Worship Schedule

DayTimeService
DayTimeService
Sunday8:00 amHoly Eucharist Rite I - Chapel
Sunday9:00 amChristian Formation
Sunday10:15 amGlad News/Sad News
Sunday10:30 amHoly Eucharist Rite II - Sanctuary w/Music
Monday6:00 pmCentering Prayer and Study
Wednesday12:15 pmHoly Eucharist with Healing Ministry

St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

St Luke's Episcopal Church
170 Councill St
Boone, NC 28607
828-264-8943

LKM

Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 4—Year A    video link
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Seven more days until Christmas…are you excited? I’m excited. There is this pressure mounting; this momentum building. It’s that excitement that always attends that last few days before a birth; that beloved wonderment that fills us when the new is just about to be revealed, but still hidden just out of sight.

But birthing new life is always risky business. It doesn’t always go as planned. So, before we go all gooey-eyed at that swaddled babe in the manger that we will meet in Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve, Matthew comes crashing in today on this fourth Sunday of Advent to say, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

You see, Joseph and Mary weren’t yet married when all this went down. They were deeply committed, engaged to be married, but they had not yet taken those most intimate steps of marriage. So, it was a bit of a surprise when Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s do be fair to Joseph, that would be a bit much for any fiancé to wrap their mind around, let alone their heart. Joseph was known to be a righteous man; he had an impeccable reputation in the community. People looked up to him, and there was a certain amount of pride that Joseph took in being perceived that way.

It is such a short step from living in accord with God’s way to getting hooked by the affirmations that come when people look to you as an example. Oh, the false self is a hungry self, demanding to be fed, and it doesn’t really matter to that self where the food is coming from; it just knows it wants more—and it’s not too long until you start to worry more about what people will think of you than you do trying to move with the curve ball that God has just thrown you.

God’s funny that way. Just when we think we’ve got our life figured out, and we’re at the top of our game, God comes along and says, “Hmmm, not so fast. Remember, who you are in me has nothing to do with what that amorphous “they” think of you.” But Joseph was bitten with the righteous bug, and he resolved to do what society expected him to do, divorce his beloved betrothed who was with child.

This sense of righteousness was Joseph’s core value; it was the orienting principle of his life, and while it made him susceptible to other’s opinions, it also made him want to do the right thing by way of the woman he loved. So, he resolved to dismiss her quietly because he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. A painful decision for Joseph, but also an honorable one.

But God wasn’t much interested in Joseph’s honor. God wanted to take Joseph deeper than Joseph had ever gone before. I don’t think Joseph took his decision lightly; I think it tore him up, and that turmoil did something to him. Joseph was so armored up by his sense of righteous duty and by his inner turmoil, that God had to wait until Joseph went asleep and his defenses were down to be able to get to him.

In that disarming, open state that comes to us when we sleep, God sent an angel of the Lord to visit him. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins, he will set them free from all those things that are sorely hindering them.”

Translated, that angel of the Lord might well have sounded like this: Joseph, you’re going to have to lay your sense of righteousness aside; you are going to have to let that piece of your false self go, you are going to have to lean into vulnerability harder than you have ever had to lean before, you are going to have to trust without verification, trust without certainty, trust without any social support, trust that what I am telling you is true.”

Vulnerability—defined by Brené Brown as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. It’s the birthplace of so many things that we run away from—like thinking that vulnerability equals weakness and powerlessnessand it’s the birthplace of all that we long for—creativity, possibility, love, new life. But you cannot get to the new life without passing through the fires of vulnerability, and sometimes, they burn, like Malachi said, “like a refiner’s fire.” I wish it were otherwise, but it ain’t so.

Joseph had to lay down the armor of his reputation and his sense of righteousness to embrace the vulnerability of relying only on the movement of God, and a dream, and the Holy Spirit.

As we prepare for this birth, what armor do we have to lay aside? What are we protecting in ourselves that is actually keeping us from receiving the new life that God wants to birth in us? What spaces in our being, in our psyche, in our heart, in our mind, in our bodies, in our souls need to be opened up and aired out if we are truly to be that mansion prepared for God’s very own self that the opening collect talks about this morning?

All this work we are called to do, by the prophets, by the angel of the Lord, it’s all to fulfill what God has always promised—that God would come to that which we think couldn’t or shouldn’t bear life and fill it with divine presence and dismantle our armor, so that we can know in the depths of our being Emmanuel—God with us.

But we are asleep to this most amazing promise; we are asleep to this most amazing possibility. We cling to our defenses, and our armor, and our reputations and call it living. But in the words of the angel, “Fear not!” God will not be deterred. God will search for that opening; God will come to us in the middle of our sleep state and send an angel crashing into our dreams to invite us and woo us into that place of vulnerability that we do not wish to go and whisper in our ear that if we just go there it will be okay.

And when we wake up, we know something has shifted; a decision has been made from which there is no going back. We have heard the angel’s call, and our hearts can’t resist the life that is yearning to be born in us. We know we have to follow this invitation; we experience it as a command from God; we can’t not follow.

So it was for Josephwhen Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

So it was for Joseph, and so it is for us. This fourth Sunday of Advent calls us to release whatever is keeping us from participating in this birth that is to come one week from today. Let God help you lay your armor down; trust that your heart is safe in God’s hands. Hear the angel’s voice, maybe in that sweet voice of Bob Marley, “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright…Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Let that song carry you forward through your fear, and then, wake up and risk everything so that this child may be born in you, and in your neighbor, and in the world. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 18, 2016

Advent’s Invitation to Do Our Work

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 3—Year A    video link
Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15 (The Song of Mary)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

We are making the turn toward Christmas, which means that we are deep into the season of preparation. Trees are going up; decorations are coming out of boxes; cards are being mailed; letters to Santa and wish lists are being dreamed about, formulated, written, edited, rewritten, edited, and offered in hope; Christmas cookie and gingerbread house smells are filling kitchens; folks are perusing stores, both real and virtual ones, to find gifts for loved ones; carols are being practiced to be shared—lots of preparation.

The church is preparing us too, but it’s a very different sort of preparation. The preparation we hear about here is about doing our work, as individuals and as a people; it’s about clearing away and carving out space in our being, so that something new can be born. This preparation is hard, and we need really skilled guides to help us. Today is all about those guides and the work they call us to.

The collect tips us off that this ain’t gonna be easy. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…We’ve got some stuff in the way. The church calls this stuff “sins,” but sins are just the patterns we live out that get in our way of loving God and our neighbor and even ourselves. It’s the stories and perspectives and patterned actions that hinder our capacity to love as God loves and live into the abundant life that God longs for every creature to know. And because we are sorely hindered (what a great phrase!), we need the Lord to stir up divine power and come among us in a big way; we need to be showered with bountiful grace and a ton of mercy; we need help; and we need God to show us the way forward.

And that’s just the opening collect.

That section from James reminds us that we’re going to need a ton of patience, with ourselves and with one another. James reminds us that precious crops need time to come into the fullness of their being, that you’ve got to be willing to receive the early rain and the late rain—there is no rushing a process; this is as organic as growing human beings. It’s going to take a strong heart, and grumbling against one another is not going to help us get where God wants us to go, nor is judgment. And engaging this soul work goes hand-in-hand with suffering. And if you want to know how much suffering and patience are going to be involved, James says, just take the prophets as your example.

Enter Isaiah, enter John the Baptist, enter Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah is speaking to God’s people at an unbelievably tumultuous time. He’s already watched the northern kingdom fall to Assyria, and Judah isn’t doing so hot. The elites of Jerusalem are living the high life, and the poor are being crushed. Isaiah knows that nothing is for certain and that Jerusalem could well fall to Babylon. He’s painting a picture of what is possible and what needs to shift if they are going to come into alignment with the Holy Way of God, as he calls it. You see, the prophets task is always twofold: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

So, the first thing Isaiah does is offer hope. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

“Strengthen weak hands, firm up feeble knees, oh fearful heart, take courage and fear not. God is here.” That all sounds good and comforting. But God coming with vengeance and terrible recompense? That sounds scary, and honestly, a bit dualistic. I’ve always heard this passage as God getting Israel’s enemies, but let’s remember, Isaiah is speaking to God’s people, too. And, frankly, Isaiah probably is a little dualistic. It’s the casualty of having a really sharp eye for good and evil, and then delineating really clearly where the boundaries are between what is good and holy and lifegiving and what is not. At times, Jesus talks that way, too, you know, that sheep and goats stuff, and when Jesus talks this way, it’s usually in relationship to how the least of these are being treated.

