Featured Sermon: Bishop Barker – Celebration of New Ministry, Mthr. Tar Drazdowski
Celebration of New Ministry – Tar Drazdowski
Christ Church Sidney
March 31, 2015
Bishop J. Scott Barker
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” – Luke 10:2
What a night. What a rare privilege to take the time to stop and celebrate. To celebrate the call God has placed on our lives as disciples of Christ in this time and this place … to celebrate the ministries to which God has lead us to respond to that call. It’s a night to look back on a rich past, a night to celebrate a present day pregnant with wonderful possibility, a night to look forward to all that could be, if we stay faithful to the Lord of the harvest.
For almost 130 years this church has stood it’s ground! I went to Bishop Beecher’s autobiography last week. Of the several Nebraska bishops who were writers, Beecher’s are the best stories and his is the most beautiful poetry. Beecher moved to Sidney in 1892 to begin serving as your Rector. It was his first ever assignment as a priest in the Church. In his autobiography he wrote about his early impressions of this place:
When I first saw this lovely little church it was the most attractive building in town. It was surrounded by beautiful shade trees, blue grass lawns, and a fine picket fence …
[Christ Church] was like a watchtower symbolizing power and stability … from its portal one could look out across the prairie upon the infinite skylines, where the mountain peaks were lost in the azure blue … scarcely a human habitation in the foreground.
(For the record I think the Rocky Mountains are actually obscured by the curve of the earth and not the blue of the sky, but you’ve gotta love how deeply he feels for this patch of earth!)
For my money that short paragraph captures a sense of the land and the community that is not only the story of our past, but that shapes us deeply still as the people of God here, and to this very night. Beecher writes of the beautiful church and grounds – cherished sacred space bought, paid and cared for by the labor of generations of Cheyenne County Episcopalians. A place made holy – made holy – by the presence, hopes and prayers of God’s people across the ages.
This building is beautiful to be sure, but it is sacred because this is the place where for decade upon decade women, men and children have come all in the midst of life to seek out God in Christ: to lay their burdens down before him, to find fellowship with the members of his church, to be nourished by his body and blood.
Beecher writes of the astonishing natural beauty of this landscape – which still informs what we believe in this part of the world as much as any prayer in any prayer book. We exult in the beauty of God’s creation because we are in it in such a deep and real way. That endless grass and that deep blue sky still sing to us every day of all God’s handiwork and teach us about the power and majesty of our Creator God. We know how small we are when we live in a place this big! And we rely on God’s grace in the most concrete imaginable ways in this place – especially those who farm, ranch or work to support these labors. Nobody knows more about God’s providence and grace than those who rely on miracles like rainfall, photosynthesis and the reproduction of animals to make a living!
Now Bishop Beecher also wrote about the church as a watchtower. I actually edited a little bit out there. Beecher partly saw the tower atop Christ Church as a sign of advancing western civilization, come to bring peace and stability to the prairie. That of course, turned out not to be the whole story. Our church towers were not always a sign of peace and hope to the first people’s of this land.
We now see that we made some terrible, sinful mistakes along the way. The truth is we did far more harm than good to the native people of this region … and often to the flora and fauna with which they’d coexisted for a thousand years. We are even still today dealing with the consequences and legacies of the exploitation and extermination of the culture and ecosystem that once held strong in this place. Thanks be to God: it is part of our culture – it is part of our Baptismal Covenant – to name our sins along the way, and to repent and return to the Lord.
We can be brave and intentional about learning from our mistakes. We can work to ensure that the evangelism, mission and service work to which we are devoted in this age – which Mother Tar has in fact come to this diocese to help lead – is work that is respectful and celebratory of the cultures we visit: looking for Christ in all persons and respecting the dignity of every human being. Let’s pray that we will be more sensitive and open to the prospect of actually meeting Jesus – and being changed by him – when we encounter those in need in this here and now. Let’s insure that in this time and this place the proud tower that stands atop this church – and the cross which adorns it – are beacons that say nothing more nor less than this: Christ is here … and you are welcome whomever you are.
If we’ve gotten our research right, Mother Tar is the thirty-seventh priest to serve here at Christ Church Sidney! The story of how in the world she and Jim came to move from Valdosta to the Nebraska panhandle is a story only God could have written … and it is really Mother Tar’s to tell. But what I can tell you about tonight – what we can embrace as evidence of God Holy Spirit at work to bring us to this moment – is the amazing openheartedness that brought us here. Both the openheartedness the people of Christ Church extended to Tar and Jim as you all talked and prayed about whether you were called to come together … and the openheartedness that Tar and Jim brought to bear in their discernment to leave a home and family they cherished, to come and be with us.
This is the Spirit of God at work my brothers and sisters. Or perhaps this is the Christ – being born again in this time and place to remind us how we are called to live – and who we are called to be – as his disciples: brave, optimistic, kind … sacrificial.
Your diocesan staff – three quarters of whom are here tonight! – get to visit a lot of beautiful churches. That’s fun work. And the truth is that they all are all special in their own way. They all have their strengths. Here at Christ Church you lead the way in your ability to offer hospitality and true welcome to the stranger … to make Christ known by opening your old church doors and your big Nebraska hearts to all comers. It was no surprise that Tar and Jim fell in love with you.
And the beauty is that the Drazdowski’s too, led with their hearts: trusting that the tug of a new place and people was of God … that the lack of trees and abundance of cold would not in fact be overwhelming … that letting go of so many good things in Georgia would open them up to new life and horizons in Nebraska. Such openheartedness is costly and hard … and it is beautiful and it is holy. And we celebrate God’s presence in all that this evening.
So what about the future?
We can’t say much for certain sure. At least not about the many things that so often pre-occupy our days in this here and now:
– We do not know how the relationships between pastor and people will develop … or how long Mother Tar will be called to serve this place.
– We do not know whether this or any Nebraska church will be able to grow and thrive in this post-Christian world.
– We do not know whether the town of Sidney will continue ascendant … or whether L.L. Bean will finally invent a boot that puts Cabella’s out of business!
But we do know that we can trust in God to handle these worries so we can focus on the work that set before us … work we resolve this night to dedicate ourselves to with new enthusiasm and new hope as this new chapter begins.
Bishop Beecher wrote about the job of an Episcopal priest. I’ve only changed the pronouns for this occasion:
The bonds of friendship and affection between the pastor and her flock become more and more distinct and real as she builds up herself in the spirit of unselfish service, and finds within the constant desire to live and labor among the people …
She solemnizes weddings, baptizes children, prepares and presents [people] for confirmation, ministers to the sick [and] comforts those in sorrow.
And [so] she proves herself a worthy example of Christian leadership.
Beloved, that’s not just the job description of a parish priest. That is the job description of a Christian Church. That sort of loving and caring service is not just how a pastor shows herself to be a good priest, but how a follower of Jesus shows him or herself to be a true disciple.
Here’s what I know about the future: if you build on your proud past … if you lead in this day with your amazing openheartedness … if you get out into the world to work the harvest and welcome your fellows into the beautiful family … then the future will take care of itself, and this place and people will be forever renewed by the presence of Christ in it all.
And you will be a shining beacon to this town and region and world … of the transforming power of the love of Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker