From The Bishop
Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska – 2017
My dear Brothers and Sisters and Christ –
Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus. This morning, I want to share three stories with you that illustrate a challenge, a strength and a sign of hope in this moment of our common life. Then I want to talk a little bit about the year to come and three of the prospects before us that will invite change and growth, and I will close with a word or two of thanks.
Our last Annual Council was held almost exactly a year ago. You’ll remember we were at the height of a Presidential campaign season that felt different to us than any such campaign in recent memory. We seemed to be more deeply divided about the candidates before us than was usual, the debate in the public sphere seemed courser than it had been in the past, the fact that we could not see eye to eye on what was simply “factual” seemed disorienting and disappointing.
So the election happened. And we have a new President. And thank goodness things settled down right down after that, and all that acrimony came to an end!
A couple of weeks after the election, I was at Saint Andrew’s in Omaha for my annual Sunday visit. The Bible readings for the day invited some reflection on the faithfulness of those in power and the place of the Church in the public sphere. I made my best effort to speak to the issues of the day, which included being critical of the newly elected President in some areas where his deficits are real, and being critical of the people of God in the Church, where I thought we were clearly failing in our calling to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
At the end of that Sunday morning, I received a number of requests for copies of my sermon from people who said they heard exactly what they needed in that moment … but I also received a number of comments like this one, which was scrawled on an empty Bishop’s Discretionary fund envelope that had been dropped into the collection plate. Someone had written: “I disagree with everything the Bishop says.”
Right to this very day, it remains a new and difficult challenge in our church communities, to love one another even despite our sometimes profound differences, and to locate and inhabit some shared common ground by way of connection and action as followers of Jesus.
As we’ve journeyed together through this past year, I have come to believe that the problem – the real challenge before us – is not about the positions of any of our elected leaders or even the increasingly divisive nature of our public discourse and the segregating alga rhythms of Facebook … the problem is that we don’t actually know very well the teachings and witness of Jesus Christ, and that absent an intimate familiarity with that Gospel, we are not only poorly equipped to judge for ourselves what is “right” and “wrong” in the political realm but we have little to bind us together as people of faith when we’re working through the challenge of loving our brothers and sisters whose background, experience, and dreams are different than our own.
I can’t think of a single issue – at least of the sort over which we’re so deeply and easily divided – that does not have a moral dimension and so is not the appropriate “business” of the Church. If we’re doing our job, we will evaluate and respond to the actions of our elected leaders and our government in church. Our shared responsibility – in this moment, is to dig much more deeply into the teachings of Jesus – and to follow him more nearly – so that with consciences informed by God’s word and our community of faith, we can take stands in public that are consonant with what we say we believe as disciples of Jesus … and how we promise to act, as disciples of Jesus.
For every single one of us, this will and should constitute a challenge to our partisan politics and identity as people of faith.
During Lent and Easter of 2018, our Presiding Bishop is inviting the whole Episcopal Church to participate in, “The Good Book Club.” Over those several weeks, we’ll read together the Gospel according to Luke and Luke’s story of the earliest Church as recorded in his companion Book of Acts. I am issuing an invitation right now, to the whole Diocese of Nebraska to join in that work. Let’s read the Gospel together. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with what Jesus teaches about things like serving the poor, caring for refugees, responding to violent behavior, paying taxes or disagreeing with a brother or sister in Christ.
I am certain that such a read will challenge us all, enlighten us all, and help restore a foundation of shared, real “Christian values” on which we can build in the year and years to come.
Somewhere out there in your midst is Mother Katie Hargis, who is our brand new Pro-Cathedral Dean, and who arrived here in DioNeb just in the nick of time to join us for this Annual Council weekend. Dean Katie is actually one of three new Rectors who has recently relocated to the diocese of Nebraska and so brought to a wonderful and successful conclusion three long and prayerful searches for new parish clergy leadership. Along with Katie, it is a great pleasure to welcome to DioNeb Mother Amanda Gott – now serving at Saint Matthew’s in Lincoln, and Mother Stephanie Swinnea – serving at Saint Luke’s in Kearney. We’re so glad you are all here.
We often say that the parish churches of the Diocese of Nebraska are “scrappy.” By that we mean that despite our modest numbers and resources, we still find ways to care for one-another meaningfully, to serve one another faithfully, and to love one another graciously. If we were to write out the scrappy formula, I think it might be: “deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy.”
The story of Dean Katie’s recent move to Nebraska, tells this tale in a wonderful way. A search for a new church rector can cost a bunch of money – and the people of our Pro-Cathedral worked diligently during their search process to manage their expenses without compromising on doing the job right and well. Part of that was trying to imagine how to relocate the newly tapped Rector without collecting bids from big commercial moving companies and paying $10,000 for an interstate truck move. How to handle the cost of relocating Dean Katie from the Diocese of Western Kansas to the Diocese of Nebraska?
On the first Sunday in October after church, nine folks from the Pro-Cathedral drove down to Dodge City, Kansas in three pickups and with two trailers. They spent the night, and then on the next morning, they all worked together to load Dean Katie’s gear into the trucks and later in the day, to drive it all up to Hastings. When the crew of now ten got to Nebraska, they were met at the Dean’s new place by a dozen more Pro-Cathedral folks who came to help unload and get their new leader all settled in. When it turned out at the last minute that Dean Katie’s rental was not quite ready for occupancy, our team called an audible, and quickly found garage space in which her stuff could be stored. When that work was done, dinner was provided for all the troops.
A week later, a dozen ready and willing souls showed up once again to get those garages emptied out and to get Dean Katie (finally!) settled into her new digs. At the conclusion of the move, yet another feast materialized, and all ate to their heart’s content and toasted a job well done.
Loving, caring, serving Christ in others and making a difference in the world God has entrusted to our care: this work to which we have committed ourselves does not take hundreds of people, or thousands of dollars, or extraordinary gifts of business smarts or theological acumen to be well done.
We are a strong diocese in part because we are a scrappy diocese! We are a people who find ways to use the resources we have at hand – even when they might seem modest or insufficient to meet the challenges of the moment.
“Deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy!”
A Word of Hope
About three weeks ago, I got an email from the department of the Episcopal Church that tracks data. I get that note at about this time every year, and every year -going back since I began my ministry twenty-five years ago – it’s always a hard letter to read, presenting sobering numbers to digest.
The Episcopal Church has been in numerical decline for more than 30 years straight. We’ve lost over a quarter of our members since 1980. Here in the center of the country – where disappearing small towns have their own set of hard challenges quite apart from the challenges we face as a denomination – things are even harder. By the main statistical measure of health – average Sunday church attendance – the Diocese of Nebraska has not seen an increase in many, many years. So when that email came, I was not surprised to read the executive summary of the report.
In 2016 – the last year for which we’ve got all the data nationally – there were fewer Episcopal Churches than there were the year before, fewer Episcopalians than there were the year before, and lower average Sunday attendance than there was the year before. With a heavy heart, I clicked to the page that detailed our church demographics here in Province 6 – the Province that makes up most of the beleaguered middle of the country. As expected, when I scanned the average Sunday attendance column for the province, things looked pretty grim. As I looked down the columns, it was one sad statistic after another: declines from 3% to 5% and more. Wyoming was a bright spot in the Province, showing 0.8% growth … a little less than 1%.
And then there was Nebraska. Nebraska. With our little community of 53 churches, about 2/3 of which are in those tiny Midwestern towns and fully half of which worship fewer than 25 people on a Sunday morning. Let me tell you what the report said about us: from 2015 to 2016, the average Sunday attendance in the diocese of Nebraska increased by 3.5 %. Which makes us – at least in the last year for which we have data from the home office – the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the whole Episcopal Church.
Now let’s not lose our heads. Being one of the fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church is like being one of the tallest skyscrapers in Topeka …
And average Sunday attendance is not the only measure of growth and success in the church landscape.
But I do take that measure as a sign that we are on the right track together. And I want you all to know that every single one of you plays a part in that success. The five churches across the state that are adding members to their rolls in double digits every year are leading the way, but there are in fact 24 parishes in Nebraska who’s Sunday attendance rose by at least one person in that latest report.
We can celebrate, and learn from, all those communities, both east and west, rural and urban for the modest growth they’re experiencing. And we can celebrate all of you too:
– Because every time one of you crawls out of your warm bed on a cold December Sunday because you need Communion …
– Every time one of you shows up on our Sabbath day because you care about your brothers and sisters in Christ who are your church family …
– Every time one of you pops into some sister church in some other town when you are visiting friends or relatives elsewhere in the sate …
And most of all, every time one of you invites a friend to come see what it is about your church community that keeps you coming back, week after week and year after year, you contribute to building up the body of Christ, and being part of a diocese that is suddenly, wonderfully, showing our Episcopal Church that by the power of the Holy Spirit there is always hope, even out here middle America!
Now – a couple of exciting things to share about the year to come.
2018 is the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. We’ll be celebrating that sesquicentennial over the course of the entire year, kicking off that celebration on the first weekend in January when our Presiding Bishop will visit Nebraska on a Saturday night to lead us in worship and conversation about this moment in our Church and our calling as members of the Jesus Movement.
On the next day, we’ll officially begin our anniversary year by lifting our voices in common prayer across the diocese, worshipping on that Sunday morning with prayers and song specially written for the day, for the year, and for Nebraska! In fact tonight you will be part of the world premiere of one of those pieces, as we’ll sing together at our Festival Eucharist a hymn composed to celebrate our 150th by Nebraska hymn writer (and Bishop’s Cross recipient!) Rae Whitney.
Later on in this council, Noelle Ptomey – who is graciously and capably leading the charge as chair of our sesquicentennial committee – will tell you a little bit more about all we have in store for our 150th.
During tomorrow’s council business session, you will have the chance to consider legislation designed to simplify the governance of our diocese.
This is the culmination of better than three years of work, as your diocesan leadership – including especially the members of your Bishop & Trustees and your Executive Commission – have met jointly, examined the governance structures of other dioceses, studied the needs of DioNeb in the moment and prayed sincerely to know the will of the Spirit. I am very grateful to the many people who’ve engaged this work over these past few years, and I want to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to the Reverend Marisa Thompson and our Chancellor Woody Bradford, who took up the challenge of leading much of this work and conversation on behalf of us all.
I want you all to know that I am in favor of passing the legislation we’ll see later on at council, and so simplifying our governance structures. It’s my belief that our present organization as a diocese has too many moving parts – and requires too many people – to do the relatively straightforward work of managing our financial resources and sharing in the task of visioning and implementing our diocesan ministries.
If we can do what we need to do with half as many people at the table, that will liberate a bunch of talented, passionate and faithful folks to engage in the critical work of serving Jesus in local parishes, or in diocesan ministries that are more directly related to serving he poor, healing the sick, spreading the Gospel and building the Church. If you’ve not already done so, take a look at that legislation which is included in your registration packet, get talking with the folks at your table, and let’s see if we can’t figure a way to make a change that’s been a long time coming.
It’s been awhile – better than twenty years in fact – since the diocese has led an effort to plant a new church community.
The prospect of engaging that possibility is especially exciting in this moment when so many new and creative incarnations of “church” are being planted and tested all over the US, and not just in our Episcopal Church, but in all the variety of denominations and non-denominations that make up the larger body of Christ. I’m pleased to announce that the diocese of Nebraska has been awarded a grant by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (that’s the fancy name for The Episcopal Church!) to help us study and pray about the prospect of establishing a new church in DioNeb, work which we will commence before the end of the 2017 calendar year.
It’s a good bet that a church for the new millennium won’t look much like a church of 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Though it’s possible we’ll discern a need to erect a new building with stained glass windows and a steeple – and call a full-time priest to help fill the pews – ‘church plants” in 2017 often sport a very different look. What is certain is that the Church we start after praying, studying and dreaming together, will be a church that is representative of the kind of faith and values that already distinguish this diocese and the wonderful people who live and serve here.
It’s a sure thing that it will take some time to pray and study our way into discerning the Spirit’s call around starting a new Nebraska church – and we will surely need the support of any number of you who are excited about the prospect of building some new, relevant and faithful version of a church for the 21st century. Stay tuned. And by all means, start praying for this work even now!
Before I move to closing and some words of thanks, I want to tell you about one more locus of the Spirit’s movement – and of hope for the deepest kind of growth – that now lays before us.
Hard to believe that it was only one year ago that Brother James came to our Diocese of Nebraska from New York, via South Africa. Most of you met him for the very first time at last year’s council, and though he quickly won us all over with his love of Christ, his love of life, and his passion for teaching us about prayer and service, even so, I know that there was some head scratching going on. What do we need with a monk?
Now twelve months on, and – I don’t know – probably 30,000 miles later – I think we all agree that we’re blessed beyond measure by the presence of our beloved brother James in this place.
And so it’s with particular delight that I can share the news that Brother James has discerned a call to make his home with us here in Nebraska for the foreseeable future and to help lead us in building a brand new ministry of prayer, service, and formation.
We’re even now pulling together the pieces of what we’re calling the Benedictine Service Corps. The vision for this ministry is to invite young adults – both women and men – to come live with us for a season here in the Diocese of Nebraska, in a community structured after the fashion of Saint Benedict and in the tradition of the ancient monastic ministries of the Church.
We’ll be looking for people who have a sense of calling around deep prayer, care for the poor and for creation, and community living … not necessarily monastics, but rather people who are called to live in an intentional Christian community for just a year or two. Picture 3 or 5 folks to start: praying together daily, eating meals in common, sharing expenses and all serving in churches and local ministries of care and service to those on the margins. We hope to plant this community in urban Omaha to begin, and we will build it with the intention of serving in – and expanding to – greater Nebraska in the months and years to come, ultimately making the Benedictine Service Corps a ministry with a commitment to the entire Diocese of Nebraska.
By all means, grab Brother James here at council if this vision of a community of prayer and service appeals to you. We’ll need folks with talent and passion in everything from plumbing and painting to preaching and praying to make this thing happen …
And at this time, we most especially need to connect with people who will help us in recruiting the first members of this new community.
I wish to close this morning by saying thanks.
Thanks first to the wonderful people with whom I work every day and who minister with such passion on your behalf.
I just mentioned Brother James and all that he’s given of himself to the people of this diocese. I am sure we’re a more deeply prayerful staff – and that I am a more seriously prayerful bishop – because of his witness, support, and friendship. You, my brother, have my great admiration and gratitude.
Though her position is entirely a volunteer one, Archdeacon Betsy Bennett comes into the office every week to participate in our Tuesday morning staff meetings and help support the wider ministries of DioNeb. She’s been a tireless advocate for those living on the edge – and for the care of creation we’re called to as followers of Jesus. She is a wonderful contributor to this community.
Lindsey Rowe has served as our Diocesan Administrator since April of 2014, and in that role has managed everything from the day-to-day operations of the diocesan office, to bishop’s annual visitation schedule, to meeting and event planning – including pulling together this and each year’s Annual Council. Many of you will have read the news we shared last week, that Lindsey has submitted her resignation and will be moving on to a tremendous opportunity as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of Immanuel Health Systems Pathway’s, Program in Omaha. Know that Lindsey has lead with her deep affection for all of you as a life-long Nebraska Episcopalian whose love for the churches and the people of this diocese is unmatched. We will miss that devotion … and her unflappable calm in the face of the many minor crises that punctuate diocesan ministry. Thank you, Lindsey. You will be missed.
As you know, Beth Byrne manages the finances of our diocese. She does that work with the perfect balance of uncompromising attention to the details of our numbers and a deep faith in the Spirit’s guidance over all that we do. You’ll get to hear her do her thing at length, later on in this council. Beth has also adapted with superior grace to a job description that has changed and grown substantially over the course of her seven years of service. Whether it’s in her role as Comptroller, Property Manager, Investment Advisor or Financial Secretary, we are entirely reliant on Beth’s skills and hard work to be faithful stewards of the gifts of money and property that God has entrusted to our care. I am so grateful for her service.
Father Phil Chapman died recently and will be terribly missed by us all. One of many things Father Phil taught me – this was in the signature line of every email he ever sent – was to “travel in pairs and worship in groups.” That notion of “traveling in pairs” comes from the Gospel of Luke, in which is told the story of the first time Jesus “sends out” his followers to do his ministry in the wider world. Jesus commissions the disciples in pairs … he bids them “travel light” … he tells them not to stay in any one place for too long, but rather, to keep on moving.
I am so blessed – we are so blessed – that Canon Liz Easton read that part of Luke’s Gospel and has been willing to ride alongside me for three and a half years now. I hope our partnership is seen as a model for how to be a joyful and effective disciple of Jesus in this time and place for that is our shared intention. And I can tell you that I am a much better bishop – and Nebraska is a much stronger diocese – for the hard work and faithfulness of our Canon, with whom it is my great privilege and blessing to share in the leadership of the Church.
In addition to the folks on your diocesan staff, and as a close to this over-long reflection – I need to thank ALL of you.
I want to express my deepest appreciation to the clergy leaders of this diocese – priests and deacons both active and retired – who have chosen to make this place your home. I’ve lived and worked in four different dioceses as an adult, and nowhere – no place else – compares to Nebraska for the sincerity, the determination, the faithfulness and the tireless work offered by our college of clergy. You are the finest women and men I have ever worked with, and it is such a blessing to serve with you.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, thanks to all the rest of you – the lay leaders of this Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska gathered here this morning – and to the thousands of your fellow Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. I am daily inspired by all that you give, and all that you do, to build up the kingdom of God, to make Jesus known in the communities in which God has planted you and to be the Church.
This is my 7th Annual Council as your bishop, and I am as excited and proud to be here with you as I was at my first Annual Council (here in North Platte!) six years ago. It is the great blessing of my life to have been able to come home and to serve in this place that I know and love best in the whole wide world. I cannot think of anyplace else that I would rather be. It is no exaggeration to say that every day in this job is full of wonder and joy, and I am so hopeful about the future to which God beckons us as the Episcopal Church in Nebraska.
Submitted this 20th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2017,
In North Platte
+ The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
Among the small duties of which I need to keep track is the task of having the right color vestments on hand in my truck for any given week’s liturgical celebrations. The choices are limited but still several, and since riding around in a dusty truck-bed is not an easy life for clergy vestments, I don’t keep the whole collection with me at all times. Instead, once or twice every week, you’ll find me at some point walking from my office down to the cathedral sacristy to grab the proper cope, stole and mitre for whatever celebration is coming up next. It’s satisfying to get those choices right (all according to season, day, service and local custom) and only once in a while do I forget altogether, and find myself begging to be clothed out a local sacristy closet.
Now that the season of Easter is ended with our annual celebration of the feast of Pentecost, the work of choosing Church vestments will become somewhat simpler for the next many months. We have entered the long green season of the Church year known as “ordinary time,” and while we will still celebrate an occasional feast or exceptional life transition in our parishes, we will, for the most part, find ourselves bedecked in plain green vestments and altar arrays, and having the time and space in our church communities to settle into a different rhythm of worship and ministry.
This is the time of year that we hear the story of Jesus in more or less chronological order as part of our Sunday morning gatherings, and so are reminded of the larger scope of his many teachings and miracles. This is the time of year that absent the need to build big celebrations (like Christmas or Easter!) parish leaders can focus on discernment, engaging with questions about a church’s call and mission. This the time of year when absent the press of the school calendar and related activities, youth and youth leaders can find the time to be together in more deeply engaging ways. This is the time of year when long, bright days mean there is actually room on Sundays to “do it all,” making weekly church attendance a more do-able proposition.
I am a person who loves our Church calendar and the way it marks the passage of time in both my personal and community life. And one of the things I love best is the way that our alternating seasons change up the rhythm of our lives by setting aside times of feast, fast and feria. When we keep these days and seasons well, we become disciples who know how to love, honor and praise God in every single moment of our lives from the mountaintop, to the valley of shadow, and on all the many days that lie between these two.
I pray that you can enjoy this long, unhurried and even dreamy season of our church calendar year. Truly, this long green season of the Church’s year is no ordinary time!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the essential tale of the Christian faith. All of sacred history, both before and after the cross and the tomb, derives its ultimate meaning from the events we remember and celebrate during this Easter season. We have no greater story to tell than the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have no more important teaching to pass along … and no more hopeful news to share.
In his death, Jesus fully embodies the radical demands of the faith that he brought to his first followers and that we share in to this day. This is what “care for your neighbor,” “give to everyone who asks,” and “love your enemies” actually looks like in the midst of the fallen creation of which we’re a part. In going to the cross, Jesus demonstrates the depth of his love for humankind and offers a witness to the kind of love to which we too are called as children of the living God.
In his resurrection, Jesus offers the complimentary piece to his sacrifice on the cross. If the cross was the last word on “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you”, then Jesus’ life and teaching would not matter to us. He would rather have been just another example of the weak being exploited and destroyed by the strong. But the events of Holy Week and Easter turn our conventional wisdom about power all upside down, as Jesus destroys the forces of darkness precisely by embracing death and using it as a tool for nothing less than the salvation of the world. Jesus’ resurrection confirms his teachings about how to live, ratifies theories about how to love, and fulfills his prophecies about his own destiny and that of all humankind.
Over the great fifty days of Easter the Church throughout the world will continuously celebrate the “sacred mysteries” of Christ’s death and his resurrection from the dead. We will tell this story again and again and again, because even though we know it well, we can never fully comprehend it’s meaning for our lives, the life of the Church, or the life of the world in which we live.
I pray that you will all join with me, my brothers and sisters, in proclaiming the surprising, joyful and still astonishing news that we’re blessed to be able to share in this and every season of our lives: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– The Collect from the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
I recently read a scientific explanation for the phenomena that human beings experience the passage of time as moving more and more swiftly as we age. The gist of the explanation for this had to do with the cumulative time a human spends on earth. When we’ve only lived ten years, the passage of an eleventh year comprises (nearly) 10% of the time we’ve been alive, and so feels to us like a substantially bigger deal than the passage of a year at age fifty, when 365 days is equal to only 1/50 of our lifetime. While I am surely not doing justice to the well-reasoned explanation that I read about why “time flies,” I hope you’ll take some re-assurance from the fact that virtually everybody has the shared sense of time moving at increasing speed over the course of a human life…and that there are smart people out there who can explain to us exactly why this is the case!
The season of Lent offers an invitation to disciples the world over to slow down in the midst of the “swift and varied changes of the world” and to adjust our pattern of living to help us lead lives of greater intention, deliberation and faithfulness. Too often we’re merely reactive to the highs and lows of a given moment, and so find ourselves swept along by forces that are out of our control and by events over which we have little influence. It would seem that this is particularly the case for many of the folks in our Church and in our world right now.
As followers of Jesus we need not be unsettled or undone by life’s trials. While it may be true that we are quite limited in how much we can actually control our lives, it is within our power to determine how we will respond to what life brings us. And our chief means of so doing is to constantly turn towards Christ in our lives, and to let the assurance of his graceful presence be our moment-to-moment guide. Jesus himself models this way of being in the story of his temptation in the wilderness, where rather than seek to control the dangerous situation in which he finds himself (by fighting back or running away for instance) he simply keeps his heart and mind fixed on God’s presence and companionship, feeding back to the evil one only the words that God gives him to speak.
As you work and pray your way through Lent, I hope you’ll keep the story of Christ’s wilderness temptation in mind. We don’t take on the various disciplines of this season so much to take control over our lives, but rather, to live in such a way that we are called constantly back to the reality that we are never alone. Despite our “unruly wills and affections” and despite all the “swift and varied changes of the world”, it is within our power to fix our hearts on Jesus Christ, and so by setting him as our guiding star, to find true joy no matter what trial or temptation the world might throw in our way.
Welcome to the season of Lent my brothers and sisters in Christ. May you keep it well and holy.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
We have a little creche in our house that was a long ago gift to our family. It’s a small, wooden affair, with simple hand painted figurines representing each of the characters that were part of the story of Jesus’ first days on earth. Like many families (and churches), the Magi who are part of this tableau actually make a long journey before they finally take their place at the scene where Jesus lays in his manger. They might start in our dining room in early Advent when we first unpack our holiday decorations for the year, and then they will move, a couple of feet at a time from the top of one piece of furniture to another, until finally on January 6th we place them in front of the baby who comes to save us all. There they will stay for the rest of this season, until finally just before Lent begins, we will pack them away until next year.
If we hope to encounter Jesus, we too must expect to journey. It will not do to sit still. Whether that journey is about entering into a new and challenging relationship with some sacred other who might be a Christ-Bearer to us, or entering into a season of deeper prayer and service to meet Jesus in the person of folk on our live’s margins, or whether it be a literal journey to a new place or community that beckons us to come meet the Holy One anew, we are not likely to maintain a healthy and growing relationship with Jesus if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the comfort of “staying put” in our lives, and imagining that we need only wait on God to fill the yearning we all share to know the Christ in a deeper way.
As the new calendar year dawns, and you’re beginning to live into your resolutions for the days ahead, I hope that you will take to heart the lesson of the Magi. If meeting and knowing Christ anew is a hope in your heart and soul, then make it a commitment to be out and on the move in the year to come.
And let the journey begin today.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
We have come to the season of the year when we celebrate the birth of a baby who not only changed the course of recorded history, but whose life, to this very day, has the most profound imaginable impact on the course of human events.
Christ’s birth confounded the expectations of people of faith and provoked those who possessed great wealth and power from the very beginning. So much of what we now take for granted about God – from God’s presence in the poor and the outcast … to God’s willingness to become vulnerable even unto death … to the incalculable power of human love – was all first and fully manifest in that Bethlehem barn two thousand years ago. The birth of Jesus changes everything.
In this moment, it is increasingly clear to me that most of the challenges over which we wring our hands and lose sleep at night – from dwindling church attendance to the rise of a national political conversation driven by hubris and fear – invite nothing less from disciples of Christ than the continued, determined and joyful proclamation of the news the angels shared in this season all those many, many years ago. The Christ is born. Fear not. God is with us.
This news, for those who receive it and believe it, is as astonishing, and life altering as it ever was. If we live in its light, deeply embracing it as true and let that reality be the verity that guides us as we seek to live authentic human lives every day, our lives will be changed. And our churches will be changed. And the world itself – from the Midwestern plains that we know and love to those territories on the other side of the globe that are the farthest reaches from this place – all will be changed.
That change can begin right here and right now. We have news to share my brothers and sisters. Good news for all to hear: Jesus Christ is born!
In Love & Faith –
+ Bishop Barker
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– The Collect for Advent II
The season of Advent has now arrived, and in the days to come we’re invited to do the work of “preparing the way” in both our hearts and our world for the coming of the Christ. We’ll be invited to repent, wait, watch, pray and hope. The work we’re called to will be the same whether we imagine ourselves to be preparing for the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, or whether we imagine ourselves to be preparing for the second coming of the Christ at the end of days. It is the same God either way – a God who is constantly breaking into our daily human lives and relationships. The question of this season is not whether God will come, but whether we will be prepared to see and welcome God when that advent takes place.
We must not let ourselves off the hook for “preparing the way” out of some sense that our time on this earth does not matter, or that we can have no meaningful impact on the lives of others of in the communities in which we dwell. In the aftermath of the presidential election, many people of faith are feeling powerless in the face of forces that seem bent on destroying the environment, persecuting racial and ethnic minority groups, denying the civil rights of the LGBT community, and wielding brute military force to deal with the complex challenges of an increasingly complicated world. While it is true that our time on earth is short and that it can be difficult to measure how we make any difference in the face of the sin and brokenness of creation, I believe that as followers of Jesus we are called more than ever to the work of Advent, which begins with a turn away from what is evil, a turn towards what is good … and a sincere effort to make a difference in the world in such a way that we help make a pathway for the coming Christ. This is work that will be all the more meaningful and all the more powerful if you take it up with your larger church family. Margaret Mead is remembered for saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I wish you one and all a deeply holy and meaningful Advent. Let us ready our hearts and our homes for the God who comes.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
The End of Ordinary Time
November 13, 2016
Jesus said, “You will be brought before kings and governors on account of my name. Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist.”
– Luke 21:12-15
For months and months we have been journeying through the longest season of the Church year – the period between the Feast of Pentecost and the beginning of the season of Advent which Church calendars call simply, “Ordinary Time.” During this long season we have read through almost the entire Gospel of Luke. And our Gospel readings each Sunday morning have told us of both the actions Jesus took during his life on earth and the words of the teachings that he shared during his ministry:
If you have faith just the size of a mustard seed – you could throw a tree into the ocean.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; but those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Love God with all your heart and soul and mind; love your neighbor as yourself.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
These are just some of the wonderful- and still surprising and challenging teachings – which we have encountered during this long season.
Like Christians the world over, it’s a sure bet each one of us has gone out from our church these past months – and in our own little way – attempted the difficult task of following Christ by living into the things he teaches us. This is exciting and exhilarating work. I heard from Father Jerry about the refugee family recently adopted and settled by the people of Saint Mark’s. What an amazing service of Christ in “the least of these” for those who participated in that ministry. Others of your number have cared for friends and neighbors in trouble: you’ve visited someone at the hospital, written a check to a local charity, you’ve made a casserole for a family who needed a helping hand. I imagine some of you have stepped up your commitment to prayer this year, read the Bible more diligently perhaps, maybe helped out here at church setting up for worship or reading during the service.
Though I am not here nearly often enough, I know how you roll. I am sure there have been many wonderful acts of faithfulness and love around here these past few months, all flowing from your sincere efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus we have explored together during this “ordinary time.” My brothers and sisters, we have come to the end of ordinary time.
I followed the election returns on Tuesday night from a remote retreat center in Northern California. I was in the company of my clergy colleague group, with whom I meet twice every year for mutual support, encouragement and accountability. As it happens there was no TV where we were gathered, so we watched on our phones and laptops as the evening unfolded. It was, as you know, a long night. Not quite as long in California where the time change is two hours to the good for late night TV viewing, but still, long. By the time the election’s result finally became apparent, at the turn from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, we were pooped.
My friends were utterly surprised by the election results. They were confident of a Clinton victory from the outset, and even as the evening wore on, they continued to track the ways that Hillary might still pull it off, even as the paths to her victory became more and more byzantine, and less and less probable.
But If my pals were surprised by what happened on Tuesday, I was not. Nebraska is emphatically not the Bay Area (or New York City or Boston) the kinds of places where most of those colleagues live and work. I have been listening to Nebraska Episcopalians talk with interest about candidate Trump for the better part of a year, and to pass the time driving, I have been inventorying the surplus of Trump signs and the scarcity of Clinton signs out in greater Nebraska for months. I knew what my clergy colleagues did not: that there were a lot people just like you and me who were intending to vote for The Donald.
That we might have seen this election result coming does not make it any easier for those who did not vote for the winner, and in the days since the election, we’re seeing – and hearing from – an electorate that continues on angry, strident, and more deeply divided than ever. It is a situation that fairly begs this question: what do we do now? And specifically, for all of us here at Saint Mark’s this morning – both supporters and detractors of the president elect – what are we as followers of Jesus supposed to do now?
I submit to you that what we “do now” is not different in any way at all from what we’re always called to do as Christians engaging the realm of worldly politics.
First – we will pray. We will pray for our new commander-in-chief – as we would any president of these United States. In our Prayers of the People, starting now, we will pray for our “President-Elect Donald,” and we’ll switch that language up to praying for our “President Donald” beginning on January 20th. It matters not a whit whether you are delighted or dismayed that he will be our President. Our prayers are the same in either case: we will pray that he exercises wisdom, self control – and that he has a heart for – and compassion upon – all the people of this land. We will ask God to guide and protect him just as we would any new President.
First, we will pray for Donald Trump. And if you are unhappy that he is your president, then out of devotion to the one who teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, you should pray for him all the more often … and all the more sincerely.
Second, we will hold him to account. We will hold him to account as we would any President of these United States. President elect Trump said some outlandish and offensive things during the campaign. He demonized immigrants, belittled those with disabilities … he lied about his past. He so slandered women that if I were to quote him verbatim from this pulpit this morning, I am quite certain you would be within your rights to bring me up on charges under the disciplinary canons of the Church. Clearly Mr. Trump was not his best self when he said such things. And he did real harm with that rhetoric. If he should continue to make these kind of statements – words blatantly antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus (or God forbid should he attempt to pass laws to actually bring some of these offensive impulses into being) then you and I must hold him to account.
Understand brothers and sisters that this is not about political party or preference. Jesus has nothing to say about whether our government should be big or small, about whether highly regulated or lightly regulated business would be best for the commonweal, about what trade policies his followers should embrace or whether Supreme Court justices should strictly interpret the Constitution. You just feel free to choose. Go for it.
But as disciples of Jesus Christ you have made certain commitments that are simply not negotiable if you would have integrity about your walk of faith. You have promised – every one of you that you will seek and serve Christ in all persons. You have promised, every one of you, that you will love your neighbor as yourself. You have promised, every one, that you will respect the dignity of every human being, without exception.
It is to our shame that we too often and for too long have neglected these responsibilities and failed to keep these promises. It is to our shame that we have been sitting on the sidelines while any number of our political leaders and government policies have done harm to those who need our best care, protection and support. It is time for some repentance and amendment of life.
I wonder if it might not be a blessing in disguise that many of us have been toppled this week from the comfortable place of privilege where we’ve been perched for so long. I wonder if the fear some of us are coping with this week isn’t akin to the fear a Muslim woman feels when she wears her hijab in certain parts of the country … or the fear an African American mom feels when she sends her boy out to do an errand in the car at night … or the fear a trans man feels when he has to go to a public bathroom … or the fear a working class family feels when a parent loses a job and a family loses health insurance. How fortunate that so many of us have not been gripped by such fear … and so have not had to worry about fighting the people and the structures that perpetuate such injustices.
It is time for that to change. We will hold our new President – and all our political leaders – to account. Because we are disciples. Because we are followers of Jesus.
You wish to know where to begin. “What can I do this day,” you wonder. Well let’s start right here. First, join me in a few moments in repeating the promises of your Baptismal covenant. Reaffirm those promises with your biggest voices and your best intentions. When I ask if you “will persevere in resisting evil” and will “seek and serve Christ in all person,” answer like you mean it.
Then, start keeping those promises, right here and right now. This election season – and its aftermath thus far – have revealed that our country is deeply, deeply divided in the way we diagnose our challenges, and in the way we’d hope to prescribe solutions to our problems.
You can begin to heal those divisions today by letting go of the subtly prejudiced presumption that your world view and politics are the best, and that the person beside you surely shares all of your experiences and your beliefs. We are not all the same. We share different histories and aspirations, different passions and weaknesses, different challenges and dreams. How in the world is it that we were surprised that half the country voted differently than we did this past week?
All we have in common for certain in this place, are the complimentary truths we affirm every time we gather as the people of God and the body of Christ:
We are all sinners who fall short of being the glorious creation God made us to be.
And we put our trust in Jesus for guidance, forgiveness … and salvation.
Let’s start our work by healing the breach between us, which we have the power to do because of our common shared faith in the Son of God.
You do good work. You’ve practiced long and hard – in and from this place – to be loving brothers and sisters to one another, and kind caretakers of your friends and neighbors in need. But a new day has come. We have new and more challenging work before us. Work that in all fairness to our president-elect, has been building for some long time now. It will be hard. This morning’s Gospel reminds us that there are times when being a disciple of Jesus will mean risking persecution, even and explicitly taking on “kings and governors” in his name. But he bids us to be firm, confident, and fearless. He promises to show us the way, to give us the right words to say and to accompany us as we journey ahead.
When during World War II in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took on the escalating culture of violence, fascism and bigotry out of his Christian conviction he wrote:
“We are not [called] to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
That’s where we are this morning my dear brothers and sisters. Ordinary time is over. The time has come to speak up. The time has come to go to work.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker
Annual Council Address – 2016
My Dear Brothers and Sisters –
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. This morning, I have for you a Diocese of Nebraska, “Year in Review.”
Our last Annual Council was held in mid October at Saint Stephen’s in Grand Island. Not a week later, God answered one of my long-standing prayers … when a distracted Omaha driver ran a stop sign and totaled the little red Subaru that I’d been driving for four years. The answered prayer came in the form of a new pick-up, which it had long since seemed to me would be the perfect vehicle to haul around the variety of Bishop’s gear that always rides in the back, and to face down our variable Nebraska weather and roads.
That occasion was rather more seriously a reminder that life is precious and that we’ve got to make every moment in this beautiful creation count. I walked away unharmed and was left feeling deeply grateful for air bags – and for the fact that Canon Easton was not in her usual shot-gun spot. The passenger side of the car did not fare so well as the driver’s side!
Finally, that episode was a reminder that God does in fact hear our prayers and is inclined to answer them. We really do need to be careful what we pray for!
Just a couple of weeks later, folks from all over Nebraska met at Holy Apostle’s in Mitchell to celebrate the feast day of our new Nebraska saint, Father Hiram Hisanori Kano. Holy Apostles was also celebrating the arrival of their new co-rectors: Chris and Sheryl Kester-Byer. The Kester-Byers are ELCA clergy that in addition to serving at Holy Apostles share in caring for a Lutheran congregation in Scottsbluff. We packed the church that night, laughed as the Canon commiserated with the Kester-Byers about the difficulty of following AN ACTUAL SAINT in priestly ministry and shared in one of Holy Apostle’s world-class potlucks, which featured traditional Japanese dishes as well as the best of the pantry from a Scottsbluff County ranch. It was one of those occasions when the truly astonishing diversity of our diocese was on full display. And it was a beautiful evening.
There are now six parishes in Nebraska where Episcopal congregations are blessed to be served by Lutheran pastors and in one case a Lutheran congregation in northeast Nebraska is now served by one of our fine Episcopal priests. These cooperative, ecumenical ventures are a real grace to those churches participating. And they not only exemplify one, good hope for ongoing future ministry in some of our smaller churches and towns but are a powerful witness to the larger Church of the preeminence of shared life in Christ taking precedence over old, denominational boundaries and prejudices. We are one in the Lord.
All Saint’s Day we installed the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of our Episcopal Church. Presiding Bishop Curry has already been an extraordinary breath of fresh air for our denomination, especially as he has rallied us to be participants in the Jesus Movement as opposed to just members of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry is likewise doing a great job as a spokesperson for Christ and for our denomination in both traditional and new media, and he has brought a new level of professionalism and health to both our church offices in New York City and to the House of Bishops.
Now: pull out you cell phones to tweet, post and calendar this exciting news: as a kick-off to our 150th Anniversary Celebration a year and a half from now, Bishop Curry will be visiting Nebraska in earliest 2018. The PB will be at Trinity Cathedral on Sunday January 7th of that year. I want you to know that the Dean and I are absolutely committed to making that visit as accessible as possible to all of you’d who’d like to see the Bishop, and be part of the first party in what should be a terrific sesquicentennial year! More to come!
At Nativity-tide, most of Nebraska got walloped by a grand snow-storm that delivered the perfectly timed gift of a white Christmas. It was a bit of a project to pull on heavy winter gear and plow to church on Christmas Eve, but it was well worth the trip. I loved imagining us one-and-all making our way to our parishes that night, as I do on all our other great Church feast-days. When we gather in common prayer across these 77,000 square miles and raise our voices to God as one in the beautiful, ancient, inherited texts of our Anglican tradition it is a powerful thing!
At the turn of the calendar year there were two, big, back-to-back celebrations in Omaha. Marisa Tabizon Thompson was installed as the Rector of All Saints and Sarah Miller was ordained at Trinity Cathedral as a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It was glorious to see priests, deacons and lay people from all over the diocese – including from spots in the furthest western part of the state – make the trip to be present at those parties!
We’ve grown from 17 to 22 full-time priests over the last five years, and we’ve got some exceptional folks currently in “the process” to be ordained priests and deacons in time, God willing and the people of God consenting. That’s a very positive change, indicating increasing health in our Nebraska parishes and a growing reputation that DioNeb is a place with a great clergy community, exceptional lay leaders and a spirit to boldly follow Jesus into the future.
I’d note that a good number of our aspiring clergy are women, and I want to add here that I believe Nebraska could be in the years to come an increasingly welcoming place to lift-up and celebrate the gifts of women in ministry. This was a year in which – for several reasons – I was reminded of the extraordinary challenges and roadblocks that are still present for women – both lay and ordained – who have a sense of calling to serve in Church leadership positions.
Our Church has made strides, but we have a long ways to go, and Nebraska is not perfect – perhaps far from it. The advantage we have here in Nebraska is a cadre of exceptionally hard-working and faithful women already serving in church leadership positions of every sort, and a culture that’s better than many in rewarding creativity and hard work whoever might be pushing the shovel. What if we could keep moving in this direction and become a church-wide leader in encouraging and supporting women in ministry at every level? I’m making a pledge right now to begin that work, by making three promises:
- I promise that female priests will always be paid equitably in comparison with their male peers in this
- I promise that all Letters of Agreement for full-time priests will include generous parental leave
- And I promise that your diocesan staff will work directly with parish search teams to understand how unconscious bias influences church culture and discernment work.
Can you even imagine what might come to pass if we loosed all the power and potential of the women of this diocese on the larger state of Nebraska? As our Chancellor often says: Katy, bar the door!
Lent and Holy week are surely the busiest times of the church year, and that was true for most of us in 2016. Canon Easton and I helped flip pancakes at Calvary Church in Hyannis, and visited Saint Matthew’s in Alliance for the solemnities of Ash Wednesday. Those evenings were representative I am sure of the kinds of work that happens across DioNeb in Lent. All the “regulars” report for duty, and take pride in keeping alive some of our oldest and best traditions. Folks from the wider community come around more often than usual, equally to support their friends in the Episcopal Church … and to try to feed that hunger for human connection and communion with the divine, that the Church, at its best, offers so truly. And Jesus is there in the midst of it all. Rousing the careless and forgiving the penitent. Comforting the lonely and the lost.
Calling us one and all into deeper relationship with each other, and with him, as friends and disciples.
On Memorial Day a hundred or more of us travelled to Eclipse Chapel, which is in Hooker County on the banks of the Dismal River. This has to be one of the most beautiful and remote church locales in our whole denomination! The Chapel was celebrating its 100th birthday, and folks made the pilgrimage to be part of that anniversary celebration from all over the Midwest and beyond. Though the Chapel is no longer an active Episcopal Church, it was powerful to be reminded of the sacrifices made by the first generation of Episcopalians in this state to establish the communities – and build the churches – that we now call home. We stand on their shoulders, as our grandchildren will stand, in their time, on ours.
Though Eclipse has long since been deconsecrated, that was not the case with any of our Nebraska Episcopal Churches in 2016. No churches closed in the Diocese of Nebraska this year. We stand strong at 53!
In June, Bishop Clarkson Grants were awarded to eight congregations by our affiliated Clarkson Foundation. Those grants totaled over $25,000, and are being used to help grow local parishes with program support for purposes as varied as beefing up a Sunday morning music ministry to collaborating with a local children’s dance troupe.
Remember those grants continue to be available every Spring to help fund new ideas for church growth and renewal! You should go get some of that money!
There were two milestone parish anniversaries this past June, celebrated on back- to-back days. Grace Church in Columbus turned 150 years old – ancient by the standards of this part of the U.S. – and Saint Mary’s in Holly turned 100. Both churches hosted big homecoming Eucharists and glorious post-worship feasts. In each case, people with church connections of old travelled from great distances to be present for the celebrations, including former rectors, parishioners and community friends. Christian churches have life cycles that include ups and downs. Comparatively few churches last for several decades, let alone a century or more. It’s a rare privilege to be present to such milestone anniversaries and they are not to be missed when they come around. Thanks be to God!
There were a number of domestic and international mission trips emanating from our diocese this summer, including our annual youth trip to the Rosebud reservation lead by Father Tom Jones and his team, and our youth trip to the Dominican Republic, lead by Don and Melisa Peeler and their team. The folks out at Christ Church Sidney welcomed a group of youth from Georgia as hosts of a mission journey to exotic western Nebraska. The Georgia youth did service work in Sidney and Harrisburg both, and learned a lot while they were here with us about their larger Episcopal Church and our own Midwest culture. Your Diocesan Vicar for Mission Mother Tar Drasdowski conceived the idea for hosting a youth team here, and it worked very well. I wonder who else in this big, beautiful diocese might likewise find a way to welcome folks from elsewhere in the Church to make a pilgrimage to the Cornhusker State?
High summer means church camp – our second year in our new Fremont home as the re-branded “Camp Canterbury.” Noelle Ptomey is our incomparable camp director, and Noelle continues to build a camp that is an authentic incarnation of Christian community for our kids and a touchstone for our youth each summer. 2016 was our best- attended camp in several years, and I am especially grateful to the 22 intrepid adults who were at camp all week, a group which included many of your DioNeb priests and deacons.
Soon after camp – and as a part of our annual diocesan staff western residency – we paid a visit to Chadron, installing Father John Adams as Priest-in-Charge at Grace Church. Father John is our first Bishop’s Society Curate, and has now served for nearly ten months in Chadron after spending the first 18 months of his curacy at St. Andrew’s Omaha.
The Bishop’s Society Curacy program is one of the chief means by which we’re bringing great new clergy to Nebraska and through which were fielding priestly support to some of our small-to-medium sized congregations. In addition to Father John, we presently have two other Bishop’s Society Curates here in DioNeb. Mother Sarah Miller is just finishing the first half of her Curacy with the folks at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, and Deacon Amy Duggins began an 18 month term of service at summer’s end with All Saints in Omaha. I fully expect to hire a fourth curate at seminary graduation time this spring because of the amazing generosity of the members of our Bishop’s Society.
That group has now pledged – wait for it! – over $780,000 to support the ministries of the Diocese of Nebraska. As you will hear later today when our budget is presented, that generosity has also contributed to building our diocesan endowments which plays a part in our ability to lower our diocesan assessments yet again this year. My deep, deep thanks to all of you who are members of the Bishop’s Society. And if you’re not a member yet, I want to talk to you!
About a month ago, Brother James Dowd arrived in Nebraska. James is a monk in the Episcopal Benedictine Order of the Holy Cross. You’ve already met Brother James briefly as our worship leader his morning, and you’ll have the chance to get to know him better later on in this council and in the months to come. Brother James will serve here in DioNeb for the next two years, working about one-quarter time for the Cathedral and the rest of the time for the diocese. He will help strengthen our faith & prayer lives, teach us about Christian community, and help lead us in serving with and learning from folks on the margins of our communities.
Brother James’ salary is being paid for by the Clarkson Foundation, which you can take as a sign of that body’s determination to help our diocese grow in faith and discipleship as well as in numeric and financial health. I urge you to seek out Brother James while you’re here at Council, to get to know him, and talk a little about how he might support the ministry of your parish church while he is here in Nebraska.
Just a couple of weeks ago your western clericus gathered at Camp Norwesca in Dawes County and along with several leaders from the Episcopal Church in South Dakota, spent three days on an exploratory journey around the Pine Ridge reservation. This trip was intended as a way to get to know the people living on the reservation in a deeper way and to explore prospects for different kinds of partnership in the future. It’s seeming to many of us that the future of our Church must be driven in part by a bolder – and more sensitive – engagement with the world around us, a passionate and humble seeking out of Christ in our brothers and sisters that have different experiences, challenges, blessings and hopes than we do. And in all that finding new ways to be in community together.
As a next step towards that kind of mission engagement, we’ll be meeting with some of our new friends from Pine Ridge early in 2017 to continue in our mutual efforts to understand, appreciate and celebrate the differences that make us unique and the ways in which we might be Christ-bearers one to another in the years to come.
And that brings us all the way around to this moment. I’ve left out an awful lot – different prayer services & protests, searches & sabbaticals, feasts & fights. This is only a reflection of the amazing array of ways that all of you are seeking to be more and more faithful disciples of Jesus and joyful members of the branch of the Jesus Movement that is our Episcopal Church. One could easily fill many hours accounting how you meet the challenges of this moment and telling all the stories of the beautiful ways you seek and serve Christ in the world.
I wish to close by simply saying thanks.
- Thanks to a superb staff who are themselves a little church community and always lead by faith and with kindness towards one to another. Beth & Betsy, Lindsey and Liz … Brother James: it is a grace to serve with you every day and I am so thankful your ministry in this
- Thanks to a college of clergy that I believe are among the most loving, supportive and determined in this entire Episcopal Church. We are so blessed by the priests and deacons of
- And finally, my thanks to all of you and to the thousands of brother and sister Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. You are some of the finest, most faithful and hard-working Christians I have ever
It is an incredible privilege to work with you every day, and I look forward to seeing where the Holy Spirit will lead us together in the year and years to come!
Submitted this 7th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2016 – The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
Holy Trinity – Lincoln
October 7, 2016
Jesus said, “Again, truly I tell you … where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.”
– Matthew 18:20
Episcopalians may not always as biblically literate as we ought, but the words Jesus offers this evening are surely some of those that we know best and by heart. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
This idea informs our sacramental theology. We believe that Jesus is present in the rites of the Church – and especially in the sacrament of Holy Communion – in part because we believe these words to be true.
- This idea informs our ecclesiology – our understanding of what it means to be “church.” We believe that when we gather in the name of Jesus we actually become the body of Christ and that in no small part because of what Jesus says tonight.
- And maybe most of all – at the level of what we do and how we live day-in-and day-out as his disciples, we cherish the words of Jesus tonight because they offer hope when our efforts seem too modest or too small or too humble to really matter.
We take heart in this promise that he will be with us!
- Don’t worry if only three people come to the Bible study!
- Don’t despair when Morning Prayer is read for two!
- Don’t give up if the new church supper only turns out the usual suspects!
Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
I love teaching about holy meetings. I actually got onto this because of a speaker I heard at an Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska probably 20 years ago. That person gave a superb presentation on how to help insure that church meetings were of an entirely different character than the rest of the meetings in our lives. I’ve never forgotten it.
Building on what I learned way back then, part of what I teach about how to run a holy meeting is to notice the affirmation we heard from Jesus tonight, and to take him at his word! IF we invite him, intentionally and by his name, Jesus will come. One key ingredient to making a meeting “holy” is to gather in the name of Jesus. I urge folks to do that by way of a prayer at the start of every church meeting of any sort. “We gather in the name of Jesus – and affirm that he is here with us.” That’s a huge start at making a meeting holy.
But the name of Jesus is not a magic talisman. And we’d be off base to think that Jesus is obligated to appear in our midst whenever we wish for him to come around.
Jesus is not Aladdin’s Genie, calling on his name is not like rubbing the lamp. If we would experience the presence of Christ when we call on him, our obligation runs deeper than merely saying his name. Jesus will show up – wonderfully, reliably and consistently to be sure – but only when in addition to calling out his name, we act like people gathered in that name!
Our new Presiding Bishop talks about the way of Jesus – and so the life of the Church – as being “loving, liberating and life-giving.” That seems like a terrific recipe for how we’re called to be if we would truly “gather” as disciples, and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. This seems like a good roadmap for how to act as people who want to meet Jesus. Let us be loving, liberating and life-giving.
“Loving” is about how we treat one another. Loving in the fashion that will make Jesus present means looking for his image in those we’d normally cast out … it means forgiving those who have wronged us and acknowledging that every member of the human creation is made in God’s image … it means sharing generously with every neighbor from the gifts God has given to our care.
“Liberating” is about how we will be in the world. Being liberators means feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the environment – and tending to those in pain. Being liberators means fearlessly critiquing societal structures that privilege some at the expense of others, and doing our part to fight for all God’s children regardless of race, class, ethnicity or even religious preference.
And “Life-Giving,” it seems to me, is about embracing the sobering fact that as beings created in the image of God, it is possible – even demanded of us – that we act as co-creators with God. We are called to work together with the Creator to build a society that looks like the kingdom God intends. We are called to help give life to the world.
Marianne Williamson is famous for putting that truth and our attendant responsibility in this way:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate [but] that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine … we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Being “life giving” means shining with the glory of being created in God’s image.
What a terrific recipe for how-to “gather” as followers of Jesus and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. Can we be loving, liberating and life-giving disciples?
Now let me tell you why I think we absolutely need to do this work. Let me tell you why all this matters. It matters because when things go right in the Church – when we see joyful and even miraculous results for our efforts at following Jesus, it is always because we are acting in this way. And when things go wrong in the church – when we fail as disciples – it is usually because we’re not acting in this way!
A whole lot of what lands on the desk of the bishop are “problems.” Those problems run the gamut from clergy-persons being naughty, to some important ministry not getting done as well as it might, to sudden and disruptive changes in parish leadership, to churches running out of money. And what I have noticed after doing this ministry for five years now, is that most of time, big trouble results not from those kinds of real challenges that we face as the Church, but from our failure to respond to those challenges in the fashion commended to us today.
– When we love and forgive those who have slighted us.
- When we’re generous stewards of our money and that of the
- When we take responsibility for doing the ministry that needs to be done in a given moment, and are prayerful and confident in the Spirit’s presence and
When we actually act like the loving, living and life-giving followers of Jesus that we are called to be – welcoming his very presence by calling on his name and practicing what he preaches – well suddenly the “problems” seem to have a way of working out!
Jesus shows up! And that changes everything!
A friend from another denomination got all exasperated with me a few months ago. “Agh,” she fumed, “You Episcopalians are so preoccupied with orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. You’re more worried about how you behave that what you believe!”
Well – maybe! When Episcopalians are at our best we have the integrity and the courage to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We KNOW our journey of faith does not end with a decision to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We know the right belief is only the beginning of discipleship!
If for no other reason, you and I must take this work seriously because exactly one month from tomorrow, we’re all going to go and vote for a new President. While with all of you I’ve got my opinion and some good clarity about how I’ll cast my vote, my great concern is increasingly NOT the prospect that my candidate will lose, but rather how in the world our deeply divided country is going to get on, when half of us wake up on November 9, angry, scared and feeling more disenfranchised than ever.
Beloved – you don’t have to look any farther than the person sitting next to you in the Church pew to know what a supporter of that other candidate looks like. And it seems to me that the Church can either lead the way for our whole country in this moment, by being a community where we insist that our common bounds in Christ are bigger than any political candidate, party and divide. Or we can become the object lesson that Dr. Martin Luther King warned about when he said half a century ago that, “Together we must learn to live as brothers … or together, we will be forced to perish as fools.”
There is no more powerful name than that of our Lord Jesus. And if call on that name by gathering in the fashion he teaches, if we act in ways that are loving, liberating and life-giving to friend and foe alike …
Then we can be assured of his constant presence with us. And in his company, there is no challenge that we cannot overcome.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker