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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

St Luke's Episcopal Church
170 Councill St
Boone, NC 28607
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LKM

John 3:16

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 4—Year B; Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Today begins one of my favorite seasons of the year. Any guesses? That’s right—March Madness! Which means that we will be treated to multiple basketball games in multiple arenas, which means that at some point over the next three weeks in some arena, we will see this sign (show sign)—“John 3:16.” What’s the verse? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I have never fully understood why this shows up at sporting events, especially, it would seem, at football games, but actually it shows up at all sporting events—basketball, golf, baseball, hockey, NASCAR—look, and you will see that sign.

And there is something about this verse as it is bandied about that makes a lot of us a little nervous. Why? What is that nervousness about? Why does someone publically proclaiming John 3:16 at a sporting event, or on a street corner, make us anxious? (pause)

I think we get nervous because we fill in the blanks, so that we read it to say, “And everyone who does not believe in him perishes and is consigned to hell.” In fact, isn’t that what the text says just a few verses later when it says, “Indeed…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God?” And since we can’t square the God of Love in whom we believe with this perishing-consigning-someone-to-hell bit, when we see the sign, we squirm.

But this passage is central to the gospel, central to the good news of Jesus, so we can’t just dismiss it. Let’s walk back through it slowly and really unpack it.

First, the set-up. Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and leader of the Jews, read a really religious guy who is sensing that there is more to see and know of God that what he currently sees and knows and feels—Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night, because it’s a little risky to admit by day that you are a religious leader who is having a bit of faith crisis—trust me, been there, got that t-shirt. So, Nicodemus and Jesus have that rather odd exchange about the need to be born from above, born anew, born of the Spirit, or in the King James Version, born again. Nicodemus wonders how these things can be, and Jesus wonders how it is that a teacher of Israel doesn’t get it.

It’s in the midst of this exchange that we hear the passage for today.

First, Jesus [says] to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What a weird image! But this serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness was a serpent that God told Moses to make and affix to a pole and when someone got bitten by a poisonous serpent, all they had to do was gaze upon this bronze serpent on the pole, and they would be healed—that’s the passage we heard from Numbers 21 earlier this morning. Okay, we have to park off to the side the fact that in that original story, it was God who sent the poisonous serpents among the people to bite them in the first place because the people had become impatient and were speaking against God and Moses. Let that rest to the side, and stay with the image of the serpent on the pole. This is the image on medical symbols. It’s a symbol of healing power. So, Jesus getting lifted up and affixed to the pole, Jesus on the cross, becomes an image of healing power, and believing in him opens up eternal life, opens up life that spans time and space, opens up life bigger than we can possible imagine.

Let’s work a bit with that word “believe.” “Pisteuo” in the greek—it can be used in that sense of “something you think to be true,” which looks a lot like intellectual assent, but it also means “to trust,” or “to entrust something to someone,” or “to be entrusted with something.” Intellectual assent is easy; intellectual assent actually asks nothing of my heart, but trust, oh my, that is an entirely different matter. Trust, at its core, is about vulnerability. Trust is inherently risky because you can betray my trust. To trust is absolutely a matter of the heart. When I trust you, I open my heart to you with no guarantees. Even if I wait for you to prove yourself worthy of that trust, there are still no guarantees because you could, at any point, violate that trust. The hard work of believing in Jesus isn’t intellectually believing this miracle or that miracle, but the hard work of believing in Jesus is entrusting my heart to his care, and allowing him to entrust his heart to mine. But when you take that leap of trust, that leap of faith, the vastness and wholeness of life to which the word “eternal” gives voice, that larger life begins, not upon the moment of death, but that life begins the moment you entrust yourself to this Son of Humanity and all that he reveals of God.

John’s gospel continues: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The world, the world, for God so loved the world, the “kosmos” in the greek! God loves every aspect of creation, all of it. And God loved that matter so much that God was willing to enter into full solidarity with it in the flesh. God dwelling in perfect communion with the cosmos; God dwelling in perfect communion with our humanity. And everyone who trusts in that solidarity, again, they aren’t lost, but they are immeasurably found and find themselves falling into this bigger life that is bigger than the small life afforded us when we try to go it on our own.

Our sign holders often stop with verse 16 without mentioning verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, but in order that the world, the cosmos might be saved, might be healed, might be made whole, through him. So often, these verses are used to divide the saved from the not saved, but Jesus’s coming was, and is, for the healing of the world, so it can’t be bad news for half of it—it’s got to be good news for all of it.

And condemned is an interesting word. The greek word is “kreno,” which also gets translated as “to pass judgment,” but it also means “to separate,” “to select,” “to choose.” This is also the word that gives us the word “crisis” in English. which brings to mind “a decision point, a fork in the road, a critical juncture.”

And maybe this starts to get clearer in the next part of the passage. “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”

This word, “kreno,” which at its root means “crisis,” gets variously translated in this passage as condemned and judgment, but here is what I think is going on. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn it, to separate it, but to make it whole. Those who trust Jesus, those who entrust themselves to God’s unfathomable solidarity with our human condition, those who trust that commitment that God has made to us and to all of creation, those people know that they are not condemned, they know that are not separated from God, but are already in union with God and everything else. But those who can’t trust that communion, those who can’t allow themselves to experience that union because they can’t trust what Jesus has come to reveal, they are condemned already; they experience themselves and other people and everything as separate, cut-off from God and one another. And this is the judgment, this is the crisis, this is the moment of decision, this is the fork in the road, this is the crossroads, this is the critical juncture—are you going to throw your lot in with trusting you are one with God, OR are you going to live pretending that you are all on your own, lost in a great big universe.

And this crisis gets heightened because Jesus’ light is so bright, his communion with God is so palpable, his solidarity with humanity is so vivid and real, that when people are confronted with that possibility, many go right on loving darkness. Why? Why would we cling to our separate little selves living our separate little lives instead of entrusting ourself to this larger life? (pause) Well, when you entrust yourself to anything, you give up control, and our little selves, our individual egos, they will fight to the death, even do evil deeds, to protect that sense of control and power.

This passage from John 3—it brings us to a crisis point, to a fork in the road, to a place of decision—will we choose the God whose love is so vast that it takes in the whole cosmos, will we choose the God who throws his lot in with our human flesh, will we choose the God who has written communion into our DNA, OR will we hold out and hold back because we would rather have control than feel the vulnerability that trusting God inevitably entails? Contemplate truly giving over control and falling into the hands of the Living God and the word “crisis” is not too strong.

But oh, what is to be gained! A deep, deep knowing that God loves you and the whole world, the whole cosmos, and that revealing that love, living that love, making known that love is God’s beginning, God’s purpose, and God’s end, and that Jesus is the quintessential icon of that love. Well, when you know that, you want to proclaim it in the sports arena, and on the street corner, and anywhere else you stand to anyone who will listen.

John 3:16—it’s a love letter, and the Divine Lover is waiting for your reply. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 15, 2015

Pilgrimage to Selma

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 3—Year B; Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I don’t normally wait until Saturday night to write my sermon, but I’m glad I did this week, or I would have had to rewrite it after yesterday. I have been so moved by our Selma Pilgrims. Twelve youth and three adults from this community, joining with another 45 from our Diocese, left on a bus late Friday afternoon to travel to Selma to be a part of the events and marches marking the 50th anniversary of the original Selma marches. I learned yesterday afternoon that c-span was streaming the event, and so I watched many of the speeches, including John Lewis and President Obama. In between speeches, c-span had folks calling in, and listening to those stories was both heart-breaking and powerful. I kept tearing up. There is something about these stories that is reaching into some tender place in my heart, and there is something about our youth, our St. Luke kids, being there that just makes me so proud, that something in how they have been formed in this place makes them want to go to that place and bear witness. So my emotions are close to the surface today, my thoughts are swirling, and this is one of those times when I just have to let what is in my heart pour out.

First, a word about pilgrimage. Before our group left on Friday, I told them a couple of things. I told them that I was so proud of them for making this trip. I told them that many of you wanted to go, but that you couldn’t; I told them that they were representing all of us who couldn’t go, and that that is how pilgrimage works. You always make the journey on behalf of those who can’t, and that comes with a responsibility. Then, we talked straight up about a safety plan if something went crazy during the march. Our young people prepared for this trip; they know what happened 50 years ago. So we talked about what to do if violence broke out and how to make their way back to the church where they are staying. Solemn counsel to give, especially when one of those going is your child. And I told them that as soon as they left the parking lot, that I would email all of you, and that you would be praying for them the whole time they were gone. Then we put them in a circle, and the parents made a circle around them. They held hands, and so did we, and we prayed over them for their safety and protection, and that their hearts would be opened.

And so, we, all of us, are on pilgrimage this weekend with those in Selma. And that is no small thing. One of you wrote me on Friday afternoon after reading the email I sent out and said, “WOW!!! It makes me weep, while at the same time very happy. How can that be?” I don’t know how that can be, but the same is true for me.

