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Rejoice and join the Risen ONE!

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Easter Vigil—Year C; Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22; Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

In the beginning was chaos, and out of the chaos God pulled creation.  And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, this time enslaved by oppressive forces, and God pulled us out of the waters to our freedom. And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, this time, with hearts grown hard, and God promised to do some open heart surgery, taking out our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh so that could love again. And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, our spirits as dry and brittle as a valley of dry bones, and God promised that Divine Breath could make those bones live again. Are you getting the sense here that we human beings have a real hard time staying out of chaos? And over and over again, God dives into the depths to pull us toward life. If this past week has shown us anything, if this journey we have made from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him!” has shown us anything, it has shown us that, when it comes to chaos, God is all in.

But if tonight shows us anything, it is this—God can’t resist creating, and when we thought all was lost, that ancient song rings out, “Rejoice…this is the night, this is the night when darkness is vanquished, this is the night when the bonds of death and hell are broken, this is the night when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away…This is the night when earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God.”

We may have a homing device on chaos, but God has a homing device on us, and Jesus drank the dregs of that chaos, so that in his rising, we might find our way home. God dove into the madness and pressed it to the bottom, and just as God pitched a tent in our flesh in the incarnation of Jesus, in Jesus’s death, God pitched a tent in depths of hell, and camped out there, and filled that darkness full of Presence. Chaos has lost its grip; we are consigned to the madness no more. It’s a whole new day, unveiled in the glorious splendor of this night.

This night is “wonderful and beyond our knowing. And the waters of chaos that would overwhelm us have now become the waters of new birth. Christ is risen, and we are born anew! And our first waking cry in this newborn life can only be, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

On a night like tonight, the poets say it best. Elizabeth Rooney penned this poem called “Opening.”

Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity
For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.

Though chaos still swirls, and though we will probably find our way into it again, it will never have the power to destroy us because, this night, we are laid open to Infinity. Tonight, all creation is made new. Tonight, we cross on dry land and taste our freedom again. Tonight, our hearts of stone grow soft and tender. Tonight, our dry bones live. This is the resurrection of our Lord; we are laid open to Infinity; now nothing shelters us from God’s desire.

So, let us rejoice, and fall in love all over again; after all this time that we have spent in our respective graves, entombed in chaos, or our fear of it, it is time to join the Risen One and dance the night away. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 30, 2013

I am thirsty.

Good Friday—Community Service; John 19:28-29

Hear this scripture from John’s gospel.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

“I am thirsty,”—once again, when Jesus’ pain was more than he could bear, the words that rise up within him are the words of the psalms. Once again, Jesus moves into solidarity with us. There are times when life brings us to our knees, when words sound only like platitudes, or when words fail us altogether, there are times when only the psalms can give voice to what we really feel—anger that borders on rage, paranoia that we would otherwise be ashamed to admit, sorrow deeper than we can imagine, joy that is unspeakable, hope that is unshakeable. The full range of humanity is in the psalms, and for Jesus, as he hangs there, the psalms are the only place he has left to stand.

And psalm 69 gives voice to the place Jesus now inhabits. “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. I have come into the waters, and the torrent washes over me. I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God. Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; my lying foes who would destroy me are mighty…Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me…They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.”

This psalm is no longer just a hymn out of the tradition, but the deepest expression of Jesus’ deepest reality, but Jesus doesn’t quote the whole psalm, all he says is, “I am thirsty.”

“I am thirsty.” Thirst. It is everywhere. The people of God thirsted for water in the wilderness. The psalmist thirsts for the living God. In Isaiah, the land itself is thirsty. In Amos, God thirsts for justice; God thirsts for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. In Matthew, Jesus thirsts for righteousness and commands us to give something to drink to the least of these. In John, it is the Samaritan woman who thirsts for the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Make no mistake. We thirst. God thirsts. Jesus thirsts. For justice, for righteousness, to know the Living God, to drink of the waters that will quench our parched souls, to taste of the wellspring of life. We long to thirst no more. We, like Jesus, are thirsty. And like Jesus, so much of what is given to us to satisfy our deepest thirst is sour wine, vinegar. It doesn’t satisfy our thirst. There is only one thing that can satisfy our thirst—the Living God, the One who has already taken up residence in our flesh, the Wellspring whose waters never fail.

The waters cut both ways—the torrent of waters can overwhelm us, threaten to drown us in the deep, but if we can open up to the deep, deep thirst in our souls, we can just as easily see that torrent of waters as a waterfall of God’s love pouring down upon us. We could just as easily see those waters rising as a spring of God’s life gushing up within us. These waters could just as easily be our very salvation. Can we, on this Good Friday, admit just how thirsty we are and allow God to fill us with the waters that never fail? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 29, 2013

Why did Jesus have to die?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Good Friday—Year B; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

This past Wednesday, our children made the way of the cross in the Great Hall. At the end, we gathered and talked. One of them asked me, “Why do they call it Good Friday?” Ah, that is the question. That is always the question. I told them of a woman, years ago, who came knocking on my office door about 10:30 on Maundy Thursday night. She had been keeping vigil in this space, and she had one question for me, “Why did Jesus have to die? Why did Jesus have to die?”

All week long, we have been stepping into the shoes of different characters. Judas, Peter, the sleeping disciples, the chief priests, Pilate, the mockers and taunters and teasers, but by now, on this Good Friday, Judas is long gone with his silver, Peter has heard the cock crow, the disciples have long since fled, the chief priests have won, Pilate has washed his hands, and the rest have rolled their dice and tired of the game. There are only three characters left today—God, Jesus, and us.

 “Why did Jesus have to die?” Did Jesus have to die? Could it have gone some other way? Could it have played out any other way? I suppose it could, and probably does—God has a good many religious and spiritual traditions through which to touch the human heart. But would it have been enough? If it had played out some other way, would it have been enough? Not the enough needed to placate an angry God, but would it have been enough for us?

How else would we see all the faces of the false self unmasked than through the One who begs God to “forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”?

How else would we ever be pushed to ask that hardest of questions, “What is truth?”

How else would we ever learn what it means to yield, to truly yield?

How else would we ever see the utter insanity of the myth of redemptive violence than in the One who hangs there refusing to do violence in return? In some earlier time, in some earlier part of the drama, God might have rained down fire upon this crazed, broken humanity à la Sodom and Gommorah, but not on this day. On this day, God receives this violence, and holds it, and in that receiving and holding drains it of its life and power. As violent as we human beings are, how else would we see that Love calls us a different way?

How else would we know, know without a doubt, that there is nowhere in our human existence, nowhere in our earthly life, nowhere in the hells we inhabit, nowhere that we can go that God has not gone before us, how else would we know that than through the One who has drunk the dregs of human suffering, drained that cup completely, drained it until “it [was] finished”?

How else would we ever know God’s complete, utter, total solidarity with us in the depths of our humanity than through the One who has felt our anguish, experienced our loneliness, known our fear, tasted our abandonment, borne our despair?

How else would we ever trust that when we feel forsaken, we are not forsaken. The One who cried that awful, piercing cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”that One filled even that godforsaken place with God. How else would we know that no place, no place in our human journey is godforsaken, no place is forsaken by God, how else would we know that were it not for this day?

Why did Jesus have to die? Why do we call this Friday Good?

Because nothing else would have been enough to show us the unfathomable depths of God’s love for us.

 “Do you know how much I love you?” This is the only question God cares about. And today, this is how God answers, “Let me show you. Let me show you. Nothing else will be enough. I must show you with my flesh, with my arms stretched out, with my heart exposed. Then you will know. Then you will know. Then, it will be enough.”Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 29, 2013

What do you need to put aside on the way to your True self?

The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks: Palm Sunday—Year C; Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Are we ever ready for this day? Are we ever ready for the rollercoaster ride that takes us to the height of joy atop the Mount of Olives, a place where we can see forever and see clearly who Jesus is as the King of kings and Lord of lords, are we ever ready to go from there to the depths of despair in the Place of the Skull where Jesus meets his death, and all the twists and turns and points of decision in-between? Are we ever ready for this journey? I’m not; I doubt you are either. It always takes my breath away. It always stops me cold. And why? Because if we’re honest, we see ourselves in every last character who plays a role in this drama.

It is useless to fix blame in one place or another—was it the chief priests and leaders who killed Jesus, or Pilate, or Herod, or the soldiers who drove in the nails? That’s too easy an answer. That’s a scapegoat answer that lets the rest of us off the hook far too easily.

And let us not get derailed by chasing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement down the rabbit hole. Substitutionary atonement says that humanity was so awful that God needed a worthy sacrifice, i.e. his Son, as payment for our utter and total sinfulness. I categorically reject this doctrine, this way of understanding the cross. Let me say that again, I categorically reject the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It makes no sense to me that the God who proclaimed all of creation, us included, good and very good could ever look at us with such despise and disdain, nor can I wrap my head around how a loving Father could ever demand the sacrifice of his most beloved Son to balance some sort of equation. This doctrine came out of the feudal understanding in the Middle Ages, and it has messed us up ever since—it has messed up our understanding of God, it has messed up our understanding of Jesus, it has messed up our understanding of ourselves, and it has really messed up our understanding of this day. We can fight battles with this Middle Ages doctrine, but we are fighting straw men, and this, too, is just one more scapegoat that enables us to avoid looking at our complicity in this day. The battle with this doctrine is a deflection, and the false self likes nothing better than deflection on this day. I beg you not to get bogged down there.

No, our focus must not be deflected. We must sit with ourselves. If we are ever to understand the depth of God’s love for us, then we must understand the depths of our humanity. Who killed Jesus? All of us. Every last one of us. The collective false self of humanity is responsible for the death of this innocent man whose only crime was to love us unconditionally.

Every one of the characters shows us one more aspect of the false self.

Judas whose heart is broken because the man he had up on a pedestal, his guru, his teacher, his leader sorely disappointed him, and when the false self gets disappointed, it can lash out with a vengeance!

Peter who wants to hold fast, who wants to be brave, but who ultimately cannot bear the risk of association. Have you ever not stood by a friend when the tide turned? Have you ever denied your deepest truths to save face? The false self hates to be exposed, and it will deny “ever knowing the man” to keep safe, to stay secure.

The Chief Priests and Scribes and Leaders—oh, they are not bad people; they are “caught” people. They have spent their lifetimes working out the rules by which to live a holy and honorable life. As Cynthia Bourgeault points out, they have figured out the roadmaps for themselves and for their people; they took their bearings from received tradition, using the past to interpret the present. The only problem is that Jesus didn’t conform to their roadmaps—and given that choice, they chose their roadmaps over their hearts. They would rather Jesus die than change their roadmaps. Oh, the false self loves to know the way, loves to have a roadmap, because roadmaps equal control and predictability. The false self will do anything, anything to keep those roadmaps from becoming obsolete; the false self simply cannot relinquish control and the predictability that comes with it.

Pilate. Pilate is a tragic figure. He is a mid-level manager. He’s got to keep the powers-that-be above him happy, and he’s got to keep the crowds below him happy. And he will sacrifice his own integrity, his own wisdom, his own truth rather than upset the apple cart. The false self cannot afford to disappoint anyone. The false self will do anything to keep the peace. Better for one man to die than to spiral into the chaos of the disappointed expectations of others.

And there are the others all along the way. Bystanders, soldiers, nameless faces in the crowd who jump on the groupthink train—mocking, teasing, insulting, taunting, ultimately calling for this man to die. The false self loves the energy of a crowd; the false self loves the adrenalin of anger and rage. The false self loves a good scapegoat because if something else dies, its life is preserved.

There are those who love Jesus but just can’t stay to the end. The false self just doesn’t have staying power. At least not when it matters.

But even on this day, even on this awful day, the True Self will not be denied presence. The True Self keeps peeking through the darkness. Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross, the Daughters of Jerusalem who beat their breasts in grief, the Centurion who could see beyond his role to the truth, Joseph of Arimathea who will ensure honor to the end, the women, the Women from Galilee, who just won’t leave and keep vigil with spices and ointments. The false self lives inside of us, but so does the True Self who can carry burdens beyond our imaginings, who can risk the exposure of honest grief, who refuses to cede dignity away, who simply can sit vigil in the most painful of circumstances, and who one week from now, will know how to rise.

So, today is about confronting the depths of our humanity and our great capacity for brokenness, for evil, and for untold good. Today is about coming to terms with the totality of our self—our false self and the parts of us that are forever anchored in the True Self. When Jesus stretches out his arms, he holds it all—he holds every last aspect of our humanity, and holds it, and holds it, and he forgives it, and he loves it. He loves the false self until it is secure enough that it is willing to die, so that we can be born anew.

Make no mistake, this journey is painful, unbelievably painful, but such is the price of admission to resurrected life. Don’t miss this journey. It will be worth it—I promise you that. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 24, 2013

Beyond the Wilderness

Cynthia K.R. Banks. Lent 3—Year C; Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

I love Lent. There is something in this season that appeals immensely to my reflective soul. I love to look deep within, I love the notion of stripping away layers, I love the image of the wilderness because it fits where life sometimes takes us—times when you’re in unfamiliar territory, seasons when things are baffling, places that feel desolate, dynamics that you have to sort out for yourself. The wilderness. I love the wilderness stories, whether it’s the one we hear today, or the Israelites who keep going around in circles unable to find their way out of it, or the one where Jesus wrestles with the voices of the False Self—the wilderness and the people of God just seem to go together.

But today’s story takes us beyond the wilderness. Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt yourself to be beyond the wilderness? That sounds a little scarier to me. That’s a place where even the familiar outlines of the unfamiliar wilderness give way to something else. This is truly unchartered territory. There are no landmarks here. No signs by which to chart your progress. This is a place of total nothingness. You are flying blind. Moses led his flock to this place. Most of us don’t go so willingly. Like the tornado that dumps you into Oz or the Island of Avalon that is only found through the mists or the land of Narnia that is only entered by falling through the wardrobe. Most of us don’t intentionally set out to go beyond the wilderness—it is a place where we land; it is a place we tumble into.

And strange things happen when you are out beyond the wilderness. Already in a state of disorientation, you can start to see things, strange things. For Moses, an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and that bush was blazing, yet it wasn’t consumed. Now, don’t go and try to figure out the scientific laws around this—you are beyond the wilderness and the normal laws of this world just don’t apply. It completely captivated Moses. He didn’t know anything else, but he knew he had to turn aside and look at this great sight. And yes, the why of it gave him pause—“Why isn’t this bush burned up???” And the pause was all God needed. As soon as Moses paused, the angel of the LORD becomes God Godself. When God saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Three little words that have been the response of people to God throughout our sacred history. Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Mary. They all uttered these same three words…“Here I am.” Sometimes we think that answering God’s call is about saying an unequivocal “yes,” but before it is about saying “yes” it is about being here, being fully present, acknowledging that an encounter, that a relationship is in the making, right here, right now. God calls your name, and all you can say is “Here I am.” That’s where it all begins, and that changes everything. When you acknowledge the voice that has called you, and you agree to stay put in the presence of that voice, then the ground shifts beneath your feet; it becomes holy ground. In fact, God told Moses, “Come no closer, take off your shoes, you are standing on holy ground.”

God went on to tell Moses a little about Godself—namely that God had been around for a long, long time and had been in relationship with God’s people for a long, long time. Moses realized that this was like God—like the God he had been hearing about in the stories of his ancestors, like God. And from what he had heard, you didn’t much try to look at that God. But God looked past all of that.

God had far too much to communicate to get hung up on Moses’ projections about the nature of God. God had Moses’ attention, and that’s all God needed.

Now, God had some real specific things that God wanted Moses to do, namely go to Pharaoh and get Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God had observed their misery, had heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, God knew their sufferings, and God was determined not to keep distance from all that pain. “I have come down to deliver them from oppression and to bring them up to a good land. Oh, and Moses, you are the flesh that I am going to embody to do it.” Incarnation didn’t just start with Jesus—God has been taking on flesh in God’s people since the beginning of time.

Moses, of course, resists—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I’ll be with you.”

“Well, what if I say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they like say, ‘What is his name?’ what am I supposed to tell them? Hmmm?” You can almost hear a little bit of attitude in Moses—oh, resistance puts on such a brave face.

But Moses’ question gave God pause…you can almost see God thinking, “What is my name? Hmmm, how do I want to be known? Ah, presence. Sheer presence. Total mystery. Not to be contained in a box. Not to be defined in a human definition. A name that represents that which can only be experienced—Got it! I AM Who I AM. That’s it. Tell them ‘I AM has sent me to you’…This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. My name is ‘I AM,’ now, spend the rest of your life figuring out what that means.”


So, how does call work for you? The Bible is full of call stories. And the people whom God calls are not special people. They are from all walks of life, they are infinitely human, they have feet of total clay, there is nothing special about them, some of them are way out beyond the wilderness. The only requirement is to be willing to pause at an unusual sight. The only requirement is to be open to a voice that calls your name—it may be an external voice; it may be an internal voice. The only requirement is to stay put and engage the voice, to say, “Here I am.”

And that voice may call you to do something way beyond your capacity to imagine—like free the Israelites or reform the church, take on environmental degradation, end hunger, stop violence against women and girls. That voice may call you to go into the heart of some oppression that is the last place you want to go (think about it, did Moses really want to go back to Egypt where he was wanted for murder?), that voice may send you to an immensely uncomfortable place, that voice may send you to work to bring someone or something that is enslaved into a place of freedom, to bring them into a good land.

Or, that voice may call you to reach out to someone who sits across from you at your kitchen table, or who lives across the street, or who sits in the next cubicle, or at the other end of the pew. The suffering can be big and societal and global, or the suffering can be intimate and personal and close. Are we willing to allow our eye to be caught by a look spoken between the lines or a story on the news? Are we willing to pause long enough for the voice to have a chance to speak to our hearts? Are we willing to say, “Here I am,” or do we just want to keep moving on?

But there’s also good news, if we are willing to say “Here I am,” and then move from “Here I am” to “I will go”—God promises to be with us.

And just to be clear, full disclosure here, if you say the “yes” that comes after “here I am,” you will never be able to explain that voice to anybody. Try to explain I AM Who I AM to somebody. All you will be able to do is to invite people to experience it—to experience the power of its love, its compassion, its mercy, and its fierce desire to liberate those who are suffering. There is a lot of mama bear energy in this God. Are we willing to allow the possibility that God just might be calling us and longing to infuse us with that energy for the sake of the world?

I AM Who I AM isn’t just a name—it is an invitation to be in a relationship with the Holy Mystery who is woven into every aspect of existence and who longs for all of creation to thrive. That God is here. I AM is here. I AM is calling. It doesn’t matter if you are out beyond the wilderness, if you can turn aside and look, if you can pause long enough to listen, you just might find that that place beyond the wilderness has become holy ground. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 3, 2013

Heed the prophet’s cry

Cynthia K.R. Banks; Lent 2—Year C; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Oh, Jerusalem is so many things. Jerusalem is a complicated place. When I was there in the summer of 1993, I would sit on the steps in the Old City looking out over the Temple Mount, and from that spot, you could see so many things—the Western Wall where Jews gather to pray and slip little pieces of paper bearing their prayers in the cracks between the stones, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque which sit atop the Temple Mount—sites holy to Muslims where they would go to say their prayers, you’d see Christians walking the Via Dolorosa, the way of grief and suffering that Jesus walked as he carried his cross. At that spot in the Old City, you could close your eyes and hear Jewish folk music, and the minaret calling the Muslims to prayer, and the bells tolling at the Church of the Holy Selpuchre, calling Christians to worship at the church that marks the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and you heard all of these at the same time. Jerusalem is a complicated place, and that is just the cultural and religious complexity. There is also the political complexity over the status of Jerusalem and how it figures into a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. And Jerusalem was no less complicated in the time of Jesus.

It was the center of everything. The Temple was there. It was where Jews went for the great festivals. It was where the teachers taught and sacrifices were made and sins were atoned for. It was where the religious and political elite commingled. This was the place of the insiders. If you were to ask them how Jerusalem was doing, they’d probably say, “Just fine.” It was working well for them. They were the Washington Insiders of their day.

Except all was not fine. The lifegiving religion of the Jews was in terrible need of reform. They had lost the forest for the trees. As Jesus went about his ministry, he kept bumping into this religious rigidity. Just earlier in this chapter, he had healed a woman bent over, crippled for 18 years, and he was in plenty of hot water with the leader of the synagogue. Do you know why? What was his offense? He healed her on the sabbath. Or, a few verses later, someone asked him if only a few would be saved. What would motivate such a question? Jesus’ answer was that people should strive to enter through the narrow door, for many will try to enter and will not be able. And he goes on to say that those that think they know him, don’t, and that those folks will be surprised when they see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and not themselves. Even more, people will stream in from the east and west, from the north and south, and some who are last will be first and some are first who will be last. So, maybe the narrow door is about living with a generous, open spirit, holding a space for the last in society, when the pious folk have room only for a few.

All was not fine. The prophets had known for some time that good worship was meaningless if the poor were getting trampled, and the poor were indeed getting trampled. The prophets knew that religion was failing if the people only experienced greater and greater burden. And from the looks of the crowds that were following Jesus, begging to be healed, the burden was heavy indeed. The prophets kept trying to say to Jerusalem, “It’s not okay. Something is seriously out-of-whack.” But all Jerusalem could say in return was, “It’s fine. It’s working for us.” To heed the prophets would be to admit the need for change, from the top down and from the inside out. It was easier to lay burdens on people, spiritually and financially, than to risk changing. And so the prophets were silenced, people suffered, and the religious and political elite kept right on with business as usual.

In today’s scene, some Pharisees come to warn Jesus, “Get out of here. Herod wants to kill you.” Herod had already killed his cousin John, so this threat is a serious one. Jesus isn’t scared. “Go tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I’m casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and I’ll finish on the third day. But today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Herod ruled in Galilee, and if he wanted Jesus dead, well that was just tough. Jesus had bigger fish to fry—casting out demons that were destroying people, healing people who needed healing, and heading on down to Jerusalem. It was time to take his message of love and compassion and mercy and grace into the heart of it all. Jesus was no fool; he knew prophets had never fared well there, but he also knew that Jerusalem was the heart, and if the heart was sick, then the whole body couldn’t heal.

Jesus wants to gather folks together, just like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But the people were not willing, and Jesus isn’t about to force them. He says, “See, your house is left to you. You can have your Temple. You can have the outer trappings of your faith, but I won’t be satisfied until I change the heart of it, but I also cannot take you somewhere you do not wish to go.”

God is infuriating that way. God refuses to coerce us; God refuses to force us into the way that will bring us life. All the prophet can do is proclaim what is not right, and point us toward the way of justice and holiness and life, but it is left to us to change it. All Jesus can do is live a life of compassion and love and mercy, and by the sheer opposition he encountered from good religious folk, reveal how truly lost the religion of his day had become.

So, I think this story is working on two levels today. First, where is our communal Jerusalem? Maybe it really is Washington D.C., or maybe it is within our own town, or maybe it is within our own religious tradition. Where are those places in our civic life or in our religious culture that are saying, “It’s just fine,” when all indicators are saying, “It’s not fine at all.” Where are those places where it is working for some, but not for others? Who are the prophets that are crying out? Are we hearing their voices, or are we silencing them with our indifference? We may not actively stone them; I think our way is much more subtle and passive—in fact, I’m not even sure there is space in our world to hear the prophet’s cry to begin with; I think we are far too distracted to get even that far. Are we content to have our dysfunctional structures stay the same, to be “left to our house” so to speak, because it’s just much easier to stay within the structures we have than looking deep within the heart of our society or our religion and letting Jesus set right what has gone so far astray. Because if we let Jesus have his way, some who are last are going to move forward and some who have been on top are going to have to yield. Are we willing to be disoriented as Jesus, working through us, makes our world new?

So, there’s the communal level. But I think this also works on an individual level. Where is that complicated place inside of us—that place that is all jumbled up inside, filled with competing voices, including the one who continues to proclaim, “It’s fine. This is working for us.” Who are the prophetic voices inside of us that are trying to call attention to what is amiss, that are trying to tell us, “This is not what I made you for—I don’t intend for you to be this harried, this anxious, this fearful, this stressed, this burdened, this angry, this…fill in the blank. I made you for joy and love and abundance and freedom.” The truth is, we all have a Jerusalem living inside of us, a place of immense complexity with competing interests, all of which have a claim to space, all of which have the potential for incredible holiness and all of which can lose the forest for the trees. And if we can get still enough and quiet enough, we all have a prophet who is willing to call us back to the path of life, who longs to call us back to the way of God, who longs to gather us under his wing and shield us so that we can get our bearings again.

