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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

Follow your dreams

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas 2—Year B; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The church gives us three ways to go today…We could read the first part of Matthew 2 and hear about the wise men making their trek from the East to come and lay their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before Jesus before giving Herod the slip and making their way home by another way. Or, we could read the latter part of Luke 2 and hear about Jesus ditching his parents in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old (this is the personal favorite of the youth in my weekday Bible class). Or, we could read from the second half of Matthew 2 that picks up the story after the wise men had left that tells of how Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. And that’s the one that seems most important to hear today.

It’s a hard story, a brutal story. It’s a story that we don’t want to come crashing into our Christmas holidays; after all, we have invested a lot of time and energy in trying to create good, happy, peaceful memories during this festive season. But in spite of our efforts to recreate a living Norman Rockwell portrait, the world goes right on being the world, and there is something really important about hearing this story from Matthew right smack in the middle of the Christmas.

We are real familiar with the shepherds, and we know all about the wise men, but this story about the flight into Egypt is less well known. So, let’s set this story up.

King Herod is on the throne, and when those wise ones from the East, magi they were called, came to him in search of the one who’d been born king of the Jews, he got pretty rattled because he was the king of the Jews. This was definitely a challenge to the order that was working perfectly well for him. He called all the chief priests and scribes together and pumped them for all that they knew about where the Messiah was to be born. That was easy—the Messiah was to be a descendent of David, so it had to be Bethlehem, David’s hometown. Then Herod secretly called for the magi—and you know, when secrets and power come together, not good stuff is about to go down—Herod sent those magi to Bethlehem and told them to search diligently for the child, and when they found him, to send back word so that he could go and pay him homage, too. Do you believe ol’ King Herod? Nooooo.

Well, the magi followed the star—they didn’t follow Herod’s instructions, but they stayed tuned into their deepest wisdom and stayed with the star—and that star led them to the house where Jesus was. They entered and saw the child with his mother Mary, and they knelt down before him, and paid him homage. Then, they opened their treasure chests, and they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So far, so good. We know this story, and it’s gone off without a hitch.

And then came the dream. A dream that warned them not to return to Herod, and the magi were, by definition, wise, so they actually listened to their dreams instead of dismissing them as the weird stuff that happens when you eat too much Christmas dinner. They listened to that dream, and they left for their own country by another road.

Uh oh. Here’s where it’s about to go south. How do you think Herod will respond? Oh, not good.

And the greek indicates just how not good this is going to go. When Herod saw that he’d been tricked, and the greek here has a sense of feeling mocked to it, so it’s not just that the wise men went home another way, but Herod adds a malicious intent to their decision—for Herod, by going home another way, those wise men weren’t just taking a different route, but they were mocking him, and if you are an insecure ruler, nothing can trigger you more than feeling like someone is mocking you and your power. And when those feelings went from Herod’s belly to his head, he became infuriated. Again, the greek is sharper—ἐθυμώθη λίαν—it translates something like “he became exceedingly beyond measure incensed, enraged, and that great old phrase “he became wroth”—“intensely angry. So, Herod became exceedingly beyond measure intensely angry—got the picture? Can you touch that kind of a place in yourself? Ever been that mad?

And so, Herod sent and killed all the male children 2 years old and younger who were in and around Bethlehem according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

What Herod didn’t know is that there was another person who had also come to trust his dreams, Joseph, and right after the magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, clearly, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph had already been brought up short and changed his life’s course once because of a dream; he wasn’t about to second guess this dream. He got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

This is a harrowing account. An absolute ruler with absolute power who feels threatened and mocked and will slaughter innocents to protect that power. It was heartbreaking then, and it’s heartbreaking now. There are way too many stories being played out across our world where children are being sacrificed in ways that defy any sense of human decency. Children as pawns in games played by people possessed with the desire to get power, increase power, or maintain power, and who will do anything to keep from losing power.

We are so far removed from so much of the world. It can feel like we are resting in the sanctuary of Egypt ourselves. And yet, what of those who didn’t flee, who couldn’t flee, what of them? What of those mothers and those fathers who couldn’t get their families out of harm’s way? What of them?

On this Second Sunday of Christmas, we are confronted, right at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, with the inescapable reality of evil in this world, and anything that tries to sanitize our story and pretend that now that Jesus has come into the world, it is all sweetness and light and never-ending prosperity isn’t in touch with the world that surrounded Jesus then, and surrounds us still.

No, evil is going to be part of this story, and Jesus will confront it all along the way. As he grows in stature and wisdom, he will lay it bare. He will strip off its masks. He will pull back the curtain on those who crush “the little ones” as they are called in Matthew’s gospel, and he will challenge those who lay heavy burdens on those who simply cannot bear them.

So, yes, we rest in the beauty and peace of this season and this space, but Matthew reminds us that we do so with eyes wide open to the reality of evil. For now, Jesus is protected, but in the end, he will lay himself bare and take that evil on fully. On the cross, he will embrace it, and in holding it in love, something truly shifts in the tilt of the universe. Evil still holds sway, but there is a love that is stronger and runs deeper; there is a love that not even evil can break.

And maybe here’s the real challenge of today. What if we didn’t relate so strongly to the peace and comfort we enjoy in the sanctuary of Egypt? What if we saw ourselves as Joseph? What if we could hear God calling to us in a dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt?”

Now, let’s start at the intensely personal level. Christmas is all about the awareness that Jesus, God, has been born in our flesh. Can you feel this tender, vulnerable, radiant, divine place that has just been born in your own heart? And the culture is full of Herods that stand to lose a lot if we really embrace the wholeness that has just been given to us. Think of all those industries that make their money by convincing us that we are not enough. Are we willing to get up and flee to a sacred space to protect and nurture this beautiful, tender, radiant God-infused soul that lives in us? Maybe our Egypt is our mediation or prayer, maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s time with loved ones. Can we step up and be Joseph when it comes to protecting the Christ who has been born in us?

Now, let’s pan out a bit and move beyond the self. Imagine the innocent, the vulnerable, people who have no one to protect them, those who fall victim to the powerful—who are they? Picture them. Imagine that Boone is Bethlehem and Watauga County is the vicinity around—which of our vulnerable might be the Christ child that we are called upon to pick up? How might we bring them to a safe place where they can grow and thrive until they, and we, are strong enough to take on the structures and systems that threaten their, and our, capacity to live, truly live, the abundant life that God intends for all of God’s creation?

And let us not stop with Boone. Let us cast our eyes all over the world. Tim Windmeyer and his colleagues at Samaritans Purse are doing incredible work with the refugees of ISIS. How can we join them in their efforts to get these children to safety? We may not be able to go to Iraq, but can we invest our hearts and our prayers in this work and stand in solidarity with them? And these innocents are the world over, including right here across our country. Pay attention to your dreams and to your heart as it gets impacted by the news that comes across your consciousness. Open yourself up to that Joseph space that lives inside of you. Listen, and the call will come, and when it does, take a risk and heed it.

Maybe you are called to get the vulnerable to safety, maybe you are called to grieve with those who continue to lose that which is most dear to them, maybe you are called to go toe-to-toe with the Herods that still reign. I don’t know the dream that God has for you, but God does. All you have to do is be open and listen, and be obedient when it gets revealed.

And this obedience will be costly. At the very least, it will dislocate us; it will move us out of our comfort zone. But as we go into this strange land, remember, you carry the Christ-child with you. God is with you. God is in you. And God’s face will be mirrored back to you in the faces of the vulnerable ones whom God has placed in your awareness and entrusted to your care.

Joseph. There is a Joseph inside of you. There is a time to be still and adore, and there’s a time to move. Open your awareness. Heed the dream. Get up, take this vulnerable life into your hands, and make your way to Egypt. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 4, 2015

Christmas Day

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas Day—Year B; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Last night, we received the gift. This morning, by the light of day, we start to unwrap it, unpack it, pick it up and look at it from every conceivable angle, trying to understand what made our hearts leap last night.