And I felt that as I listened to those speeches yesterday. And I felt it as I saw who was gathered there. President Bush and President Obama sharing a stage and embracing. Hosea Williams’ daughter, Elisabeth Omilami, and George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, both in attendance. Hosea Williams helped to lead that Bloody Sunday march, and George Wallace did everything in his power to stop it. And both of their daughters have powerful, powerful stories to share. A bridge named for someone who was the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama, Edmund Pettus, is the icon for the power of nonviolence in the face of brutal, raw power. And this afternoon, our group will join thousands of others as they march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, and then, they will pay honor to the foot soldiers of those marches, those unsung heroes, ordinary folk, who came, and acted with such courage in seeking justice and furthering the cause of freedom. And they did it respecting the dignity of those who sought to strip them of theirs. It boggles my mind—such faith, such tenacity, such courage, such resolve.

Three marches. The first, on March 7, 1965, involved 600 and became known as Bloody Sunday. That march was organized in response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper during a peaceful march in nearby Marion, Alabama. Yesterday, John Lewis recalled that Bloody Sunday: “The protesters marched two-by-two on the sidewalk so as not to interrupt the free flow of trade and commerce and traffic.” He recalled how peaceful and quiet they were. Then, the full force of Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement was unleashed upon them. Lewis recalls, “We were beaten and tear-gassed, but we didn’t become bitter or hostile.” John Lewis addressed all those gathered yesterday as “my beloved brothers and sisters”—not an ounce of bitterness is in that man.

 

The second march two days later on March 9 ended when Martin Luther King, Jr. turned the crowd back. They were in the process of seeking federal protection for the march.

The third march went on March 21 and spanned five days as they marched with federal protection to Montgomery 25,000 strong.

In between those events, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson made a speech to a joint session of Congress and introduced specific legislation that would become the Voting Rights Act.

And in-between Bloody Sunday and the march that made it to Montgomery, on the very day that President Johnson made his speech, March 15th—I was born. I had never pieced together this timeline until a few months ago. This past January, when I was home to see my Mom, I asked her what it was like to be pregnant and to give birth to me in the middle of all of this with this images coming across the TV. She gave me her permission to share her answers with you. She said she was horrified by the images she saw of the dogs and the beatings, but she kept thinking, “Why are they [the black people] stirring things up? If they just wouldn’t make such a fuss about all of this, this would all settle down. Can’t we all just get along?” She went on to tell me, “That’s not where I am now, but back then, that’s where I was—peace at any price.” And in March of 1965, my Mom was not alone in that. And 50 years later, echoes of that sentiment still reverberate across our country, maybe even in our own hearts as we confront the realities around race in our own day.

Why does all this matter? Why am I even talking about this in a sermon? Because transformation is at the heart of all of this; the tireless search for justice is at the heart of this; and because transformation and justice are at the heart of the gospel. I am talking about this in a sermon because the scripture, Galatians 3:26, calls out to us—“in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male or female, for all [of us] are one in Christ Jesus.” John Lewis said yesterday, “We are one people, one family, the human family—we all live in the same house.”

This matters because the God of Exodus who gives us the commandment is the same God who brings us up out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.

The psalmist tells us, “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all the lands, and their message to the ends of the earth.” This weekend, those days of March 1965 are telling their tale to our day; those horrific nights of our nation’s soul are imparting their knowledge to the long nights we are moving through still as a people coming to terms with race.

It matters because the cross is foolishness, and nothing is more foolish than practicing nonviolence in the face of horses and tear-gas and clubs. President Obama said yesterday, “What enormous faith these men and women had—faith in God and faith in America. [They] proved that nonviolent change is possible and that love and hope can conquer their hate.” And for those who marched 50 years ago, that practice of nonviolence was rooted and grounded in a Lord who stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross and absorbed all the violence that put him there, SO THAT, so that centuries later, ordinary people filled with faith could choose a different path, the way of nonviolent fearless LOVE. King and others wore Hawaiian lays in that final Selma to Montgomery march because Hawaiian lays symbolize peace, love, and compassion.

This matters because of the action that Jesus took in this morning’s gospel from John 2. When Jesus drives all the animals out of the temple, and pours out the coins of the money changers, and throws over their tables, this is no small act.

Okay, can we just pause and consider this little mind-bender—Jesus would have flunked the nonviolent training that those Selma marchers had to go through before they marched.

But let’s be clear about what Jesus did—this was a political act. Jesus was striking at the heart of the religious, political, and economic life of Jerusalem. Jesus was calling attention to structures, to structures that were crushing God’s people, and crushing them in that very space that existed to remind them that God dwelled with them. If Jesus went into the heart of the religious, political, and economic temple of his day, calling attention to the fact that what was going on didn’t square with the God who sets us free from slavery and longs for all people, especially the most vulnerable, to thrive, if Jesus entered that arena, so must we who follow in his Way.

Is that easy to do? No.

Is that fraught with all kinds of risk and potential for misstep? Absolutely.

Do we get to avoid it because it’s messy. No.

Do we need to heed the psalmist’s prayer

to be “kept from presumptuous sins” as we try to make our way?

Never have we needed that prayer more.

But this isn’t a partisan thing—that’s why I loved that President Bush was on that stage with President Obama. That’s why I love that John Lewis could thank Peggy Wallace Kennedy for being there. RACE IS A HUMAN BEING THING. And Jesus will not rest until we are ONE [see John 17].

We cannot heal the profound wounds to our heart, as a people or as a nation, until we touch the heart of our brothers and sisters and know that there is only ONE heart. The President was right to warn us of the twin dangers of “complacency” that would “deny the truth of the racism that still exists” and the danger of “despair” that says “we have made no progress.” The President continued, “To deny the hard won progress would be to rob of us of our agency and responsibility to change…All of us are called to possess our moral imagination. Change depends on our actions and our attitudes.”

This work, this work is at the heart of the gospel; it’s at the heart of our baptismal vows; it’s at the heart of the life that we have vowed to live as Christian people. This is not something that we can say, “We’ve done that; now on to the next project.” This is soul work, and it will take us deep if we’ll allow it.

Hosea William’s daughter, Elisabeth Omilami, closed with a powerful image, “What bridge is yours to cross?” President Obama echoed that theme when he addressed the young people in the crowd yesterday, saying, “There are more bridges to be crossed. It is you, the young and fearless of heart, that we are waiting for.”

And so, we end where we began. Our young people are fearless of heart, and they will come back with stories to tell. Will our hearts be open to receive them?

And as we feel their energy and field their questions about how and why racism and injustice still exists, how will our hearts be stirred?

Will we shy away from that conversation and try to keep all these realms of faith and religion and race and politics and economics and law and policy, will we try to keep all of these apart and safely compartmentalized, OR will we steer straight into the messiness of trying to see how all of these are connected and related AND how our faith needs to be woven throughout them all?

As our youth get inspired by honoring the foot soldiers, and challenge us to walk the talk, will we be willing to risk more for the sake of LOVE?

This weekend, they are getting a crash course on what it means “to respect the dignity of every human being”how deep into this journey will we go with them?

Yesterday, Rep. Terri Sewell spoke, a daughter of Selma herself and the first African American women to represent Alabama in Congress, and she told the story of Miss Amelia Boynton Robinson, matriarch of the civil rights movement. She is now 105 years old. On that Bloody Sunday, she was beaten and tear-gassed and left for dead. This past January, she was Rep. Sewell’s guest at the State of the Union address. People kept coming up to Miss Boynton and saying, “Oh Miss Boynton, we stand on your shoulders; we stand on your shoulders.” Miss Boynton finally said, “Get off of my shoulders—there is plenty of work to do.”

Our young people have carried us on a pilgrimage this weekend; may our feet now hit the ground, and may we not rest until we, across this land, are the beloved community that God longs for us to be. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 8, 2015

Let Go of Your Small Life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 2—Year B; Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

There is a rather significant piece of the story missing today in that part we just heard from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel. We’ve got to rewind and pick it up.

This story actually begins with 4 verses earlier where we hear this: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he [Jesus] sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Okay. Got that? Peter—“You are the Messiah. You are the Man. You’re the One We’ve Been Waiting For.”Messiah”—that’s one loaded identity. For a people who had grown accustomed to foreign powers lording it over them and holding them down under their thumb, there was a whole lot of hope pinned to this “Messiah” who was going to restore them to the top place, to “winner” status, to the glory days when David was king and the kingdom was strong. Jesus was their ticket up and out.

So, what Jesus says next comes as a bit of a shock.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Wow! First, Jesus doesn’t claim the “Messiah” title for himself. He only talks about “the Son of Man,” and actually, the translation is “son of anthropos,” “son of human being,” “son of humanity.” Allusions to the Son of Man image from the book of Daniel aside—Peter elevates Jesus, but Jesus, Jesus claims absolute, total solidarity with all of humanity.

