Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

Sermon of the Month

Featured Sermon: Christ the King – Dean Craig Loya

craig-christ-the-kingTwo TV moments to start this morning. Sixteen years ago at this time, after George W. Bush and Al Gore had fought through a bitter and mean campaign (it seems pretty mild now), the country waited weeks and weeks to sort out what was essentially a dead tie between the candidates. Cynicism about politicians and Washington had been growing for a while, and seemed universal. NBC’s “The West Wing” was just hitting its stride. Against the backdrop of an election scene that looked a little like a circus, and then as the country started to become more and more fractured, “The West Wing” provided us with a sort of alternate political reality, where President Josiah Bartlett and his team united a country with integrity and a commitment to service that seemed both pleasantly old-fashioned and hopefully forward thinking.

Fast forward to today, and in the aftermath of this year’s bitter and mean campaign, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series “The Crown,” which traces the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II from her ascension as a young woman in the late 1940s. In one of the early episodes, Elizabeth is seeking advice at the bedside of her sick grandmother. The older woman leans in and says forcefully, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to bring grace and dignity to the earth. It gives ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Her point is that the monarchy serves as a grounding point for English identity, an anchor of stability and history in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and a British empire coming apart at the seams.

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which since the early twentieth century has been celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King to remind a divided Europe in the aftermath of World War I of their common allegiance to Christ rather than to any earthly ruler.

It’s a feast that seems as relevant and important today as it did in the 1920s, and I think the alternate reality of “The West Wing” and the Crown’s ideal to strive towards can help us make sense of what it might mean for us today.

Our gospel lesson today gives us a sense of what the ideal Christ our king sets for us might be. Here is Jesus in the most unlikely position for a monarch: being executed alongside common criminals as an enemy of the state. Three times Jesus is mocked and challenged to save himself, and three times he forgives and embraces his tormentors. While the nations and kingdoms of the world are ruled by force and intimidation, our kingdom is ruled by a king who suffers alongside us, a king who uses his power to dispense boundless mercy, who promises paradise to criminals and outcasts. When Jesus was handed all the power in the universe, he didn’t choose to simply be the biggest king with the biggest empire, he chose to give his power away in love, he chose to use his power to upend all the ways we normally organize kingdoms.

Our king provides an ideal to strive toward, a grounding point for our identity, but it is an ideal of service, and mercy, and love, and peace. It’s an ideal of loving rather than winning. It’s an ideal of being merciful. It’s an ideal of standing with those who are cast out. Our king rescues us from the power of darkness by turning the order of a dark world on its head.

“The West Wing” provided a different way of imagining one season of our nation’s history. But, of course, it was fantasy and escape. The alternative kingdom we belong to—the Kingdom of God—is actually more real and more true than the darkness we currently see. Our job is to make what seems like a different and fantastical reality shine through that darkness, until it turns the whole world to Christ’s light.

In the coming months and years, there will be no easy or cheap healing of the deep and complex divisions among us in this country. I’ve heard from so many people who I love, who I work with, that the immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbian, and transgender persons, and so many others who were targeted by hateful rhetoric in this campaign are scared about what happens next. That the election came out the way it did suggests there’s a whole lot of people in our country who are angry they’ve been overlooked and ignored and dismissed. Others are simply tired of hearing about it, and simply want to move on.

I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but wherever a person falls on that spectrum on this day, the call to us is the same. On the feast of Christ the King, we are invited simply to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, not as a doctrine or a belief or a religion, but as a way of life. We are invited to renew our commitment to living the way Jesus lived and taught, and to renew our allegiance to the kingdom his life announced. We are called to make Jesus’ way of standing with the suffering, solidarity with the marginalized and threatened, offering peace at every turn, the ideal we strive towards, the thing that lifts us out of our ordinary lives.

But then we are challenged to help make this other kingdom a reality here and now. We are challenged to ask ourselves: what is one thing we can do today, or this week, to wave the flag of Christ’s kingdom? How can I stand with the suffering? Where can I offer forgiveness?

The good news today, and every day, is that no matter what happens in our lives, in our nation, or in our world, God has already overcome the powers of darkness and sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The resurrection assures us that’s a done deal. Our job is to use whatever life we have to offer that promise to those who are still trapped in darkness, until the kingdom of life and light and love appears in its glorious fullness. Amen.


– The Very Rev. Craig Loya

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Featured Sermon: 26th Sunday after Pentecost – Bishop Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

This homily was preached this past Sunday at Saint Mark’s on the Campus in Lincoln, NE. It was written for that congregation on that day, but will perhaps be encouraging to others.

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

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Take “Me” Out – Reflection by Fr. Benedict Varnum

priest-baseballThursday, November 03, 2016

Take “Me” Out …

I’m not the world’s biggest sports fan, and I have plenty of grumpy, fussy things to say about the salaries professional athletes are paid for our entertainment in an age where we still have trouble finding the social will to fund schools and medical clinics.

