Sermon of the Month: Bishop Barker @ Church of Our Savior Rededication
Liturgy of Rededication, Church of Our Savior, September 14, 2014
“As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” – Matthew 12:40
What a joy and a privilege to be here with you this morning, and to be a part of this glorious celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the dedication of this sacred space. I can only imagine the amount of work that has been undertaken to bring us to this moment and I want to offer my thanks for what must have been an extraordinary investment of time and energy by many people over many, many months. I am certain I speak for this whole assembly in saying thank you. Thanks to all those who have planned parties, and orchestrated liturgies, and written remembrances, and entertained guests, and polished brass and swept cobwebs and all the rest. Thank you for offering such a generous gift on behalf of your church and Jesus behind that. This is beautiful.
This is a weekend of remembering: of remembering the history of this building and remembering the lives of the saints who have called this place “home” during their earthly pilgrimages. And what a history you have written. Not just over the 50 years you have inhabited this structure, but over the 140 years you have “officially” been the Episcopal Church in North Platte. It has been an amazing journey:
- Your founding goes to a real-estate deal brokered by the very first Bishop of Nebraska and the famous Civil War General who built the Union Pacific Railroad.
- Your early days are associated with some of the most colorful figures in all the old west, most notably of course Buffalo Bill and the Cody family…
- You have given three Bishops to the apostolic succession of the Church Catholic, in George Beecher, Alfred Gilman and James Krotz.
- You have served your community in prophetic and life-giving ways, from establishing a school to running a hospital to feeding people at the famous North Platte Canteen (and to this very day at Wednesday Dot Com.)
- And in working alongside the extraordinary Hirum Hisanori Kano, you have played a part in shaping – and being shaped by – a saint of the Church of God.
Your story is as great as that of any parish in the Americas. It is not enough to say that North Platte or the Diocese of Nebraska would be less if it were not for Church of Our Savior: our Episcopal Church would be terribly diminished without you and yours.
We heard a funny little Gospel reading this morning. It was short and seemed incomplete I suppose. Asked by the skeptical Pharisees for a “sign” to prove that he is the real deal, Jesus recalls to them a story from the Hebrew Scriptures. “Here’s the only sign you’ll get,” he says, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
While the Pharisees must have been confounded by this proclamation, we are not. Jesus here points to his own crucifixion and death: just as Jonah was in the dark belly of the fish for three days, Jesus too will spend three days in the grave following his sacrifice on the cross. And then we know (as they couldn’t) that Jesus will blast forth from that grave, and by the power of that resurrection, defeat sin and death, and make the whole creation new.
It seems to me the Holy Spirit wrapped up a perfect gift for us in this little Gospel reading on this morning. For it points us to THE STORY – the essential proclamation – that has been at the heart of the ministry of all the saints who have gathered to worship in this building for the last half century. The story of how Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, how he suffered for us under Pontius Pilot, how he was crucified, died and was buried for three days; How on the third day, he rose again from the dead. And how by his death and resurrection those who believe in him are now set free from the bondage of sin and death and restored to a new creation and empowered to help usher in his kingdom in this here and now.
That is our story. That is your story. It’s good to be reminded of it this morning.
I first met most of you in the fall of 2011, just a few weeks after being consecrated as the new Bishop of Nebraska. The whole diocese had come out to North Platte, where Our Savior was generously hosting annual council for us all. There was a moment during our convention business meeting, when I saw this commotion off to the side of the dais where I was speaking, and suddenly non-other than Buffalo Bill came crashing into our church meeting. (Silly me, up to that moment I’d been under the misapprehension that Buffalo Bill was dead!) Well old Bill strode to the podium, sort of wrestled the mic away from me, and proceeded to loudly proclaim that today was “Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska day” in North Platte. And then he handed me the key to the city and the gift of a beautiful white Stetson to add to my episcopal apparel. “Glad you’re here, partner!” said Bill, slapping me on the back and jangling his way back out the door.
That was quite a moment! And just between us I’ll tell you I was surprised and a little unnerved yesterday when we paid a visit out to Scout’s Rest and who should come cantering out from behind the Cody house on a great white steed but Buffalo Bill. That guy won’t leave me alone!
It seems to me that an awful lot of your history – symbolically I mean – is represented in the feisty, generous and larger than life figure of Bill Cody. Like him you were and are pioneers – pioneers who brought Christianity to the frontier of America and keep it well to this day. Like him you are fighters – fighters who we remember this day battled back from a disastrous church fire to build anew and to live again. Like him you are all Nebraska in every way (and Bill is all Nebraska right? Even though Iowa birthed him and Colorado has stolen his earthly remains!)
But I also want to acknowledge this morning that you are also much, much more in that upside down, last shall be first, service is perfect freedom way that we’re familiar with as followers of Christ. I suspect that in the book of the history of this place that is being written in Heaven – the one being composed by the God who sees our private actions and our most personal thoughts – there is a different collection of stories than the ones we’re telling this weekend, stories of people who were baptized in that font, who journeyed regularly to this address, who prayed in this very building and fidgeted in those very pews … and who are now known only to God.
And these are saints too! Though their faces and their contributions are now forgotten, they played their essential part. They paid their church pledge, even when food was scarce in the pantry and the next paycheck was not due for a week. They invited friends here, and in that o-so-awkward Episcopal way, tried to tell them how much Jesus and this holy place meant to them. They sat on the vestry, they sang in the choir, they taught Sunday School to the kids, they ironed the linens …
They made the effort to simply be here Sunday after Sunday, week after week, year after year, even perhaps when the aches and pains of an aging body made that one of the hardest tasks of each week.
Beloved, such humble acts often spring from deep faith and real courage. They are how a group of friends is transformed into a band of disciples. This is the way a church is built.
The truth is that the stories of the heroes and heroines we’re sharing this weekend – our cherished tales of the grand mountaintop and deepest valley moments of life in this building and on this lot – are not much of life. Most of life happens between the mountains and the valleys, in faithful day-to-day decisions and actions taken by folks who are not known beyond their own small circle of family, friends and neighbors.
And so in the midst of celebrating Father Kano and Father Bullard, and Bishop Krotz and Buffalo Bill … let’s remember too the ones who have gone before and whose names are now known only to God in heaven. For it is most of all by the work and prayer of those unsung and little known saints that this house of worship has been built. The ones who have come to call this building “my church,” and who even still make their way to this sacred place to break the bread, to say their prayers, and day after day, week after week and year after year – worship Our Savior!
+ J.S. Barker
(This homily was preached September 14th at The Church of Our Savior in North Platte. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their church building and the 140th anniversary of the admission to the council of the Diocese of Nebraska.)