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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Parish Administrator

The Lord is My…Portal!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter 4—Year A                      (video link)

Easter 4—Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Any guess as to what Sunday this is? Ah, Good Shepherd Sunday. On the 4th Sunday of Easter, we always get some portion of John 10, and in John 10, Jesus is doing his darnedest to respond to some of his critics who were challenging his authority to heal. In John 9, Jesus has just healed that man born blind. He’s dealt with all the “who sinned this man or his parents” questions (to which he responded, “Neither”). And he’s talked about what makes us truly blind, and the religious leaders, who felt in the know, are getting agitated, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

What if that response by the Pharisees, what if that wasn’t a response with attitude, but was an actual, earnest question. Could we be blind? Could we really be missing the boat? But we’re supposed to know better—oh no, surely we’re not blind to what really matters, are we?”

It’s interesting, but Jesus doesn’t respond by pulling out his C.V. and  comparing his bonafides; he doesn’t recite a litany of those under whom he’s studied; he doesn’t share a bibliography of all the books he’s read—all things I’m tempted to do when challenged. No, he just launches into extended metaphors, designed to pull his listeners in deeper where they might hear something that they’ve not yet been able to hear.

In this year’s passage, we get the part about sheepfolds and shepherds, bandits and thieves—juicy stuff. The first part you can sort of follow. You’ve got your basic sheepfold with a gate. The shepherd enters by the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. Your thieves and bandits don’t go through the gate—they’re sneaky—they climb in by another way. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know that voice; they don’t follow strangers because they don’t know those voices.

We can follow this. We might even be able to identify some of the thieves and bandits who steal our attention and distract us from those things that truly matter—the drive for power or esteem or affection or security or control, or the litany of lack that keeps us running on that wheel, round and round and round, never stopping to rest in the sheepfold or breathe deep of that good fresh air out in the pasture.

There are so many voices calling out to us in our culture; it’s easy to miss the voice of the shepherd. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be. The text tells us, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Again, the “them” are those who are wrestling with the fact that Jesus has raised their consciousness about their blindness. Do you ever like it when someone raises your blind spot to your awareness? I don’t, and my first stop is always going to be defensiveness. Seeing the truth of what is being pointed out to me, that comes a little further down the road. So, images, stories, metaphors—they help to lower those defenses and can often provide just enough distance for me to look at myself.

But, metaphor #1 didn’t work to lower those defenses with Jesus’ listeners. So, Jesus has to try again. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before, thieves and bandits; sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

Jesus is the gate. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? The Lord is my shepherd—oh, that’s lyrical. The Lord is my gate, not so much. What does this even mean?

So, when you hear gate, what comes to mind? (pause) Something to keep something in, and something to keep something out. When you hear gatekeeper, what comes to mind? (pause) A block. Someone who’s going to keep me from getting where I want to go. Someone who might protect me. Or, someone who’s trying to protect someone or something, and won’t give me access. It’s an access-mediator. Who in this room likes gatekeepers? Really, be honest now. Most of us, deep down, we don’t like gatekeepers. So, to hear that Jesus is the gate—this starts to stir up some not good feelings and associations, and it definitely lacks the emotional impact of “the Lord is my shepherd.”

Part of this is a problem with translation. The word in greek is θύρα, and it doesn’t actually mean “gate;” it means “door,” as in “entrance,” as in “passage way,” as in “portal.” Oh, now we’re cooking. I love portals. Portals are passages to other dimensions, other worlds—think Narnia, or the drama Once Upon a Time or Dr. Who or Harry Potter. Portals are magical and mysterious, luminous and liminal. I can totally warm up to magical and mysterious, luminous and liminal.

Jesus is the passage way, the entrance, the portal to another life. And what kind of life? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus came that they/we may have ζωή life, full and whole and complete life, and have it, not just abundantly, but have it exceeding abundantly, over and above, περισσός—exceeding some number or measure or rank or need—this is abundance that is, literally, off the charts.

Wow, that’s really different than the connotations of gates and gatekeeper.

What if we don’t look at this passage as describing who Jesus is going to keep in or out of the either the sheepfold or the pasture, but instead, look at Jesus as a portal to life that is full of grace and overflowingly abundant?

What if we don’t look at Jesus as a bunch of metal attached to hinges, but instead, think of him as a passage that carries us into a space we aren’t currently living in. A space where we are so full that all that’s described in the Acts passage doesn’t seem like a pipedream, but becomes the natural outpouring of what flows when we are living the abundant life. A space where all who trust in this life are together and hold all things in common and sell all those things that possess us freeing up resources and energy to distribute to all, as any have need. No merit system here, no worthiness criteria, just need. This abundant life overflows into their prayers and the way they break bread together, in their eagerness to go deeper into this life, and in their commitment to be in communion with one anothercommunity we would call it today. This abundant life is glad and generous, full of heart, eager to praise, with a sense of having grace and joy with all people. And this abundant life that flows from the heart of God is so daggone attractive, so compelling that day by day, people are added to the community; day by day, people are being made whole, being “saved” in church talk. Five times “all” or “everyone” shows up in this passage from Acts. It’s full and inclusive and expansive.

What if we understood that Jesus is the portal into this kind of life?

Do we believe it’s possible? Do we trust that this can in fact happen? Or do we dismiss it as a naïve fantasy? Why are people more drawn to see Jesus as a gate or gatekeeper, than to see Jesus as a door and portal into the abundant life?

What might shift in us if we understood him in this new way? After all, we do share in his life, we are the body of Christ, so what changes in us if we see our role, not as gates and gatekeepers, but instead see our lives as portals, passageways, doors into the abundant life? How might this abundance take root in our lives, and what fruits might it manifest? What outward and visible signs would people see in us that would reveal this inward and spiritual grace? What would shift in our relationship to resources and possessions? How might we view those in need and our connection to them? What would it look like if we saw those in need, not as a problem to be fixed, but as the natural place where love and life flow from the wellspring of life that is exceedingly abundant within us? What wonders and signs might be done at our hands? How might awe come upon us and everyone we meet? Where might our devotion carry us?

On this 4th Sunday of Easter, we’re three weeks into the season, and the fog is starting to clear. Resurrection life isn’t just something that happened to Jesus, but it’s something that’s happening to us. It’s time to move through the portal, to jump into mystery, to cross the threshold, to experience illumination.

How we view Jesus carries us places. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s confining; he’s been dying, and rising, to transport us into that life that is more than we can ask or imagine.

All we have to do is follow his voice, and he will take us where we so long to go.

As we make this passage and travel in this way, soon we will discover this abundance rising up within us, and like magic, our lives themselves will have become that cup that is running over, not because it’s what we set out to do, but because life this full just has to be shared. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 7, 2017

Breaking open our narratives

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter 3—Year A                              (video link)

Easter 3—Year A
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Are you feeling that Easter joy yet? Some of you “yes”? Some of you “no”? Well, if you’re a “yes”, then you are way ahead of the disciples and the Church. If you’re a “no”, you are right on target because the Church has, once again, taken us right back to that same day.

It takes time to come to terms with resurrection life. Very few of us leap there as soon as it happens. We spend a lot of time letting go, dying in spiritual language; why on earth would we think we can rise on demand? Sometimes it happens, and our world turns back into life on a dime, but most of the time, it’s a slog; it’s slow; it’s painstaking; it’s halting; it’s fits and starts.

