From The Bishop
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
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – Matthew 22: 21
Well, given the challenges of loving one another across our political differences that I mentioned in this morning’s Annual Address, you can probably imagine how thrilled I was to see that the Gospel reading appointed for this occasion is precisely about the relationship between our Christian faith and our duties to the nation in which we live!
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This here is a trap. It’s a “gotcha” question in modern media parlance. Because the crowd Jesus is speaking to that day is a divided crowd. Some of them are basically in favor of what Caesar’s rule is up to and so are OK paying taxes to support the Empire, and the other bunch are opposed to Caesar’s claims to authority – divinity even – and so are roundly opposed to paying the taxes asked of them. Everybody listening that day expected Jesus to answer the question posed in such a way as to lend credibility and support to one side of this heated debate or the other. He’ll either support paying taxes and so tick off the Pharisees … or he will weigh in against paying taxes and so alienate the Herodians …
But either way, half his listeners are sure to head home pleased, while the other half will head home ticked off. Because it’s a gotcha question. It is a trap.
As is so often the case, Jesus utterly confounds the expectations of his listeners with his answer to the question posed that day. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
Both Caesar and God make valid claims on your life, says Jesus. It’s not a question of simply choosing one over the other. There are obligations you owe to your government, and it is right and good to pay that debt. But there are obligations too, that you owe to your God. And those obligations also must be met. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
“The answer that Jesus gave them,” writes the Reverend Doctor Marvin McMickle, “is as confounding and compelling today as it was in the first century.” Jesus suggests, “that his followers have a dual allegiance, both to the teachings and commands of God and to the government under whose flag and laws they live.” This is a notion that presents Jesus’ modern-day disciples with a challenge, says McMickle. For Jesus’ teaching here sets an unavoidable question before us: “What do we owe? And to whom?”
If we don’t find ourselves asking these questions – and wrestling with the application of our answers in our actual lives – then we may not be paying close enough attention to the world in which we live and the cares and concerns of this day. You sure don’t need me to tell you, that we dwell in very challenging times:
– We live in a culture that tolerates – even glorifies – violence of every sort.
– We live in a country in which racism and xenophobia are ascendant, and increasingly tied to circles of power in government and business.
– We live in a moment in which our advances in technology and our lust for comfort and wealth have combined to put our fragile earth – and indeed, the entire human population of this planet – at risk of environmental disaster from which we may never return.
– We live in an era in which access to the American Dream is available to fewer and fewer and fewer of the citizens of this nation. And where our reputation in the wider world as “the city on the hill” is being eroded year by year like sand cliffs on the ocean’s bank.
We live in very challenging times. And as Americans – and as Christians – we want to do the right thing. So what do we owe – and to whom?
It seems to me that perhaps our greatest obligation to our state in a moment like this, is simply to be fully engaged, knowing that our elected officials and the policies we pursue – whether at city hall or in Washington DC – will have a profound impact on the real human lives that hang in the balance of this moment.
– Surely that means that we need to vote, in every election, and not just for the candidate who excites us, but for the candidate who we honestly believe will contribute the greatest good to our larger commonwealth.
– Surely that means we need to pay attention. Our government is a complex and fast-moving operation and it is making decisions that will affect our lives and those of others in this fragile moment and for decades to come.
– Surely that means we need to be in relationship with those we’ve elected to office and those who are on the payroll we underwrite with the taxes Jesus sanctions paying. If you think the women and men who represent you in the halls of power are doing a good job, let them know … and if you feel otherwise, tell ‘em.
– And surely that means that we have to march: we have to march into our city council chambers … we have to march on our school board meetings … and when our elected officials and the policies the pursue fail to realize what is right and good for the people of God in this nation and beyond, we need to march into our streets.
(And if I may: don’t fool yourself, as I have, by imaging that posting on Facebook counts as authentic political engagement. At best, you’re calling out into an echo chamber, and at worst, you’re clubbing those with whom you disagree instead of talking to them.)
Get engaged. Take some responsibility. Render unto Caesar what is due Caesar.
We are free moral agents and the decisions we make every day matter: From how we treat our neighbors, to what charitable causes we will support, to what we watch on TV. From to the food we will feed our families, to who we will vote for in the next election, to what companies we will support in the products we buy. From the schools will we choose for our kids, to the neighborhoods we choose to live in, to who we will pray for and who we name as our enemy …
We are free moral agents … and the decisions we make every day matter.
So what do we owe? And to whom?
One terrific blessing of my line of work is the fact that almost every Sunday morning, it’s my job to lead the people of God in the recitation our Baptismal Covenant. I count it a blessing because that means I am constantly reminded of the details of our shared commitment to Christ as disciples and as his present-day Church on earth. As followers of Jesus, we make extraordinary promises about how we will follow him in the world, promises founded on the beliefs we embrace as Christians, the verities we proclaim when we say the Creed together in worship every week:
– We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
– We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son who was born of the Virgin Mary … who rose again on the third day.
– We believe in God the Holy Spirit … and saints and the forgiveness of sins … and life everlasting.
Claiming these truths – embracing them as real and meaningful to us – is the foundation of Christian discipleship. That’s where it all begins for us.