But let’s come back to this vengeance and recompense stuff. The hebrew word for vengeance does have that connotation of revenge, but it can also have connotation of quarreling. And the root word for vengeance also holds this idea of breathing forcibly. That’s fascinating. That almost sounds like God has a quarrel with us, like God is exasperated with us, but let’s remember that breath, for God, is first and foremost about creation. When our sins are sorely hindering us, when we are not living out as a people that peaceable kingdom that God envisions, maybe God does have a quarrel with us and wants to forcibly breathe us into a new creation.

And recompense is just a fancy way of talking about making amends to someone for loss or harm suffered. Why is it terrible? Because looking at how we’ve harmed others and how they’ve harmed us and making amends is just plain hard.

But when we’ve wrestled with the quarrel God that has with us, when we’ve looked at how our sins are sorely hindering us, when we’ve engaged the hard work of amends-making, both individually and collectively as a people and society, then amazing things will happen.

Then, the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.

 Then, we can see clearly God’s vision, then we can hear clearly God’s call.

Then, we can discern and identify clearly the Holy Way.

Then, we are ready to let that which is unclean, and I don’t mean people who are unclean—Isaiah, in his dualism might have meant that, but Jesus in his wisdom did not—I mean that which we perceive to be unclean in ourselves or unclean in others, the untouchable part of ourselves and others, let’s leave that sense of uncleanness and unworthiness behind because on this Holy Way, God is clear, the beasts—both the external ones and the ones that live deep inside of us—they can’t consume us here; you can’t get lost on this Holy Way, not even fools can go astray. And then the promise that makes our heart leap comes—joy and gladness shall be upon our heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah sets before us an example of what is being asked of us.

John the Baptist stands in this prophetic tradition, as does Jesus. John is in prison, and he’s sent word through his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 As they go away, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

 John the Baptist challenged the Jerusalem elites of his day, just as Isaiah had done in his day. No soft robes here, and certainly, no soft words. John is not wishy washy; he is piercingly clear about what is of God and what is not. And John is not afraid of the winnowing process that is necessary if we are to come into the fullness of life on the Holy Way. And Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the vision proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah—what was hoped for is happening! The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and restored, the deaf hear, the dead live, the poor have good news brought to them (not earned but brought to them), and blessed is anyone who doesn’t take offense at the one who embodies and enacts all these things.

For Jesus, no one born of women has arisen greater than John the Baptist, and he says so, but then he says a curious thing, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Puzzling thing to say, ehhh? But Jesus is doing something very important here. The prophet’s job isn’t to get us hooked on the prophet; the prophet’s job is to get our eyes oriented from the perspective of heaven; it’s about getting us to look at this world as God looks at this word, look from God’s eyes with God’s vision. Prophets can and do have blind spots—we see that in Isaiah and even John’s dualistic language—and when you have piercing clarity about what is right and what is not, you sometimes can’t see what God sees, what Jesus sees, and that’s that ultimately everything belongs.

 Jesus is reminding us that we’ve got to strive to see from the perspective of heaven; we’ve got to strive to see with the eyes of God; we’ve got to heed the prophets and transcend the dualisms to move to a larger field of vision where everything is woven together in the Love that knows no bounds.

So, big, big work ahead of us, as individuals, as a community, as a society, as a people. Amidst all of your Christmas preparations, do not neglect this work that the prophets are calling us to do. Christmas doesn’t matter a bit if we aren’t doing the work of preparation that will clear the way for us to be born anew. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 11, 2016

Advent 2, 2016

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 2—Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

I can’t think of a time when we have more needed the season of Advent than we do this year. It is noisy in our culture, really noisy. Lots of voices proclaiming lots of truths and dismissing anyone who dares to articulate a different narrative. And we go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

The only way out of the madness is to surrender ourselves, completely, to this season of Advent. To embrace, fully, the call to hit the pause button, to listen with every ounce of our being to what is yearning to be born in us, born in our neighbor, born in our country, born in our world. To surrender ourselves to the possibility that we just might be surprised.

And nobody is better at calling us into a space where everything can be reoriented than the prophets. Just listen to Isaiah from this morning.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

 A stump seems like a useless piece of wood, a leftover from a grand tree that used to be there.  But, if you are rooted deep, then shoots of new life, branches filled with possibility, indeed, have the capacity to spring forth.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This one on whom the spirit shall rest, he won’t receive power in any worldly sense, but this power comes from a deep, deep place. First and foremost, the spirit is given, not obtained. And it is based in wisdom and understanding and counsel and strength and knowledge and all of these come from, and circle back to, God.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

This one who is coming, he doesn’t judge the way we normally do. He doesn’t settle for what his eyes see or what his ears hear, but he discerns from a different place, a deeper place; he discerns by a whole different set of criteria altogether. He judges based upon right relationship, the world as it should be where the poor and the meek and all creation are welcomed into the kingdom of God. And as bad as the world is, this one won’t strike back with the fist, but with speaking that prophetic word that has the power to take down all that keeps God’s beloved from the abundant life and speaking that ever creative word that brought creation itself into being.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

This one’s weapons are not the weapons of war and vengeance and retaliation and might, but this one straps on the belt of staying aligned with what is right and trusting in the God who sustains us when everything is falling apart.

And then the vision gets even more challenging, and even unimaginable, and so very hopeful.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

the democrat shall live with the republican,

the independent and libertarian shall lie down with the green party,

the red states and blue states and purple states together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

This is the vision of the peaceable kingdom. A vision where we stop hurting each other and, instead, break bread together. A vision where the venomous poison stops spewing and innocents aren’t harmed. A vision where we stop hurting and destroying each other. 

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah didn’t predict Jesus, that’s not how Old Testament prophecy worked, but as people experienced Jesus, they went back and searched their scriptures, and when they found this passage from Isaiah, something in their hearts sprang to life and said, this Jesus, he is the root of Jesse that we’ve been longing for. The breadth and depth of his love; his capacity to stretch his arms out so wide, to reach out to the Roman soldier and the Jewish leader and the Samaritan and the Syrophoenician woman and the leper and the lame and to bring them all into God’s wide embrace; his absolute, unwavering commitment to nonviolence in his actions and in his words—even the nations knew something was different about his way.

And brother and sisters, something is different about his way. This Advent, let’s meditate on this vision in Isaiah. Let’s pray for Jesus to show us the way to bring this vision to life. Let’s cling to the hope that the peaceable kingdom can indeed come among us.

John the Baptist is right. There’s a lot that needs to be cut down that’s in our way. There’s a lot that needs to be winnowedexamined and sorted—and a lot of chaff that needs to be burned away, so that the shoot that is trying to spring from the stump has a fighting chance, so that our deep roots can take hold and see us through this tumultuous time.

It’s time to get still, and to wait, and to expect, and to listen. It’s time to dare to imagine and believe and step forward in faith that the peaceable kingdom for which we long is possible, here, now, among us.

Look for the shoot that’s springing up, and then nurture it with everything you’ve got. The nations are yearning to see this signal, to see this sign, and of whom will they inquire if they can’t see it in us?

Join Isaiah, join Jesus, join the wolf and the lamb and the calf and the lion and the fatling, reach across the adder’s den to those you fear the most and trust that a spirit of wisdom beyond our imagining will show us how.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 4, 2016

Rector’s 2016 Annual Address

The Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks–Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon   video link
Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year C
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

What a year! This has been a time of transition—lots of goodbye’s and lots of hello’s. Just a little over a year ago, we said goodbye to Ted Gulick as our Organist and Director of Music. Then, we said hello to Suzi Mills and Shane Watson, both of whom did a fantastic job seeing us through the 9-month interim. Then, we said goodbye to Suzi and Shane and said hello to Mary Mozelle. Mary came to us through a nationwide search, and under her leadership, the choir is growing and stretching in new ways, congregational singing is hearty, the postludes are an absolute delight, and our music program continues to embody the breadth and depth and excellence that feeds our souls! Thank you, Mary and thank you, Choir.

After 10 years of faithful service, we said goodbye to Catherine King and celebrated her ministry, and we said hello (again) to Lynn McNeil. Lynn was in the role of Parish Administrator 10 years ago, and has stepped right back in without missing a beat, even though the job has changed quite a bit in the intervening decade. Catherine brought us through so many technological changes in how we communicate, so Lynn has been on a fast learning curve, but she rolls with everything with ease and a smile. The transition has been smooth, and Lynn, you are doing a great job. Thanks for all the gifts you bring to your work, and for your gracious presence.

And through this year, we have had our anchors.

Pat Kohles who keeps our finances straight and contributions accounted for and is always willing to do whatever is asked of her. Pat leads with a “sure, we can do that”—always. Thank you, Pat, for your steady, calm wisdom day in and day out.

