Monday, November 6, 2017

Bishop’s Sermon To the Forty-Seventh Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota

October 21, 2017
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant 
(Mark 10:43-45).
As an aging baby boomer and hippy wannabe of yesteryear, I actually used to state as one of my life’s goals “to be happy.” (Wow, man, that’s deep.) Life certainly looks and feels differently in my sixties than it did in my twenties.  And one of the important lessons I have learned is that “happiness” is not an appropriate life goal, but rather happiness is a by-product of a well-lived life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was not known for his Christian faith. (After all, even the Unitarians were too much for him.) But no one has said it better than he when he wrote in the nineteenth century: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). Jesus, the servant, calls his people to follow in his footsteps as servants as well.

This downward mobility goes against the grain of our culture, but within it one finds a kernel of wisdom for life in the Kingdom of God, and dare I even suggest a well-lived life with accompanying happiness? In another place, Jesus says that, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). That oftentimes surprising paraphrase known as The Message says it another way:

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself?
How have we as a local church, as the Diocese of North Dakota, been doing in our call to imitate Jesus, the servant, as we serve him by serving others? Reviewing issues of the past year from the diocesan newsletter, The Sheaf, gives us a glimpse:
  • The Youth Group of Grace Church in Jamestown began last fall with a goal of reaching out to other youth in the area in working within the Five Marks of Mission. What are the Five Marks of Mission? 1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. 2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers. 3. To respond to human need by loving service. 4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation. 5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. (Now, there’s something there for everyone’s passion.)

  • St. Peter’s in Williston continues to provide monthly community suppers for the elderly, homeless, and needy. They serve 50-80 people each month

  • The churches at Standing Rock provided a Christmas celebration for 400 people from the DAPL protest camps, as well as meals and shelter for those suffering from the winter cold at St. James’ in Cannonball and St. Luke’s in Fort Yates.

  • The East Africa Scholarship Committee has been sponsoring students in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan for almost 20 years.

  • The “Piece-makers” at St. George’s, Bismarck made 27 quilts and 43 pillow cases to give to the Charles Hall Youth program, the Burleigh County Child Protective Advocacy services, and as a fundraiser for scholarships for six students in South Sudan.

  • A group of ten from the Diocese visited Haiti last summer and have been instrumental in building hand-washing stations at a school without running water using resources from the North Dakota Episcopal Foundation, St. George’s Church in Bismarck, and the Diocese of Dallas.

  • Grace Church in Jamestown partnered with the University of Jamestown to sponsor Patrick Atkinson’s presentation on human trafficking. And their youth partnered with Bread of Life Episcopal ministry to serve Ministry on the Margins in Bismarck by stocking their food pantry and serving breakfast to the hungry.

To what other forms of service is the Lord calling us in the year ahead? Small numbers and shrinking resources are no excuse.

Admittedly, the mainline churches such as ours live in a time of institutional decline. While there are places that are blessed to be able to be exceptions to the rule of decrease, most of our congregations, and not just in North Dakota but throughout the Episcopal Church, are unable to afford to support full-time clergy and live with the reality of aging members and dwindling numbers. (At a recent diocesan council meeting, someone remarked that we collectively seem to be moaning because of sore knees a lot more than we used to as we walk down the basement steps to the meeting.)

Before we become too depressed, however, perhaps it is time to remember what God is able to accomplish with small, committed groups of people. Remember, there were only twelve apostles, Jesus himself said he would be in the midst of two or three people gathered in his name, and stories of “the remnant,” or those remaining faithful people are told time and again in the Old Testament. This morning we heard God speak of such a remnant through the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me? … Here shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of the people to possess all these things (Zech. 8:6,12).

God’s future belongs to someone, my sisters and brothers. I believe it belongs to the remnant who follow Jesus, the servant, as servants to those in need. Who knows? Such service might even bring us a little happiness.

Monday, August 28, 2017

North Dakota School for Ministry

Dear Friends in Christ:

The Episcopal Church teaches that every baptized person is a minister of the Church: “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church” (BCP 855).

Most lay ministers carry out their ministries primarily “in the world” where they work, study, play, and live. Some serve in the church, officially licensed by the bishop as Pastoral Leaders, Worship Leaders (Lay Readers), Preachers, Eucharistic Visitors, Eucharistic Ministers, Catechists, and Evangelists.

In an effort to encourage and equip lay ministers in the Diocese, as well as to form Deacons, the North Dakota School for Ministry is offering three courses during the next school year: “Christian Ethics & Moral Theology,” and two quarters of “Practice of Ministry.” Some may wish to take these courses simply to learn more about our faith and our church; others may pursue these studies for eligibility to serve as a licensed Evangelist or Pastoral Leader in their congregations.

These three-month long courses will be facilitated by clergy in regional study groups across the Diocese: Mark Strobel — Red River Valley; Christian Senyoni – East Central; Zanne Ness & John Floberg – South Central; Mary Johnson – North Central; Ellery Dykeman – Southwest; Michael Paul – Northwest. Specifics about where and how often study groups meet will be determined by the facilitator and students of a region, based on their circumstances. In addition, two (or three) weekends per course will be shared at Assumption Abbey in Richardton. Please see the course listings below for specific dates.

Costs per course, including books and Richardton weekends, are $200. However, scholarships are available and lack of financial resources should not keep anyone from participating.  Register for courses by filling out the form here.  Please contact me at if you are interested or have questions.

This letter comes with hopes and prayers for a renewing and rejuvenating summer season for you. Peace,

+Michael G. Smith

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Great Vigil of Easter Sermon by Bishop Michael G. Smith

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo ND ~ April 15, 2017

In religious news recently have been articles about the just completed renovation of the "Edicule" of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The headlines read, "Just in time for Easter" because extraordinary events happen there this time of year. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of Resurrection, is supposedly built over the sites of both Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and also the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed and was raised from the dead. The Edicule marks the spot of the empty tomb.

Every Holy Saturday, and I assume earlier today, the local patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church enters the Edicule and emerges with candles lit from the traditional site of Jesus’ resurrection, whether miraculous or a natural event is the subject of some argument, but at any rate, the crowd goes wild. The fire is shared with worshippers through candles, torches, and lamps. Delegates from Orthodox countries such as Greece and Russia bring devices similar to the ones used to transport the Olympic torch in order that they might take home the "holy fire" of resurrection to their respective patriarchs, who in turn spread it to the churches under their pastoral care.

Our lighting of the new fire of Easter this evening, while a little less dramatic than what occurs in Jerusalem, represents a similar mystery. That is, the resurrection of Jesus kindles a holy fire that is shared with his disciples to be taken to the ends of the earth, or at least to your neighborhood, depending on how far you travel.

The light of the new fire of Easter, kindled in darkness, reminds us that Jesus is the "light of the world" who has defeated the powers of darkness. It also reminds us that Jesus is the "Resurrection and the Life" who has conquered death itself. We who rejoice that we are graced to be counted among the people of light and life are to share this good news with others.

This evening we have recalled:
• That on the first day of creation, God said, "Let there be light, and called it good."
• That God led and protected his chosen people from captivity to freedom with a pillar of cloud and fire.
The Easter or Paschal Candle represents both these realities and will burn during the next fifty days of Easter, and at baptisms and funerals as a reminder that the "holy fire" of resurrection is to burn brightly in this life and will light our paths even as we journey to the age to come.

There is a story told from the Desert Fathers about a disciple who visited a holy man and said, "Father, I fast and pray and contemplate and meditate. I keep silence and try to cleanse my heart of wicked thoughts. What more should I do?" In response, the elder rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. The holy man asked: "Why not become fire?"

Jesus himself told a story during his ministry about ten bridesmaids whose job it was to greet the bridegroom by lighting his path on his arrival with their lamps. Five of the bridesmaids were wise and brought enough oil for the task; five were foolish and when their lamps ran out of oil, they were not able to fulfill their duties. They were not able to greet the bridegroom.

Brothers and sisters, receive the oil God is offering this Easter Eve, oil when burnt that keeps the "holy fire" of resurrection burning in our hearts and beyond to the world which God created and loves. Christ is risen from the dead. The oil is plentiful and available to all who will receive it. May we all become holy fire.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Clergy Days

The Diocese has also entered into a time of transition in terms of clergy leadership. In the last few years, two-thirds of our congregations have experienced some kind of change in “priest in charge” relationships. We have a number of new clergy serving in our midst, some having come from other dioceses of the Episcopal Church and others from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Some of these leaders are exceptional and I am grateful for their gifts and the opportunity for renewed vision for all of us as they are incorporated into our community.

To that end, therefore, we experimented with “Clergy Days” held at various sites around the diocese. Clergy are invited to any and all of these. The days begin at 10:30 a.m. with Morning Prayer and faith-sharing and preaching preparation. We will share a meal together and check in about how things are going in our various contexts. Most importantly, we will share what we see God doing and what we need to pay attention to so that we can be part of it.

So, clergy, please mark your calendars for the following “Clergy Days”:
  • January 6, 2017 at Bismarck at 10:30 a.m., concluding with lunch.
  • February 10 at Jamestown
  • March 3 at Minot
  • April 7 at Bismarck
  • May 12 at Jamestown
  • June 2 at Minot
  • July 7 at Bismarck
  • September 8 at Jamestown
  • October 20 at Bismarck
  • November 3 at Minot
  • December 1 at Jamestown