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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

St Luke's Episcopal Church
170 Councill St
Boone, NC 28607
828-264-8943

LKM

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

Advent is pointing to a new you and a new me

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks–Advent 2—Year B; Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” so prays our collect this morning. Welcome to Advent. Black Friday has come and gone, Cyber Monday had its day in the sun, Giving Tuesday gave it a go, the parties and open houses have begun, the parade swept through downtown yesterday—the culture is full-steam ahead toward Christmas, and so is Advent, but the tone is slightly different.

While the world around us is doing its thing, I guess as it always has, our tradition calls on the prophets to help us prepare. In the collect, in 2 Peter, in the gospel according to Mark, we hear it like a refrain, repentance, repentance, repentance. And Isaiah gives us the shape of the repentance“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall come level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.’”  Remember, the word “repentance” is translated from the greek “metanoia,” which means “to change one’s mind.” Richard Rohr says a better translation is “to get a new mind” or “to go beyond the mind.”  It definitely involves change, a change in direction.

So, the first step is to allow ourselves to stand in the wilderness. Look around at the news this week and that’s not a stretch. It feels pretty desolate.  The wilderness that Isaiah would have known looks like the moon—stark, desolate, rocky, lonely. The wilderness in our neck of the woods is chock full of brush, so dense, that you can really lose your way. Both are true of our lives today. They are places where we feel desolate and alone. There are stretches that make us stumble where the way is rocky and tough. And our lives can feel so dense, so chock full that we can’t find our way. The first step of our metanoia is recognize the shape of our particular wilderness and to trust that God can work with this landscape. Even if we are in the desert where there seems to be no discernible way, to know that even there exists a highway for our God. A super, big, wide road upon which God and we can travel to find one another.

Next step, identify your valleys and mountains. What places in your life, in your heart, in your soul, in your body, in your mind are low? How might God lift them up so that you can see the glory of the Lord?

At the other end, where are you floating a little too high—those positive aspects of our false self that can get all puffed up and obscure our vision of what is true and real? How might God be asking you to die to those pieces? How do you need to be made low, so that you can know, in your soul, what it means to rest in the True Self that is, and always has been, rooted and grounded in God?

Where are you uneven, out of balance, just plain rough, and how might God smooth those edges and bring balance to you and your life?

We need to pay attention to all of these places, and our repentance is about opening our hearts and minds and souls and bodies to God’s capacity to lift, lower, level, and smooth, so that we can see the glory of the Lord.

The psalmist paints the vision from a slightly different vantage point—“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  As we look across our lives and across the life of the world, where are mercy and truth meeting? And it can’t be just mercy or just truth; it can’t be just about righteousness without regard for the other whoever that other is, and it can’t be just about a surface peace absent those right relationships, but the radical thing, that will take our repentance, that will take a change of mind, for us to wrap our minds around is mercy and truth married together, righteousness and peace kissing, and when this happens, truth springs up from the earth and righteousness, right relationship, looks down from heaven. As our world ever needed this vision more than it does right now? How are we being called to make this vision real?

And 2 Peter paints the vision writ large—“[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” As we change our minds, repent, and see the glory of the Lord in a new way, then we will also come to understand that this is what God longs for all people, and as all people come to this vision and as this kind of righteousness is at home in every one of our relational circles, then, then we have nothing less than new heavens and a new earth.

And we thought Advent was only pointing us toward a stable in Bethlehem. No, Advent is pointing to a new you and a new me and new heavens and a new earth. Advent longs for nothing more than the transformation of everything. And all it will take to get there is the entire reworking of the landscape of our hearts and minds and bodies and souls. So, yes, we have our work cut out for us. There is a lot to do to get ready for Christmas. Even as you move through the cultural traditions of this season, do not neglect the soul work. If we are faithful in the work to which the prophets are calling us, come Christmas, we will have gifts to open far beyond the ones under our tree. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; December 7, 2014

Rector’s Annual Address

Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon; Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year A; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesian 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

I want to begin by recognizing and thanking our amazing staff.

Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg is all heart, and he takes that great big heart and icons for us what it means to open that heart to the hurts and needs of the world. Greg, thank you for being a wise councilor to me, and a great partner in ministry—all the way around—and I am always slightly disoriented on the Sundays you aren’t here.

Catherine King. Catherine keeps it all flowing—the office, the bulletins, coordinating use of the building, communications of all sorts, webpage and facebook updates, and the weekly e-mail blast. It’s a lot, and she introduces just the right humor at just the right moments. Catherine, you doing what you do frees me to do what I do. Thanks for the sense of ministry that you bring to your work.

Pat Kohles. Pat diligently keeps our finances straight and gives the Vestry the information we need so that we can make good financial decisions. She is a completely non-anxious presence, which is really important for anyone who works around money. Pat understands that behind all those numbers are people. Thanks for doing a great job caring about the numbers and for the people.

Ted Gulick. Ted is simply the best church musician I have ever worked with. He understands that music is in service to worship. He understands that our goal in our worship to open up a liminal space, a threshold space, where people can encounter the Holy. His skill is unmatched on the organ, and he is a pastor to his choral flock. And as we work on innovative liturgies, nothing is too weird to try out. Ted, whether it’s Sunday morning or Sunday evenings, I love dreaming about and creating liturgy with you. Thank you for the heart and soul and deep spirituality you bring to your work.

Sarah Miller. Of all our positions on staff, Sarah’s has changed the most—like, every year it looks different. Every year, the landscape of our children and youth and their families is slightly different. Sarah has rolled with all of this and has developed a keen ability to keep one ear to the ground and one ear tuned to the Spirit to see where we are being nudged to move next in our ever evolving Christian formation program. Sarah, thank you for your flexibility, your phenomenal capacity to think through approaches and program design, and your deep commitment to this work.

 Charles Oaks continues to care for our buildings with such love and attention. He knows our space and loves it as if it were his own home. He does his work quietly when the rest of us aren’t around, but if you cross paths with Charles, please thank him for his ministry.

Mary Lyons, Andrew Cole, Elizabeth Fowler, Kate Akerman, Emily Wright. These are our Nursery Caregivers who provide peace-of-mind to parents and loving care to small children. They introduce our little ones to the holy things and holy stories of our worship so that our littlest ones also have a sense of the holy during worship time. For a lot of children, the first impressions of church start in the nursery. We are blessed with these competent, loving young women.

And I finally, I want to thank Jim and Julia. Jim, you do a lot of ministry in your own right—leading the Friday Book Study, spiritual direction, choir, videotaping and posting our sermons on youtube—but I am most grateful for your ministry as my husband, partner, and soul companion. I simply could not do what I do without your support. You hold me accountable—reminding me that sabbath is paramount and that priesthood, while a wondrous vocation, is but one part of who I am. Mostly, you draw me ever more deeply into the depths and mystery of God’s love and grace. Thank you for being my companion, always.