Sean Damrel continues in his second year as our College Youth Intern. Between Sean and Leah over at St. Mary’s, we have a bona fide youth group! Our youth love coming to youth group, and they are passionate about Camp Henry and Diocesan Youth Weekends. Sean brings a passion for building spiritual community, and I am so grateful for his leadership.

Charles Oaks continues to care for our buildings with such love and attention. He does his work quietly when the rest of us aren’t around, but if you cross paths with Charles, please thank him for his ministry.

Heather McGuinn, Victoria Fowler, Celia McCall, Brianna Lockovich, and substitutes Julia Banks, Jessie King, and Carmen Cook-McKee. These are our Nursery Caregivers who provide peace-of-mind to parents and loving care to small children. We are blessed with these competent, loving young women.

And then, there is Greg Erickson. Full-on, wide-open heart Greg. A deacon’s deacon. Service embodied, showing us in how he lives what Jesus would do and how Jesus would act. Always a wise counsellor to me, a fabulous colleague, a true brother in Christ. I think we are both better in our roles for having one another’s back always. Thank you Greg for all you do, so much of which is never known, and thank you for the spirit with which you do what you do.

And finally, thank you Jim and Julia. I am able to do what I do because of the bonds that are between us as family. Jim, you walk every ounce of this journey with me, and when the institutional church disappoints or seems crazy, you remind me of what’s really important—Jesus, the True Self, doing our spiritual work, love, community, sitting on our deck swing, tasting joy, doing life—all of life—together. I am a better priest for being married to you.

And Julia, you teach me so much, every day. You see the world in your own way, and teach me to think, always, outside the box. Thanks for keeping my feet on the ground and for keeping me firmly grounded in my humanity. You are truly one of my gurus.

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And then, there was the anticipated transition surrounding the election of the next bishop in our diocese—two months of limbo and anticipatory grief for St. Luke’s.  Then, the June 25th election that left many of us with an array of feelings—relief, confusion, anger, and grief.

We, as a community, had to face that you and I might part ways as parish and priest. That generated a range of responses from “We’ve been here before; we can do this” to “If Cyndi goes, I’m leaving.” In time, those who thought their ties were to me came to understand that their ties weren’t really to me—their ties are to the community. St. Luke’s is bigger than me, and if we got the chance to realize that truth anew, well, that is a fantastic learning.

What you all did for me on June 26th, the infamous day after, will forever remain one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Painful, but beautiful. You were so compassionate, so kind, so loving, so respectful. Truly, you took my little body off of the cross, and as Jim said, “You anointed me with spices, and laid me in the tomb,” and gave me permission to rest there for however long it took. Then, you got to watch me do this uncomfortably public journey with grief. You prayed for me and cheered me on as I made my way through one heck of a dark night of the soul, and you have been that community with whom I could share the learnings that continue to be revealed to me as I make my way forward. I cannot thank you enough for the space you have given me this year, and for being all-in with me as I went all-in with this process of discernment, election, and loss. Please know how deeply I love you, and how deeply I feel your love in return.

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And then, there was the transition of changing demographics that caught up with us early this year when our budget was short. In April, we came together in a congregational meeting to begin hard conversations around where we are financially. We stumbled a bit in that April conversation, and we learned better ways to have the conversation, but I am proud of us for even trying. We did not bury our heads in the sand—we brought the needs to you and you responded in a big way. Within three weeks, we had what we needed to make the 2016 budget work.

But the Vestry and I knew that the fix for this year doesn’t answer the ongoing questions around sustainability, and so, we held Cottage Meetings this fall. Six different meetings across six different demographic groups in our congregation. I want to thank all those who hosted these conversations in their homes, and to all of you who participated. The conversations were rich and honest and surfaced some beautiful themes.

Why do you love St. Luke’s? Why do you keep coming back? What is essential for you at St. Luke’s? What at St. Luke’s shapes you to live the way of Jesus in the world? What do you need from St. Luke’s?

  • Over and over, people spoke about community, relationships, and a place of belonging.
  • Over and over, people talked about the importance of worship and music and the liturgy.
  • Over and over, people talked about service and social justice and forming our social consciousness.
  • Values like acceptance, inclusion, and love
  • A willingness to be shaped by scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the Book Study Group and the opportunities to minister in the wider community and the liturgy itself—all of these work to shape us in the way of Jesus.
  • And there was one learning that is so cool. It’s been there all along, but these meetings allowed us to name something that is foundational to who we are and why we exist. What do you think emerged as the chief way that we get shaped to live the way of Jesus in the world? (pause) It’s watching one another. It’s seeing one another’s example. It’s hearing the stories of how each one of us tries to follow Jesus as we live our lives. We learn by watching each other live the life lifted up by our baptismal vows. We watch each other stumble, and we watch each other get back up. We step into it with each other, and we circle back and make it right. St. Luke’s is indeed the school of love that St. Benedict spoke about. We learn how to live like Jesus by living like Jesus here. And then, we try to live that way out in the world, and we come back here and share our successes and our failures, and we get our wounds bound up, and we get out tank filled, and we head back out into the world. Sharing our lives with one another is our chief way of doing Christian formation, and it has always been so. That’s how Jesus did it with his first disciples. That’s how the early church did it. That’s how followers of Jesus have always done it—together, in community.

So, all of this transition, it has stirred the waters. And when the waters get stirred, new opportunities open up to shift and adjust and see things anew.

And, right now, I see an internal dimension to our work ahead, and an external dimension. First, our internal work.

Facing financial realities opened up a conversation about new models of ministry. It goes by a lot of names—Total Ministry, Shared Ministry, Mutual Ministry. Our diocese is at the very beginning stages of talking about this, and lots of folks are trying to figure it out. It really isn’t about how we get the work of the church done.  It is much more about how we be church together. It is about reclaiming what has been there all along—the power given us in baptism to live the way of Jesus. It’s realizing that we have everything we need among us; everything we need to do the work that God calls us to do resides in this room. Let me say that again, everything we need to do the work that God calls us to do resides in this room.

I don’t quite know what this looks like, but this past spring, I had the deep sense that if I was not elected bishop, that my call might be to help St. Luke’s get ready for a whole new model. It could be that St. Luke’s will always be able to afford a full-time seminary-trained priest, or it could be that at some future point, St. Luke’s will have to look at a part-time priest, or a bi-vocational priest, I don’t know. But I do know that any work we do to move toward a new way of being will be good and healthy for this community.

It’s tricky because the Episcopal Church is sort of a hierarchical tradition. We have orders of ministry, and for all our talk about how equal they are, we tend to think of them vertically—lay people, deacons, priests, bishops. I was talking with a friend of mine, and she noted that, in the 1979 Prayer Book, we made Eucharist the central act of worship of Sunday, and when we did that, we inadvertently set something in place that tells our people every Sunday that you can’t be real church without me because you can’t have Eucharist without a priest. I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind. And please, don’t get me wrong, I love the Eucharist—it is central to my capacity to live the way of Jesus—and I do think there is value in having a ritual leader who has the charism and training to lead ritual and preach well, and your responses at the Cottage Meetings indicated how important this is to you, too. But I do think my friend is on to something, and her observation points out how deeply embedded clergy-centered systems are in our tradition.  So what we are talking about is a huge culture shift, and culture shift is hard work that takes a long time to accomplish.

But whether it’s financial stress that is pushing us, or because we want to live more fully the theology of community that we profess, it is good to begin exploring how we move in a new way. I think this is exciting because what we are talking about is really an empowering of your ministry.

And a place to begin is discerning our gifts and passions as individuals, and then brainstorming what gifts we see in one another as we look across our St. Luke’s community.  I was thrilled to find out that some of this same conversation has been bubbling up in the Women’s Group—the Spirit is egging us on.

You know, St. Paul had his list of gifts of the spirit that were needed to be church in his time; what would our list be?

  • Who are our leaders and initiators and organizers and finishers?
  • Who are our pastors and teachers and prophets?
  • Who are our historians and storytellers, those who help us tell the story of St. Luke’s?
  • Who are our sources of wisdom and contemplatives that keep us grounded?
  • Who are our doer’s that just like doing the work, often quietly and behind the scenes?
  • Who are those folks that can match resources with vision?
  • What other gifts are among us that are needed to live into our mission as Christ’s body in the world?

I am also curious about what needs to shift in my leadership to make the space for yours. I have tried to be attentive to this as I have grown with you over the years, but there is always more for me to learn. I was trained in a certain way, and neither my colleagues, nor I, were trained for the cultural and institutional growing pains that now face all of us.

Somebody asked me at one of the Cottage Meetings, “Cyndi, what do you need from us?” It was a great question and one that caught me by surprise. I paused, and then I said, “I need you to not be afraid of this conversation.”

Let’s ride a wave of curiosity and excitement and exploration and see what we can figure out and learn together. If we can figure this out here, then we have something so valuable to share with our brothers and sisters—namely, how to face into the winds that are blowing with courage.

+++

Transition has also stirred the waters that are calling us to do our work externally. Long ago, Bill Marr coined a phrase that describes St. Luke’s perfectly, “We do life together.” And I have long thought that life brings us what we need to work on. The invitation to consider becoming bishop in this diocese brought me a lot of work in discernment. Not being elected brought me a lot of work in grief. And in a bizarre twist, that grief work prepared me well for the reactions and emotions that came pouring out of so many people in response to the Presidential election.

So, life brings us what we need to work on, and November 8th revealed to us the breadth and depth of divisions that criss-cross our country. For many people, they cannot conceive of how people voted for the other candidate. Open up your Prayer Book to page 855 (by the way, this is a great document to read devotionally sometime).

What is the ministry of the laity? 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.

 To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. This is our call; this is our work—now more than ever. We’re going to have to listen deeper than we have ever listened before if we are to heal our communities across this nation. And this is going to involve moving in multiple directions at once.

  • We’ve got to reach out with humility, listen, and truly endeavor to understand our rural neighbors—their values, their wisdom, their hurts, their hopes.
  • We’ve got to hear and understand the very real fear now afoot amongst so many communities—people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, the LGBTQ community.
  • We’ve got to listen with respect and understand the deep desire for change that this election revealed.
  • And we could begin by fasting from brushing everyone who voted differently with the same stroke and a simplistic label. I get the temptation, believe me I do, but I had to learn after June 25th that people vote as they do for a thousand different reasons, and as much as I wanted to lock down onto one narrative, it’s much, much more complicated than that—there are always multiple narratives.

I don’t know what the future looks like under Mr. Trump’s leadership; that will be revealed over time through his actions and through the actions of his administration. I know people’s minds are racing forward into a thousand different scenarios, but worry about the future is rarely productive or life-giving. We hold people accountable for word and deed, not for our fears of the what if’s. I will say of Mr. Trump what I have said of every President, no matter their party, my baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being extends to them, even if I disagree with every policy position they take. This vow extends to the President’s followers. This vow extends to those who oppose the President. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being, while at the same time, calling out any and all words and actions that diminish the dignity of another human being. Living like Jesus is really hard.

As I continue to reflect, I am deeply concerned about what Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in this campaign has legitimized (and please remember, I called out Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric, too—I am an equal opportunity caller-outer). Words matter, and we saw some of the actions those words made possible in the days following the election.

  • And the most heartbreaking place I saw those actions unleashed was in schools amongst our children and youth— kids telling Latino kids, “well, I guess you’ll be leaving soon;” a dodgeball game in PE where kids built a human wall and chanted, “build a wall” to keep the Latino kids out—and that happened here, in Watauga County, in our community.
  • An Episcopal church in Maryland came to worship last Sunday to see “Trump Nation Whites Only” painted on the back of their Spanish-language mass sign and on the wall of their memorial garden, and an Episcopal Church in Indiana found “Heil Trump,” a swastika, and an anti-gay slur painted on the brick wall of their church.
  • “Make America White Again” has popped up, along with swastikas.
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported 700 cases of intimidation and harassment since the election.
  • And there are also reports of Trump supporters being beaten up for voting as they did.

It’s gotten ugly out there. To his credit, Mr. Trump has said, “Stop it.”

We have taken vows to persevere in resisting evil, to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. I want to say as clearly as I can, it is our duty as followers of Jesus to stand firm and say “NO” to any and all speech and actions that target children of God in this way and stand with those who are being targeted. And as we do so, we must not replicate and perpetuate this cycle of violence. The Episcopal church in Maryland made a sign in response, “Love wins.”

There is an enormous call before us right now, and that’s for the church to be the church!

  • To embrace our call to reconciliation;
  • to hold a space in our hearts and in our words and in our actions for all people;
  • to get out of our like-minded echo chambers and really try to see the world through another’s eyes (and by the way, our children and youth can teach us a thing or two here, because they are living in more diverse environments in their schools right now than most of us adults);
  • to embody the cross in our words and deeds—to ground deep and stand firm and keep our arms open to this broken world;
  • to be fierce in our solidarity with the least of these in this world;
  • and to be fierce in our refusal to diminish the dignity of any human being made in the image of God;
  • to double-down on our commitment to pray for our leaders, all of our leaders;
  • to breathe deep, really deep;
  • and to do a lot more praying and mediating and acting from a place of wisdom, than binging on social media and feeding our addiction to adrenalin.

 The work before us is immense, but the world, now more than ever, needs us to live the life we profess as followers of Jesus.

So, transition has stirred the waters, both within St. Luke’s and in the world outside our doors. Life has brought us what we need to work on, and as I look out at you, I don’t see a hundred plus individuals, I see a community full of love, I see a community that I believe in, I see the Body of Christ, strong and whole and vital, and absolutely up to the task ahead of us. We do life together, and together, in the Spirit, Presence, and Power of Jesus, we will find our way.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 20, 2016

All Saints, the Upcoming Election, Connor’s Baptism and the Cubs!

The Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks–The Sunday after All Saints’ Day—Year C   video
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

So, there is a lot going on today! It’s the Sunday after All Saints’ Day; it’s the Sunday before the election; it’s Connor’s baptism; and it’s the Sunday after the Cubs won the World Series ending a 108-year run without a title. And I think all of these are connected.

I’ve gotta start with the Cubs. Baseball is not really a sport I follow; I’m not a diehard fan of any particular club, but this year, I, and a good part of the country, were Cubs fans. The Cubs, the underdog of underdogs, and for those fans who’ve followed the Cubs always, an icon of perseverance and the power of hope that refuses to stop longing for the dream. And then, to be down 3-1. And then to come down to game 7. It was just irresistible.

Well, I happened to be in Chicago on Wednesday night for a continuing education event. We finished our work in time to tune in to the game about the 6th inning. The Cubs were ahead, and then the Indians tied the game. When the Indians came even, it seemed to take all the air out of the Cubs’ sails, and then, just as they headed for extra innings, the rains came down, the tarp came out, and there was that 17-minute rain delay. The next day, we actually spent some time in my group reflecting theologically on what that rain delay made possible—the unintended, undesired pause that opens a space for a reset that can renew us and set us on a new path. Yes, I was with an incredibly theologically geeky group.

But the Cubs came out of that rain delay and took care of business. I will tell you that the city was eerily quiet through those last innings. You could see TV’s flickering in the windows in the skyscrapers all around us. And even after the Cubs won, it was so quiet—I think the city was stunned—it had really happened and they couldn’t believe it. And then, the horns started and the shouts of joy rose up as people poured into the streets, and those horns went on and on and on for hours. But that wasn’t even the coolest part.

The next day there was this story on NPR about veteran Cubs fans, older Cubs fans—exuberant grandmas and grandpas—80, 90, 100 years old—who had waited for this day forever. Fans wrote the names of Cubs fans departed this life on the walls of Wrigley Field. One man took a radio out to the cemetery where his dad was buried and listened to the game there just to share it with his father.

Could we get a better image of the communion of saints???

Cubs fans know in their hearts that the love of their team and the love of those who never gave up hope on that team transcends time and space, transcends the realms, just as love always does. We are made to believe and trust in the communion of saints, and most of the time, we don’t live in awareness of this great communion we share, but then a moment comes—maybe it’s a moment of great joy, maybe it’s a moment of great sorrow, maybe it’s a moment of fear or loss or bewilderment, maybe it’s just an ordinary moment—but a moment comes that cracks the veil between here and there, and we are overwhelmed with how connected we really are.

 

Connor, you may or may not be a Cubs fan, but today, we celebrate that you are knit into this great, mystical communion of saints. You are woven into the fabric of this great big story that spans the generations across time and space. You have a place in this grand body, here at St. Luke’s, and in the Body of Christ that spans every tribe and language and people and nation and even the cosmos. And being woven into this body will give you everything you need to be able to move through suffering and loss and struggle, and yes, to discover that resurrection always awaits on the other side. In your short life, you’ve already had your share of suffering and a taste of the power of this community pulling for you, praying for you, celebrating every ounce of your life.

Being woven into this body gives you a framework, a set of guideposts to live by that will help you navigate the world and keep your feet firmly planted on the way that leads to abundant life. Connor, you give us such a gift today! Because of your baptism, we get to make these promises again, and what a gift to do this the Sunday before Election Day!

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim in word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Five vows that stake out for us what it means to follow Jesus. As Bishop José reminded our diocese this week, these are the criteria by which we must discern as we cast our votes. We don’t have the luxury of separating out our civic responsibility to vote from our religious faith from our spiritual practice. The Word became flesh and lived among usthere is no part of our life to which Jesus does not have a claim, and his claim on us comes before any other affiliation.

Oh Connor, you’re going to find that this life is hard and daunting and oh so lifegiving; it is full of wonder and full of adventure; it is bigger and broader and deeper than you can possibly imagine. These vows and the life they make possible, THIS is a big enough container to hold whatever will unfold in the world or in your life.

And that’s why I’m so very glad that you are a living icon today of these promises we make together and the power of this Body, this Communion, in whom we all are knit together. There is so much fear about what will unfold this coming Tuesday, and it doesn’t matter from which side you look out. I’ve never seen our country so polarized. For many, Tuesday will be the apocalyptic end of the world as we know it. But in the big, big picture, the world as we know it is always dying, and always being born anew.

Remember dear brothers and sisters, no matter what happens, we are knit into a bigger story, a story of dying and rising, a story of the neverending flow of love, a story of stumbles and falls and getting back up again, a story of unfathomable courage that can look at that which is rent asunder and see a call to reach out in the power of the reconciling love of Jesus.

We may get to learn just how deep our vows run. We may get to learn, really learn, what it means to believe that there really is ONE Body and ONE Spirit.  We may get to learn all over again what it means to heal a Roman soldier’s child and dine at a Pharisee’s house and bring a woman bent over to the center of the circle and to understand the plight of a Samaritan. When Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, there were no boundaries on that love. I don’t know how far Tuesday may stretch us, but no matter what happens, we’re going to have to take our cues from Jesus and these vows that keep us aligned with his way.

Connor, today you remind us that what we do today is bigger than whatever might come. So fear not, little guy, this community has you; the communion of saints has you, the Body of Christ has you, the God of all that is has you. You are knit into this mystical sweet communion, and, as Paul reminds us: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from that love of God made known in Christ Jesus.”

Connor, the ground is firm, the fabric is strong, and the threads of God’s love that wrap around you this day will never let you go. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 6, 2016

Money as Spiritual Practice

The Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks– The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 25—Year C  video
Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

I love this time of year! As I sat on my deck this past Thursday morning and worked on this sermon, I was stunned by the colors blazing across the mountains—this gorgeous palette of red and yellow and orange. Walking our new puppy up the road and coming across these vistas has just been glorious. Has this fall not been breathtaking in beauty? God’s abundance shining all around us? We didn’t create it, we didn’t earn it, we haven’t achieved it; it’s just there for the sheer enjoying if we but take the time to drink it in.

I love that we mark Creation Season in our worship using these expansive language liturgies and singing hymns that draw us into bigger visions of God and the wonders of creation. I love that our prayers draw our hearts and minds to all the ways we are called to steward our lives.

And I love that it’s Annual Giving Season which invites all of us to wrestle with money. Okay, enjoying that last one makes me a little weird, but as a priest it feels so important to invite you into this wrestling. Let me unpack that a bit.

Let’s start by understanding that our relationship to money is part of our spiritual practice. We pray and meditate, why? Because the world is noisy with a thousand messages coming at us, especially right now, and we have to cultivate space and stillness so that we have the capacity to hear and discern God’s voice in the midst of all the noise, so that we can hear what is true and holy and lifegiving. That is spiritual practice.

We read scripture or other books or hear the story of others’ lives that cause us to think more deeply about our lives and about God, why? To remember that there is a story that is always bigger than our own that helps us to see our own story more clearly. That’s spiritual practice.

We come to this table and feed on the bread and wine, why? To remember that there is a hunger that only God can feed, and that there is indeed food for our soul that will sustain us. That’s spiritual practice.

We serve our neighbor out in the community, why? To remember that we are bound to one another, knit together in the human family. That’s spiritual practice.

And we wrestle with money—how we obtain it, how we save it, how we spend it, why? Because the culture is bombarding us with messages that tell us we never have enough, and that message can set us off chasing for things that will never bring us the life we long for. We have to wrestle with money to remember where the ground of our life lies and who the ground of our being is. And this, too, is spiritual practice. Frankly, everything we do is about spiritual practice, because what we do shapes and forms who we are.

I continue to find Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money to be the most thought-provoking thing I have ever read about money practice. She talks a lot about the myth of scarcity. And somewhere in this book, she poses an important question. What is the opposite of scarcity? (pause) Our minds immediately go to abundance. But she says that it’s not abundance; it’s sufficiency, or more simply put, enough. The opposite of scarcity is enough.

She goes on to describe how many of us view our lives as a litany of not enough, from the moment we wake up until the moment we lay our head on the pillow at night. When we wake up, what is that first “not enough” message? (pause) What “not enough” messages do we tell ourselves over the course of the day? (pause) And, at night, as we’re thinking back over our day, what are “not enough” messages? (pause)

From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we are inundated with a sense of scarcity and never having enough. And how we deal with money is the outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual sickness in our soul.

So this is about more than dollars and cents. This is about how we shift our spiritual perception to understand that, at the deepest levels, there is a sufficiency present, an enoughness. Twist talks about sufficiency this way: “Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough. Sufficiency resides inside each of us, and we can call it forward. It is a consciousness, an attention, an intentional choosing of the way we think about our circumstances. In our relationship with money, it is using money in a way that expresses our integrity; using it in a way that expresses value rather than determines it…When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity…We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives—our time, our money, our wisdom, our energy, at whatever level those resources flow—to serve our highest commitments.” And lest we think Twist is some sort of polyannish type, she’s not. She has worked in some of the most impoverished areas of the world with communities of people that have taught her these lessons in sufficiency and true wealth.

So, there are always two parts to this equation as we talk about Annual Giving at St. Luke’s. First, we have to come to terms with our relationship with money as spiritual practice. This is where we have to wrestle with how much we buy into the myth of scarcity and how we need to be shaped anew into a vision of sufficiency and having enough. This is where we have to wrestle with our values and how our resources are flowing through our lives and ask ourselves if this flow is representative of who we are at the deepest levels. This is remembering that if resources flow in and don’t flow out, we die, just like the Dead Sea; that the flow has to keep flowing if we are to live. Money practice is about getting the flow flowing, which is always where life is.

The practice of giving keeps that flow ever before our eyes. The practice of giving reminds us that it’s all gift. The practice of giving keeps us present and attentive to this aspect of our lives with consciousness and intentionality.

And so we give to help us stay in this flow of enough and to let the flow of resources through our lives express our deepest values and commitments.

And that brings us to the second part of the equation: Why give to St. Luke’s? Beginning this afternoon and running through November 6, we will be gathering in Cottage Meetings to share with you what the Vestry believes we need to support the work of this community. We sent out the detail of the draft budget this past Thursday. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of numbers, and so we will have some graphs and charts at the Cottage Meetings to give you a clearer picture. The Vestry and I are working as hard as we can to be transparent about where we are and what we believe it takes to make this place go. In these gatherings, we want to engage about our vision and mission and the values we hold dear.

Why give to St. Luke’s? Because what we do here matters. Because what we do here expresses your values. Because what we do here shapes your values. Because what happens in this place helps us stand still and stay grounded amidst a swirl of voices and values all around us that shatter a commitment to community and keep us forever in the chase for the elusive “good life.” Where else can we learn how to live well, and die well? Where else do we experience this kind of community that truly spans across the generations? What other place is keeps calling us to respect the dignity of every human being, even if they don’t respect us or the things that we hold dear? Where else do we learn how to discern and name evil and sin and strive for justice, and always with an eye toward peace and reconciliation? Where else can we ask deep questions of meaning? Where else can we engage the rhythms of ritual and music that help us make sense of our lives through all the seasons of our lives? Why give to St. Luke’s? Because what we do here matters.

If the work we do here doesn’t matter to you, if it doesn’t express your deepest values, then you should not support it. And if that’s the case, then I beg you to find and bless those endeavors in the world that do speak to your deepest values and highest commitments because the flow needs to keep flowing through you and your life for you to be whole.

But if the work we do in this place does matter to you, then I am asking you to support it and to support it heartily. How heartily? Well, that’s between you and your family and God. But I do ask that you put all the places where your money flows out before you on the table. Seriously, get post-notes out and write where your money flows by category. Then, think about the values each of those places represents. Is the flow of your resources to these various parts of your life in keeping with your values? Where is the stretch for you and your family that keeps your values and your resources aligned?

The Church has long talked about a tithe of 10% of income as a way to keep us anchored in our deepest values. And before we go down the rabbit hole of 10% of gross or net, when I trained with the Lutherans, they made clear to us that it was gross, but for goodness sake, 10% of either one would be a profound commitment! The point is, the Church has long talked about the tithe as a way to anchor us in our deepest values, as a way to keep the flow flowing. For some of you, you may find that stretch at 1% or 4% or 7%. Others may find that stretch at 15% or 20%. For others, it may be a project or initiative that ignites your passion and compels you to give. It’s different for each household, but what’s important is that we wrestle with it. And if you happen to hit the 10% tithe, keep on going. Keep growing your practice, partly to guard against the smugness of the Pharisee that we hear about in this morning’s gospel—you can tithe 10% and yet the other 90% of your resources might not be flowing in lifegiving ways at all.

For all of us, how much can we get flowing through our life? What freedom might come through really committing to this spiritual practice? If you want to grow your giving practice, try increasing your giving 1% of your income a year. We always want to deepen all our spiritual practices, why on earth would we pick a level of giving and just stay there year after year? Why wouldn’t we want to expand this part of our spiritual life? Why would we deny ourselves the lessons we can surely learn as we wrestle with all of this?

And for some of us, the flow that needs to get unstopped might not be so much in the realm of money, but in the realm of sharing our energy and our time and our gifts and our skills and our wisdom. How are these things flowing? Where are these things flowing? Is the flow of our energy, time, gifts, skills, and wisdom in keeping with our deepest values and highest commitments? Are these things all in alignment?

I’ve focused a lot on money today because I think it is a huge spiritual issue for all of us in this culture, but stewardship is about the whole of our lives—we have to look at all aspects of our lives and see if they are in alignment with our deepest values as those values are informed by the love God and way of Jesus.

So as your priest, I am inviting you into the wrestling because I know there is life to be found here that many of us have not yet begun to taste. I want all of us to experience that sense of sufficiency and enoughness that Twist describes, and to know the freedom that comes in that enoughness. And just as with Jacob last week, I want us to know that in this wrestling, we will be blessed. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 23, 2016

The Blessing of Struggle

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 24—Year C; Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.  video

So many themes swirling around today—struggle, wrestling, prevailing, persisting, persevering—this is the gritty stuff of life; this is where the rubber meets the road; this is where life will take us, whether we want to go or not; and this is where we are made.

The story of Jacob. Context is important here. He is on his way back to meet his brother Esau. It has been years, and they did not part on good terms. After cheating Esau of his rightful blessing as the elder son, Jacob fled for his life. Jacob has since had a knock or two in his own right, but he has persevered and has come to the place in his life where he wants to go home, and even more, he wants to reconcile with his brother.

He comes to the ford of the Jabbok.  He sends his two wives, and two maids, and eleven children, and all that he has across the river, and he then he returns to the other side. Jacob has some unfinished business to take care of before he moves forward, and that unfinished business is with himself. Who knows if Jacob intentionally set out to wrestle that whole night long, but when he went back across that river and found himself alone, the stage was set.  You see, Jacob’s first act of courage was to allow himself to be alone. He could have stayed amidst all his family and worldly goods; he could have distracted himself until daybreak. But something in him knew he needed to enter this space, alone, and wrestle with whatever would emerge.

And emerge it did. Hear the story again. A man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then [the man] said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

We don’t know the exact nature of the wrestling that Jacob had to do—was it with his fear of meeting his brother, was it a sense of failure for having run away, was it the shadow side of his personality that had caused the rift in the first place, was it a total sense of displacement and not knowing what the future would hold—we don’t know. All we know is that he wrestled all night long. All we know is that that wrestling left him with a limp that would be with him for the rest of his life. All we know is that he gets a new name out of it—“Israel.” Jacob doesn’t get all his questions answered—“the man” never does reveal his name—but when Jacob receives the blessing of the wrestling, the unanswered question of “the man’s” name no longer matters—Jacob knows he has seen God face to face; Jacob knows his lifethe fullness of his life—has been preserved; Jacob knows this place is holy, and he has to give this place a new name, because he knows that he goes forth from this place changed forever.

No one ever wants to cross back over the river and sit with one’s own self, alone. But you and I know that there are struggles that come our way that place us exactly in that lonely place. The nature of our struggles come in all shapes and sizes, specific to the contour of our lives, but no one escapes them. Close your eyes. Let your soul settle into stillness. Now let something that you’ve been struggling with rise—some loss, some baffling rift, some stuck place, some unresolved conflict—it could be big; it could be small; the size doesn’t matter, only that it is a place of wrestling for you. Do you have it fixed in your heart? Hold on to that and open your eyes.

This summer, a book was recommended to me by Joan Chittister called Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. It’s not very long, just a little over a hundred pages, but oh, does she pack a lot in those pages. She maps out, with exquisite detail, the geography of struggle, all the while framing it in this story from Genesis about Jacob’s wrestling.

So, with our own particular struggles fixed in our hearts, I want us to sit at the feet of Joan Chittister for a bit this morning because she says some things we need to hear if we’re going to navigate this spiritual territory of struggle. And one of the trickiest and hardest pieces of the journey we have to navigate is the stretch called “surrender.”

Chittister writes: “Surrender does not mean that I quit grieving what I do not have. It means that I surrender to new meanings and new circumstances, that I begin to think differently and to live somewhere that is totally elsewhere. I surrender to meanings I never cared to hear—or heard, maybe, but was not willing to understand…They do not want me. What I want is not possible. And, hardest to bear of all, all the arguments to the contrary are useless. I surrender to the fact that what I lived for without thought of leaving, I have now lost…

“Surrender is the crossover point of life. It distinguishes who I was from who I have become…What is left is the spiritual obligation to accept reality so that the spiritual life can really happen in me. Surrender is the moment in which we realize that it is time to become someone new. Surrender is not about giving up—it is about moving on…”

This is the process of relinquishing what has been and what you hoped would be and embracing what is so that you, like Jacob, can receive the blessing of your new name.

Chittister drills down deep as she describes the nature of struggle itself: “Struggle is the great crossover moment of life. It never leaves us neutral. It demands that we make a choice: either we dig down into the wellspring that is our innermost selves and go beyond where we were…or we simply give up, stop in our tracks rooted to the spot, up to our ankles in bitterness and despair, satisfied to be less than all our personal gifts indicate that we are being called to be…

“Struggle tempers the steel of the soul. It straightens the backbone and purifies the heart. It makes demands on us that change us forever and makes us new. It shows us who we are. Then we make choices, maybe for the first time in life, that determine not only what we’ll do in life but what kind of person we will be for the rest of it…”

She continues: “Jacob does what we all must do, if in the end, we, too, are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins his world, and goes on. It’s not easy, of course, but it is the confrontation with the self that gives both depth and texture to life…[Jacob] walks into the struggle but he limps out of it, permanently marked, forever changed, ever limited by the experience. But scarring as struggle may be, we also know deep down that it vitalizes another whole part of us. Our sensibilities reach a higher tone. We become a fuller self.

Chittister is telling us that it isn’t what we achieve or don’t achieve that makes us who we are; it isn’t what we gain or lose, but it is the very process of struggle that shapes us and changes us forever.

I’ve had a bit of experience with this recently, and I will tell you that everything she says is true. It is within the struggles we have, it is within our wrestling with meaning when life goes off the rails and heads down a path that wasn’t in our plan, it is in that very territory that we have the chance to discover the depths of who we are, of who God has made us to be, of who God is inviting us to be.

This is a journey not to be missed. When life brings you struggle, know that within all the pain, within all confusion, within all the grief, there is a new name waiting for you, if you can be faithful to the wrestling.

And that “if” is a big one—you can’t get to the new name if you aren’t willing to cross back over the river and be alone with yourself and with your struggle and with God. And the new name will leave you with a limp—our struggles scar us, they just do.  But just as with Jesus, those scars can absolutely reveal to us the magnitude of resurrection life. Jesus’ wounds were radiant with that life—Thomas saw them and fell down on his knees. That new life awaits us, too; new life that is soft and wise and holy and so deep and so strong.

So, I don’t wish you a life without struggle because you can’t know the depths of who you are and the riches of God’s grace without it. Besides, life is going to bring it to you whether you want it or not.

No, I pray that you be filled with courage to cross back over the river where there is nothing but you, and God, and the struggle at hand. Wrestle with it, whatever it is. Wrestle it until the break of dawn. Let the struggle leave you with a limp, but even more, be attentive, be attentive with every fiber of your being for the new name that God is longing to give you. Then, name that place of struggle as the holy place that it is, Peniel, that place where you have seen God face to face and have lived. And then, be on your way, moving back out into the world, walking with a limp, but walking tall, new name in hand, full of grace, full of power, full of life, knowing beyond measure that you are blessed. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

October 16, 2016

Namaan, the Samaritan, and Privilege

Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost—PR 23—Year C; II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19. video

Oh, we’ve got some great stories today.

