From The Bishop
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
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
On a recent (and somewhat rare) Sunday off, I decided to worship at my nearest-by neighborhood church. As it happens, there is a good-sized and healthy United Methodist church less than a block from my house, and so on the Sunday in question, I walked with some trepidation to pay a visit to their 10:00 Sunday morning worship service.
My visit to our cousins the United Methodists turned out to be altogether lovely. Though there were several predictable differences from Sunday AM worship in our Episcopal Church, the neighbors were a welcoming, kind and wonderfully prayerful Christian community.
That visit served as a reminder to me of what it feels like for a visitor or guest to walk into one of our Episcopal churches for the first time. Though we by and large experience our own parish churches as “welcoming” – and imagine that we are graceful and inclusive towards our visitors – that may not always be the whole truth. Really welcoming a newcomer or guest means not only having a smart system to recognize, greet, orient and connect with that person, but it also and especially means having an attitude towards a newcomer that looks for Christ’s presence in their person, and so anticipates being changed and enriched by one’s encounter with that guest. When we greet people we don’t know with the knowledge that they are created in God’s image and with the expectation that if we get to know them we’ll get to know Jesus better, there is a whole different prospect for the encounter, and an entirely different relationship with them becomes not only possible, but probable.
In these autumn months, most parish churches experience an uptick in attendance and energy as old-timers come back to church after summer sojourns away, and guests come around to see what the community is all about. I commend to you the work of creating a plan to connect with and welcome any guest that might come through the doors of the church for any reason. But even more, I hope you’ll try on a new and complimentary attitude towards such folks as well, expecting that when you greet them and work to get to know them, you will be faced with the exceptional blessing of welcoming, and being in deeper relationship with, the living Christ!
Faithfully Yours –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
Now is the season of Pentecost, that time of year when we celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our lives. It’s not an uncommon thing for folks to wonder about the Spirit. How do we know when the Spirit is with us? How can we discern the voice, presence or person of the Spirit?
Most of us have had at least a couple of “mountaintop” moments where some insight, healing or gain unfolded in such a way that we knew it was the work and presence of the Holy Spirit that made it happen: an “impossible” recovery in the hospital … a moment of charismatic renewal in worship … an insight into the word of God that struck as thunderously powerful and life-changing. And every single one of us knows stories – probably lots of stories – about other people who have experienced similar miraculous wonders by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s important to remember during this season of Pentecost, that such whiz-bang experiences are only one – and surely not the most common – way that we might feel and know the presence of the Spirit in our lives. C.S. Lewis counseled his readers to “look within” for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and no less a luminary than John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist Church, experienced the Spirit as simply a strange warming of the human heart.
Never doubt that YOU and I brothers and sisters, the crusty, frozen chosen people of God who are the Episcopal Church, are as blessed and anointed by the Spirit as even the most charismatic and joyful TV or radio preacher! You are created in the very image of God. You are saved by Jesus Christ from the power of sin and death. You have been anointed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism to follow Jesus in love and faith … and to work miracles in his name!
Faithfully Yours in Christ-
+ Bishop Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
I’m watching the weather as Holy Week begins. Here in eastern Nebraska over the next six days, the forecast includes extreme heat and bitter cold, rain, sun and snow … windy days, still days and days all in-between. Even for Nebraska in the Springtime this is a surprising line-up, and one that will make it hard to know how to plan and prepare for the holy days ahead.
This crazy Nebraska forecast is not a bad metaphor for the journey we’ll experience in our parish churches this week. If we’re present and really paying attention, we know that as we move through the triduum towards Easter Sunday, we will likely face extremes in both our heads and in our hearts. Who among us does not feel a little disoriented by the heights and depths of experience – both human and divine – as we move from the loving service and holy meal of Maundy Thursday and into the days that follow? Who isn’t chilled by our complicity in Christ’s death on Good Friday, and convicted by the Solemn Collects we pray that day? Who isn’t warmed by the story of the women at the tomb and the unlikely discovery that their beloved friend and Lord is risen from the dead? It’s easy to predict that there will be ups and downs in the days to come.
My experience of Holy Week is often exhausting. And that’s not because I am a clergy-person who does some extra work each year at this time. That is because the events we remember, celebrate and endeavor to bring to life are very real and very meaningful to me and to the people with whom I worship in our Episcopal Church. I feel deeply this week because I will be experiencing the moving and true stories of our faith community. This is the week that Christ is betrayed into the hands of sinners. This is the week that Christ dies upon the cross for you and for me. This is the week Christ is raised from the dead, thereby destroying the power of sin and death once and for all.
Our Holy Week forecast may be turbulent, but I pray you, attend! Join your family, friends and the people of your parish church as we contemplate these mighty acts. This is how we make meaning in our churches and in our lives. This is our story … for this and every season of our lives. A blessed Holy Week and Easter to all.
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 for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The season of Lent arrives very early this year. The sun is still reluctant to rise in the morning sky and snow still covers our lawns and clogs the gutters of our homes. Ash Wednesday will actually fall in the second week of February. It may seem to have arrived a little too soon for some of us. Didn’t we just get the last of the Christmas decorations put away last week? How can it already be time for the work of Lent?
Regardless of the date on which it begins, the season of Lent is always challenging. And it is more challenging still if we observe the ancient tradition of the Church and take on some Lenten discipline for these forty days.
Yet despite that challenge, it is still in many ways a welcome time of year. There is something deeply satisfying about honestly confessing the brokenness and sin that is part of our human lives – our “unruly wills and affections” as the Collect above has it – and then turning anew to Jesus, to help deliver us from that bondage and lead us into a new way of living and being as creatures forgiven and free. There is something wonderful about taking a journey that though difficult in many ways, will inevitably lead us to the cross, the tomb … and Easter day.
I pray you can find the time and energy both to keep a holy Lent this year. All the inherited patterns of Lenten living that are commended to us – from praying more regularly, to fasting more determinedly, to serving Christ in others more generously – are designed to help us in some concrete way to accomplish the only truly essential work of the season. Will we choose to turn away from every person, habit, temptation or pattern of living that keeps us from being the beautiful creation God intends us to be? Will we turn again to Christ, our only assurance of true joy in this or any season of out lives?
Time to do some holy work! Welcome Lent!
+ Bishop Barker
Christmas and Epiphany 2015 & 2016
Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
– The Collect for The First Sunday After Christmas Day
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The seasons of Christmas and Epiphany have now arrived. In the days ahead we will be telling the stories of Jesus’ birth as well as recounting the tales of the earliest revelations of his identity to humankind.
These stories invite us to open wide our hearts, minds and eyes to watch for the light that is Christ in the midst of our here and now. As disciples of Jesus we’re not just about re-telling ancient stories of what God once did on earth, but we are equally about celebrating God’s presence and actions in our Nebraska churches, homes and workplaces in the year of our Lord 2016. As people of faith, we look at all times and in all places for the presence of Christ, from self-giving acts of service and love, to moments of forgiveness and reconciliation, to occasions of deep human suffering and pain, when only the presence of God alongside could possibly make things right.
Walter Russell Bowie writes: “There is a divine gift standing outside our doors, nearer than some of us imagine, ready always to come in and take up its abode with us.”
May we all see and share the gift which is Christ the Lord during this Christmas season and throughout the New Year!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
I am dismayed by the fear expressed by Americans towards people of foreign nations over the past few weeks. I am reminded of some basic lessons of our shared Nebraska history.
On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. In the immediate wake of this declaration of war, the FBI arrested some 1,200 leaders in America’s Japanese communities, most of whom were suspected but never charged as spies and were eventually detained in internment camps.
Among those community leaders was the Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano, Episcopal priest of St. Mary’s Church in Mitchell and St. George’s Church in North Platte. Father Kano, who had immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1916, was imprisoned because he was identified as a leader in the community of first-generation Japanese immigrants who worked on the railroads and farms of western Nebraska.
While interned, Father Kano continued to serve as a priest, educator and pastor, conducting worship services, organizing classes and workshops, and trying to spread hope among the incarcerated. According to his son Cyrus, Father Kano asked himself, “God put me here, what does He want me to do?”
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, we again find ourselves afraid, suspecting that Muslim refugees, and indeed anyone who adheres to the Islamic faith, may harbor the intent to harm us and the nation we love.
In that fear, we find ourselves publicly discussing the possibility of depriving Muslim-Americans of their rights as U.S. citizens, and turning our backs on immigrants, including those who had the courage to flee their homes rather than submit to living or dying under terrorist regimes. Some, including a number of politicians, are calling for a virtual end to all immigration, and are considering the prospect of leaving every refugee out in the cold as a viable option.
I am reminded of the lesson taught by the life of Father Kano and wonder how we might best answer the question he asked himself so long ago: “What does He want me to do?”
For a follower of Jesus the answer to that question is clear. We are called to show compassion to “the least,” including prisoners and refugees.
We are called to respect the dignity of every human being — for surely every human being is created in the image of God. We are called to love our enemies, including certainly both those we rationally and irrationally fear, remembering that God is love, and that “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18).
Our fears that this nation might face attacks like those in Paris are not unjustified. But in the face of such concern, we hear a single message repeated over and over again. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the startled virgin. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord said to the vexed refugee who still awaited the promised child. “Do not be afraid,” the prophet said to a people scattered in exile. “Do not be afraid,” the liberator said to the nation when their captor’s army approached. “Do not be afraid,” God’s messenger said to the terrified shepherds (Luke 1:30, Genesis 15:1, Isaiah 41:10, Exodus 14:13, Luke 2:10).
Christ’s message of hope and courage is the same to humankind in every age. If we do not surrender to our fears, we can find ways to love our neighbors as ourselves, whether those neighbors are in the house next door, the next town over or half a world away.
Our borders must remain open. Our nation must continue to welcome new citizens from all nations and all religious traditions. Remember Father Kano. Choose love … and be not afraid.
+ Bishop Barker
Bishop Barker’s commentary also appeared in the Omaha World Herald on December 9th, 2015, at this link.