Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

From The Bishop

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2018 Annual Council Sermon – Bishop Barker

Annual Council Scottsbluff & Gering
Mark 10:46-52 October 26, 2018

Right Reverend and Dear Friend –

I write in October of the year 2018 for the sesquicentennial celebration of the diocese you now serve. This may seem like an impossibly distant past to you – this age of which you could only know through reading a history book. The Gospel text for the celebration for which I am writing is the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” who memorably calls out to Jesus, “I want to see!” From that Gospel cry, let me tell you what I see.

As I sit down to begin, it is a stunning late autumn afternoon in Nebraska. The sky is deep blue – almost cobalt – and the fallen leaves rustle with every gentle breeze that sweeps across the roads and the fields. The leaves still turning in the trees are shimmering brilliant scarlet, orange and gold. Our weather is unsettled, and that makes me wonder and worry about yours. Ten days ago, a whole bunch of snow fell across a great swath of the diocese – a too early storm that complicated an already soggy and slow harvest. That snow fell wet and heavy – so brought down limbs and trees that caught too much weight in their leaves. It was a mess.

The wonder and the majesty of this land seems like the right place to start.
Nebraskans are especially appreciative of the beauty of this place, and keenly attuned to the rhythms of the natural order, including the changing of the seasons and the life cycles of their crops and livestock. One of the first things I learned when I became the Bishop of this place was that I would not be needing to teach anyone about the grandeur of God’s creation, nor what it means to be a mere creature of that same God. Instead it is the people of Nebraska who have been teaching me for the last seven years about the miracles of nature, the right place of a human being in this lonely landscape, and God’s providence over it all.

Some of my most vivid memories of this ministry have been those moments traveling the state when I have happened upon wonders both great and small that have reminded me of the miracle of God’s handiwork, and the privilege of having been born here and called back home, after a time away, to live and work. I remember seeing my first-ever dust devil! It was in the springtime, and I was so hopped up worrying about tornados that I about jumped out of my skin when a dark brown cloud suddenly twisted right up next to me as I was zooming by a recently plowed field off interstate 80. The cloud was fifty feet high anyway – and it was sucking up dry dirt and spewing it out all around that field and the Interstate. It was a marvel.

I remember an afternoon driving down highway 97 from Mullen towards North Platte right at sunset. Canon Easton (my Canon to the Ordinary) said, “I hope we see an antelope,” and not two minutes later, the pick-up startled an antelope that was hiding in the ditch just off the road. She raced us for almost a mile – caught between the road and a barbed wire fence. I could not believe the speed and grace with which that creature moved, nor will I forget the final glance we caught of her little charcoal-swiped nose and

blunt black horns, before she found a way under that fence and off into the tall grass to hide once more.

I remember driving out to a Sandhills ranch on the day that a full solar eclipse slouched in a diagonal shadow all across the whole diocese from Chadron to Falls City. I kept my expectations low (there’d been a whole lot of hype in the build-up that summer), but when the disc of the sun finally blinked all the way out that day and a gloaming suddenly appeared at every compass point on the horizon, and the crickets started chirping because they thought it was time for us to go to bed…well, I cried right along with the rest of them. (A “rest of them” I might add, that included a bunch of cowboys half drunk at 11 in the morning, and who looked like they might have been as surprised by the tears on their cheeks as they were by the suddenly dark sky.)

This place! This place is just as beautiful and full of the wonder and majesty of God’s handiwork as absolutely anywhere else on this whole amazing planet.

I sure hope that’s still true. For all our appreciation of that beauty in this here and now we have not been honest about how fragile it all is … about the full extent of what it means to be stewards of creation and the true nature of the work entrusted to us by God as caretakers of this garden. I know that humans beings have always taken a toll on creation and I have no doubt that change is a part of what it means that our God is alive and in charge of our world, but in this last generation, it seems there has been a shift.
Now we know beyond the shadow of a doubt what great an impact human beings have on the delicate balance that exists between the plants and animals that all coexist in our fragile ecosystem. And we’ve been too slow to admit that the patterns of the lives we
lead are unsustainable … that if we don’t change how we live the generations that follow will not have the same possibilities or the same choices.

I am sorry for that, and I hope you can forgive us. I wonder if corn still grows in Nebraska. I wonder if we still have antelope.

I’ll bet you’re asking yourself about the people here. That’s what I would ask about, if you could tell me of your life. They are amazing, these people.

In a time and place when increasing numbers of folks have only a vague notion of whether God is real, and most of whom would be hard pressed to point to anything at all about their behavior that suggests they actually believe in God, I work every day and visit each week with people who pray and sing and serve and read the Bible, and who in a dozen, dozen ways say and show that they are really trying to make the words they say in church on Sunday morning a guiding star by which to steer their lives the rest of the week.

In a time and place where the culture that surrounds us is either openly hostile to the teachings of Jesus – or more often has twisted those teachings into an image of the worst prejudices, fears and desires of our present moment – I work every day and visit each week with people who are deeply committed to the idea that every human being is

created in God’s image. People who believe that Jesus can be found most especially and reliably in the lives of those cast to the margins by the powerful, and that really and truly loving after the fashion of Christ is hard, hard work and the highest calling of human life.

And in a time and a place where the church is often said to be dying – or even dead – I work every day, and visit each week, with people whose best thoughts, hopes actions are a determined shout to heaven of, “Not so!” And so they go to church meetings and care for church buildings and read church publications and try – first and foremost – to love the precious, weird and wonderful brothers and sisters who are part of their local church communities and so are most especially entrusted to their care.

These people inspire me and amaze me every single day of my life. I’ll imagine that’s true for you, too!

We have a strange and holy job, don’t we? There is the tension of trying to be faithful about speaking hard truths in the name of Jesus when folks need to hear them, juxtaposed against the equally deep need our people have to hear and know that they are treasured and beloved of God no matter what. There is the difficulty of knowing when to stand firm in inherited teachings and traditions that have guided us for centuries and more and when to try some bold, new thing, trusting in the presence of God’s living and Holy Spirit to show us the way. There is the constant stripping away of the ego, as we’re reminded day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour that we’re probably not really worthy of the office we inhabit, nor the kindness and the love with which we’re showered.

But on the other hand – on the other hand – what an unbelievable journey, and privilege and delight is this ministry! To visit these cherished, sacred spaces, on a constant pilgrimage from one site to the next all across the Nebraska landscape, every one holy … every one unique. To be welcomed into the lives of the faithful people of God with such incredible kindness and generosity: the warm embraces, the little gifts, the potlucks. (The potlucks! If those groaning tables of every grandmother’s best recipe and every child’s favorite treat are not a eucharistic foretaste of the banquet table in the Kingdom of Heaven then I don’t know what is!)