First, from II Kings, ol’ Namaan, the commander of the army of Aram, big and mighty and victorious, and by all the measures of his society, successful. He had all the status in the world, all the power, all the privilege, except for one little thing. Remember? (pause) That’s right, he suffered from leprosy, a skin disease that had a big ick factor, that made people turn away in fear and disgust, that made people keep their distance from you, a disease that isolated you back then, and as we saw in India in 2013, isolates you still. Big, powerful, privileged Namaan had leprosy.

Now, Namaan’s wife’s servant was a girl from Israel—she’d been taken captive in one of the raids by the Arameans—and she remembered that there was this prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his leprosy.

Namaan goes to the king of Aram, and the king of Aram sends Namaan off to the king of Israel with a letter asking the king of Israel to cure Namaan of his leprosy, and along with that letter, the king of Aram sent a boatload of stuff—ten talents of silver, six thousand shekals of gold, and ten sets of garments—a lot of stuff! When the king of Israel got the letter, he tore his clothes! He thought the king of Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. That king of Israel knew that he didn’t have the power to cure a man of leprosy.

We jump so quickly to the end of this story that we miss the error made at the very beginning. Anybody know what that error is? (pause) When the servant girl, who has no power by the way, tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure Namaan of his leprosy, both Namaan and the king of Aram assume it’s the king of Israel she’s talking about. And they set about to ply that king to do their bidding with the only currency that they know—silver, gold, and fine clothes—in other words, the trappings of power and prestige. Privilege assumes that it is privilege that will save you. But the king is not the prophet that the servant girl was talking about.

Back to the story. When the prophet Elisha gets wind that the king of Israel has torn his clothes, he sends words to the king to send Namaan on to him, so that Namaan can learn a thing or two about who prophets are and how healing works. So, Namaan is off to the prophet. He rolls up to Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots—think stretch SUV-limousine, circa 850 BCE. Elisha is not wowed; he is not impressed. He sends a messenger out to tell Namaan to go wash in the Jordan seven times, and if Namaan does that simple thing, his flesh will be restored and he’ll be made clean.

So, what does Namaan do? Does he go directly to the Jordan? (pause) Of course he doesn’t go to the Jordan River. He does what any person armored up with their own importance does, he flies into a rage because the prophet himself has not deigned to honor him with his presence and besides, Aram has better rivers anyway, and he turns around and leaves. Given a choice between surrendering his self-understanding as a person of importance and actually getting healed, Namaan chooses the armor of his identity and position and status and privilege.

Now, his servants—again, those with no power—they appeal to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he did it; he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; [and] his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

 

The very things that we think will save us—our power, our privilege, our status, our position, our stuff, our identity, our self-understanding—these things that we think will save us, when we hold onto them for dear life, they can actually keep us from getting to the waters that will make us clean, and make us whole, and restore us to relationship with others, relationship that isn’t based upon our trappings, but is based upon our kinship as suffering brothers and sisters who are all in need of mercy and compassion and healing and community. Once Namaan lets go of his ego, he finds the healing he needs, and then he truly is ready to meet the prophet of Israel, not as one above, but as brother to brother.

+++

Let’s jump over to the gospel of Luke. Jesus is passing through a border territory that runs between Galilee and Samaria, not a place you really want to be. And as he enters a village, ten lepers approach him. Oh, they keep their distance; they know the drill. Leprosy made you ritually unclean, and you don’t dare get close to someone who is clean lest you taint them, too. But they’re tired of being so isolated and despised, and they’ve heard of the things that Jesus can do, so they take a chance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Unlike Namaan, they jump at the chance. Off they go, and as they went, they were made clean.

Now, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked a very reasonable question, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Oh, I love this! Twenty two years of working with scripture, and it still absolutely has the capacity to surprise me and show me something I’ve never seen before! Ten are cleansed—καθαρίζω—like cathartic—made clean, set free. One sees that he’s been healed—ἰάομαι—cured, made whole. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well—σῴζω—healed, saved, made whole—like in that big salvation sense—whole in every way, in every sense.

You can be cleansed, you can sense that you’ve been healed, but it’s a whole other thing to be made whole in the deepest parts of our being. Three different words, three different understandings, three different ways forward.

So, why is it that the foreigner, the Samaritan, why is it that he is the only one to turn back and thank Jesus? (pause) I think it’s because, for him, there was no privilege to re-inhabit. The other nine, they were Israelites, and as soon as they were made clean from their leprosy, they were good to go; they could slide right back into their privileged place in society. But the Samaritan had no hope of that. Samaritans were defacto despised in that culture, and when Jesus really wants to make a point about power and prestige, you can bet a Samaritan is going to be close at hand to show the blindness of those who hold the power.

The nine’s privilege blinds them to the wholeness they could know. They settle for getting back to what they lost as fast as they can. The Samaritan recognizes that, though he will never get status in that society, he gets so much more—he gets a wholeness that is deeper than whether he is clean or not clean. And the only response to that is gratitude. And Jesus recognizes the faith that is deep in this man, and he goes one step more—he tells the man that it is this identity, this trust, this faith that has made him well and whole in the deepest, richest sense of that word. This truly is what salvation looks like.

Our privilege can blind us just as it blinded the nine Israelites. We can settle for being made clean and getting our groove back and completely miss experiencing the deeper healing. It’s only when we relinquish our privilege that we can experience the kind of wholeness that the Samaritan experienced and which Jesus offers us.

There is a cost to gaining privilege, but there is an even greater cost to holding on to it. It can absolutely cut us off from the things that matter most, starting with our own healing, our own need to be whole, and engulfing our capacity to be in relationship with others. Namaan had to learn the cost of privilege, and the priceless gift that comes when you let it go. The Samaritan got there a little faster because he could recognize the gift from the get-go. The nine, they never did catch on. Getting clean was enough for them.

How do we experience privilege? Through the color of our skin? Our gender? Our sexual identity? Our education? Our economic status? Our religion? Where we grew up? Where we went to school? Where we live? A hundred other ways?

And what will it take for you and me to learn just how much our privilege is costing us? What will it take for us to see how our privilege blinds us to that for which we really long? When will get it through our thick heads and hard hearts that there is so much more that Jesus longs to give us if we can just let go?

Do you want to be made well, or just clean enough to get back in the game?

As is always the case, the choice is ours to make. Relinquish your privilege and discover the healing that truly makes us whole. Taste that wholeness, and privilege will never satisfy your soul again. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

October 9, 2016

Searching for Pablo

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 19—Year C; Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

The Pharisees and scribes, they sure are a grumbly bunch. They’ve been grumbling over the fact that Jesus heals on the sabbath, they’ve been grumbling over who’s going to sit where at the dinner, and now, they’re grumbling over who Jesus welcomes and with whom he chooses to eat. Goodness, if you’re Jesus, who would you rather eat with—the grumbly Pharisees and scribes who are obsessed with protocol or the tax collectors and sinners who are eager to listen? Jesus could simply ignore the Pharisees and scribes, but he doesn’t, he engages them and tells them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

So, how many of you relate to the sheep who is lost or to that lost coin?

And how many of you relate to the shepherd who goes after that one lost sheep or that woman who sweeps and searches for that one lost coin?

Which is it easier to be—the seeker or the sought after?

How many of you relate to being both? At one time or another, most of us will walk in all of these shoes.

I haven’t lost a sheep, but in February 2001, we did lose a dog. It was an accident. We’d hosted a youth group event at our house and someone left the gate open. Both of our dogs jumped at the opportunity to roam the neighborhood. We couldn’t find them that night. The next morning, we searched high and low, and we got Heidi, the older dog, back. But our younger guy, Pablo, he was nowhere to be found. We searched and searched. We printed up fliers and we put them in hundreds mailboxes. We cried at night and our hearts ached. Pablo was special; he was our engagement dog. Then began this ritual. Three times a week for the next three months, I would drive the 40 minutes across town to search the kennels at animal control. I spent enormous amounts of time and energy and gas searching for that dog. But when your heart yearns, your heart yearns, and none of those rational, cost-benefit calculations matter. When you’ve lost something precious, you search for it. We never found Pablo, and to this day, I can still touch this place of yearning for him.

Losing something precious does something to us. The word for this losing is ἀπόλλυμι, and it’s intense—it carries a sense of destruction, a sense that something has perished, been destroyed, been rendered useless, it carries a sense of death and emptiness.

And when that person in the gospel passage goes after the one who is lost, the word is πορεύω, and it means “to pursue the journey on which one has entered.”

The woman who seeks for the coin, that seeking is ζητέω and embedded in this seeking is deep desire.

So, the process of losing something—it rends our heart, and it sets us on a journey, and even in the midst of our broken, aching heart, we are filled with desire for that which we have lost.

