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Feed my sheep: A sermon for Chester

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks ; Easter 4—Year B; Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I have been waiting for this Sunday since the middle of last July, but we’ll get to that.

Okay, the gospel for today begs to be acted out. I need some help. I need sheep, I need a gatekeeper, I need a thief, I need a hired hand, I need a wolf.

The images in John 10 keep sliding around, so bear with me while we sort this out. To get to the images from the gospel today, we have to back up in chapter 10. So, Jesus tells us that there’s a sheepfold, inside of which resides sheep. And across that sheepfold is a gate. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out, and when he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and they follow him, because why? They know his voice. Okay, freeze.

Jesus thought this image was brilliant, but his listeners didn’t get it at all. Oh, every preacher has been in that boat. So, take two.

Jesus is like, “Okay, scratch that last image. Let’s try this one. I am the gate. All the others who’ve come before, they are thieves and bandits, but the sheep didn’t listen to them.” Why? Because they don’t know that voice. “I am the gate, and whoever enters the sheepfold by me will be saved, and the sheep will come in through me, and go out through me, and they’ll find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Okay, freeze. Jesus looks at his listeners, “Got it now?”

Okay, scratch that one too. Let’s try this one. Take three. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. Why does the hired hand run away? Because a 13hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me, and I know Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. Everyone gets a shepherd; no one is stuck with a hired hand. No one will be left insecure, left on their own to fend off the wolves with their life in the hands of someone who will abandon them at the first sign of trouble. God loves me because I am all-in with my sheep. God loves me17God love because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own free choice. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. This is what God has called me to do.”

Okay, freeze. So, Jesus is the shepherd. Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the good shepherd. Any way you cut it, Jesus loves his sheep, and his sheep love him. Jesus knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. Jesus knows their name, and his sheep know his voice. Hired hands are fly-by-night operations with no skin in the game; Jesus has all his skin in the game, his body, his flesh, his life. Jesus has the freedom to lay his life down, but not to end it, but SO THAT he can fall into a bigger life, a bigger “YES.”

+++

Okay, you may go sit down.

+++

But for John, there is more to the story. And we get it in John 21. Shepherds don’t just guard the sheep, but they have to feed them, personally. After the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of John do you love me?” Each time, Peter answers with some form of, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies with this progression, “Then, feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” And this is where last July comes in.

Last July, we were on the Isle of Iona. Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about Iona. It is stunningly beautiful. It is incredibly remote, hard to get to, and rugged. It is holy ground; one of those places, as they say, where the veil between heaven and earth is very, very thin. And, it is full of sheep. Sheep fenced in pasture, sheep roaming freely, sheep in the middle of the road, sheep in the sand traps on the golf course; sheep in the fairways; sheep tending the flag on the 18th green.

So, Julia made it her mission to feed the sheep. With handfuls of freshly picked grass, she embarked on her mission. And every time she attempted to do just as Jesus said, the sheep did what? They scattered like water bugs as fast as they could. +++ She ran toward them, they ran away faster. This is when I first learned that sheep are incredibly skittish creatures. It is not easy to feed sheep. They do not trust easily. You have to win their trust.

Well, this went on for a full 24 hours. But Julia was in touch with her inner shepherd, and she was not to be denied; she was bound and determined to feed those sheep. This took some figuring out though; this was going to take some strategy. So, Julia changed her tactics. Instead of chasing the sheep, she bent down low, she extended her hand full of grass, she got very, very still, and she waited. And lo and behold, this one sheep, he came over to her. And that sheep, whom she named “Chester,” Chester ate right out of her hand. +++ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful sight. I, realist that I am, I had come to believe that it just wasn’t possible to feed these sheep, they were too skittish. But Julia never stopped believing. Quite simply, it was her mission to feed sheep, and feed them she would. Even more, she wouldn’t give up until she had made that connection, and that connection involved knowing that sheep by name.

Humbling when the priest-kid gets the gospel more than the priest. “And a little, though not so little anymore, child shall lead them…”

+++

Jesus is indeed the good shepherd in John 10, and we are lost without that deep trust that he has our back and can lead us to the still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death out into that place where we can feed on the abundant life. He wins our skittish souls over by being very patient and very still, and inviting us to leave our skittishness, our wariness, our cynicism that this is just one more hired hand trying to take something from us, maybe even our very life, Jesus invites us to leave our skittishness aside and to join him in this stillness where we can come close, where his hand can meet our hunger, where he can feed our hungry souls. And in that moment of encounter, we hear him call our true name, and not all the names and roles and identities that the world calls us. He calls us by our soul nameChester, beloved lamb of God; Cyndi, beloved daughter of God; Peter, Michael, Judy, Allan, your neighbor’s name, your enemy’s name, your very own name, beloved child of God.

