From The Bishop
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.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
Welcome to the season of Advent! Beginning this year on Sunday November 29th and running through sundown on Thursday December 24th, disciples of Jesus the world over will be fasting, praying, preparing and waiting expectantly for the Nativity of the Christ. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the holy one, both the baby Jesus whose birth we will celebrate at Christmastide, and Christ the judge and king whose second coming we hope and pray for at the end of human time. In either case, our work during this season is the same, as we prepare ourselves to meet Jesus by seeking out his presence in serving the poor and the outcast, deepening our relationship with him in prayer, and joining with particular intention in worshipping with our own unique church families. As the world around us careens into a “holiday season” often marked by excessive consumption and rampant materialism, we are invited to slow down, live more fully in the moment, and ready ourselves for an encounter with God by giving more and taking less in every way. May your Advent be deeply blessed this year. O Come Emmanuel!
Yours in Hope & Expectation –
+ Bishop Barker
(Bishop Barker delivered this Thanksgiving sermon at an ecumenical church gathering in DeWitt, Nebraska this past week on November 18th.)
Thanksgiving – “Do not worry” – Matthew 6:25-33
Hold Thou me Lord that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Happy Thanksgiving my brothers and sisters.
My favorite holiday, bar none! I love the food. I love the football. As a pastor – I’ll tell you the truth – I love that of all the big holy days hardly anything is expected of me on Thanksgiving! Just figure out one heartfelt table blessing and we’re good to go!
What’s not to love about this All-American holiday?
I have so many memories associated with Thanksgiving. I’ll bet all of you do to.
– As a child my whole extended family lived in the same Nebraska town, and we gathered around an enormous feast at my parent’s house with every traditional thanksgiving food you could hope for … and all the zaniness you’d expect from the many assembled crazy cousins and tipsy uncles …
– As a young adult I travelled far away for college and seminary, and had neither the time or money to return to Nebraska at this time of year. I remember being welcomed into the homes of various friends over that stretch, and being both thankful for their kindness and a little sad about being away form the ones I loved most …
– I remember preaching once – about fifteen years ago – at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service just like this one. My brother had taken his own life just a couple of weeks before then, and I struggled – how I struggled – to find a way to give thanks during that hard season.
I can only imagine the many wonderful stories that all of you would share about this beautiful, holy time of year. I know I’m not the only one who loves Thanksgiving.
This afternoon’s Gospel passage is the one most closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s interesting to me that of all the words of Jesus, these are the one’s that we always remember at this time every year:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Jesus goes on to further unpack these ideas in what is one of the most beautiful and well-known passages from the Sermon on the Mount. And the key idea here – the phrase which is repeated no fewer than three times in this short Gospel passage, is exactly and precisely this: Do not worry.
Do not worry about what you will wear. Do not worry about what you will eat. Do not worry about what you will drink. Is our loving God not present and active? Can’t you count on God?
I’m not sure there is a more important hope and expectation articulated anywhere else in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. If we count up the times Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry,” or “Fear not” we’ll quickly discover that it’s one of the most oft repeated phrases in the whole entire Bible …
That it is a teaching that lies right near the heart of the Holy Gospel.
Boy – do we need to hear our Savior offering this teaching here today. I’m not sure that in my lifetime I have ever seen or felt this country – and our churches – any more fearful and fretful than we seem to be right now.
The litany of things that cause us to be fearful is long and growing:
– We’re fearful about an uncertain economy – and the prospect of losing a job or being the one in charge when a farm or family business fails.
– We’re fearful for our small communities worried they will not be able to survive for another generation … that way of life is passing before our very eyes.
– We’re fearful of people from different cultures and customs … we’re untrustworthy of people with different religious beliefs than our own …
– We’re fearful about the power of government – either because it’s out of touch and asking too much … or because it’s out of touch and doing too little.
We’re worried about all kinds of smaller and daily stuff too: like our kids, and budgets and chores and relationships.
Right now we are a worrying people my brothers and sisters … and God knows, that worrying – that fear – does not bring out the best in us.
You probably remember that Thanksgiving was fixed as a national holiday right in the middle of the Civil War. There had been various statewide celebrations of thanks – especially around the harvest time – but it was President Lincoln who – at the urging of a wonderful activist by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale – finally made the thing official.
It happened in 1863 by way of a Presidential Proclamation, in which Lincoln said in part:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.
To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict …. the plough, the shuttle, the ship and the axe have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
I know this has been a year for many of you too!
2015 will be remembered in DeWitt as the year of the great flood … and the great hailstorm – all set against a backdrop of tensions at home and abroad that we read about in the paper and watch on TV and follow on line – and that make us nervous, and worrisome and scared.
But as followers of Jesus – as disciples of Christ – we have got to always remember and celebrate that fact of who we belong to … and what he accomplishes for us … and how we’re called to be his people in this here and now:
– We are a people who lift up hope – even in the face of challenges daunting and fearsome … for we know the miraculous power of God and the certainty that God accompanies us on every step of our earthly pilgrimages …
– We are a people who are bold to love and care – even when we have been betrayed or hurt or wronged in the most crippling way, because we too have been loved and forgiven … no matter how far we might have wandered from God’s embrace …
– We are a people who do not fear … a people who are brave to shout “Alleluia” even in the face of death itself … because we know that in Christ the power of death has been defeated forever.
What is there to fear if Christ is at our side on every day and in every place we journey?
At the end of that first Thanksgiving proclamation, President Lincoln wrote:
It has seemed to me fit and proper to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, [we] do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers …
And fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it soon.
It is hard to love and serve when we are afraid. That’s the simple truth. It is impossible to do the work God has asked us to do – to respond to the call that Christ has placed on each and every one of our lives – if we live in fear.
This Thanksgiving, when you gather with the people you love and keep the traditions that make the day special for you and yours, remember the words of Jesus that have been so long remembered by the Church on this holy day …
Let us give thanks no only for the fruits of the harvest … for the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this place …
But for the possibility of living a different kind of life altogether as brothers and sisters in Christ … as followers of Jesus: “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry.”
+ J.S. Barker
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
The recent installation of Michael Bruce Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was an occasion of extraordinary celebration and joy for our denomination. Those who attended in person or watched on-line saw a liturgy that was equal parts the best of our inherited Anglican tradition, and an All-American, right of this moment snapshot of our beautiful, diverse church.
Bishop Curry’s Installation also marked, I believe, the beginning of a definitively new chapter for the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry is the right leader for this moment. He is a great preacher and writer, and as our “Chief Inspiration Officer” will surely lead with these strengths. He is an avid and life-long Episcopalian with the deepest imaginable affection for our old church. “It’s a good church,” he often says in his rolling baritone, with the kind of conviction that assures his listeners that what he says is certainly true. As an African American man, he will draw on his life’s experience as a person of color to lead the work we pledged to do at General Convention around racial reconciliation and social justice. One could hardly imagine a more important ministry for the American churches to be engaged in at this moment.
But most of all, Michael Curry is a disciple of Jesus. He knows Jesus as savior, friend and Lord and witnesses with world-class optimism to the grace of that relationship and the power of being a participant in the Jesus movement. This is Bishop Curry’s first and best attribute, and to my mind this is the characteristic that qualifies him best for his new ministry.
We’re so blessed to have lifted up this gracious man of God as our new chief pastor and primate. I hope you will join me in prayers of celebration and joy for Bishop Curry and our church, and that you will ready yourselves to work and pray in a whole new way as members of a the Jesus Movement!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
John 15:20 – 16:1 October 15, 2015
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
– John 15:20
In tonight’s Bible story, we hear a small portion of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” We’re in John’s Gospel account, and Jesus is gathered at Passover time with his closest followers at what we call the Last Supper. The “farewell discourse” is Jesus’ last word to his disciples before his passion, crucifixion and death. This discourse comprises fully five chapters of John’s Gospel, and includes prayers for Jesus’ followers, ideas about how to live as men and women of faith and encouragement for hard times ahead.
In the midst of all this talking – so very many words… so very many ideas – Jesus gets up from the table and stops talking just once. In the middle of all this long night’s supper – and all this teaching and talking – Jesus does just one thing, and it’s a something that has been remembered for 2,000 years:
Jesus [John writes] knew the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, [said Jesus] for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
In the middle of all the teaching, all the talking, all the instruction Jesus gets up and he does this one thing to show them who they’re created to be, to show them how they are called to act if they would be his disciples. You must serve one another. You must offer yourself humbly and completely. Here is the master showing us how to live … and “no servant is greater than the master.”
I am daily amazed at the sacrifices you make – both for your churches and for the world outside your parish communities. You are the finest leaders I have every served with, and your devotion to the Church and her ministries is unmatched in all my experience. I see on each weekly visit – to our every Nebraska church – the amazing ways it in which you share your time, talent and treasure all three:
– Studying up on church finances and gamely participating in long, complicated meetings as members of church vestries, finance committees, and stewardship teams;
– Washing crystal, ironing fair linens, and precisely setting out the parish’s cherished sacred vessels as members of church altar guilds;
– Writing big checks – maybe the biggest check you write to any charity every week or month – just to keep the promise you made about your pledge … and to do your part to support the ministries of the church.
From mowing lawns, to balancing books, to making cheesy potato casseroles. From polishing silver, to counting money, to watching over the kids in the nursery. From driving to a Saturday meeting, to praying the Anglican rosary to writing a card of condolence …
The list goes on and on. All the work you do, all the ways you give. You all give from your best selves. You act from your truest beliefs. You share what you have in ways that pinch and challenge and in ways that make you sweat and worry. I’m amazed and humbled at the sacrifices you make. I really mean that. Your devotion to the places and the people that you call “church” is unmatched.
I think it’s important to say that as we’re differently abled and differently blessed, as we’re differently challenged and differently inspired so too we are called to offer very different gifts – to make very different sacrifices – as disciples of Jesus. It’s important not to judge one person’s offering against another. Jesus himself teaches over and over again that every little gift matters … that every small sacrifice has real impact. So the child welcomed in Jesus’ name is an entre into a relationship with God. And the widow’s tiny mite is the greatest offering placed before the altar. And the cup of cold water offered to a thirsty traveler paves the way to heaven. We have different abilities and different gifts to share. It’s all good!
Where I think we are challenged tonight – challenged both by Jesus and the saints we commemorate – not in the kind of gifts we offer but more perhaps in the spirit in which we offer them. Our challenge is not that we give the wrong things or necessarily that we do not give enough. Our challenge is rather a tendency to be self-satisfied and defensive about our giving, instead of offering our part with the kind of joy and abandon that is modeled by Jesus, when he throws off his garments and washes the feet of every one of his disciples at that supper so long ago. It’s that joyful and complete abandon to service and loving kindness that we’re still learning how to do.
Tonight we commemorate a great feast of our Church. We remember the early Anglican churchmen: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. These were bishops one and all, martyred when they were burned at the stake on the order of Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556. They were convicted for heresy … for their too Protestant beliefs in a time of Roman Catholic ascendancy in England.
They are often said to be unlikely martyrs. All three men were academics from Oxford and Cambridge who lived sheltered and privileged lives in many ways. In every case their greatest accomplishments have more to do with their scholarly achievements than some muscular articulation of Christian living. Latimer was a great preacher who got into trouble in part (if you can believe it!) because he delivered public sermons advocating for the translation of the Bible from Latin and Greek into English. Ridley the sacramental theologian, touched a deadly nerve when he wrote and talked about reforming church vestments and when he conflated the words “altar” and “table” in church use. Cranmer – of the three the one most caught up in the politics of the day – got into hot water by arguing that the Pope’s powers should be limited to those of any old bishop.
There is no record these men gave more generously from the incomes they earned as professors, college heads and bishops than other men of similar rank in their day. They are not remembered for special service to the poor and the outcast in their time, and in fact all lived lives of comparative luxury until their last hours on earth. They did not travel and expose themselves to peril in the wider world for the sake of spreading the Gospel and planting the Kingdom of God.
What they did manage was a quiet, dutiful and constant ministry of reading, writing, teaching and preaching with such determination and faith that God honored their gifts, and gave flower to the seeds they planted in frankly miraculous ways. They may have been unlikely martyrs but their executions changed the course of history. Latimer is especially remembered for the words he called out to his companion Ridley as the executioner kindled the flames:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! [For] we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!
And so it came to pass. The executions of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer played an enormous part in opening up Church reform in England and so helped give birth to the Anglican (and Episcopal!) Church that we know and love to this day.
Almost 400 years later, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” The chance you or I will be asked to surrender our physical lives for the sake of the Gospel is remote. But we are invited nonetheless to abandoned ourselves entirely to the worship and service of God in Christ. And the pattern for that life – the life of a disciple – is cruciform. Following Jesus is about taking up the cross. Following Jesus is about dying.
If that does NOT mean being burned at the stake, it does mean dying to the luxuries, the temptations, the heresies and the indulgences of this life that would keep us from being real disciples and the best version of the human beings God created and calls us to be …
Taking up the cross …
Means letting go of our egos. It means letting go of worldly cares and expectations about power and status. It means generously and joyfully sharing all the gifts with which God has blessed us. It means that when we give – whatever we give – we are called to give it joyfully, completely and without a hint or trace of selfishness, regret or doubt. We give because God first gave to us: our lives … the lives of ones we love … the small blessings of every day that we too often take for granted … and most of all, the gift of our salvation in Jesus.
Among the poetry Cranmer composed for our first Book of Common Prayer, are these sentences, which have meant so much to Anglicans down through the ages. I’m not sure there’s a more universally beloved prayer in that book, especially for Episcopalians of a certain age:
We do not presume to come to this thy table (o merciful lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies: we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same lord whose property is always to have mercy.
We are children of a loving, living and merciful God, who calls us to a life of discipleship marked by selfless and joyful giving of every sort … an expression of thanks and delight for the gifts, God first gave on our behalf.
You are cherished my brothers and sisters. You are beloved. I pray that you can let all that you offer in word and deed for the Church and for all God’s creation flow from that knowledge. Keep up the good work of living and loving in the name of the one who lived, loved and died for you first. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker
148th Annual Council Address
To the People of the Diocese of Nebraska
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
Grace to you and peace, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It is a joy to stand before you this morning. There is no doubt this gathering of the body is among the most important, nourishing and delightful celebrations that punctuate the Church year in the Diocese of Nebraska. Thank you for being here. It is a privilege to be with you.
Here’s my plan for this address: first, some snapshots of this moment in our diocese; second, a recap of some highlights of the year passed since last we met; and third some hopes and dreams for our future together in the year and years to come. Before launching into all that, I want to offer a word of thanks to Father Robert Lewis, his staff and all the people of Saint Stephen’s here in Grand Island. That team has been exceptionally gracious and helpful as we’ve worked to plan and coordinate the events of this council. Saint Stephen’s: please accept the deep gratitude of the people of the Diocese of Nebraska for welcoming us to your home this week! We are so glad to be here!
It is a beautiful late summer day, and a team of Nebraska Episcopalians are gathered in a borrowed Sheridan Country Methodist Church, for a vestry retreat. This is a well-attended event. About 20 or 25 folks have come out this morning, and we’re sitting at tables munching on gooey homemade cinnamon buns and waiting for the day’s activities to begin. We are men and women both – and of lots of different ages. For some of the retired folks present this may be the biggest activity on the calendar this week, for some of the working people present, it’s actually a bit of a hassle to be here, an imposition to take these hours away from jammed-packed days at work and at home.
Our facilitator suggests we start with some simple introductions. Name, church and ministry kind of stuff. I go first. Scott Barker. Grew up at All Saints in Omaha. I’m the Bishop. I finish in 15 seconds, and though there are a couple dozen of us there, I figure we’ll whip thru these intros and very soon get to the real work of the day.
But when we gather in God’s name, and bid the Holy Spirit, “come,” we acknowledge that we’re not really in control at all, and we invite the possibility that something holy might transpire.
When the next person introduces themself – and the one after that – people quickly depart from the script they were asked to follow. Deeper stories of life in the parishes represented begin to be shared. There are recollections of hard times when the people of the church came through with caring that bore the very love of Christ. There are memories of celebrations – both happy and sad – where heaven and earth met for a moment in the church. These are heart-felt stories.
It has not been my experience that Nebraska farmers and ranchers are especially sentimental. Maybe that’s true of Midwesterners in general. We may feel very deeply – but getting emotional is just a little more self involved than lots of people around these parts seem to be comfortable with.
No matter. This morning, as people begin to speak the truth about their love for their churches and the life-changing ways they meet God there – the tears flow freely down the cheeks of men and women both, town folk and ranch folks alike.
When we gather in God’s name, and bid the Holy Spirit, “come,” we acknowledge that we’re not really in control at all, and we invite the possibility that something holy might transpire!
It’s Sunday afternoon at Holy Trinity in Lincoln. A team of church staff and long time church members are gathered and waiting – keeping watch at the church doors. They are waiting in hope and expectation. They are waiting with more than a little bit of nervousness. For months, this group has been working with the local South Sudanese population to arrange for a weekly service of worship at Holy Trinity in the Dinka language. A handful of South Sudanese Episcopalians have been attending Holy Trinity for some time – and recently conversations have begun to explore the possibility of a new and exciting ministry with the larger diaspora community. Would Holy Trinity be open to welcoming a much larger group of South Sudanese folk? Would it be OK if they worshipped Jesus in a different language? Would it be OK if there was a little drumming in the Church sanctuary (OK – a lot of drumming!)
We mean it when we say we are brothers and sisters in Jesus – that the bonds formed in Baptism are indissoluble – that our adoption into the family of God and the body of Christ can bridge any difference that might divide us and defeat any prejudice that might cause us to stumble. But applying those truths to real life can be hard work. So the more established members of Holy Trinity – and the potential Holy Trinity newcomers – have been negotiating and planning for weeks. Will real concerns about sharing building space, and maintaining a sense of decorum and tradition be respected? Will deep hopes around being welcomed with open arms and hearts be met?
At the appointed hour, just a couple folks show up at the church door. But then a few more. Before you know it – on the first Sunday of this new endeavor – there are sixty people – men, women and children – all singing and praying to Jesus in Dinka and all scrunched up together as if to stay warm at the front of the vast space at Holy Trinity.
There are one hundred people at the lunch served in the parish hall following the service!
We mean it when we say we are brothers and sisters in Jesus – that the bonds formed in Baptism are indissoluble … that our adoption into the family of God and the body of Christ can bridge any difference that might divide us and defeat any prejudice that might cause us stumble.
It’s noontime at the Cathedral in Downtown Omaha. It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s Downtown Episcopal Outreach day. There’s a sign out on the Cathedral sidewalk every Wednesday – it just says “DEO” and “Open.” Nobody knows who will come. Nobody knows what they will need. Nobody makes reservations or takes a count to know how many people to cook for or how many take-out boxes to stock or how many pairs of socks to buy.
In our Baptismal vows we promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons – and to love our every neighbor as ourselves. That’s the foundation of DEO – the audacious hope of this ministry. Can an old-school, big tradition, King’s-English Cathedral Church become a truly welcoming sanctuary for all comers in the name of Jesus?
At mid-morning about ten people from a local parish drive downtown and start cooking. There are grannies and grade-schoolers both at the stove and serving stations. Today it’s homemade enchiladas and tossed salad. As ever, there is fresh, gourmet ice-cream from a famous downtown shop that donates dessert every week. Today there are five flavors, including Maple – Bacon.
Starting at noon, homeless folks, cathedral staff members, downtown office workers – a teacher who drove over from the local Catholic girls school – all line up to eat … and they all sit together and mix it up at tables where there is a feast of great food, deep conversation and prayerful support all three. After lunch a few men step out onto the tiny patch of church lawn by the DEO sign. They sit in small groups or lie alone in the autumn sun. They chat, and smoke. Some snooze in the shade before starting their walk back to the shelter where they will spend the night.
In our Baptismal vows we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons – and love our every neighbor as ourselves. That’s the foundation of DEO – the audacious hope of this ministry. Can an old-school, big tradition, kings English Cathedral Church become a truly welcoming sanctuary for all comers … in the name of Jesus?
The guys on the lawn say “yes.”
Part of the purpose of this gathering is to share stories of our successes in ministry and so encourage one another. These “snapshots” are merely representative … dozens of additional and wonderful stories might easily be shared this morning from congregations both large and small all over the state. I hope these stories help us all to take heart. We still have work to do to face the challenges of church shrink and cultural change now before us, but God is at work, and we are seeing some super successes in this Diocese of Nebraska!
When Episcopalians in a community are really, truly praying every day, and reading their Bibles, and opening their lives up to God’s Word and Spirit – then we are succeeding in being good disciples.
When Episcopalians in a community are gathering to worship Jesus weekly, and letting Christ’s real presence in their lives change them for the good, then we are succeeding in being the Church.
When Episcopalians are reaching out to serve their larger communities by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and visiting those who are sick and in prison to bear tidings of healing and freedom … then we are succeeding in doing God’s mission on earth.
Since Last We Met
It’s been a good year here in the Diocese of Nebraska! One might fill the better part of a morning telling of all the life-giving ways we’re doing mission and ministry here in DioNeb, and fear not – I won’t! But I do want to share some key highlights of the work we’ve accomplished together since we gathered in Scottsbluff a year ago.
In the earliest part of 2015 we held joint meetings of our two largest diocesan governing bodies – the Executive Council and the Bishop & Trustees. This was an experiment to see what it would look like if those teams and their work were combined into one unified whole. Those were productive and even exciting meetings. A harbinger, I pray, of things to come.
On a Saturday in February, Trinity Cathedral hosted a second annual “Mutual Ministry Fair.” People travelled east from all over the diocese to share their “best-practices” in everything from managing church finances to connecting meaningfully with folks on the margins in mission and service ministries. That was a helpful gathering for all who attended – and it is now a wonderful, established new tradition of the diocese.
In March, the clergy of the diocese gathered for our annual retreat. That time of prayer and renewal is always a highlight for your priests and deacons, perhaps especially this year, as we learned to apply the principals of community organizing to church work, and experimented with the power of storytelling to convey the message of the Gospel. On the last night of our time together several priests told stories about their personal faith journeys. I don’t know that that group has ever laughed harder – or been more deeply moved – than we were by the stories shared that evening. It was a holy night.
In May and June we held our annual Vocational Inventory Retreat for men and women who have a sense of calling to ordination, and a bunch of Nebraskans travelled to Topeka for the annual gradation ceremony of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry. That re-vamped retreat and our participation in the Kemper School are key pieces in our attempt to call, shape and equip great, ordained leaders for the future church in Nebraska. You can be very proud of that work!
In July you exiled a bunch of us to the Utah desert, where your deputies from the Diocese of Nebraska represented you at the once every three years General Convention of our Episcopal Church. You can again be very proud! Our dioceses’ contributions to that gathering included successfully rallying the Church to do something about climate change … and in leading the fight to finally see Father Hiram Hisanori Kano included on our church calendar of saints.
Later in July we held a service of deconsecration at Saint Luke’s in Wymore. Saint Luke’s had a proud history, bound up with its Welsh heritage and the visits of the “Orphan Trains” to Wymore now a century ago. That closure brings the number of parish churches in our diocese to 52 – along with two of three additional smaller worshipping communities that are not yet parishes. 52 strikes me as the minimum number we’d like to have serving the people of God in this place. That’s a church to pray for and visit every week of the year. It may be that some of our smallest and most remote parishes close in the years to come. I invite you here and now my brothers and sisters to start praying – and get excited about to planting new communities – new incarnations of “church” to keep the garden growing!
In August, we welcomed Deacon Sarah Miller to the diocese. Sarah is our second “Bishop’s Society Curate” and is serving with Dean Craig Loya at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha. Our first Curate, Father John Adams, will soon finish his tenure at Saint Andrews in Omaha, and will then be relocating to Grace Church in Chadron to serve as Priest-in-Charge for his curacy’s second half. I am super proud of this program, which is helping us attract great young clergy to Nebraska and which is offering the gift to our curates (and the wider church) of a superior and supported introduction to priestly ministry.
In September, your diocesan staff took up our now traditional residency in western Nebraska. I’ve long said that though we get a lot of credit for taking the time to go west for an extended journey every year, it’s actually one of the chief delights of our annual calendar. This year we were in Kimball, Harrisburg, Scottsbluff, Gordon, Holly & Rushville, Alliance, and Hyannis. One could not possibly choose which were the kinder church people nor the more heavenly church pot-luck! I can only assure you that Christ was much in evidence throughout those days!
Finally, just two weeks ago, the Bishop’s Society to Advance Clergy Excellence met for our annual lunch to celebrate their accomplishments at raising funds to support our curacy project and to help build up the endowments of the diocese of Nebraska, Folks drove and flew from far away to be part of that celebration. Pledges by that group now total nearly half a million dollars, and in addition to funding our curacy project, you will see those gifts have also helped reduce parish faith-asking’s in the budget we’ll present later today. My deep thanks to our Bishop’s Society members and remember – it’s not too late to join!
It’s been a good year here in the Diocese of Nebraska!
Looking back, it is abundantly clear that NONE of the successes I just mentioned would have come to pass without the support of a really extraordinary diocesan staff. They are all here now and will be much in evidence in the days to come. I hope you’ll join me in thanking Lindsey Rowe and Beth Byrne and Canon Liz Easton for their determined, creative and faithful ministry on your behalf. We are more blessed than you know – me especially! – by the hard work of this group!
The year to Come
We’re planning a different kind of western “residency” for the summer of 2016. This year, the staff will relocate to our churches along US Highway 275 and Nebraska Highway 20, spending at least a portion of each day walking on the Cowboy Trail. I expect our residency to happen in June this year, and this is your invitation to plan to come, walk along and worship in our churches in this beautiful corridor of the diocese. I hope many of you will join us for a day or two!
In the area of our diocese finances, you can expect a major initiative to begin in the year ahead and about which you’ll be hearing more at this gathering. “Project Resource” is a national movement to better equip church leaders to do much more meaningful ministry in the areas of stewardship and fundraising. I hope you’ll consider accepting the invite to be a part of what feels like it may be a game-changer for our parishes.
At the end of this month we’re scheduled to close on the sale of our land at Omaha’s Tri-Faith campus. We’ve negotiated a contract with Countryside Church, the community that now leads the Tri-Faith Christian presence. We’re selling the land for 1.5 million dollars – that’s what we paid for it plus what we’ve put into it by way of taxes and some simple improvements. We get all our money back and can feel great about supporting the project in a deep way since the actual market value of the land now far exceeds what we’re selling it for. I think it was the right thing – even the Christ like thing – to part with the land for less than we might have in order to make possible the clean hand-off of a project which many of us believe in so deeply. I am awfully proud of the fact that there would quite literally be no Tri-Faith without the Diocese of Nebraska.
In the area of outreach and mission, I am delighted to point to two new ministries in the year to come. First, after some months of getting her feet planted in DioNeb, Mother Tar Drasdowski will begin coordinating our diocesan mission and outreach efforts in 2016. Her number one priority will be to support the great ministries we’re already doing, especially in the diocese of the Dominican Republic and on the reservation lands to our north. Her secondary emphasis will be to start new ministries to make mission and service opportunities more widely available – and more deeply meaningful – for us all. You’ll get to hear more from Mother Tar later during council.
Equally exciting, I am pleased to be able to announce that the diocese very recently received an extraordinary gift from the estate of the late Catherine Rauscher – Bishop Rauscher’s daughter. Catherine left just over a quarter of a million dollars from her estate to the Diocese of Nebraska for the purpose of meeting the needs of the poor. The gift is to be administered jointly by the diocese, Trinity Cathedral and All Saint, and is to be used to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical attention to local people in greatest need. I bid your prayers – and your creative input – as we begin to envision together how best to invest this extraordinary gift to maximum impact.
Finally, in our on-going efforts to better support and equip your clergy leaders, we’ll be hosting a “Western priests retreat” about a month from now at Camp Norwesca near Chadron. Priests from all across the diocese are invited to this event, which we hope will offer equal measures of prayer, learning, connecting and unapologetic fun … and which will offer a particular emphasis on supporting priestly ministry in our western-most contexts! I hope to see many of our presbyters there!
As to our longer-term future, write this note in the margins of your council booklet or bust out your calendars and put down this entry. In October of 2018 – three years from now – the Diocese of Nebraska will be 150 years old! That is an extraordinary milestone for a Church, and it makes us a rather ancient institution for this young part of our United States. We’ll celebrate that anniversary with a series of 4 special events hosted all across DioNeb. There is a team convened composed of members from Bishop & Trustees and the Executive Commission to begin planning these parties, but we’ll need great ideas and supportive help from all of you to make that anniversary all that it can be. Let me encourage you to start here and now in your small, table groups, sharing hopes and ideas for how we might mark this sesquicentennial anniversary.
Last week was the fourth anniversary of my consecration and ordination as Bishop of this diocese. As a memento of that occasion, I have a poster on the wall of my office. It’s a framed, night photograph of memorial stadium that was taken on the evening you ordained me. The poster is entitled, “The Comeback” because that was the night the Huskers overcame a 21 point deficit to achieve the biggest football comeback in school history.
Like the team that is our shared preoccupation, we have real challenges before us. But I am proud that we are meeting them with determination, hard work and a ton of faith in Christ’s presence to guide us and show us the way. I give thanks every single day for the privilege of “coming back” to this place that I love so much, and for the wonder of serving side by side with such fine people. Thanks so much – for all that you give, for all that you do, for all that you are.
Submitted this 16th day of October, 2015 in Grand Island, Nebraska, by
The Right Rev. J. Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska