2018 Annual Council Sermon – Bishop Barker
Annual Council Scottsbluff & Gering
Mark 10:46-52 October 26, 2018
Right Reverend and Dear Friend –
I write in October of the year 2018 for the sesquicentennial celebration of the diocese you now serve. This may seem like an impossibly distant past to you – this age of which you could only know through reading a history book. The Gospel text for the celebration for which I am writing is the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” who memorably calls out to Jesus, “I want to see!” From that Gospel cry, let me tell you what I see.
As I sit down to begin, it is a stunning late autumn afternoon in Nebraska. The sky is deep blue – almost cobalt – and the fallen leaves rustle with every gentle breeze that sweeps across the roads and the fields. The leaves still turning in the trees are shimmering brilliant scarlet, orange and gold. Our weather is unsettled, and that makes me wonder and worry about yours. Ten days ago, a whole bunch of snow fell across a great swath of the diocese – a too early storm that complicated an already soggy and slow harvest. That snow fell wet and heavy – so brought down limbs and trees that caught too much weight in their leaves. It was a mess.
The wonder and the majesty of this land seems like the right place to start.
Nebraskans are especially appreciative of the beauty of this place, and keenly attuned to the rhythms of the natural order, including the changing of the seasons and the life cycles of their crops and livestock. One of the first things I learned when I became the Bishop of this place was that I would not be needing to teach anyone about the grandeur of God’s creation, nor what it means to be a mere creature of that same God. Instead it is the people of Nebraska who have been teaching me for the last seven years about the miracles of nature, the right place of a human being in this lonely landscape, and God’s providence over it all.
Some of my most vivid memories of this ministry have been those moments traveling the state when I have happened upon wonders both great and small that have reminded me of the miracle of God’s handiwork, and the privilege of having been born here and called back home, after a time away, to live and work. I remember seeing my first-ever dust devil! It was in the springtime, and I was so hopped up worrying about tornados that I about jumped out of my skin when a dark brown cloud suddenly twisted right up next to me as I was zooming by a recently plowed field off interstate 80. The cloud was fifty feet high anyway – and it was sucking up dry dirt and spewing it out all around that field and the Interstate. It was a marvel.
I remember an afternoon driving down highway 97 from Mullen towards North Platte right at sunset. Canon Easton (my Canon to the Ordinary) said, “I hope we see an antelope,” and not two minutes later, the pick-up startled an antelope that was hiding in the ditch just off the road. She raced us for almost a mile – caught between the road and a barbed wire fence. I could not believe the speed and grace with which that creature moved, nor will I forget the final glance we caught of her little charcoal-swiped nose and
blunt black horns, before she found a way under that fence and off into the tall grass to hide once more.
I remember driving out to a Sandhills ranch on the day that a full solar eclipse slouched in a diagonal shadow all across the whole diocese from Chadron to Falls City. I kept my expectations low (there’d been a whole lot of hype in the build-up that summer), but when the disc of the sun finally blinked all the way out that day and a gloaming suddenly appeared at every compass point on the horizon, and the crickets started chirping because they thought it was time for us to go to bed…well, I cried right along with the rest of them. (A “rest of them” I might add, that included a bunch of cowboys half drunk at 11 in the morning, and who looked like they might have been as surprised by the tears on their cheeks as they were by the suddenly dark sky.)
This place! This place is just as beautiful and full of the wonder and majesty of God’s handiwork as absolutely anywhere else on this whole amazing planet.
I sure hope that’s still true. For all our appreciation of that beauty in this here and now we have not been honest about how fragile it all is … about the full extent of what it means to be stewards of creation and the true nature of the work entrusted to us by God as caretakers of this garden. I know that humans beings have always taken a toll on creation and I have no doubt that change is a part of what it means that our God is alive and in charge of our world, but in this last generation, it seems there has been a shift.
Now we know beyond the shadow of a doubt what great an impact human beings have on the delicate balance that exists between the plants and animals that all coexist in our fragile ecosystem. And we’ve been too slow to admit that the patterns of the lives we
lead are unsustainable … that if we don’t change how we live the generations that follow will not have the same possibilities or the same choices.
I am sorry for that, and I hope you can forgive us. I wonder if corn still grows in Nebraska. I wonder if we still have antelope.
I’ll bet you’re asking yourself about the people here. That’s what I would ask about, if you could tell me of your life. They are amazing, these people.
In a time and place when increasing numbers of folks have only a vague notion of whether God is real, and most of whom would be hard pressed to point to anything at all about their behavior that suggests they actually believe in God, I work every day and visit each week with people who pray and sing and serve and read the Bible, and who in a dozen, dozen ways say and show that they are really trying to make the words they say in church on Sunday morning a guiding star by which to steer their lives the rest of the week.
In a time and place where the culture that surrounds us is either openly hostile to the teachings of Jesus – or more often has twisted those teachings into an image of the worst prejudices, fears and desires of our present moment – I work every day and visit each week with people who are deeply committed to the idea that every human being is
created in God’s image. People who believe that Jesus can be found most especially and reliably in the lives of those cast to the margins by the powerful, and that really and truly loving after the fashion of Christ is hard, hard work and the highest calling of human life.
And in a time and a place where the church is often said to be dying – or even dead – I work every day, and visit each week, with people whose best thoughts, hopes actions are a determined shout to heaven of, “Not so!” And so they go to church meetings and care for church buildings and read church publications and try – first and foremost – to love the precious, weird and wonderful brothers and sisters who are part of their local church communities and so are most especially entrusted to their care.
These people inspire me and amaze me every single day of my life. I’ll imagine that’s true for you, too!
We have a strange and holy job, don’t we? There is the tension of trying to be faithful about speaking hard truths in the name of Jesus when folks need to hear them, juxtaposed against the equally deep need our people have to hear and know that they are treasured and beloved of God no matter what. There is the difficulty of knowing when to stand firm in inherited teachings and traditions that have guided us for centuries and more and when to try some bold, new thing, trusting in the presence of God’s living and Holy Spirit to show us the way. There is the constant stripping away of the ego, as we’re reminded day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour that we’re probably not really worthy of the office we inhabit, nor the kindness and the love with which we’re showered.
But on the other hand – on the other hand – what an unbelievable journey, and privilege and delight is this ministry! To visit these cherished, sacred spaces, on a constant pilgrimage from one site to the next all across the Nebraska landscape, every one holy … every one unique. To be welcomed into the lives of the faithful people of God with such incredible kindness and generosity: the warm embraces, the little gifts, the potlucks. (The potlucks! If those groaning tables of every grandmother’s best recipe and every child’s favorite treat are not a eucharistic foretaste of the banquet table in the Kingdom of Heaven then I don’t know what is!)
And to be welcomed. To be welcomed right into the middle of their precious lives and their most intimate moments. As little church vestries work and pray to imagine what Christ calls them to in this generation. As teens stand with knocking knees and trembling hands before their church families and promise to follow Jesus for the whole rest of their lives. As we shout out at the funerals of beloved saints who have gone before the most incredible, improbable and hope-filled words of all time: “Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” It’s a crazy cool job, isn’t it?
Strange and holy.
My dear friend, I wish you well in the impossibly remote land of the Diocese of Nebraska as you help celebrate our tri-centennial. I want you to know that we thought of you, and we hoped for you, and we prayed for you 150 years ago.
Know that though we dwelt in a time of extraordinarily fast change and deep challenge in the life of Christ’s Church, we did our level best to seek and serve Christ in our day. We read our Bibles, and worked to support one-another as a community upon whose life the treasured stories of our sacred book placed a duty and a call. We prayed our prayers, both the beautiful inherited poetry of the generations that went before, and the earnest, humble and heartfelt entreaties that we offered in graces at our tables, in devotions before meetings and at our bedsides each night. We cared for each other and we cared for our neighbors, imperfectly and sporadically to be sure, but by God we tried, believing as we were taught that loving a neighbor is loving Christ himself. And we labored – how we labored – to simply keep being the Church, by celebrating and sharing in worship every week, by teaching our young people the stories and traditions of our Episcopal way, by proclaiming to our friends and neighbors – equally in our smallest towns and our largest cities – that we are followers of Jesus Christ: who lived for us, and gave his life for ours and by whose presence and power we are even still becoming a whole new creation.
We wish you well, dear friend, from the distant past. May the people of God in the Diocese of Nebraska in the year 2168 be richly blessed. Know that we thought about you one hundred and fifty years ago and that we prayed for your well being and that of our Church …
And that we now look down on you with pride: our own course finished, our work now done.
Faithfully Yours –
+ J. Scott Barker, XI