Jesus is the good shepherd, but by the end, he commissions us to feed his sheep. Going deep in love always flows back out to the world as a feast. And so, we, with Peter, with Julia, we have a mission to feed the sheep. But here’s the thing, the sheep out in the real world, they are skittish, they don’t trust us, and why would they after all the ways that, down through the centuries, we, as the church, have acted more like hired hands, if not downright wolves, when it comes to feeding and connecting to the sheep?

No, we will have to build relationship one sheep at a time. We will have to build trust one sheep at a time. When we want to cram the grass that we think the sheep need down their throats, we have to cultivate patience. When the sheep we earnestly want to feed flee from us, we have to sit down and get real honest about our methods and motivations—is this about feeding sheep, or something else?

We have to learn to be still first. We have to take the time to extend a hand and wait. We have to be willing to know the feel of this particular sheep. We have to learn how to call their true name, which means we better well know our true name, so that they can recognize the sound of the good shepherd’s voice calling to them through our own. We have to be willing to lay down our life, our agendas, our timetables, so that we, and those we seek to feed, can fall into that bigger life, that more abundant life that Jesus promises will be ours when we finally connect in that deep communion with another. And we must always remember that we are at one moment shepherd and the next moment sheep. We must be able to receive, as well as give; feed, as well as be fed.

I learned more about the Good Shepherd and our call to feed the sheep that day last July on the Isle of Iona than I ever knew was possible. All I know is that when we slow down, and that moment of connection happens, there is nothing more beautiful in all of this world.

Jesus is bent down low, hand extended, perfectly still—     you can trust this shepherd; make your way to him and let him feed you from the palm of his hand. And then, with your belly full,            go and do likewise.    Every last sheep in this world deserves to know a shepherd who is good. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 26, 2015

Resurrection: Being all in with life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 3—Year B; Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

We are now two full weeks into the Easter season, but the church just won’t let us leave THAT day, the first day of the week, the day when the tomb is empty, when life can’t stay contained, when Jesus, who we thought was dead and gone is very, very much alive.

In Luke’s gospel, it goes like this. The women come to anoint the body only to find the stone rolled away. Messengers confront them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They return from the tomb and tell the eleven and all the others, but, and the Common English Bible puts it this way, “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.” But something awakened in Peter’s heart because he ran to the tomb. He sees the linen cloth, and then he returns home wondering what in the world had happened.

On that same day, two disciples are on their way to Emmaus when this stranger comes alongside them. They are incredulous that this stranger doesn’t know all that has happened over these last three days. Then, they pour their hearts out—all their sadness, all their shock, all their grief, and then a whole other round of shock at the women’s news that he was alive, which eventually was confirmed when some of the group went to the tomb and found it “just as the women had said.” This stranger then called the two disciples on their dull minds that prevent them from believing all that the prophets talked about. Then he broke open the scriptures for them starting with Moses all the way through the prophets.

When they got to the village of Emmaus, it was late, and they asked the stranger to stay with them. He did, and when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave to them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. And in the next instant, he was gone. But they knew. And then they knew what that strange sensation was that they had felt as he broke open the scriptures—it was their heart burning in recognition that it was true, and they could trust that it was true. Jesus was living. Different than before, but alive, maybe even more alive than when they had said goodbye to him at the Last Supper or in the garden of Gethsemane or at the foot of the cross.

So, those two disciples hightail it back to Jerusalem to tell the story of what had happened to them on the road and at table with this stranger.

And while they are talking, now late in the evening, Jesus himself comes and stands among them. He first does what he always does, which is? (pause) He wishes them peace. Now, the text tells us that the disciples were startled and terrified, but again, that translation doesn’t do it justice. No, we are back to terrified and affrighted, thrown into terror. So, they were terrifiedand really terrified. And I suppose seeing someone whom you thought dead would be a terrifying thing, so a little compassion here for the disciples and their companions gathered.

And then, Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Again, the greek is helpful—here the word the NRSV translates as frightened is really much more about agitation. Jesus is asking, “Why are you agitated, restless, anxious, distressed, why are your insides all churned up, why have you lost your equanimity?” And this word for “doubts?” It’s not so much the “no, this can’t be true because it’s just not possible” doubt—the greek describes it this way, “the thinking of a man deliberating with himself.” Oh, I know that guy—this is the full committee in our heads, all voices present and accounted for, in full debate mode. Except, Jesus locates this inner debate not just in the head, but even more, in the heart. I’m not even sure what to make of that—the heart debating with itself.

