Thursday, November 1, 2018

Diocesan Convention Address

Bishop’s Sermon
To the Forty-eighth Annual Convention
of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota
October 20, 2018

Jesus said: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally-speaking, this is a time of tremendous challenge for the institutional church, not only in North Dakota, but across western civilization. Our culture is changing and becoming more and more secular and materialistic, and less and less spiritual and faith-oriented. I had to chuckle at a recent Church Pension Fund cartoon where a young football player speaking to his coach says, “Coach, I’m really sorry but I can’t play in the game on Sunday morning because I’m signed up to serve as an acolyte.” 

And yet despite this, we are still chosen by Christ to bear fruit that will last. 

Before he was Pope Benedict XIV, Joseph Ratzinger predicted the changes in church and culture we are seeing today some fifty years ago when he said in a German radio broadcast: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. … But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”[i]

And, yes, even in this context, we are still chosen by Christ to bear fruit that will last. 

And it is not only a loss of members, financial resources, and influence the church is experiencing, it is an erosion of the substance of the Christian faith itself. Rod Dreher in his important book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, cites a 2005 study conducted by two sociologists to examine the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. In most cases, they found the youth believed in a quasi-Christian spirituality the researchers termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” 

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has five basic tenets: 

·         A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life.
·         God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

·         The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

·         God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.

·         Good people go to heaven when they die.”[ii]

I don’t know about you, but I also know many adults who believe in this religion. As our culture becomes more pluralistic, it is essential that we be clear about what the Christian faith teaches and believes.

But that’s just one more opportunity to bear fruit that will last.

The spiritual director I have been seeing is a member of a Roman Catholic community of Benedictine Sisters. Her community is in decline and facing many of the same challenges as we are. When I ask her about it, she shrugs her shoulders and says: “It just means that God is doing something different.” That “something different” is what I want to foster and serve with however many more years I have under the sun, as I know you do as well. But this “something different,” this “power flowing from a more spiritualized and simplified Church,” to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict, will require new ideas, vision, and experimentation. Fresh expressions of church require fresh leadership.

Our diocesan motto is Deus incrementum dat. In English, it is translated “God giveth the increase” or “God gives the growth.” It comes from one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians where he writes: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). In part, Paul is reminding us that as church leaders we are called to take our turns tending God’s garden, and when the time is right, to turn those responsibilities over to others, mindful that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. For some time, I have been in discernment about my future through prayer and by consulting with family, colleagues, a spiritual director, and the Presiding Bishop’s office. I believe the time is right for me to make way for fresh leadership. Therefore, today I announce my retirement as Bishop of North Dakota, effective May 1, 2019.

As I said before, the cultural context in which the church exists is changing. Practically speaking, with a diocesan budget as small as ours, it is extremely difficult to make changes in terms of reorganization for mission and ministry with the incumbent bishop in office. My retirement, along with the approaching retirement of Canon Zanne Ness, will make room to discern and support a renewed vision for the Diocese of North Dakota in the face of ever-increasing challenges for the institutional church.

In his sixth century Rule for Monasteries, St. Benedict encourages disciples “to attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself, but to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself” (RB 4.42-43). I think we can also apply this wisdom to the “successes” and “failures” we have experienced together these past fifteen years.

Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving as your bishop. Let us keep one another in prayer as we move into a season of transitions, never forgetting that we have been chosen and appointed by Christ to bear fruit that lasts. 

[i] Tod Worner, “When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church,” Aleteia, June 13, 2016, accessed October 16, 2018, 

[ii] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 9-10, Kindle.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Christmas Eve Homily by Bishop Michael Smith

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral + Fargo, North Dakota
December 24, 2017

Isaiah proclaims: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. During this darkest, cold time of year, we are drawn to light, are we not? The beauty of Christmas lights, the soft glow of candles, the warmth of a fire in the fireplace, provide us with a sense of security, a perception of well-being. I imagine that our ancient ancestors knew the same experience huddled around a fire in some cave, telling stories during the long nights of winter. The prophet continues, on those who lived in a land of deep darkness light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).

The light, kindled in Bethlehem, is evident in the St. John’s Bible illumination of the familiar Nativity story. There, gold leaf, used throughout the bible as a sign of the divine, emanates from a crib-like image, a brilliant ray of light shooting from a particular point to places beyond itself. The light cannot be contained; it must shine beyond to enlighten the darkness around it. The illumination is a piece of art intended to bring us peace and comfort.

And on this radiant night, the scriptures also bring us comfort. In addition to the word light, we hear words such as: joy, peace, justice, righteousness, grace, salvation, hope, glory, good news, praise. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Truly this night celebrates the grace of God, the undeserved kindness of the Holy One, peace among those whom he favors (Luke 2:14). But is there more? Why would the Father give us such a gift as his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ?

I believe part of the answer is to be found in the reading from Paul’s letter to Titus we heard tonight: He it is who gave himself for us the he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14). A people zealous for good deeds, a forgiven community which is enthusiastic about being a force for God, a force for goodness in the world. We are called to be a people who take the light of Bethlehem from this place to the circumstances of darkness we encounter around us.

And, OMG, we don’t have to look far, do we? Wars and rumors of war; politicians who seem to have lost a sense of the common good; racial tensions; murder, violence, oppression; school shootings, bullying, sexual harassment and assault, and the list goes on…  OK, I know at this point, some of you are thinking, “lighten up, Bishop. After all, it is Christmas.” I get it, but I think it essential for us to understand that it was into such a world that God took on flesh and dwelt among us, and it is into such a world that Christ still comes through the likes of you and me.

There are some people in our culture today who mistakenly believe that God is first and foremost concerned about our happiness and sense of self-worth. No, that is not what Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, the celebration of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, is about. There are others who erroneously think that God is like some “elf on the shelf” to be brought out when we get ourselves into trouble and need help. No, Christmas reminds us that God is particularly concerned about the well-being of the poor and down-trodden, and that the Holy One desires to be part of every aspect of our lives.

In the prologue to the Gospel of John are written these powerful words: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that Word. The gospel-writer goes on to say: And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). God in Christ became flesh and lived among us. Biblical scholars tell us that in the Greek these words are more vivid and could literally be translated as “God pitched his tent among us.” An even more colorful interpretation is provided in the dynamic paraphrase of the scriptures known as “The Message,” where we read: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

The God who moved into the neighborhood and pitched his tent among us has a gift for us this Christmas. It is the very gift of the Divine Self. It is to be accepted, received with gratitude, and opened. It is a very practical gift, one not to placed on a shelf to admire, but to be used every day. Again, from the Gospel of John: [Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:10-12).

To all who receive the gift of God in Jesus, who believe in the name of Jesus, he gives power to become children of God, to become adopted brothers and sisters of Christ. A great privilege and honor, yes, but as part of God’s family, there are chores to be done. Remember, the children of God are “redeemed from all iniquity and purified as a people who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

To what good deeds or works are you being called in 2018, a New Year of God’s favor? I challenge you to begin to listen this holy night and throughout the next twelve days of Christmas to the voice of the Holy Spirit calling you to particular works of goodness in the coming year. How are you being called to make the world a better place? How will you proclaim “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) to a people who are desperate to hear it? This is how we say “thank you” for the gift of God in Jesus Christ.