But tabling all of that for a moment, I’ll admit that I’m also a guy who lived in Chicago for ten years. And even the hardest-hearted grump can’t help but get swept up into an awareness of the Cubs curse (the owner of the Billy Goat tavern brought a live goat to a 1945 World Series Game, was kicked out because the goat smelled awful, and swore the Cubs wouldn’t win any longer).

I watched Game 7 of the World Series this past week, with all its Disney-finale movements back and forth. And this morning, talking with Mary Jane Smith here at church, we got to reflecting on Aroldis Chapman.

Now, again, I’m not a huge sports fan. I hadn’t been following the highly-technical pitching theories about who you use when, how much rest pitchers need, how many pitches someone ought to throw, etc. But I picked up enough from the announcers to understand that Aroldis is a heavyweight, brought in for big moments, and that he’d carried a huge load in games 5 and 6. Last night, for game 7, the Cubs brought him in to seal the deal in the bottom of the eighth inning, standing on a two-run lead.

Except Aroldis didn’t close the game. He actually opened it up wide open again, as almost immediately batters hit on him and made up the runs, tying the game in the bottom of the eighth. As the game was put on rain delay after a still-tied ninth inning, announcers reported that Aroldis was crying as he walked into the dugout.

I can’t imagine the pressure that’s put on one man in his late twenties, when millions of people are watching, millions of dollars of endorsements and salaries for himself, his club, and his teammates are on the line, and the results of a few dozen pitches may have endangered a victory that seemed well in reach.

But what was really heartening was watching the rest of the team step up. Instead of a game being finished by a superstar titan, looming heroically above the deeds of merely mortal men, we watched a wearied pitcher make fatigued mistakes, putting the outcome back into play for either team.

And then the Cubs had to work for it.

And so it was that the team’s batting line-up had to work the bats and the bases to find go-ahead runs again. It took Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero hitting strong to bring in two runs in the tenth. And then the unlikely Mike Montgomery was brought out to work the final pitches to the final out and close the game.

A friend noted that even the last toss that snagged the final out of the game was thrown with a slipping foot. A conclusion full of imperfect grace and much-needed teamwork on a field half-protected from rain after a 17-minute delay. Not with a bang, but a whimper, as the poet says.

I can’t help but think that many of the great works of churches are like this. We have stories of great miracles; we have the astonishing sign of the Resurrection; we have the world-shaking power of God the Almighty to confess. We have seen the witness of heroic saints in every age, who proclaimed by mighty acts and deeds a fearless faith, seeming perfect and glorious in their surety and confidence and commitment.

And yet so much of our faith is worked out in quiet moments with other people, imperfectly and unheroically. So much of our faith has a slipping foot, after a comeback that depends on other people, to arrive late in the night after a wearying journey that called for unknown gifts brought forth by leaps of faith. So much of our faith arrives, breathless, after a journey we’d never have predicted.

We’re a team. Well, rather, we’re a body – no less than the Body of Christ. And Christ has made it perfectly clear that however scarred that body is, it will still be Risen, too. However tormented we make it, and however mocked, that Body is the message of love God sends into the world as a witness to its many parts. However different the eye is from the hand, they need each other, whether or not they can understand each other.

There are curses WE still need to break. We need to break the curse of racism, and sexism, and xenophobia. We need to break the curse that lifts up any particular human wisdom over the love and grace and forgiveness that God calls us to. We need to break all sorts of curses that call on us to create divisions from one another, rather than recognizing all the world as beloved children that God has demanded we call “Neighbor.” And some of these curses have a history stretching much farther back than a mere 108 years.

But when we arrive at our victory, it won’t be because a single human being has stood on the mound, throwing thunderous pitch after thunderous pitch past batters who had no chance of hitting them. Rather, it will be because the grace of God in all of us has let us each offer some small gift that we’ve been blessed with, some piece of the holy story of reconciliation and repentance, back into a hurting world that is healed and made whole piece by piece when we offer it our gifts and love.

I love our lineup here at Saint Augustine’s. I’ve seen all sorts of star plays by our people here as we celebrate the worship of God, reach out our hands in help and support of our neighbors and our communities, and teach ourselves and our children more about Jesus. I’ve seen relief pitchers step up to spell tired arms. I’ve seen people swing for the fences and place strategic bunts to help others. I’ve seen people tag up at base after a fly ball to make sure we move forward safely. And I’ve seen us win together. I can’t wait to see what we’ve got ready for next season.

So take me out to the ballgame. And then take “me” out, that God might work through me instead.