Whatever is going on, these encounters with Jesus, and even just the news of them, have clearly completely unsettled the disciples, unleashed a torrent of terror, thrown their insides into chaos, thrown their heads into a swirl, and triggered a battle within the heart itself.

And into that chaotic swirl, Jesus gets very real and tangible and physical—“Look at my hands and feet. It’s I myself! It’s me. Touch me and see; a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then he showed them his hands and feet. And then we get this interesting line: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” This disbelieving isn’t about evidence-based doubting; the word means “to betray a trust”—this is much more about not trusting that this is true. Oh, and trust is often much more about the heart. The head may tell us the reasons we shouldn’t trust, but it is the heart that is afraid of being hurt again that keeps the inner debate going so that it never really has to leap into that ocean of vulnerability. And the really curious thing is that this struggle to trust is happening in the midst of an experience of joy that is soaked in a sense of wonder and amazement.

And that leads me to a concept I first heard about in Brené Brown’s work—foreboding joy. In her research, she discovered that joy is one of the most vulnerable things we can feel. If “vulnerability is defined as emotional risk, uncertainty, and exposure,” then you can begin to see why it is so hard to lean into joy because we all know that it can disappear in an instant. To feel deep joy is to let your heart be full-on open and exposed without any guarantees of anything except the possibility that it will be gone in the next instant. Brown notes, “When we lose the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding.”

She goes on to say that it can show up in different ways. The most common is to catastrophize when we start to feel that feeling of joy. We are enjoying peace and contentment, and we start thinking of all the things that have gone wrong in the past and could go wrong in the future. The other, and much more subtle form, happens when we just live disappointed and don’t expect much because it’s just so much easier to live in that disappointed place than to have your heart wide-open and experience a disappointment. All of these strategies, Brown notes, are “just trying to beat vulnerability to the punch.” She says, “We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.”

So, could it be that the disciples are caught in the grips of a whopping big dose of foreboding joy. The embodiment of resurrection is standing right before them, and their heads can’t go there, and their hearts can’t trust it. And I think this is more than us wrestling with our 21st century empirical doubts about a resuscitated body. I don’t know how Jesus’ resurrection body works, I don’t have a clue as to the physiology of that, but I don’t think that’s the real problem in believing—I think it’s much, much deeper than that. I think that we have a really hard time fully embracing the joy that overwhelms us when we let in the possibility that his life, Jesus’ life, God’s life is this big and alive and irrepressible.

When we have moved through our Good Friday’s—both our small and very personal crucifixions, and our big and very public ones—when our hearts have been completely laid open by loss and grief and abandonment and betrayal, it is very hard to let our hearts fall back into life and deep joy. And all this stuff about Jesus showing us his wounds, his hands, his feet, eating the daggone fish—it’s all a way of saying, “The scars remain, but there is life again; there is joy if your heart can trust that this life is indeed deeper than anything you fear.” It’s all a way of saying, “Resurrection is about being all-in with life—being all-in with your heart and your mind and your spirit and your body. Wherever death has held you captive, can you trust that space in your being to live again?”

Jesus is standing right before us, wounded and risen, why do we persist in our endless debates in our heads, why do we let our fear rule our hearts, why do we let our hesitancy and reluctance to trust dictate our lives? And what would happen if, in the midst of that swirl, we jumped anyway? What would happen if we took the leap and looked at Jesus and heard his voice calling to us through these sacred stories or in our sacred silence? What if, when the bread was broken, we recognized that strange sensation in our hearts for what it is, and knew, as St. Augustine knew, that our hearts had been “set on fire by God’s love?” What if we made a conscious decision to trust the wonder and mystery of Resurrection, instead of making peace with our skeptism? Could we handle that much joy? Could we handle that much life? Could we handle that much hope? Would you like to try?

We’re not saying that death and Good Friday will never come again—quite the contrary, we know it will come again, but why would we squander our resurrection life fearing that inevitable moment? Why not be all-in with resurrection and possibility and joy and wonder and amazement, and trust, that as the journey turns this way and that, Jesus will be right there “with us, beside us, behind us, before us, beneath us, above us, within us,” as the old Celtic hymn says?

Jesus is in our presence, here, now, today, fully alive, yearning to touch and be touched, what is keeping us from meeting him in that place of irrepressible joy? Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 19, 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter

The Rev Mike Tanner — Video — Lectionary

Today is The Day For Our Hearts to Leap!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks ; Easter Day—Year B; Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8 Video

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. Can you imagine how heavy their hearts must have felt? Bad enough that their beloved Lord had died in a horrible, public, violent way. Bad enough that his closest friends, his disciples, were nowhere to be found at the end. But the burial itself had been a rush job because he had died late in the day, and the sabbath was coming, so Joseph of Arimathea only had time to wrap the body in a linen cloth and lay it in the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of Joses saw where the body had been laid, but now, the sabbath had come, and nobody goes anywhere or sells anything on the sabbath.