But this is NOT where Christian discipleship ends. You might think that from watching TV preachers and talking to friends who attend churches where every single Sunday’s sermon is addressed to the “unsaved” and where being “born again” is the high point of the Christian journey. But in our Episcopal tradition, discipleship is not just about what you believe – or even about what Christ has accomplished for you in his sacrifice on the cross – it is about how we will live in light of these things.
It is a privilege and a solemnity to watch and listen as the Church raises its voice on those occasions when because of a Baptism or a Confirmation, we join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own Baptismal covenant. It feels weighty to me because those words are not merely about what we “believe” to be true about God, they are also promises about how we will act in light of those truths.
Almost every single Sunday of my life, I see you standing together and boldly and publically affirming that you will act as stewards of creation … as caregivers to the hurting and the lost … as champions for what is good and right. I watch and listen as you call out, “We will!” in answer to questions like:
Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace on the earth?
These are not affirmations about what we believe my brothers and sisters. This is not head work. These are affirmations about how we will live. These are commitments about how we will act. These are promises to be engaged … and to march!
I get that there are “dual allegiances ” in our lives. I get that the work of deciding what you will say and what you will do in any given situation that demands a moral decision can be “confounding” work. But remember whose you are:
Remember who created you. Remember who sustains you every day with what you need to live and thrive. Remember who it was that gave his very life for you, so that you might live in God’s love forever.
What do we owe? And to whom?
You belong to Jesus Christ. Before any family relationship … before any political affiliation … before even your allegiance to flag or country …
You have been buried with Christ in his death … and you have been raised with him into living a whole new kind of life. We owe it all to him.
Will you now march forth from this place, and remembering the promises that you’ve made as disciples of Jesus, render unto God what is God’s?
+ J. S. Barker
Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska – 2017
My dear Brothers and Sisters and Christ –
Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus. This morning, I want to share three stories with you that illustrate a challenge, a strength and a sign of hope in this moment of our common life. Then I want to talk a little bit about the year to come and three of the prospects before us that will invite change and growth, and I will close with a word or two of thanks.
Our last Annual Council was held almost exactly a year ago. You’ll remember we were at the height of a Presidential campaign season that felt different to us than any such campaign in recent memory. We seemed to be more deeply divided about the candidates before us than was usual, the debate in the public sphere seemed courser than it had been in the past, the fact that we could not see eye to eye on what was simply “factual” seemed disorienting and disappointing.
So the election happened. And we have a new President. And thank goodness things settled down right down after that, and all that acrimony came to an end!
A couple of weeks after the election, I was at Saint Andrew’s in Omaha for my annual Sunday visit. The Bible readings for the day invited some reflection on the faithfulness of those in power and the place of the Church in the public sphere. I made my best effort to speak to the issues of the day, which included being critical of the newly elected President in some areas where his deficits are real, and being critical of the people of God in the Church, where I thought we were clearly failing in our calling to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
At the end of that Sunday morning, I received a number of requests for copies of my sermon from people who said they heard exactly what they needed in that moment … but I also received a number of comments like this one, which was scrawled on an empty Bishop’s Discretionary fund envelope that had been dropped into the collection plate. Someone had written: “I disagree with everything the Bishop says.”
Right to this very day, it remains a new and difficult challenge in our church communities, to love one another even despite our sometimes profound differences, and to locate and inhabit some shared common ground by way of connection and action as followers of Jesus.
As we’ve journeyed together through this past year, I have come to believe that the problem – the real challenge before us – is not about the positions of any of our elected leaders or even the increasingly divisive nature of our public discourse and the segregating alga rhythms of Facebook … the problem is that we don’t actually know very well the teachings and witness of Jesus Christ, and that absent an intimate familiarity with that Gospel, we are not only poorly equipped to judge for ourselves what is “right” and “wrong” in the political realm but we have little to bind us together as people of faith when we’re working through the challenge of loving our brothers and sisters whose background, experience, and dreams are different than our own.
I can’t think of a single issue – at least of the sort over which we’re so deeply and easily divided – that does not have a moral dimension and so is not the appropriate “business” of the Church. If we’re doing our job, we will evaluate and respond to the actions of our elected leaders and our government in church. Our shared responsibility – in this moment, is to dig much more deeply into the teachings of Jesus – and to follow him more nearly – so that with consciences informed by God’s word and our community of faith, we can take stands in public that are consonant with what we say we believe as disciples of Jesus … and how we promise to act, as disciples of Jesus.
For every single one of us, this will and should constitute a challenge to our partisan politics and identity as people of faith.
During Lent and Easter of 2018, our Presiding Bishop is inviting the whole Episcopal Church to participate in, “The Good Book Club.” Over those several weeks, we’ll read together the Gospel according to Luke and Luke’s story of the earliest Church as recorded in his companion Book of Acts. I am issuing an invitation right now, to the whole Diocese of Nebraska to join in that work. Let’s read the Gospel together. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with what Jesus teaches about things like serving the poor, caring for refugees, responding to violent behavior, paying taxes or disagreeing with a brother or sister in Christ.
I am certain that such a read will challenge us all, enlighten us all, and help restore a foundation of shared, real “Christian values” on which we can build in the year and years to come.