– Fr. Benedict Varnum


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Featured Sermon: Annual Council Eucharist – Bishop Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Holy Trinity – Lincoln
October 7, 2016
Matthew 18:15-20


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

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Featured Sermon: The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Easton

Morning light at Grace Church, Chadron

Morning light at Grace Church, Chadron

The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Easton
Proper 6C – St. Mary’s, Bassett
June 17, 2016


This week, our Diocesan staff has been traveling along the Cowboy Trail—that now abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railway Corridor stretching from around Chadron all the way to Norfolk.


We started out in Chadron, at beautiful little Grace Church, then visited Gordon, and Valentine, and took a swing up to the Rosebud Reservation to “supervise” our Diocesan youth hard at work on their yearly mission trip.


This annual journey, which we sometimes call the “Western Residency,” is a highlight of the year for us. Here, we get to spend a little more time in and around our churches in this part of the world than we usually do. We get to move at a slightly slower pace, explore a bit more, follow our curiosity down new roads. We eat very, very well. And we get a lot of work done—if you have a liberal definition of “work.”


The Nebraska Sandhills

The Nebraska Sandhills

This is a week for imagining and dreaming, praying and wrestling, with what God might be calling the Episcopal churches of Nebraska to be and do in this moment, and how we can serve our people best in the midst of that holy transformation. It’s incredibly rich and connecting, and we are just so grateful that our congregations along the way humor us and host us with such ridiculous abundance. Thank you.


Having spent the last few days in the Sandhills, there is no better way to mark this journey—for me, at least—than a rogation procession in the midst of such a beautiful place. As the four us have traveled in the truck these last several days, the Sandhills have become a powerful fifth person in our midst. This incredible landscape is unlike anywhere else on earth, and for those of us who don’t get to live within its splendor daily—those of us in the boring east—the vastness and beauty of this place is almost overwhelming.




The other night, we were driving from Gordon to Valentine, just as the sun was setting. It was only the second day of our journey, and already we were feeling the emotional whiplash of this kind of trip—the highs of beautiful liturgies and wholehearted laughter around a parish hall table; the more challenging lows of hard odds and hard truths spoken about towns that are shrinking and churches that are fighting to keep their doors open.


It’s hard work, and it’s humbling, and sometimes it will even break your heart.


Bishop Barker on his way to church

Bishop Barker on his way to church

So, we were driving to Valentine along Highway 20, and the sun had just set. The outlines of the hills were still glowing red on the horizon, but the sky was getting darker and filling up with stars. The moon was bright, and pretty full, and followed us along the passenger side the whole way. Near it, just to its left, a planet—which I later found out was Saturn—glowed brightly.


I found myself wondering, in the midst of all that vastness—the huge sky, the far away planets, the rolling, expansive hills, and all that water beneath them—what we might look like from God’s perspective. Set within the immensity of creation, where does God place us? What does God see?




The readings for tonight were actually appointed for last Sunday, so you’ve likely encountered them very recently. Most of us heard them in church before we understood exactly what had happened in Orlando that day, maybe before we’d even knew about it at all.


Feasting with the people of St. Michael and All Angels, O'Neill

Feasting with the people of St. Michael and All Angels, O’Neill

Here, we find a story about Jesus at a dinner party. Invited by a curious and maybe critical Pharisee, Jesus meets a woman there—we don’t know her name—who makes him welcome in a way that no one else would. She weeps at his feet, washing away the dust and grime from the day’s journey with her own tears, the source of which we don’t know exactly, but the abundance of which speaks to a deep well of emotion—of grief, or shame, or maybe gratitude, even joy.


She has with her an expensive jar of perfume, which she anoints him with. She uses her own hair to dry his feet, to soak up her tears and that anointment. She’s a mess, and she’s beautiful, and she’s doing something that no one else would dare do, in a way that is shocking, and strange, and deeply disturbing somehow.


What do we make of this woman? The others around the table are quick to dismiss her—to call her a sinner, and use that to discredit Jesus, who should know better than to let a woman like her touch him at all. Of course, Jesus isn’t buying it. He knows exactly who she is, and he welcomes her gift, as strange and gritty and imperfect as it is.


Sometimes I feel like I’m seated around that Pharisee’s dining table. Jesus is right there, I know it, but I’m not sure exactly how to serve him, welcome him, honor him.


Things around us feel tight these days, I think, like what we’ve come to rely on is scarce or even disappearing. Like there’s not enough to go around. Tension surrounding this political season is especially high, and we’re not sure how to talk about all of it with our neighbors or even our friends. The whole world is changing—who has power and who doesn’t, who has less power than they used to, who has more. The traditions that helped us feel safe, maybe, or at least comfortable, are being challenged, and so our grip gets tighter and tighter.


Baptism sacrament at Trinity, Norfolk

Baptism sacrament at Trinity, Norfolk

The story that we heard tonight reminds us that God loves our offerings. That when there is a choice to make, we are called to err on the side of generously loving—even when we are awkward, and imperfect, and aren’t really sure what we’re doing. Even when we’re afraid.


There’s something that Nebraska can tell the world about this particular way of serving Jesus, I think—this erring on the side of abundance that we read about today. Your diocesan staff talks about this all the time—wonders and marvels about it—and we’ve seen a ton of it on this trip. We are a diocese of small churches, for the most part. Small churches in small communities that are changing and shifting at a pace just a step ahead of the rest of the Church. And what we see, over and over again when we visit you, is a profuse, sometimes astounding, outpouring of generosity that I know God takes great delight in:


The feasts where we bring our very best to the potluck table—our cherished family dishes, our first fruits.


The altar that is painstakingly cared for; the worship carefully planned to the last detail so that the seven or ten or fifteen people we see every week will get to worship without distraction and with special reverence, and so that the stranger can join us and be astonished by beauty; just beauty.


The people that we love even though nobody says we have to—the people whose sharp edges can cut us, who can be very hard to love indeed, but are ours, and are cherished, and are known.


The times when we take big risks without counting the cost—trying something new, trying something that seems impossible, meeting and serving the broken and marginalized people all around us because they are Jesus, too.


Feasting with the people of St. Michael and All Angels, O'Neill

Feasting with the people of St. Michael and All Angels, O’Neill

God loves our offerings.

SO. The glowing hills, and the nearly full moon, and Saturn blazing in the night sky: In the midst of all of that, set so small within it, where does God place us? What does God see?


I think that part of the spirituality of Nebraska has to do with scale. We know how small we are. And we know how important small things are God’s creation. Seeds pushing their way through the earth. Drops of rain. The way that sunlight makes magic out of tiny green leaves. Our small churches, our small selves. Like the woman at Jesus’ feet in tonight’s reading, we bring all of ourselves to God—our tears and our jars of perfume—and we offer them with whole hearts, even when the rest of the world says that’s not worth it, that kind of generosity isn’t worth it. Especially then. We know that we either love abundantly or we do not. So, please know this: God loves your offering.



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Featured Sermon: Pentecost 4 – Fr. Jason Emerson



“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

May only God’s word be spoken and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!

So, it’s an obvious fact that Jodie and I come from a spotted people and you’ve seen my twins who are so pale they are borderline transparent. Spoiler Alert: We are Irish! Needless to say, we are personally keeping two, maybe three, sunscreen companies in business. Indeed, sunscreen is a significant part of our lives in my household.

However, I noticed something the other day. I was at the store buying some really high SPF sunscreen. Y’all, I’m telling you, SPF 100 is almost like being inside. It’s great stuff. However, I noticed you can’t buy low SPF sunscreen anymore. I remember as a kid my sister using SPF 5 or 1, when she was trying to get a tan. Sometimes she would even forego the sunscreen all together and use baby oil. Thinking back on it, using baby oil is kind of like putting olive oil on chicken before you grill it. She was basically marinating herself. While it seemed like a great idea at the time, now a days, it just sounds like a great way to get skin cancer. We are way more concerned about skin cancer today; so much so, that consumers won’t buy low SPF Sunscreen. Hence, it isn’t available in stores anymore.

I told you this whole bit about sunscreen to illustrate that as a society we can learn. We can in fact grow in awareness and change as a culture. Our gospel passage points to an area where both society as a whole and the christian church in general needs to change. I am speaking of women’s safety. Make no bones about it, this woman walked into a situation that was extremely dangerous for her.

Now you might be thinking, “It was just a dinner party. What’s so dangerous about that? I’m sure there were several women in attendance.” No, remember this story takes place in a middle eastern country in what we call the first century. Women did not eat with men, did not speak to men in public, and definitely did not touch a man in public. It would have been totally acceptable for the host and the other men there to drag this woman by the hair out of the house, through the streets to the outskirts of town, and stone her to death–to throw rocks at her head until she died. And no one would have questioned him, no one would have criticized him for it, no one would have judged him wrong.
Except, Jesus!

Jesus not only accepts the woman and her offering of adoration, but shames the host by noting that he had failed at basic hospitality. This part of the world was and still is primarily desert. It was customary to offer guests water to clean their feet and hands before a meal because of the dust. The host had not done that. This is no minor faux pas, either. This isn’t showing up fashionably late. No, hospitality codes were a serious deal in that time and place. Furthermore, a pharisee, a religious leader fails to acknowledge what Jesus is, while this woman, a sinner, pays him great homage.

By Jesus accepting her offering, he saves her from almost certain death. Now we don’t live in that place or that time. We’ve progressed a bit, but we need only look at recent revelations at Baylor University and the sentencing in the Brock Turner rape case to know we’ve got a long way to go. To a significant and dangerous degree, women are still considered second-class citizens in this country.

