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
Friday, September 29th (7 pm – 9:00 pm)
Saturday, September 30th (8:30 am – 3:00 pm)
St. David’s Episcopal Church 8800 Holdrege Street, Lincoln, NE
The VISION of INVITE * WELCOME * CONNECT is…
To change the culture of The Episcopal Church to move from maintenance to mission.
Underwritten by The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, in partnership with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Omaha, and hosted by St. David’s Episcopal Church, Lincoln, you are invited to participate in a summit focusing on offering hospitality to the stranger in our midst. Invite * Welcome * Connect is designed for teams of lay people and clergy. The presenter, Mary Parmer, has 10 years of experience in evangelism and newcomer ministry in the Diocese of Texas and throughout The Episcopal Church in the USA and in Europe. She has conducted summits and workshops in 40 Episcopal dioceses.
Click here to access the registration form. The cost, per participant, is $25 which will cover the cost of materials, continental breakfast, lunch and breaks. A block of rooms is being held at the Staybridge Suite Hotel, 2701 Fletcher Ave, 402.438.7829 (across the street from St. David’s). Rates range from $95.99 –
$125.99 for Friday night (Saturday night based on availability). Please reference Invite*Welcome*Connect when you call for reservations. Deadline for accommodation reservations is September 1st to receive the group rate.
Please mark your calendars and plan to bring a team to participate in this summit guaranteed to change your ways of sharing the Good News through evangelism and welcoming. For more information, visit Mary’s website: http://www.invitewelcomeconnect.com/. If you have questions about the conference or logistics, please contact The Rev. Diane Pike at St. Andrew’s, Omaha: 402-391-1950 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good morning. Yesterday, the Church commemorated Saint Mary Magdalene. Hers is a remarkable story, but probably not for the reasons many of you think. When I say Magdalene, most people who recognize the name think of what generations of believers considered to be the worst kind of sinner: prostitutes – those who sold their bodies for money. Mary Magdalene is remembered as one of these lowly women who Jesus forgave. After that, she went on to faithfully follow him. However, much like today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat, there is a lot more to the story than what most of us might know.
Mary Magdalene existed; the name Magdalene derives from Magdala, a city in Galilee. The first biblical reference to her comes in Luke 8: 2, where it is noted that Jesus drove seven demons out of her and also cured other women of evil spirits and infirmities. According to this passage, these women evidently held sufficient means to provide for Jesus and the twelve apostles traveling with him in some manner. Significantly, all four Gospels present Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ death and all four also cite her as the first to learn about the resurrection, most dramatically in a conversation with the risen Christ in John. These passages are the only specific biblical references to Mary Magdalene by name. Acts 1: 14 notes that certain women remained with the apostles in Jerusalem following the ascension and, although the text does not cite Mary Magdalene, biblical scholars assume she was one of these.
One could presume from these passages that Mary Magdalene became a faithful servant and travelled with the apostles throughout the remainder of her life. This includes the brave example of not fleeing the way others did when the going got really rough after Jesus’ arrest, and even remaining to witness the crucifixion. These passages provide examples of devoted service by Mary Magdalene specifically, but also indicate the important role of women in the early church. I am proud and grateful to acknowledge that from the pulpit of a church that both ordains women and celebrates their voice and leadership in the church today in myriad other ways as well. Additionally, she offers a powerful example of faithfulness in that she is the first witness to the resurrection. She is tasked with heralding the good news, and in the tradition of the Eastern Church that persists to date, Mary Magdalene is esteemed as an equal to the apostles. How then did she earn such a reputation that never specifically appears in Scripture?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon that solidified Mary’s reputation in the Western church forevermore as a redeemed prostitute. He conflated three textual references to women and used these to form a composite person. Gregory described this Mary as a prostitute who begged forgiveness from Jesus and received it. Simultaneously, he omitted the texts that referenced Magdalene as a continuing faithful servant of Jesus and companion of the apostles in the early church. It wasn’t until the 1960s that efforts began to undo Pope Gregory’s portrait and re-assert the actual historical Mary Magdalene of the Scriptures. We could study all the motives biblical scholars and historians have offered as explanations for Gregory’s harlotization of Mary Magdalene, but really…too often too many of us today are guilty of the same one-dimensional, blanket consideration of people – including even ourselves. Too often, we – as a society, in our small groups, or as individuals — become too ready to accept convenient explanations, even if that means writing someone off as a weed. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s not that simple. It is too hard for us, walking in the field beside each other today, to know what is for sure weed from wheat.
Instead, in this parable Jesus reminds us that we are all wheat and weeds intertwined. Jesus likely envisioned a poisonous plant called the darnel to make this point. Darnel and wheat looked very similar in their early stages. The roots of darnel and wheat grew intertwined, so it was no simple task to try to simply pull out the weeds. To do anything drastic to hurt the weed meant destroying the good with it at a time when the plant was still growing and it was too early to know which was which. Thus, Jesus calls on us to wait and watch. Let growth occur – there will be time to sort out what is truly good and bad later, by the experts (in this case, the angels). To put it in a more direct way as our psalmist did, only God truly knows our hearts – only God really knows if we are the wheat or the weed, and God will decide that in God’s time.