They had waited and waited through that long sabbath day, and when the sun set, and the shops opened, Mary and Mary and Salome went and bought the spices. And so very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they made haste for the tomb. These women, they knew how to care for the dead with love and care and tenderness. To be sure, it wouldn’t take away their heartache, but in times of great loss and overwhelming sorrow and grief, there is a certain comfort in immersing ourselves in the rituals. They did have one dilemma to solve, though. “Who will roll away the stone that lay at the entrance to the tomb?” They were strong, but not that strong.

And while their heads were hard at work on that one, they lost all track of where they were until they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. If you’re Mary, Mary, and Salome, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? (pause) “Who did that? And whoever did that, have they taken the body?” And bodies matter. Saying goodbye to bodies matters. So, I’m imagining that they are working on a good dose of adrenalin right about now.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side…okay, that’s pretty specific, not a yellow robe or a brown robe, but a white robe, and not sitting on the left side or standing in the corner, but sitting on the right side…and, we’re told, “…And they, [the women], were alarmed.” Ya think?

Oh, the King James translation is so much better; it says, “And they were affrighted.” Try “ekthambeo” in the greek, try “And they were thrown into terror and amazement.” “Alarm” can be a slightly raised eyebrow, which I can’t do, but if I could, that would be “alarm.” But “thrown into terror and amazement” is a full-on, adrenalin-dump, system-on-full-alert, total fight-flight-freeze kind of moment. And then, this white-robed-young-man delivers the message that he came to deliver: “Do not be alarmed, do not be thrown into terror; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

 “Do not be alarmed”—that sounds awfully familiar, awfully close to what other otherworldly messengers have consistently proclaimed throughout the scriptures. What is it they say? (pause) That’s right, “Do not be afraid.”

So what do the women do? Do they go tell the disciples? Do they run and get Peter. Do they ditch the whole “go-tell-the-disciple-thing” and hightail it straight to Galilee?

No, they don’t do any of these things, they move into total flight mode. They fled from the tomb, for terror—that trembling, quaking kind of fear—and amazement had seized them, had laid hold of them, had possessed their mind. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid, their fear had put them to flight, compelled them to flee.

We may be all cool and collected sitting here 2,000 years later on this glorious Easter morning, but I am not convinced at all that we have come that far from Mary, Mary, and Salome’s fear-terror-amazement-flight response.

There are four different words in greek that are all used in this passage to get at this fear piece. There is the initial throwing them into terror, there is the trembling and quaking with fear, there is the sheer amazement, there’s the fear that moves to flight. But it is more complicated than that. Isn’t it always?

Let’s go back to the greek for that trembling, quaking kind of fear translated as “terror”—this word in greek is used to describe “the anxiety of one who distrusts his or her ability completely to meet all requirements, but yet, will do their utmost to fulfill their duty.” What was being asked of them? To not look for the Living God among the dead, and I know that’s a split infinitive, but the day demands it! What was being asked of them? To understand that they would meet Christ among the living, and that they would have to leave the well-known, well-worn ritual of this tomb to move into the mindbending, shatteringly unfamiliar experience of resurrection. And, to risk, to risk looking like a fool when you try to explain this experience of the sheer, tangible aliveness of God to those who think the story ended with the death on Friday.

And, oh, it gets better, this word that keeps popping up, “amazement,” listen to what it means: “displacement, a throwing the mind out of its normal state, alienation of the mind.” This is about the “displacement” of the mind because a whole other reality has just crashed in and exceeded the mind’s capacity to process it in any way that makes rational, logical sense.

If you want to understand this empty tomb in any way that is going to make sense to your mind, as they say in Vermont, “You can’t get there from here,” but just because it’s bigger than our minds can grasp doesn’t make what happened 2,000 years ago any less true or real; it means we’re traveling in that wondrous territory of Holy Mystery. All the fear and trembling and amazement they feel is because Life bigger than any life they have ever known before has shattered all that they knew to be safely held in a tomb. The only problem is that what they safely knew was dead, and now, they were being challenged, called to go and meet the Love that has come again.

Now then, their first run at this doesn’t go so well; they go to a total flight response, but God is good, and we can always circle back and try again. And you know, they must have done just that because here we are 2,000 years later celebrating the reality of that empty tomb. They might have fled, and goodness knows, everything in our minds is conspiring to have us do the same, but somewhere, not too far down that path, something grabbed their hearts and said, “Stop. Tell someone what you’ve seen. Tell someone what you’ve heard. You may think you are not up to the task. You may think you are not up to that which is being asked of you, but you are. You don’t have to do this alone; in fact, you can’t do this alone. You’ve got to tell the story, and you’ve got to grab a companion, and together, you’ve got to go meet him back out in the world, in Galilee.”