And Julia. It is not easy being a priest-kid. I know it, and you know it. You have to share me with a lot of people—thank you for letting me do my work. And thank you for opening my eyes to things I would never see without you. You are so wise, and I learn from you all the time. Thank you for grounding my humanity firmly in the earth, and for working that ground of forgiveness and grace with me, daily.

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Okay, the first draft of this address was 10 1/2 pages single-spaced. Leah Moretz told me about a Kiwanis mantra: “The rear view mirror is small, the front windshield is really big—spend more time looking forward than looking backward.” So, about 30% of this address is in a handout for you to take with you—you can thank Leah later. What I will say here is this: “There are 60+ groups, classes, and ministries that go on in and through this place stretched out over 6 areas: Outreach and Social Justice, Parish Nurture, Christian Formation, Liturgy, Finance and Stewardship, and Building and Grounds.

I am going to talk about one of these areas, just to give you a taste of our vitality. Liturgy. We are now into our second year of combining our 9:00 and 11:15 services, and it seems as natural as breathing. Did we ever do it any other way? What have we gained? Energy, vitality, a wider breadth of music than we have ever enjoyed before, the joy of children, the grace of the generations, a greater sense of community; we have gained worship that feels deeply, joyously alive with lots of participation from lots of people. What have we lost? Our fear of trying something new and the belief that it just couldn’t be done. Most exciting to me is that we have come through this change intact as a community—no one got left behind. Our choir continues to stretch and explore in all kinds of ways, including the total gift of Behkani this fall to lead us into the rich tradition from South Africa. Thank you Behkani; you have brought such life to us! The other part of our liturgical life that has been so exciting is the innovative services we are creating on Sunday evenings. We created two new services for last year—the Service of Anointing and the Service of Lament—doing each one of them twice. Earlier this month, we launched our first Second Sunday service of this year—A Celtic Service of Thanksgiving with Holy Communion. We had 50 people there, some of whom I’d never seen before. Clearly these services are meeting a deep, deep hunger to mark our lives ritually in new ways. We are playing with words, ritual, and music, and it is a blast!

This is just one of the six areas, and we have this kind of energy and innovation going on in all six areas.  Our Diocesan quarterly magazine, The Highland Episcopalian, featured St. Luke’s twice last year for the innovative things we are doing. The Bishop and the Diocese see us as a laboratory, a place of experimentation, as we try to bring the best of our Episcopal tradition into conversation with the needs and demands of our world today. We are alive. We are vital. In sad times and in glad times, we are doing the work of the Lord, and we are having a good time doing it. Where we have been is important, so please take time to read over this, but I want to focus on what I see as I look out the front, and that’s still a lot, so settle in; I’ll give you a stretch break in a bit.

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The Vestry has been in a really creative conversation the last few months. It started with our leaders voicing that they were tired, which revealed that our Vestry liaisons were doing more leading than liaisoning, which led to a conversation about engagement, which led to a deeper conversation about what it means to be a community. We are trying to figure out how build out teams where we need them to do this wonderful work that God has given us to do. Jeremy Fowler will talk a little bit more about that in his Sr. Warden remarks at our meeting, and we’ll be talking more about the nuts-and-bolts of this in the months ahead. But suffice to say for now, with 60+ groups and ministries, there is a place just for you, a place where you are needed and wanted, a place where you can offer your gifts.

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But I want to pull out and look at this from an even deeper place. As many of you know, I am deep into Brene Brown’s work, and in February, I will be doing a week-long training with her and 200 other Episcopal priests in, what she calls, The Daring Way. One of the concepts she talks about is accountability.  Now, anyone who has ever worked with a not-for-profit knows how hard it is to hold volunteers accountable. But we’re not a not-for-profit, and you aren’t volunteers. We are the Body of Christ; we are the household of God; we are brothers and sisters, family; we are a Christian community. So, I want to press down to a deeper question—what does accountability look like in the Christian community? Or, maybe more simply, how do we show up for one another in all the ways that we say we want to? What does it mean to be all in, here? Now, being all in isn’t a free license to work someone to death, and it’s not a call to co-dependency; it’s more a stance, a way of being. We do this in our other relationships—when it comes to my marriage, I have to ask myself, “Am I all in?” or is there some part of myself that I am holding out, some place where I’m holding back? Am I all in with my friends? Am I all in with my children? My siblings? My parents? Are we all in, here, at St. Luke’s?

I know you all love this place. I have seen the Why I love St. Luke’s video. I see you respond to whatever need is out there, over and over again. I feel the energy in here, Sunday after Sunday. And yet, are there still places where we hold ourselves out, hold ourselves back, are afraid to commit? Example, when it comes time to cook at Hospitality House, we always have enough people show up to do the meal, but people won’t sign up on the sign-up sheet to say they are coming, which is crazymaking for the leader—what is that about? How do we show up for each other in the ways that, deep down, I believe we want to?

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Another aspect of accountability is so vulnerable and feels so risky, but is so essential. This has to do with our willingness to name hurts and move through tough places together. We had an example of this recently that some of you know about because you participated in it, but the whole community needs to know about this. Our Friday Book Study group has gone so deep and shared so openly with one another. Over time, some hurts have been experienced. In October, that group sat down and had an intentional, scarily honest conversation. Tough things were said, and tough things were received. The group added some new norms to their list of norms for how they function. It was one of the most powerful experiences of working through conflict in real-time that I have ever had in the church—it was sacred, holy ground. What that group did was a gift to this whole community because it was real, and because there was a deep commitment to everyone in the group. It was clear that the goal was to move forward and not for anyone to leave the group. It felt like a big developmental leap for our church because, on the whole, I think that churches are horrible at this kind of conflict, but we can learn so much from this kind of engagement. I’m learning that the goal is not never to offend another person. That’s impossible because I never know how what I will say will land in another person’s heart. No, I will offend you—maybe not maliciously, or intentionally, but it will happen.  Now, one way to go is to say, “I just won’t say what I really think, or say anything at all, because I am just going to offend someone, and I don’t want to hurt anybody because I love these people,” but there is another way, and that is to know that “No, much as I wish it weren’t so, I will offend and hurt people I care about, and I am going to trust my relationship with the person whom I’ve offended—I am going to trust that we can work this through.”

Does anybody other than me sometimes fret over how to respond to an email, looking for the perfect words, the perfect reply? Does anybody else spend hours, maybe days, trying to get it right? What if we stopped pouring our energy there, and trusted our capacity to work it through when something lands wrong? Does this make it a little messier sometimes? You bet, but silence is like walking on eggshells and perfectionism is a strait jacket. St. Benedict talked about Christian community as being the school of love—this is what he is talking about.  This is the nitty, gritty, holy work of Christian community. This is where it gets really real, and really transformative.

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Let’s drop down another level. You know, Episcopalians, we love sacraments; as the Prayer Book says, those “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” One of the outward and visible signs of this “being all in” has to do with claiming our belonging here. And I will be the first to admit that I have made a mess of trying to explain this over the years, but I have a newfound passion around this, and it has to do with this being all in stuff. So, messy as this will be, let me try.

