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism until I dated a woman who told me about the discrimination and dismissal she faced, I avoided the post-9/11 Islamophobia only because one of my quiz bowl teammates was Muslim. My point is that, when all we see is a forest defined by a common behavior or trait, it’s easy to judge the whole forest sinful and worthy of burning; when we see even one individual tree in that forest and know their story, we must confront the fact that every tree has their own story, and on hearing that story, we might find ourselves identifying their sin as an expression of love and not a sin at all, or might forgive that particular sinner as doing their best under the circumstances, or might just be willing to leave judgment to God and love the person anyway.
So while I continue to believe that incest is sinful behavior and I would have a much harder time cheering for a marriage between real practitioners thereof than I do the fictional Jon and Daenerys, I do wonder if there are groups of people who I perceive as sinners in the abstract to whom I would extend grace if I knew one of them individually. And that, in turn, reminds me that my first duty is to love my neighbors, which I cannot do without knowing them, which I cannot do if I’ve already judged them in the abstract, before listening to their story.
The Rev. John Adams
Last month, our Diocesan summer camp, Camp Canterbury, gathered with a storytelling theme; through our worship, discipleship groups, and workshops, we practiced telling our own stories, listening to the stories of others, and connecting our stories with the great story of God’s relationship with creation. Of particular interest to me was the slam poetry workshop; the campers were invited to take a story (Biblical or otherwise) and write a poem imagining that story from the perspective of a non-speaking animal or object (the birth of Jesus from the donkey’s perspective, for example). I was struck when a couple of campers shared poems from the perspective of weapons in pop culture (a villain’s baseball bat and a hero’s lightsaber) and they instinctively observed that the inanimate object, not having to buy into its wielder’s story of good and evil, could question the morality of the killings it was executing.
Since then, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the degree to which our ethics are framed by the story we imagine ourselves living, and how a problem that seems to be a difficult ethical dilemma if you’re telling yourself one story becomes totally obvious if you think you’re in a different story. A good example of this is depicted in American Fable, a genre-defying 2016 film that recently showed up on Netflix. Set during the Reagan era in a depressed rural community, we enter the story from the perspective of Gitty, a farmer’s daughter with a fantastic imagination. While exploring the officially-off-limits silo at the edge of their property, she finds that it is occupied by a mysterious man. Based on a story he tells her, Gitty imagines the man as a wish-granting spirit, like a leprechaun or genie, and brings him food and books while he teaches her to play chess.
The viewer slowly discovers that, in her father’s story, the farm is failing, he is deep in debt, and he is working with a mysterious woman (who his daughter sees as a demonic figure riding around) in a desperate attempt to hold onto his property. At the woman’s behest, the farmer has imprisoned the man whose company is buying up farms in the region; when the man is ransomed, the woman will give the farmer the money he needs to keep going. As a viewer, it makes for an interesting ethical statement: in the abstract, hopefully all of us would consider holding another person against his will an immoral act, but the farmer clearly believes that he is doing right in causing the man minimal harm in order to protect his own property and family, and when we watch his story, we find ourselves sympathizing if not agreeing with the decision he made.
The movie then takes a turn when it comes out that Gitty has been talking to the captive, shattering the illusions that only the farmer and the mysterious woman know there’s someone in the silo and that the captive is ignorant of his captor’s identity. As the farmer agonizes over what to do, Martin (Gitty’s older brother) decides to take matters into his own hands: having been told by the mysterious woman that the world is divided into warriors and the weak whom the warriors defend, Martin decides that he must be a warrior, doing anything necessary to protect his family. In his story, all ethical dilemmas are framed and solved by determining which course of action best helps or least harms the family, without weighing other considerations.
American Fable truly impressed me as a film that allows the viewer to see how a complicated ethical challenge looks different when seen as part of three different stories: Gitty’s childish fantasy, the farmer’s desperate fight against economic problems, and Martin’s story of himself as a warrior. Within the children’s stories, the solution to the problem of the man in the silo is completely obvious even as each child is certain the other is wrong. For the farmer, the children’s black-and-white perspectives force him to consider his actions as told through stories other than his own.
Without delving too deep into the political weeds, I hope the implications for our national and religious lives are obvious: the story you imagine yourself in will dictate what you consider ethical responses to the problems we face. For example, if the story of America is the story of European Christians who left in order to freely practice their brand of Christianity, then it is ethical to suppress Islam in America. If the story of America is the story of enterprising Europeans who left in order to establish their own economic hegemony, then the preservation of that order becomes the highest good. If the story of America is the story of folks who truly believed in contrast to Europe that “all men are created equal,” then the moral thing to do is whatever opposes extant inequalities and expands the definition of men to cover all people living here.
The same thinking applies to Christianity. How do you understand the story of Jesus? Is it the story of an exemplary moral teacher? The story of the prophet of the end times? The story of a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin? The story of a movement that offers the only way for people to join God? The story of God telling us through Word and example that God is love and we are to love God and one another? The story of Jesus as you understand it will determine what you think the moral responses are to religious plurality, diversity of sexuality and gender, wars and rumors of wars, poverty, climate change, and other great issues of our times. And the different ways we understand the story of Jesus help explain the intractable differences between Christians over such issues.
I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love, and that of other ways to understand the story some are less wrong than others. But I’m not trying to make a polemical point as much as I am trying to encourage you to be aware of the stories you imagine yourself in as an individual, as an American, as a Christian, as a rancher, as a gunowner, as middle-class, as whatever. If you are conscious of the stories you tell yourself, and aware how your stories frame your ethical perspectives, then you can be more attentive to the stories of others, and thus see how the different stories suggest different moral actions. Maybe in doing so we will start to identify problems in our stories that lead us to take actions others find immoral, but at a minimum, God willing, all of us will be better able to exchange stories while acknowledging the full humanity of each storyteller.
The Rev. John Adams