So, let’s see what we can glean from Luke’s gospel today.

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, and this isn’t just your normal chit chat, this talking is the kind of talking you do when you are keeping company with another, the King James translates it as “communing.” And discussing, this is the kind of exchange you have when you are throwing thoughts and ideas back and forth as you are seeking to understand something, seeking to make sense of something. This is the kind of keeping company and throwing things back and forth you do when you are trying to make sense of a broken heart.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Their eyes were prevented from knowing him. The phrasing here is that same word we encountered last week in John’s gospel when Jesus was talking about retaining another’s sinsholding fast, seizing on something and refusing to let go. They had locked onto something that kept their eyes from seeing; they just couldn’t perceive the One in front of them, like they absolutely could not recognize him. What had they locked onto that kept their eyes from seeing and their heart from perceiving? Hold on to that question.

And Jesus said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

They stood still, looking sad. That question stopped them cold. Incredulous, one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?”

Oh, that did it. Then, the floodgates opened and out poured the story. You know how it is when there is a story inside of you that just has to get out, that has to get told, and all the details come tumbling out, sometimes faster than you can get the words out, sometimes faster than the listener can take in, sometimes faster than a brain can order what it’s saying or hearing.

Here’s what they said,  “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Breathe. This was the story they told. This was the story they were throwing back and forth to each other before the stranger came alongside them. This was the story they had been running through their mind and through their heart for three days. This was the story they had locked onto, and this was the story that kept them from recognizing what was now unfolding right before their eyes.

Part of that narrative was about their expectations. They had a certain image of who Jesus was and who he was supposed to be and how his trajectory was supposed to unfold. A prophet mighty in deed and word; they had hoped that he was the one they’d been waiting for who would redeem Israel. But it had all gone horribly wrong. It had ended in death; it had ended with their hopes being dashed. Nothing can get a narrative shaped in our head like crushed expectations.

When things don’t turn out as we expect, our world spins out of control, and our brains scramble to make sense of it, to find some pattern.  It doesn’t even matter if it’s an inaccurate pattern or a bad pattern; we just need a pattern to get our world back in control, to get it set back right, even if that right is now full of darkness and pain.

And just when their brain had settled on that grief stricken pattern it all shifted again. You can almost hear the exasperation in their voices, Now, some women have astounded us. They went to that tomb; he wasn’t there; they saw a vision; some angels told them he was alive; some of us went to check it out; it was just as the women said, and they didn’t see him.” And the brain officially goes into freakout mode. What pattern can you fit this into? No wonder the two disciples were throwing this story back and forth trying to make sense of it. Heck, they were just trying to form these events into a narrative, period!

Even been there? Ever been on that rollercoaster trying to make sense of events that don’t make sense? Expectations dashed? Expectations raised? Expectations changed? Expectations shattered? Expectations exceeded? Even if the plummeting turns to rising, it’s still change, and it still feels like the world is spinning out of control, and it still feels like we have just left the tracks, and where will this end? And so, we work and work and work to form the narrative.

And yet, and yet, that narrative we construct, it can keep us from recognizing the life that is in fact happening right now, right before our eyes. The narrative they constructed, they laid hold of it, they seized it, and it kept them locked from being able to recognize that Love had come again and Life was in their midst.

Jesus sets about helping them to soften their narrative, to expand it, to widen it. Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. He went back through the whole narrative and pointed out all the things that would allow them to see him.

But sometimes our narratives get pretty fixed. When our brains seize on a story, it’s hard to override that and let our heart dare to see something beyond the story we are telling ourselves. Our hearts are indeed slow to trust when they have been broken.

And ultimately, the two couldn’t relinquish their story. Not even Jesus’ masterful reinterpretation could set them free.

Jesus was about to give up. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But the two disciples then did the most ordinary thing—routines embedded deep within their being compelled those two disciples to compel Jesus to stay with them. Sometimes, what our minds cannot grasp, some deeper place in our soul conspires to get us to see. Sometimes, it is our routines, our traditions, our norms of hospitality and civility that get us where we need to go.

They urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

They couldn’t recognize him in the story, but they knew him in the breaking of the bread. They knew him in that mystical moment that is beyond our narratives. They knew him in that wordless act that spoke everything their hearts needed to know. Then their eyes were opened, and they knew him, they knew him.

 And this opening is deep and hard. It’s the kind of opening that happens by dividing or drawing asunder, it’s a thorough, rending opening, all the way into the depths of the soul that awakens our deep desire to learn and understand. Their narrative had to be rent to let the truth of his Life and Presence penetrate into the deepest regions of their soul, then they knew him—their heart knew him, their mind knew him, their body knew him, their soul knew him. And once they knew him, he didn’t need to stand before them.

They didn’t need the story because they had the experience.

After he vanished, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Once that experience of his Presence opened and penetrated into their heart and soul, then they could make sense of that burning in their heart, that nascent, kindled fire of recognition, and then, the big story, the big narrative that holds all of our stories made sense. God created us and all that is. God loves us and all that is. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We die with him; we rise with him. Death no longer has dominion over him, or us.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. Their companions had had their own experience of resurrection. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then the two told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

All of this raises questions for us on this 3rd Sunday of Easter.

What narratives are we running that we might need to release in order to experience the resurrection life that is right before our eyes?

Where is bread being broken in our normal, ordinary experiences when we least expect it, and is that breaking of the bread penetrating down into our hearts and souls, opening our eyes to see resurrection all around us?

Where are our narratives in need of some reworking, and with eyes now opened to see, can we allow them to expand, can we allow our narratives to live and breathe and flex to match the resurrection reality that is constantly drawing us into a bigger life. It’s not that our narratives are bad; to be human is to form story and tell story, to ourselves and to one another and to the generations to come. The problem comes when we fix that narrative and it settles like concrete, unchanging, and things are forever the way our narrative says they are.

If today shows us anything, it’s that the story is always getting bigger; there is always more to learn, there is always more to see; there is always more to open to, always. And so often, it won’t be our minds that take us there, but the burning in our hearts when we experience him in the breaking of the bread.

So, tell the story you have to tell, but don’t cling to it. Lay it down long enough to encounter the stranger around the table, in the breaking of the bread. Then, with your heart kindled and your soul ablaze, set about seeing everything with fresh eyes, open to the life that is beckoning you forward. Then watch, as the threads of your story are rewoven, knit together with the Risen Christ, and rejoice as a whole new chapter begins. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 30, 2017

Thomas, Wounds and the Risen Christ

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter 2—Year A                                             (video link)
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
I Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

There is so much going on in this passage from John today! It’s evening on that day, the first day of the week. Mary Magdalene had come earlier in the day to tell them all that she had seen the Lord! You would think that would have brought the disciples out en masse to check out this good news, but no, where are they? Huddled in a house where they had gathered after their hopes were dashed and their hearts were broken, locked up in their fear.

But Jesus came and stood among them, not in front of them, not behind them, not over them, but stood among them, came right into their midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” I’ve always heard this word for “peace” and thought “shalom,” that peace with a deep sense of wholeness, but shalom is the word in hebrew. In the new testament, the word in greek is εἰρήνη, and it has a different feel to it. εἰρήνη is peace with a sense of tranquility and rest and quietness and oneness. One of the definitions is actually, a state of national tranquility, exempt from the rage and havoc of war. Jesus comes into his disciples’ midst and the first thing he does is wish them tranquility and quiet and rest.