Our minds shut down when they can’t comprehend something. But today is a day for our hearts to leap. If you have to run away for a bit so your mind can stop its freakout, it’s okay, the resurrection, it already lives in you, and it won’t let you run for long.

Eventually, Jesus’ Life, his Love, his Power, his Energy, his Lifeforce, his Presence, it will start to show up everywhere, and the resonance with your heart and soul will simply be too strong to deny.

I am glad that Mary, and Mary, and Salome do the flight thing. It helps me to know that when I run the other way from the Living God, that I am not the first to do so, and that in the end, Love will come again, even to me when I am terrified, and afraid, and totally out of my right mind, and in this instance, my “right” mind might just be the barrier keeping mine eyes from seeing the glory of the Lord.

Whether we flee, or whether we fight with all the tools of our historical, critical, scientifically honed minds, or whether we freeze, paralyzed, unable to move forward or back—THE TOMB IS STILL EMPTY. He still is not where we left him. He has gone on ahead of us, and he will be waiting for us in Galilee. Fight, flight, or freeze, maybe do all three, but there is another way.

Tell somebody what your heart knows but your mind fights. Let the mystic inside of you have half a chance to breathe and speak what it knows. Then, grab another, and together head for Galilee and look for him. You’ve got absolutely nothing to lose, and your whole resurrected life to gain. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 5, 2015

Our Wilderness Wandering is Done!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter Vigil—Year B; Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22; The Gospel of Truth 4:1-8; Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ephesians 1:17-22; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8 Video

Oh, what a night! Overflowing, abundant, rich in every way. We see it and hear it and smell it and touch it and taste it—Love is come again, life returns, resurrection.

 “Rejoice! Sing! Be glad! This is the night!” the Exsultet rings out. And just as our sacred story has wound us around on a long and hard journey this past week, so now our sacred story immerses us in a different journey—the journey of creation and liberation, the journey of dry, dead bones who yearn to breathe and live, the eyes of the heart now clear to see the hope that is our inheritance, baptismal waters refreshing parched souls.

It is a journey wrought at such great cost. Every liberation is full of struggle. Every new beginning depends on an ending. Every birth comes through sweat and blood and labor. Resurrection comes only after the old life has breathed its last. So, our celebration this night is grounded in this great paradox of dark and light, life and death, liberation and loss, joy and grief.

But out of the great paradox, the Great Mystery is born. Tonight, Jesus has passed over from death into life, and is pulling us back into life whether we want to go or not.

When I sit with people who are dying, I am often struck by how hard it is for a person who has leaned into life and often fought so hard for life, I am struck by how hard it is for them to turn on a dime and yield, surrender, give their life over so that they can cross over to the other realm and be born anew. But I think it is equally true that those of us who have leaned hard into this Lent and Holy Week and have become fully acquainted with the delusions of our False Self, the shape of our sins, our patterns of death, it is equally hard for us to shed our graveclothes and leap with Jesus into the joy and freedom and power of resurrection.

To fall into grace and life and joy is the ultimate act of surrender.

But tonight, this is the call, this is the invitation. Jesus has danced his way into life this night, and he’s extending his hand, yearning for us to take it, bidding us to join him in the dance, as well.

Tonight is the night of “YES,” which means saying “no” to whatever shame or fear or anxiety or anger or resentment or inhibition would keep us from taking the hand of our Lord and stepping out onto the floor.

Christ has broken the bonds of death and hell, and that includes whatever has kept us all bound up, that includes whatever hells we have inhabited, that includes whatever has weighted us down and held us back. It is all put to flight; it is all washed away; our innocence is restored; we are redeemed, and not by denying all that we have come to know of ourselves through our Lenten and Holy Week journey, but preciously, we are redeemed within all of that by the Love that makes all things new.

This is the Passover of our Lord, and all creation resounds with a cosmic “YES”“YES, you are worthy of this much joy, this much freedom, this much life,” says our God.

