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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

Celebration of Life and Ministry of Maynard John Higby

Wisdom 3:1-5, 9, Psalm 121 (BCP 473), II Corinthians 4:16-5:9, Psalm 23 (BCP 476—King James Version), John 14:1-6

There is no way, in the time we have today, that we will be able to sound all the notes of this man. Maynard John Higby, born 76 years ago today in Utica, New York. He served in U.S. Army Intelligence—a season of his life of which he was extremely proud. Professor Emeritus of English at Appalachian State University where he served with distinction throughout his long tenure. A scholar of seventeenth and eighteenth-century British literature, with a special place in his heart for the Russians. John was an inspired teacher, and he was a lover of books, especially old ones. A few years ago, at the close of summer, John invited St. Luke’s parishioners up to the Rhinehart Rare Books and Special Collections Room on the 4th floor of the Belk Library. There was a special collection of prayer books and other 16th and 17th century British texts. He was like a kid in a candy shop, and I caught a glimpse of what his students must have experienced in his classroom. He made that text, and the history surrounding it, live, and it is the exceptional teacher who can bring a text to life like that.

John was a published author, including The Adventures of Francelia Whitefoot and The Rhinehart Collection: An Annotated Bibliography. I spent some time with Francelia yesterday, and the back cover is simply priceless. “About the Book: Francelia’s story came to the author one day several summers ago as he was painting the trim on his house. Once he thought of Francelia and how to get Alfonso into the Sweetgrass Meadow, the rest came easy. The story was written to give amusement to children and the parents who would presumably do the reading. There are certain droll moments that young people will not get without explanation, but experience has shown that children are often amused by the amusement of their elders. There are no compromises with vocabulary or sentence structure in this story. Children become literate when they are given the opportunity to do so.” That is quintessential John.

John was an accomplished jazz pianist. Having heard the stories, I would have loved to have been around in the clubs when he played. I remember one Sunday when our organist Ted played a jazz piece he had composed for the postlude. He was accompanied by percussionist, Rob Falvo, and I was standing right over there. John was sitting right there in my line of sight. He had his eyes closed, and he was keeping the beat, completely transported to another realm. Great classical music could also do that to John, but nothing did it like jazz.

John had many other passions. He loved the woods; he was an avid fisherman and a keen birder. He loved fine things—good music, good company, good bourbon. John was a master storyteller—nothing delighted John more than to hold court and share a story. Devoted churchman, devoted friend, devoted father, devoted grandfather, devoted husband. John was a renaissance man. John was a man of a different time, a different era, who at times sat uncomfortably in this time, in this era. A gentleman’s gentleman. They just don’t make them like him anymore.

Renowned trombonist J.J. Johnson once said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will. Jazz is forever seeking and reaching out and exploring.” That was John. Like the music he loved, he was complex. On one level, he was a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, but he was our curmudgeon. He prized trust, and he was fiercely loyal, but you had to earn both. John valued excellence. He expected it of the people around him; he demanded it of himself. He had no qualms about telling me when my sermon had missed the mark, and on occasion, he would tell me when he thought I had hit it right on. Those sermons always possessed a quality in preaching that he deeply appreciated—brevity. John had come up through the academy and had witnessed the tumult of the 60’s and 70’s. Fiercely independent, he had lived long enough to see the shortcomings of strongly held positions. He valued people, and he saw how people sometimes got hurt at the hands of positions. John did not suffer fools gladly, and suffered foolish thinking even less. But he also lived long enough for his fierce independence to give way to a gracious, generous, open-hearted space, a space of genuine acceptance. Some people hit the last stage of their life and coast. That was not in John Higby’s nature. He did some of his best transformative soul work in the last years of his life, and it was a privilege to watch that unfold.

John would drop by my office every now and again. “Just a few minutes of your time,” he would say. An hour or so later we would emerge, always invigorated by the conversation. He didn’t come to do small talk, but to engage the big questions of life, most of which I had no answers for, and he appreciated my honest admission of that obvious truth. He would reminisce about his boyhood in Utica, New York, especially singing in the Men and Boy’s Choir of his parish church. That experience was absolutely foundational in his faith formation. He loved the Anglican Choral tradition, and he loved the discipline that choir demanded, though he was also fond of telling stories of mischief that he and his peers were prone to find. He loved the beauty and poetry and language of the Book of Common Prayer Book, especially the cadence of the Elizabethan english. Whenever John and I would share communion, we would always recite the formal Rite I prayers—I from my Prayer Book, John from his memory.

We would talk of family and friends. There wasn’t a time that went by that he would not speak of his gratitude for his friends, his friends here at St. Luke’s, his friends in the ASU Community, his friends in the wider community of Boone and Blowing Rock. And he loved his family. He loved being a grandfather—that was a source of particular joy for him. He loved being a father. He loved you, Suzannah. He loved you, Mark. And he loved being a husband. Connie, without fail, in every conversation I had with him, he would close by saying, “I have a good wife.” He loved you deeply, and never was that more apparent than in these last months of his life.

Seven months ago, John and Connie made the decision that it was time for Hospice Care. That was a huge decision of great courage. John had struggled with his lung disease for years, and the last year, he had cycled in and out of the hospital with greater frequency. He knew things were changing. Sometimes, people pull back in the final months of their life. And while John had many, many friends, he was also a very private and reserved man. I thought he might really limit the number of visitors, but John and Connie did quite the opposite; they threw open the doors and said, “Come.” And come you did. And what a gift John gave us in his willingness to let us walk this final journey with him! There was time, all the time in the world, to say all that needed to be said. Stories told and retold. Wishes made known. Feelings expressed. Simple presence enjoyed. In the yielding that was demanded of him, John found deep and abiding peace these last months, and deep, deep acceptance. He did his work, all the way to the end.

John was not afraid to die. He had worked his theology through to his satisfaction. He was not afraid to die, but he was worried about the journey getting there. He wanted to do that journey well. If John could have watched himself in his final hours, he would have been most pleased with how he left this world. Our reading from Wisdom speaks of the souls of the righteous who are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, in our eyes, they seem to have died, and their departure is painful. What John had to endure in his body seemed so hard, but Wisdom reminds us that they are at peace, that their hope is full of immortality, that though the dying process seems to be a hard discipline, it is but the prelude to something glorious.

II Corinthians hones this even further, “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.” These last seven months, John was living this transformation. You could see his countenance changing. You could see that curmudgeonliness softening. You could see his heart opening toward the glory that was moving to enfold him. That last couple of days was hard work for John. It always is. It is labor. He was struggling to be born into the next life, but bit by bit he let go. He relinquished his hold on this life. He yielded to the greater glory. His outer nature may have been wasting away, but make no mistake, his inner nature was being renewed, and the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure now is his. Just after John took his last breath, the sun illuminated the whole room. It went golden. It was bathed in golden light. That was no accident; that was a soul taking flight; John melted into the arms of his Creator. It was beautiful. All I could hear was Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

John is okay. John is better than okay. John’s mortal flesh has been swallowed up by life. It is we who struggle. We are left with a hole in our lives. We will miss that mortal flesh, and all that came with it. But there is a space that he occupies in each of our hearts, a place that he lives that not even death can touch, a presence that is ours to enjoy all the days of our lives. You will catch an echo of his voice, or that knowing look in his eye, when you relish a fine book, or enjoy a piece of jazz, or sight a beautiful bird, or tell a great story, or cherish a friend. So, do not lose heart.

They don’t make them like John anymore, but because he lives on in each one of you, the legacy he leaves is exquisitely timeless. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 30, 2012

Say YES! Tell the tale.

Epiphany—Year C, Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Today, is the culmination of an epic journey. We know the story of Matthew so well, but there is so much we don’t know. Like, just who are these wise men and where do they come from? There is an eighth century Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library called the Revelation of the Magi. Brent Landau, the scholar who translated it, thinks the original text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, which would date it less than one hundred years after the time Matthew’s story was written. It’s a first-person account from the perspective of the magi. So, let’s weave these stories together and see what we get.

We are in the time of King Herod. Jesus has just been born in Bethlehem of Judea. Now, at the time of Jesus’ birth, way over in the far East, not just the Persian East, but the far East, a brilliant star appeared. Some wise people of deep, deep prayer, monk-like mystics really, saw this sign. These wise people, magi some called them, were from the mythical land of Shir, possibly in the region of China. They may have been as few as twelve, or they have been many times that number. They were descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam, and they were the guardians of an ancient prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear heralding the birth of God in human form.

Now, when the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star isn’t simply sighted at its rising, like Matthew tells the story, but this star descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form [I knew we were right to have a human starbearer in our Christmas play—yes!]. This star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions.

Eventually, they come to Jerusalem, and they start asking around, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. King Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet.”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared, and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Ooooh, do you believe old King Herod?

Well, the magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This luminous star, now manifest as the luminous Christ child, commissions them to become witnesses of Christ in the lands of the east. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Once home, they tell this story, preach the faith some say, to everyone they knew. Eventually, Thomas, remember Thomas, doubting, committed, wise, wise Thomas, eventually, Thomas found his way east and baptized them. Thus, the wisdom revealed at the birth of Jesus joins the wisdom experienced in the life of Jesus joins the wisdom discovered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.


So, is this how it really happened? Does this tell us who the magi really were? Landau, the scholar who translated the manuscript, doubts this was actually written by the historical wise men, but it does give a snapshot of some community in early Christianity whose practices looked a lot like these magi. But let’s leave behind our questions of historicity—those who, what, when, where, and why questions— because they rarely get us very far any way. Let’s work at this at the level of myth, and remember—and I’ll put this question to our kids, what do we know about myths? All myths are true, and some of them really happened.

First, these extra stories that fill in the gaps, like The Revelation of the Magi, are great because they allow us to insert ourselves into the story in new ways.

So, the star appears to people who understand contemplation, who are steeped in the practice of silence and meditation. We, here at St. Luke’s, are trying to grow in this practice. What luminous things are we beginning to notice? What synchronicities are beginning to show up in our lives because we are paying attention? Are we willing to take big, huge leaps of faith based upon a dream that may come to us, or an intuition, or a hunch? Are we willing to set out on journeys into unknown territories to follow a something that we can’t even explain to our friends. I mean, the magi follow a star-child, does that sound crazy or what? But if we heed the voices that are calling to us, would we sound any less crazy? Are we willing to risk looking a little bit crazy to the sensible world around us? Are we willing to trust that, if we step out on this journey in faith, we will indeed be given the provisions we need all along the way, that the obstacles that stand in our path will be cleared away?

And what about that scene in Jerusalem? Oh my. All I can think about is the fiasco we see over and over in Washington D.C. I won’t go so far as to name a Herod figure, but I did notice that, in the story, all of Jerusalem was frightened right along with him. Everybody in the center of power was scrambling to figure out just who this threat to their power was. Everybody was aware that they had something to lose. Everybody was afraid. Never mind the wholeness and healing that was possible through this child—if they were going to lose power, this child had to be found and silenced. Those in power had become attached to their power; you can’t worship a new possibility, even if it is full of God, if you have made an idol out of your comfort and power.

We may not be as dysfunctional as our nation’s capital right now, but where are we dug in? To what, in our orbit, in our life, to what have we become attached? What have we turned into an idol that is keeping us from seeing and bowing before a new possibility? Have we grown so independent and self-contained that we find it difficult to bend our knee before anything at all?

And they find the Christ child in a house, by some accounts, or in a cave, by other accounts. Both locations invite us to pay attention to where Christ is being born. Can we see our ordinary homes as the place where Christ is being born, as the place where Christ is being revealed? Or maybe we find ourselves in a cave these days, a dark space, somewhat isolated, not so comfortable—can we see that this dark space is also a place where Christ is being born, a place where Christ is being revealed?

And when this luminous child reveals himself to us, when we catch a glimpse of Christ in whatever way he manifests himself to us, can we allow our breath to be taken away? Can we allow wonder to catch our hearts off-guard? Can we let this luminous wonder ignite our generosity? Can we throw off our well-honed moderation, our well-cultivated self-restraint, can we cast these to the winds and lay our very best gifts, in whatever form they take, before our God, and let God do with them what God will?

And as we depart this encounter, can we heed the voices of warning—in a dream, in our thoughts, through a friend’s counsel—not to return the way we came? Can we understand that this encounter changes everything, and that we have to find our way home by another road? Can we see that once we meet this luminous child, we are free to go a new way? If the magi were skilled at keeping silence, then they had surely gone round and round with shadow voices, their own or others. It pays to be able to hear the shadow speak and to heed that voice. Their willingness to do so gave this new fragile life the chance it needed to survive.

These wise people were not meant to stay in Bethlehem and become the new Jesus groupies there. They were meant to carry this experience in their souls, and to carry it back home where they could radiate its light there. Where are you called to carry this radiance? Where is the place you are meant to share your experience? Can you risk that what you have encountered here may not be understood out there, and will you risk shining with this luminosity anyway?

I love that Thomas eventually meets up with this motley crew. Wisdom found in one place will always find its way to wisdom found some place else. We need not fear wisdom wherever it reveals itself. If the magi have come to tell us anything, they have come to tell us that. They did not fear the luminous star, they did not fear traveling to the West, they did not fear the luminous child, they did not fear a powerful king, they did not fear their folk back home—maybe cultivating the practice of silence had taught them not to fear at all and had freed them to journey forward in faith. Don’t we all long for that kind of freedom?

Quite a journey those magi made, but you and I have a journey that is no less epic, if we but say “yes” to the invitation to make it, and then, have the courage to tell our tale. The pen is now in your hand—how will you tell the story of God’s revelation to you? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 6, 2013

God meets us everywhere.

Christmas I—Year C, Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Do you ever get tired of hearing this soaring language at the beginning of the Gospel of John? If the Feast of the Nativity draws our gaze to the particularity of the flesh that Divinity wishes to inhabit, today draws our gaze to the particularity of the God who inhabits that fragile, human flesh. It’s a Word who has been looking for a way under our skin since the beginning of creation itself. The great New Testament scholar Ray Brown notes that this image of the Word and its association with the act of creation means that creation itself is an act of revelation. Everything, everything holds the ability to reveal God to us. God speaks, and creation is. God speaks, and we hear God’s voice. Our eucharistic prayer reminds us that this Word keeps tumbling through time—we hear it in the calling of Israel, we hear it in the prophet’s cry, and John reminds us that this same Word becomes flesh, not just to speak at us, but to live among us.

I mean honestly, who among us likes to be spoken at? Okay, I will put this question to our kids. Do you like it when your parents start talking at you? What do you hear? Do you hear the brilliance of their words? Do you hear the eloquence of their wisdom? Or, do you just hear the Charlie Brown teacher voice, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?” As mystically as God taught the people the Divine name “I AM,” they mostly didn’t get it. As brilliantly as God spoke through the law, the people experienced it like a disciplinarian. As powerfully as God spoke through the prophets, the people just tuned them out, or silenced them. The Word was hard to comprehend. It’s like God was speaking a different language, which maybe is sometimes how you kids experience your parents, or how you parents experience your kids.

But God is persistent. God was bent on revealing the fullness of God’s steadfast love to us. Up to this point, God had been a little reluctant to be seen in the fullness of grace. Remember when Moses asked to see God’s face? God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and let him catch a glimpse of his back as he passed by. Not much to go on, ehhh? But times change, relationships change, and sometimes, there comes a time, when a radical leap of faith is called for by one of the parties. It may be a radical leap of faith for us to leave our fields or kingdoms and journey to a stable in Bethlehem, but it’s a radical leap of faith for God to leave the safety of distant dimensions of time and space and journey into our human flesh. We may not be able to hear words, especially when they are heaped upon other words, but it’s hard to miss a gaze that locks your eyes and won’t let you go. It’s hard to miss a touch that breaks through your isolation. It’s hard to miss shared laughter or shared sorrow or the shared silence that says more than a thousand words ever could.

Kids, which speaks to your heart more, a lecture from your parents, or a hug? And grown-ups, are we really so different from our kids? All the abstract theories about God and the nature of God are wonderful and powerful and interesting, but sometimes, we just need a God with skin on, and the Word who had been trying to communicate with us from the beginning, finally understood that too. Words can capture our imaginations, but flesh can capture our hearts—that’s what Jesus did as he lived his life.

And there is one other aspect to how this Word now dwells in flesh that is important for us. You see it’s not that this Word made flesh threw out all that went before as if to say, “None of that mattered.” The greek tells us that in the fullness of time this Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us. Pitched a tent…that image taps a deep, deep well in the Jewish psyche; it goes to the very heart of the Jewish understanding of God’s presence. In the wilderness, Moses set up a tent where he would go to meet God and sit with God in the fullness of God’s presence. When he would come out of that tent, his face would be shining; it would be shining so brightly that he would have to veil his face, but when he would go into the tent, Moses would unveil his face. And this tent would go wherever the people went.

In Jesus, God pitches a tent, a place where we can go to meet the fullness of God. In Jesus, God commits to being a God on the move, to being with us on the human journey wherever that journey takes us. In Jesus, God inhabits a space where we can unveil our face and let God see us in the fullness of who we are and where God can unveil God’s face and let us gaze on God in the fullness of God’s love and mercy and grace. In Jesus, God commits to revealing God’s heart to humanity and gives us a space that is safe enough for us to reveal our heart to God. In Jesus, we have our tent of meeting. No doubt, it is not the only place where God deigns to meet us—after all, all creation came into being through the Word; God meets us everywhere. But Jesus is a particularly powerful tent of meeting because this is where presence gazes upon Presence radically unveiled.

So, on this First Sunday after Christmas, as we contemplate all these words about the Word, how might we drop the words and simply come into the tent of meeting? How might we remove our veil and allow God in Jesus to gaze into our heart and soul? How might we lift our eyes and look into Jesus’ gaze and allow ourselves to meet God’s heart and soul there? What if we shed all the words that try to capture and define Jesus and just experienced him as our tent of meeting?

Sisters and brothers, remove your veil, come into this tent of meeting, and risk the fact that you will not emerge the same; risk the possibility that you will come out “shining like the sun.”1 Amen.

1 This phrase comes from Thomas Merton’s conversion experience on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY on March 18, 1958: “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 30, 2012

When we and God become one.

Christmas Day—Year C, Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word spoke and creation burst forth from the chaos.

In the middle was the Word, and the Word became flesh in the covenant, in the sacred words of the law that were the way of life.

And as time went on, the people struggled, and in the struggle was the Word, as the prophets called the people to remember what it meant to be a treasured possession of the Divine.

And there came a time, in the fullness of time, when the Word became tangled in words, and it ceased to move hearts. That happens sometimes. You talk and you talk and you talk and you listen and then listen some more, and the more words that are spoken, the less understanding that is achieved. The more words that are spoken, the greater the distance grows. The more words that are spoken, the more the other seems an absolute mystery to us.

Sometimes, there can come a time, when the words simply fall short, and in the fullness of that time, the Word made a different choice…the Word became flesh. The Word became something you could see and touch and hear and feel and smell and taste. The Word became the eyes that could pierce our defenses, the hand that could heal us, the ear that could hear our yearnings, the Word became the feet that we could bathe with our oil and tears alike, the nose that was not afraid of the stench of death, the Body and Blood that was sweet to our lips.

The Word became flesh and that which we could not understand became One whom we could simply love, and what had been a monologue of God speaking to creation became an intimate, intimate conversation, life engaging with life, love embracing love. This Word made flesh would speak so very much without ever having to say a word. This Word’s life would say all that needed to be said. This Word’s life would draw us into itself in a way that words never could.

And it wasn’t just a colossal misunderstanding that God was trying to clear up in this leap into flesh, but it was a divine yearning for intimacy that propelled God to take this insane risk. Why else would God commit Godself to such utterly insane vulnerability? Why else would God throw in the Divine lot with our frail, broken, finite human condition? Why else would the Infinite agree to such constriction? God’s fingerprints are already all over creation in the act of creation itself; the Word spoke and creation was, so why go this next step? Because God isn’t just the Divine Artist in Residence content to admire the works of the Divine hands, but God is a lover, and a lover is never content until it becomes one with its beloved. I am not sure that God understood the fullness of the challenge that such love would entail; lovers who take such flying leaps rarely do, but the moment the Word became flesh, God was all-in.

Never again would distance be possible with humanity. The window had been thrown open, God would know the fullness of our humanity, and we finally would embody the fullness of the divinity that has always been our birthright. It’s one thing to know you have such an inheritance; it is quite another to see and touch and hear and feel and smell and taste it in the flesh.

When the Word became flesh, the Word became a conversation, a give and take between divinity and humanity where both are changed by the other. Our humanity is filled with the glory of God, and God’s divinity is radiant with vulnerability, a vulnerability that can only be known when you enter fully into the other’s condition. When the Word became flesh, it wasn’t just flesh that was changed, but the Word was changed, too. We only need look at Jesus in his living and loving to see how flesh changes the Word.

There is no avoiding the truth of this day; our flesh is forever joined with God. God lives in you, and you live in God. God loves in you, and you love in God. God has infused your humanity with divinity, and your humanity somehow gives shape and form to divinity—it moves divinity from an abstract premise to a lived reality which is the only place love can really occur.

This is about the nature of who we are, and the nature of who God is. Can you dare to believe that these two natures are now one, not just in Jesus, but in your own flesh and blood? Because the mystery of His incarnation, is also the mystery of our own. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 25, 2012

A birth that changes everything

Christmas Eve—Year C, Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“The people who walked in great darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” so says the prophet Isaiah. So often we focus on the darkness, the deep darkness, and its juxtaposition to the light. And certainly this year, we have no shortage of darkness, and we yearn for the light to shine. But there is something else here also calling to us, “The people who walked…” The people who walked—everyone makes a journey to come to this night. Many are the reasons we come out late on a cold, dark night at the end of December.

We might come for the music that transports us to another time, another place, another realm. We might come for the smell of incense that awakens our mystical senses. We might come because it’s what our families have always done; that’s frankly what landed Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem in the first place. They simply had to go and be with their people. Maybe it’s nostalgia for Christmases past, maybe it is hope for some new start, maybe it is a yearning so deep we don’t even have words for it, maybe we just can’t stay away from a newborn baby. Many are the reasons we come, and honestly, it doesn’t much matter why we have made this journey; all that matters is that we are here. A birth is happening, and once that process begins, all bets are off. However you thought this might unfold is desperately out of your hands now. Something new is coming to birth, and your life will never be the same.

So, set aside all your expectations and open yourself to the vast possibility of this night. Our rational, well-conceived, tightly controlled, orderly sensibilities will not serve us now. Maybe in the light of day that approach would work, but not in the dark of night. Labor has begun, and there is no turning back. Birth takes us to the threshold, and words usually fail us there. Tonight belongs to the mystics and the poets. Theirs is the language that can help us wrap our hearts around this night.

In the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross penned a poem called “If you want”:

If you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God,
each of us.

Yes there, under the dome of your being
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help,
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.

If you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with Light and sing…

We may have thought we were coming to gaze upon this birth, maybe as a distant uncle or aunt might, deeply interested but not intimately involved; come to “oooh and aaaah,” come to adore, but not much more. But the poet makes clear, The Virgin is walking down the road, pregnant and needing shelter, knocking on the door of our heart—is there space, is there room? We cannot stay as an observer of this event; we are asked to participate, fully, wholly, in the flesh. But if we can grant her entrance, her and the Holy One she bears, if we grant them entrance under the roof of our soul, we will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth within us. She grasps our hand for help; we are privileged to midwife God, each one of us. We are drawn into the orbit of this birth; we are brought into the intimate circle, into the blood and sweat and struggle and wonder of it all. God needs our help to make God’s way into this world.

But the journey doesn’t stop there; the journey continues. Yes there, under the dome of your being does creation come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—through your womb—the sacred womb in your soul…You aren’t just the shelter; you are the very womb…as God grasps our arms for help…God cannot do this without our flesh. Incarnation. God is born this night in Jesus, yes, but his incarnation is also ours; God made flesh in us. If incarnation means anything, it means that God has shed the heavenly observer status to pitch the divine tent in our human flesh. God has traded in the comforts of the heavenly places for the trials and tribulations of the human journey.

We are not the only ones who journey this night; God journeys, too. God filled us with God’s image at creation, and now God fully commits to that image in the lived experience of our all too human lives.

God cannot do this without your flesh—the wonder of God’s creation come into existence eternally through you. Can you wrap your heart around that—not your head, but your heart? Your head can’t grasp this; it is impossible, but your heart can leap where your head cannot go. You aren’t just a member of the team bringing this birth to pass; you are absolutely, intimately central to it. You thought you were coming to gaze on a child in a manger, but this night is about the birth God is longing to bring to pass inside of you. Can you give yourself over to it? Can you let this unfold in your heart and mind and soul and flesh?

We come tonight because something in us yearns to be born anew. Something in us yearns to have God swallow up our flesh. Something in us yearns to “Sing the new song,” of which the psalmist sings. We journey here tonight because our hearts long to know God in the flesh, and tonight God meets our desire full on and pours every last drop of Divine divinity into our frail human flesh and sets the night ablaze with glory. A glory that filled the skies and bid the shepherds come. A glory that lit even the darkness of Isaiah’s land. A glory that is beyond our imagining. A glory full of grace and truth. A glory meant for you, and for me.

If you want, the
Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with Light and sing…

Dear sisters and brothers, you are radiant, and all creation is singing with you, even “the woods shout with joy.”

Don’t stay in the waiting room waiting for this birth to be announced. Let your whole being proclaim the good news that God has come into the world, and neither you nor creation will ever be the same.

This birth changes everything, if you want.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 24, 2012