More on that in a moment, but for now let’s remember God’s preference for the “other”. As we have seen the last few weeks, God chooses the outsiders, the downtrodden, the poor, the sick, the sinners, and even the enemies because they often have an easier time of recognizing God in their lives. They “get it”. On the other hand those of us who are the institution {raise hand}, as in me, and those of us in the religious establishment {gesture to include everyone in the room} often have a harder time trusting God–that is to say, to live by faith in Jesus instead of our own capabilities. So much so, we like the Pharisee, can fail to practice God’s radical inclusion and even simple hospitality.
As we have been talking about for the last couple of weeks, this dynamic of exclusion by the faithful is the theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Today we hear more from that letter where Paul eloquently establishes that justification does not come from works, justification cannot be earned. It is God’s work. God’s gracious free gift available to all.

Now, what does Paul mean by “justification?” This is a theological term that gets tossed around a lot; so let’s talk about it for a moment. Heidi Armstrong uses the analogy of a word processing program. When the software justifies the text, it aligns the words with the margins. Jesus aligns our lives, tidies up the margins if you will, brings us in line with God. This is God’s work. It is not something I can do to someone else and it is not something we can do for ourselves. As our brothers and sisters in the twelve step traditions teach us, we are powerless to our addictions, be they food, drink, drugs or even our negative emotions–we are powerless and need a higher power to heal us.
The woman in our Gospel passage is justified by Jesus and experiences that justification through her faith. Now, you might be thinking, “wait a second, didn’t she earn her justification, earn her salvation, by washing Jesus’ feet.” Not so fast, my friend, as Lee Corso would say. Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” HENCE, not because…She has experienced forgiveness so she shows great love. Her adoration of Jesus is a response to his acceptance of her, his salvation, his justifying her.

So what is our job? As people of faith, as people on the inside, what is our job? What is our response to justification in Christ Jesus supposed to be? Certainly on a societal level, we have to work not only for justice for women who are victims of crime, especially sexual assault of any sort, but we must also create a culture where women are completely safe everywhere at all times. And I believe my brothers and sisters that our society can change. Just as we have learned to use high SPF sunscreen surely we can learn to treat all women as equally human as men. Furthermore, I believe that we, people of faith, aren’t just called but are capable of bringing about that change.

Within the church, our job is similar and broader. Heidi Armstrong also points out the growing phenomenon of people’s unwillingness to come to church. Even when their lives are spiralling out of control because of sin people won’t come to church because of fear. People are afraid of being judged. They are fearful; not fearful of being physically harmed, rather emotionally harmed by the hypocritical judgement of the faithful.

Now my brother and sisters I know this is hard to hear, because I know you all to be deeply loving and caring people. I know you to be honest about your own brokenness and not judgemental of the brokenness of others. I know you to be real, to be genuine. Nonetheless, I know we can still be better at radical inclusion. Regardless of what we think about ourselves, we certainly aren’t immune to the cultural perception that church folks are cliquish and judgemental.

So, our job is to create a culture where we are known for who we include not who we exclude. We are called to create a space where all can come regardless of their sin and experience the love of God. We are called to get “out of the seats and into the streets” as Ron Dotzler likes to say, called to be radically welcoming, radically inclusive, radically abundant in expressing God’s love for others because we have experienced God’s love ourselves. We called to this work “not just in this house on this morning”, but every day and in every place.

My brothers and sisters, do not let the church be a place where sinners are afraid to approach God. Rather, be the church every day. Be the radically inclusive and overwhelmingly loving Church every single day. Be the safe place for a sinner to come to know God’s love and be justified by Jesus. Amen!


Father Jason Emerson, Church of the Resurrection

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Featured Sermon: Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett, Easter 6C



Easter 6C 2016: Do you want to be made well?
John 5:1-9

When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

Good morning! It was lovely this rainy morning to step into our newly repaired and painted sanctuary — the sort of delightful new thing that is in keeping with the Easter season.

This Sixth Sunday of Easter is Camp Sunday in our diocese, and we should hear more about that at announcement time. There’s something about spending time in the outdoors with new friends from across the diocese that makes the camp experience a consistent catalyst for spiritual growth in our children and teen-agers. And in harmony with the outdoor theme, today is also Rogation Sunday, the beginning of the traditional Rogation Days when we pray for a successful growing season and, as a sort of American update to the old English customs of Rogation, think about and pray about environmental stewardship.

For most of Omaha outside of our walls, though, this weekend is known more for the big Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting that brings lots of visitors here. One of the visitors this year, Dr. James Hansen, was here to advocate for a shareholders’ resolution on climate change. Dr. Hansen, a former climate scientist for NASA who is now a full-time climate advocate, also lectured at Creighton University Friday evening on the topic “Energy and Climate Change: How Can Justice Be Achieved for Young People?”

I’m pretty sure most of the people gathered at that lecture were unaware of the exquisite timing of having a leading climate scientist in our midst as we Episcopalians begin our annual observance of the Rogation Days, but it delighted me. In my work in environmental stewardship and environmental justice, I’m well aware of the very critical and uniquely challenging situation we are in with regards to climate change caused by global warming. Things are much more dire than people might guess from the disproportionately small amount of attention the news media and political establishment give climate change, and it’s tempting to be discouraged. But as a Christian, I’m also aware of the hope in which we live always, no matter what. Hearing Dr. Hansen talk about the problems we face and possible solutions, and being in the company of more than 700 people who were willing to spend their Friday evening thinking about these things, was both sobering and heartening.

One of the questions for Dr. Hansen at the end of his talk was from a woman who said that when she had told a couple of other people that she was planning to go to a lecture about climate change, their reaction had been one of what she described as “fatalism” — basically the idea that there’s nothing we can do about this big problem, so why bother? Her question for Dr. Hansen was focused on how we can combat this fatalism: how can we help people feel empowered rather than fatalistic. Being immersed in this morning’s Gospel lesson, I realized how this new question about climate change can be answered at least in part by this old story from John’s Gospel.

This story has a lot to say about why we so often fail to do the things that would make us — and our planet — well, that would make us healthy, whole, and holy. And this story also tells us something about hope, especially the kind of hope that empowers us to take on big challenges.

This story in John’s Gospel is unlike the other Gospel stories about Jesus healing people. In the other stories, someone seeks out Jesus. Think of the story that precedes this morning’s lesson in John’s Gospel: the healing of the son of the royal official. John tells us that when the official heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee, “he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.” Jesus says the word, and on his way home the royal official learns that his son’s fever has left him. Or think of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof of a house lying on his mat when they couldn’t get near the door to bring their friend to Jesus for healing. Or think of the woman whose years of hemorrhaging had made her such an outcast that she didn’t dare to think of speaking to Jesus. But even she approached Jesus, though not in his direct line of sight, sure that if she could just touch the cloak of his garment she would be made well. In today’s passage, though, the situation is reversed: Jesus approaches this man who had been ill in some way for 38 years and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

It may seem an odd question to ask someone who shows up every day at the place where people go in hope of being healed, but then the man gives an odd answer. Instead of a simple, “Yes, I want to be healed”, he gives an explanation of why he hasn’t been healed. Tradition said that an angel periodically stirred up or “troubled” the water in the pool. The belief was that at the moment when the water was stirred up, it had healing properties, and the first person in the pool when the water was stirred up would be healed. The man explains to Jesus that he has no one to put him into the pool when the water moves, and that by the time he can make his way to the pool on his own, someone else always steps down into the water ahead of him.

In offering an explanation rather than an answer, this man may be telling Jesus more about why he doesn’t expect to be healed than about whether he wants to be healed. Maybe he can’t even make sense of wanting something that seems unattainable.

The puzzling thing is that even though what this man has done for years hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, he keeps on doing the same thing day after day after day.

Why does he do that? It could be that, inaccessible as the pool is to him, it’s still the most accessible means of healing he knows. Maybe he continues his vigil by the pool because it’s his only hope of any sort. Or maybe it isn’t hope at all that keeps him coming back for another day of the same thing; maybe the familiarity of even this discouraging routine holds some sort of comfort that keeps him from changing what he does. His answer to Jesus’s question does indeed sound like the answer of a fatalist as much as it does someone with hope. That may be because there isn’t that much difference between false hope and fatalism. False hope is simply the optimist’s way of being fatalistic. Both work on the assumption that nothing we can do or are doing will make any difference; both assume that our fate and our present choices are unrelated.

False hope is magical thinking, wishing that the familiar thing we keep doing that isn’t helping us at all might magically produce the results we want.

I recall some students from my teaching days who wouldn’t read the books or engage in class discussions all semester yet hoped — in this false sense of hope, I assure you — that they might pull a good grade out of the course at the end of the semester.

That’s false hope. Real hope is something very different. The hope that Jesus offers is always real hope. In this story, we, the hearers of the story, begin to see hope the moment Jesus notices the man and speaks to him.

The startling beauty of the story lies in what Jesus does next. Having heard the non-answer to the question about whether this man wants to be healed, Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus answers the explanation by cutting to an unimagined alternative. Jesus does just what we celebrate throughout the Easter season: he shows us something new and unexpected, creating a way where there was no way, creating hope where there was no real hope.

The sort of hope that Jesus brings isn’t a passive false hope that somehow everything will turn out well without our changing anything; Jesus brings genuine hope that calls us to act by embracing the new thing that Jesus offers. Real hope can feel risky because it calls us to abandon something familiar in favor of something we haven’t even fully imagined.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk” would be a cruel thing to say unless we somehow know, as Jesus seems to in this case, that the person really does have the capacity to get up and walk. Jesus simply calls us to do what we can do. When we do have the capacity to do something different – whether we had that capacity all along or have through an encounter with Jesus experienced the beginning of healing that we ourselves have the power to accept and complete – then being told to get up and walk is exactly what we may need. When we have the capacity to make different choices, to choose health over sickness, wholeness over brokenness, holiness over sin, then Jesus calls us to get up and do something.