And to be welcomed. To be welcomed right into the middle of their precious lives and their most intimate moments. As little church vestries work and pray to imagine what Christ calls them to in this generation. As teens stand with knocking knees and trembling hands before their church families and promise to follow Jesus for the whole rest of their lives. As we shout out at the funerals of beloved saints who have gone before the most incredible, improbable and hope-filled words of all time: “Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” It’s a crazy cool job, isn’t it?
Strange and holy.

My dear friend, I wish you well in the impossibly remote land of the Diocese of Nebraska as you help celebrate our tri-centennial. I want you to know that we thought of you, and we hoped for you, and we prayed for you 150 years ago.

Know that though we dwelt in a time of extraordinarily fast change and deep challenge in the life of Christ’s Church, we did our level best to seek and serve Christ in our day. We read our Bibles, and worked to support one-another as a community upon whose life the treasured stories of our sacred book placed a duty and a call. We prayed our prayers, both the beautiful inherited poetry of the generations that went before, and the earnest, humble and heartfelt entreaties that we offered in graces at our tables, in devotions before meetings and at our bedsides each night. We cared for each other and we cared for our neighbors, imperfectly and sporadically to be sure, but by God we tried, believing as we were taught that loving a neighbor is loving Christ himself. And we labored – how we labored – to simply keep being the Church, by celebrating and sharing in worship every week, by teaching our young people the stories and traditions of our Episcopal way, by proclaiming to our friends and neighbors – equally in our smallest towns and our largest cities – that we are followers of Jesus Christ: who lived for us, and gave his life for ours and by whose presence and power we are even still becoming a whole new creation.

We wish you well, dear friend, from the distant past. May the people of God in the Diocese of Nebraska in the year 2168 be richly blessed. Know that we thought about you one hundred and fifty years ago and that we prayed for your well being and that of our Church …

And that we now look down on you with pride: our own course finished, our work now done.

Faithfully Yours –

+ J. Scott Barker, XI

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From the Bishop: 2018 Annual Council Address

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ –

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the holy one, Jesus Christ.

Happy Anniversary! This meeting of our Annual Council is the culmination of a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. It was 150 years ago this month, on October 9, 1868, that the General Convention voted to accept our request to be admitted as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. It’s a fun footnote to know that in order for a territory to become a diocese, the Episcopal Church required a “convention” of parishes meet and make that formal request. Nebraska was nearly denied status as a diocese because, when we met, we called ourselves a “council” instead of a “convention,” a move for which the larger church chastised us. To this day, we are the single diocese in all the 111 dioceses of the Episcopal Church that has an annual council instead of an annual convention. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re wonderfully independent or because we’re just a little bit rebellious, but either way, it’s pure Nebraska!

It’s been a great year remembering and celebrating our history in this place. We kicked off our anniversary with a visit from our Presiding Bishop, who came to Nebraska on the first weekend of 2018. Though he had a cold at the time, the irrepressible Michael Curry was an electrifying and inspiring presence for all those who made the journey to Omaha to come see the leader of our Church. We got great media coverage of the Presiding Bishop’s visit, partly because a resident bat from Trinity Cathedral awoke during the PBs Sunday sermon, and swooped around the sanctuary while he was preaching. Bishop Curry – unflustered – told the congregation he was pretty sure we were seeing the Holy Spirit Dove that morning. But for those of us who were close to the action: that was one hairy dove!

Our visit from the PB turned out to be a coup even beyond our expectations because just weeks after he came to Nebraska, he took another jaunt – this time to London – to preach at a little wedding that was being thrown in the land of our Anglican ancestors! We’re blessed that he came to see us when he did. Now that Bishop Curry is an internationally known rock star for Jesus, it’s a little harder to book him!

On the same Sunday morning, the Presiding Bishop was here, we gathered in our local churches all around the diocese for a special Nebraska Liturgy. With beautiful prayers and music composed especially for that day and this year, we raised our voices together to begin our sesquicentennial in common prayer.

In the springtime, our anniversary celebration continued with two joyful and unique gatherings. In April we celebrated “Cranes and Common Prayer” in Kearney, a day which included prayers and song and feasting … and some of the most delightful and moving storytelling I’ve ever participated in here in DioNeb. With June came “Pray, Walk, Do” which though it fell on a blazing hot day did not deter a great, big crowd from coming out and participating in a 5K walk/run, and a massive post-race breakfast feed on the shores of Lake Zorinsky. We capped off that gathering with beautiful prayers for our saints who’ve gone before, and for our continued faithfulness as a diocese of the Church.

This Annual Council is the culmination of our year-long anniversary celebration. Over the course of the next 24 hours, you can look forward to hearing more tales of our storied past and our spirit-filled present, as well as a keynote address from a modern-day Nebraska hero who truly needs no introduction. All along the way over these precious hours together, we will join as a big Nebraska choir to sing our special sesquicentennial songs – and pray our special sesquicentennial prayers – for one last time.

This is the place to thank some of the key players in this jubilee year. Brother James Dowd, Canon Liz Easton, Karen Burkley, and Diny Landon were the support team that helped welcome Bishop Curry to DioNeb, while that same weekend Dean Craig Loya, Father Chuck Peek, Marty-Wheeler Burnett and Rae Whitney did the Lion’s share of work pulling together our special Nebraska liturgy. Archdeacon Betsy Bennett, Father Chuck Peek, Bill Brush and the folks from Saint Luke’s and the Central Deanery lead the charge for Cranes & Common Prayer. Father Ernesto Medina – with great support from the folks at St Martha’s – masterminded Pray, Walk, Do. And Jo Berhens, our diocesan historiographer, organized the terrific series of reflections on the lives of Nebraska saints that have been featured on Facebook and in our diocesan publications over the course of the year. Tales which have not only reminded us of times now past but inspired us to be still more faithful disciples today.

Behind all this, was the ministry of the amazing Noelle Ptomey, who volunteered two years ago – when everybody else was looking at everybody else – to Chair the entire celebration of our 150th Anniversary. Noelle was gracious, collaborative, inclusive and tireless in her efforts to help us throw this year-long party. Will you please join me in giving thanks to Noelle and to all those who helped us celebrate so well over the course of this special year?