Lent is that time to take stock, to look at the complexity that exists within us and beyond us. To see where it has gone off the rails, in our world, in ourselves. Lent is a time to heed the prophet’s cry, to see what is not fine, to acknowledge what is not working for us, as individuals and as a society.

Jesus refuses to force us to go where we are unwilling to go—it is always an invitation—but that won’t keep him from clucking and calling us to take shelter under his wings. If the prophet’s cry is too faint for you to hear, just take a step toward the clucking, and rest a while there. We’re going to need our strength if we are ever to stand up to the foxes, both the ones out in the world and the ones in our own hearts. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 24, 2013

One __________ (what??) at a time.

Lent 1—Year C — Cynthia K. R. Banks
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

You gotta love God. God has just declared to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” and the very first perk of being so well-beloved is a 40 day tour of the wilderness complete with fasting. It is not the devil who leads Jesus there, but the Spirit—the same Spirit who filled him at baptism is the one responsible for this wilderness sojourn. And for forty days, he was tempted and tested by the devil. We don’t know the exact nature of that testing; the only thing we know is that by the end, he was really, really hungry. And here is where the story picks up today. Three more tests.

“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Now, if you haven’t eaten for 40 days, how is this sounding to you? Sounds pretty appealing to me. This is the temptation of the expedient, the quick-fix. The devil is hitting Jesus at his most vulnerable place—the place of his hunger. For what do you hunger, and what are you tempted to do to meet that hunger? What are you willing to compromise of the long-term to fix the short-term? How does our short-sightedness compromise our vision? Jesus feeds on the sacred text in his answer—“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ Sometimes, we need to look beyond that most pressing need we feel to see how God might be feeding us in a deeper way, a broader way. Yes, we need the bread, but we also need many other things to thrive. We need love, and to know that someone cares. We need to know what it means to be beloved and to feel in our bones that God is well-pleased with us.

The devil is persistent. He took Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory, and all this authority…If you, then, will worship me; it will all be yours.” This is the temptation of the spectacular; this is the lure of power and control which Cynthia Bourgeault names as one of the pillars that props up the False Self. “Jesus, think of what you could do if all the kingdoms of the world were under your control. You could solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. You could end the civil war in Syria. You could take care of extremist factions in Iraq or Afghanistan. You could solve the pollution in India. You could end gridlock in Washington D.C. You could do so much,” cries the False Self. Do you ever hear the False Self whispering such things in your ear? But if we have to sell our soul to the devil, literally, to achieve this, the price is just too high.

Now this is hard for Episcopalians; we don’t often talk so directly about the devil, but if we can think about the devil as shorthand for the diabolical, then we can begin to make sense of this. The diabolical literally means, “to throw apart.” If we are not connected to the True Self, if the False Self is running the show, our work may be good for a time, but eventually, the ego’s need for power and control will turn in a diabolical direction. Eventually, our good motives will give way to dualisms. If I have a notion of original sin, it is this, that when I seek to do good, if I am not securely anchored in God, it just seems to turn in directions that aren’t lifegiving. I don’t know why this is; I only know that this is what always seems to happen.

Tempting though it is, Jesus is not willing to allow himself to be thrown out of Presence. He is not willing to allow himself to be grounded anywhere else—the only place he is willing to stand is in the heart of God. And so, he replies to the devil, again quoting sacred text, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’

Boy, the devil then doubles down. He took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple (that’s the highest spot in Jerusalem), and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Oh, this temptation is a full-on assault, and subtle too. Not only is the devil now appealing to the sacred text, just like Jesus does (talk about perils of proof-texting—you really can twist the Bible to incredibly destructive ends), but the devil is doing it in such a way so as to challenge the very relationship that Jesus has with God.

The first two temptations are asking Jesus to do some action, but this third temptation is pressing Jesus on his faith in God to do something on Jesus’ behalf—namely keep him safe and secure. “Jesus, do you really believe God will be there for you? Then prove it. If you have enough faith, then no harm will come to you. If you really are a beloved Son, like you say you are, then nothing bad will happen to you.” Oh, this is the temptation of security on steroids. This hits another pillar of the False Self—safety, security, and survival. The fundamental question, “Will I be okay?” combined with our insecurity around our identity. Does Jesus really believe he is a beloved Son? Do we? And if we do believe it, what do we think that means? Do we believe that if God really loves us, and we really love God that no harm will ever come to us?

Jesus won’t even engage the devil on this one. He simply answered, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’In other words, “Enough, devil. You haven’t a clue as to what being a beloved of God means. This is not some kind of cosmic game of chicken that we play daring God to pull us out of harm’s way at the last second. There are no promises here of a pain-free life. The promise is not that won’t suffer, or even die; the promise is that death will not have the final word, and the word we have for that, dear devil, is resurrection.”

And when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Hmmmm. Until an opportune time. The whole dynamic of temptation is not a one-and-done thing. Temptation is an ongoing dynamic in our lives. Tests come. The diabolical is still out there trying to throw us apart, trying to throw us out of Presence. Call it the devil, call it evil, call it sin, call it brokenness, call it a dynamic generated by our limited humanity, call it a lack of enlightenment or vision or consciousness. Whatever “it” is, we still have to wrestle with “it.”

Coming off of two weeks in India, I would say that one of the temptations I wrestle with is the temptation of despair. The problems seem so overwhelming. It is tempting to look for the expedient, the quick-fix, especially if it could feed those who have no food. It is tempting to look for who might have the power and control and then to do whatever it takes to marshal those resources toward meeting the needs—to do something on a spectacular scale. It is tempting to say, “If God really loved these people, then God would do something.”

But the way of Jesus is the way of resurrection. One child at a time. One sewing training center at a time. One old-age feeding program at a time. One microfinance loan at a time. One cow at a time. One well at a time. It is not quick. It is not expedient. It is not spectacular. It is not always successful. Some girls leave the child development programs and return to their families only to be given away in marriage at age 12. And yet, who knows what seeds were planted in that child’s time with these people who loved her as the beloved daughter of God that she is? Who knows how those seeds might grow and how that girl might draw on that love to sustain her years down the road when life is hard. Once you know you are a beloved of God, you can’t ever not know it again—you might lose touch with it, but the fact remains, this is who you are; this is who you are made to be. The diabolical may try to separate you from this truth, but today reminds us, the devil is no match for Jesus. And for the last two weeks, I have seen the fruits of what happens when you stare destructive forces in the face and say, “God’s love is stronger.”

Temptations and tests will come, but Jesus goes before us. He will show us the way. It won’t be quick; it won’t be glitzy; it won’t be spectacular; it may even look to the world like death, but in this you can rest secure, resurrection will not be denied. In the end, love wins all—one beloved child of God at a time. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 17, 2013

Jim Poole – Celebration of Life and Ministry

Celebration of Life and Ministry of James Robert Poole III
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 139:1-17; II Corinthians 4:16-5:9; John 14:1-6

James Robert Poole III, known lovingly by us just as “Jim.” Husband, father, stepfather, father-in-law, grandfather, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, beloved friend. He was woven into all of our lives.

Born in 1942, he served his country for twelve years in the United States Air Force. Anyone who talked with Jim knew that this service was hugely significant in his life. He loved his time in the Air Force. He loved to fly. I don’t share that love; I generally white knuckle take-off and landing, and fully expect the plane to drop out of the sky in-between, but for Jim, it was sheer delight. There was something up there that set his soul free, and that passion would remain with him long after he could no longer fly.

After his term in the military, he served for 30 years as a US Postal Service City Mail Carrier here in Boone. Now for Jim, being a postal carrier wasn’t just about delivering the mail, but it was a ministry of friendship. And the people on his route still talk about how they loved to see him coming up the walk. There is a great picture out in the Great Hall that captures his joy in this work perfectly.

I always ask the family for any remembrances they might have. I knew Jim through this community, but there is always something I learn from those who knew him in ways that I didn’t.

Cathy and Laura shared this story with me: “Our father was a man who loved to learn things. He was always interested. He liked to share his curiosity with us, and he taught us a lot. He took the time to explain things, even if we didn’t understand. He let us explain things to him. He encouraged our learning and reading in many ways. When our family TV broke, instead of fixing it, he spent the next few months reading us The Hobbit in the evenings. He took us camping several times, made an orange Julius on our birthdays, and told wonderful stories of his own adventures. Probably the most memorable event we connect with him happened in 1981. The Space Shuttle Columbia had lifted into space that year for the first time. Dad always loved to fly, and he was fascinated with space travel and exploration (both real and fictional). He knew the Space Shuttle program was a new era, and he pulled us out of school and drove down to Florida so we could see it lift off for ourselves. We were crammed into a little two-door Honda Civic, trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic with all the other people who wanted to see it. The engine overheated, and in 90°F weather, Dad had to turn on the heater full blast; he was miserable and dripping with sweat. But we made it, pulled off the highway, and watched the Columbia lift off. He even let us take the pictures, which were mostly just of the smoke column. Unforgettable.”

When I asked Cinda, she simply said, “He was a wonderful brother.” She went on to tell of a time when she was in Jr. High School and had done something that was just humiliating for her. Jim was in his first year of college. He told his sister, “If I didn’t make a fool of myself at least once a day, I’d think I was sick.” He hit the mark just right with what a Jr. High School girl needed to hear.

And Marye told me of Jim’s joys: his time in the Air Force, flying, bird watching, and travel. He loved geologic formations and the glaciers and lava flows (again, check out the pictures!). He had a passion for reading military history and telling “the postman and the apple pie” joke—I don’t know that one, but I have a feeling that someone can fill me in at the reception. And Jim was a fine, fine woodworker, a gift he shared with his brother Tom. Jim was a perfectionist when it came to his woodworking; he was precise, and he made beautiful, beautiful things. One of the last pieces he made was this smaller altar that now holds his body. Somehow, it makes sense that a life that was poured out in so many ways now rests on an altar—maybe this is what it means to make our lives a living sacrifice, an offering to God, whether in service to one’s country or in the daily rhythm of the mail route, or in relishing the beauty of birds, or the wonders and magnificence of God’s handiwork in creating geologic formations. All of it is an offering.

I will remember Jim for the twinkle in his eye, his kind smile, his sense of humor, his wonderful laugh, his encouragement and support, and his love of this community. He told me more than once about how St. Luke’s had prayed him through some hard times, most especially after his airplane accident. You, dear people of God, meant so much to him.

Jim also had his hard times. Jim was no stranger to loss, painful loss, in a multitude of ways. It would have been easy to lose heart altogether, but Jim didn’t. In our passage from II Corinthians, Paul says this: We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Paul understands so well how hard the journey in this life could be. The reality is the last several years of Jim’s life were hard. This was an active, vibrant, fiercely independent man. You don’t fly missions in Vietnam if you don’t have a good strong dose of fierce independence. And the disease he had was robbing him of that vitality, robbing him of the things in life that he loved doing—I remember when he could no longer work with wood and when travel became difficult and how hard that was. Over the last few years, he and I would talk about the spiritual challenges that had been thrust upon him—we talked about the challenge of letting go, of what it might mean to relinquish control, of how hard it is to yield; we talked about making peace with limitations. Truth be told, these are spiritual tasks that will come to all of us, and usually they don’t come to us on our terms or on our time table. I watched Jim struggle with all these. His fierce independence fought the limitations that were increasingly a part of his daily life. But it’s hard for a man who has touched the sky to be grounded so firmly to the earth.

This disease was costly, to Jim, and to all those who loved him. And these losses aren’t just from the last two weeks stemming from his most immediate injury and death, but it is a grief that has been building for years. As the disease progressed, Marye lost her husband, bit by bit by bit. Having lost one brother to this disease, Cinda watched it rob another brother of his vitality. Cathy and Laura watched their father’s world that knew no limits become a very small orbit. Had Jim lived, I think the next leg of this journey would have been so hard for him. I think the progression of his disease would have been so very hard for him. I know you all had to make some really tough decisions these past two weeks, but at least, he now has been spared what would certainly have been an even more devastating decline.

There has been nothing about this journey that has been easy for anyone, and my prayer for all of you is that God’s infinite mercy and compassion can surround you and hold you and console your aching hearts. Please, open your hearts to the love that is pouring toward you, from God and from this community. You are all in need of it—please drink it in.

But just as we can’t ignore the struggle of these last several years, so also, we cannot ignore the promises of our faith articulated so well by Paul. Even while Jim’s outer nature was wasting away, his inner nature was being renewed, maybe even at a level of which he himself was not aware. His affliction was real, but so too is the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure that now is his. His earthly tent has been destroyed, but he has a building from God, a house not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens—and can’t you see Jim checking out that handiwork right now! He has been groaning in his earthly tent, longing to be clothed anew. He has been groaning under his burden, but now his mortal body has been swallowed up by LIFE.

Whatever was in his way, whatever brokenness he had in his body, in his heart, in his mind, in his spirit—it is all done away with now. He lives now in the communion of saints in absolute wholeness; he is free to live in a way that he hasn’t been able to in a long, long time. Back straight, tremor gone, fully engaged, heart and soul wide-open, enjoying the feast of all feasts, catching up with Tom and Jamie and a whole host of others. And don’t you just know that Jim is just loving all those dwelling places in the Father’s house that Jesus speaks of? Just think, all those places where Jim can deliver mail. Since that first taste of flying, Jim has been trying to touch heaven—now, he has broken through to the other side. And though we grieve and miss him mightily, when we go out and look at the vastness of that great and glorious sky that he loved, he will be very, very near.

So, as we gather today, may we remember Jim in the fullness of his life, and not just the latter days of his disease, may we look forward to experiencing him in the wholeness that now is his, and may we know that we are held close by God even as we grieve.

The psalmist says, “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there you hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.” Jim has taken the wings of the morning and climbed up to heaven, and though we will miss him, he is God’s—always has been, and will be forevermore. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 16, 2013

How will you speak the Good News?

Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C — Cynthia K. R. Banks
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

To be human is to compare. C’mon, admit it, do you look at your neighbor and say, “I am smarter than him,” or “I’m not as smart as him.” Or “I am better off than her,” or “I sure don’t have it as good.” We are always measuring ourselves over against our neighbor, sometimes coming off better, sometimes coming off worse. It’s just what we do.

So, we have a body with all these parts. Which is the best? Which is the most important? Is there one part that captures the essence of the body? Like, say, a hand or an eye. And then, if you’re not a hand or an eye, like say you’re a foot or an ear, well, do you not belong to the body? Are you any less a part of the body? I mean, if the whole body is just one big eye, where would the hearing be? Or if the whole body was one big ear, if the whole body were hearing, well, where would the sense of smell be? If all were a single member, one isolated aspect, where would the body be? And how functional would it be?

But as it is, God didn’t make us that way, as individual human beings, nor as communities.

As it is, our bodies all have many members, arms and legs and eyes and ears and noses and smelly feet and beautiful hands—all kinds of parts, yet it’s one body. And one part can’t look at another part and say, “I have no need of you.” In fact, St. Paul goes to great pains and many euphemisms to explain that our less respectable, our less honorable parts—we will just go with that Old Testament euphemism and call them “feet”—are treated with greater respect and clothed with greater honor. There is no dissension here, no casting out as useless. Every member has the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. If the foot hurts, the whole body aches. If the shoulder heals, the whole body feels good and light. This is how the body works.

It’s also how we work as a community because we are the Body of Christ. Every single one of you is needed in this body. Every single one of you has a unique contribution to make. None of you is superfluous. None of you is an extra that can be tossed aside. The body isn’t complete without you. By the same token, the body is less of what it is meant to be if you opt out.


And when we jump this image up to the community level, this is also true. We don’t do so well as individual members running around trying to be complete bodies in and of ourselves. It’s why trying to live our Christian faith by ourselves usually leaves us feeling diminished. We can read books and learn about Christ on our own. We can do our individual practices quite in isolation. But the truth is, you show me what God looks like in the flesh. You mirror a part of God that I can’t read about in books; I can only experience it by living in relationship with you. You have some gift that I need in my life, and I have some gift that you need. If we have no way to receive and extend those gifts, we are the poorer for it. No one person has everything they need to make their way in this world; we have to find our way together.

And when it comes to this Body of Christ that we call the church, there are no special gifts or powers—ordained is not more elevated than not ordained, Altar Guild is no more special than lectors, crucifers no more special than torchbearers. St. Paul names all kinds of gifts and roles in the church, but in the end, he tells us to strive for the greater gifts. What do you think those gifts are? We will hear more about them next week, but for now, we can just name them—faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

And here’s a really cool thing. In today’s gospel, Jesus really puts flesh and blood on this metaphor, this image that St. Paul has given us. Jesus is preaching his very first sermon. I remember preaching my first sermon, and I was a wreck. I didn’t sleep the whole night before. But Jesus has just come off of a 40 day body cleanse in the wilderness, and he is full of spirit, physically and spiritually. He is pumped. He goes back to his hometown synagogue, and he stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Oh, man. Good stuff. There’s good stuff in Isaiah.

But before we get to that, tell me, in world’s eyes, who is treated as inferior? Who is treated with less respect? The poor, those in prison, those who can’t see or who have some other sort of disability, those who have no voice, no power, no status, those who are in debt. Jesus says, “Not so in my body.” Jesus unrolled that scroll of Isaiah, and he ran his eyes over that text until he found a particular passage. And with this passage, Jesus let it be known that there are no inferior, less respectable members in his body. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The very people that the world treats like dirt, Jesus lifts up as those upon whom God showers blessing. Those who are so often overlooked and invisible, Jesus proclaims as necessary to the whole enterprise of being human. To the extent these members of the body are not valued, the whole body, including you, including me, is diminished and incomplete.

So, there is a call in all of this. What are the parts of ourselves that we have banished, that we have relegated to an inferior place because we have deemed these parts of ourselves less respectable? Today, Jesus says, “It’s time to speak some good news to those banished parts. It is time to release them, to recover them, to free them. It is jubilee, which means those parts of us get to come out into the light and start anew.”

And, who in the world around us, who is overlooked? Who is relegated to an inferior place? Who is not treated with respect? When Jesus finished reading that scroll from Isaiah, he rolled it up, and handed it back to the attendant, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “In your hearing.” The hearing is a member of the body, the body is one; it takes the whole body to do the work. This scripture is fulfilled among us. Jesus has handed this scripture to us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. God has anointed us. How will we speak good news to those who are invisible, and cast aside, and who are treated as inferior and given no respect? How will we release them from the prisons that entrap them? How will we help them recover? How will we set them free? How will we help to bring about jubilee, that time when debts are forgiven, and we all get to start over again?

The body is diminished until the whole body thrives. Today, we must claim our connection to every aspect of our being—heart, body, mind, and spirit—and we must claim our connection to every member of Christ’s body, which, according to John 1, includes the whole human family“and the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth…for God so loved the world…”

Today, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is handed to you. How will it be fulfilled in your hearing, and how will you help this fulfillment to be heard in the world? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 27, 2013

Will you let Jesus change you?

Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C, Cynthia K. R. Banks
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

If you are a child, has your parent ever tried to get you to do something that you did not want to do? Did you bow, and say, “Yes mother, yes father, I would love to do that?”—I know that’s how it goes in our house—or did you resist, just a bit. If you are a parent, have you ever tried to get your child to do something they did not want to do? Did you meet a willing and cooperative spirit, or did you hit a wall of resistance? Isn’t it nice to know that Jesus and his mother had their moments?

So, there was this wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his friends had also been invited to the wedding. Apparently, it was quite the event, and a good bit of food and drink were consumed. When the wine gave out, Jesus’ mom called him over, “Uh, Jesus, they have no wine.” That’s code for “get more wine.” He doesn’t want to, so he deflects, and with a bit of attitude, too, “Woman,” (How’s that going to go if you call your mother, ‘Woman’? Not so good in my house.) “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? Not my problem, mom; not yours either.” She ignores him, turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Oh man! Now it’s back on Jesus. What’s a son to do?

Well, there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, just standing there. Each one of those jars held 20-30 gallons of water, that’s like 120-180 gallons of water. So, Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim, maybe even squeezed an extra gallon into each of them. Then Jesus said, “Now draw some out and take it to the chief steward”—he was the guy in charge of the reception, so running out of wine was not a good thing for him. So the servants took the wine to the steward, and when he tasted it, oh my gosh. He called the bridegroom over and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then when the guests have drunk enough that they don’t know any better, they bring out the cheap stuff, but you have kept the good wine until now.”

So, what’s this story about? Is it about a wedding? We might think that was the primary purpose because this story is woven into the introduction of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer, so we reference this story every time we do a wedding.

Is it about performing a miracle? Is about proper etiquette and not getting by on the cheap with your guests? Is it about discerning palates who could even tell the difference between good wine and inferior wine? Is it about a mom showing off her son? Is it about a mother-son standoff which the mother wins—chalk one up for the parents?

Or is it about something else altogether?


I got to thinking this week about those stone jars that hold the water. They don’t just hold any water. I mean these aren’t stone jars holding drinking water for the guests; they are there to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. Jesus could have chosen other vessels; he could have chosen troughs of water for the animals, surely some of those were around, but he chose these vessels. He chose vessels that weren’t used for anything other than the Jewish rites of purification. So if you had come to the wedding and were ritually impure, like you had come into contact with a dead body or certain types of dead animals, including insects and lizards, or had a certain skin condition, or any number of conditions that women might experience throughout the month or throughout their life, or if you had mildew on your clothes, or any number of other situations that seem a bit odd to us, then you would cleanse yourself with water from these jars to restore yourself to a ritually pure state. And this was so important because to be ritually impure was to be isolated and set apart from the community. These are the vessels that Jesus tells the servants to fill with water which he then changes into wine.

Jesus is signaling something important here that will become abundantly evident throughout the gospels. Jesus has no interest in maintaining codes of purity. Jesus has no interest in maintaining divisions and “this-person-is-more-in-the-community-than-that-person” attitudes. Jesus has no interest in perpetuating criteria for exclusion. Over and over, Jesus will upturn the purity code of his tradition, just like he will turn over the tables in the temple in the very next scene of John’s gospel. Jesus is taking the containers of the old vision, that also were about restoring people to community, but that restoration was made necessary because they had been cast out to begin with, Jesus is taking these containers of the old vision of distinctions, and filling them with new wine that will actually be a source of joy and feasting and bringing the community together. Instead of some having to make themselves pure again, everyone, no matter their state, can partake and enjoy the feast.

So, what if we are the containers? What are we holding? What are the codes that we are upholding? Are we holding distinctions that exclude and keep some out? Are we vessels of a system and a vision that once made sense but no longer does? Are we holding water than can only be used for one thing instead of allowing such water to be used to sustain life, or even better, allowing such water to be turned into a source of joy and delight? Have our containers become rigid? Are our souls in need of new wine?

It is easy to get in a groove in this life and not allow ourselves to see new possibilities. That’s what Isaiah was proclaiming to his people in the first lesson. His people had just gone through the exile. They were pretty down on themselves. It happens sometimes. Life throws us a series of curves, and we go into survival mode, and we forget what is possible with God. But today, Isaiah proclaims, “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” If you have felt forsaken, if you have felt desolate, if you have felt like a stone container holding water that promises to make you somehow clean and acceptable but you still feel separate, apart, maybe even dirty, well, you have a new name. You are a crown of beauty. You are a royal diadem. God’s delight is in you. Your life, your being is inextricably wed to God, and God is thrilled about it. You have gifts, abundant gifts to offer. I Corinthians names a ton of them, and as sure as God is God, you have one that is uniquely yours to offer for good of the world. Cool.

You may have been a stone jar, just holding water for a vision that is not your own, but today, Jesus commands that you be filled to the brim. Today, he is inviting you to be transformed into new wine that will keep the party going. There is so much feasting to be done in this world, so much in which to take delight, so much beauty to be shared and enjoyed. There is another way to be in relationship other than overcoming distinctions of our own creation—we can partake of one bread, we can drink of one cup, we can know that our lives are full of new wine, good wine, and such libation is always better shared.

All that is necessary is a willingness to allow Jesus to transform us in ways that defy our sense of possibility. What do we have to lose? Would we rather sit there in our stone cold jars, or be poured out as wine that can enliven the world? Choose to be the beautiful, radiant, delightful fine creation that God has made you to be. You are not inferior wine; you are good wine. Let yourself be changed, and then share that beautiful new creation generously because the party can’t go on if you don’t. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 20, 2013