First of all, from where I sit, YOU ARE A PART OF THIS COMMUNITY IF YOU SAY YOU ARE. There are no added benefits in God’s eyes, or in mine, if you formally affiliate with St. Luke’s, and there are no fewer if you don’t—our groups, classes, liturgies, and ministries are open to all, period. I have performed weddings, sat in hospital waiting rooms during surgeries, been at bedsides at death, and done funerals for plenty of people who are not formally affiliated—“members”—of St. Luke’s. And so when people have asked me, “Why do I need to join St. Luke’s because I already feel a part of the community?” I generally stumble around because my heart says, “Well, of course you are a part of this community.” And so membership feels like some sort of a denominational tribal need, some sort of denominational box to check or hoop to jump through. But here is where I have shifted. I think formally affiliating is important, not from where the denomination stands, but pastorally, it’s important from where you stand.

Formally affiliating with St. Luke’s is a way that you can claim, outwardly and visibly, “I belong here”; it is an outward and visible sign that, with these people, with this Christian community, “I’m all in.”

So, there are two ways to participate in this “outward and visible sign”. And again, I don’t think I have done a good job explaining this before. Anyone, no matter your denomination, can become a member of St. Luke’s. The church word is “communicant”—it means that you are “in communion with” this community of faith. You can be a Presbyterian, or member of any other denomination, and become a communicant, a member, of St. Luke’s. This is because the only criteria the Episcopal Church has for membership is baptism. So, if it is important to you to outwardly and visibly claim your belonging here, you can transfer and register your membership as a communicant of St. Luke’s.  Talk with me; Catherine and I can help you do this.

If you are not baptized, talk with me—it is a powerful thing to lay claim to a commitment to Jesus and his way, publically, in a community that vows to support you as you try to live this life.

There is a second way to claim your belonging here, and I have really botched explaining this over the years, just ask any of my previous Confirmation classes, and they will confirm how I have stumbled over this one. But I think I get it now. You may want to claim your belonging by going through the sacrament of Confirmation, Reception, or Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. At their best, these sacraments give us a way to claim and recommit ourselves to walking in the way of Jesus in the particular, peculiar, and somewhat unique way that the Episcopal tradition provides for us.

I am guessing that a good many of you are here because you love St. Luke’s. You don’t think in terms of denomination; you just love St. Luke’s; you love this church, this community. But I have always known that many of the reasons that you love St. Luke’s are all tied up with the fact that we are an Episcopal Church.

  • You love the freedom to think and explore questions. You like that you can engage your mind.
  • Choral music and singing to the organ move your soul, and so does gospel music and spirituals and Southern Harmony.
  • You love the intentionality of our worship and the way we engage scripture and the deep sense of ritual. During my sabbatical, I visited a couple of non-denominational churches with a really different way of worshiping with a really different style of music. They were powerful, but I missed the ritual and came away knowing in my bones, “I am an Episcopalian.”
  • You love the Mystery; that mystical sense.
  • You understand that living by the five baptismal vows is a radical way to follow Jesus and live your life.
  • You love the commitment to inclusion, and the care of Matthew 25’s least of these, and you care about the big picture and matters of justice.
  • You appreciate in your bones the both/and approach to the thorniest issues that confront our world. You are third way thinkers and seekers.
  • You believe that coming together at this table is more important than our differences.

All of these things that you love are the particular wells that Episcopalians drink from as we try, faithfully, to follow Jesus. Yes, St. Luke’s is incredibly special, but we are not unique. You love these things about St. Luke’s, but St. Luke’s is able to be these things because we are an Episcopal Church.

So, it may be that you want to claim anew your sense of belonging to this particular way of following Jesus. You may want to join in this year’s Claiming Jesus and His Way class that will begin meeting monthly on December 7th.

Or, it may be that you have been integrated into this community for 15 or 20 years, but have just never gone through the preparation for the sacrament, and now, something in you is saying, “Yes, I want to claim my belonging here, outwardly and visibly; I’m all in.” There are fair number of you in this boat. I know this because every time the Vestry goes to search for people to serve on next year’s Vestry, there are a number of you who would be great that can’t be asked because the canons say that you have to be “a confirmed communicant (member) of the church” to serve in leadership. And rather than saying that that’s just a dumb denominational rule (which, by the way, our Bishop is trying to change at the national level), let’s view this as making sense—you want your leaders in a community to be those who are all in. So, if you are one of those St. Luker’s who has been around forever, but you’ve never actually taken this step, and you would like to take this step—talk with me. I would like to create something that would prepare you for the sacrament that would also honor that you have soaked up this peculiar Episcopal way of following Jesus by osmosis over the years. And notice how I phrased that—if you never take this step, you are still a St. Luker—this community is strong enough, big enough, generous enough to encompass and hold whomever calls it home, formally affiliated or not.

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So, why has this become so important, other than the painstaking process of trying to get people to serve on Vestry? It is so important because it is so counter-cultural. Our culture is chock full of distractions; we need this school of love if we are to stay awake and hold fast to what is true and real and alive. Our culture is terrified to commit. Our culture lives to keep our options open. Our culture has a very hard time signing on the dotted line and being all in. But following Jesus is an all-in proposition. “You’ve got to lose your life to save it.” This isn’t just about losing our life at death and falling into that bigger life; this is about losing our life all along the way, every day; this is about yielding, handing our lives over to something bigger, not holding back, not withholding, this is about being all in. And if we can do that with each other, here, in this place, if we can do that in this school of love, maybe we have a shot at doing it out there.

Maybe this deep commitment to one another will enable us to be just as deeply committed to our neighbor down the street, even if their politics is the polar opposite of ours.  Maybe learning how to speak honestly with one another here and seeing that our relationships can emerge intact will give us the courage to speak honestly out there about what we know, and just as courageously, to hear another speak to us of what they know and to trust that we can still be in relationship. I am telling you, our world needs us to do this work. Can you imagine how our government might work if all who serve were all in with each other? Maybe we can show them.

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I am passionate about this bridge-crossing, bridge-building work. During my sabbatical, I discerned two areas in the wider community where I want to put some energy in the years ahead. The first is in the realm of civic discoursedialogue across the spectrum, be that across the political spectrum or the religious spectrum. Think of the church most unlike St. Luke’s in our community, I want to grow to the point where I can invite that pastor to coffee and talk about things that matter from a place of deep listening and deep respect, and I want to do this with liberals and conservatives and tea partiers and libertarians.

The second realm is living more deeply into racial reconciliation and continuing to build relationships. A few weeks after Ferguson, Missouri happened, I called Reggie Hunt to have coffee. Reggie is the pastor over at Cornerstone Summit. I told him that I never wanted a Ferguson to happen here, and that should something happen, we needed to know each other well enough that we could pick up the cellphone and call each other. In that conversation, we discovered that we both are jazzed about Brene Brown’s work. Michael Mathes, the new pastor at Boone Mennonite Brethren Church, and I have discovered that we both have a passion for golf—good things happen on a golf course together. We need relationships to build the beloved community that God envisions for all of us.  I am excited by this work and the possibilities for transformation that lie within it, my own included.

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I want to close with some reflections from my sabbatical. First, thank you so very much for the gift of this time away and the resources that helped us do some of the things we did. Thank you to Steve Miller and Toby Summerour, our priests who took services, and thank you to the staff and leadership for tending to everything that needed tending to. It was a great summer for me, and for our family.

In August, I had the opportunity to make a retreat at the Sisters of Loretto in Nerinx, KY. I was deeply connected to these sisters when I served in that part of Kentucky 15 years ago. I got to meet with the sister who was my spiritual director in that season of my life, Sr. Elaine Prevallet—she’s now 81 years old and still sharp as a tack. In preparing to meet with her, I was aware of all of these milestones—I am 20 years ordained; 10+ years at St. Luke’s; in February, Jim and I will be married 15 years; and in March, I will turn 50. I asked myself the question, “What am I feeling?” And the answer that came was, “contentment.” I am feeling contentment. And then I was aware that that was a completely unfamiliar feeling for me. It feels pretty close to joy. It’s a complete absence of striving energythere is no place that I have to get to. It’s not that everything is perfect; it’s deeper than that. It’s the peace that passes all understanding. I talked with Elaine about it. I said, “There’s a lot of bad stuff in the world, like, do I get to feel this contentment?” She said, “Absolutely,” and that she was leery of those who work for justice who can only move from a place of urgency and anxiety. She said she didn’t hear complacency, and I wasn’t feeling any, but it’s always good to ask that question. No, it’s more a deep, deep freedom. If there is no place that I have to get to, then I am completely free to choose what I want to do and where I want to put my energy.

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One of the things I did this summer was go completely off of email and facebook. I’m not on facebook much, so that wasn’t too hard. Email was hard, but after my first week of total freakout, it was one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I got really slowed down; my brain got really slowed down. My first day back in the office, it took me until 4:00 to turn on my computer—I was scared. And sure enough, there were an insane number of emails waiting for me. I put my head down and felt depressed; I could feel my energy draining away. I thought, “Pay attention to this and make a different choice.” So, I don’t have my email screen up all the time; I don’t have email come straight to my homescreen on my phone. I check email a couple of times a day; I don’t check it at night; I rarely check it on weekends; and never on my sabbath. It is still a great tool for sharing information, but for me, it is a poor tool for nurturing relationships.  I would rather spend my energy in face-to-face (or at least, voice to voice), incarnational conversations. So, if you need to reach me, don’t assume that I am going to see an email—call me.

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I also talked with Elaine about the fact that I have a decade left in my active ministry. I wondered out loud with her, “What shall I do with this last 10 years?” I told her that I didn’t much want to make a plan. She said, “Oh, don’t make a plan. God will bring you what you need to do.” And that has always been my way. I have never been good at laying out goals and objectives and strategic plans. With the pace of change today, those are outdated before the ink has dried on the paper anyway. What I have always believed in is being awake and attentive to the world and to our lives so that we can hear and feel God’s tug to respond here, move there, or do the really radical thing of standing still anchored deep in God’s presence.

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I don’t know what God has in store for me or my ministry or for St. Luke’s. I used to think I knew, but I don’t. What I can say is this, there is no place that I am trying to get to, and today, there is no place else that I want to be. You are an amazing community of lovers of Jesus.  You live this life with intentionality, vitality, authenticity, struggle, and joy. You are quirky, slightly eccentric, and passionate. Sometimes, you pull in a multitude of different directions, all at once. You are deeply alive, and working as priest among you feeds my soul. I love you. Gosh, I love you, and almost 11 years in, it still feels like we are good together. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but today, I can say, unequivocally, without reservation, “St. Luke’s, I’m all in.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

November 23, 2014

Remember God’s promises and come home. Bishop Taylor’s Diocesan Convention sermon.

+Porter Taylor

Convention Sermon 11/16/14

 

“Hope is the hardest love we carry.” That’s what the poet says—

And it’s been true since the beginning of time.

It’s true for us and it was true for Isaiah.

Today we hear the prophet Isaiah speaking at one of the great turning points of history

The Israelites have been in captivity in Babylon for seventy years.

Two generations have never seen Jerusalem.

They have no idea what the Temple looked like.

They have a confused sense of home.

The Israelites have been in exile so long, it no longer feels like exile.

Yet part of them knows that Babylon is a way station—

It’s like being in an airport for half your life.

Yes, you make it work

You find a place to sleep and a way to keep your body and mind strong

You adapt.

But it’s hard to find rest—it’s hard to find joy—and it’s hard to feel at home.

You find ways to distract the deep loneliness inside.

As humans, we are amazingly adaptive—which is a good thing.

When we are displaced, we make do.

We accommodate—we make our lives work.

 

But at some point, we are no longer tourists—we have gone native.

Our heads stop thinking about home and we adapt, but our hearts are always restless

And in our dreams we confront our loneliness.

But Isaiah is still a tourist. He has never stopped thinking of home.

He is calling for the Israelites to remember where they belong.

He is calling for them to prepare for their return.

He is jostling their memories.

He is trying to rewire their brains.

He is awakening their dreams of what it means to be where you belong.

Most of all, he is getting them to hope.

 

“Remember,” he says, “the Lord’s ways are not your ways

And the Lord’s thoughts are not your thoughts.”

Because the Israelites have gotten used to a slave economy where

You get what you pay for.

You don’t work, you don’t eat.

There’s never enough for everyone.

It’s an economy run by fear and scarcity.

It’s a world mapped by division—the Babylonians are the haves

And the Israelites are the have nots.

It’s a world afraid of newness and grace.

 

 

Some years ago I pulled my back.

I couldn’t stand up straight and I could not turn my shoulders.

I could be comfortable standing stooped over as if I were a downhill skier.

Instead of dealing with the pain—I tried to accommodate it.

This is fate of the Israelites in Babylon—they are living a half life

because they think that’s all they can do since God has abandoned them to exile.

 

Too often, it is the fate of our world as well.

Our world is changing so fast—our lives are so hectic—everything is so complex.

And the currencies of this contemporary exile are fear and despair.

If you are not home—it’s hard to relax and trust.

Instead of stretching out our hands—we clutch.

And instead of admitting our loss and pain, we stay distracted with our endless screens.

That is what Babylon feels like.

 

Today we are being commissioned as God’s prophets just as Isaiah was commissioned

to bring the Good News to a world gripped in fear and trapped in exile.

No doubt we are as afraid as the Israelites.

We too could say—“We are lost.”

“We are men and women of unclean lips and we live among people of unclean lips.”

But the Lord commissions us just as God commissioned Isaiah

 

to proclaim Good News to the captives:

Come HOME.

Come home to God—

Come home to God’s mercy—

Come home to a vision of God’s world for all God’s children.

Come home to trust that the world can change

and all God’s children can have what they need.

Come home to God’s economy.

If you are thirsty, there is water.

If you are hungry, there is food for your body, soul and mind.

And it’s not the economy of the empire—

This is not a world where you get what you pay for.

Because it’s not about what you have—it’s about who God is.

It’s a world where you get what you need simply by opening your hands.

It’s about trust; it’s about living with open hearts.

The truth is we learn how to make this journey out of exile over and over again.

 

When I was twelve years old, my family took a vacation to a ranch in Florida

About forty minutes from Gainesville.

It was a long drive from Asheville, and in 1962 it was mainly two lane roads.

My brother and sister and I were excited for one reason: the ranch had horses.

 

We got there in the middle of the day,

and we three kids threw our stuff on our bedroom floor and ran to the stable.

In short order, the farmhand had us on three horses riding in the hot Florida sun.

As we were walking back to the house, my Dad came out on the porch to wave at us.

Suddenly I could see him slap his neck.

Then he fell down. My mother came out and screamed for us to help.

My dad was highly allergic to bee stings.

He had been stung by a bee on the vein running down his neck

and had gone into shock.

My brother and I carried him to our station wagon and laid him in the back.

We sat beside him while my mother drove to the University of Florida hospital.

When we got there, my mother realized she didn’t have her wallet.

She had no identification.

She had no money, and no checks, and in 1962 we didn’t have credit cards.

My sister didn’t have any shoes on.

My brother and I were wearing David Millard Junior High football jerseys.

We three children kept asking our mother, “Is it going to be okay?”

She would say “yes, it will all be fine,” but then she’d start to cry,

and we knew that she didn’t know any more than we did.

In the hospital waiting room, we were in exile.

But what we discovered is the goodness of the Lord.

 

The nurse got us rooms at the Howard Johnson.

Our cousins brought us clothes.

After a very scary eight hours, the doctors said my dad would be okay.

As we waited for our father to recover, we three kids called room service and ordered all

of Howard Johnson’s twenty-eight flavors.

We sat on our beds and put quarters in to have Magic Fingers jiggle us

while we watched Jeopardy and The Price is Right.

 

At twelve I didn’t think about grace, but I do now.

Because I know we all lose our way.

We all end up in Babylon.

Sooner or later we are all in exile.

But those are the times we are called to discover the goodness of the Lord.

Those are the times when we must remember our calling

to proclaim to the world the great reversal and act upon it:

Instead of the thorn shall come the cypress

Instead of the brier shall come the myrtle

Instead of a slave economy—

you can buy wine and milk without money because your need is enough.

Instead of being stranded in a strange city,

you get all you need from people you don’t know.

 

Strangers turn out to be angels.

Because it’s not about our ways—it’s about God’s ways.

 

Like Isaiah we are called to pronounce the Great Reversal,

That means we must remember God’s vision for God’s children and proclaim it.

Instead of a Congress that will not even talk to each other—

We will have leaders who seek to legislate for the common good.

Instead of a worldwide system of human trafficking—

girls can go to school everywhere without fear.

Instead of whole countries like Mexico and Honduras that have been overtaken by the

drug cartels—

 

there will be safe streets to walk in for the young and the elderly.

We don’t have to understand it.

We don’t have to have a flow chart to see how it will work.

We just have to embrace it with our whole hearts.

We have to believe it and then proclaim it and then move our feet towards it.

Our task—our calling is to say to this world, trapped in exile, what Isaiah said to his,

If you are thirsty—if you are hungry—If you are lost,

Remember God’s promises and come home.

 

Money: The Currency of Love and Conduit of Commitment

Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 25—Year A; Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm; 1; Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

This month we’ve been lifting up stewardship in all kinds of ways—sharing our blessings, insert page reflections, the prayers of the people, the Why I love St. Luke’s video (which will be in your inbox when you get home), and last week Jacque preached about it. Just like Lent gives us a whole season to focus intentionally on our spiritual life and practice, so too this season gives us a chance to focus intentionally on stewardship, and especially on our relationship to and with money. It’s not that our life in God or stewardship or our money practice don’t receive attention the rest of the year—these are all daily practices that need daily attention—but these seasons invite us to go deep in our reflection and to be intentional about these practices, and that’s a good thing.

Money. Oh, most of us don’t like to talk about it. Many of us don’t really want to think about it. What are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company? (pause) Religion, politics, money. But what did Jesus spend a whole lot of time talking about—religion, politics (in the largest sense of how we structure ourselves as a society), and money. Jesus spends an enormous amount of time addressing issues around money—wealth, greed, riches, poverty—certainly more than he ever spent talking about issues of human sexuality. Still, it’s a daunting task.

I often get anxious when it comes to my turn to preach about this. I can talk about all the aspects of stewardship that involve how we spend our time and energy; I can talk passionately about how we engage our passions, but there is a part of me that wants to walk quickly and lightly over the money stuff. You’re just not supposed to talk about it. It’s nobody’s business; it’s a private matter; don’t go there. But I think I’m over that.

I just finished reading Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life. There are a lot of good books out there on money. Last spring, the Friday Study Group read Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most. It was really helpful, and really hard work. But The Soul of Money pushed me to a whole new place with this stuff. Twist is a global activist who has devoted her life to alleviating poverty and hunger and supporting social justice and environmental sustainability. She has worked across the globe in some of the most resource-poor places on the planet. So, she speaks with a voice that knows full well the deprivation that exists in some parts of the world, as well as the unbelievable excess that exists in other places.

Let me run through her analysis.

Twist unmasks what she calls the toxic myths of scarcity: myth #1—there’s not enough; myth #2—more is better; myth #3—that’s just the way it is. She goes on to say that when we believe there is not enough, when we believe that resources are scarce, then we accept that some will have what they need and some will not, and we rationalize that someone is destined to end up with the short end of the stick. Once we define our world as deficient, the total of our life energy, everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do—particularly with money—[then] becomes an effort to overcome this sense of lack and the fear of losing to others or being left out. There’s not enough generates a fear that drives us to make sure that we’re not the person, or our loved ones aren’t the people, who get crushed, marginalized, or left out. When we believe that more is better, and equate having more with being more—more smart or more able—then people on the short end of that resource stick are assumed to be less smart, less able, even less valuable, as human beings. We feel we have permission to discount them. When we believe that’s just the way things are, then we assume a posture of helplessness. We believe that a problem is unsolvable. We accept that in our human family neither the resource-rich members nor the resource-poor members have enough money, enough food, or enough intelligence or resourcefulness to generate lasting solutions.

 

She counters all of this with the truth of sufficiency, and to get there, she tells this story. She, and others from the Hunger Project, had been called to work with a tribal people deep in the Sahel desert in Senegal in West Africa. Their village was running out of water, and they needed to find a new source of water or a new place to live. Government services were not extended to these people, not even in times of crisis. They were illiterate people who were not counted in the census. They couldn’t vote, and they had no pull with the government, but they had tremendous resilience. Driving out to the village, Twist described the landscape as a desolate vastness, so bleak that it seemed unimaginable that any human being could live there.

 It was a Muslim village, and when the meeting began there was an inner circle of men, who did all the talking, and a second circle of women—the women could see and hear, but they did not speak. Twist says that she could feel the power of the women behind her, and she asked to meet only with the women. The mullah and the chief allowed it. The women drew in close, and several of the tribal women started to speak. They said that it was clear to them that there was an underground lake underneath the area—they could feel; they knew it was there; they had seen it in visions, but the men had not permitted them to dig. The men didn’t believe the women, and digging wells was not women’s work.

In this resource-poor area, these people had what they needed—Twist notes that they weren’t poor, they were eager to find a way through this challenge and they burned with possibility. They were a well of strength, a wealth of perseverance and ingenuity. What they needed from an outside source was a way through to pursue their clear instinct. After many conversations with both the women and the men, they made an agreement with the mullahs and the chief that the work would start with the women because the women had the vision. The women dug, singing, drumming, caring for one another’s children. Deeper and deeper they dug, never doubting the water was there. The men watched skeptically but allowed the work to continue. Down and down they went, digging, digging, and a year into their digging, they reached the underground lake of their visions. They built a pumping system and a water tower, and now, seventeen villages have water. Women’s leadership groups in all seventeen villages are the center of action. There is irrigation and chicken farming, literacy classes and batiking businesses. The whole region was transformed because they were able to reclaim the power of what was there.

Twists states:Sufficiency isn’t a quantity of anything. [It] isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough. Sufficiency resides inside each one of us, and we can call it forward. It is a consciousness, an attention, an intentional choosing of the way we think about our circumstances. In our relationship with money, it is using our money in a way that expresses our integrity; using it in a way that expresses value rather than determines value. Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources. Sufficiency is a context we bring forth from within that reminds us that if we look around us and within ourselves, we will find what we need. There is always enough.” Twist speaks of using money as “the currency of love and conduit of commitment.”In simpler words, as one of you told me last year—money is energy.

We have to talk about money, we have to think about money, we have to reflect intentionally on our relationship with money because it is an energy, a force, a current in our life and Twists notes—it is meant to flow. When we are buying into the myths of scarcity, we are tempted to scramble for it, be anxious about, hoard it, and when we do that, it stops flowing, and it loses its capacity to carry our deepest aspirations and ideals; it loses its capacity to be a conduit of our commitments, to make manifest the power of our love. So this isn’t a small thing. In fact, to become intentional about our relationship with money is a very, very big thing. And over and over, Twist makes the case that this doesn’t matter if you are dollaraire or billionaire, if you are resource-poor or resource-rich (I love this way of describing it!). People at both ends of the spectrum can be consumed by the toxic myths of scarcity, or can live from a place of deep sufficiency, a place of deep enoughness.

All of us move in this world of money. How we get it matters. How we spend it matters. How we invest it matters. Where we allow it to flow matters. Where we withhold it matters. When we align our interactions with money with our deepest values, then immeasurable amounts of energy are freed up and unleashed toward those values and ideals. When we are unconscious about money, when it’s not flowing freely, when it isn’t lining up with our deepest values and aspirations, then our energy gets blocked, stagnant, and we can’t see the lifegiving possibilities that are swirling around us all the time.

As I read her book, I could sense the power of her stories, her witness; I could sense the energy of her approach; I could taste the freedom she describes, the passion unlocked and unleashed and set free. Isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what we want for our families and our communities? God created this world overflowingly sufficient, rich with everything we need. There is enough, and when we start from that place, then we start from a place of immense hope and possibility. And Twist has the experience from the most impoverished places in the world to back up this truth. It is worth it to read her book just to hear her tell these stories. The “there’s not enough, more is better, and that’s just the way it is” perspective crumbles in the face of these stories. And if it can be true in the deserts of Senegal and the rural most parts of India and the poorest parts of our cities, then it can be true in your life and in my life and in Boone, North Carolina.

So, yes, I want you to think about money. I want you to break all the rules and talk about money. I want you to explore to the depths your relationship with money. I want all of us to ask if our relationship with money is aligned with our deepest values because I want all of us to be in a place where money is flowing, where money is a currency of our love and a conduit of our commitments. I want our passion and energy to be walking in concert with the flow of resources in and through our lives.

This is so much bigger than where we give our charitable giving; this is about how all of our money flows. In this sense, the questions around money are just one more expression of how we steward all that God has blessed us with. It’s not more important because it’s dollars and cents; it’s so important because it is such a vastly unexamined part of our lives, and one which swallows a ton of our energy, and one in which the cultural forces are hugely stacked against our being intentional in our choices. I love the show Mad Men, but the advertising industry does not want us to be intentional in our choices.

Which brings me to the church. What other place will push you to reflect on this part of your life? And what other place will support you as you swim against the cultural super consumer stream? Where else can we gain support to show our kids a different way to value their worth—a worth based solely on their status as a beloved daughter or son of God and not on what they own or possess or the level of their debt? What other place gives you the opportunity to express your deepest aspirations as you seek to respect the dignity of every human being?

Think about the power of the money that flows through this place. Think about the beauty that inspires us through the music we hear in this space. Think about the peace of this place when it is filled with more than a hundred people holding silence together.

Think about the formation that happens with our children and youth who grow up into the kind of adults that serve women seeking a second chance in New Orleans, or mentally challenged people in Durham, or serve in the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps or Americorps or the Peace Corps, or who take a deeply formed compassionate ethical worldview into all the places of their work in the world.

Think about the nurture and love that is unleashed as we bless an elder as she makes her rite of passage to assisted living or bless a thirteen year old making their rite of passage into their teenage years. Think about the joy and hope that springs in our hearts as we watched our youngest kids take up the offering or the courage we draw from our brothers and sisters who have allowed us to walk with them as they show us how to die well.

Think about the feeding that happens when we come together at this table. And think about the feeding that happens when we gather in the Mary Boyer Garden, or at FARM Café, or at Hospitality House. Our love is made flesh in the money that flows through our Hunger Basket to WeCan and Hospitality House and the Hunger Coalition and the Community Care Clinic.

The church—this is the place where we wrestle with aligning our values in concert with a God who loves us and a Lord who shows us what it means to live as a human being infused with divinity—this is the place where we can go deep and work out what all this means together—in the Friday Morning Book Study, in the Social Justice Training Group, in the Women’s Group, in the conversations that happen over coffee and around the edges all the time.

St. Luke’s uses the money you give as a currency of love and as a conduit of our deepest shared commitments. Does the church need money to do what we do? Yes. $322,000 worth a year. But I believe, no I know, that we collectively have everything we need to live out the vision of love and commitment that are the heartbeat of this faith community. Some of us are resource-rich and some of us are resource-poor, but we all are wealthy and have something of deep value to contribute to this church and to the world.