It has not been just sesquicentennial celebration since we last gathered as the Annual Council a year ago in North Platte. Here are some of the other highlights of the past year in DioNeb …

In January, several groups of Episcopalians gathered to be part of the women’s marches that were held all across Nebraska. Against a political backdrop that continues to divide us as a nation, a state, and often even from our closest friends and neighbors, it has been challenging at times to know when to organize and to make sure that the voice of the Church is heard in the public sphere, and when to heed Jesus’ call for unity, and err on the side of maintaining peace and stability in this body. In the case of a march organized to support women’s equality in every sector of our common life, and to condemn violence against women of any sort (including in our nation’s political discourse) the presence of the women and men of the Church joining together to participate in those January women’s marches was a no-brainer.

Women were among Jesus’ closest and most intimate companions and disciples; women were the most stalwart and courageous of Jesus’ friends at the time of his persecution and death; women were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were among the most generous and faithful supporters of the early church. And Jesus himself, again and again, lifts women out of poverty, powerlessness, marginalization and every situation where by coercion or violence they are being harmed by the empire or the religious authorities of the day. It is my sincere prayer and expectation that though we have often failed in the past, our Episcopal Church will always stand with women, and that includes continuing to strive towards still fuller inclusion and justice in this denomination around issues like fairness in hiring practices, parity in compensation, and representation in the House of Bishops.

I hope and expect that this January, we will march again.

In the spring, Canon Easton and I made a week-long pilgrimage to the panhandle for our Western Residency. This journey has become a fixture of diocesan life and our diocesan calendar over the last six or seven years, and I am not sure whether the folks who do the visiting or the folks who host the visits are more enthusiastic about – or have more fun with – this annual event!

As an example of what these visits look like, let me tell you about our sojourn to Saint Mary’s in Holly on a Friday evening in late May. The sun was still pretty high when we pulled off highway 87 into the church lot, but a couple of folks were already present at St Mary’s, pulling together drinks and desserts for the evening to come. The diocese bought barbeque from EJ’s in Chadron to help with the potluck, and so our first order of business was to unload from the truck about two tons of pulled pork, coleslaw, and baked beans!

Families soon began to arrive for the evening’s activities, which included baptizing a little new baby who belonged to a local ranch family, feasting together in the church undercroft and gathering for an old-fashioned hymn-sing organized by Father John Adams and for which we imported a local organist for the evening. Probably 50 people came out that night, which meant little St. Mary’s was full-to-bursting, and that when we raised our voices at the hymn-sing to praise Jesus together, we could surely be heard beyond the walls of the church and all out into the stunningly beautiful landscape of that part of Sheridan County.

I’ve noticed that when church worship is felt as a duty – and when church people aren’t very deeply connected to their brothers and sisters in the parish – people tend to disburse very quickly after a morning or evening service. No surprise that when Canon Easton and I finally threw in the towel to drive to the next place that Friday night, there were still a half dozen cars and pick-ups parked on the lawn at St Mary’s, and a big, tight group of folks still standing in the setting sun outside the parish doors: talking, laughing and being the Church.

This is one small example of the sort of intimate moment and celebration that best characterizes so much of our shared experience as Nebraska Episcopalians. Note well my brothers and sisters: God the Creator, Son and Spirit are routinely and wonderfully manifest in such a gathering, whatever the occasion and whatever the locale.

In July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Austin, Texas. Like many folks, I am ambivalent about our General Convention. I think it’s too long, too big, too expensive and not very representative of what the Episcopal Church looks like in real life. I have advocated – and will continue to be an advocate for – some real change around this inherited, cumbersome structure. But having said all that, General Convention provides a unique opportunity for us every time it meets, because it is populated by a whole bunch of faithful, sincere, and hopeful Episcopalians who have taken two weeks off from their homes and jobs to try to advance the cause of Christ in and from our larger Church.

Thanks to the hard work of those people – including a superb deputation from your Diocese of Nebraska – I think we did a credible job this year as a General Convention. We passed a responsible and lean budget for the larger church’s coming three years, that aims to continue the work of pushing Church resources towards the local level and funding the Presiding Bishop’s mission priorities of Evangelism, Creation Care and Racial Reconciliation. The witness and ministry of women was front and center at convention, and legislation was passed to help support fairness around hiring and compensation of women serving across various church ministries. Likewise, our disciplinary canons were changed to help address misconduct and abuse and to better care for survivors of abuse in the church setting. We re-admitted the Diocese of Cuba to the Episcopal Church (after we had unceremoniously severed ties with the island in 1966 at the height of the political tensions between Cuba and the US.) This move was cause for a huge outpouring of joy, especially among the large Afro-Caribbean population of our denomination. And in a legislative compromise, we decided not to begin the process of updating the Book of Common Prayer, but rather to encourage and enable much broader and more creative experimentation with prayer and liturgy in our local contexts, as a way to begin imagining what the next BCP should be.

That work has already begun with the publication and sanctioned use of expansive language Eucharistic prayers that are now being used in several parishes in the diocese. And as a next local step, I have appointed Father Steve Lahey of St. Matthew’s in Lincoln to the position of Canon Theologian for our diocese. We’re even now receiving the names of individuals both lay and ordained who would like to be part of the team that will help oversee our efforts to explore new liturgical forms here in DioNeb. If you have gifts as a theologian, a liturgist, a writer, a poet, a musician or an intercessor – and would be interested in serving in that capacity – you can still let me know!

Two highlights from earlier this autumn and the concluding months of our sesquicentennial year bear noting here.

In September, Becca Stevens – an Episcopal priest from Tennessee and the renowned founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms – came to Nebraska to help us celebrate the opening Magdalene Omaha and Thistle Lights.

Now Magdalene Omaha is not an Episcopal Ministry, nor is it, in fact, a “Church ministry” in the strictest sense of the term. But Magdalene Omaha was the brainchild of Deacon Teresa Houser, who I know credits this body with being among the first and strongest supporters of her vision to serve women who are the survivors of rape, incest, domestic violence or sex trafficking, and are doing the hard, hard work of starting life anew. And Magdalene’s board is populated by a number of Episcopalians including Dean Craig Loya who serves as it’s President. And when Becca came to Nebraska, the sold-out crowd who came to hear her speak was brimming with members of our church who had driven from all around the diocese to be part of that special evening.

Some of the best and most faithful ministry the Church does is work that starts in the parish and is then handed off to the larger community. Or work that happens in collaborative partnerships between church groups and community groups who find creative ways to serve together … or work that just happens to be done by Christian people, who care and serve because they are disciples of Jesus. In the end, it does not matter whether the Episcopal Church somehow gets “credit” for community initiatives that feed the hungry, house the homeless and heal the broken-hearted. What matters is that Christ is met and served in such work and that the people of God are doing their part to support it.

I asked Deacon Teresa if she could share some measure of the lives impacted by the ministry she been leading us in over these past few years. Many, many of you have contributed to the Friends of Tamar, which was a precursor to Magdalene Omaha and has become, in the words of Deacon Teresa, “a full diocesan effort.” 20 Episcopal Churches of this diocese have worked with local social service agencies to determine the best ways to support the local needs of women who are the survivors of sexual violence. And that little seed of an idea that launched Friends of Tamar: helping women who are leaving an abusive situation to escape sexual violence with a suitcase of toiletries and clothes? Since Christmas Eve of 2014 when a woman (miraculously enough named “Mary”) received the first suitcase, just sort of 900 bags have been delivered in the metro area to help survivors.

Deacon Teresa will tell you more about what’s going on with Friends of Tamar and Magdalene later at this Council, but the encouragement I want to offer is to point to what can happen when one person – with the support of the body of Christ – has an idea about loving, serving, caring for or supporting their neighbors in need.

I don’t know how often I am asked about how to make a difference, or how to grow the Church, or what God might be calling us to in this here and now, but surely this story shows us a pattern for that work:

Open your eyes and hearts to your neighbors who need to experience the love of God. Get to know those folks, and help your churches get to know them. And then find a way to leverage the passion and power of the body of Christ that is your local congregation.

Later in this Council, you’re going to hear from a half dozen folks who have started local ministries that are having a real impact in terms of loving and caring for church neighbors and contributing to the sense of identity and mission in the parishes where these ministries are being carried out. I hope you find real inspiration from these mission moments. Truly – the Church is the sleeping giant of this age in America. There is nothing we cannot accomplish if we put our hearts, minds, and prayers to the task.

Two years ago at this gathering, many of you met Brother James Dowd for the first time. Though I knew Brother James to be sincerely faithful and just a ton of fun, I was also – truth be told – just a little worried about how you all would react to a be-robed monk, whose great passion in life is embodying and teaching about prayer. Well, I need not have worried – and who could have imagined all that was to come!

The former New Yorker and theater guy fell in love with our Nebraska landscape and with all of you. You, in turn, welcomed Brother James with open arms as he drove around this state to visit our parishes and come to know us more deeply. And in relationship together, we quickly discovered that we all have a hunger to learn to pray better and from that to find ways to serve Jesus more deeply … a desire so widely shared that it could only be a call of God on our common life.

And so fast forward to a Friday evening just a month ago, on which 150 people gathered to celebrate “Foundation Day.” And open a Benedictine monastery and an adjacent program and home for young adults who wish to spend a year learning more about service and prayer, all on the campus of Church of the Resurrection right here in DioNeb. Brother James will say more later today, but I want to say what joy we share in his discernment to stay with us, what power lies in the witness of the people who have become the community that is The Benedictine Way, and what inspiration and hope that nascent community gives us as we seek to be shaped as people who will pray better, serve more bravely and love more deeply.

There is plenty more going on in this 150th year of the Diocese of Nebraska.

Our Bishop’s Society continues to support The Curacy project, through which we’re attracting great young priests to come to Nebraska for a season and who in turn gain an absolutely unique experience of priestly life in their first-ever calls. Our summer youth camp for kids – Camp Canterbury – continues to be a deeply joyful and authentic experience of Christian community for our youth. And the camp has grown so much over the last few years that we may soon be facing the challenge of too many kids wanting to spend a summer week learning more about Jesus (a challenge we shall be happy to meet!)

And not incidentally – remember a year ago when I reported that the larger Episcopal Church had released its data about church giving and attendance across our denomination? Last year, it seemed like a miracle to be able to report that Nebraska was the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the Episcopal Church. Well – you did it again! Of those 111 dioceses of our world-wide Episcopal Church, there were exactly 12 that measured increased attendance when the stats came out earlier this fall, and once again the Diocese of Nebraska was counted as a member of that distinguished group. For the second year running, we grew. We grew.

Let me say as I did last year that every one of you – no matter the size, shape or health of your church family – contributes to that impressive statistic. Every time you come to worship on a Sunday morning – every time you invite a friend to come and see something that’s happening at church – you play your part in helping us to grow. Keep up the good work!

Just a little later on this morning, we are going to consider two resolutions that appear on page 17 in your yellow book. These are the edited articles of our diocesan Constitution that we worked on at last year’s annual council to re-organize our governance structure. We eliminated our Executive Commission, and re-structured the Bishop & Trustees of the diocese to allow for fuller elected representation across the spectrum of our diversity around life experience, talents, Nebraska geography and all the rest. One of the rules of our polity as that when we are adopting a change to our Constitution, two Annual Council’s running need to vote for exactly the same change. I want you to know that I am very enthusiastic about the re-structuring we’ve accomplished, and that I do encourage your vote to affirm the work we did last year without amendment. I’m confident that we’ll be a more efficient, representative, and harder working governance team once this change is made.

Finally – I want to acknowledge your diocesan staff, and all of you.

Many of you have visited our diocesan offices over the course of this past year. There, you will find a group of both full and part-time people who are not only hard working and conscientious employees, but are deeply committed followers of Jesus and earnest friends one with another. I am sure that if you’ve ever walked through our doors, you were met with a smile, encouraged with a prayer and witness to a little community that actually endeavors to be the Church first and foremost. I am so grateful for the support and companionship of Kyle Smith, Lachisha Baskin, James Dowd, Beth Byrne, and Canon Liz Easton. They make coming to work a joy every day, and they work hard serving all of you with extraordinary faithfulness and commitment.

And last of all – to all of you gathered here this morning, who are representative of 53 church communities planted all over the 77,000 square miles of this state and composed of the several thousand women, men, and children who have committed themselves to be a part of the Episcopal Church in this time and place. To watch you, to work with you, and to serve you is just an extraordinary blessing. The determination and labor you bring to the project of loving each other is a powerful witness of the reconciling love of Christ. The commitment and pride you bring to the task of caring for your communities and serving your neighbors is an inspirational act of discipleship. And the hope with which you face the challenges of this moment is nothing less than an act of extraordinary faith in God’s providence … and God’s grace.