It is almost more than our hearts can hold, so don’t even try. Tonight, let it fill you to the brim, let it top over,             let it spill over completely and cascade into the world. It’s been a long forty days, maybe even forty years, but our wilderness wandering is done. We are all thirsty for joy, and tonight, our joy is finally complete. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 4, 2015

Good Friday

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

This week that began last Sunday with such hope; this week that began with triumph and shouts of “Hosanna!” and a festival atmosphere has come to an ugly, violent, horrifying conclusion. And getting from there to here has led us through, what Cynthia Bourgeault calls, “the hall of mirrors.” All along the way, we have looked in various faces only to see ourselves reflected back. We have seen our courage, steadfastness, and faithfulness; we have seen our cowardice, our naked thirst for power, our vengeance and violence. We’ve anointed Jesus’ feet, and we’ve had him wash ours. We have stayed awake in the garden, for a bit, only to fall asleep in the end. We have hoped against hope that this ending would be different, and we have sold our hopes in bitter disappointment for 30 pieces of silver. We have pledged to stay true, only to throw that promise under the bus when it got too scary. We come limping into this day, exhausted by it all, wondering what else is there to say, what else is there to think, what else is there to do. We, like Pilate, come to this day with more questions than answers. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” that’s what Jesus told Pilate. Pilate could only reply, “What is truth?”

Isn’t that what we all want to know? What is truth? What is true? What is the ground that holds firm beneath our feet? What can we stake our life on? What holds the center while our lives swirl around in chaos? What is the truth that changes everything?

There are so many words today, but in the end, the words fall silent, and there is only Jesus, God in the flesh, arms outstretched holding all the pain and suffering of the world, holding the beheaded and the beheaders, holding the bombers and those they kill, holding the victims of earthquakes and tsunamis and ferry accidents, holding girls kidnapped and their kidnappers, holding all the sin and separation and division, holding all the violence that we can do to one another and to all of creation, holding all of it, taking it into his being, holding it in Divine Presence so that nothing, nothing, nothing need ever be outside Divine Presence again.

If our False Self, individually and collectively, is responsible for nailing Jesus to that cross, the True Self is what gazes back at us in reply—“You can do everything in your human power to cut yourself off from my Love, and my Love will hold you still. Even down to despair and desolation and forsakenness, my Love will hold you still. Even down to your last dying breath and the sheer silence in the moment after, my Love will hold you still.”

God refuses to be kept apart from our suffering—no matter the source of that suffering, no matter the cause of that suffering, no matter if that suffering is understandable or incomprehensible or without any meaning whatsoever—God refuses to be kept apart from our suffering; God drinks the dregs of that suffering, and in taking that suffering into his being, God fills even that space with Divine Presence.

You can’t wrap your head around this kind of truth, you can only gaze upon it and let it change you from the inside, out. You can only gaze upon this cross and gaze upon your life and gaze upon the world, and not just with your eyes, but to stand before this cross with your arms outstretched so that your heart can gaze without obstruction.

So, please stand up. Close your eyes. Stretch out your arms wide. It feels vulnerable doesn’t it? In your mind’s eye, just keep gazing, not looking, gazing—gazing is a heart thing—gaze until your heart recognizes the Love that is beyond imagining that can hold all of it in its arms.

Look long enough, and you notice—the questions fall away, the gamesmanship falls away, the maneuvering falls away, the running stops—all that’s left is to follow where your heart is already being held. “What is truth?” then ceases to be a question you ask because you simply know, “Nothing, nothing, nothing can separate you from the love of God.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 3, 2015

Walk through this week

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Palm Sunday—Year B; Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47. Video

This day never fails to take our breath away. At breakneck speed, we move from triumph to desolation. We move from the Mount of Olives to that knoll outside the city walls, “the place of the skull.” We are always left asking, “How did it all go so wrong so fast? How did we get here?” And it is indeed a “we.”

Today, and all throughout this Holy Week, we are invited into a journey. We meet all these people along the way; we walk in their shoes; we look through their eyes; we tap into their hearts—and in so doing, we come to see ourselves more clearly. Some of what we see will shake us to the core as we examine the hidden places of our heart, those spaces that are broken and dark.

We touch our bravado and sheer cowardice in Peter who denies his beloved Lord.

We know the weakness of our flesh and our fickleness in the Disciples who can’t stay awake.

We move into deeper complexity when we see Judas’ broken heart and his retaliation against the one in whom he had placed all his hope. We know Judas more than we would like to admit. Anytime we move into the bright shadow, anytime we project our own power onto another, anytime we adore and idolize another, and then they fail to meet our expectations, oh, we can lash out with a vengeance and betray the one whom we adore.

We step into the crossfire with the High Priest’s Slave—in the wrong place at the wrong time caught up in currents not of our making.

And we touch our capacity to “out” someone as we sit around that fire with the Servant Girl.

We feel the pressure of powerful people pushing and pulling to say something we know is not true; we bear false Witness.

And our desire to please the higher-ups, our desire for order and control and status kicks into high gear as we follow the lead of the Chief Priests and Scribes and Elders.