Somewhere out there in your midst is Mother Katie Hargis, who is our brand new Pro-Cathedral Dean, and who arrived here in DioNeb just in the nick of time to join us for this Annual Council weekend. Dean Katie is actually one of three new Rectors who has recently relocated to the diocese of Nebraska and so brought to a wonderful and successful conclusion three long and prayerful searches for new parish clergy leadership. Along with Katie, it is a great pleasure to welcome to DioNeb Mother Amanda Gott – now serving at Saint Matthew’s in Lincoln, and Mother Stephanie Swinnea – serving at Saint Luke’s in Kearney. We’re so glad you are all here.
We often say that the parish churches of the Diocese of Nebraska are “scrappy.” By that we mean that despite our modest numbers and resources, we still find ways to care for one-another meaningfully, to serve one another faithfully, and to love one another graciously. If we were to write out the scrappy formula, I think it might be: “deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy.”
The story of Dean Katie’s recent move to Nebraska, tells this tale in a wonderful way. A search for a new church rector can cost a bunch of money – and the people of our Pro-Cathedral worked diligently during their search process to manage their expenses without compromising on doing the job right and well. Part of that was trying to imagine how to relocate the newly tapped Rector without collecting bids from big commercial moving companies and paying $10,000 for an interstate truck move. How to handle the cost of relocating Dean Katie from the Diocese of Western Kansas to the Diocese of Nebraska?
On the first Sunday in October after church, nine folks from the Pro-Cathedral drove down to Dodge City, Kansas in three pickups and with two trailers. They spent the night, and then on the next morning, they all worked together to load Dean Katie’s gear into the trucks and later in the day, to drive it all up to Hastings. When the crew of now ten got to Nebraska, they were met at the Dean’s new place by a dozen more Pro-Cathedral folks who came to help unload and get their new leader all settled in. When it turned out at the last minute that Dean Katie’s rental was not quite ready for occupancy, our team called an audible, and quickly found garage space in which her stuff could be stored. When that work was done, dinner was provided for all the troops.
A week later, a dozen ready and willing souls showed up once again to get those garages emptied out and to get Dean Katie (finally!) settled into her new digs. At the conclusion of the move, yet another feast materialized, and all ate to their heart’s content and toasted a job well done.
Loving, caring, serving Christ in others and making a difference in the world God has entrusted to our care: this work to which we have committed ourselves does not take hundreds of people, or thousands of dollars, or extraordinary gifts of business smarts or theological acumen to be well done.
We are a strong diocese in part because we are a scrappy diocese! We are a people who find ways to use the resources we have at hand – even when they might seem modest or insufficient to meet the challenges of the moment.
“Deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy!”
A Word of Hope
About three weeks ago, I got an email from the department of the Episcopal Church that tracks data. I get that note at about this time every year, and every year -going back since I began my ministry twenty-five years ago – it’s always a hard letter to read, presenting sobering numbers to digest.
The Episcopal Church has been in numerical decline for more than 30 years straight. We’ve lost over a quarter of our members since 1980. Here in the center of the country – where disappearing small towns have their own set of hard challenges quite apart from the challenges we face as a denomination – things are even harder. By the main statistical measure of health – average Sunday church attendance – the Diocese of Nebraska has not seen an increase in many, many years. So when that email came, I was not surprised to read the executive summary of the report.
In 2016 – the last year for which we’ve got all the data nationally – there were fewer Episcopal Churches than there were the year before, fewer Episcopalians than there were the year before, and lower average Sunday attendance than there was the year before. With a heavy heart, I clicked to the page that detailed our church demographics here in Province 6 – the Province that makes up most of the beleaguered middle of the country. As expected, when I scanned the average Sunday attendance column for the province, things looked pretty grim. As I looked down the columns, it was one sad statistic after another: declines from 3% to 5% and more. Wyoming was a bright spot in the Province, showing 0.8% growth … a little less than 1%.
And then there was Nebraska. Nebraska. With our little community of 53 churches, about 2/3 of which are in those tiny Midwestern towns and fully half of which worship fewer than 25 people on a Sunday morning. Let me tell you what the report said about us: from 2015 to 2016, the average Sunday attendance in the diocese of Nebraska increased by 3.5 %. Which makes us – at least in the last year for which we have data from the home office – the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the whole Episcopal Church.
Now let’s not lose our heads. Being one of the fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church is like being one of the tallest skyscrapers in Topeka …
And average Sunday attendance is not the only measure of growth and success in the church landscape.
But I do take that measure as a sign that we are on the right track together. And I want you all to know that every single one of you plays a part in that success. The five churches across the state that are adding members to their rolls in double digits every year are leading the way, but there are in fact 24 parishes in Nebraska who’s Sunday attendance rose by at least one person in that latest report.
We can celebrate, and learn from, all those communities, both east and west, rural and urban for the modest growth they’re experiencing. And we can celebrate all of you too:
– Because every time one of you crawls out of your warm bed on a cold December Sunday because you need Communion …
– Every time one of you shows up on our Sabbath day because you care about your brothers and sisters in Christ who are your church family …
– Every time one of you pops into some sister church in some other town when you are visiting friends or relatives elsewhere in the sate …
And most of all, every time one of you invites a friend to come see what it is about your church community that keeps you coming back, week after week and year after year, you contribute to building up the body of Christ, and being part of a diocese that is suddenly, wonderfully, showing our Episcopal Church that by the power of the Holy Spirit there is always hope, even out here middle America!