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his sides, those places that marked his wounds. Resurrection doesn’t erase our wounds; it doesn’t pretend those wounds never happened, but resurrection allows those wounds to call us into a deeper experience of Jesus. Jesus showed them his wounds. Then the disciples rejoiced when they experienced the Lord. It wasn’t just that they experienced his wounds, but they experienced his Risen Presence amidst those wounds.

Then Jesus wishes them peace again, and invites their torn up, fragmented, fearful souls to be one again. Jesus continues, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Wow. How did the Father send Jesus? God sent Jesus into this world in the Incarnation, in the Word made flesh, God made flesh. God sent Jesus into the fabric of our living as he ate with us and drank with us and healed among us and taught us and forgave us and wept with us. God sent Jesus into the heart of suffering on the cross; God sent Jesus into the heart of nothingness and waiting in the tomb; and God sent Jesus back into life that we might know that love and life are bigger than death. As God sent Jesus into every corner of our human existence, so Jesus sends us.

That’s an awfully tall order for us, eh? So, when Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

We think this day is all about Thomas, but Thomas is only a piece of this day. Jesus’ first encounter with the disciples is all about receiving the power we will need to go to all the places Jesus will send us. And it’s about understanding full well how much this is going to demand of us by way of forgiving and where we will resist this call by way of holding on.

Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of anyforgive, let go, yield up, keep no longerthen those sins are sent away.

If you retain the sins of anyif you lay hold of them, if you continue to hold them, if you hold fast to these sins in order to hold power over someone—understand that holding those sins is not benign, but in that holding fast to the sins of another, death itself will be holding onto you. That other person will be held in this grip of death, and so will you.

To be sent by Jesus as God sent him is to let go and release. For most of us, this is more than we can do—that’s why he gives us the Holy Spirit to help us—As St. Paul noted, “God working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, Thomas isn’t with them in the evening on that day. That, in and of itself, is interesting. When the rest were locked away in their fear, where was Thomas? Could it be that he actually believed Mary Magdalene and was actually out and about looking for the Risen Christ? The others tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord, but Thomas wants to see and experience the Lord himself. He wants to see and touch those wounds. Thomas wants to experience how it is that your wounds don’t kill you. Can you blame him? Don’t we all want to experience that truth? When your world, and everything you thought you knew, has been turned upside down, it’s hard to trust that God is still with you until you experience that Risen Presence for yourself and see that aliveness radiating out of those nail-marked places.

Jesus gets it.

A week later, the disciples are again in the house, and the doors are still shut, but they aren’t locked anymore. Slowly, we’re making some progress here, and this time, Thomas is with them.

Again, Jesus comes among them. Again, he wishes them peace, tranquility, quiet, rest, oneness. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. Touch the wounds, Thomas, reach out and touch the wounds. Don’t withhold your trust, but lean in; you can trust this, Thomas, you can trust this.”

And then, the dam broke for Thomas. All that pent up hope came rushing forth—“My Lord and my God!”

What happens next is interesting, and our translation botches it. We hear Jesus asking Thomas a question, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It sounds like an indictment.

But that’s not how the greek reads. It’s not a question, it’s a statement. “Thomas, you have believed, you trust because you have seen me. In touching the wounds, you have come to trust that my resurrection life lives on.” It’s not an indictment of Thomas; it’s an acknowledgement of what Thomas now knows in his heart and soul and mind and body. It’s an integrating moment. Jesus is acknowledging that Thomas has now come into peace; Thomas is one with Jesus, and so is one with himself. It’s what Thomas needed to find that oneness for which he longed.

Then, Jesus turns to a wider scope, a wider lens. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Blessed are those who have not had the benefit to experience me in such a tangible, undeniable, hands-on way, and yet have come to trust.”

And this, too, is the best of news.

Sometimes, we are Thomas, and we meet Jesus in the depth of the wounds. It’s intense; we feel it; it shakes us to the core, and we know the Risen Christ is among us.

And sometimes, we don’t experience anything at all, at least not anything that we can identify. But rather, it’s a slow, almost imperceptible turning of our heart. It’s more of a recognition event, as Cynthia Bourgeault calls it, and something deep, deep in our being makes that leap of trust without any evidence at all to back up the leaping of our heart.

Either way, we can come to trust that the Risen Christ is among us, and the peace he speaks over us is the balm our souls are longing for. His peace can bring tranquility and stillness and rest for our weary, torn up, fragmented, fearful souls. Amidst wounds and brokenness, it is possible to be one. We don’t have to hold on to all those things done unto us, but we’ve been given the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can risk letting go, setting the other free, and ourselves, along the way.

And all of this, all of this, is so that we might have life, ζωή, zoe, life that is real and genuine and active and vigorus, the absolute fullness of life.

This is what is waiting for us this side of Easter. It may take some fits and starts. We may have to start from behind locked doors, so fearful are we of trusting this good news. We may inch toward unlocking those doors, but still need to keep them shut.

But it doesn’t matter where we start, Jesus is coming through, and he will stand among us no matter our fearful state.

We may need to see his Risen Presence in his wounds to know that ours hold the potential to radiate resurrection as well. Or, we may be able to take that leap of trust as we turn into that much quieter turning in the deeper regions of our heart.

All that matters is that we trust that Jesus is going to find a way to come among us. All that matters is that Jesus longs to wish us the peace for which our souls are longing. All that matters is the abundant life is still there to be found amidst our deepest crucifixions.

Don’t be surprised if in the touching of the most unexpected, broken places of life, you find yourself saying with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Whether it’s evening on that day, or one week later, it’s time to let go and trust that even those wounded places are alive with Christ.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 23, 2017

You will see the Risen Christ in Galilee

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter Day—Year A                                       (video link)
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, when it was getting on toward dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to see the grave. When last we met Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, they had watched their beloved die; they’d watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take his body off the cross and wrap it in a linen cloth and lay it in a tomb. The men had left—it was the day of Preparation—but the women had lingered. But sabbath obligations eventually drew them away. Though their bodies were occupied doing other things, their minds and their hearts and their spirits were still sitting vigil at that tomb. You know how it is when a loss has rocked you, you may be going about your normal routines, but your heart, your mind, your spirit is most definitely somewhere else.

So, it is no surprise that as that dawn was breaking, they were beating a path right back to that place where their beloved Lord lay dead. It’s interesting, but there are two words in greek used to describe this place of burial. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, they lay Jesus in a tomb, a sepulchre, a tangible place to preserve the memory of the one who lay there. But the women go to see the place where the body was buried. For them, this isn’t so much about memory; they are not that far along in their journey of grief; for them, this is about loss.

And they didn’t go just to look at that grave; this wasn’t any old kind of seeing, but this was the seeing that you do with your heart, the kind of seeing you do when you are attentive to something, when you want to consider something at the deepest level, when you are trying to discern the meaning of your experience.

But lo and behold, when they arrived, there was a great earthquake, a great shaking. I’ve always thought that earthquake was necessary to get that stone to start rolling, but in Matthew’s gospel, the angel’s got the rolling-the-stone-away part covered. This great shaking is set loose by the energy that is moving across the realms—the veil between heaven and earth can be so very, very thin. This shaking comes when that divine realm we call heaven has a word to speak to the realm where we live and move and have our being.

And this shaking isn’t just about those realms opening to one another, but there is something else at work here.  Maybe it was necessary to shake the women out of their grief; maybe it’s necessary to shake us out of whatever blinders we have on this morning.

For some of us, we, like those women, may well be in a place of grief and loss, yearning to hope and fearing to do so at the same time.

For others of us, the blinders are more subtle—we know the end of this story; we know that Jesus will rise, and so resurrection becomes one more milestone to mark, but it doesn’t really touch us and turn our world upside down. So, we need a great shaking to shake us out of the familiar and reorient out heart to what is actually unfolding before our eyes.

Well, that angel rolls away the stone with an appearance like lightning and clothes that are white as snow. The response of the guards is terror and then to shake like crazy, same word as the shaking that angel’s descending from heaven set loose. But their shaking doesn’t wake them up; it deadens them. In their fear, they lose their capacity to see with new eyes.

And then, that angel sets about doing what angels always do. What is it that the angels always say? That’s right, “Fear not!” “Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” And this word for looking is different than the seeing that drew the women to the grave—this looking is about seeking, searching, desiring, longing to find. That angel knows that what drew those women to that tomb, and draws us here today, is a deep, deep longing to find that which we’ve lost. The angel names that longing, but then shatters all of our expectations.

With our hearts shaken open, words fall into them that seem too good to be true—“I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” And yet a third greek word pops up for see—this one is to discern clearly, to perceive with the mind, to experience, to know. This isn’t about proving that he’s gone from the burial chamber; this is about experiencing that he’s alive, this is about knowing with all of our hearts that Love has come again.

Come and know this,” the angel says, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, there you will experience him, there you will know the reality of resurrection.’”

So, the women left the tomb quickly with a good bit of terror and great joy and they ran to bring these tidings to the disciples. They hardly get down the path when Jesus meets them with joy, and they came up to him, and they held on tight to his feet, and they kissed his hand, as you do when joy meets joy and overflows.

Jesus tells the women the same thing that angel said, “Do not be afraid; go and proclaim to my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me.”

“Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of resurrection. Go and share the news. Tell everyone to go Galilee. Go to that place where your life is lived, go to that place where you make your living, that place where you dwell with your families, that place where you gather with friends, go to that place that is as ordinary as ordinary can be. Tell everyone to go there, and there they will see me.”

We come here today to taste joy and taste resurrection in the beauty of the flowers and the glorious music, we come to taste joy and resurrection in the freshly baked bread and the sweet wine, we come to taste joy and resurrection in the irrepressible, uncontainable, bouncing-off-the-walls joy of children.

We come here today to see the place that holds our loss, trying to sort through the pieces, and that seeing turns into seeking and yearning, and that seeking turns into experiencing and knowing with all our hearts what our rational minds struggle to take in—you can’t seal this life away. Love has come again. Life has swallowed up death.

Resurrection isn’t a myth but is ground of our being. And just as that tomb couldn’t contain the Risen Christ, this wondrous morning won’t contain him either. We taste it here, but we will experience it and know it as he meets us in our Galilees. So, the shaking happens here; we throw off our graveclothes here, but resurrection is waiting on down the path to greet us with joy; resurrection is calling out to us not to be afraid of this new life; resurrection is promising to meet us as we go back to our lives this afternoon and tomorrow morning and the day after that.

Let your eyes be opened ever wider to the ground that is shifting beneath your feet, and let your hearts be opened wider still.

Let your sorting turn to seeking turn to knowing. Then go, tell your brothers, tell your sisters, you won’t find him in the tomb, but you will see him in your Galilee where resurrection is waiting to greet you with joy. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 16, 2017

Welcome to the Dance!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter Vigil—Year A                                (video link)
Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22
Gospel of Truth 4:1-8
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Ephesians 1:17-22
Romans 6:3-11
Psalm 114
Matthew 28:1-10

What a night! All the momentum of this season, all the momentum of this week, all the momentum of the cosmos, it all converges here, tonight. We mark creation. We mark liberation. We mark dry, dead bones that find their way back together to dance again with divine breath. The eyes of our hearts are waking up, “Enlightened,” Ephesians says, and hope is not far behind. We hear of dying with Christ and being raised into newness of life as he dances his way out of the tomb. And, as on that night back in December, there is an angel; there is always an angel, calling out, “Fear not! I know you seek the crucified, but he is not here; he has been raised!”

The ancient chant calls us to “Rejoice now,” and not just us, but “heavenly hosts and choirs of angels and all the round earth.” “This is the night…This is the night…This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave. How holy is this night…How blessed is this night.” It’s almost too much to hold, so all we can do, in every way we can imagine, is make music and sing and let our hearts burst with joy.

And we’re ready to let loose a bit; trust me, we’re ready. It’s been a long, hard week. As we have journeyed through this Holy Week, we have peeled back layer upon layer of our humanity. We have lingered in the shadows of our motivations and actions. We have watched our courage fail, and we have seen our better angels depart, leaving us face-to-face with our conflicted, broken humanity. And we have watched God’s Presence go deeper, deeper, deeper. Into the dark, we have descended, and there we have waited, wondering if all was lost. But then, the match is struck, the new fire is kindled, the candle is lit and, just like that pillar of fire long ago, this holy candle lights our way, not back to our old life, but beckons us on to new life, resurrection life, life like we’ve never known it before.

What a night, dear Robert Holland, to baptize you! Into this swirl of image and sound, symbol and ritual, we will plunge you into the waters—over you they will flow catching you up in the eternal dance of the love this is always flowing. We will mark you as Christ’s own forever and an indissoluble bond, the Prayer Book calls it, will be forged between you and Christ, forever. There will come a time, a long way down the road, when the truth of this bond, when the reality of this bond will be the best news ever.

You are woven into a relationship that is beyond your undoing—you can’t do anything to make God love you more, and you can’t do anything to make God love you less. Tonight, God proclaims to you, what God proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Robert, the world will tell you many things about who you are, but tonight, know this— beloved son of God, one in whom God is well pleased, this is your core identity. Your worth has already been determined, which means you are free to live and love with abandon.

Whew, all that freedom is a lot to handle, and so these baptismal vows that your parents and godparents will say on your behalf, they’ll be there to guide you in this radical way of love.

More than anything, Jesus will show you how to dance. The paschal dance, they call it. It gets its name from the feast we celebrate tonight. It’s the dance of death and resurrection. It’s the dance of loss and new beginnings. It’s the dance of losing it all and learning how to live and love again. It’s the dance that Jesus dances this night as he moves from death into life and bids us to follow.

Robert, baptismal life is not a guarantee of a pain-free life. In fact, it’s pretty much a guarantee of a life with a good bit heartache because this way of life will teach you how to live with your heart wide open, reaching out across divides, holding things that are often in tension—yep, the baptismal vows will flat land you in a world of trouble.

But baptismal life holds within it a promise that is better than some too-good-to-be-true-pain-free-guarantee—because we all know that the fine print on that guarantee says “There ain’t no such thing”baptismal life holds within it a promise that is better than that illusory guarantee, and that promise is this—you will never, ever have to move through this life alone.

Robert, tonight, you are knit into Christ’s body, both the mystical Risen Christ whose presence spans the realms, and the very tangible body of Christ in the community of those who live and follow his way. Woven into the fabric of this body, you are secure; you will always have a thread to follow.

Robert, thank you for giving us all the chance to celebrate just a little bit more tonight. For you remind us, that Jesus isn’t the only one raised to new life tonight, but through these waters, we are raised, too.

As we watch you tonight, we can’t help but smile because we know that this is the night when we all go skipping into resurrection life.

Welcome to the dance, Robert, welcome to the dance.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 15, 2017

Powerful Questions

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Good Friday—Year A
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

This day is a day of powerful questions. Some arise from the texts we hear—
“Whom are you looking for?”
“Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
“You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”
“What is truth?”
“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And some arise from our own hearts
“Why?”
“Why does this innocent man whose only crime was to love, why does he have to die?”
“What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins, and what does saying that say about God, about Jesus, about us?”

Some of these questions have answers, some do not.

Whom are we looking for on this day? As everything goes horribly wrong, we are looking for God. Where is God when the innocent suffer? Where is God when someone is unjustly charged, convicted, and executed? Where is God when the religiously powerful collude with the politically powerful to ensure that everyone’s power stays intact? Where is God when truth is slippery?

Where is God when, in our fear, we strike back with violence? Where is God when, in our fear, we deny the One whom we have loved and followed with all of our heart? Where is God when given a chance to change course and release the Lord of Love, we cry “Crucify him!” instead? Where is God when you can’t find a shred of God’s presence anywhere and your reality leaves you feeling totally and completely forsaken?

Where is God on this day? Firmly, wholeheartedly, completely immersed in all of these questions, in all of these actions, in all of these relentless why’s that haunt us—not as an answer, but as sheer Holy Presence that knocks us to the ground with the force of Life and Love that will not be denied.

When those who’d come to arrest Jesus declare that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus responds with “I AM,” not “I am he,” but simply “I AM.” The great I AM is here. The God whose name is “I AM WHO I AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, I AM BECOMING WHO I AM BECOMING”that God manifests the fiercest of steadfast love by simply declaring, in the face of all that would deny that love, “I AM.” Which makes it all the more painful when Peter responds to the question of whether or not he is one of Jesus’ disciples with the consummate denial of Presence, “I am not.”

Where is God? Telling all of our human impulses that long to retaliate to put our swords back into their sheaths; committing with body and spirit, mind and heart to the cup of nonviolence. And though that commitment will be tested to the max, in the end, when Jesus cries, “It is finished,” the ways of violence will rest in his outstretched arms and be buried with him that we might be released from this spiral of death.

Where is God? In the voice of the one who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When the Word made flesh gives voice to those words, the gap is closed forever and even the most Godforsaken places of our human journey are filled with Divine Presence. There is NOWHERE we can go—in life, in suffering, in death—that Jesus has not gone before us and imprinted with the power of his Divine Presence, so that when we enter our Godforsaken places, that Presence is waiting to embrace us and hold us—in those spaces when words fail us, the Word made flesh simply holds us.

Why does Jesus have to die? Because when God took on human flesh in Jesus, God went all-in with the entirety of our human experience. To say “Jesus died for our sins” can so easily turn God into a tyranical father who had to be appeased by the pure sacrifice of his beloved Son to make God fall in love again with a depraved and hopeless humanity.

Today is not about winning God’s love back; today is about revealing the depth of God’s love for the whole human enterprise.

All the forces that would separate us from God—our hunger for power, our insatiable desire for esteem, our obsession with our own security, the violence we inflict, the innocent suffering that wrecks us with despair—each of these is a nail that goes into Jesus’ flesh. Each of these swirls in the cup that is his to drink, and drink it he does, completely into his being.

Jesus will stretch out his arms in complete love, not retaliating, but yielding.

The darker sides of power don’t know what to do with a love that simply loves in return. But this is the love of the great I AM. Divine Presence has planted itself in the center of suffering, and there Presence will remain, even unto death.

We come looking for answers on this day, but we are given something much more powerful—the Word made flesh who gives his living body and his dying breath that we, and this suffering world, might know the Presence of God that will never, ever let us go. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 14, 2017

Carving Out the Tomb in Our Hearts

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Palm Sunday—Year A                               (video link)
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

I never can move through this day without a serious case of whiplash. It all happens so fast, too fast. How do we get from spreading our cloaks on the ground and waving our palm branches like crazy and shouting “Hosanna!” doing a little victory lap down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, how do we get from there to “Crucify him!”

It all turned on a dime. We turned on a dime. It happened a step at a time. We didn’t intend to end up here, but steps add up, and when it was all said and done, the One we loved, the One we followed from Galilee lay dead in a tomb, stone rolled in front, sealed for good measure.

Today, we get the whole story crashing over us like a wave. It assaults our senses. It strips away any pretense of what our humanity is capable of. Humanity is capable of great courage—Simon, who carries the cross; Joseph of Arimathea, who tends the body and holds that space for dignity in death; the women who can’t stop following and sit vigil outside the tombhumanity at its most noble.

And humanity is capable of horrible choices and evil actions. And we are always a mix of both. It’s important not to lose sight of that capacity for courage, but it’s equally important to let a hard, hard truth settle into our bones—humanity is also a mess.

Whether it’s the way we sell-out for 30 pieces of silver, or our propensity to be asleep to what is actually unfolding around us, or the bravado that promises to stand fast that runs away at that first hint of trouble; whether it’s that painful moment when we deny our deepest commitments, or that even more painful moment when we realize that we’ve just denied our deepest commitments; whether it’s the stock we put in the power of the sword to keep us and our loved ones safe, or the stock we put in our tradition so that we don’t have to accommodate love that won’t act in the prescribed way; whether it’s the choices we make that are politically expedient, or the inability to listen to that intuitive voice calling us not to move down this path of inevitability; whether it’s all the mocking and all the insults and all that putting down that gives us that strange sense of feeling superior, when it is all said and done, this humanity that’s a messthis humanity, it’s our humanity.

If we don’t allow this day to touch that place inside of ourselves that knows we are fully capable of all of these choices and actions, then we’ve got no chance to experience the unbelievable good news that rests in this week.

And that good news only gets revealed as we peel back layer after layer after layer of those aspects of ourselves that settle for power and control over presence and the love that simply flows, those aspects of ourselves that settle for esteem and affection over love, those aspects of ourselves that settle for safety and security over engaging the world with arms wide open, heart fully exposed.

The only way to rise to the life that God longs for us to know, the only way to be born into the love that is beyond what we can fathom or measure is to die to all the ways our small self tries to plot and control and secure its own place.

Make no mistake, our small self will fight to the death this week to keep a hold of the reins, but as we move through these rituals—as we allow the scriptures we hear to sink into our bones, as we feel the rhythm of the actions, as we allow the silence to settle over us, as we anoint and lament and ask for healing, as we wash feet and eat bread and drink wine and strip the altar down, as we descend into darkness and wait, little by little, a tomb is getting carved out of the stone of our hearts; little by little, space will open up; little by little, a spark will ignite, a seed will shed its skin, and deep in the hidden places, something new will start to unfold.

None of us likes to confront all that is laid bare this week, but there’s no getting to Easter without this journey.

So, hold on, tap into your deepest courage to carry the cross, don’t fear the death that will surely come, follow all the way to the tomb, acknowledge all the shadowy places along the way, and then, wait and trusttrust that when that stone gets rolled away       one week from today, we’ll already be down the path dancing in the life that is to come.  Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 9, 2017

Come Out of the Tomb

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 5—Year A                                              (video link)
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

These are powerful passages today, and hard ones. There are things to be revealed, and places that are going to leave us wanting. Today, it’s about the big questions. Death, life, power, presence.

In both Ezekiel and John, there is death, very real death. So much death in Ezekiel that bodies have decomposed and all that’s left is a valley of dry bones. There is no possibility of life in a valley of dry bones.

In John, Jesus gets word that his beloved friend Lazarus is very ill. Jesus was very close to this family. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, had anointed Jesus’ with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. They get word to Jesus that Lazarus is really sick; they need Jesus, and yet, Jesus decides to stay where he is for two more days, and in that length of time, Lazarus dies.

And this raises the first hard question for us—why didn’t Jesus hightail to his friends? Why did he withhold his presence from people he loved? He can say that Lazarus’ illness isn’t going to cause death, and that all this is for the glory of God, but those words ring hollow when your loved one is on the verge of death. And Jesus seems to make the calculation to stay based on the fact that he thinks Lazarus isn’t really going to die, that Lazarus is just sleeping. But Jesus got it wrong. Lazarus did die. And somehow, even from a distance, Jesus knew it.

Jesus then makes the decision to go to his friends. His disciples don’t like this plan. His friends live in Judea, and things had not gone well for Jesus in those parts—people had just wanted to stone him in Judea. But Jesus couldn’t not go. He’s got to go awaken Lazarus. His disciples are like, “Well, if he’s asleep, then he’ll be alright. We don’t need to go. Jesus gets really real with his disciples—Lazarus is dead. We’ve got to go deal with death.

 Jesus doesn’t even make it to the village before he’s confronted by Martha. “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.” They then go a little abstract for my tastes. She says that she knows that God will give Jesus whatever Jesus asks of God.

Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again.

She says she knows that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

Jesus proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?”

She says she does and that she knows he’s the Messiah, the Son of God.

From where I sit, Jesus being the resurrection and life is small comfort when your brother has died, and Jesus took his sweet time getting there.

Martha goes to her sister Mary and tells her privately that Jesus had come and was calling for her. Mary got up quickly and headed out to meet him. There’s another group of people that also head out with her—and this may be the first act of resurrection—those people who’d just been trying to stone Jesus. Yep, when they heard about Lazarus, they came to console Mary and Martha. When tragedy strikes, those things that divide us just don’t seem to matter as much, and we can meet each other, broken-hearted human being to broken-hearted human being.

Again, Jesus hasn’t even made it to the village yet when Mary meets him. Mary wastes no time speaking her mind, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her grief gets to him. Her tears spring his tears. Jesus asks where they’ve laid him. Then they said, “Lord, come and see.” Wow. Just as Jesus said to those first would-be disciples who asked him where he was staying, now Mary and Martha say to him“Come and see,” and that makes Jesus weep. Now, he has to follow.

They get to the tomb, and this completely undoes Jesus—he’s greatly disturbed, deep inside, his spirit is indignant. Death is an affront to Jesus, too.

He tells them to take away the stone. Now, it’s Martha’s chance to get really real. “Lord, already there’s a stench because he’s been dead four days; did I say ‘four days,’ it’s been four days.

Jesus isn’t deterred. He’s got to open up this tomb of death. He needs Martha and Mary to trust him. Maybe he needs to trust himself. It’s one thing to proclaim “I am the resurrection and the life;” it’s a whole other thing to take away the stone that unleashes that stench of death and dare to call what has died back to life.

They took away the stone. Jesus looks upward, he thanks God for having heard him, he makes known to God that he’s always known that God hears him, but he tells God that he needs to say it out loud, for everyone around him to hear, so that they can trust that God sent him. God is not some faraway, distant God. God sent Jesus straight to this wrenching, stinking place of death to bear witness that God is here.

When Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

And many of those folks who’d previously wanted to stone Jesus, many of those folks who’d come out with Mary, when they saw what Jesus did, they placed their trust in him.

And this is where it gets hard again. It all works out fine for Lazarus. He dies, and Jesus brings him back to life again, after four days dead. That didn’t happen for my dad 26 years ago. We were crying out for Jesus to come. We were praying that God could bring him back from multiple codes. Jesus didn’t call him out of his tomb after four days. And I know, that in this room today, I’m not alone in thinking these kinds of thoughts.

I cannot tell you why Lazarus gets to live and my dad, or your loved one, did not. I can’t tell you why, sometimes, miracles happen, and other times, they do not.

I do know that, while Lazarus will live today, there will come a time when he is laid in that tomb and the stone will stay in place.

I do know that if I fixate on Lazarus’ resuscitation, I will miss understanding the heart of resurrection.

And that rests in the proclamation that Jesus makes to Martha—“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Somehow, the life embodied in Jesus is bigger than death; somehow, when we trust in this life he bears, we are knit into a life that transcends our mortal bodies and this mortal earth and tombs of death; we are knit into a life that transcends the realms.

The thing about death is that something in me dies, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s the death of someone I love, or the death of a relationship, or the death of a dream—something in me dies, too. And when that death is sealed away in a tomb, it’s all too easy for me to get buried right along with that death. We take our pain, our grief, and we try to seal it away. And day by day, that pain starts festering, and we get more and more bound up, unable to move forward, unable to live again.

Jesus weeps with us in our grief. Jesus stands outside our tombs. Jesus commands the stone to be taken away. Jesus is not afraid of the stench of our pain. Jesus commands us to come back out into life again. And Jesus commands the community gathered to unbind us, so that we can let go of that which has died; Jesus commands the community gathered to help unwrap all those places where we are so bound up, so that we can let go and live again.

Sometimes, we are those dry, dry bones that doubt if we can ever live again. God can breathe life into our dry, dry bones, and though we can’t fathom the possibility, we will dance again.

 

These stories today, they’re not about resuscitation; they’re about resurrection. They are about trusting that we can live again when death has wrecked us. They are about trusting that the life we share with the Presence of God made flesh in Jesus holds us when death has snuffed out all the light and our hope has died. They are about trusting that no matter how much we’ve lost and how much it stinks and how much everyone else holds their nose around our pain; these stories about trusting that Jesus isn’t afraid, Jesus won’t leave, he won’t let us stay bound up in that pain, and he’s called the community to do whatever it takes to unbind us, so that we can live again.

We’ll never have the answers to the hard questions about miraculous resuscitations, but resurrection is deeper than the questions. Resurrection promises that, even amidst the pain of our sorrow and despair and anger and relentless why’s and what if’s, resurrection promises that there is a Life and Presence that is bigger than death, and that Presence promises us, always, “I am holding you, and all that you’ve lost, and I won’t ever let go.”  Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 2, 2017

To See or Not to See

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 4–Year A                                   (video link)
I Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Oh, Jesus is playing in the mud again, and that is always going to create a mess that is uncomfortable for those of us who like things neat and tidy.

Jesus is walking along, and he sees a man who’d been blind from birth, and in that time, people saw such a physical condition as an indictment—somebody somewhere did something to cause this. It was someone’s fault; it had to be someone’s fault. The disciples ask the question that was on everyone’s mind, “Rabbi, who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Somebody’s to blame, “So Rabbi, who?”

And in the first act of healing, Jesus refuses to play the somebody’s-got-to-be-to-blame game—“Neither,” he says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Can we just pause and take that in? Jesus refuses to fix blame for this man’s condition. It’s painful enough to be blind, but really, how does blaming the parents or the man help, other than to give everyone else the illusion that they can actually keep such a condition or illness or painful circumstance from happening to them? If it’s a matter of sin, then if you don’t sin, nothing bad will ever happen to you, right? So, how’s that strategy work out in the real world? Not at all. All that fixing blame does is isolate the ones who are already suffering—in this case, the man and his parents.

And, we know, the blame game isn’t just a 1st century phenomenon. We may not want to confess it, but when we see a tragedy, there is something in us that wants to assign fault. We don’t like that we do this, but we do it all the same. Why? Because to acknowledge that some things, many things, are beyond our control, to acknowledge that some things just are is to acknowledge our utter vulnerability in this world. And we will cling to our narrative for dear life rather than admit we don’t have control, even though clinging to that narrative of blame will actually rob us of the life we are trying to protect.

So, Jesus knows that there’s some work that he, and God through him, have to do to get our eyes opened, and not just our eyes, but also our hearts. There’s some revealing that’s got to happen; there’s some serious light that needs to be shed.

So, Jesus spits on the ground and makes what with his saliva? Mud. And he spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. Okay, stop, what? Ewww groce. But the mud is important. Really important.

Okay, children, what two things do you need to make mud? Thank you—dirt and water. Adamah, the ground. Water. And oh, we just got catapulted back to Genesis 2 when the waters were springing up through the ground, springing up through the adamah, making delightful mud, and God plunged those divine hands down into the mud and lovingly shaped and formed that human creation called a-dam.

With the water of his spit and the ground, Jesus makes mud and spreads it on the man’s eyes to take him back to his Source—“You aren’t just a man born blind consigned to a life of begging; you are created by God’s own hands, you bear divine breath in your being. Before anything else, you must remember who you are as God’s own creation.”

And then, Jesus tells the man to go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent). First, the man has to remember who he is as a divine creation, and then he is Sent down into the waters, and what happens in the waters? Who else was Sent down into the waters? Do you remember? “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

Yes, the man washed, and yes, he came back able to see, but it was about a whole lot more than getting the mud off his eyes. Having remembered that he was God’s own creation, he had to remember that his creation is beloved; the sum of his existence isn’t “the man who was born blind;” it isn’t “the pitiful blind man who begs”—no, he is a beloved son, one in whom God is well pleased. And having washed in those waters, the man can see again from a place that is both whole and holy.

And the story could have stopped there. Wouldn’t that have been a great ending? Oh yes, that would have been a great ending. Is that ending of the story? Oh no.

The neighbors saw, and those who remembered him as a beggar saw, and they were curious, really curious. There was an established order in their world. There were seeing people and blind people; there were sinful people and good people, and this shattered the established order of things. They just couldn’t square it, so they debate, “Is it really him?” “Yeah, I think it is.” “No, it’s not him, it’s someone like him.” For some, this just won’t do because that means the rules by which they have navigated the world just shifted. For others, they were unsettled, too, but in an immensely hopeful way. If the rules weren’t so fixed for him, maybe, just maybe, something could shift for them, too.

He kept assuring them, “I am the man.” And that hopeful curiosity won out, at least for the moment, and they asked him, “How did it happen? How did it happen for you? How were your eyes opened?

 And he told them about what the man called Jesus did. He told them about the mud, and how Jesus spread the mud on his eyes; he told them about going to that pool of Siloam and washing, and how he regained his sight.” And then, they really were curious—“Where is he? Where can we find him?” The man who’d regained his sight didn’t know.

And in that space of not knowing, the drive to get the world back in order grabbed the reins. They didn’t go searching for Jesus; instead, they carted the man off to the authorities who would get this sorted out. The religious leaders question the man about how he regained his sight, but their brains couldn’t fathom it. It didn’t fit the box.

Some of the leaders zero in quickly on the fact that Jesus performed this work on the sabbath. They said Jesus wasn’t from God because he didn’t observe the sabbath. Others couldn’t dismiss the fact that this man could indeed see—they gave Jesus more latitude because you just can’t perform these kinds of signs if you’re a sinner.

The leaders were puzzled so they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man said, “He is a prophet.”

Did you catch that? The man’s eyes are opened, but they still can’t see him as anything other than a blind man; they can’t see him as beloved son of God created by God’s own hands.

So, the religious leaders head down road #2 to try to keep their worldview intact. They don’t really believe that this man before them was born blind and has now received his sight. They call the man’s parents and grill them—“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” The parents are afraid of challenging these leaders—“What would happen to them if they went against the authority?” They settled for the elegant dodge—“We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

So, the leaders call in the man born blind a second time. They beg the man to give Jesus down the river—“Give glory to God! We know that this man, i.e. Jesus, is a sinner.” 

The man simply stood in the truth of his experienceI don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Oh, the leaders are so frustrated, they just can’t square this with their worldview—“What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

Now, it’s the man’s turn to be frustrated, and he goes a little snarky—“I’ve already told you and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

That enrages the leaders; then they reviled the man, and they pull out the authority big guns—“You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

The man calls them on their twisted logic. They can twist and turn this all they want, but he knows what he knows. “Here is an astonishing thing,” the man says. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

But rather than let their narrative change, rather than let their worldview expand for other possibilities, rather than admit they might be wrong, the leaders double-down on their authority, and dismiss the experience of the man entirely. They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us? Who do you think you are? And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and he went and found him, and asked if he believed in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Grounded in his experience, the man could let his heart leap and trust in the Son of Man who stood before him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, to distinguish, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Some of the [religious leaders] near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

And in that last sentence, Jesus circles back to where he began. The blindness is not the sin; the refusal to let what you see shift, change, expand—that’s the sin.

If we bog down in the miraculous nature of the man’s cure, we will miss what Jesus is really driving at in this passage. Yes, this man was cured of his blindness, but his healing was so much deeper. To begin with, his healing came in understanding that his blindness was never a matter of sin; his healing came in returning to the blessed Source of his creation; his healing came in going down into the waters and remembering that, while he may have been blind and he may have begged, he wasn’t a blind beggar, but he was, is, and always will be God’s beloved son; his healing came in the growing confidence to know what he knows and to stand firm in his experience of Jesus; his healing came in letting his heart trust that deep knowing and leaping into relationship with the One who showed him that it was okay see all that he sees.

And those who claim “to see”, they can be so daggone blind, clinging to narratives and authority just to keep a worldview intact, just to maintain the illusion that we are in control of our lives. We can twist logic, we can blame, we can dismiss, but none of these strategies will keep vulnerability at bay. All these strategies do is keep us separated from one another, keep us locked in battles with God, keep us from seeing all the unbelievable ways that God is working God’s healing power in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Where have you allowed someone else, or allowed yourself, to assign blame for some tragedy that has befallen you or someone you love?

Where are you needing to be reminded of your divine creation at the hands of God? Where are you needing to be Sent into the waters to recapture your core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter?

Where are you turning to the authorities instead of trusting in your Godgiven experience and deep knowing? Where are you clinging to your narratives instead of letting them expand and change? And if you start to trust what is being revealed to you, what do you fear you will lose?

This story ends with all kinds of choices—do we wish to have our eyes opened, OR do we wish hold fast to the security of what we “see”?

Having our eyes opened is going to get messy, but oh, the mud will be worth it to be created anew and see as we have never seen before. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 26, 2017

Thirsting for the Living Water

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 3—Year A                   (video link)
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Everybody’s on a journey today. The whole congregation of Israel is journeying on through their wilderness by stages. Jesus is making his way from Judea back to Galilee by way of Samaria. A Samaritan woman treks out to a well in the heat of the noonday sun. And what do all of these travelers have in common? They are tired. They are in need of rest. They are thirsty.

Let’s drop down a little deeper.

So, the people of God have moved on from the wilderness of Sin and have set up camp in Rephidim. And they are tired, and they are thirsty, and they are whiney, and they are agitated, and they are in a quarreling mood with Moses. And the people of God move from “we’re-in-this-all-together” to “Give us water to drink”—sort of a demanding tone. And Moses gets a little defensive, both on his own behalf and on behalf of the LORD—“Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The people are having none of Moses’ defense. They are thirsty, and they are in a complaining mood, and they come right back at Moses—“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

Oh, that hits Moses right where he lives. Can you imagine the voices that must have been raging in his head—“Why did I bring these people out here? What possessed me to think that was a good idea?” And the deadly, “This is all my fault.” And Moses starts to get sucked down the shame vortex.

But in a profound act of resilience, Moses had the awareness to cry out to the LORD—“What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

And God heard that cry, and God instructed Moses to go on ahead with some elders, and to take that staff that he’d used to strike the Nile, and that God would be standing there in front of him on the rock at Horeb. God made Moses a promise—“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel, and he called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

What were the people of God thirsty for? (pause) Water, yes, but something much deeper, and much harder to confess—“Is the LORD among us or not?” That is a daggone haunting question. When healthy young women have complications and babies don’t survive, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we can’t hardly figure out how to talk with our neighbor, talk with our fellow citizens, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When children go to bed hungry in this country and die of famine in Africa, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we struggle to articulate a notion of the common good that is truly held in common, “Is the LORD among us or not?” When we don’t know what to believe, or whom to believe, and it all just seems too much, and Egypt starts looking really good, we know that we are thirsty to know, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

 

Whose cry was it that got God’s attention—was it Moses’ cry for help, or was it the people’s thirst, or was it both? The people of God were thirsty, but not just for water; they were thirsty to know that God had not abandoned them. God didn’t just give them water, but God stood before them on that rock; God gave them Presence, God’s Presence, and  when Moses struck that rock, that rock on which God stood, the water for which they longed flowed. All the quarreling, all the testing, it didn’t make God go away; it brought God close—sometimes, you’ve got to cry out to God about how thirsty you are if you are to discover the water your soul is looking for.

Then, there’s Jesus. He’s decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee because he’s heard that the Pharisees are saying that he’s baptizing more people than John, though the gospel writer tells us that it’s not really Jesus doing the baptizing, but it’s Jesus’ disciples doing the baptizing. Oh, the first century version of comparing our stats on the parochial report—and while our denomination wants to know these statistics, Jesus clearly does not. He heads back for Galilee by way of that no-man’s land for upstanding Jews—Samaria. He comes to the village of Sychar, and it’s midday, and it’s hot. He’s plum tuckered out by his journey, and he plops down by a well, and not just any well, but Jacob’s well. And he’s thirsty.

And then there’s the Samaritan woman who comes to the well at midday. Okay, the only reason you would come to the well at midday is because you can’t come in the morning when all the other women came to draw water. She is a triple outcast—a Samaritan, a woman, and a woman of whose manner of living wasn’t acceptable to the rest of the community. You think she’s thirsty?

 

So, a very long exchange unfolds between Jesus and the woman. They cover the territory of well-known social norms, norms which they are breaking—how it is that a Jewish man is asking her for a drink? Jewish men don’t share things in common with Samaritan women. They cover the territory of the proper place to worship—is it on the holy mountain in Samaria or in Jerusalem? They cover her rather complicated personal history—a history that, in every other instance, isolated her, but somehow didn’t present a barrier to Jesus.

And somehow, both Jesus and the woman forget about the water in the well because the living water is flowing. It wasn’t the particular words of the conversation that healed her; it was the fact that they were engaged in conversation at all. It was something beyond all words; it was the Word made flesh in him. When she said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus simply responded, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.” The english translation says, “I am he,” but that’s not the greek—the greek simply says, “I am.” Jesus gave the woman his Presence and his Presence runs deeper than Jacob’s wellJesus’ Presence is Presence itself—the Divine I AM of Exodus 3 and the burning bush and the rock at Horeb—the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Once the woman encountered that Divine Radiant Presence in Jesus, she left her water jar and ran into the city to tell anyone who’d listen that she’d met the one who’d told her everything she’d ever done—and this was unbelievably good news, because in his Presence she was more than her history. Her thirst to be seen, her thirst to be seen as more than the narrative that people, and she herself, had constructed about her, her thirst to be seen as the beloved daughter of God that she was, one in whom God’s image dwelled richly—that thirst was quenched, and she was made whole.

And that brings us to Jesus’ thirst on that hot day. It, too, was for more than water. He thirsted to cross all the boundaries of ethnicity and gender and religion. He thirsted to pour out his compassion and Presence as living water. He thirsted for connection. He thirsted to let his love overflow, knowing that when that love is flowing, he is more than satisfied. No wonder, when his disciples tried to urge him to eat, he responded, “I have food to eat that you do not know about…My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

On this third Sunday in Lent, for what do we thirst? Where are we feeling cutoff, isolated? Where have our narratives, both those we’ve constructed about ourselves and those which have been projected onto us, and those we’ve projected onto others, where have our narratives separated us from our neighbor?

As we make our way through this wilderness before us, journeying by stages, where is our hope fading and what nostalgic memory of Egypt are we holding onto       that is starting to look seductively good?

What is the thirst beneath all of our thirsts? What is breaking our hearts, causing us to cry out “Is the LORD among us or not?” What is the living water for which our souls long?

 

On this third Sunday in Lent, can we let down our guards and take off all pretense that we’re just fine and come clean before God, and one another, with the truth of just how thirsty we are?

Can we muster the fierce courage of that Samaritan woman and come to this table with our hands outstretched, eager to hold the Presence of Jesus in our hands, eager to drink his being into ours, knowing, trusting that this is the well given to us; this is our place of encounter with the great I AM, this is the living water from the deep well that will sustain us this day, and tomorrow, and all the days to come.

 

And then, having drunk of this living water, can we leave whatever water jars we have lugged here this morning, can we leave our water jars here, and run back to our cities, and to our circles, with the awareness that we, ourselves, are vessels full of living water. Can we be extravagant in pouring this love out into all the parched places that are so thirsty?

Can we be heralds of the good news that there is a Presence strong enough to hold our narrative, and all the narratives flying around, and that freedom will come in getting real honest about the narratives?

Can we trust that if we keep “doing the will of him who sent me,” if we keep trying “to complete his work,” if we keep working to cross the boundaries and reconcile what is divided and repair the breaches that are all around us, can we trust that, as we do this, we, too, will discover the food that so clearly, to the absolute amazement of his disciples, filled Jesus’ soul?

It’s a thirsty doggone time in the life of our little St. Luke’s community, and in the life of our world, and our cry rises up, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

But just as God stood on the rock at Horeb, and Jesus met that Samaritan woman at the well, God stands before us now, and Jesus is waiting to meet us at this well.

“Take, eat, drink this, all of you”—the living water is flowing deep beneath our feet, and all around us, and beyond us, and between us; the living water is yearning to pour itself out and yearning to be received.

The great I AM is holding us all, whether we see it or feel it, or not.

Drink in this Presence,then, go, share this living water with every thirsty soul you meet. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 19, 2017