Between now and November 9th when we do our ingathering, I want you to engage your relationship with money—go deep with it. Think about how money is flowing through your life. Where is the flow moving freely, where is it stuck and stagnant? Where has the toxic myth of scarcity and plain old fear grabbed you? How is money expressing your highest aspirations and ideals? How is it a currency of love in your life and a conduit of your deepest commitments? Lift all of this up to God; turn it around like a multi-faceted crystal and let God’s light shine through it from every conceivable angle. Think about those places where your money is flowing and ask if those places are aligned with your values and ideals. If they are, support them with joy and passion, knowing that when it’s flowing and aligned money is a powerful expression of your soul. If the places where your money is flowing aren’t aligned with your values, then start that process of redirecting the flow to places that are, knowing and trusting that the energy that will unleash in you can breathe life back into your soul.

On November 9th, you will have the opportunity to make manifest your love and commitment to this place, to this community. And if you can only commit with one dollar, do it, because that is an alignment of your money with your values and that will make a huge difference to you and this community. The culture has told us that we don’t have enough, but this morning, we have pulled back the curtain, and now we know—that’s a lie. Inside each of you are immeasurable resources that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents, underground lakes that are the heartbeat of this community. As you make your commitment on November 9th, bring those forth as well. God will bless it all that all of this may flow as a blessing upon the world.

So, I am glad to talk about money because in this exploration lies the seeds of transformation at the deepest levels of our being. Come on into the waters. In that baptismal spirit that is at the heart of our life, let the myth of scarcity die, and let Jesus pull you into the life that springs from that deep, deep place of gloriously enough. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; October 26, 2014

A Cornerstone of Forgiveness

Rev. Cyndi Banks; Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 22—Year A; Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Vineyards. Vineyards. We just can’t seem to get out of the vineyard. Two weeks ago, we had the story about the early-morning/all-day laborers in the vineyard who got paid the same as the slacker-one-hour laborers. Last week, we had the parable about the two sons—the one who said he wouldn’t go work in the vineyard but did and the one who said he would go work but didn’t. And this week, we are back in the vineyard again. This time, Jesus tells a story about a landlord who planted a vineyard. [He] put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

Context here is important. Jesus is in the temple. It’s the last week of his life. The day before this one, he had turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He is in a heated debate with the chief priests and Pharisees over authority. And this image of the vineyard would have immediately called to mind the passage from Isaiah 5 that we also heard this morning.

In that story, it is the Lord God who has tenderly planted the vineyard, dug it, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines, built a watchtower in the midst of it, hewed out a wine vat in it, and he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And if we’re not catching it, the Isaiah passage spells it out pretty clearly for us—the house of Israel, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judahthey weren’t living in the ways of justice or right relationshipthey are the wild grapes.

God’s heart is broken. God has tended his beloved people so carefully, poured so much of his divine being into them, and they’ve gone all wild on him. And broken hearts oftentimes take us in two directions—we either lash out, or we disengage. In some ways, God does both in the Isaiah story—and now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

The chief priests and Pharisees knew this story from Isaiah and the vengeance rained down upon those wild grapes, at least, that’s the story they told themselves about the Isaiah story. But as Jesus tells this story, the harvest isn’t wild grapes; it’s a really good harvest of really good grapes.

Okay, so pretend you’re the chief priests and Pharisees, and you’re the jury at this trial, and you are about to hear this testimony after which you will be asked to render a judgment. Here it goes.

When the harvest time had come, [this landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Jesus pauses. He has those listening in the palm of his hand. Remember chief priests and Pharisees, context, you know your scriptures and Isaiah is in your head. The wild grapes got destroyed. These tenants have been good farmers, but horrible at relationship with the landowner. Are these tenants good or bad? (pause) See how fast we can go there? Now, in fairness to the tenants, maybe the landowner had been giving them a raw deal for decades, and they were fed up with the hard work and low wages for their labor. However, seizing, beating, killing, stoning representatives of the landowner—slave and son alike—not an okay response.

Jesus then asks the chief priests and Pharisees to render their judgment—“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Okay, chief priests and Pharisees—what will the owner do? Well? Think of the wild grapes; what will the owner do? (pause)

[The chief priests and Pharisees] said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Oh, those tenants are lower than wild grapes; they’ve gone straight to wretches put to a miserable death, the vineyard ripped out of their hands and given to another. Oh, the delight of vengeance, the taste of retribution; it is sweeter than honey in the mouth. It’s that part deep inside of us that lights up when someone gets their just deserts, and even though thatdeserts” is spelled differently, it just sounds delicious.

But Jesus is telling a parable, and parables always flip us on our head.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

“Uh, yeah Jesus, we’ve heard that scripture, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

“Uh, yeah Jesus, still no idea. But I’ve got the feeling you are talking about us. I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but I know I don’t like it. You are way messing with my frame, and the only thing I want to right now is lock you up, get you back in some sort of box, because I don’t want to think as radically big as I think you are asking me to think. I want to arrest you in the worst way, but the crowds, they love you, but if it’s between your vision, and mine, you’ve got to go.”

Sound familiar? Your world view is challenging mine, so I have to destroy you. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is the air we breathe; this is in every myth that informs our action at every level of society; this is played out on playgrounds and lunch rooms and board rooms and halls of government. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is played out between nations and within nations and among rivals of every conceivable stripe; this is played out on our streets and on the byways of social media; but know this—this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is the stone that the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone? (pause) Let’s think about this in a new way. Over and over in Matthew, Jesus speaks of it. The cornerstone? It is forgiveness. It is mercy. “How often should I forgive, Lord, seven times? Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” When asked how to pray, Jesus taught, “Forgive us, as we have forgiven others.” Forgiveness is the only stone strong enough to secure the foundation upon which the building rests. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes. There is this very human part of us that wants vengeance, that wants to get even, that wants you to get yours when you’ve hurt me. Jesus gets that part of us. My goodness, if anyone had reason to get even, it was him, but he responds with his life. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is hard to will. In fact, I’m not sure you can will it. When it comes, it always comes as gift, a something that is at work inside of us that comes from way beyond us. And when it comes, it is amazing!

And here, we need to take a little detour because there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not amnesia. And, forgiveness does not erase the need for accountability in our relationships. In fact, accountability is an essential component in the process of forgiveness, and forgiveness is an essential component of accountability. We can’t pull these two apart because in the process of forgiving, we take several profoundly vulnerable and courageous steps—we acknowledge that an action of another has hurt our heart, we step out and make that hurt known, and we signal our willingness to move through and beyond the hurt toward a promised land of healing that may seem quite beyond our imagining in the midst of the hurt. Accountability begins with this gut-wrenching, vulnerable, exposed place of honesty. Accountability begins with a willingness to risk telling the truth of our experience. Forgiveness and accountability—these two go hand-in-hand. They don’t always lead to reconciliation—that takes a commitment on both parties part, but reconciliation is impossible without both forgiveness and accountability. We have a lot more to learn about how these two go hand-in-hand, and Jesus will show us the way if we signal our willingness to step out into this territory. Okay, detour ended; back to the main road—we’ve still got a bit more to travel.

 

There is this little matter of breaking and shattering. The false self, that part of us that refuses to let go of our rightness, that part of us that clings to our sense of offendedness like life support, this stone of forgiveness and mercy will break our false self to pieces. To release our right to vengeance, to let go of seeking retribution, to release our desire to see people get what they deserve, it shatters us. But then, amidst all the rubble, we touch a new place, a beautiful place, an amazing place, a place of freedom and peace. It is here that we touch the cornerstone, the True Self, the Christ who lives in us and fills us with a capacity to love and forgive that is quite simply beyond us.

But here’s the deal—you can’t get to that place, except through the shattering. The chief priests and Pharisees, they couldn’t go there. They refused to die to be born anew, and believe me, it will feel like dying, and it is labor to be born anew.

God doesn’t want vengeance, not anymore; in fact, I don’t think God ever did. Even in Isaiah where it sounds like that’s exactly what God wanted—I don’t think so. I think there, God was saying, “You want to grow wild, you have that right. You want to have a go at it without hedges and walls and limits and examination and pruning away, you want to have a go at living without doing your work—go ahead, you have that freedom, but your life will be out of control, and that will be a waste.” That’s not vengeance; that’s natural consequences. And God loves us enough to grant us the freedom to experience them, if that’s what we choose.

God doesn’t seek vengeance—Jesus, his death and his resurrection, is living proof that God seeks life, new life, forgiven life, life filled with mercy, life pulled from the ashes.

Stumble on this stone. Let forgiveness break you to pieces—that forgiveness which you need to receive, that forgiveness which you need to bestow—let it break you to pieces. Let it shatter you, and then let it be the first stone in building a new life. This is our call—together, let us start from this stone at this corner. It’s time to build up a new world from the foundation of forgiveness and mercy, and never have we needed it more. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; October 5, 2014

A cornerstone of forgiveness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21—Year A; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Let’s begin today with a fill in the blank exercise. We have a crisis of …….(pause). Okay, drop down a bit. Think about the gospel story today. Okay, we have a crisis of ……. We have a crisis of authority. We hear a lot about this in today’s world. I googled the words “crisis of authority” just to see what would come up. In .19 seconds, there were 150,000,000 results, one hundred fifty million. And, among the first page of results were these: a book about “The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an article about “A Crisis of Authority” in the Wall Street Journal, a reflection on “The Crisis of Authority” in response to the Lambeth meeting of Anglican bishops, an article on “The Crisis of Authority” in the political and economic realm, an article on “The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity,” and on and on and on. Phyllis Tickle refers to it as she describes this great shift underway in Christianity known as the Great Emergence—she says that one of the main things that is always up for grabs whenever the church goes through one of these great reforming upheavals is authority. It seems to be that we see this playing out at all levels of all denominations of all faiths, and indeed, at all levels of society, and it feels especially intense in our day and time, but maybe this battle over authority has always been so.

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” When someone asks you about your authority to do something and asks you who gave you that authority, what does that feel like? (pause) It feels like a challenge. It feels like a way to dismiss you.  It could feel like accountability. It mostly feels like deflection. It feels like a huge game of “gotcha.” It feels like they are trying to strip you of power.

Jesus knew this was all smoke and mirrors, and he responds in a way that will pull back the curtain on this ruse. Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Jesus knew all along that the question of authority isn’t the central question. So, what is the central question? What is at the heart of the matter? Power. Power beyond our imagining. Power that is uncomfortable. Power that is undeniable. Amazing power that can be used for good and healing and wholeness, and power that can absolutely destroy. It is much easier to pick at authority than it is to look at the dynamics of power and our relationship to power. Several of us spent most of yesterday in a Dismantling Racism workshop looking at power as it relates to racism—good work, important work, tough work—power is a tough thing to explore, a tough thing to come to terms with.

So, how do you relate to power? Do you shy away from it? Do you claim it? Do you claim it and wield it like a weapon? Are you comfortable with its energy? Do you harness it? Does it scare you?  Can you spot it in the systems of which you are a part? Or, is it one of those things that moves in the shadows or under the surface just out of our awareness?

Jesus knows the pitfalls of the trick question on authority. It’s a no-win scenario. So, after revealing the authority question for the straw man that it is, Jesus turns the tables, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Here, we see the power of action that speaks louder than words. It is not hard to get the words right, but it can be awfully hard to actually live as we speak (Parents, can I get an “Amen?”). We can speak of the importance of compassion and forgiveness and patience and kindness and steadfast love, but are we actually practicing these in the flesh and blood stuff of our lives?

Jesus continually shows us how God’s power moves as it will, where it will, through whom it will; it is wild and unpredictable and uncontrollable. The authority argument keeps a tight lid on where and when and how that power moves. Some have it, and some don’t; it is tightly controlled, very predictable, locked down, and mediated in very precise measurable quantities in very defined patterns.

That’s all well and good for those on top of the structure, but Jesus never was much interested in the top-down approach. Philippians—“though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” The big fancy greek word for this dynamic is “kenosis.” Jesus is superabundantly filled with light and life and power and love and pours it out lavishly, abundantly, recklessly. The love that pours out of him is way out of control.

The tax collectors and prostitutes could sense this kind of power—it flowed into the parched places of their lives, and when they drank of it, they touched the kingdom of God.

But as long as the chief priests and elders are having this debate about authority, they don’t have to deal with this wondrous, crazy, out-of-control power that will most certainly upend their lives and their structures. Their argument over authority is the armor that protects them from feeling the vulnerability that inevitably comes when you open yourself to this power that is flowing straight from the heart of God. That authority armor will protect you from feeling so vulnerable, but it also keeps you from touching the kingdom of God where all is grace.

Paul closes that part of his letter to the Philippians by saying, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Wow! Have you ever considered that salvation is not the reward of the next life, but the very work of this life? That our work is to work toward our wholeness with God and each other and our very selves, here, now, today, in the very detailed, intimate context of your life and your relationships? Have we ever considered that central to this working out of our salvation is coming to grips with our relationship to power?

If Paul is right, and it is God who is at work in us, then we have a load of power stirring in our hearts and souls and minds and bodies that we have to acknowledge and accept and come to terms with and steward. We have enormous power—how are we deploying that power throughout our lives? Are we aligning that power with God toward wholeness, ours and the world’s? Are we in touch with its awesomeness, that’s the fear and trembling part, or are we in denial that it even exists within us?

Back to the crisis of authority question. We may be in a crisis of authority, but crisis, by its very definition, is a turning point, a crucial time in which a decisive change is impending. The roots of this word eventually wind their way back to the cross. And on the cross, power got upended, turned upside down, and resurrected in a whole new way.

Maybe, as those who try to walk in the way of Jesus, this crisis of authority is an invitation to take off the authority armor and put on the power of God. Maybe, it’s an opportunity to examine our comfort and discomfort with this power that lives inside of us. Maybe our coming to terms with this power is what the world is waiting for because it sure doesn’t seem to know how to steward it well at all, and power that is not stewarded toward wholeness is dangerous and destructive.

Salvation is the work of this life.

Will we say “yes” to this power, or will we let this sleeping giant lie? Amen.

 

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; September 28, 2014