The High Priest gives voice to our innate desire to hold onto our power and position, no matter the cost.

And Pilate pulls us into that place of political expediency revealing our capacity to sell-out because we can’t tolerate the risk of going against the prevailing wind.

Barabbas allows us to touch that place in us that is all too ready to let another take the fall.

 

And then, there are the smaller parts that reveal some of our most broken places—the Bystanders, the Passersby, the Crowd—all caught up in the mob mentality.

And the Guards and the Soldiers pull back the curtain on all the ways we have been desensitized to violence and all the ways we are capable of dehumanizing the other—these show us that part inside of us that is bloodthirsty; these Guards and Soldiers show us what it looks like when we abdicate our own moral decision-making for the sake of following orders.

But we must also note that some of what we see this week will shake us to the core for the sheer courage that lives within us.

The Woman who anoints Jesus’ feet shows us the best of our heart and what it looks like when we live with no armor and love wholeheartedly.

Simon of Cyrene helps us claim those times when we are thrust into the middle of something that we didn’t ask to be in the middle of, and yet, we stand firm and hold fast anyway.

The Centurion awakes that giant inside of us who can see the injustice and proclaim the truth at great risk, even if it goes against the grain of all of our training.

The place deep inside of us which is willing to risk our position to do the right thing is made manifest in Joseph of Arimathea.

And the Women, oh the Women who follow Jesus, they show us our own faithfulness; they show us our great capacity to be faithful to the end, no matter the risk, no matter the cost, because love will let us live no other way.

The Christ who lives in us rises up as we witness Jesus receiving, yielding, feeling exposed and abandoned, surrendering, trusting, standing in absolute solidarity with our suffering, broken humanity. As we watch him make his way to the cross, as we watch him stretch out his arms trusting the larger Love that would hold him in death, we touch our own capacity to be utterly transformed.

There is a temptation this week, and that’s to stay on the sidelines and watch this sad, tragic movie play out before us. But this week is a full-contact proposition.

There is one character in this story that we never pay attention to, but who caught my eye this year—that certain young man following Jesus, who is wearing nothing but a linen cloth. And when the disciples all desert and flee when Jesus is arrested in the garden, this young man turned to flee, too, and those arresting Jesus caught hold of the young man’s linen cloth, but he left that linen cloth and ran off naked.

There is a part of us that wants to flee this week and move as quick as we can to Easter because this week will strip us naked, down to our bare, raw humanity. But please, please, don’t run away. This week isn’t about naked emotional sentimentality; this week is about discovering the depth of God’s love that heals our hearts and gives us the courage to live wide-open from that place, knowing that our hearts will be broken, and knowing that they will also be made new. This week is about standing naked before God with all that we are—good, bad, redeemed, broken, and all points in-between—it is standing before God in the nakedness of all of that, knowing, trusting, that God will clothe us once again with love and grace and forgiveness and compassion, just as God has been doing since God first encountered our nakedness in that first garden.

Walk through this Holy Week with intentionality and watch as God weaves you a new set of clothes. Walk through this week faithfully, and come next Sunday, every fiber of your being will be radiant. We may fall apart this week, but God will knit us back together, and then, when we put on our Easter best next Sunday, it won’t just be about our outfits, but it will be about the resurrected hearts and minds and bodies and souls that wear them. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 29, 2015

Seeing Jesus in the Other

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 5—Year B; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33. Video

Okay, we are one week out from Holy Week, and today the lessons are swirling.

In this last stretch of peeling away the layers of dust around our heart and soul, we’ve got all of these hopeful scriptures. Jeremiah reminding us that the days are surely coming when the LORD will make a new covenant with God’s people; a time, God says, when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That is such good new! For hearts that are weary and battered and weighted down and frightened, to come into full awareness that God is written on our heart, and that whatever has blocked us from that love, whatever sin has been in the way, it is forgiven; our sin, our walls, our armor, these are not the things that God chooses to rememberGod only wants us to know that God and God’s love are written all over our hearts.

And then, psalm 51 comes along to remind us, just as it did on Ash Wednesday, that God is merciful and full of loving-kindness and that the divine M.O. is compassion. God is in the business of washing and cleansing so that we can see the truth and wisdom deep within us that God knows is there. God is hands-on when it comes to cleaning the dust off of our hearts and renewing our spirits, setting them right again when they have gone off the rails, and all of this is done so that we can hear once again and experience the deep joy that comes when you know that you and your dusty humanity are deeply, deeply loved and cherished.