And that “the One” must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed—for Peter, this was anathema! Peter has the good sense to put on, what we might consider, his best southern manners; he knows not to call Jesus out in front of his disciples, so he takes Jesus aside, and privately begins to rebuke him. But Jesus would have none of it. He turns and looks at his disciples and rebukes Peter—even calls him Satan, the adversary!—and tells [Peter] to get behind him. And with a piercing clarity, Jesus declares to Peter, You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. You think this is all about a climb to the top, you think this is all about regaining position and status. That’s the False Self, Peter. That is the way human beings move in the world, but that is not the way of God. Solidarity, Peter. Solidarity with God; solidarity with all of humanity. Position, power, prestige, privilege, status—this is the currency of the elders and chief priests and scribes; this is always the currency of those on top, and anyone who stands apart from these will suffer and be rejected and will be killed.” Remember, Jesus had wrestled with the temptations of the False Self in the wilderness. Jesus had made peace with the path that was his to walk. Clearly, Peter still had a ways to go. And probably, so do we.

And Jesus wants us to be crystal clear about the path that he is laying out before us. Unlike credit card companies and mortgage lenders, he is giving us the fine print up front and writ large. Hear the text again: [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There is a lot here. First, the paradox to end all paradoxeswhen you try to save your life, you lose it, and when you lose it for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel, you save it. Okay, I’m going to pull out my trusty Richard Rohr picture again. It seems we’ve got to keep going deeper down into this teaching. What if we think of this small self as our life? And when we think that this little life is what will save us, when we think that our roles and identities and accomplishments and failures, when we think that our positions and status and power and prestige and privilege are the things that make us whole, then we lose our capacity to discover and taste the wholeness that truly is whole, that wholeness that truly is worthy of the name “salvation,” that truly is the LIFE that is alive, instead of an imitation of life, which is what many of us settle for.

BUT, when we can lose this small life, when we can shed all these layers and masks, all this armor that we use to shore up this small life, when we can lose that and give ourselves over to simply abiding with Jesus and the good news of this unshakeable union with God that Jesus manifests so beautifully and that he promises is ours if we will just open our eyes to see it, when we can lose this (the False Self picture) and give ourselves over to this (the True Self picture), then we discover this wholeness that truly is LIFE. Remember, “save” is connected to “salvation” which is connected to “healing” and “wholeness.”

And we know it’s true—you can gain a whole lot by the world’s standards, and completely forfeit your life in the process. This is the ol’ it-looks-really-good-on-the-outside-but-it-is-painfully-empty-on-the-inside scenario.

And this LIFE that is rooted and grounded in union with God and Divine Love, you can’t give anything in return for it (the True Self picture). This world over here (the False Self picture) is always trying to sort out position, power, prestige, status, privilege—it’s always transactional; it’s always trading in this for that; it’s always measuring; it’s always keeping score. But this LIFE (the True Self picture), you just can’t give anything in return for it because IT’S ALL GIFT—all you can do is collapse back into it; all you can do is be awake to it; all you can do is be present to it, drink of it, share it.

This last piece is challenging. After a week of training in Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, I am not sure at all what to make of Jesus saying that those who are ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory. It does seem that adulterous and sinful accurately describe the world of the False Self—this little life does experience itself as cutoff, separate, and that self acts in all kinds of ways that miss the mark as it tries to assert its place.

And adulterous, well, the False Self does have a certain amount of allure to it, a certain amount of adrenalin; this world can be a real rush as you’re climbing the ladder and falling down and conquering it again. This True Self world is characterized by peace, equanimity, contentment; it is solid, but to this addicted small self over here, it might feel boring. It is tempting to forsake this union (the True Self picture), for the rush of this little life over here (the False Self picture). And when you’ve invested a whole lot of time and energy succeeding and climbing in this world (the False Self picture), then it’s pretty easy to look down on, to be ashamed of, this world (the True Self picture) where striving a) gets you absolutely nowhere and b) doesn’t even exist.

That much I can sort of make sense of, but I can’t get my head around the son of humanity, the One who LIVES in complete awareness of his union with God, I can’t my head around that One being ashamed of anyone when he comes in glory. The only way I can possibly get my head around this is to think of what shame is. According to Brené Brown, Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Maybe Jesus is saying that this False Self world is flawed because you can’t ever belong here, not truly, because it’s simply too unstable and insecure—it’s the house built on sand. For Jesus, true belonging happens here and only here, in union with God and with all that is (the True Self picture). But even this way of understanding this presses this out to the outer limit. I still don’t like Jesus using shame as a strategy for changing hearts. The research shows—shame doesn’t transform people; faith knows that only love, unconditional love, can do that.

So, let’s pan out just a bit. This exchange with Peter and the disciples and the crowd; it happens up at Caesarea Philippi—that’s about as far north as you can get in Israel, and this represents the farthest north Jesus travels in his ministry. Once he turns south from here, he is bound for Jerusalem. The cross of which he speaks here, in Caesarea Philippi, will become his lived reality there, in Jerusalem. I think it is quite possible that some more refinement (as in refiner’s fire) is yet to come for Jesus as he passes through the trials of being betrayed and denied, abandoned and forsaken. Something more is yet to be deepened in Jesus’ being—death and resurrection will do that—because when he emerges on the other side of all this—he doesn’t speak of shame, but only of FORGIVING LOVE (see the exchange with Peter in John 21). I would like to think that if Jesus were speaking these words from Mark 8 to Peter and the disciples and the crowds by the Sea of Galilee about 50 days from now, having lived through his cross, having given himself over to death, having yielded to resurrection LIFE, I would like to think that shame would not be his go-to strategy, but instead, only the language and way of RECONCILING LOVE and FORGIVENESS.

So, on this Second Sunday in Lent, what pieces of your small life are you trying desperately to save, and how are you losing your big LIFE in the process? And if you were to lose, if you were to shed, if you were to lay aside, if you were to loosen your grip on this little life, what wholeness might you discover in this larger LIFE that catches you when you finally turn loose and let go of this small life? What might you discover as you free fall into the hands of the Living God?

Saving is losing, losing is saving. It’s the paradox to end all paradoxes, but within it lies the path to the only LIFE worth living. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 1, 2015

Wilderness, Temptation and the Voices of the False Self

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 1—Year B; Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

This is the First Sunday in Lent which means its “temptation” Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus trekking off into the wilderness to do battle with this force called Satan (in Mark), the devil (in Luke), and the tempter and the devil (in Matthew). Each of these gospel writers relays the story in a slightly different way which opens us up to slightly different insights. This year, its Mark’s turn to tell the story, and what he tells is impressive, if for no other reason than its intense brevity.

Mark moves at lightning speed. We are only 8 verses into the gospel, when we hit this passage, and in just 6 short verses, we hear of Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. That is crazy fast; that is crazy intense, but there is a power to all of this that Mark is trying to get us to see.

First, there’s Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s gospel, it’s not just that the heavens open and a sweet little dove flutters down and lands on his shoulder—no, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, literally “rent apart,” and the Spirit descends upon Jesus, and he hears that voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We think that to hear that voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved,” we think that to hear that proclamation is a big warm fuzzy, but for Jesus, it was tumultuous. When the realms interpenetrate one another, when the vertical dimension of God intersects with the horizontal dimension of time and space, it isn’t always sweetness and light, but sometimes it comes to us with a force that shakes us to the core. To own that we are sons and daughters of God, to own that we are Beloved of God, that can turn your world upside down.

And that sweet little dove of a Spirit, thatSpirit is fierce, because the very next thing that Spirit does, and I mean immediately does, is drive Jesus out into the wilderness. Again, this “driving” is not a gentle nudge to Jesus to go do a little spiritual work on himself before he begins his active ministry—no, the word is “ekballo,” “to drive out, cast out, expel from society and family”—it’s got an edge to it, a sense of violence to it. It shares the same root as the word for “devil”“the one who throws apart,” think “diabolical.” We could spend a long time pondering what it means that it is the Spirit who throws Jesus out into the wilderness with a similar force usually exercised by the one we think of as opposing the Spirit, i.e. Satan or the devil.

And this wilderness. Oh, it’s a desolate, desolate place. It’s not thick and lush like our mountain wilderness. It is rocky and rough—think the surface of the moon but located out to the east of Jerusalem heading down toward the Dead Sea. Again, this word for “wilderness” carries a lot of freight. It is used to describe places that are “deserted, lonely, solitary, uninhabited. It is also used of people to describe what it feels like when you “have been deserted by others, or have been denied the aid and protection of others, or are bereft” of human connection. Described that way, that Judean wilderness just got a whole lot closer to home. This is a geography that our soul knows. It’s that space we sometimes inhabit where we are utterly, utterly alone, a space so desolate that not even the ones we share life with can inhabit it with us. Ever been there?

In that space, there is nothing there to insulate us from those things that we struggle with—both forces external to us and forces inside of us. In Matthew and Luke’s telling of Jesus’ wilderness sojourn, we hear about the three specific temptations that Jesus had to face. Mark is not specific. Mark only tells us this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The temptations aren’t spelled out which leaves us to ponder, “Just what were the nature of the temptations that Jesus faced, and just what are the nature of temptations that we face?”

