From The Bishop
My great grandfather Joseph Barker lived in Omaha 100 years ago. He kept a line-a-day diary for his entire adult life, and those volumes now belong to me. This week in 1919, he wrote:
Sunday Sep 28, 1919. Up 9 AM. Rain. Church – fine dinner with Bostwick Massey …
Mob burned courthouse and lynched negro. Nearly killed Mayor Smith. Cut fire hose – Military at 1 a.m.
On the next day, his terse account continued …
Monday Sep 29, 1919. Soldiers all over town, more coming. Riot over. Father Holsapple’s family missed train (and) stayed our house … wrote a lot of riot Insurance … Brandeis – 1,000,000. Bed 8:30. Rain.
On September 28, 1919, a massive crowd of white Omahans laid siege to our county courthouse, brazenly scaling its walls and setting it ablaze. They eventually successfully abducted and murdered a black prisoner by the name of William Brown, a meatpacker who – historians now broadly agree – had been unfairly accused of assaulting a white woman. Brown was beaten, hanged, shot and burned. Eventually, his body was dragged through the streets of Omaha. Rioting by the all-white mob continued for the better part of two days, terrifying Omaha’s black community. Though there were thousands of witnesses to the violence – and dozens of photographs taken of the lynching – no one was ever prosecuted for Brown’s murder.
Omaha is soul searching this week. We’re remembering the facts of what the World Herald called in Sunday’s paper, “Omaha’s Darkest Hour.” We’re trying to be faithful and fearless about examining the legacy of racism in this community and the myriad ways that racial prejudice and hate still influence life in our “Nebraska Nice” city.
With the rest of the nation, we have come a long way in 100 years. My great grandfather would not have dreamed of school desegregation, powerful black politicians and business leaders, the racial integration of cultural institutions from the Boy and Girl Scouts to the country club … let alone a black President. But for all the ground that has been gained in the past century, Omaha – like virtually every U.S. city – continues to struggle with its legacy of racism and the reality that institutions like government, schools, law enforcement, and even our churches continue to be deeply influenced by individual and structural racism.
Grandpa’s two diary entries tell a heartbreaking story both in what they record, and in what they leave out. Grandpa apparently does not know the name of the victim of the lynching or, if he knew Brown’s name he decided it wasn’t worth mentioning. Though he was a man of real faith and charity, Grandpa does not indicate that he was moved to protest, pray or organize against the violent crowd of his fellows who terrorized the city for two days. In the diary entries which follow after these, there is never any mention of ongoing work to seek justice for William Brown or for Omaha’s black community. In fact, as an insurance man, the diary notes that grandpa did a brisk business in “riot insurance” that week, including the sale of a $1 million policy to Brandeis, a local department store.
Even 100 years later, I am struck by parallels in Omaha and throughout the U.S. today:
- Grandpa’s failure to acknowledge the humanity of William Brown by even recording his name in a diary feels a lot like the way many residents of Omaha will refuse to shop, eat and attend events in North Omaha (the city’s predominantly black neighborhood) despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that most white Omahans have few friends in, nor personal acquaintance with, that beautiful and historic part of the city.
- Grandpa’s ability to turn a profit on the fears of white Omaha by selling riot insurance is echoed in the way that (largely white) corporate America is enriched today by the privatization of our prisons, and the corollate expansion of “tough on drugs” laws to fill those prisons – laws that get passed because people are afraid, even though it’s been proven time and again that such laws are enforced far more often against people of color than equally guilty whites.
- Grandpa’s silence and complicity in the face of the brutality of his fellow white citizens, is surely echoed in the silence of middle America today in the face of burgeoning hate speech and a resurgent movement of white supremacy … not to mention white America’s fundamental ignorance of black history, and African-American intellectual achievement in the U.S.
Racism, it is said, is America’s “original sin.” Such a distinctly religious language applies perfectly here. Racism is indeed a virulent and deadly sin, and it is in the American air we breath. Like every human sin, it is insidious and dangerous enough that in the end, it is only by the power of the living God that we can hope to be saved from it.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, has called us to follow Jesus’ “Way of Love” as a Christian denomination. Along with evangelism and creation care, Bishop Curry is encouraging his fellow disciples to work and pray towards racial reconciliation both in our individual lives and in our Church, especially by seeing and caring for the person of Jesus in every one of our brothers and sisters.
I can’t help but wonder what might have happened 100 years ago, if my great grandfather and his fellows had seen the person of Jesus in William Brown. Perhaps by God’s grace, we will have that vision in my hometown this week. If we are faithful and brave, we will take the time to remember Omaha’s darkest day. We will look unflinchingly at the terrible wrongs that were done – and are still done today – in the name of “humor” or “justice” or “pride.” We will fearlessly examine our own lives and consciences to reveal the ways in which we are complicit in the sin of racism in our city and in our churches here and now. We will confess and repent of those sins, and partner with the great reconciler to build a more just community.
My siblings in Christ, may we strive to seek and serve Jesus in all persons, loving our every neighbor as ourselves.
+ Joseph Scott Barker
XI Bishop of Nebraska
Ed. Note: This week, Trinity Cathedral, Church of the Resurrection, and All Saints invite all to an eight-day prayer vigil for racial justice and reconciliation, as we remember the 400th anniversary of the start of the slave trade in America, and the 100th anniversary of the brutal lynching of William Brown by an Omaha mob. The vigil started with a screening of the film Traces of the Trade on Friday, September 20th, continues each day with a reflection posted to Facebook (@trinitycathedralomaha, @resurrectionomaha, @AllSaintsOMA), and ends with the following two events:
Durham Museum: Race: Are We So Different?
Sunday, September 29th • 1:30 PM • Durham Museum • 801 S. 10th St
Meet at 1:30 PM in the main lobby. (There is free admission from 1 to 5 PM on Sunday to this exhibit.)
Sunday September 29th • 6:00 PM • Clair Memorial United Methodist Church
5544 Ames Ave • City-wide race and reconciliation worship service
Please join us in prayer, reflection, and action.
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
We are just days away from our celebration of Christ’s Nativity and the twelve-day feast that falls between Christmas Day and The Epiphany. I can well imagine the busyness, excitement, and stress of all your lives over the course of the coming days. For both clergy and lay folks alike, there are parties to plan, gifts to purchase, meals to cook, innumerable errands to run … and friends, family, and neighbors for whom to care. These are without a doubt among the most hectic days of the year, and it can be a challenge to stay attentive in the midst of the demands of the season, to the presence of the person whose miraculous birth all this activity is meant to celebrate.
The fact is that Christ has come and will come again. Our attention to that truth in this season is not only the best focus for all this activity, but our best hope for deepening our relationship with God and leading the kind of joyful and loving lives we’re invited to model as followers of Jesus. My friend Phileena Heuertz recently wrote a fine book on prayer and spiritual practice called Mindful Silence. Phileena writes in part:
God can only be experienced in the here and now. Divinity is in the flow of love. [And] learning how to open to and be receptive to the flow of love is how change and liberation comes about in a person’s life.
Christmas is our celebration of God breaking into our experience of the here and now. And wonderfully, what we come to see and know in the person of Jesus is that when divinity shows up to us, it is love – not judgment – that is unleashed into the world and our lives. In the person of Jesus, God not only shows and shares a depth of love for humankind that reaches to and through death, but God invites us right into that same flow of love, by appearing as a human infant, entirely dependent on all of us to be welcomed, nourished, protected and cared for.
I pray that the here and now of your Christmas celebration might be richly blessed with an awareness of the God who comes, and in whose life, death and resurrection we all experience the depth of our Creator’s love for us … and the soaring joy of the life of freedom that we have in him.
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The letter below comes from our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. Your General Convention did significant work around issues relating to clergy sexual misconduct and abuse this summer, and that work continues in the wider Church. If you need to make a confidential report about abuse or harassment that has happened within the church, please email The Rev. Ruth Tomlinson, our intake officer for disciplinary matters.
+The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Statue of Limitations Suspension for Clergy Sexual Misconduct Begins
January 1, 2019
Dear People of God in the Episcopal Church:
Nearly a year ago, we issued a call for the church to examine its history and come to a fuller understanding of how we have handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years. In particular, we asked to hear voices from the wider church at General Convention so that deputies and bishops might consider both how to atone for the church’s past and shape a more just future. As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, as children of God with all people, we could do no less, and we must do more.
In July, General Convention considered 26 resolutions and one memorial addressing issues the #MeToo movement has brought to light, many of them developed by the House of Deputies Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation. One of these resolutions, Resolution D034, suspends for three years the canon (church law) that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct against adults. There is no time limit on reporting clergy sexual misconduct against children and youth under age 21.
As a result of this resolution, from January 1, 2019 until December 31, 2021, those who wish to bring a case of sexual misconduct against a member of the clergy will be able to do so, regardless of how long ago the alleged misconduct occurred. Allegations of misconduct can be made to the intake officer in the diocese where the alleged misconduct occurred, or, if the allegation is against a bishop, to the Office of Pastoral Development. You can learn how to reach the intake officer in a diocese by checking its website or calling the bishop’s office.
We hope that this temporary suspension of the statute of limitations will be one way for the church to come to terms with cases of sexual misconduct in our collective past. Between now and General Convention in 2021, laypeople, clergy and bishops appointed to several task forces created by the 2018 General Convention will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence.
We are grateful to the many deputies, bishops and other volunteers across the church whose careful
The Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President, House of Deputies
Annual Council Scottsbluff & Gering
Mark 10:46-52 October 26, 2018
Right Reverend and Dear Friend –
I write in October of the year 2018 for the sesquicentennial celebration of the diocese you now serve. This may seem like an impossibly distant past to you – this age of which you could only know through reading a history book. The Gospel text for the celebration for which I am writing is the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” who memorably calls out to Jesus, “I want to see!” From that Gospel cry, let me tell you what I see.
As I sit down to begin, it is a stunning late autumn afternoon in Nebraska. The sky is deep blue – almost cobalt – and the fallen leaves rustle with every gentle breeze that sweeps across the roads and the fields. The leaves still turning in the trees are shimmering brilliant scarlet, orange and gold. Our weather is unsettled, and that makes me wonder and worry about yours. Ten days ago, a whole bunch of snow fell across a great swath of the diocese – a too early storm that complicated an already soggy and slow harvest. That snow fell wet and heavy – so brought down limbs and trees that caught too much weight in their leaves. It was a mess.
The wonder and the majesty of this land seems like the right place to start.
Nebraskans are especially appreciative of the beauty of this place, and keenly attuned to the rhythms of the natural order, including the changing of the seasons and the life cycles of their crops and livestock. One of the first things I learned when I became the Bishop of this place was that I would not be needing to teach anyone about the grandeur of God’s creation, nor what it means to be a mere creature of that same God. Instead it is the people of Nebraska who have been teaching me for the last seven years about the miracles of nature, the right place of a human being in this lonely landscape, and God’s providence over it all.
Some of my most vivid memories of this ministry have been those moments traveling the state when I have happened upon wonders both great and small that have reminded me of the miracle of God’s handiwork, and the privilege of having been born here and called back home, after a time away, to live and work. I remember seeing my first-ever dust devil! It was in the springtime, and I was so hopped up worrying about tornados that I about jumped out of my skin when a dark brown cloud suddenly twisted right up next to me as I was zooming by a recently plowed field off interstate 80. The cloud was fifty feet high anyway – and it was sucking up dry dirt and spewing it out all around that field and the Interstate. It was a marvel.
I remember an afternoon driving down highway 97 from Mullen towards North Platte right at sunset. Canon Easton (my Canon to the Ordinary) said, “I hope we see an antelope,” and not two minutes later, the pick-up startled an antelope that was hiding in the ditch just off the road. She raced us for almost a mile – caught between the road and a barbed wire fence. I could not believe the speed and grace with which that creature moved, nor will I forget the final glance we caught of her little charcoal-swiped nose and
blunt black horns, before she found a way under that fence and off into the tall grass to hide once more.
I remember driving out to a Sandhills ranch on the day that a full solar eclipse slouched in a diagonal shadow all across the whole diocese from Chadron to Falls City. I kept my expectations low (there’d been a whole lot of hype in the build-up that summer), but when the disc of the sun finally blinked all the way out that day and a gloaming suddenly appeared at every compass point on the horizon, and the crickets started chirping because they thought it was time for us to go to bed…well, I cried right along with the rest of them. (A “rest of them” I might add, that included a bunch of cowboys half drunk at 11 in the morning, and who looked like they might have been as surprised by the tears on their cheeks as they were by the suddenly dark sky.)
This place! This place is just as beautiful and full of the wonder and majesty of God’s handiwork as absolutely anywhere else on this whole amazing planet.
I sure hope that’s still true. For all our appreciation of that beauty in this here and now we have not been honest about how fragile it all is … about the full extent of what it means to be stewards of creation and the true nature of the work entrusted to us by God as caretakers of this garden. I know that humans beings have always taken a toll on creation and I have no doubt that change is a part of what it means that our God is alive and in charge of our world, but in this last generation, it seems there has been a shift.
Now we know beyond the shadow of a doubt what great an impact human beings have on the delicate balance that exists between the plants and animals that all coexist in our fragile ecosystem. And we’ve been too slow to admit that the patterns of the lives we
lead are unsustainable … that if we don’t change how we live the generations that follow will not have the same possibilities or the same choices.
I am sorry for that, and I hope you can forgive us. I wonder if corn still grows in Nebraska. I wonder if we still have antelope.
I’ll bet you’re asking yourself about the people here. That’s what I would ask about, if you could tell me of your life. They are amazing, these people.
In a time and place when increasing numbers of folks have only a vague notion of whether God is real, and most of whom would be hard pressed to point to anything at all about their behavior that suggests they actually believe in God, I work every day and visit each week with people who pray and sing and serve and read the Bible, and who in a dozen, dozen ways say and show that they are really trying to make the words they say in church on Sunday morning a guiding star by which to steer their lives the rest of the week.
In a time and place where the culture that surrounds us is either openly hostile to the teachings of Jesus – or more often has twisted those teachings into an image of the worst prejudices, fears and desires of our present moment – I work every day and visit each week with people who are deeply committed to the idea that every human being is
created in God’s image. People who believe that Jesus can be found most especially and reliably in the lives of those cast to the margins by the powerful, and that really and truly loving after the fashion of Christ is hard, hard work and the highest calling of human life.
And in a time and a place where the church is often said to be dying – or even dead – I work every day, and visit each week, with people whose best thoughts, hopes actions are a determined shout to heaven of, “Not so!” And so they go to church meetings and care for church buildings and read church publications and try – first and foremost – to love the precious, weird and wonderful brothers and sisters who are part of their local church communities and so are most especially entrusted to their care.
These people inspire me and amaze me every single day of my life. I’ll imagine that’s true for you, too!
We have a strange and holy job, don’t we? There is the tension of trying to be faithful about speaking hard truths in the name of Jesus when folks need to hear them, juxtaposed against the equally deep need our people have to hear and know that they are treasured and beloved of God no matter what. There is the difficulty of knowing when to stand firm in inherited teachings and traditions that have guided us for centuries and more and when to try some bold, new thing, trusting in the presence of God’s living and Holy Spirit to show us the way. There is the constant stripping away of the ego, as we’re reminded day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour that we’re probably not really worthy of the office we inhabit, nor the kindness and the love with which we’re showered.
But on the other hand – on the other hand – what an unbelievable journey, and privilege and delight is this ministry! To visit these cherished, sacred spaces, on a constant pilgrimage from one site to the next all across the Nebraska landscape, every one holy … every one unique. To be welcomed into the lives of the faithful people of God with such incredible kindness and generosity: the warm embraces, the little gifts, the potlucks. (The potlucks! If those groaning tables of every grandmother’s best recipe and every child’s favorite treat are not a eucharistic foretaste of the banquet table in the Kingdom of Heaven then I don’t know what is!)
And to be welcomed. To be welcomed right into the middle of their precious lives and their most intimate moments. As little church vestries work and pray to imagine what Christ calls them to in this generation. As teens stand with knocking knees and trembling hands before their church families and promise to follow Jesus for the whole rest of their lives. As we shout out at the funerals of beloved saints who have gone before the most incredible, improbable and hope-filled words of all time: “Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” It’s a crazy cool job, isn’t it?