And then comes Hebrews 5 reminding us that Jesus struggled with this path that was set before him just as much as we struggle with the paths set before us. He offered up prayers and supplications, not neatly, but with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard, though that didn’t save him from journey that would be his to make. But somehow, in that mystery beyond mysteries, as he moved through his suffering, he was made perfect, “complete” in the greek, and somehow, Jesus finding wholeness, even in his suffering, opens the way for us to find wholeness in ours. I don’t know exactly how it works, but you can see this in those who have undergone great suffering—there is a strength, there is a calm, there is a solidness. I saw it this week in someone who is moving through cancer treatments, strength just radiated from them; they simply glowed with that strength. It was amazing just to witness it.

And finally, we come to the story in John. According to the timeline in John’s gospel, Jesus has already completed his Palm Sunday procession. He is present in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And some Greeks, read gentiles, want to see Jesus. They don’t feel worthy to ask for what they want directly, so they go to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” He goes and finds Andrew, and together they go and tell Jesus. Jesus answers a little cryptically with the “hour-has-come” bit, and the “grain-of-wheat-that-has-to-die-if-it’s-going-to-bear-much-fruit,” and the “loving-your-life-you-lose-it-and-hating-it-you-keep-it,” and the “serving-Jesus-means-following-Jesus-and-following-means-going-where-he-goes.” It’s almost like Jesus is thinking out loud, and we’re just listening in, like he’s coming to terms with the fact that this is the hour, this is the moment; his journey has wound him to this place at this time for this reason. It will be the judgment of the world, the crisis point, when the ruler of this world won’t hold sway and God’s deep desire to draw all people in will win out. Somehow, Jesus being lifted up, in death and in resurrection, somehow this dance of suffering and dying and rising, somehow, all people will be drawn into that dance and find their wholeness in that rhythm.

And the thing is, gazing upon Jesus on the cross, gazing on that suffering and allowing yourself to share in it, the opportunity to do that is everywhere.

I heard a story driving to work Friday morning that feels like a living icon of how this works. It’s the story of how the running club from Midnight Mission Shelter and Addiction Center located on skid row in L.A. is running a marathon in Rome this morning. These homeless people might certainly be the Greeks that seek out Philip, living on the outside of the dominant culture, wondering if they can catch a glimpse of Jesus. Well, one of them was brave enough to ask, and he went to the judge who had sentenced him to prison, and he asked that judge to come down to the Mission.

The judge, a man by the name of Craig Mitchell, did, and from that encounter, a dream was born, to start a running club. Through that running club, people have found sobriety and health, but they have found so much more; they have found wholeness. One man, Ryan Navales, said of his friendship with Craig Mitchell, “He saw us for who we are. And he treated us like equals. That was important in those early stages. You know, trying to find some kind of self-worth and some self-confidence and some positive momentum in life.”

And Craig Mitchell said this, “A real boon to my own life is meeting people who have unique attributes, qualities, personalities, etc. and to partake of that. I won’t forget these encounters that I’ve had with these guys.”

Who is Jesus in this story, and where did he get seen, and how did he draw all people to himself?

The power of this story is that Jesus gets revealed, Jesus gets seen, when one guy had the courage to ask another to cross the great divide and come be in relationship with those who, far from being lifted up, had actually been discarded by society. And those men being able to see their own worth and strength mirrored back to them in the eyes of someone who entered into relationship with them, they came to see themselves the way that God sees them, and they were drawn back into life.

And in seeing Jesus in the weak and vulnerable, that judge came to see the Jesus who is strong that lives inside of that suffering, and that made the judge whole in a way that he had not been whole before. “To partake of that,” he said—that’s the very essence of communion; to partake of another; to participate in the essence of another’s life and being and to have them participate in the essence of yours; to feed on one another and to drink deeply of that shared cup of communion with one another—oh, that’s the moment when Jesus is lifted up, and it draws us into places and relationships and experiences of love that make our hearts new.

Where is Jesus praying, yearning, crying out loudly with tears to be lifted up, crying out to be recognized? Who is whispering in our ears, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus—can you help us?” or even more, “Sir, we wish you to see Jesus, will you come and let us show you where he lives?” And together, together, as we see one another, we come to see that it is Jesus who is doing the seeing; it is Jesus who is doing the looking—through our eyes to the other and through the other’s eyes to us, and in that moment of communion, we will see him lifted up, and we will find ourselves drawn into this love that truly saves our souls.

What has to die in us so that we can ask for our heart’s deepest longing—to see Jesus, to know God? And what has to die in us that we might go to the place where he is longing to meet us?

As you sit with these questions, remember, the answers are already written on your heart. On this 5th Sunday in Lent, all we are trying to do is clear away everything that keeps us from hearing that call of the heart. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 22, 2015

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