Now – a couple of exciting things to share about the year to come.
2018 is the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. We’ll be celebrating that sesquicentennial over the course of the entire year, kicking off that celebration on the first weekend in January when our Presiding Bishop will visit Nebraska on a Saturday night to lead us in worship and conversation about this moment in our Church and our calling as members of the Jesus Movement.
On the next day, we’ll officially begin our anniversary year by lifting our voices in common prayer across the diocese, worshipping on that Sunday morning with prayers and song specially written for the day, for the year, and for Nebraska! In fact tonight you will be part of the world premiere of one of those pieces, as we’ll sing together at our Festival Eucharist a hymn composed to celebrate our 150th by Nebraska hymn writer (and Bishop’s Cross recipient!) Rae Whitney.
Later on in this council, Noelle Ptomey – who is graciously and capably leading the charge as chair of our sesquicentennial committee – will tell you a little bit more about all we have in store for our 150th.
During tomorrow’s council business session, you will have the chance to consider legislation designed to simplify the governance of our diocese.
This is the culmination of better than three years of work, as your diocesan leadership – including especially the members of your Bishop & Trustees and your Executive Commission – have met jointly, examined the governance structures of other dioceses, studied the needs of DioNeb in the moment and prayed sincerely to know the will of the Spirit. I am very grateful to the many people who’ve engaged this work over these past few years, and I want to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to the Reverend Marisa Thompson and our Chancellor Woody Bradford, who took up the challenge of leading much of this work and conversation on behalf of us all.
I want you all to know that I am in favor of passing the legislation we’ll see later on at council, and so simplifying our governance structures. It’s my belief that our present organization as a diocese has too many moving parts – and requires too many people – to do the relatively straightforward work of managing our financial resources and sharing in the task of visioning and implementing our diocesan ministries.
If we can do what we need to do with half as many people at the table, that will liberate a bunch of talented, passionate and faithful folks to engage in the critical work of serving Jesus in local parishes, or in diocesan ministries that are more directly related to serving he poor, healing the sick, spreading the Gospel and building the Church. If you’ve not already done so, take a look at that legislation which is included in your registration packet, get talking with the folks at your table, and let’s see if we can’t figure a way to make a change that’s been a long time coming.
It’s been awhile – better than twenty years in fact – since the diocese has led an effort to plant a new church community.
The prospect of engaging that possibility is especially exciting in this moment when so many new and creative incarnations of “church” are being planted and tested all over the US, and not just in our Episcopal Church, but in all the variety of denominations and non-denominations that make up the larger body of Christ. I’m pleased to announce that the diocese of Nebraska has been awarded a grant by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (that’s the fancy name for The Episcopal Church!) to help us study and pray about the prospect of establishing a new church in DioNeb, work which we will commence before the end of the 2017 calendar year.
It’s a good bet that a church for the new millennium won’t look much like a church of 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Though it’s possible we’ll discern a need to erect a new building with stained glass windows and a steeple – and call a full-time priest to help fill the pews – ‘church plants” in 2017 often sport a very different look. What is certain is that the Church we start after praying, studying and dreaming together, will be a church that is representative of the kind of faith and values that already distinguish this diocese and the wonderful people who live and serve here.
It’s a sure thing that it will take some time to pray and study our way into discerning the Spirit’s call around starting a new Nebraska church – and we will surely need the support of any number of you who are excited about the prospect of building some new, relevant and faithful version of a church for the 21st century. Stay tuned. And by all means, start praying for this work even now!
Before I move to closing and some words of thanks, I want to tell you about one more locus of the Spirit’s movement – and of hope for the deepest kind of growth – that now lays before us.
Hard to believe that it was only one year ago that Brother James came to our Diocese of Nebraska from New York, via South Africa. Most of you met him for the very first time at last year’s council, and though he quickly won us all over with his love of Christ, his love of life, and his passion for teaching us about prayer and service, even so, I know that there was some head scratching going on. What do we need with a monk?
Now twelve months on, and – I don’t know – probably 30,000 miles later – I think we all agree that we’re blessed beyond measure by the presence of our beloved brother James in this place.
And so it’s with particular delight that I can share the news that Brother James has discerned a call to make his home with us here in Nebraska for the foreseeable future and to help lead us in building a brand new ministry of prayer, service, and formation.
We’re even now pulling together the pieces of what we’re calling the Benedictine Service Corps. The vision for this ministry is to invite young adults – both women and men – to come live with us for a season here in the Diocese of Nebraska, in a community structured after the fashion of Saint Benedict and in the tradition of the ancient monastic ministries of the Church.
We’ll be looking for people who have a sense of calling around deep prayer, care for the poor and for creation, and community living … not necessarily monastics, but rather people who are called to live in an intentional Christian community for just a year or two. Picture 3 or 5 folks to start: praying together daily, eating meals in common, sharing expenses and all serving in churches and local ministries of care and service to those on the margins. We hope to plant this community in urban Omaha to begin, and we will build it with the intention of serving in – and expanding to – greater Nebraska in the months and years to come, ultimately making the Benedictine Service Corps a ministry with a commitment to the entire Diocese of Nebraska.
By all means, grab Brother James here at council if this vision of a community of prayer and service appeals to you. We’ll need folks with talent and passion in everything from plumbing and painting to preaching and praying to make this thing happen …
And at this time, we most especially need to connect with people who will help us in recruiting the first members of this new community.
I wish to close this morning by saying thanks.
Thanks first to the wonderful people with whom I work every day and who minister with such passion on your behalf.
I just mentioned Brother James and all that he’s given of himself to the people of this diocese. I am sure we’re a more deeply prayerful staff – and that I am a more seriously prayerful bishop – because of his witness, support, and friendship. You, my brother, have my great admiration and gratitude.
Though her position is entirely a volunteer one, Archdeacon Betsy Bennett comes into the office every week to participate in our Tuesday morning staff meetings and help support the wider ministries of DioNeb. She’s been a tireless advocate for those living on the edge – and for the care of creation we’re called to as followers of Jesus. She is a wonderful contributor to this community.
Lindsey Rowe has served as our Diocesan Administrator since April of 2014, and in that role has managed everything from the day-to-day operations of the diocesan office, to bishop’s annual visitation schedule, to meeting and event planning – including pulling together this and each year’s Annual Council. Many of you will have read the news we shared last week, that Lindsey has submitted her resignation and will be moving on to a tremendous opportunity as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of Immanuel Health Systems Pathway’s, Program in Omaha. Know that Lindsey has lead with her deep affection for all of you as a life-long Nebraska Episcopalian whose love for the churches and the people of this diocese is unmatched. We will miss that devotion … and her unflappable calm in the face of the many minor crises that punctuate diocesan ministry. Thank you, Lindsey. You will be missed.
As you know, Beth Byrne manages the finances of our diocese. She does that work with the perfect balance of uncompromising attention to the details of our numbers and a deep faith in the Spirit’s guidance over all that we do. You’ll get to hear her do her thing at length, later on in this council. Beth has also adapted with superior grace to a job description that has changed and grown substantially over the course of her seven years of service. Whether it’s in her role as Comptroller, Property Manager, Investment Advisor or Financial Secretary, we are entirely reliant on Beth’s skills and hard work to be faithful stewards of the gifts of money and property that God has entrusted to our care. I am so grateful for her service.
Father Phil Chapman died recently and will be terribly missed by us all. One of many things Father Phil taught me – this was in the signature line of every email he ever sent – was to “travel in pairs and worship in groups.” That notion of “traveling in pairs” comes from the Gospel of Luke, in which is told the story of the first time Jesus “sends out” his followers to do his ministry in the wider world. Jesus commissions the disciples in pairs … he bids them “travel light” … he tells them not to stay in any one place for too long, but rather, to keep on moving.
I am so blessed – we are so blessed – that Canon Liz Easton read that part of Luke’s Gospel and has been willing to ride alongside me for three and a half years now. I hope our partnership is seen as a model for how to be a joyful and effective disciple of Jesus in this time and place for that is our shared intention. And I can tell you that I am a much better bishop – and Nebraska is a much stronger diocese – for the hard work and faithfulness of our Canon, with whom it is my great privilege and blessing to share in the leadership of the Church.
In addition to the folks on your diocesan staff, and as a close to this over-long reflection – I need to thank ALL of you.
I want to express my deepest appreciation to the clergy leaders of this diocese – priests and deacons both active and retired – who have chosen to make this place your home. I’ve lived and worked in four different dioceses as an adult, and nowhere – no place else – compares to Nebraska for the sincerity, the determination, the faithfulness and the tireless work offered by our college of clergy. You are the finest women and men I have ever worked with, and it is such a blessing to serve with you.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, thanks to all the rest of you – the lay leaders of this Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska gathered here this morning – and to the thousands of your fellow Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. I am daily inspired by all that you give, and all that you do, to build up the kingdom of God, to make Jesus known in the communities in which God has planted you and to be the Church.
This is my 7th Annual Council as your bishop, and I am as excited and proud to be here with you as I was at my first Annual Council (here in North Platte!) six years ago. It is the great blessing of my life to have been able to come home and to serve in this place that I know and love best in the whole wide world. I cannot think of anyplace else that I would rather be. It is no exaggeration to say that every day in this job is full of wonder and joy, and I am so hopeful about the future to which God beckons us as the Episcopal Church in Nebraska.
Submitted this 20th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2017,
In North Platte
+ The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
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
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the essential tale of the Christian faith. All of sacred history, both before and after the cross and the tomb, derives its ultimate meaning from the events we remember and celebrate during this Easter season. We have no greater story to tell than the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have no more important teaching to pass along … and no more hopeful news to share.
In his death, Jesus fully embodies the radical demands of the faith that he brought to his first followers and that we share in to this day. This is what “care for your neighbor,” “give to everyone who asks,” and “love your enemies” actually looks like in the midst of the fallen creation of which we’re a part. In going to the cross, Jesus demonstrates the depth of his love for humankind and offers a witness to the kind of love to which we too are called as children of the living God.