It is a privilege and a blessing to stand with you in this time and place. Thank you for all that you do and all that you give and all that you are.

Submitted this 26th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2018,
In the City of Gering

+The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska

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From the Bishop: Easter 2018

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Easter Day – Year B

And Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was [him.]

– From the Gospel According to St. John

 

I know that you carry a lot of extra stuff with you into the church on Easter morning.  Some of it can seen: fancy dresses, new shoes, great hats, cards and gifts and candy, the skeptical friend or relative, a check for the church … a posy.  But the biggies – the stuff we carry here with us today that is really substantial – are all the invisible things that we bring here with us.

Like any great holy day: Christmas, a wedding anniversary or a birthday – we greet this day and come to this place with a ton of memories.  I remember dazzling Easter outfits to celebrate this day, including my first ever necktie – a snazzy red, white & blue striped clip-on – that was part of an ensemble Johnny Whitaker peddled to his young fans in about 1971.  I remember dying eggs, and how those tiny grey and brown tablets would dissolve into brilliant, shimmering glasses of pure color, a rainbow on the kitchen counter, that made the house smell like vinegar for a whole day.  I remember long Easter egg hunts both in and out-of-doors and how I used to beg my mom to give me hints about where to look, because she and dad hid the eggs too well.  One year in response to my pleas she told me to “go blow your nose” about ten times, before I realized that that was the hint!  The egg was in the bathroom tissue box.

My memories beyond childhood shift to church and the dinner table.  I remember serving the altar as a high school kid and always feeling welcome in that work even though I was prone to asking snotty questions of the priests and to wearing bright purple sneakers that poked out from under my acolyte robes.  I remember my first Easter in college – and having to find a phone book and call all around town to figure out where an Episcopal church might be and at what time they might be worshipping on Sunday morning.

I remember seminary, and gathering around our apartment table to which each of our best friends brought the Easter dish from home that they missed the most.  Nathan brought “butterhorn” rolls from Maine and Lisa brought chicken curry from Dallas and Sara brought a lamb-shaped cake from Chicago covered with coconut for white fur and adorned with a single red jellybean for a great bulging eye.  We all come this day with such memories.  A potent brew from the past that we carry with us all the time.  Memories of which we are particularly cognizant on a holy day like this.

We shoulder a lot of hope on Easter too – lugging it into this place and to all the different gatherings to which we may travel later on today.  Our hopes run the gamut.  For some of us, it’s all we dare to imagine that we’ll get through the day without some calamity rearing up in the hours ahead.  Some of us will be happy if the new Easter pants don’t get ripped in the churchyard after the service, if Uncle John can just restrain himself from drinking so much wine at dinner that he starts insulting everybody, if the weather holds so that the drive back west on Interstate 80 isn’t awful.  Some of us hope for more than just averting disaster.  Maybe Tom will make the connection in Pittsburgh and make it to brunch after all.  Maybe the weather will stay nice and the yard will dry out and the kids will be able to run around outside a little bit.  Maybe dad will feel well enough to come to the table and sit with us…

Maybe the sermon won’t be too long!

We shoulder a lot of hope on a day like this – we lug it around this place and everywhere we’ll go.

The other thing we carry around this Easter morning is pain.  In these last few days around here, a boy took his own life and a beloved father died after a long illness.  A wife filed for divorce and an old friend lost her car insurance.  A dad is fighting cancer every day and a daughter has a bad cold.  A business is failing, and a beloved teen is seriously messing up in school.  And that’s just the stuff I happen to know about.

The truth is that it’s a rare human life that’s not touched by some kind of sadness or hurt at any given moment.  If you have friends and if you are serious about trying to love others in your life, then you will be heartsick and blue on many days.  Even Easter mornings.

We carry a lot of extra stuff with us into the church on Easter morning.  Some visible.  Some invisible.  But we’ve definitely got our hands full.

We can only imagine that on that very first Easter Day – the one we heard about in this morning’s Gospel reading – Mary and Peter and the others, came to that tomb with their hands full too.  They may have been carrying burial ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body which they’d been unable to do in their haste to get him into the grave before sunset on Friday night.  They may have been carrying memories: of Passover celebrations from better times … of traveling, eating and serving on the road with their friend … of all the wise things he said and did in their short time together.  They were certainly bearing some extraordinary pain.  At the death of their friend.  At the scary and tortured way in which he died.  At their own failure to stand by him at the end: falling asleep in the Garden, denying him at the palace, even the awful knowledge that one of their own inner circle had betrayed him to the authorities.

And hopeMaybe.  A little.  Maybe they hoped the guards would leave them alone as they prepared Jesus’ body?  Maybe the hoped the Sanhedrin would be satisfied with destroying Jesus, and would let his followers be?   Maybe they hoped their old jobs would still be open when they returned to their homes?  We can only imagine all that those disciples carried on that first Easter Day.

It’s a weird thing that happens when Mary meets the risen Jesus on that first Easter morn.  I don’t know if you noticed what happened when we read that part of the story this morning?  Mary is crying at the empty tomb and wondering whether someone has stolen Jesus body.  And then, the story says:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom do you seek?”  And supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  And Jesus said to her, “Mary.”  And she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni?”

How can this be?  Mary was one of his best friends.  She’d known him for years.  You know what it’s like when somebody you love has just died – not recognize them if they rose from the dead and spoke to you?  Good Lord that’s what we dream of in such moments.  That’s what we yearn for with every fiber of our being.

Partly Mary is surely overwrought and overburdened.  Her load is too great and she is too saddened and too frazzled to she what’s happened.  But more that that: Mary does not recognize Jesus because he is changed.  Jesus has been transformed somehow by the experience of living and dying and rising from the dead.  Jesus is not the man he was!  Like a reticent church-goer who gets talked into going on a mission trip and comes back a whole different woman.  Like a gravely ill man who fights his way out of the hospital and back to health only to discover that all his priorities are different now … the risen Jesus is changed.  He is not easy to recognize.  And that is still true today.

He’s here beloved!  Right here in our midst in this little old church on this Easter Day.  But like Mary we come here carrying to much stuff that we may be too burdened and frazzled to know him when we see him.  With so many preoccupations and expectations and pains and burdens and regrets and “should haves” and shame.  And so much sadness.  And so many hopes and dreams and expectations grounded in nothing but fantasy, maybe we’re distracted from the amazing truth: he is risen.  He is alive.  And he is present in this particular holy and transforming moment.  He is with us in this right now.

Some years ago I heard an Episcopal priest preach about resurrection at the Washington National Cathedral.  Father Andrew Wyatt said in part that belief in the resurrection happens by faith:

Not what is asserted against reason as an act of will, but what lifts us into just and compassionate strength when reason can take us no further…

This is the realm of hope.  Not what is wished for to escape our sullen despair, but what is affirmed as even now becoming true before we perceive it…

This is the realm of love.  Not what is bartered in the marketplace of personal desire, but the promotion and protection of each other far beyond mere justice … whose cost to our self is not even notice in our good will and active delight in all God’s cherished and fragile creatures.

Christ is risen.  And he can be present for us, and ours lives can be changed way beyond our hopes and dreams, if we but have the eyes of faith to look for him here.

He is risen when we gather in church parish halls every Sunday, welcoming strangers like long lost brothers and sisters, with coffee and treats and an earnest desire to connect with each other and support one another in a way that will make life better.

He is risen in our schools & workplaces when we make amends with someone we’ve hurt: when we summon the grace and courage to face our fault and say we’re sorry and set aside our self righteousness and petty need to always be right and always look good.

He is risen at our bedsides, when we have the faith to pray.  When we remember to credit thank God for the great blessings of our lives.  And perhaps even more, when we somehow find it in our hearts to pray in the worst moments of our lives.

He is risen when we can smile and laugh with a dying loved one at their sick bed.  He is risen when we shout “Alleluia” on a funeral day.

He is risen when we come to the altar rail every Sunday.  When we kneel down, and bow our heads, and dare to hope that plain old bread and plain old wine really could be transformed in this place … really could become for us food with power to nourish us like nothing we’ve tasted before, giving us forgiveness of our sins, strength in our weakness and everlasting salvation.

He is risen right here and right now.  And he is calling you by name.  Mary, Debbie, Sarah and Michael.  Anne and John and Andy and Doug.  Kurt and Melissa and Teresa and Dan.  Chase and Joe and Rosanne and Ethel.

He is calling us by name every one, inviting us to let go of everything that keeps us from knowing him, and loving him, and being with him today and every day.  He’s calling us by name and inviting us to see what happens when we look through the eyes of faith, and join our voices with angels and archangels and saints and martyrs and all the company of heaven, shouting out the news for which we long … for which we live:  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

 

Amen.

+ Bishop Barker

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From the Bishop: Lent 2018

Bishop J. Scott Barker

When we had kids at home, we used to draw household chores every week.  There were eight jobs in the rotation, each written on a little slip of paper we kept in a basket in the kitchen.  On Saturday mornings, every member of the family would draw two slips of paper out of the basket.  They might say “Vacuum stairs,” “Kitchen” (which meant wiping down and moping the kitchen or “Dog Poop” – you can pretty much guess what that one’s about.)  It was a good system because it was fair: over time, everybody drew equally both the easy jobs and the tough ones.

My least favorite chore was “Up Bath.”  Whoever drew that chore had to clean the upstairs bathroom top to bottom: tub, toilet, sink, floors – the whole deal.  In theory, I didn’t so much mind cleaning the bathroom.  I could handle the week-in-week-out family messes.  What made that job difficult was the light.  The “Up Bath” was the brightest room in our house, and when the sun shone through the window, and all the bathroom lights were on, on Saturday morning, you could see everything.  I’m not talking about just the ring in the tub or the soapy stuff on the edge of the sink.  I’m talking about the fingerprints on the switch plate where we all felt around in the dark to turn on the light.  I’m talking about the mousy little clumps of dust that would get lodged in the deep corners of the room and in the tiny cracks between the quarter-round along the baseboard and the linoleum floor.  I’m talking about the tiny streaks on the mirror that appeared after you hit it with the Windex to make the big streaks go away.  That bright light in the Up Bath revealed a whole lot of messiness in that room … messiness which needed to be absolutely attacked in order to do the job right.

The truth I know is that to this very day, there are lots of places in our house where such small messes and modest dirty spots are located.  It’s just that usually we do not see them.  They appear gradually (like those fingerprints at certain spots on the walls and rails), and because they accumulate bit by bit over time, we just don’t notice them as they gradually build up.  They are often located in the hidden parts of the house or a room (like the dust bunnies in those deep corners), and so if you don’t go looking for them, you will never see them.  Some of those messes we actually choose not to see.  If I let it register that there is a leaf just barely poking out of the high gutter over the driveway, then I’ll have to also let it register that I have not cleaned our gutters since we moved into our new home.  Way easier just not to think about that at all!

Lent is a housecleaning for our souls.  A whole season of the Christian year devoted to straightening up the messes in our hearts, minds, and spirits where bad stuff has built up over time.  We will use the ancient cleaning methods of penitence, confession, fasting, alms-giving, and self-discipline to let God fix what is messed up and broken with us, and thereby bring new hope, energy and life to our weary souls.  The “soul messes” that we’re going after in this season are much like the house-messes that only appear in the bright light.  We’ll go after those bad habits that appear gradually and build up over time like fingerprints on the switch plate: the stuff that starts small but multiplies over months and years to become debilitating and dangerous.  We’ll go after those things that are “hidden” from the rest of the world – like the dirt in the dark corners of our homes.  We will confess those sins that are committed only in our minds and hearts – and so are invisible to our neighbors.  We will renounce those sins we commit in private – the stuff we’d never do in the bright light of our public lives.  And we will do what we can to take on the stuff that is so big and bad we simply cannot bear to face it at all.  The hard histories, shattered relationships, binding addictions and those other truly fearsome messes in our lives that we mostly deal with by not dealing with them at all, so great is our hopelessness of ever being healed and freed from them.

Let’s clean house this Lent.  For real.

Maybe you’re a little scared, but don’t be.  There is nothing you can confess that God does not already know.  There is no sin so great that Christ does not have the power to forgive it.

Maybe you’re a little grumpy and tired.  We get defensive and angry when we are convicted of our sins … but I guarantee you that letting God into your life to straighten up what’s out of whack will feel wonderful in the long run.

And maybe you just did not get organized yet about identifying the places in your life where you need God’s help to fix what is broken and to clean things up.  No matter.  Just start somewhere, and know that your effort to please God does, in fact, please God.

This season is about drawing our chores.  We do so in the knowledge that as disciples beloved of Jesus we are ultimately forgiven and free.  The work of this season is not about earning God’s favor or working our way into deeper relationship with God, but rather about shining the bright light of God’s love onto the totality of our beautiful but imperfect and ultimately sinful human lives … and giving God the chance through confession, penitence and the forgiving power of Jesus to transform us into whole new people, shining in the bright image of the God who made us.

 

A Blessed Lent to All!

+ Bishop Barker

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From the Bishop: Ready to March!

Bishop J. Scott Barker

I am getting ready to march. This Saturday, January 20th, I will join with a group of Nebraska Episcopalians at the Omaha Women’s March. We will be walking and praying together to support the lives, dignity, and callings of women everywhere. My reasons for choosing to march are deeply theological, and are connected to the dissonance between the fact that though women are created in the image of God, beloved of Jesus beyond all imagining, and have lead the Church from the foot of the cross and the first Easter Day, they are still objectified, exploited and persecuted in both the Church and the wider world in ways that conspire to diminish us one and all. I am especially mindful this day of the challenges before women of color, in whose lives the intersection of sexism and racism presents an extraordinary obstacle to overcome.

I know that on Saturday I’ll be marching right alongside those women I know and love best, and I imagine I’ll be walking mostly in silence as they raise their voices in strength, unity, and protest, while I consider the ways in which I am a participant both consciously and unconsciously in structures, traditions and enterprises that keep women from fully living into who God creates and calls them to be.

Will I agree with every poster, chant or person in Saturday’s parade? Likely no. But I have not forgotten that the President of our country bragged about the criminal sexual assault of women who happened to cross his path, nor the appalling behavior of men across the professional and political spectrum that has been unmasked by the brave voices of the “me too” movement. This is a day, it seems to me, when inaction signals approval of the status quo. And I do not approve.

The Right Reverend J. Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska

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From the Bishop: Christmas 2017

Bishop J. Scott Barker

I am bringing you good news of great joy… Luke 2:10

This past August 21st, I found myself in west-central Nebraska on the Martin Ranch. Four of us had driven from Omaha – departing at six in the morning in a torrential downpour – and aiming to get to McPherson County by noon. That would mean we arrived just as the moon’s shadow was beginning to cover the sun, and that we’d have almost an hour to settle in and watch, before totality.

If you were living in this part of the world in the summer of 2017, there is no way you could miss the build-up to the solar eclipse. There were newspaper articles, and experts on the radio and TV coverage, even special edition magazines at the grocery check-out counters. I’m sure that almost every one of you looked up at the sky at some point on the big day… and that many of you, like that Barker family, actually made the journey to reach the path of totality and see this thing yourselves.

I had read a bunch of those newspaper articles, and listened to a number of those experts, and so I actually expected quite a lot from this phenomena, but even still, the reality of the event moved me much more deeply than I had anticipated. I was touched by the subtle, gradual disappearance of light from the sky in the hour proceeding totality. I was awestruck by the sublime beauty of the 360 degree sunset and the strange behavior of the birds and bugs as the light disappeared. When I took off my glasses to look into the face of the constant, reliable and warming companion that is our sun – now suddenly and impossibly it would seem – all blacked out, I could not stop the tears from coming.

But what surprised and moved me most, was the amazing array of human beings who came to see this thing and be part of this story. We were young and old and apparently from every walk of life. Not from just Nebraska or the middle-west, but from virtually every state of the union, and scores of other countries from across the globe. There were license plates on the interstate and in motel parking lots from New York and New Mexico, from Texas and Tennessee, from British Columbia and even Honduras. Who knew you could drive a car from Tegucigalpa to Tryon? When we pulled off highway 97 to say “hi” to a group that had an especially fancy-looking set up pointed at the sky, we were surprised to hear New Zealand accents. They’d hauled those telescopes almost 8,000 miles!

To me – this was the really staggering part. To see such a broad and diverse slice of humanity, all brought together by the same marvel, all gathered into a community of wonder and delight. And to be part of that band – all of us gazing towards heaven, knit together by a shared experience of wonder and hope, each one of us an actor in a story that we are unlikely to ever forget.

And so too, we come, this holy night. For an hour or so we step out of the headlong rush of the holiday season and all the trimmings and trappings that together conspire to distract us from the simple and wondrous story that lies at the heart of Christmas. The story about a God who loved creation so deeply, that he surrendered all the power and might of divinity to become human like us. The story of how that same God – now made flesh – inspired a choir of angels to come down from heaven to sing the praises of that new born child. The story of how the poorest, loneliest and least hopeful among us all, were drawn as if to fire, to see this baby, and then go tell the whole world the news of what they’d seen.

I fear that far too often, the ways in which we spend the precious, fleeting days of our lives have little to do with this story. While the child born this night comes defenseless and vulnerable, depending entirely on our human capacity for love to survive we, by some sinister illogic, choose to respond to the dangers that beset us in life by building walls and arms and armies rather than following his path of love. While the child born this night comes with nothing, given to parents so poor that a barn becomes a nursery and a feeding trough a crib, we are driven to prove our worth by an insatiable appetite for wealth, even when we see the Creator of the universe bestow upon humble Mary and Joseph the greatest status ever gifted to humankind. While the child born this night unites the witnesses of his birth across boundaries of culture, class, race and ethnicity, we – blind to that image of one humanity set so clearly before us – let fear of those we deem unlike ourselves run our lives, and selfishly, care for tiny circles of kin, who ask nothing of us by way of change or growth.

I am afraid that far too often, the way we spend the hours – the way we spend the precious days of our lives – has little to do with this story.

And yet we come.

Drawn to this story as it is told in the Bible and in Church, in children’s books and in the movies, in television cartoons and in art that hangs on museum walls and in second-grade classrooms. Drawn to this story, as it told in carols sung by cathedral choirs and country & western crooners, as it is told in the imperfectly recalled account in the grace prayed by a tipsy uncle at Christmas dinner. Drawn to this story, as it is remembered and celebrated on this holy night, across every tribe and language and people and nation, the entire world around. We are compelled to come, compelled for reasons that are mixed, complex and just plain dubious, enticed by exactly this story, on this winter night.

And that is just as it should be. When God becomes human, this whole creation is hallowed, and every one of our individual lives is exalted and blessed, and there is set before us – if we would just embrace the opportunity – the chance to know once and for all and forever that we are beloved. It does not matter who you are. It does not matter where you come from. It does not matter what you have done. On this night, God comes to you and for you as a human child. I need you, God says. I need no one else in the world more than I need you. Will you love me?

That’s the invitation of this night. That is the invitation of this story that is so irresistible that we would stop unwrapping gifts, and put down our wine glasses, and venture out into the cold in the middle of the night, and come to this place and this company.

Both beautiful or terribly scarred we come. In our diapers and our dotage, we come. Gay and strait and black and white and rich and poor we come. No matter the continent from which our ancestors hailed, regardless of how we were raised, where we were educated or whether we’re properly documented. Whether we were our very best selves this week or whether we arrive this night burdened with the worst kind of guilt for the most appalling behavior, we come …

Like the shepherds, and the wise men, and the innkeeper and the angles, we come.

John Knox wrote:

In the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and in all that the life of Jesus was afterward to reveal, there is the message that not only is there a God, but that God comes very near.

To believe that God is above us is one thing. To believe that God is a strength sufficient for us is another and still more inspiring confidence …

But to believe that God is not only almighty, not only all-sufficient, but that he is God with us, God the near, the understanding and the intimate – that is best of all. The eternal God, coming down into human life.

My sisters and brothers all – when you step out of this place and back into your lives later on tonight, I pray you will carry the words and the message of this story in your hearts. God has come to us. And everything we need to know about our God and everything we need to be in relationship with our God is made true flesh, in an infant child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in bucket meant to feed farm animals. He needs you every bit as much as you need him.

Never forget the wonder we came to hear about this night. And never forget never forget the simple invitation that he offers: will you love me?

Faithfully Yours in Christ –

+ Bishop Barker

Christmas Eve, Trinity Cathedral, 2017
Luke 2:1-20

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From the Bishop: Advent 2017

Bishop J. Scott Barker

As the season of Advent dawns, I am considering how to “prepare the way” in my life for the celebration of Christ’s nativity, and more importantly, for his certain return at the end of days.  I’m sure I am not alone in hoping to deeply engage with that work in the weeks to come.  There is an unmistakable sense of urgency in the air just now, which seems to be partly about the season of Advent, but may be in even greater part about the hard challenges and wonderful possibilities set before Christ’s disciples at this moment in time.  Christians all over the world are asking how to be more faithful disciples as we wait to see what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the future of Christ’s Church and the kingdom of God.

 

I read a compelling and sobering opinion piece this week about the power of liturgy, and the willing – even eager – capitulation of Christian people to the worship of a false, powerful and uniquely American god.  The article, (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/17/opinion/sunday/escape-roy-moores-evangelicalism.html) by Molly Worthen, accounts how Americans are profoundly shaped by their constant diet of TV news.  Worthen points out that the hours so many of us spend in front of the TV (and other media) not only informs us about current events, but–like church liturgy in its repetition, rhythm and presentation of a particular world view–shapes us as human beings and impacts what we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

Worthen’s critique is principally directed at conservative media outlets and the idolatries of white supremacy and consumer culture that are touted as gospel in a non-stop, 24-hour broadcast cycle.  But to be sure, progressive media outlets just as reliably preach their own version of truth that is often equally inconsonant with the Gospel of Jesus.  The point is not whether news from the left or right is “better,” but rather that spending hours of every day letting the media feed us whatever they wish, is imperiling our souls.  While Worthen doesn’t say it, I will: if we spent as much time in church worship, Bible study, prayer and discipleship groups as we did watching cable news, our Church and our world – not to mention our individual human lives – would be entirely different.

 

Advent is all about readying ourselves for Christ’s coming into the world as he arrives to usher in an entirely different reality.  The classic disciplines of the season – watching, waiting, praying and preparing – all point to the need we share to change how our lives are oriented in this here and now, so that when Christ comes, we are at the ready.

 

For me this year, “preparing the way” is going to include committing to spend more time every week in worship, study, prayer, and in service to the poor, than I do consuming any media version of news and opinion.

 

Molly Worthen quotes the philosopher James K. A. Smith from his book, Desiring the Kingdom, in her opinion piece: “We are, ultimately, liturgical animals because we are fundamentally desiring creatures.  We are what we love.”

 

I can hardly think of a better time or season than this one to show what we love best, by worshipping aright.

Faithfully Yours in Christ –

+ Bishop Barker

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From the Bishop: Annual Council Homily

2017 Council Homily
Church of Our Savior
Proper 24 – Year A
October 20, 2017

 

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?

Amen.

 

+ J. S. Barker

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From the Bishop: Annual Council Address

Bishop J. Scott 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.

 

A Challenge

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.

 

A Strength

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

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From the Bishop: Pentecost 2017

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –

 

Among the small duties of which I need to keep track is the task of having the right color vestments on hand in my truck for any given week’s liturgical celebrations.  The choices are limited but still several, and since riding around in a dusty truck-bed is not an easy life for clergy vestments, I don’t keep the whole collection with me at all times.  Instead, once or twice every week, you’ll find me at some point walking from my office down to the cathedral sacristy to grab the proper cope, stole and mitre for whatever celebration is coming up next.  It’s satisfying to get those choices right (all according to season, day, service and local custom) and only once in a while do I forget altogether, and find myself begging to be clothed out a local sacristy closet.

 

Now that the season of Easter is ended with our annual celebration of the feast of Pentecost, the work of choosing Church vestments will become somewhat simpler for the next many months.  We have entered the long green season of the Church year known as “ordinary time,” and while we will still celebrate an occasional feast or exceptional life transition in our parishes, we will, for the most part, find ourselves bedecked in plain green vestments and altar arrays, and having the time and space in our church communities to settle into a different rhythm of worship and ministry.

 

This is the time of year that we hear the story of Jesus in more or less chronological order as part of our Sunday morning gatherings, and so are reminded of the larger scope of his many teachings and miracles.  This is the time of year that absent the need to build big celebrations (like Christmas or Easter!) parish leaders can focus on discernment, engaging with questions about a church’s call and mission.  This the time of year when absent the press of the school calendar and related activities, youth and youth leaders can find the time to be together in more deeply engaging ways.  This is the time of year when long, bright days mean there is actually room on Sundays to “do it all,” making weekly church attendance a more do-able proposition.

 

I am a person who loves our Church calendar and the way it marks the passage of time in both my personal and community life.  And one of the things I love best is the way that our alternating seasons change up the rhythm of our lives by setting aside times of feast, fast and feria. When we keep these days and seasons well, we become disciples who know how to love, honor and praise God in every single moment of our lives from the mountaintop, to the valley of shadow, and on all the many days that lie between these two.

 

I pray that you can enjoy this long, unhurried and even dreamy season of our church calendar year.  Truly, this long green season of the Church’s year is no ordinary time!

Faithfully Yours in Christ –

+ Bishop Barker

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