Today, as in the beginning, the Word pierces the quiet and all creation reverberates with God’s own self. No one has ever said it more beautifully than John in the prologue to his Gospel—chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God poured into every fiber of creation. And that incredible crescendo at verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Word made flesh. Incarnation. God revealed in human flesh; God revealed in our flesh; our flesh dripping with divinity. Incarnation—that mystery of mysteries that is so hard to comprehend; so hard to wrap our minds around. It is enough that our hearts get it, but our minds yearn to plumb the depths, and on this Christmas morn, in the clear light of day, it sure seems we ought to at least try.

So, strap in for the ride. I’ve chosen Cynthia Bourgeault to guide us. What follows is an extended reading from her chapter on The Incarnation in her book The Wisdom Jesus.

From a God’s-eye view of creation, the real operational challenge is not sin and evil; it is posed by the vastly unequal energetic frequencies between the realms. How can the sun touch a snowflake? How can the divine radiance meet and interpenetrate created life without incinerating it? This is the ultimate metaphysical koan—to which Christianity proposes as its solution the mystery of the incarnation.

This realization, in turn, opens up a whole new line of insight into John’s statement, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The Son, in this wider metaphysical context, is no longer the one who bails us out or who rescues us from our fallen state but the one who becomes our bridge between the realms. Recognizing the enormous difficulty of our mission, Jesus comes to accompany us on it, advocating for our human finitude in a way that respects its integrity but doesn’t allow us to get trapped in it. As in the traditional theological understanding (but with a very different flavor), he becomes our meditator. Standing at the confluence of the two vastly different orders of being, he offers his own life as the sanctuary between them.

As we have seen already, these great metaphysical paradoxes lend themselves more easily to poetry and metaphor than to the theological scalpel. One of the classic images Christian mystics have used to portray this cosmic mediation is actually very ancient, from the Old Testament. In the book of Exodus (3:1-6) the story is told of how Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep in the Midianite wilderness, suddenly comes upon a bush fully engulfed in flame and yet miraculously intact. The miracle is quickly revealed as an angel of God speaking through the flame. But for the Christian desert hermits later inhabiting that same wilderness, the burning bush became a symbol of Jesus himself: all flame, yet perfectly intact within his finite container. And there were those among that desert fellowship who yearned for that same incandescent ground. In one of the most famous of the desert parables:

 

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Bourgeault continues: Would it be possible for us, too, to “become all flame”? Could our own lives become such a perfect fusion of infinite love and finite form that light would pour from our being as an actual physical radiance? I have indeed seen this light in more than a few realized masters toward the end of their earthly journeys; it is the fully revealed mystery of human life lived as conscious sacrament. How we get there is the secret Jesus will unfold for us through the course of his own consciously sacramental life. But our first step in joining him on this journey is to recognize that his incarnation is not about fall, guilt, or blame, but about goodness, solidarity, and our own intimate participation in the mystery of love at the heart of all creation.

 “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” inside of us, the perfect fusion of infinite love and finite form, the light that shines in the darkness, which darkness cannot overcome, mediating between the realms, showing us how we “can become all flame.”

This mystery isn’t just a gift to be unwrapped, played with for a bit, and put on a shelf to collect dust; this mystery puts our whole human endeavor on an entirely different footing. Your flesh is holy, my flesh is holy, all flesh is holy. You life is holy, my life is holy, all life is holy. Infinite love has been fused with our finite form. Our work is to live our lives as a conscious sacrament of this greatest of mysteries. Our work is to always be unwrapping the gift of our lives to reveal the mystery of love.

As far as you can be about this work, and then, like Jesus, “if you will, you can become all flame.”

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 25, 2014

 

What is it about this night?

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas Eve—Year B; Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

What is it about this night? It is dark and wet and late and winter in Boone, and it’s past some of our bedtimes—many of us are normally burrowed in for the night long before now. And yet, here we are. This night has a lock on us like a homing beacon—tracking us, calling us to this place. Is it the music that makes our heart swell in ways that transport us to some other realm? Is it the sheer beauty of the flowers and greenery? Is it the courage of the candle’s flame daring to throw its light into all that darkness? Is it the lure of the incense and clouds of smoke that strike a chord of awe? Is it the story, that old, old story that makes us cry out like a kid, “Please, tell it again!”—we know it by heart, we know every character, we know every twist and turn, but it doesn’t matter, we long to hear it again.