And we lose so much more than sheep or coins or even dogs. We lose someone to death. We lose a relationship. A dream gets lost. We lose a job opportunity. We lose a loved one to addiction. We lose a sense of joy or purpose or meaning. We lose the sharpness of our mind, the mobility of our body, our independence. On this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, we remember that we can lose our innocence in the blink of an eye. And I can’t get the pictures of those children in Syria out of my head and the innocence they have lost. We lose so many things, and in the losing, we become lost ourselves. Sometimes we’re the seeker, but often, we’re just lost.

God even shows us what that can look like today. God had a sense of losing the very people he loved and had brought out of Egypt, and when God loses them, God becomes enraged. And in that rage, God can’t even see his connection to his beloved people. In talking with Moses, God calls them “your people,” like they’re Moses’ people.

Moses hears God’s anguish out, but Moses gently reconnects God to what is true—“God, these are your people, you brought them out of Egypt. Yes, they’re lost, but you don’t want to destroy them; you love them.” And God changes the divine mind.

You see, sometimes in the hurt of the losing, we lose our bearings altogether and all we can feel is our separation from that which we’ve lost. And both the seeker and the sought after have to come to terms with this separation. Both have to repent. Both have to change direction. Both have to turn. God had to change God’s mind and remember the depth of connection God had, and has, with God’s people. When Jesus talks about the sinner who repents, that’s speaking to us when we’re the ones who are lost.

Unlike a sheep who doesn’t know better, or a coin who can’t choose, when we’re the lost one, we do come to a decision point—will we continue to rail against all that we have lost or will we turn and allow ourselves to be embraced, by Jesus, by God, by community. Our pride, our defenses, our grief, our sorrow, our fear—all of these can keep at bay those who would seek after us and bring us home.

It doesn’t take much. Just a gentle turning, just a small desire not to skit away when the Divine Seeker draws close, just a willingness to experience the humility that comes when you are up against the limits of your humanity and grace comes crashing through and catches you by surprise, just an openness to that great paradox that it is often when we are most lost that we discover what it is to be found in the deepest parts of our being.

And the joy of discovering that being found, even when that which we’ve lost never comes home, well, that’s a joy that’s even deeper because that’s a joy that comes, not in spite of the loss, but that comes in the very midst of the journey that the loss started in the first place. That’s that strange space we all inhabit where the losing sends us out into the wilderness, where our yearning to find that which we’ve lost eventually ignites a yearning in us to be found; it’s that sacred space where our desire as both seeker and sought after meets God’s desire as seeker and sought after. This rarely happens in the normal confines of our life; it most often happens in the wilderness when we are wandering and searching.

We can wrap ourselves in protocols. We can grumble away. But these will not protect us from loss. Sooner or later, we will lose things precious to us, and we will be lost ourselves. And, if we are faithful to the journey upon which that losing launches us, then, we will find treasure that will astound us; we will be found in ways that will shake our soul and, at the deepest level, make us new.

Make that journey, and you will understand why there is rejoicing in heaven and why that joy just has to be shared and celebrated with any and all who will gather.

It’s that deep joy that defies explanation, and be assured, the loss that gives rise to it will break your heart. But know this, without a doubt, within your broken, lost heart, desire is brewing, yearning has sent up its flare, and God has already set out to find you and bring you home. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 11, 2016

Sit in a different place

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 17—Year C; Sirach 10-12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

So, for anybody who started school this week, what did your teachers spend a lot of time doing this week? (pause) That’s right, going over norms, do’s and don’t’s, rules; they spent a lot of time talking about how the class would work. There are certain protocols that we follow to get along in this world; there’s just a certain way things work, especially when it comes to human relationships. And when we’re talking in terms of social situations, we call this etiquette. Well, this morning, Jesus goes all first century Emily Post on us—complete with instructions for the guests and the host on the occasion of a dinner party.

Jesus has been invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (this would be a person of status and significance in that community) to eat a meal on the Sabbath (on occasion of great significance), and those gathering for this affair were watching him closely.

But Jesus was watching them closely, too, and he began to notice something. He noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, and he sees that a little correction is in order. But instead of calling them out directly, he chooses a more southern approach; he opts for telling them a parable, a good ol’ fashioned story.

 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So, a little quiz for the guests. If you’re invited to a dinner party, where do you sit? Do you aim for the high place, the place of honor, or do you go low? (pause) Good, you go low.

Now, for the host. Jesus doesn’t go southern when it comes to the host; he tackles this one straight on. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

So, quiz for the host. If you are throwing a luncheon or dinner, whom do you invite, those who can repay you or those who can’t? (pause) Good, those who can’t.

So, what is Jesus driving at here? Is he really only concerned with social norms when it comes to first century dinner parties? Well, yes and no. Who you ate with in the first century could land you in a whole lot of trouble. Doggone, who you ate with in the 1960’s could also land you in a whole lot of trouble—just ask the black and white students who integrated the lunch counters across the south.

Where we sit says a lot to the world. Whom we break bread with says a lot to the world. Jesus is concerned with the whole realm of human relationships; Jesus is concerned with how we connect to one another; Jesus is concerned that we see our kinship with all of humanity, and not just with those who can further our own status. And this isn’t just about raising up the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blindthough it is about that—but this is also about the salvation of our own soul; this is also about the wholeness of our own being.

And that takes us to our passage from Sirach.

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;

the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.

For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations. Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely.

And then Sirach spells out the unheard-of calamities—overthrowing the thrones of rulers and putting the lowly in their place; plucking up nations by their toxic roots, and planting something much more humble, literally closer to the earth, in their place; nations laid waste, destroyed, removed, erased from memory. A pretty bleak picture.

And Sirach closes with a searing observation: Pride simply was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.

And where does this all begin? (pause) Not with pride, but with forsaking the Lord, withdrawing our heart from our Maker; it all begins with sin; it all begins with separation.

It’s actually a really vicious cycle—when we see ourselves as separate from God and from one another, we enter that never-ending, death-dealing cycle of comparison—“He’s just a little better than me; I’m just a little better than her.” And we start asking, “What do I need to do to improve my position? Who do I need to sit next to at lunch?” And that applies to grown-ups as much as it does to the school cafeteria. As Brené Brown says, “We start hustling for our worth,” and we forget that our worth is not on the table; we forget that our worth is not a commodity to be traded; we forget that our worth is a given, and not something we earn; it is not up for negotiation. And when we forget that our worth is our birthright as those created in the Maker’s image, then we start jockeying for position, our pride takes over, and nothing good comes of that, not as individuals, not as societies. Sirach is right, violent anger is the endpoint of this trajectory more often than not, and more separation, more sin is left in its wake.

That’s why Jesus is so concerned with where we sit and who we invite to the table. If we go for the high place, we don’t see those who sit below us because we’re too afraid that we’ll lose our position, and we certainly don’t see those who aren’t even at the table at all. When we only invite those who can repay us, then we have turned people into a means to our end. And when we can’t see the most vulnerable—the poor, the lame, the crippled, the lame—as honored guests at the table, then we haven’t begun to grasp how great and glorious and vast and deep and broad and wide God’s table is, and we will miss the essence of the feast that God longs for us to share—not just the feast of Isaiah, of well-aged wines and rich foods, but the feast of drinking deep of relationships with the whole of humanity and coming to see God gazing back at us in each and every set of eyes.

I don’t know about you, but this is a party I don’t want to miss. But if I cling to my pride; if I cling to my station, my role, my status, my position, I will do precisely that because you can’t see your connection with others when you are bent on proving you are better. For Jesus, it’s always a race to the bottom because that’s where all the trappings are stripped away and all you have left is the essence of God in you meeting the essence of God in another, and when essence touches essence, well, that, indeed, is to taste of the heavenly banquet.

So, today, Jesus is inviting us, both gently and not so gently, to think about where and how we are seeking the place of honor. Jesus is inviting us to consider whom we see and don’t see when we do that. Jesus is asking us, point blank, who is sitting at our tables? Are we dining in our own little echo chambers with people just like us? Sirach is calling us to examine those places where we have separated ourselves out from God and one another, and to see how that separation plays out as pride, and to roll that tape forward and see how pride leads to a whole lot of not good outcomes.

And then, Jesus invites us to imagine a different vision, a different table, a table of mutuality and reciprocity and connection and kinship, a table not based on repayment, but based on inherent worth and dignity and value that can’t be quantified or measured, but only enjoyed.

So, unsettling though it might be, sit in a different place,  take a seat that lives you a different view, invite somebody to lunch or dinner that would hurt your image and discover the image of the Maker in the other that has been hidden from your eyes.

Reach across the great divides that would keep us apart       in this community, in this nation, in this world—for those brave enough to try, a banquet of heavenly proportions awaits you. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

August 28, 2016