In the Gospel today, we are not called to weed but to till the soil of God’s garden on earth. Jesus doesn’t task us to weed in the field of community. Instead, our work is to prepare the soil so that good and healthy creation can grow. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans when he states that we have the responsibility to set creation from the bondage of its decay. We are to strive to be a community where people who have never had a chance to do so truly can feel and experience the sunlight of the spirit and what spiritual growth means. This isn’t just a nice, do-gooder impulse. It is our very duty. We answer this in the way we live together in community in many ways – when we welcome the stranger, as you did me. When we offer love and support to those who are going through challenges in our broader community, as we do with all of our outreach programs. And we do this when we gather together for worship and bible study, and for coffee and conversations. And when we take care of each other in all the other ways that we tend to each other’s needs.
Jesus provided us very real examples of the lengths to which this commitment is to extend as he dined with sinners and tax collectors, forgave an adulteress, and redeemed those consumed by their demons – even in Mary Magdalene’s case, a woman who presented herself sick with seven of them. But these examples are not weeds any more so than those of us sitting here today are! I think that’s what Jesus is reminding us – there is darkness that tempts all of us at times. I have gone through times in my life when I’ve lived it more like a very unhealthy weed rather than flourishing wheat. I’ve made bad choices and I’ve sinned. But those bad choices and those sins – those times are not the end of my story. That’s the Christian promise of redemption open to all.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, Magdalene means tower of strength. Mary Magdalene’s example is so much more to us than that of a repentant sinner, as vitally important as that is. The collect for her commemoration yesterday notes how Jesus restored her to health of body and mind. Hers is a story of fully becoming wheat and of tending to the gifts of creation. After she was redeemed by Jesus, she didn’t just go away to a comfortable life. She stayed with Him. She gave what she had to help others, and she remained to be of service – not just when Jesus was on earth, but through the tumultuous years of the early church. She represents fearlessness in following Jesus – even going to the cross with him – and gritty determination to herald the gospel message, even when it is not well received. It is because of her strength and grace in receiving the gifts of healing and recovery that the church marked a day to commemorate her example.
Twelve step recovery programs are spiritually-based, and the seventh step is all about humility and relying on God’s help to get there. I think the Seventh Step Prayer is very much in line with Jesus’ parable today, and what Mary Magdalene’s example demonstrates for us. In the first part of the Seventh Step Prayer, we humbly ask God to accept us as we are – good and bad — and for God to remove our defects of character, or those weeds intertwined with the wheat. These weeds are what stand in the way of our usefulness to God and others. Then in the prayer, we ask for God to give us strength to do God’s work.
Let’s go forth today faithfully asking God for help in removing the weeds from the wheat in our own lives so that we can better work in God’s garden. Let’s work together to prep the soil within us and around us to so that God’s beautiful creation can grow.
At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).
One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.
The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.
This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.
But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.
However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.
The Rev. John Adams
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral presents its second annual Summer Sing! on Thursday, July 20 at 7:00 p.m. The public is invited to participate in an instant performance of Gloria, a sacred choral masterwork by an Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi. The evening will include an energized one-hour rehearsal followed by a one-hour performance. Scores will be available on loan for the evening, or participants may bring their own copies. Admission is free.
Tom Trenney, nationally acclaimed conductor and organist from First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, will lead the event. “Summer Sing is a popular annual event in Lincoln, and we are pleased to share it with the Omaha community again this year,” stated Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor at Trinity Cathedral. “Many church, school, and community choirs are on vacation during the summer months, and this event provides a welcome opportunity to join others in singing some of the world’s greatest music.”
The event is designed as a community sing where all are welcome. Unlike many choirs, no auditions, extra rehearsals, or long-term commitments are required. Casual dress is encouraged. As Burnett suggests, “Music, hospitality, air conditioning, refreshments, and fun combine for perfect summer evening.”
Trinity Cathedral is located at 113 N 18th Street in downtown Omaha. Information is available at http://trinityepiscopal.org. The program is presented by Abendmusik in collaboration with Trinity Cathedral.
On occasion, I listen to country music. I admit that, when I do, I listen to the classics. There is something about old country that screams reality – it’s honest. It talks about real problems, real emotions, real people. It has been even said by David Allan Coe that a proper country song includes things like getting drunk, prison, mama, your pickup truck…real stuff.
A bumper sticker I once saw asked us to consider playing the country song backwards. You know, back in the 80s folks thought that rock music had secret satanic messages if you played it backwards – which, of course, none did. But, play country backwards and you get your wife back, your hound dog back, and your pickup will actually start.
Today we heard in our Genesis lesson about Hagar. She is a servant girl, a woman who has had an intimate relationship with Abraham, born him a son, raised the jealousy of Sarah and today we hear, sent out, abandoned, forsaken, and at that, this woman who has offered herself, service, both in body and hard labor, we clamor and say – that is not fair!!!! But I also recognize, that for many of you, this very morning, are secretly going through similar struggles, sent out, your bearings shifted. You are a mess of emotions, you wonder if anyone cares, you wonder where is God, and you cry out in prayer, – “GOD, SERIOUSLY?”
We say: My wife (or husband) argues with me day and night. There always seem to be more bills than income. The kids are making all kinds of bad decisions. The dog has heartworms. I’m facing a health crisis. Just get the guitar up here, cause I got the stuff of a country song…and yet, in church, we hear: Build your house on the rock. Or even in today’s Gospel, “I came not to give peace, but a sword. GOD SERIOUSLY? When is this supposed to get better?
If we listen to motivational speakers or whatever seems to be selling to the masses, if I just think positively God is breaking barriers and giving me the best life—right? Try telling that to Hagar, or Jesus’ disciples (all but one of them died for the faith, you know, and even John (the one who survived)was so abused he probably wished he was dead.) Tell the myth of Prosperity Gospel Light to those who died in the Coliseum when they were drowned for entertainment, or fed to lions. Tell that to crucified people in Armenia in 1915; Jews, clergy, LGBT folk, or intellectuals in Auschwitz; Jesuits in Japan in the 1500s – All of them echo, “GOD SERIOUSLY?” Even we who have lives that are filled with pain, but are not faced with the prospect of death, pray likewise.
But what if the Rock of our life was actually seeking to polish us? What if, “GOD, SERIOUSLY” was a prayer that got us through successive layers of grit until God could see his image in us. Yes, God…seriously!
When I was growing up, I had a Graves cabochon machine. (Cabochons are gems that have a rounded top, without facets) The machine consisted of a diamond saw which cut larger pieces of gemstone into manageable pieces. Then it had a series of wheels, working from left to right: 80 grit, 150 grit, 400 grit, and then a leather wheel green with chromium oxide, a polishing aid. All of this was cooled by a constant water drip.
Slowly, a rock, hidden in the earth for millions of years becomes less of a doorstop and more like jewelry. Slowly the grit and water, and time reveal something that is prized!
Life is like a country song, it filled with real grit, real trouble. We tend to get angry, our patience is tried, we wonder how we can take it, and yet, the longer we live and the more we see, the grit bothers us less and less. God starts with the diamond saw, clipping off whole chunks at a time, and works through our formative years with some pretty aggressive abrasion. As we enter the senior years, he is polishing, polishing, waiting to see his image, just at the right time to enter God’s Kingdom.
That’s what Christian community at its best does, it is a polisher…except when we short-circuit the process because it’s just too hard, too painful.
Sadly we often react to the polishing, sometimes we attack, lashing out at the polisher. We blame, we ignore God, we keep our distance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. Really, we act like Jonah and walk in a passive aggressive way – totally the opposite way that God wants us to go.
Other folks just shut down by avoidance. They leave the room, they leave the church, they just have to get away because the grit is too hard. The polishing is too intense. Still others just shut down through emotional isolation. They don’t fight and they don’t flee, they just go inside and put up walls.
Our emergency defense is how we protect ourselves when we feel threatened. But God is trying to polish us in every situation. We may feel like life has become a bit too much like a Merle Haggard ballad and were all praying the same thing: GOD SERIOUSLY? But can we see God working in our midst, or are we too clouded by the friction of when God is working?
What if we did not have to stay in that place? What if we accepted the polishing. What if we decided to accept becoming the jewel and less of a boulder. Even in the desert, God cared for Hagar. God knew the story. He vindicated her cause. God loved her son Ishmael. God heard Hagar. God saw her abandonment and her plea, “GOD…SERIOUSLY?”
This doesn’t mean we deny our pain or repress it or pretend it isn’t there—it’s real and God is a big God to take exactly the real emotion we give him. God is not challenged like our Aunt Suzy who gets off in a huff if she is even challenged. GOD GETS US, and He gets that “God, seriously?” prayer even before we are ready to offer it.
Today, I ask you if your struggles are a bit too much like a country song. Maybe you are praying the “God, seriously?” prayer. Maybe you are praying the Eight Word Prayer – “Oh, God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” Maybe the heat of being against God’s polishing wheel is just too much and you are thinking you are going to crack…God’s listening. He is working on things you will never even comprehend. He is an Almighty God, not a limited one. He’s polishing you. Let him turn you from a doorstop boulder to the jewel of his delight. It might not be comfortable, you might have a lot of heat, but God isn’t done with you yet!
But even more than that, remember that you are in a group of folks going through the same thing. We are all being polished. Some of us have lopped off corners, some are cracked, some of us have taken all the polishing we can stand in this time in our life. You belong – HERE. It is here -the Church – that you find the quench of the constant drip of the Water of Life, which quenches the heat and soothes our pain.
So I should imagine that the steel guitars and fiddles are crying away on the road to Heaven. The road from here to there is often paved with pain and friction. You are not alone. The Church is here to work along with you. It’s here you belong – let’s work through the grit, and the hurt, and even the song, together. Amen.
The Reverend Robert M. Lewis, D.Min., Rector
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island