There is something about this night. It is the mystery of mysteries, and it is far too deep to try to fathom it alone, and so we come. We come together to embrace the mystery, to hold it, to gaze upon it, to let it fill us, to let it remake us.

And this is never as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s quite costly; to embrace mystery will cost us our hard won control, and most of us will go to the mat before we will relinquish that. The rational part of our mind wants to get this night figured out, understood, and defined so that we know which box to store it in, so that we’ll know where to find it when we need it.

But mystery just won’t cooperate; it is always bigger, always much, much bigger.

Madeleine L’Engle, writer and poet, penned these words:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

If you struggle with the how-could-this-be’s of this night, God doesn’t ask you to suspend your rational mind, but just don’t let it take up all the space. This night begs us, begs us to open up our mystical mind, to leap into the irrational season toward the arms that are now stretching up towards us. This night begs us to leave our cool, safe, observer role, and jump full-on into that love that blooms bright and wild. It doesn’t matter where your point of access is: the music, the beauty, the candles, the incense, the community gathered; it doesn’t matter where you enter the story: the sense of being on a journey, the loneliness of being shut out, the radiance, the fear that shakes us to the core, the amazement, the wonder, the glory, the pondering. All that matters is that you allow this night to pull you to the center—pull you right into the heart of God, pull you right to the center of your own soul where the fullness and majesty of God has always been pleased to dwell.

Incarnation. God made flesh. This has been God’s leap of love from the beginning of creation. The burst of energy and love that brought the entire universe into being and left every aspect of creation dancing with divinity—this was God’s first incarnation. The Infinite Presence poured into the created so that divinity would be mirrored everywhere. We who are made in the divine image, we who bear the divine breath—we, of all God’s creation, should know this most deeply of all. And yet, we cannot see our true nature. So, in the fullness of time, this Love, this Infinite Love who longed for us to know this Love and to know our place within this Love took the most radical step of incarnation. Constriction.

Cynthia Bourgeault spins this out so beautifully in her book The Wisdom Jesus. She speaks of this constriction as the sacrament of finitude that reveals the mystery of God’s longing to be known. She ponders, “Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way?” She continues, “Those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense…When you run up against the hard edge and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love. God has spoken his most intimate name.”

Constriction. Infinite Presence wrapped itself in the constrictions and confines of our human flesh and human mind and human heart and human spirit to reveal to us, to awaken us, to bring us to birth again as the radiant, divine human beings that we are, capable of the most exquisite dimensions of love.

This child. This tiny, tiny child. This one named Jesus who is the Christ. This child is the homing beacon. The One in whom God and we are both called home. God calling us into the fullness of radiant divinity; our flesh calling God into the fullness of our humanity.

Just as we can’t stay on the sidelines tonight, tonight, God, Infinite Love and Presence, has left the sidelines, too. God and human flesh forever joined to help us remember, to help us re-member that it has never been otherwise.

This child is here to show us who we already are.

And the circumstances of his birth remind us that our own birth, our own awakening will happen in the most unlikely places at the most inconvenient of times.

Remember, neither Mary nor Joseph had planned on this child, and it took an angel and a dream to convince them that all would be well. If life has not gone according to plan (and whose life ever does), fear not, in the middle of whatever curve has come your way, God can be born.

Luke’s story begins with a journey that started because the Emperor Augustus issued a decree—“dogma” in the greek. Oh, if ever there was an unpopular word today, it is “dogma”, but even right in the middle of dogma, God can be born.

This birth took place at the margins because all the other spaces were too full. If you find yourself on the outside looking in, know that the outside is a place where God can be born.

Legend has it that this holy birth took place in a cave just outside of Bethlehem. If tonight finds you in the darkness of your own cave—God can be born there.