In his resurrection, Jesus offers the complimentary piece to his sacrifice on the cross. If the cross was the last word on “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you”, then Jesus’ life and teaching would not matter to us. He would rather have been just another example of the weak being exploited and destroyed by the strong. But the events of Holy Week and Easter turn our conventional wisdom about power all upside down, as Jesus destroys the forces of darkness precisely by embracing death and using it as a tool for nothing less than the salvation of the world. Jesus’ resurrection confirms his teachings about how to live, ratifies theories about how to love, and fulfills his prophecies about his own destiny and that of all humankind.
Over the great fifty days of Easter the Church throughout the world will continuously celebrate the “sacred mysteries” of Christ’s death and his resurrection from the dead. We will tell this story again and again and again, because even though we know it well, we can never fully comprehend it’s meaning for our lives, the life of the Church, or the life of the world in which we live.
I pray that you will all join with me, my brothers and sisters, in proclaiming the surprising, joyful and still astonishing news that we’re blessed to be able to share in this and every season of our lives: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– The Collect from the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
I recently read a scientific explanation for the phenomena that human beings experience the passage of time as moving more and more swiftly as we age. The gist of the explanation for this had to do with the cumulative time a human spends on earth. When we’ve only lived ten years, the passage of an eleventh year comprises (nearly) 10% of the time we’ve been alive, and so feels to us like a substantially bigger deal than the passage of a year at age fifty, when 365 days is equal to only 1/50 of our lifetime. While I am surely not doing justice to the well-reasoned explanation that I read about why “time flies,” I hope you’ll take some re-assurance from the fact that virtually everybody has the shared sense of time moving at increasing speed over the course of a human life…and that there are smart people out there who can explain to us exactly why this is the case!
The season of Lent offers an invitation to disciples the world over to slow down in the midst of the “swift and varied changes of the world” and to adjust our pattern of living to help us lead lives of greater intention, deliberation and faithfulness. Too often we’re merely reactive to the highs and lows of a given moment, and so find ourselves swept along by forces that are out of our control and by events over which we have little influence. It would seem that this is particularly the case for many of the folks in our Church and in our world right now.
As followers of Jesus we need not be unsettled or undone by life’s trials. While it may be true that we are quite limited in how much we can actually control our lives, it is within our power to determine how we will respond to what life brings us. And our chief means of so doing is to constantly turn towards Christ in our lives, and to let the assurance of his graceful presence be our moment-to-moment guide. Jesus himself models this way of being in the story of his temptation in the wilderness, where rather than seek to control the dangerous situation in which he finds himself (by fighting back or running away for instance) he simply keeps his heart and mind fixed on God’s presence and companionship, feeding back to the evil one only the words that God gives him to speak.
As you work and pray your way through Lent, I hope you’ll keep the story of Christ’s wilderness temptation in mind. We don’t take on the various disciplines of this season so much to take control over our lives, but rather, to live in such a way that we are called constantly back to the reality that we are never alone. Despite our “unruly wills and affections” and despite all the “swift and varied changes of the world”, it is within our power to fix our hearts on Jesus Christ, and so by setting him as our guiding star, to find true joy no matter what trial or temptation the world might throw in our way.
Welcome to the season of Lent my brothers and sisters in Christ. May you keep it well and holy.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
We have a little creche in our house that was a long ago gift to our family. It’s a small, wooden affair, with simple hand painted figurines representing each of the characters that were part of the story of Jesus’ first days on earth. Like many families (and churches), the Magi who are part of this tableau actually make a long journey before they finally take their place at the scene where Jesus lays in his manger. They might start in our dining room in early Advent when we first unpack our holiday decorations for the year, and then they will move, a couple of feet at a time from the top of one piece of furniture to another, until finally on January 6th we place them in front of the baby who comes to save us all. There they will stay for the rest of this season, until finally just before Lent begins, we will pack them away until next year.
If we hope to encounter Jesus, we too must expect to journey. It will not do to sit still. Whether that journey is about entering into a new and challenging relationship with some sacred other who might be a Christ-Bearer to us, or entering into a season of deeper prayer and service to meet Jesus in the person of folk on our live’s margins, or whether it be a literal journey to a new place or community that beckons us to come meet the Holy One anew, we are not likely to maintain a healthy and growing relationship with Jesus if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the comfort of “staying put” in our lives, and imagining that we need only wait on God to fill the yearning we all share to know the Christ in a deeper way.
As the new calendar year dawns, and you’re beginning to live into your resolutions for the days ahead, I hope that you will take to heart the lesson of the Magi. If meeting and knowing Christ anew is a hope in your heart and soul, then make it a commitment to be out and on the move in the year to come.
And let the journey begin today.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
We have come to the season of the year when we celebrate the birth of a baby who not only changed the course of recorded history, but whose life, to this very day, has the most profound imaginable impact on the course of human events.
Christ’s birth confounded the expectations of people of faith and provoked those who possessed great wealth and power from the very beginning. So much of what we now take for granted about God – from God’s presence in the poor and the outcast … to God’s willingness to become vulnerable even unto death … to the incalculable power of human love – was all first and fully manifest in that Bethlehem barn two thousand years ago. The birth of Jesus changes everything.