What are we tempted by? What is temptation about? What does temptation look like in our lives? Talk to me. What tempts you, and what is that about?

 “Temptation” is one of those big, heavy, kind of scary words, but in its simplest forms it means simply “to try whether a thing can be done.” I have been thinking a lot the last few months about the nature of sin and evil and where they come from, which means I’ve been way out in the deep weeds. This has been spurred in part by discussions in our Friday Book Study, our Youth Confirmation Class, and in the Adult Claiming Jesus Class. I don’t think any of us have unraveled the mystery of where this comes from at its source, myself included, but it is worth thinking about.

Okay, I need to pull out my little picture that I have been using in these classes, and I am indebted to Richard Rohr for this material. This is this False Self—this is when we think our small self—little “s” is separated from God. This “self” is really insecure and is always trying to make a place for itself. This is the “self” that gets all tangled up in roles and identities and masks. This is the “self” that judges and compares and always measures itself as one up or one down. This is the “self” who takes offense. This “self” thinks it has to do something to get to God, to be deserving of God’s love, to be acceptable to God.

Over here, we have the True Self. Here, the small “self” is in union with the big Self, with God. This self is never not connected to God. This has always been, is now, and always will be true, and this is true whether we are awake to this reality, or asleep to it. This “self” is infinitely secure, knows it belongs, and cannot be offended. This “self” cannot be thrown out of Presence because it knows it is in union with Presence.

We think our job is to get from here to here (from small “self” to God) when our real job is to get from here (False Self) to here (True Self); our real job is to be awake that this is our reality.

I think “sin” happens when we believe this separate “self” is who we really are. We feel cut-off, and our actions to shore up this “self” end up “missing the mark.” I think “evil” happens when this False Self becomes the only thing that we think we have and all this separation gets patterned into our hearts and minds and bodies, gets patterned into our actions and our relationships with others and with the world, and False Selves can come together into a collective False Self.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with temptation, Jesus’ or ours? I think the root of temptation for Jesus, and for us, is the temptation to be thrown out of Presence and to believe that it is all up to us. And once we start down that path, we start believing that our False Self is the only way for us make a place for ourself in this world, and then, we are prone to all kinds of temptations, and we are off to the races in accumulating all the marks and masks of the False Self, reinforcing this sense that we are separate little beings having to make our way in this desolate wilderness we call life.

As we enter more deeply into our wilderness, as the trappings of our False Self start to get revealed for the ruse that they are, as our awareness sharpens and we tune into the voices of the False Self that are calling the shots, and, as we begin to hear the True Self whisper, “There is another truth, a deeper truth, there is another way to engage our life from a place of union with God and all that is”—as all these voices and whispers start to swirl together, we could fall prey to yet one more temptation—we could begin to feel like this is a battle between good and evil, a battle between the True Self and the False Self, but that’s just one more lie told by the False Self.

Jesus points to another way.

 “And he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” Jesus didn’t destroy the wild beasts, he didn’t even oppose them. He was with them. What if these wild beasts are our deepest, most scary emotions that drive our actions—our fears and anxieties, our anger, our shame, our longings, desires, hopes, and unspeakable joys? Jesus doesn’t banish these wild beasts, he comes alongside and is simply with them. Jesus has a capacity to be with these wild beasts and, at the same time, to allow the angels of God, those “messengers” who whisper, “You are secure, you are beloved, you belong in me and with me, always,” Jesus allows these angels of God to minister to him.

This Lent, could we cultivate the capacity to be with our wild beasts, and at the same time, to hear the angels whisper, “You are secure in God?” How might that change our actions, how might that change our living, if we could do that in the landscape of our particular wilderness?

Jesus has to go through this process of wrestling with the voices of his False Self to own his True Self as a Beloved Son of God in whom God is well pleased. Maybe we have to sit in our wilderness and witness all the ways our False Self is trying to throw us out of Presence to finally collapse back into our True Self and know our union with God at the deepest level of our being.

All I know is that on the other side of this process, Jesus heads to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Maybe that’s just one more way of saying, Jesus had fully embraced his True Self, proclaimed at his baptism, and he wants every living thing to know how deeply they are rooted and grounded and held and loved in, with, and by God. It will take repentance, “metanoia,” to get there—“a going beyond our mind”—because our minds have been trained to believe that the False Self is all we’ve got.

And releasing our False Self will feel like dying.

But be compassionate as you move in and through your wilderness. Befriend your wild beasts. Let the angels of God minister to you. Come forty days from now, we will emerge from this wilderness, proclaiming the good news of God, not just with our lips, and not just with our lives, but we will proclaim this good news with our whole being because we will know that our True Self, beloved of God, is our deepest DNA. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 22, 2015

Tragic Gaps and Living with Our Whole Heart

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Ash Wednesday—Year B; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

There are some hard words in this liturgy. Words like “wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “hypocrites,” “broken,” “contrite,” “penitence,” “self-examination,” “repentance,” “mortal,” “dust,” “heart.”

Any one of these could set us back a ways, but all of them together could fall down upon us like a ton of bricks and knock us to the ground. Who of us can get out from under, let alone get back up from, that kind of weight? But maybe there is another way to look at this ritual that we do today, maybe there is another way to hear all these words that swirl around us. Let’s take it piece by piece and see what we can see.

There is an element of being crushed and broken by these words, but that is only because the armor around our hearts has grown so thick and so strong. That word that Jesus uses as he preaches in Matthew, “hypocrites” it means “pretender.” We are masterful “pretenders,” putting on mask after mask in our life, trying to meet expectations set by others, trying to attain way of being that is set by our culture, trying to knock back those whispers in our head that we have not been enough, accomplished enough, done enough, all the while moving farther and farther away from that whom God has made us to be. And in the dust up with those voices, we add layer upon layer around our heart.

And it is an arduous task to crack that shell, to examine our armor piece by piece, to intentionally take it off, to lay down our shields. But there comes a time in our lives when we realize that we can’t live with all this weight any more. It does not serve us, it does not serve God, and it does not serve our neighbor. Why does God want a broken heart? Because a broken heart is one that is tender, pliable. A broken heart is one that God can work with; a broken heart is one that can be healed; a broken heart is one that God can make new.

And all of these really hard to hear sort of archaic sounding words—“wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “contrite,” “penitence,”—they are just descriptors of what it feels like when you examine the gap between who and what you long to be and the reality of our lives. When I can touch that tragic gap between who I long to be as a parent, or spouse, or priest and all those times when my words are harsh and my actions are impatient and incomplete, when I can touch that tragic gap between my God-given and God-beloved humanity and the harsh, judgmental ways I talk to myself when it comes to my limits—well, “wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “contrite,” “penitence”—these words fit, because they all bear witness to the weight. I think of “wretchedness” as meaning “awful,” like you’re an “awful” person, but the word actually describes “the state of being deeply afflicted, feeling dejected, being distressed in your body or mind.” If you have ever touched the gap in the values to which you aspire and the values revealed by your actions, then you know what it means to feel wretched.

And when we touch that place, “lament” becomes the most natural expression in the world—when we touch that broken place, we need to go give voice to our grief and pain about those ways we have missed the mark.

“Contrite” is a word that speaks to that feeling of sorrow and regret that we feel when we fall short. “Penitent” is another word that gives voice to that pain and sorrow we feel when we have not loved with our whole heart.

So, all of these loaded words are like valves on a pressure cooker that let off the steam, the energy, that erupts when we are brave enough to look deep inside our lives and our souls and name those places and those ways where we have chosen armor and swords and shields instead of leading with an exposed, open, undefended heart. When we own how far we have moved away from that wholehearted place, it hurts. It hurts a lot. Today, and for the next forty days, we dare to examine the tragic gaps in our lives; we dare to name these gaps and grieve them—not in some sort of self-serving emotional guilt-and-shame fest, but in an effort, with God’s help, to lay aside our armor, and shields, and swords, and stand in the goodness and wholeness of our humanity.

Remember, “God hates nothing God has made;” “God has created us out of the dust of the earth;” “God knows whereof we are made;” “God knows we are but dust;” God knows we are human, mere mortals, with feet of clay. And when God created us with feet of clay, God proclaimed us “good.” Part of our reckoning with this day is the full embrace of the limits of our humanity and accepting that we are loved. Period. We armor up, put forward our shields, and draw our swords when we think that humanity is not enough.

There is one other piece that we have to mark on this day—and it has to do with our mortality. We receive these ashes as a sign of our mortality—as a sign of our capacity to die. There is the death we will one day die when we breathe our last and fall into the hands of the Living God, and there is the death that this liturgy calls us to today, and every day. To do the work of this Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent, we have to be willing to die; to die to our masks and all the ways we defend and guard our heart. The word “heart” is on that list of hard words because there is nothing harder than dropping down into our heart. We have to die to being in charge and in control. We have to die to our reluctance to be loved as fully and completely as God desires.  We have to be willing to fall into the hands of the Living God today, and to know that in God’s hands, our heart is safe; in those hands, we finally, completely, and absolutely belong.

In the end, both in this liturgy and in our lives, there is “absolution,”—another big, heavy word, but it means “to set free from an obligation.” In the end, all of this, all of this, is to set us free from the weight and burden of all those ways that keep us from living and loving with our whole heart. That’s all God wants—all God wants is for us to be able to live and love with our whole heart. If this season of Lent can help us move more to that place, then come Easter, we will understand how dry bones can live again. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 18, 2015

It’s not about fitting in….

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Picture your toughest year socially in school. That year where you were struggling the most to figure it all out. Got that picture in your head? What grade was it? And as you tried to navigate that social minefield, what did you long for the most? To fit in. And so what did you do?

Okay, in my day, all the girls had those purses with the tortoise shell handles and the covers that you buttoned on, 4 buttons on each side—circa 1980. Anybody remember those? And you just had to have one of those purses if you wanted to fit in. The only problems was, I never had the right cover at the right time. When they had plaid, I had denim. When I got plaid, they were on to pastels. Oh, it was work to figure it all out, but I wanted to be “with it”, I wanted to be “cool”. Okay, and don’t think this goes away just because you become an adult.

So, this afternoon, I leave to go for a week-long training with Brene Brown. This past week, I went shopping for some jeans, because all mine had holes in them, and then I got a few casual shirts, because I want to look light and fun, and Julia, who has read The Gifts of Imperfection looks at me over dinner one night and says, “Mom, why are you trying to look perfect because this is all about imperfection—the gifts of imperfection, Mom?” Busted. Oh, it’s so much fun to get busted by your 11-year old. So, why am I expending all this energy on my clothes when I never spend energy on my clothes? Because I want to fit in. Okay, anybody else with me on this???

So, let’s jump over to our lesson today from I Corinthians. Listen to what Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people.”

What does this sound like to you? It sounds like total people-pleasing. It sounds like a lot of changing yourself to fit in to me. If you’re a Jew, I’ll be a Jew, in order to win you over. If you are under those 613 laws from the Old Testatment, I’ll observe 613 laws, to win you over. If you are outside the law completely, heathen though you are, I’ll be a heathen, to win you over. If you are weak, even if I’m strong, I’ll be weak, to win you over. Whatever you are, I’ll become that, to win you over. So, what are we to make of Paul the greater fitter-in-er? There has to be more going on here.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Remember that moment in school, or last week, when you really wanted to fit in? What is the need beneath that need? Brene Brown has rightly identified it—it’s the need to belong. The need that we all have to feel that we are loved and accepted, even more, it’s the need to feel that we are loveable and acceptable. Now, here’s the weird thing, and again, it’s Brown that first helped me see this. Our deepest need is to belong, and that’s a need that every human being has, and we think that the way to belong is to fit in. If we just fit in, we tell ourselves, then we belong. But belonging is that deep acceptance, by another, of who you are as you are, and if you change yourself to fit in, then the you that gets accepted by the group isn’t the you that is really you because you changed that you to fit in. Brown notes that the number one barrier to belonging is, what? You guessed it, fitting in.

So, there are two ways to look at what Paul is doing. One, he’s just trying to fit in all over the place, kind of like me and my tortoise shell purse. Two, he knows who he is in the depth of his being; he knows he belongs in the deepest most profound way possible; he knows who he is as one who is absolutely, totally, completely loved and accepted by God. He, in the words of Paul Tillich, has “accepted that he is accepted” without qualification. And, from that deepest place of belonging, he knows that he is absolutely connected to every other human being on this planet.

He belongs to them,

            and they belong to him,

                        because they all belong to God.

And from that place, he can try on any identity in the world. All those other identities—Jew, under the law, outside of the law, weak—they are just like clothes that you put on and take off. They aren’t who you really are. And it’s fine to put those identities on, as long as you know who your True Self is. Paul is secure enough in his belonging that he can move fluidly among all these different kinds of people. All these differences are no threat to him because he knows to what and to Whom he belongs.

Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” “That I might by all means save some.”

 “Save”, “sozo”, to heal, to make well, to restore, to make whole.

Paul is reaching out to whomever by whatever means he can to help them know, “You belong, you’re connected, you are restored to the whole. All those things that you think divide you, they are nothing, just the trappings of identity, but your true identity, it is deep, it is unshakeable, it is secure, it is indissoluble, you belong to God, you belong to Christ, you belong, period.” That is good news. That is gospel. And when you help people to know that, you are swimming in blessing.

And once you know that you belong at that deepest most fundamental level, you are indeed under an obligation to proclaim and share that good news with others. Once you know that you belong at that deepest level, you are free in ways that defy imagination. Just imagine what it would be like not to be haunted by all the things we think we need to do to fit in, to meet other people’s expectations of who or what we should be. I don’t know that I can wrap my mind around that. Obviously, based on what I shared earlier, I still have a ways to go, but I have an inkling of what that freedom might be like, and every time I taste it, it is good. But with that freedom comes an obligation, a responsibility, to help others see and claim and taste and know that freedom for themselves—the freedom that comes when you know that your belonging is not in question.

Maybe so much of our conflict comes from trying to fit in and make others fit in before we extend our love and care and concern. What would be possible if we left fitting in behind and worked instead from that secure place of belonging that understands that we are already connected to the Source of Life and that our job is to help others see this and live from this deepest place of truth. What if we understood that our job is to help others get reconnected to the whole? Isn’t this what Jesus is doing when he reaches out and touches Simon’s mother-in-law and lifts her up and her fever leaves? Isn’t this what Jesus is doing when he reaches across some great cultural divide and touches the untouchable? Isn’t that touch the very thing that reconnects that person to the whole? Isn’t that what salvation is all about?

Simon and his companions found Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.” Isn’t that just another way to say, “Everyone wants to belong.” And his reply? “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. They have to know, you have to know, you belong. You are in me, and I am in you, and we are in God.

For all of us fitter-in-er’s, could there possibly be any better news than that?

Truly, this is the gospel that our hearts and souls long to hear.

Embrace this good news, and then be heralds of it,

by all means possible with everyone you meet.

Be a part of this great knitting back together

of the fabric of the whole. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; February 8, 2015

Rebuke whatever gets in the way of your relationship with God

Rev. Kim Becker; 4th Sunday after the Epiphany; Feb. 1, 2015; Mark 1:21-28

As a scary movie buff, I have seen The Exorcist many times, including the uncut director’s version that is even more terrifying. The Exorcist is a classic because it portrays the ancient rivalry deeper than any Super Bowl: the contest between good and evil.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I once received a call from a patient convinced she needed an exorcism. I told myself there was probably a rational explanation for her claim. Still, as Christians we pray the Lord’s Prayer —deliver us from evil —and in our baptismal covenant we renounce Satan and all spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. The Episcopal Church recognizes the possibility of the need for the ministry of exorcism, however rare, stating that if a priest suspects the need for exorcism that priest is to contact the bishop, who alone has the authority to proceed. In this case my patient’s schizophrenia and cancer that had metastasized to her brain were the likeliest reasons for her sense of being possessed by evil, and thankfully she was reassured with prayers and the offer of a house blessing. Still, as I entered that house I was praying protection since I had no idea what was waiting for me once I crossed the threshold. In Jesus’ time no one would have questioned the possibility of the need for an exorcism or the validity of unclean spirits. No one would have been quick to explain the phenomenon away as being due to physical or mental illness as modern readers are apt to do. And yet as contemporary Christians we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility of evil.

Our collect for the day alerts us to the theme of God’s authority that ties the readings together. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus actually embodies, incarnates, a new teaching, one with authority. And so while today’s Gospel passage seems to be about exorcism it really isn’t. Or rather exorcism exemplifies the primary message: the authority of Jesus’ teaching.

Today, with so much information available from so many sources, how do we discern whether a source is truthful or not? Many of us rely on Snopes to fact-check circulating stories, but as Christians, we can rely on Scripture to faith-check our salvation story. Jesus has unique credentials: when he was baptized by the prophet John, a voice from heaven said “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus doesn’t preach on a street corner; he goes straight to the synagogue, the heart of Jewish sacred space and center of control. We don’t know the content of his teaching, only that everyone was astounded by it, including the scribes, professional authorities who interpreted Jewish law and therefore were used to controlling Scripture. Mark omits the content of the teaching in order to highlight the authority of the Teacher. The scribes’ authority was self-appointed whereas Jesus has already been appointed as God’s Beloved Son.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” How did the man know Jesus’ name? Don’t we always study our enemies and know our rivals’ identity? Using someone’s name was a way to gain the upper hand. And who is the we? Does the man have multiple personalities or does the use of the plural resonate with the later confession we are legion Jesus extracts from another unclean spirit in another exorcism? Have you come to destroy us? Some read this as fear. I hear it also as challenge. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Maybe bravado. Either way, the unclean spirit knows it has met its match. But why did the man with the unclean spirit cry out? Why would something evil blow its own cover? Why would evil announce itself that way?

In watching news stories about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I remembered a quotation by Elie Wiesel who said that Hitler was the only person ever to keep his promise to the Jewish people. Sometimes evil does indeed announce itself. At my first parish, with help of some amazing teachers, I was honored to implement the first Journey to Adulthood program culminating in a pilgrimage to Prague. One of the places we visited was the concentration camp Terezin. This was the model camp set up by Nazis. I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a collection of artwork and poetry by these children. Evil speaks but goodness speaks with more authority. And lest we think the Holocaust was only in Europe let us not forget the genocide here against American Indians on the Trail of Tears. Evil can and does announce itself.

How does Jesus respond to the man with the unclean spirit? Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” It is also the only time in this passage that we hear any actual content of Jesus’ amazing teaching and it is then we realize that the exorcism isn’t an interruption to the teaching it IS the teaching! The writer of the Gospel of Mark silences the rest of Jesus’ teaching so that what we see is Jesus the Teacher: Jesus’ authority rests not only in what He says, but in Who He is: the Holy One of God. Life cannot always be scripted. Interruptions happen (and I remember my first bishop reminding clergy that our interruptions are our work!), but a good teacher knows that an interruption can lead to a teachable moment. A teacher with less authority than Jesus would have likely tried to shout over the commotion or called for the man’s physical removal without addressing the spiritual crisis. Rather than avoid confronting the man, Jesus instead meets him where he is, in his suffering, which is where Jesus meets all of us.

The reaction of the crowd was as expected: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” The effect on Jesus’ reputation is that his reviews on Rate My Professor go way up: At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. This may seem like good news, who wouldn’t want to be famous as a teacher, but remember that up til now even Jesus’ disciples didn’t know his true identity and as Jesus’ fame spread, he became more of a threat to those already in authority. A regular miracle worker curing people of demons would have been cause for celebration, not crucifixion.

But something still troubles me about the passage: why did the man with the unclean spirit cry out to begin with? Could it be that the man with the unclean spirit was hurting and wanted to be recognized? Maybe it was a human cry mixed with the unclean spirit’s cry. This reminds me of what the poet Rilke wrote: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Maybe it was not only the unclean spirit crying out, but the man trapped, helpless, by what he could not control.

Jesus not only delivered the man from the unclean spirit but also delivered the man back to himself. In his advice to a young poet, Rilke was suggesting that in the act of creating, artists must go straight to the scariest deepest parts of ourselves. In the act of freeing the man from the unclean spirit, Jesus reminds us that in creating a life we do not have to act alone: we can co-create with God to change even the most demonic parts of ourselves, so that by God’s grace, we are brought back into right relation not only with God, but with ourselves and our communities.

Only God can restore us to sanity and serenity.

Have we encountered evil? Perhaps not in the dramatic way of the Gospel, but what about the racial slur or homophobic remark we overhear and do not rebuke? Are we not then complicit? If we fail to respect the dignity of every human being have we not ourselves succumbed to unclean spirits? The antidote to unclean spirits is the Holy Spirit.

The world is full of heartbreak and downright evil, but there is also astonishing beauty. Not too long ago I saw, for the first time, a circum zenithal arc more commonly called an upside down rainbow or a smile in the sky. My response was much like the Psalmist’s: Hallelujah! …Great are the deeds of the Lord!….His work is full of majesty and splendor! Does it detract from the event to know there is a scientific explanation for it having to do with high altitude and ice crystals? Not at all. When we see with the eyes of faith we see things differently. It is good to use our reason. It is also good to use our faith. We live in that tension and our challenge is to discern what and whose authority we are willing to follow in our lives and then to rebuke whatever gets in the way of our relationship with God.

It is an ongoing process. Progress not perfection. But there are moments when evil is rebuked and we are amazed. The decision to overturn the sit-in conviction of the Friendship Nine who dared to sit at a white lunch counter was explained thus by the Judge: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” As a nation we continue to exorcise the evils of racism and our work is not done. As Christians the Holy Spirit has already begun a good work in us. And the Holy Spirit is always, always, capable of doing far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Amen

Why follow this particular man Jesus?

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Is anybody else in awe of Simon and Andrew, James and John? I mean, really. We’re only at verse 14 of Mark’s gospel, and the only thing that Jesus has done so far is make a pronouncement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Look around—people make pronouncements all the time. Words. Words. Words. So, Jesus is passing along the Sea of Galilee, and he sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea because they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Promises. Promises. Lots of people make promises. But the text tells us, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Jesus goes a little father, and he sees James and John. Now, they were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately Jesus called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Why? Why do they immediately leave the life they’ve known for a life they know nothing about? What on earth could compel them to do that? Words, promises. That particular season of time in Israel’s history was full of words and promises. The Zealots had a vision. The Jerusalem elite had a vision. The Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees and lawyers had a vision. The Romans had a vision. Lots of people, lots of words, lots of promises, lots of visions.

So, why follow this particular man who spoke these particular words who made this particular promise? Well, he was different. He didn’t speak of his vision; he spoke about something fuller, bigger. He didn’t seem to be tied to this time, our time, chronos time; he was rooted and grounded in kairos, God’s time. He spoke about a fullness of time, pleroma, a moment so full of possibility as to defy what should be possible. He spoke of a kingdom, but it was a realm of a whole different order. It was a time and space infused with God. And he was daring to say that what everyone else thought was so far away, well, he dared to say that it was close, as close as your breath, as close as the image you see when you look in your neighbor’s eyes.

Wait a minute, this isn’t what we have been taught. God is far away. God’s kingdom is in the next life. Wait a minute, you’re saying that this all has something to do with this life??? For those hearing these words, they’ve got to be thinking, “Jesus, man, you are blowing my mind.” And then comes that great, great word—“repent”“metanoia”—change your mind, get a new mind, go beyond your mind and believe, trust, lean into the good news of God. Not with your head. Don’t believe with your head. This isn’t about assent to a set of intellectual propositions; this is about daring to let your heart trust the good news of God. What good news? The good news that you are beloved of God. The good news that God longs for your wholeness, and your wholeness, and your wholeness, and the wholeness of all creation. The good news that nothing lies outside the realm of God; it is near, and it is here; as Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”

But still, what compelled these fishermen to follow, and not just to enter into a prolonged process of discernment (which is what most of us do, and certainly what our church does, with call)? What compelled them to leave their nets immediately and follow him, no questions asked? I think it was something about his presence. Something in his recognition of them as fishermen, something in the way he blessed the essence of who they were at the core, and how he could see in them a something more, a something fuller, a something that they had never seen in themselves, a something that would be in complete continuity with all that they had been but also a something that would connect them so much more deeply with the whole human family.

If they fished for fish, now they would fish for people. If they mended nets, now they would be mending people. Binding up the brokenhearted. Proclaiming liberty to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. In a world of really, really bad news, they would be helping people to see and claim and internalize the good news of God’s love and solidarity, not in some abstract way, but in the grit and struggle and majesty of their very lives.

Something in him told something in them, “You don’t want to miss this. This is a life you don’t want to miss.” And when you’re young, you are all about taking that kind of risk. But those of us who aren’t so young anymore…can we imagine letting our hearts leap like that? Do we think we’ve invested too much in life as we know it to imagine following Jesus into a life without our safety net? Can we trust that the good news of which he speaks will carry us if we leave the tricks of our trade behind? Oh, it all sounds so risky. We might think, “I know how to navigate this sea, even when the storms come up. I don’t have any idea how I will do in new waters; I don’t know how I will do as a “follower”; I much prefer to call the shots, to be in charge, to maintain control, thank you very much. I don’t know about “following,” even following Jesus.” But something in him is speaking to something in us. I think we’re just gonna have to go, and let it unfold before us.

And if you’re reluctant, as I sometimes am, take heart. For all of the “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ” from the collect we prayed earlier, for all of the Simon and Andrew, James and Johns immediately answering the call, for everyone one of those who leap up to follow, there’s a Jonah headed for Tarshish.

It is no accident that the church pairs this Mark passage with this Jonah passage. Let us not forget that this is the second time the word of the LORD came to Jonah. Let us not forget that his full embrace of his prophetic task to speak that which God wanted spoken only came after fleeing in the opposite direction, lying, being cast over the side of the ship in a raging storm, being swallowed by a really big fish and spending three days in a really gross belly of a really big fish, culminating in being spewed up on the dry land. Then, Jonah was willing to say “yes”, but even then, he answers the call with a teeny bit of resentment still festering over how incredibly gracious and compassionate and merciful God really is.

For every Simon, Andrew, James, and John who lives inside of us eager to say “yes”, there is also a Jonah who will drag their feet all the way to Tarshish to avoid saying “yes.” Sometimes, our “yes” comes before its even registered what we’ve said “yes” to, and sometimes, we have to fight our way to “yes,” and we come kicking and screaming.

The point is we are bent toward “yes” when it comes to God.

 

Oh, we may try to avoid it for a while, but God can way outwait us. God is persistent. God is compelling. God is an expert woo-er. God is determined that we experience the good news of salvation, of being found when we feel lost, of being made whole when we feel fragmented, of being caught up in a net, not of our own making and mending, but of God’s love and compassion that can hold us even when the bottom falls out.

Today is about “call”, but even more, it’s about saying “yes” with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our spirit, with our flesh and blood, feet of clay, self.

So, as you sit in your boat, in your life, doing what you know to do, let yourself be seen by Jesus. Let him call you in the depth of who you are, not in spite of it. He is calling for you to follow him, and he will show you how the road from here with him       will be in continuity with who God has made you to be up until now. And this is really important. God calls you as the unique, precisely you that you are. Whatever your job, your vocation, God calls you within that, not apart from that, not in spite of that. Nothing is wasted, ever. My crazy attention to detail that I honed as an accountant, God took that gift and transformed it into an attention to detail in the text  that enables me to see things in the Bible that might otherwise be overlooked. Everything in us can be taken and shaped to a holy and lifegiving end.

Repentance. How will you need to repent, how will you need to change your mind, enlarge your mind, go beyond your mind, to follow him? What will you need to relinquish to trust that the good news of which Jesus speaks is good news for you?

And if your journey is more in the Jonah style, can you pause long enough to ask, Why am I fleeing the “yes”? Can you trust that even your detours can eventually land you where you need to be,     even if your head is rebelling? Sometimes, we need to encounter the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy, in spite of ourselves, to get to the depth of God’s “yes” to us and to get to the deep “yes” that we long to say in return.

We never hear how old Jonah fares with his resentment. Does he cling to his judgments? Or does he let his heart melt at the transformation that is possible when we lean into God’s good news? Jonah may be duking it out with God still, but you and I, we can soften into grace and mercy—what is keeping us from following God there, immediately? What net is snaring us, keeping us from feeling our innate connection with our brothers and sisters (even the evil ones), and can we leave that net behind for the more abundant life that Jesus promises?

Saying “yes”—it sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard. It sounds so once-and-for-all, and yet, it’s a “yes” we have to say over and over again, daily, choice by choice.

This is God’s time; there’s a fullness to this moment;  God is so very near.

If your mind is in the way, give it a nod, acknowledge its anxiety and hesitancy, but, as they say, “Don’t give it the keys to the car.” Drop down below the mind, let that something in him speak to that something deep in you. And then leave your nets behind and follow him. You’ll never fully understand it, but your heart won’t rest until you say “yes.” Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 25, 2015

Letting the boxes fall away

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; I Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Do you ever feel like you’ve been boxed in? Like people have this perception or this image of you that you just can’t shake? Take school. Did you have that experience of being labelled a certain way in the 3rd grade and you then had to carry that label all through school, or at least until you went to a different school? Do people think they have your number, but secretly, inside, you know they don’t have your number at all? And that’s just what other people can do to us. What about the boxes we put around ourselves? Do we not attempt something because it’s outside our box? Is our identity so strong that we can’t see ourselves beyond that identity? And what if something in that identity shakes loose—where are we then? Oh, wow, and we haven’t talked about the cultural boxes. What are some of the boxes prescribed by our culture? Gender, race, class, political affiliation, your college basketball team, your school—woe to the person who steps outside the box.

So, we’ve got some boxes in the scriptures today.

There’s the age box. And this cuts both ways today. In our first lesson today, we hear the story of the Samuel and Eli. The boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under the old priest Eli. Samuel was like a son to Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. We’re told that “Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.” It would be easy for others to see Eli as being on his way out, someone who could be disregarded, ignored, an irrelevant priest who couldn’t see a vision if his life depended upon it.

One night, the boy Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was—Samuel was lying down close to the mystery. Eli was lying down in his room. The LORD called out, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Here I am!” Samuel thought it was old Eli. He runs to Eli—“Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I didn’t call; go lie down.” It happened again, “Samuel!” Samuel ran back to Eli’s room—“Here I am for you called me.” “Uh, nope; I didn’t call my son; go lie down again.” The LORD called a third time, and the boy went to Eli—“Here I am, for you called me.”

Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. Then, Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the LORD came and stood there, stood there, right before Samuel, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”—almost with that “can I please get a hearing?” tone. And this time, Samuel said, “Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.”

Then the LORD laid out before Samuel a harrowing vision indeed. It wasn’t what Samuel wanted to hear it all. The LORD revealed to Samuel how the house of Eli was about to be utterly destroyed. You see, Eli’s two boys were priests, but they were scoundrels. They stole from the offerings that people made; they engaged in sexual misconduct; they abused their power, and all of this denigrated the people of God and God Godself. It was the worst of clergy abuse. Wherever there is power, there is the potential for abuse of that power.

Now, we might not understand or even believe in a God who active destroys those who do evil—that sure doesn’t fit my “loving God” frame—but the point here is that God isn’t cool with priests abusing their power, and God will remove them from service. In our day and time, priests who abuse their office are taken through a Title IV canonical proceeding and deposed, stripped of their holy orders; in that day and time, God handled it a little more directly.

At any rate, Samuel loved the old priest Eli, and the last thing he wanted to do was tell Eli about the vision. Samuel didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night. He lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell Eli about the vision. Eli may not have been able to see, but his powers of perception were still quite intact. Eli called to Samuel, and said, in the most tender of voices, “Samuel, my son.” Samuel responded, now for the fifth time, “Here I am.” Eli couldn’t see Samuel’s eyes clearly, but he could sense their sadness; he could sense the shift in Samuel—“What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. None of this was news to Eli—he’d known of the problems with his sons, and he knew that there would be grave consequences when those boys kept abusing their power. Then Eli said, from a place of total surrender, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

And Eli knew that the mantle had passed.

There is so much to this story.

It would have been tempting for Eli to stay in the “irrelevant” box, or the “I can’t see so well anymore, what use am I” box; it would have been tempting not to exert the energy to exercise the gifts of perception that he had spent a lifetime cultivating. Eli has to step out of all the boxes so that he can hear what is actually happening between God and Samuel. Without old Eli’s wise counsel, there is no mechanism for the young boy Samuel to know what to do with this experience.

And it would have been tempting for the young Samuel to completely disregard the voice calling him. Samuel could have thought Eli was just a goofy old guy muttering in his sleep and rolled over and gone back to sleep, but Samuel didn’t see Eli as that old priest who should be disregarded. But having dodged that box, there was another that Samuel would have to contend with, and that’s the “I’m just a kid” box—“who am I to receive such a vision, and who am I to speak it???” Samuel will have to step out of the “I’m not worthy, I’m not experienced enough, I’m not courageous enough” box to speak the word that God has given him to speak. And actually, these boxes can come up no matter your age. It is hard to speak a hard truth. We have to shed a lot of boxes and ground ourselves in a different place to have the courage to receive and reveal the hard visions.

Let’s leave Samuel and Eli for a minute and go to the gospel story for today. That exchange between Philip and Nathanael is just classic; this is the “can anything good come out of Nazareth” box. That’s almost humorous, because do you know where Nathanael was from? He was from Cana. It’s not like Cana was any big metropolis or anything. Cana was two ridges over. The big deal in that part of Galilee was Sepphoris. That was where the scene was happening. Nazareth lay to the south of Sepphoris and Cana to the north. It’s like a rivalry that might develop between, say, Boone and Blowing Rock, with a cosmopolitan Asheville in-between.

But really, don’t we do this “can anything good come out of Nazareth” thing all the time? Can anything good come out of the other political party? Can anything good come out of that other religion? Can anything good come out of someone who hangs out with those people? Think of who really gets under your skin, that person that you endlessly argue with in your head, that person that you’ve spent hours and days trying to figure out, and by golly, you’ve done it; you’ve got their box nailed down. Ever done that? Show of hands? Honest show of hands? Okay, then you know Nathanael.

And here’s the way cool thing about Philip’s response. He doesn’t argue the facts with his friend whose vision is about this wide. He doesn’t cajole, rebut, refute, make his case, prove his point. What does he do? What does he say? “Come and see.” In this story, it’s only by engaging with the other, getting to “know” the other that the boxes fall away and we can “see” the One whom we couldn’t see before. Nathanael has to let go of who he thinks this guy from Nazareth is to see the One in whom heaven and earth meet, the One around whom the energy of God just swirls—the text describes it as angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man—what a great way to describe this energy of God that just swirled around Jesus—you could feel it, and in some mystical way, you could see it.

Boxes. We get them today, and we’ll get them several weeks from now on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when we hear the story of the Transfiguration. Boxes. We deal with them all the time.

What boxes have you applied to yourself and to others? What purpose are they serving you, and what might be possible if you let them fall away?

What might be possible if you step beyond them? What reconciliation might open up if you let others out of them?

What could we hear and perceive from God if we lower the walls around our hearts and lay our hearts open before God and listen with all our being?

What courage might be unleashed if we know our identity is sure and solid in that psalm 139 kind of way where we know that the LORD has searched us out and known us, knows our sitting down and our rising up, discerns our thoughts, traces our journeys and our resting-places and is acquainted with all our ways?

What might we see of Jesus if we lay aside our preconceived notions and simply come?

So, let us end where we began.

May we have the courage to be Eli to one another, to perceive that the LORD is calling,    and to encourage one another to utter those most frightening and vulnerable of words, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

May we have the courage of Samuel to keep answering, “Here I am,”        even if it’s the last place you want to be.

May we have the courage of Philip not to argue the boxes, but to stand firm in the mystery of a deeper truth.

May we have the courage of Nathanael to move beyond our skepticism and come and see anyway.

And may we have the patience and presence of Jesus who knows that the only way out of the boxes is encounter with him—the One in whom and through whom all things live and move and have their being.

Jesus defied the boxes, always, and it will be he who will show us how to live when we let the boxes fall away. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 18, 2015

The flow of Love

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

It has been a bad week in the news—across the world and in the church.

The world has watched three days of terror unfold in Paris beginning with the attack on the headquarters of a French satirical magazine known for its over-the-top cartoons. In that initial attack, 12 people were gunned down, followed by two related hostage events on Friday that resulted in the deaths of 8 more—4 hostages, three attackers, and a police woman—20 people dead when it was all over.

A smaller part of the world has watched the story unfold around Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland (Ok, polity lesson, the Diocesan Bishop has charge over a geographical area known as the diocese. A Suffragan Bishop is elected to assist the Diocesan Bishop in their duties. Bishop Cook was consecrated as the Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland last September.) On December 27th, in the middle of the afternoon, Heather Cook struck and killed a bicyclist and left the scene of the accident, returning 30 minutes later. In the aftermath of the accident, it came out that she had a DUI in 2010. This past Friday, she was taken into custody and faces eight charges, including manslaughter, homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol, failure to immediately return and remain at the scene of an accident involving death, and use of a text messaging device while driving causing an accident with death. The bicyclist was a man in his 40’s, married, two young children.

Both of these events are tragic beyond belief. Both have caused senseless death. Both of these events are complicated and raise layer upon layer of questions. My remarks today will be a little rough around the edges—not enough time has passed yet for me to have waded through all the adrenalin that swirls in the news cycle to get down to the heart of the matter; I haven’t prayed my way through them enough. Doggone, I am still processing the events from last August in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t process fast. And yet, the world moves on, and a response is needed.

So, what are we going to do today? How are we going to respond? Well, we are going to baptize Elliot and Judson, and I can’t think of a more powerful action than that. This is no small thing we do today, and let me tell you why. Today, with water and the Spirit, we will baptize Elliot and Judson in the name of the Trinity and remind them that they are always in the flow of love, and that everything swims in that flow of love. We will anoint Judson and Elliot, and we will proclaim, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” We will imprint them with the cross, literally, we will mark it on their forehead, and in so doing, we say, “Elliot, Judson—dying and rising, losing your life and finding it, loss and beginning anew, falling down and starting again—this will be the pattern of your life; this is how you will make sense of things.” Today, we introduce Judson and Elliot to the True Self, to their True Self. Today, we say, “This is who you are—YOU are a son of God; YOU are Beloved; with YOU, God is well pleased.”

And then, and then, Elliot and Judson, we lay out a rule of life for you. We articulate the things we say “No” to—the prayer book calls them renunciations, those things to which we will not give our heart and our energy. We will not give our heart and our energy to “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”—that’s a whole lot of words to say but what we are talking about here are the cosmic forces of evil—that stuff that you sure know when you hit it but which is so hard to pin down. And we won’t give our heart and energy to “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”—that’s going to take us into the realm of all the ways that evil gets patterned into institutions and structures and systems. And we won’t give our heart and energy to “all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God”—again, a lot of words to say but here we are talking about those things in ourselves that draw us away from the God who has called us Beloved and from our awareness of our Belovedness.

And taking on these renunciations would be totally overwhelming, impossible, were it not for the fact that in Jesus, God has moved inside of our flesh, moved inside the reality of our lives; in Christ, God has knit divinity into every fiber of our being and life. This is the True Self, and from this solid place, we can move out with Christ, and in Christ, and through Christ, we can move in the Way that truly leads to life.

There are five vows that your parents and godparents will take today on your behalf, and which one day, if you choose, you will take on for yourself. They become guideposts to help us navigate the Way of Jesus.

  • Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
  • Persevering in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.
  • Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
  • Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.
  • Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

And this is why what we do today is the most powerful action we can take today. Because these vows take us to a place that the world has such a hard time getting to right now.

In a world that says the newest thing is the best, we reach back to ancient wisdom. In a world that says you’re on your own, we commit to doing life together. In a world of never enough, we dare to proclaim that this simple meal of bread and wine and the real presence of Jesus can fill us full. In a world that is always plugged in, we unplug and rest in the presence and love of God.

Evil. Wow. We started this conversation last week when we looked at Herod’s barbarity, and this week, barbarity hit the news again. As followers of Jesus who have renounced evil in all its forms, we have to persevere in resisting it in whatever form it takes, starting with rooting it out in ourselves. But we can’t stop there.

  • We have to resist the evil perpetrated by those who killed the cartoonists.
  • We have to resist the evil that would take the Good News of Christianity or Islam or Judaism or secular humanism or any other tradition and turn it toward a murderous end.
  • We have to call out the misuse of sacred texts that pull out one line to the exclusion of the rest of the tradition to justify violent acts that hurt and destroy the creatures of God. You can twist anything to an ideological end, but we have vowed to direct our words and deeds to a different end.
  • We have committed ourselves to making the Good News of God in Christ known, which means, at every turn, we are seeking to make sure that people know that they are loved by God, reconciled with God, and that everyone falls inside that love, everyone.
  • This also means that we have to call out anything that demeans any of those beloved of God which, by virtue of the fact that every human being is made in the image of God and bears the Divine Breath, is all human flesh.
  • Should cartoonists be killed for exercising their free speech? Of course NOT; absolutely and emphatically NOT. But we also have to call out this coarsening of the culture that says, “I can say whatever I want no matter how offensive to another.” Am I for censorship? No. But by golly, we’ve got to call it whenever someone’s dignity is not being respected, and some of those cartoons published are not funny; they are offensive, demeaning, racist, and cruel. St. Paul got it right—we have rights to all kinds of things, but sometimes, we don’t exercise our right for the sake of a brother or sister. We have a hard won right to free speech, I get that, but if the exercise of that right denigrates something sacred to a brother or sister and disregards that most dear to their heart, well, how is that not just one more turn in the cycle of hate? I think we have to persevere in resisting that, too.

And repenting when we fall into sin? Whew. That’s the work before Bishop Cook now. But baptism also reminds us that she is more than her sin. She is more than even her repentance. She is a beloved daughter of God—that is who she is. As our Bishop, Bishop Taylor, said this week, “She is more than the worst moment of her life.” Her forgiveness by God is not in question, but forgiveness doesn’t erase consequences. No, it will be her acceptance of that forgiveness that will provide her the strength to face the consequences of her actions. Forgiveness is not a substitute for accountability. Repenting, naming clearly and without excuse the wrongs we commit, returning to Jesusthis is the way that we start to find our way out of the Good Fridays that we create; this is the pathway that will lead us out of the hell’s we traverse, and lead us toward life again.

Seeking Christ in all persons, remembering that our neighbor is a part of our own being, respecting the dignity of every human being. Oh, this is where it gets so hard. Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Incarnation—we just celebrated this at Christmas. God in human flesh. All flesh, all flesh is holy. We have to feel the pain of cartoonists who died, even if we cannot abide the cartoons they have drawn. We have to feel our connection to those who killed them, even if we cannot abide their barbaric acts of violence and terror. We have to feel the inconsolable grief of a family whose husband and father was ripped from them by the senseless choice of another. And we have to touch all those times in our own lives when we have made a senseless choice that has hurt another. And we have to challenge evil and resist evil, but we have to keep connected to the True Self that lives in you and in me and in every human being while we do so. Evil happens when we forget who we are, when we forget who every human being is. It is the self who doesn’t know that it lives in God, the self that doesn’t feel its connection to others, that feels so isolated and separated and cut off and afraid, it is that self that is capable of horrific acts. But the True Self is in there somewhere, and it is our task to keep reconnecting ourselves and others to that reality.

This week, Bishop Taylor closed his weekly reflection with this: “Let’s remember the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: ‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’”

Elliot and Judson, today we are helping you to claim your tender Beloved heart and the Divine Love that pulses through it. Your life will not be easy—dying and rising—this is your lot. But to know the vastness of the Divine Heart that holds your own, to know your kinship to every human being, to know the mystery of this connection, to know the pain and glory that comes when you realize there is but One Heart—I wouldn’t want it any other way, not for me and not for you. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 11, 2015