Individuals, parishes, communities, and all of us on God’s good green Earth get stuck more often than we might like. Often when we get stuck in a bad place we put our energy into reciting to ourselves and to others our explanation of why we can’t do anything else instead of putting our energy into the disciplined work of getting up and doing something new. We might dodge the question “Do you want to be made well?”, or we might express a vague desire for our own lives and our common life to be better — maybe we even dream of the assurance of a stable climate that can continue to support human civilization and diverse forms of life on our planet — but our inaction and our sometimes contrary actions answer the question “Do you want to be made well?” with a resounding “No”.

Do we want to be made well? That’s a big question for all of us. Because if we want to become healthy, whole, and holy in our own lives, in our parishes and communities, and in the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, if we tell Jesus we want to be made well, we are also telling Jesus that we are ready to make some changes. We are telling Jesus we are willing to imagine with him a way to live that differs from what we are doing now, and we are saying we are willing to risk getting up and getting to work doing something new. Jesus invites us into his creativity; Jesus invites us to be empowered to engage our creativity and find a way for all of God’s children to have a chance at healthy, whole, and holy lives.

The words of this morning’s Collect remind us that God’s promises “exceed all that we can desire”. May we have the grace and imagination to believe God’s promises and accept the real hope Jesus offers us; may we have the grace to abandon false hope and fatalism in favor of the full life Jesus offers us all. Amen.

Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, May 1, 2016

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Featured Sermon – When God Moves Into the Neighborhood



The first thing to say this morning is that it’s still Christmas. The feast of Christmas doesn’t just last for one day, but rather extends over a full twelve days. We’re called to celebrate each of those days like Christmas. The cycle of our liturgical seasons is designed to give us a chance to steep ourselves a little in the major events of our faith so that our lives begin to be shaped in even deeper ways by what God has done for us. So find some way, every day, for the next ten days, to celebrate, even if it’s just in tiny ways.

Every year on the first Sunday after Christmas, our gospel lesson is the opening passage of John’s gospel. There are three very different Christmas stories in the Bible: Luke’s is the one with the shepherds, Matthew’s is the one with the wise men, and John’s is like the art house film version: abstract, experimental, maybe even a little obtuse. In Greek, it is written as a poem, and like all good poetry, it rewards repeated readings, and is most rewarding when you grab just a nugget here and there to chew on for a while. So I would encourage you to take your bulletin with you and just revisit this through this week as you celebrate Christmas and just see what grabs you at different points.

There were two that stuck out for me in particular this week that I’ll say just a few things about this morning:

The first is really the punch line of the whole thing: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Most of us basically hear this as a simple statement of the improbable doctrine that God became human in the person of Jesus. But there’s a lot more going on here than that.

A better translation of the phrase “dwelt among us” in Greek is the “pitched his tent among us.” It doesn’t have the same literary gravitas, but it’s linguistically more accurate. So this isn’t just a one-time event, but rather it’s an ongoing characteristic of God to become one of us. The sense here is that God hangs out with us, God moves into the neighborhood.[1]

At the first Christmas, God moved into the neighborhood of ancient Israel. Today, God is always moving into whatever our neighborhoods happen to be. God is constantly showing up as one of us. That means a big part of the life of faith is not just worshipping Jesus in here, but learning how to spot where Jesus is showing up out there.

And the other real nugget in this poem for me reminds us that whenever God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like light shining in darkness. The earlier punch line in the poem comes as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the light of staff and volunteers at the Yates community center working tirelessly to care for and support refugees as they begin to rebuild their lives after fleeing trauma that’s hard for us to imagine. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like young black leaders in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or wherever pointing out that the sin of racism continues to pervade our national life at every level. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the voices of those who are calling our political leaders out on the hateful rhetoric of fear toward immigrants, and refugees, and even Muslim citizens of this country. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like a meal delivered to a family after a death, like a visit to a hospital bedside, like a marriage healed, or a petty grievance forgiven and let go. It’s happening everywhere, all the time, and we do this in here so that we can spot it, and join God out there in lighting the darkness.

Christmas is also a time when that particular interplay of light and darkness is most complexly mingled and the edges of both become most acute. For all the feasting and rejoicing, the time with family and the warm, sentimental scenes, this is also a time when we feel the absence of loss most bluntly, and the pangs of whatever grief we carry more sharply. In the midst of that, we have this nugget to carry with us this week: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [will not] overcome it.”

Despite all that is dark in the world, despite all that is dark in our own lives, God is still moving into the neighborhood, light still shines in the darkness, and despite all logic, we are here, together with a few billion Christians around the world who are doing this same thing today, together with angels and archangels and all those lights who have sat in these pews since 1883, those lights who have sat around the table at our Christmas feasts. We are all gathered together in this moment, defying the darkness again, claiming God promise that it doesn’t get the last word. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Amen.

Dean Craig Loya

[1] This translation appears in Peterson, Eugene. The Message. NavPress: 2007. Carol Stream, IL

You can follow Dean Loya’s blog at

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Featured Sermon – Advent 3: Dean Craig Loya

Dean Craig Loya

Dean Craig Loya

Several years ago, a priest I know in another diocese had one of those small crises that pop up from time to time in churches. Several people approached him during an otherwise typical week with the shocking news that the parish children had been coloring in the prayer books! There followed lots of hand wringing among a group of parishioners, and then discussion at a staff meeting about what should be done. After several rounds of these conversations, my friend got up, walked out of the church office, down the street to the local toy store, and bought about fifty dollars worth of small etch-a-sketches to put in the back of the church for kids to play with while they sat in the service. So all the handwringing and discussing was easily solved with about ten minutes and fifty dollars. Seemingly big problem. Very simple solution.

That feels like the idea in today’s gospel lesson, too. If you thought John the Baptist was wild last week, this week shows us he was just getting warmed up. He shifts into a much higher homiletic gear and shouts at the congregation that has journeyed out into the wilderness: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His message is essentially you have screwed up, your religious credentials aren’t going to save you, and God’s full wrath is about this far away.

The people are unfazed by his tantrum, they’re still right there with him, and they ask: “What then shall we do?” John’s response is shockingly simple. He basically says: “share what you have with people who need it, be honest, and don’t exploit others for your own gain.” All of that impending doom and destruction can be avoided if the people will essentially do the things we teach preschoolers to do.

But if you stop and think for a minute about what it would be like if everyone actually started doing the things we teach preschoolers to do: sharing what we have, being honest and straightforward, not using other people for our own ends—the world would be vastly different. What would it be like if in the midst of the deep divisions in our country, our political leaders just started doing those three things? What would it be like if we really acted like that in our offices and schools and homes, and even at church?

John the Baptist is so passionate and wild in his rant because the gospel of Jesus is about utterly upending the way the world normally works. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world that is comfortable where some have more than they could ever use, and others lie hungry and naked in the street. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it’s ok to scapegoat refugees who are fleeing unspeakable violence and danger. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it still seems ok to fear and exclude God’s beloved children because of the nation they come from, the language they speak, or the religion they practice. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution when we passively sit by and do nothing while people are massacred every day in schools and offices and clinics. That’s why John is on such a revolutionary rampage.

But the really crazy thing for us is that our job in the midst of this is so unbelievably simple and ordinary: share what you have, be honest with each other, practice compassion and mercy instead of using other people as objects for our own gain.

These weeks I’ve been away from you have been full of news that is hard to make sense of: terror in Paris, shootings in Colorado and California, disturbing rhetoric and even outright attacks on Muslims and immigrants. None of us are really all that powerful in the grand scheme of things, and in the face of all of it, we can find ourselves asking, like the crowds in today’s gospel: what then shall we do?

Generously share what you have. Be honest and straightforward with others. Look at the people around you as sacred and beloved children of God, there for you to serve and love, rather than objects to be feared or used to build yourself up. We may not be able to change a geo-political reality where one country casts off hundreds of thousands of people, and others blame those same people for the very violence they are fleeing, but we all have our little corner of the garden to tend: in our families, in our schools, in our offices, in this city. We join Jesus’ revolution when we are extravagantly generous with what we have, when we are honest with each other, and where we honor our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Big problems. Simple solutions we are called to.

I came across a 2010 article in Wired magazine this week that detailed a study that determined acts of kindness and generosity and compassion are literally contagious.[1] When we see generosity and compassion, we are hard wired to imitate them. That means the little acts we practice in our own little corners can, little by little, begin to infect the whole world with God’s peace and love.

If you’re wondering why the vestments today are pink, it’s because today is Gaudete Sunday. The word simply means rejoice in Latin, and in the midst of the darkness of the season, and the more penitential character of Advent, it’s a glimpse of light and joy springing up in the darkness.

That’s what all of us who follow Jesus, who claim to be part of his revolution, are called to be in the midst of our dark and fearful world: small points of light, springing up in the darkness.

In the midst of all that is dark and fearful and overwhelming in our world, I can’t think of any better wisdom than today’s reading from Phillipians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. . .Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Commit those thoughts to your memory. Write them down and stick them above your desk or on the dash of your car or wherever. Let them strengthen you in your own corner of the garden to be light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death. Amen.

Dean Craig Loya




You can follow Dean Loya’s blog at


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From the Bishop: Thanksgiving Sermon

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Bishop J. Scott 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.”


Fear not!



+ J.S. Barker

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