Strange and holy.
My dear friend, I wish you well in the impossibly remote land of the Diocese of Nebraska as you help celebrate our tri-centennial. I want you to know that we thought of you, and we hoped for you, and we prayed for you 150 years ago.
Know that though we dwelt in a time of extraordinarily fast change and deep challenge in the life of Christ’s Church, we did our level best to seek and serve Christ in our day. We read our Bibles, and worked to support one-another as a community upon whose life the treasured stories of our sacred book placed a duty and a call. We prayed our prayers, both the beautiful inherited poetry of the generations that went before, and the earnest, humble and heartfelt entreaties that we offered in graces at our tables, in devotions before meetings and at our bedsides each night. We cared for each other and we cared for our neighbors, imperfectly and sporadically to be sure, but by God we tried, believing as we were taught that loving a neighbor is loving Christ himself. And we labored – how we labored – to simply keep being the Church, by celebrating and sharing in worship every week, by teaching our young people the stories and traditions of our Episcopal way, by proclaiming to our friends and neighbors – equally in our smallest towns and our largest cities – that we are followers of Jesus Christ: who lived for us, and gave his life for ours and by whose presence and power we are even still becoming a whole new creation.
We wish you well, dear friend, from the distant past. May the people of God in the Diocese of Nebraska in the year 2168 be richly blessed. Know that we thought about you one hundred and fifty years ago and that we prayed for your well being and that of our Church …
And that we now look down on you with pride: our own course finished, our work now done.
Faithfully Yours –
+ J. Scott Barker, XI
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ –
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the holy one, Jesus Christ.
Happy Anniversary! This meeting of our Annual Council is the culmination of a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. It was 150 years ago this month, on October 9, 1868, that the General Convention voted to accept our request to be admitted as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. It’s a fun footnote to know that in order for a territory to become a diocese, the Episcopal Church required a “convention” of parishes meet and make that formal request. Nebraska was nearly denied status as a diocese because, when we met, we called ourselves a “council” instead of a “convention,” a move for which the larger church chastised us. To this day, we are the single diocese in all the 111 dioceses of the Episcopal Church that has an annual council instead of an annual convention. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re wonderfully independent or because we’re just a little bit rebellious, but either way, it’s pure Nebraska!
It’s been a great year remembering and celebrating our history in this place. We kicked off our anniversary with a visit from our Presiding Bishop, who came to Nebraska on the first weekend of 2018. Though he had a cold at the time, the irrepressible Michael Curry was an electrifying and inspiring presence for all those who made the journey to Omaha to come see the leader of our Church. We got great media coverage of the Presiding Bishop’s visit, partly because a resident bat from Trinity Cathedral awoke during the PBs Sunday sermon, and swooped around the sanctuary while he was preaching. Bishop Curry – unflustered – told the congregation he was pretty sure we were seeing the Holy Spirit Dove that morning. But for those of us who were close to the action: that was one hairy dove!
Our visit from the PB turned out to be a coup even beyond our expectations because just weeks after he came to Nebraska, he took another jaunt – this time to London – to preach at a little wedding that was being thrown in the land of our Anglican ancestors! We’re blessed that he came to see us when he did. Now that Bishop Curry is an internationally known rock star for Jesus, it’s a little harder to book him!
On the same Sunday morning, the Presiding Bishop was here, we gathered in our local churches all around the diocese for a special Nebraska Liturgy. With beautiful prayers and music composed especially for that day and this year, we raised our voices together to begin our sesquicentennial in common prayer.
In the springtime, our anniversary celebration continued with two joyful and unique gatherings. In April we celebrated “Cranes and Common Prayer” in Kearney, a day which included prayers and song and feasting … and some of the most delightful and moving storytelling I’ve ever participated in here in DioNeb. With June came “Pray, Walk, Do” which though it fell on a blazing hot day did not deter a great, big crowd from coming out and participating in a 5K walk/run, and a massive post-race breakfast feed on the shores of Lake Zorinsky. We capped off that gathering with beautiful prayers for our saints who’ve gone before, and for our continued faithfulness as a diocese of the Church.
This Annual Council is the culmination of our year-long anniversary celebration. Over the course of the next 24 hours, you can look forward to hearing more tales of our storied past and our spirit-filled present, as well as a keynote address from a modern-day Nebraska hero who truly needs no introduction. All along the way over these precious hours together, we will join as a big Nebraska choir to sing our special sesquicentennial songs – and pray our special sesquicentennial prayers – for one last time.
This is the place to thank some of the key players in this jubilee year. Brother James Dowd, Canon Liz Easton, Karen Burkley, and Diny Landon were the support team that helped welcome Bishop Curry to DioNeb, while that same weekend Dean Craig Loya, Father Chuck Peek, Marty-Wheeler Burnett and Rae Whitney did the Lion’s share of work pulling together our special Nebraska liturgy. Archdeacon Betsy Bennett, Father Chuck Peek, Bill Brush and the folks from Saint Luke’s and the Central Deanery lead the charge for Cranes & Common Prayer. Father Ernesto Medina – with great support from the folks at St Martha’s – masterminded Pray, Walk, Do. And Jo Berhens, our diocesan historiographer, organized the terrific series of reflections on the lives of Nebraska saints that have been featured on Facebook and in our diocesan publications over the course of the year. Tales which have not only reminded us of times now past but inspired us to be still more faithful disciples today.
Behind all this, was the ministry of the amazing Noelle Ptomey, who volunteered two years ago – when everybody else was looking at everybody else – to Chair the entire celebration of our 150th Anniversary. Noelle was gracious, collaborative, inclusive and tireless in her efforts to help us throw this year-long party. Will you please join me in giving thanks to Noelle and to all those who helped us celebrate so well over the course of this special year?
It has not been just sesquicentennial celebration since we last gathered as the Annual Council a year ago in North Platte. Here are some of the other highlights of the past year in DioNeb …
In January, several groups of Episcopalians gathered to be part of the women’s marches that were held all across Nebraska. Against a political backdrop that continues to divide us as a nation, a state, and often even from our closest friends and neighbors, it has been challenging at times to know when to organize and to make sure that the voice of the Church is heard in the public sphere, and when to heed Jesus’ call for unity, and err on the side of maintaining peace and stability in this body. In the case of a march organized to support women’s equality in every sector of our common life, and to condemn violence against women of any sort (including in our nation’s political discourse) the presence of the women and men of the Church joining together to participate in those January women’s marches was a no-brainer.
Women were among Jesus’ closest and most intimate companions and disciples; women were the most stalwart and courageous of Jesus’ friends at the time of his persecution and death; women were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were among the most generous and faithful supporters of the early church. And Jesus himself, again and again, lifts women out of poverty, powerlessness, marginalization and every situation where by coercion or violence they are being harmed by the empire or the religious authorities of the day. It is my sincere prayer and expectation that though we have often failed in the past, our Episcopal Church will always stand with women, and that includes continuing to strive towards still fuller inclusion and justice in this denomination around issues like fairness in hiring practices, parity in compensation, and representation in the House of Bishops.
I hope and expect that this January, we will march again.
In the spring, Canon Easton and I made a week-long pilgrimage to the panhandle for our Western Residency. This journey has become a fixture of diocesan life and our diocesan calendar over the last six or seven years, and I am not sure whether the folks who do the visiting or the folks who host the visits are more enthusiastic about – or have more fun with – this annual event!
As an example of what these visits look like, let me tell you about our sojourn to Saint Mary’s in Holly on a Friday evening in late May. The sun was still pretty high when we pulled off highway 87 into the church lot, but a couple of folks were already present at St Mary’s, pulling together drinks and desserts for the evening to come. The diocese bought barbeque from EJ’s in Chadron to help with the potluck, and so our first order of business was to unload from the truck about two tons of pulled pork, coleslaw, and baked beans!
Families soon began to arrive for the evening’s activities, which included baptizing a little new baby who belonged to a local ranch family, feasting together in the church undercroft and gathering for an old-fashioned hymn-sing organized by Father John Adams and for which we imported a local organist for the evening. Probably 50 people came out that night, which meant little St. Mary’s was full-to-bursting, and that when we raised our voices at the hymn-sing to praise Jesus together, we could surely be heard beyond the walls of the church and all out into the stunningly beautiful landscape of that part of Sheridan County.
I’ve noticed that when church worship is felt as a duty – and when church people aren’t very deeply connected to their brothers and sisters in the parish – people tend to disburse very quickly after a morning or evening service. No surprise that when Canon Easton and I finally threw in the towel to drive to the next place that Friday night, there were still a half dozen cars and pick-ups parked on the lawn at St Mary’s, and a big, tight group of folks still standing in the setting sun outside the parish doors: talking, laughing and being the Church.
This is one small example of the sort of intimate moment and celebration that best characterizes so much of our shared experience as Nebraska Episcopalians. Note well my brothers and sisters: God the Creator, Son and Spirit are routinely and wonderfully manifest in such a gathering, whatever the occasion and whatever the locale.
In July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Austin, Texas. Like many folks, I am ambivalent about our General Convention. I think it’s too long, too big, too expensive and not very representative of what the Episcopal Church looks like in real life. I have advocated – and will continue to be an advocate for – some real change around this inherited, cumbersome structure. But having said all that, General Convention provides a unique opportunity for us every time it meets, because it is populated by a whole bunch of faithful, sincere, and hopeful Episcopalians who have taken two weeks off from their homes and jobs to try to advance the cause of Christ in and from our larger Church.
Thanks to the hard work of those people – including a superb deputation from your Diocese of Nebraska – I think we did a credible job this year as a General Convention. We passed a responsible and lean budget for the larger church’s coming three years, that aims to continue the work of pushing Church resources towards the local level and funding the Presiding Bishop’s mission priorities of Evangelism, Creation Care and Racial Reconciliation. The witness and ministry of women was front and center at convention, and legislation was passed to help support fairness around hiring and compensation of women serving across various church ministries. Likewise, our disciplinary canons were changed to help address misconduct and abuse and to better care for survivors of abuse in the church setting. We re-admitted the Diocese of Cuba to the Episcopal Church (after we had unceremoniously severed ties with the island in 1966 at the height of the political tensions between Cuba and the US.) This move was cause for a huge outpouring of joy, especially among the large Afro-Caribbean population of our denomination. And in a legislative compromise, we decided not to begin the process of updating the Book of Common Prayer, but rather to encourage and enable much broader and more creative experimentation with prayer and liturgy in our local contexts, as a way to begin imagining what the next BCP should be.
That work has already begun with the publication and sanctioned use of expansive language Eucharistic prayers that are now being used in several parishes in the diocese. And as a next local step, I have appointed Father Steve Lahey of St. Matthew’s in Lincoln to the position of Canon Theologian for our diocese. We’re even now receiving the names of individuals both lay and ordained who would like to be part of the team that will help oversee our efforts to explore new liturgical forms here in DioNeb. If you have gifts as a theologian, a liturgist, a writer, a poet, a musician or an intercessor – and would be interested in serving in that capacity – you can still let me know!
Two highlights from earlier this autumn and the concluding months of our sesquicentennial year bear noting here.
In September, Becca Stevens – an Episcopal priest from Tennessee and the renowned founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms – came to Nebraska to help us celebrate the opening Magdalene Omaha and Thistle Lights.
Now Magdalene Omaha is not an Episcopal Ministry, nor is it, in fact, a “Church ministry” in the strictest sense of the term. But Magdalene Omaha was the brainchild of Deacon Teresa Houser, who I know credits this body with being among the first and strongest supporters of her vision to serve women who are the survivors of rape, incest, domestic violence or sex trafficking, and are doing the hard, hard work of starting life anew. And Magdalene’s board is populated by a number of Episcopalians including Dean Craig Loya who serves as it’s President. And when Becca came to Nebraska, the sold-out crowd who came to hear her speak was brimming with members of our church who had driven from all around the diocese to be part of that special evening.
Some of the best and most faithful ministry the Church does is work that starts in the parish and is then handed off to the larger community. Or work that happens in collaborative partnerships between church groups and community groups who find creative ways to serve together … or work that just happens to be done by Christian people, who care and serve because they are disciples of Jesus. In the end, it does not matter whether the Episcopal Church somehow gets “credit” for community initiatives that feed the hungry, house the homeless and heal the broken-hearted. What matters is that Christ is met and served in such work and that the people of God are doing their part to support it.
I asked Deacon Teresa if she could share some measure of the lives impacted by the ministry she been leading us in over these past few years. Many, many of you have contributed to the Friends of Tamar, which was a precursor to Magdalene Omaha and has become, in the words of Deacon Teresa, “a full diocesan effort.” 20 Episcopal Churches of this diocese have worked with local social service agencies to determine the best ways to support the local needs of women who are the survivors of sexual violence. And that little seed of an idea that launched Friends of Tamar: helping women who are leaving an abusive situation to escape sexual violence with a suitcase of toiletries and clothes? Since Christmas Eve of 2014 when a woman (miraculously enough named “Mary”) received the first suitcase, just sort of 900 bags have been delivered in the metro area to help survivors.
Deacon Teresa will tell you more about what’s going on with Friends of Tamar and Magdalene later at this Council, but the encouragement I want to offer is to point to what can happen when one person – with the support of the body of Christ – has an idea about loving, serving, caring for or supporting their neighbors in need.
I don’t know how often I am asked about how to make a difference, or how to grow the Church, or what God might be calling us to in this here and now, but surely this story shows us a pattern for that work:
Open your eyes and hearts to your neighbors who need to experience the love of God. Get to know those folks, and help your churches get to know them. And then find a way to leverage the passion and power of the body of Christ that is your local congregation.
Later in this Council, you’re going to hear from a half dozen folks who have started local ministries that are having a real impact in terms of loving and caring for church neighbors and contributing to the sense of identity and mission in the parishes where these ministries are being carried out. I hope you find real inspiration from these mission moments. Truly – the Church is the sleeping giant of this age in America. There is nothing we cannot accomplish if we put our hearts, minds, and prayers to the task.
Two years ago at this gathering, many of you met Brother James Dowd for the first time. Though I knew Brother James to be sincerely faithful and just a ton of fun, I was also – truth be told – just a little worried about how you all would react to a be-robed monk, whose great passion in life is embodying and teaching about prayer. Well, I need not have worried – and who could have imagined all that was to come!
The former New Yorker and theater guy fell in love with our Nebraska landscape and with all of you. You, in turn, welcomed Brother James with open arms as he drove around this state to visit our parishes and come to know us more deeply. And in relationship together, we quickly discovered that we all have a hunger to learn to pray better and from that to find ways to serve Jesus more deeply … a desire so widely shared that it could only be a call of God on our common life.
And so fast forward to a Friday evening just a month ago, on which 150 people gathered to celebrate “Foundation Day.” And open a Benedictine monastery and an adjacent program and home for young adults who wish to spend a year learning more about service and prayer, all on the campus of Church of the Resurrection right here in DioNeb. Brother James will say more later today, but I want to say what joy we share in his discernment to stay with us, what power lies in the witness of the people who have become the community that is The Benedictine Way, and what inspiration and hope that nascent community gives us as we seek to be shaped as people who will pray better, serve more bravely and love more deeply.
There is plenty more going on in this 150th year of the Diocese of Nebraska.
Our Bishop’s Society continues to support The Curacy project, through which we’re attracting great young priests to come to Nebraska for a season and who in turn gain an absolutely unique experience of priestly life in their first-ever calls. Our summer youth camp for kids – Camp Canterbury – continues to be a deeply joyful and authentic experience of Christian community for our youth. And the camp has grown so much over the last few years that we may soon be facing the challenge of too many kids wanting to spend a summer week learning more about Jesus (a challenge we shall be happy to meet!)
And not incidentally – remember a year ago when I reported that the larger Episcopal Church had released its data about church giving and attendance across our denomination? Last year, it seemed like a miracle to be able to report that Nebraska was the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the Episcopal Church. Well – you did it again! Of those 111 dioceses of our world-wide Episcopal Church, there were exactly 12 that measured increased attendance when the stats came out earlier this fall, and once again the Diocese of Nebraska was counted as a member of that distinguished group. For the second year running, we grew. We grew.
Let me say as I did last year that every one of you – no matter the size, shape or health of your church family – contributes to that impressive statistic. Every time you come to worship on a Sunday morning – every time you invite a friend to come and see something that’s happening at church – you play your part in helping us to grow. Keep up the good work!
Just a little later on this morning, we are going to consider two resolutions that appear on page 17 in your yellow book. These are the edited articles of our diocesan Constitution that we worked on at last year’s annual council to re-organize our governance structure. We eliminated our Executive Commission, and re-structured the Bishop & Trustees of the diocese to allow for fuller elected representation across the spectrum of our diversity around life experience, talents, Nebraska geography and all the rest. One of the rules of our polity as that when we are adopting a change to our Constitution, two Annual Council’s running need to vote for exactly the same change. I want you to know that I am very enthusiastic about the re-structuring we’ve accomplished, and that I do encourage your vote to affirm the work we did last year without amendment. I’m confident that we’ll be a more efficient, representative, and harder working governance team once this change is made.
Finally – I want to acknowledge your diocesan staff, and all of you.
Many of you have visited our diocesan offices over the course of this past year. There, you will find a group of both full and part-time people who are not only hard working and conscientious employees, but are deeply committed followers of Jesus and earnest friends one with another. I am sure that if you’ve ever walked through our doors, you were met with a smile, encouraged with a prayer and witness to a little community that actually endeavors to be the Church first and foremost. I am so grateful for the support and companionship of Kyle Smith, Lachisha Baskin, James Dowd, Beth Byrne, and Canon Liz Easton. They make coming to work a joy every day, and they work hard serving all of you with extraordinary faithfulness and commitment.
And last of all – to all of you gathered here this morning, who are representative of 53 church communities planted all over the 77,000 square miles of this state and composed of the several thousand women, men, and children who have committed themselves to be a part of the Episcopal Church in this time and place. To watch you, to work with you, and to serve you is just an extraordinary blessing. The determination and labor you bring to the project of loving each other is a powerful witness of the reconciling love of Christ. The commitment and pride you bring to the task of caring for your communities and serving your neighbors is an inspirational act of discipleship. And the hope with which you face the challenges of this moment is nothing less than an act of extraordinary faith in God’s providence … and God’s grace.
It is a privilege and a blessing to stand with you in this time and place. Thank you for all that you do and all that you give and all that you are.
Submitted this 26th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2018,
In the City of Gering
+The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Easter Day – Year B
And Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was [him.]
– From the Gospel According to St. John
I know that you carry a lot of extra stuff with you into the church on Easter morning. Some of it can seen: fancy dresses, new shoes, great hats, cards and gifts and candy, the skeptical friend or relative, a check for the church … a posy. But the biggies – the stuff we carry here with us today that is really substantial – are all the invisible things that we bring here with us.
Like any great holy day: Christmas, a wedding anniversary or a birthday – we greet this day and come to this place with a ton of memories. I remember dazzling Easter outfits to celebrate this day, including my first ever necktie – a snazzy red, white & blue striped clip-on – that was part of an ensemble Johnny Whitaker peddled to his young fans in about 1971. I remember dying eggs, and how those tiny grey and brown tablets would dissolve into brilliant, shimmering glasses of pure color, a rainbow on the kitchen counter, that made the house smell like vinegar for a whole day. I remember long Easter egg hunts both in and out-of-doors and how I used to beg my mom to give me hints about where to look, because she and dad hid the eggs too well. One year in response to my pleas she told me to “go blow your nose” about ten times, before I realized that that was the hint! The egg was in the bathroom tissue box.
My memories beyond childhood shift to church and the dinner table. I remember serving the altar as a high school kid and always feeling welcome in that work even though I was prone to asking snotty questions of the priests and to wearing bright purple sneakers that poked out from under my acolyte robes. I remember my first Easter in college – and having to find a phone book and call all around town to figure out where an Episcopal church might be and at what time they might be worshipping on Sunday morning.
I remember seminary, and gathering around our apartment table to which each of our best friends brought the Easter dish from home that they missed the most. Nathan brought “butterhorn” rolls from Maine and Lisa brought chicken curry from Dallas and Sara brought a lamb-shaped cake from Chicago covered with coconut for white fur and adorned with a single red jellybean for a great bulging eye. We all come this day with such memories. A potent brew from the past that we carry with us all the time. Memories of which we are particularly cognizant on a holy day like this.
We shoulder a lot of hope on Easter too – lugging it into this place and to all the different gatherings to which we may travel later on today. Our hopes run the gamut. For some of us, it’s all we dare to imagine that we’ll get through the day without some calamity rearing up in the hours ahead. Some of us will be happy if the new Easter pants don’t get ripped in the churchyard after the service, if Uncle John can just restrain himself from drinking so much wine at dinner that he starts insulting everybody, if the weather holds so that the drive back west on Interstate 80 isn’t awful. Some of us hope for more than just averting disaster. Maybe Tom will make the connection in Pittsburgh and make it to brunch after all. Maybe the weather will stay nice and the yard will dry out and the kids will be able to run around outside a little bit. Maybe dad will feel well enough to come to the table and sit with us…
Maybe the sermon won’t be too long!
We shoulder a lot of hope on a day like this – we lug it around this place and everywhere we’ll go.
The other thing we carry around this Easter morning is pain. In these last few days around here, a boy took his own life and a beloved father died after a long illness. A wife filed for divorce and an old friend lost her car insurance. A dad is fighting cancer every day and a daughter has a bad cold. A business is failing, and a beloved teen is seriously messing up in school. And that’s just the stuff I happen to know about.
The truth is that it’s a rare human life that’s not touched by some kind of sadness or hurt at any given moment. If you have friends and if you are serious about trying to love others in your life, then you will be heartsick and blue on many days. Even Easter mornings.
We carry a lot of extra stuff with us into the church on Easter morning. Some visible. Some invisible. But we’ve definitely got our hands full.
We can only imagine that on that very first Easter Day – the one we heard about in this morning’s Gospel reading – Mary and Peter and the others, came to that tomb with their hands full too. They may have been carrying burial ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body which they’d been unable to do in their haste to get him into the grave before sunset on Friday night. They may have been carrying memories: of Passover celebrations from better times … of traveling, eating and serving on the road with their friend … of all the wise things he said and did in their short time together. They were certainly bearing some extraordinary pain. At the death of their friend. At the scary and tortured way in which he died. At their own failure to stand by him at the end: falling asleep in the Garden, denying him at the palace, even the awful knowledge that one of their own inner circle had betrayed him to the authorities.
And hope? Maybe. A little. Maybe they hoped the guards would leave them alone as they prepared Jesus’ body? Maybe the hoped the Sanhedrin would be satisfied with destroying Jesus, and would let his followers be? Maybe they hoped their old jobs would still be open when they returned to their homes? We can only imagine all that those disciples carried on that first Easter Day.
It’s a weird thing that happens when Mary meets the risen Jesus on that first Easter morn. I don’t know if you noticed what happened when we read that part of the story this morning? Mary is crying at the empty tomb and wondering whether someone has stolen Jesus body. And then, the story says:
She turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” And Jesus said to her, “Mary.” And she turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni?”
How can this be? Mary was one of his best friends. She’d known him for years. You know what it’s like when somebody you love has just died – not recognize them if they rose from the dead and spoke to you? Good Lord that’s what we dream of in such moments. That’s what we yearn for with every fiber of our being.
Partly Mary is surely overwrought and overburdened. Her load is too great and she is too saddened and too frazzled to she what’s happened. But more that that: Mary does not recognize Jesus because he is changed. Jesus has been transformed somehow by the experience of living and dying and rising from the dead. Jesus is not the man he was! Like a reticent church-goer who gets talked into going on a mission trip and comes back a whole different woman. Like a gravely ill man who fights his way out of the hospital and back to health only to discover that all his priorities are different now … the risen Jesus is changed. He is not easy to recognize. And that is still true today.
He’s here beloved! Right here in our midst in this little old church on this Easter Day. But like Mary we come here carrying to much stuff that we may be too burdened and frazzled to know him when we see him. With so many preoccupations and expectations and pains and burdens and regrets and “should haves” and shame. And so much sadness. And so many hopes and dreams and expectations grounded in nothing but fantasy, maybe we’re distracted from the amazing truth: he is risen. He is alive. And he is present in this particular holy and transforming moment. He is with us in this right now.
Some years ago I heard an Episcopal priest preach about resurrection at the Washington National Cathedral. Father Andrew Wyatt said in part that belief in the resurrection happens by faith:
Not what is asserted against reason as an act of will, but what lifts us into just and compassionate strength when reason can take us no further…
This is the realm of hope. Not what is wished for to escape our sullen despair, but what is affirmed as even now becoming true before we perceive it…
This is the realm of love. Not what is bartered in the marketplace of personal desire, but the promotion and protection of each other far beyond mere justice … whose cost to our self is not even notice in our good will and active delight in all God’s cherished and fragile creatures.
Christ is risen. And he can be present for us, and ours lives can be changed way beyond our hopes and dreams, if we but have the eyes of faith to look for him here.
He is risen when we gather in church parish halls every Sunday, welcoming strangers like long lost brothers and sisters, with coffee and treats and an earnest desire to connect with each other and support one another in a way that will make life better.
He is risen in our schools & workplaces when we make amends with someone we’ve hurt: when we summon the grace and courage to face our fault and say we’re sorry and set aside our self righteousness and petty need to always be right and always look good.
He is risen at our bedsides, when we have the faith to pray. When we remember to credit thank God for the great blessings of our lives. And perhaps even more, when we somehow find it in our hearts to pray in the worst moments of our lives.
He is risen when we can smile and laugh with a dying loved one at their sick bed. He is risen when we shout “Alleluia” on a funeral day.
He is risen when we come to the altar rail every Sunday. When we kneel down, and bow our heads, and dare to hope that plain old bread and plain old wine really could be transformed in this place … really could become for us food with power to nourish us like nothing we’ve tasted before, giving us forgiveness of our sins, strength in our weakness and everlasting salvation.
He is risen right here and right now. And he is calling you by name. Mary, Debbie, Sarah and Michael. Anne and John and Andy and Doug. Kurt and Melissa and Teresa and Dan. Chase and Joe and Rosanne and Ethel.
He is calling us by name every one, inviting us to let go of everything that keeps us from knowing him, and loving him, and being with him today and every day. He’s calling us by name and inviting us to see what happens when we look through the eyes of faith, and join our voices with angels and archangels and saints and martyrs and all the company of heaven, shouting out the news for which we long … for which we live: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
+ Bishop Barker
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
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
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
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