If your life is packed with the day-to-day grind of ordinary tasks and ordinary work, all that ordinariness can become the very field over which God’s glory will shine most radiantly. The heavens can sing and angels can find you, even when you are nowhere close to the center of action. Once your ordinariness has been pierced, don’t be afraid to give yourself over to the glory and let it lead you to that place where God is born.

If none of this makes rational sense to you, remember, this is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Don’t try to understand it, but take a page out of Mary’s book—treasure all these words, treasure all these things, and ponder them in your heart. Ponder“symballo” in the greek, it has the sense of throwing them all together, bringing all these things together in one’s mind, in one’s heart. It’s the very opposite of diabolical, which is to throw things apart.

Birthing always involves labor, and this night is no different. Open your mystical mind and let the mystery pour in from above and let it rise up from your heart until your whole being is born anew.

You are here this night for a reason, irrational though it may be.

Everything is conspiring against you to crack open your heart until it can resist no more. So let it wash over you and sweep you away. Let it fill you full to overflowing. Let the cry of the infant disperse all your distractions. Let your constricted humanity expand as Infinite Love and Presence fill your being. Be born again, and don’t even think about all the trappings associated with those words.             With every fiber of your being, be born again. Embrace and be embraced by the God who loves you and all of creation from the inside out. If it’s all too much to take in, then just hold it in your arms, gaze upon it, fall in love with it, ponder it—bring it all together in your heart—your heart always knows what the mind cannot conceive.

Thank God for the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Thank God for the mystery of this night that bids us come. Thank God for the mystery of this night when all our longings, and God’s, find their home in one another. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 24, 2014

Prepare for the birth of the Prophet!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent 3—Year B; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Tis the season of preparation. Some of us are probably pretty far down that path—homes decorated to the hilt, gifts already wrapped, carols playing, mulling spices putting their sweet fragrance into the air, and some of us have hardly begun. And then there’s the excitement of the kids. They know something is in the air; it’s electric. And honestly, the adults are no better than the kids. Exhibit A—a good many of your fellow St. Luke’s parishioners flash mobbed (is that even a word?) Lost Province last night and, in a rather planned, spontaneous way, broke into Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, complete with Santa hats.

The church is no stranger to this preparation.  The choir is in a full-court press learning lots of music that will make our souls sing on Christmas Eve. Flowers are being planned as we speak. Gifts purchased for those in need. Carols sung to elders who know them by heart. It’s a busy season; it can even feel a little frenetic.

But beneath all this activity, there is another beat; another rhythm calling to us. A steady beat that you have to get still to hear. Like the bass note of a drum, like the sound of a heartbeat. Calling us to the center, calling us to the quiet, calling us to be still…and wait for the Lord. The church invites us into this space as well. Exhibit B—the service we will have tonight—lots of space for contemplation, lots of candles, incense, quiet. This, too, is preparation.

And then there’s the preparation that attends any birth that is about to occur. We were still painting the nursery the week before Julia joined this world. Jim was still building the crib right up until the end. There were onesies to be bought; diapers to be stocked. Any new parents-to-be can tell you about the swirl that happens right before the birth. We are ten days out from the Feast of the Nativity when we will mark once again the birth of Jesus into this world. And where we were painting the nursery and building the crib working ourselves into a joyous, expectant frenzy, Mary and Joseph are on a journey, and they remind us that we’re on a journey, too. It’s not just that we are preparing for his birth, but we are also preparing for his birth in us. Our baptism tells us that we die with him, we rise with him, and we are born anew with him—we in him and he in us.

And our lessons today come crashing in to tell us something we might not know about this One who is to come. It’s not just that we are preparing for the birth of the Savior or the birth of the Lord, but Isaiah makes it abundantly clear that we are preparing for the birth of a Savior and Lord who is anointed to bring good news to a world that is hungry for it. How hungry? Here’s a rundown of the headlines in the news just this week: continuing protests across the country lifting up the explosive intersection of race, policing, and the justice system; the fallout from the University of Virginia and Rolling Stone story about sexual assault on college campuses, schools struggle to confront it, in some instances, a lack of due process for the accused, and the demon that lurks amidst all of it, a culture of binge drinking; the release of the Senate report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT’s) raising profound questions about the use of torture and our values as a country; a BBC report revealing that 5,042 people were killed in the month of November by the Islamic State and other groups like them with Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria accounting for 80% of those deaths. And at the heart of every one of these stories are real people and profound brokenness on all sides. Never has the world needed a prophet more, and here’s how Isaiah works it out.

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance [rescue] of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense [compensation, return in kind], and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exalt in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations,”

We are preparing for the birth of a prophet, and if we think this is only Isaiah’s concern, well, we would be wrong. Paul echoes this theme in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophet, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”  And then there is good ol’ John—the one who was not the light, but who came as a witness to testify to the light. And when the Jerusalem elite tried to pin him down on just who he was, all he could do was circle back to the prophet Isaiah—“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

So here’s the rub, amidst all of our preparations for Christmas, amidst all of our preparations for Jesus’ birth, and ours, we are called to prepare for the birth of the prophet, not just in Jesus, but in us. Because this passage of Isaiah that we hear today, when the fullness of time comes and Jesus steps into his active ministry, it will be this passage that he chooses, and proclaims, and preaches for his first public act. See Luke 4.

There is no understanding Jesus, his work, and ours, without understanding what we hear today.

In all those news stories that I ran down before, I don’t yet know precisely what the prophet’s call is in each of those instances, but as followers of Jesus I do know this—we don’t get to opt out of wrestling with what our prophetic call is. We have to discern it, and we need each other to do the discernment. Advent is so much about being attentive, paying attention, waking up.

So…

Who are the oppressed, and what good news could you bring them?

Whose heart has been broken that you could bind up?

Who is being held captive, and by what, and what does liberty look for them? How can you proclaim it?

Prisoners? Think real prisons and think prisons that are just as confining but far more invisible—how are you called to participate in the release of those who inhabit them?

The year of the Lord’s favor—oh, this one goes back to the dream of God in Leviticus, and it’s daunting because it’s all tied up in debt forgiveness and economic redistribution. Isaiah is sketchy on specific policies, so let’s not get caught there, but go big picture—how could you proclaim and begin to live in an economic world where no one has to stay on the bottom for perpetuity and all have a chance to thrive?

Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He knows there is profound grief across his world, just as there is across ours.

Who is mourning, and how can you comfort them?

Where are there ruins and devastations—real ones in cities, real ones in the mountains, real ones that cross the generations, real ones that are unseen but just as tangible in the wreckage of people’s lives—how might you set your hand to the shovel and help rebuild all these places?  And remember, Isaiah’s concern is always collective and individual.

How are you called to be an oak of righteousness? How do we sink our roots deep in a time when everything is, in the words of Brene Brown, “fast, fun, and easy”?

And in a world full of despair and cynicism, how do we rejoice? How do we be people of joy? How do we let our whole being exult in God? How do we don garments of salvation? How do we embrace the salvation, the wholeness with which God has clothed us? Because when you touch and taste that wholeness in yourself, the robe of righteousness is not far behind—when we feel whole, we want our relationships to come round right, we want them to enflesh that same wholeness.

Feeling overwhelmed? Whew, I do. I don’t feel like I am prophet material. Maybe you don’t either. But this is our Christ-infused DNA.

Take a step back. Even as you tend to the birth of the prophet in your own heart, hear again Paul’s counsel—“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Start by rejoicing, never stop praying, practice gratitude. Let the Spirit set you on fire. I know Isaiah is overwhelming, but don’t despise him for laying out our call as lovers of God and followers of Jesus. And before you cut loose on the world with prophetic zeal, remember, not everything that looks and sounds prophetic is prophetic—you’ve got to be discerning; you’ve got to test it. Hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil, and sometimes, evil can look a whole lot like good.

I know we’ve got just ten days left, and I know that you are crazy busy, but we can’t neglect this part of our Advent preparation. This is our work. Jesus turned the world upside down—how could we think that our own lives can go on just the same?

A prophet is about to be bornin the One whom we adore, in our hearts where he will, and already, dwells.

Get ready, as any parent could surely tell you, when this Holy Child comes, your life is no longer your own. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 14, 2014