In this moment, it is increasingly clear to me that most of the challenges over which we wring our hands and lose sleep at night – from dwindling church attendance to the rise of a national political conversation driven by hubris and fear – invite nothing less from disciples of Christ than the continued, determined and joyful proclamation of the news the angels shared in this season all those many, many years ago. The Christ is born. Fear not. God is with us.
This news, for those who receive it and believe it, is as astonishing, and life altering as it ever was. If we live in its light, deeply embracing it as true and let that reality be the verity that guides us as we seek to live authentic human lives every day, our lives will be changed. And our churches will be changed. And the world itself – from the Midwestern plains that we know and love to those territories on the other side of the globe that are the farthest reaches from this place – all will be changed.
That change can begin right here and right now. We have news to share my brothers and sisters. Good news for all to hear: Jesus Christ is born!
In Love & Faith –
+ Bishop Barker
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– The Collect for Advent II
The season of Advent has now arrived, and in the days to come we’re invited to do the work of “preparing the way” in both our hearts and our world for the coming of the Christ. We’ll be invited to repent, wait, watch, pray and hope. The work we’re called to will be the same whether we imagine ourselves to be preparing for the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, or whether we imagine ourselves to be preparing for the second coming of the Christ at the end of days. It is the same God either way – a God who is constantly breaking into our daily human lives and relationships. The question of this season is not whether God will come, but whether we will be prepared to see and welcome God when that advent takes place.
We must not let ourselves off the hook for “preparing the way” out of some sense that our time on this earth does not matter, or that we can have no meaningful impact on the lives of others of in the communities in which we dwell. In the aftermath of the presidential election, many people of faith are feeling powerless in the face of forces that seem bent on destroying the environment, persecuting racial and ethnic minority groups, denying the civil rights of the LGBT community, and wielding brute military force to deal with the complex challenges of an increasingly complicated world. While it is true that our time on earth is short and that it can be difficult to measure how we make any difference in the face of the sin and brokenness of creation, I believe that as followers of Jesus we are called more than ever to the work of Advent, which begins with a turn away from what is evil, a turn towards what is good … and a sincere effort to make a difference in the world in such a way that we help make a pathway for the coming Christ. This is work that will be all the more meaningful and all the more powerful if you take it up with your larger church family. Margaret Mead is remembered for saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I wish you one and all a deeply holy and meaningful Advent. Let us ready our hearts and our homes for the God who comes.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
The End of Ordinary Time
November 13, 2016
Jesus said, “You will be brought before kings and governors on account of my name. Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist.”
– Luke 21:12-15
For months and months we have been journeying through the longest season of the Church year – the period between the Feast of Pentecost and the beginning of the season of Advent which Church calendars call simply, “Ordinary Time.” During this long season we have read through almost the entire Gospel of Luke. And our Gospel readings each Sunday morning have told us of both the actions Jesus took during his life on earth and the words of the teachings that he shared during his ministry:
If you have faith just the size of a mustard seed – you could throw a tree into the ocean.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; but those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Love God with all your heart and soul and mind; love your neighbor as yourself.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
These are just some of the wonderful- and still surprising and challenging teachings – which we have encountered during this long season.
Like Christians the world over, it’s a sure bet each one of us has gone out from our church these past months – and in our own little way – attempted the difficult task of following Christ by living into the things he teaches us. This is exciting and exhilarating work. I heard from Father Jerry about the refugee family recently adopted and settled by the people of Saint Mark’s. What an amazing service of Christ in “the least of these” for those who participated in that ministry. Others of your number have cared for friends and neighbors in trouble: you’ve visited someone at the hospital, written a check to a local charity, you’ve made a casserole for a family who needed a helping hand. I imagine some of you have stepped up your commitment to prayer this year, read the Bible more diligently perhaps, maybe helped out here at church setting up for worship or reading during the service.
Though I am not here nearly often enough, I know how you roll. I am sure there have been many wonderful acts of faithfulness and love around here these past few months, all flowing from your sincere efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus we have explored together during this “ordinary time.” My brothers and sisters, we have come to the end of ordinary time.
I followed the election returns on Tuesday night from a remote retreat center in Northern California. I was in the company of my clergy colleague group, with whom I meet twice every year for mutual support, encouragement and accountability. As it happens there was no TV where we were gathered, so we watched on our phones and laptops as the evening unfolded. It was, as you know, a long night. Not quite as long in California where the time change is two hours to the good for late night TV viewing, but still, long. By the time the election’s result finally became apparent, at the turn from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, we were pooped.
My friends were utterly surprised by the election results. They were confident of a Clinton victory from the outset, and even as the evening wore on, they continued to track the ways that Hillary might still pull it off, even as the paths to her victory became more and more byzantine, and less and less probable.
But If my pals were surprised by what happened on Tuesday, I was not. Nebraska is emphatically not the Bay Area (or New York City or Boston) the kinds of places where most of those colleagues live and work. I have been listening to Nebraska Episcopalians talk with interest about candidate Trump for the better part of a year, and to pass the time driving, I have been inventorying the surplus of Trump signs and the scarcity of Clinton signs out in greater Nebraska for months. I knew what my clergy colleagues did not: that there were a lot people just like you and me who were intending to vote for The Donald.
That we might have seen this election result coming does not make it any easier for those who did not vote for the winner, and in the days since the election, we’re seeing – and hearing from – an electorate that continues on angry, strident, and more deeply divided than ever. It is a situation that fairly begs this question: what do we do now? And specifically, for all of us here at Saint Mark’s this morning – both supporters and detractors of the president elect – what are we as followers of Jesus supposed to do now?
I submit to you that what we “do now” is not different in any way at all from what we’re always called to do as Christians engaging the realm of worldly politics.
First – we will pray. We will pray for our new commander-in-chief – as we would any president of these United States. In our Prayers of the People, starting now, we will pray for our “President-Elect Donald,” and we’ll switch that language up to praying for our “President Donald” beginning on January 20th. It matters not a whit whether you are delighted or dismayed that he will be our President. Our prayers are the same in either case: we will pray that he exercises wisdom, self control – and that he has a heart for – and compassion upon – all the people of this land. We will ask God to guide and protect him just as we would any new President.
First, we will pray for Donald Trump. And if you are unhappy that he is your president, then out of devotion to the one who teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, you should pray for him all the more often … and all the more sincerely.
Second, we will hold him to account. We will hold him to account as we would any President of these United States. President elect Trump said some outlandish and offensive things during the campaign. He demonized immigrants, belittled those with disabilities … he lied about his past. He so slandered women that if I were to quote him verbatim from this pulpit this morning, I am quite certain you would be within your rights to bring me up on charges under the disciplinary canons of the Church. Clearly Mr. Trump was not his best self when he said such things. And he did real harm with that rhetoric. If he should continue to make these kind of statements – words blatantly antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus (or God forbid should he attempt to pass laws to actually bring some of these offensive impulses into being) then you and I must hold him to account.
Understand brothers and sisters that this is not about political party or preference. Jesus has nothing to say about whether our government should be big or small, about whether highly regulated or lightly regulated business would be best for the commonweal, about what trade policies his followers should embrace or whether Supreme Court justices should strictly interpret the Constitution. You just feel free to choose. Go for it.
But as disciples of Jesus Christ you have made certain commitments that are simply not negotiable if you would have integrity about your walk of faith. You have promised – every one of you that you will seek and serve Christ in all persons. You have promised, every one of you, that you will love your neighbor as yourself. You have promised, every one, that you will respect the dignity of every human being, without exception.
It is to our shame that we too often and for too long have neglected these responsibilities and failed to keep these promises. It is to our shame that we have been sitting on the sidelines while any number of our political leaders and government policies have done harm to those who need our best care, protection and support. It is time for some repentance and amendment of life.
I wonder if it might not be a blessing in disguise that many of us have been toppled this week from the comfortable place of privilege where we’ve been perched for so long. I wonder if the fear some of us are coping with this week isn’t akin to the fear a Muslim woman feels when she wears her hijab in certain parts of the country … or the fear an African American mom feels when she sends her boy out to do an errand in the car at night … or the fear a trans man feels when he has to go to a public bathroom … or the fear a working class family feels when a parent loses a job and a family loses health insurance. How fortunate that so many of us have not been gripped by such fear … and so have not had to worry about fighting the people and the structures that perpetuate such injustices.
It is time for that to change. We will hold our new President – and all our political leaders – to account. Because we are disciples. Because we are followers of Jesus.
You wish to know where to begin. “What can I do this day,” you wonder. Well let’s start right here. First, join me in a few moments in repeating the promises of your Baptismal covenant. Reaffirm those promises with your biggest voices and your best intentions. When I ask if you “will persevere in resisting evil” and will “seek and serve Christ in all person,” answer like you mean it.
Then, start keeping those promises, right here and right now. This election season – and its aftermath thus far – have revealed that our country is deeply, deeply divided in the way we diagnose our challenges, and in the way we’d hope to prescribe solutions to our problems.
You can begin to heal those divisions today by letting go of the subtly prejudiced presumption that your world view and politics are the best, and that the person beside you surely shares all of your experiences and your beliefs. We are not all the same. We share different histories and aspirations, different passions and weaknesses, different challenges and dreams. How in the world is it that we were surprised that half the country voted differently than we did this past week?
All we have in common for certain in this place, are the complimentary truths we affirm every time we gather as the people of God and the body of Christ:
We are all sinners who fall short of being the glorious creation God made us to be.
And we put our trust in Jesus for guidance, forgiveness … and salvation.
Let’s start our work by healing the breach between us, which we have the power to do because of our common shared faith in the Son of God.
You do good work. You’ve practiced long and hard – in and from this place – to be loving brothers and sisters to one another, and kind caretakers of your friends and neighbors in need. But a new day has come. We have new and more challenging work before us. Work that in all fairness to our president-elect, has been building for some long time now. It will be hard. This morning’s Gospel reminds us that there are times when being a disciple of Jesus will mean risking persecution, even and explicitly taking on “kings and governors” in his name. But he bids us to be firm, confident, and fearless. He promises to show us the way, to give us the right words to say and to accompany us as we journey ahead.
When during World War II in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took on the escalating culture of violence, fascism and bigotry out of his Christian conviction he wrote:
“We are not [called] to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
That’s where we are this morning my dear brothers and sisters. Ordinary time is over. The time has come to speak up. The time has come to go to work.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker