From The Bishop
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
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