The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 3—Year A (video link)
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 well—Jesus’ 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
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 1—Year A (video link)
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Lent came roaring in on Wednesday with the first day of March and ominous clouds and a 30 degree temperature change and gusty northwest winds. The weather whiplash seems a rather fitting way to mark this seasonal shift spiritually. Bye-bye glorious mystical mountaintop of last Sunday where God proclaimed once again that Jesus was his Beloved Son; bye-bye, cool waters of the Jordan River in Matthew 3 where Jesus has just first heard God declare him to be God’s Beloved Son, one in whom God is well pleased. No, those Ash Wednesday winds have catapulted us straight into the wilderness and a whole host of temptations.
It is one thing to hear that you are God’s Beloved; it is a whole other thing to believe it, to really believe it and trust it.
But before we get to what Jesus, and we, are wrestling with, we’ve got to go back to the very first temptation—oh, Genesis 3 and that crafty, crafty serpent.
God has created ‘adam, the human of the ground, and has put him in the garden with great generosity and only one itty, bitty boundary. God has given ‘adam meaningful work, purpose; God has told ‘adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
And remember, at this point, the woman is not even on the scene. Right after God sets the boundary with ‘adam, God figures out that it’s not really good for ‘adam to be alone—he needs a helpmate, he needs a companion. The cattle, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field—they aren’t quite the helpmate ‘adam needs. ‘Adam needs someone who can go toe-to-toe with him.
God creates the woman, and a relationship of complete mutuality, reciprocity, and equality is borne, and the text tells us, “The man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
Then, comes the exchange between that crafty serpent and the woman, and that serpent’s craftiness is shrouded in subtlety. “Really,” the serpent begins, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
Okay, could we pause here? I would like to know how clearly ‘adam explained this directive from God to the woman because she wasn’t actually present when this conversation between God and ‘adam went down. Did ‘adam communicate all of this clearly to his companion? Or, was there a bit of, as we say, “a failure to communicate”? Did the woman get that sense of God’s complete generosity when God told ‘adam, “Every tree of the garden is yours for the eating, save this one tree?” Did she take that generosity for granted? And why did she intensified the boundary that God had set—in addition to not eating it, you couldn’t even touch it?
Okay, temptation 101, what is the quickest, surest way to make something completely enticing. Yes, tell you that you can’t even touch it.
But this serpent is crafty, and a master of subtlety. “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that, when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Oh, that is just downright irresistible. “You will be like God. God doesn’t want you to be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
The woman and the man didn’t die when they ate of that fruit, or did they? They didn’t physically die, but something in them did die. What died? On one side, their innocence died. On the other side, they lost their capacity to move through this world without that painful self-consciousness that we all carry. Before this event, they were naked, read completely vulnerable, and they could move easily through the world wide-open. Now, they knew that they were naked, they were aware of their nakedness, and so begins the process of covering themselves. Knitting together that very first piece of armor in the form of a loincloth to cover that deep sense of vulnerability.
Professor Jay Johnson has argued that the very first temptation to humanity is not the fruit that is such good food, and such a delight to the eyes, and that superfood of wisdom—the first temptation is much more subtle than that. He contends that the first temptation is tempting the woman to be like God, which answers a much deeper and darker fear, and that’s that our humanity, our simple humanity, is not enough. “The first temptation,” Johnson says, “was thinking our humanity wasn’t enough.” We can’t be content to just be human beings.
Jump forward to the temptations that Jesus faces today, and by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into his body and declared Beloved sons and daughters, temptations that are surely waiting for us, too.
Over and over, the devil tells Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, if you are the Son of God…” Jesus is tempted to doubt that he’s a Beloved Son, and on an even more subtle level (there’s that ol’ crafty serpent again), that being a Beloved Son is just not enough.
The devil, diabolos—the one who would throw us apart, like throw us apart from our deepest, Truest Self—that devil keeps whispering in Jesus’ ear, “Oh, that Beloved Son identity, it’s just not enough. You’ve got to do some serious dressing up of that identity. How about putting on some “idealized identities”1. Why not try Miracle Worker, Total Truster, Benevolent King? Your True Self isn’t enough, Jesus. You’re not extraordinary enough, you aren’t trusting enough, you aren’t powerful enough. Jesus, Beloved Son is not enough. You have to be more.” And that tempter whispers that last temptation in Jesus’ ear, “I can give you more. I can make you more. Then, you’ll be enough.”
Can you hear echoes of that crafty serpent, that tempter whispering in your ear? What idealized identities are you tempted to put on when you feel shaky about your core identity as a Beloved Son or Beloved Daughter? When you are struggling to trust that being Beloved of God is plenty enough, what messages do you hear and what behaviors are you tempted to sew into loincloths to cover your naked vulnerability?
Beloved Son, Beloved Daughter, it doesn’t seem like much to go on, but it’s everything. In fact, it’s the only thing that is absolutely secure.
Jesus knew that, and at some level, we know that, too, but we have to circle back again and again to drop down into that core identity as Beloveds of God. It’s a naked place to stand, and the pull to dress it up in some way is almost irresistible. But the devil’s promises ring hollow—they promise the world, but they don’t satisfy, not really, because they’re just the trappings of the False Self that’s trying to dress itself up to make itself acceptable to God, instead of collapsing back into the glorious good news that we’ve already been accepted. Our task, as Paul Tillich preached so long ago is “to accept that we’ve been accepted.”
These temptations will come—they came to Jesus, the come to us. But the fact that Jesus has walked this road before us means that we’ve got someone to guide us back, always, to the only identity that matters—Beloved Son, Beloved Daughter, and the absolute truth that THIS IS ENOUGH. You are Beloved of God; from that center, you are always enough. You don’t have to be God; you just have to believe, trust, accept that you are Beloved.
Live from that place, and you will feed hungers that stones turned to bread never can. Live from that place, and you will bear people up when they fall. Live from that place, and you will be a window into the kingdom of God where all the kingdoms of the world beat their swords into plowshares and feast together at the table.
That serpent may be crafty and oh so subtle, the devil may try to throw us apart from our deepest Truest Self, but Love has already won, and he has called us know, in every fiber of our being, that we are Beloved no less than he.
Believe that, trust that, accept that, and start whispering that good news into every ear you can find. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 5, 2017
1The phrase “idealized identities” is borrowed from Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame triggers.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Ash Wednesday—Year A (video link)
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Oh, we know this day is coming. Surely as the calendar turns its page, we know Ash Wednesday is going to come around again, but I don’t know that we are ever ready for the way this day breaks upon us like a wave, and all of the sudden we are swept off our feet and carried to places we may not wish to go. But it is good, and it is necessary that we allow this day to confront us in all the ways that it does so that we can get beyond the distractions of life, so that we can remember that we are more than the masks we present to the world.
And let’s be clear, while the lessons and the psalms and the Litany of Penitence are going to pull back the curtain on all of our behaviors with piercing clarity, really, this day is all about the heart. Jesus, quite rightly, warns us of the dangers of parading around good, pious, penitent behaviors—giving alms, praying fervently, fasting—changing the exteriors, but leaving the interior landscape of our hearts untouched. The danger is that we act religious and feed the insatiable hunger of our ego, reinforcing our small self who clamors to look good, hoping beyond hope to be acceptable to God. Hypocrite—pretender in the greek, the actor. We all have a hypocrite who lives inside of us; we all have a pretender, but God knows that we’ve got to get beneath those surface layers, got to get through our defenses, got to get through all these ways that we guard our hearts.
And God has complete and utter compassion for us, knowing how hard this journey will be. The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness…For he himself knows whereof we are made, he remembers that we are but dust. God remembers pulling that dust into being and breathing the very breath of life into our bundles of dust. God knows whereof we are made, but God also understands that all roads forward must pass through the heart.
So, the prophet Joel is blowing the trumpet in Zion; he’s sounding the alarm on God’s holy mountain; he’s sanctifying a fast; he’s calling a solemn assembly; he’s gathering the people—the aged and the children, the infants at the breast and the bridegroom and the bride, the priests, the ministers of the LORD—everyone. And the prophet proclaims, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Rend your hearts. Rend—to tear, to tear open, to make wide, to make large.
In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer makes this distinction between the heart broken apart and the heart broken open. He says: “If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life…”
Palmer continues, “What shall we do with our suffering…Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering. But when the human heart is open and allowed to work its alchemy, suffering can generate vitality instead of violence…When the heart is supple, it can be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity to hold our own and the world’s pain: it happens every day. When we hold our suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.”
Rend your hearts. Allow them to be torn open. Allow them to be broken, but let them break open and not apart. Let them be torn open so that they may be widened and enlarged.
I have been thinking for weeks about a story I heard on the BBC that occurred at Dulles Airport. It occurred on January 28th, that Saturday when people flying into the United States and people from the seven Countries of Particular Concern were being detained and protests erupted in airports across the nation. And just for a moment, please, set aside the bigger issues in play here, and just hear this story of what happened between two people.
An Iraq army veteran named Jeffrey Buchalter had gone to Home Depot; he was reflooring his foyer at his home in Maryland—he got back home and the tv was on, and he saw protests happening in the New York airports. Something stirred in his heart. Jeffrey felt that the Iraqi translators had enabled him to get back home alive. Jeffrey had suffered several wounds in combat, including a traumatic brain injury and several shrapnel wounds; he’d spend two years in Walter Reed Hospital. He’d been awarded four purple hearts. He gathered up his two young children and drove two hours to Dulles Airport.
He found an Iraqi man named Alaa who’d been waiting for his wife, Jenin. Alaa had worked in the embassy in Iraq and had been given an immigrant visa; his wife was a green card holder returning home to the US; she’d been detained and questioned for hours. Alaa was upset.
Jeffrey made his way to Alaa; he just wanted this man who was having a bad experience to experience something good, but he also wanted to give something to the man that was important to him. So, Jeffrey’s young son stepped forward, with his dad by his side, and gave Alaa one of his dad’s most treasured possessions; the boy gave Alaa his dad’s Purple Heart. That act of generosity and kindness blew Alaa away—he said that it was the most precious gift he’d ever received in his life, and that it would be on display in his home, and that it would also be a story, a story that he would keep telling. A tear in Jeffrey’s heart broke him open and enabled him to step forward and offer a precious gift that would be balm to Alaa’s broken heart. That exchange between strangers changed both of those men, and their families, forever.
And that story changed me; it did something to my heart. Just the image of offering a Purple Heart—a medal awarded to a wounded soldier. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jeffrey understood that in his bones. He may not have even known he understood that until he handed his Purple Heart over, but his soul had grasped that truth long before he got in his car and drove two hours to that airport.
Could we take this Lent as a time to come to terms with our broken, wounded hearts? Could we rend our hearts and explore the contours of the tears all across them? Could we trust that exploring our broken hearts doesn’t have to break us apart, shattering our hearts into a thousand shards slicing everyone in our path as they fly, but rather, could we trust that exploring this brokenness can make our hearts supple, soft, can break them open, allowing them to pump love back into the world again, enabling us to offer our wounded hearts to one another that the wounds between us might be healed.
God, Jesus—they can’t do much with hard heart. A broken heart broken open—that can change the world.
Allow the rending to occur. Don’t fight it. Explore the tears and wounds to your heart. Entrust your heart into the Master Healer’s hands. Let him guide you as you come to terms with your particular wounds. And as your heart breaks open, and is made wider, and grows larger, know that a well of life is springing up from within you that is full of power and light and love and life.
Then, sit in awe as the wave that broke over you and threw you down becomes the water that carries you forward in a flow of compassion and mercy.
Rend your heart, place those wounds and tears in God’s hands, and then let God show you how to offer your wounded, open heart as balm to this hurting world. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 1, 2017
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A (video link)
II Peter 1:16-21
Here we are—the last Sunday after the Epiphany. And what an interesting group of scriptures we have as we take one last look around before descending into Lent.
Lots of mountains today. In Exodus, Moses has said “yes” to God’s invitation to come on up the mountain where God will give Moses the law and the commandment which God has written for their instruction. It’s interesting, but the first instruction that God gives Moses is to come up the mountain and wait there. Simply wait. After instructing the elders to wait at the bottom for him and his assistant Joshua, Moses heads up the mountain and waits, and the cloud covered the mountain, thicker than Blowing Rock fog. The glory of the Lord had descended upon that mountain, and the cloud covered it for six days.
Sometimes the glory of the Lord descends upon us in a way that we can’t see the nose in front of our face. It is completely disorienting, and we can’t tell which way is up or down or east or west. Sometimes, God has to completely disorient us, so that God may completely reorient us. On the seventh day, God called Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. To those below, the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire—lots of light and heat. To Moses, it was just the disorienting cloud. But when Moses emerged from that cloud, he was ready to receive what God had to give him. And yes, it would take 40 days for Moses to hear, and receive, and understand the instruction.
Our lives and world are swirling these days. It may feel like me are being tossed to and fro on a sea, completely unmoored. This is not a comfortable space to inhabit, and far from promising us peace, God calls us to come on up the mountain and intentionally place ourselves in the cloud where we intentionally lose all our bearings. God calls us to wait there, so that we can receive the law and commandments, so that we can receive instruction, without trying to manipulate it to our own ends. In urgent and anxious times, God says, “Wait, this is going to take time to unpack—maybe 40 days or so. You cannot rush this. Patience, Moses. Patience, Cyndi. Patience, brothers and sisters. Clarity will come, but not necessarily on your timetable.” Oh, this is hard work.
And then we skip over to II Peter where we hear this: You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Be attentive. Focus on the lamp shining out in a dark place. Again, patience. Yes, it is dark, but our instruction is to wait in the dark, to be attentive to our hearts, to trust that the day will dawn there, that a morning star will rise there, and then, it won’t matter how dark it is outside because the lamp will be burning bright in our hearts, and that light will follow us wherever we go. And Peter reminds us, quite rightly, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. The prophets do not act on their own will, but speak from that place of alignment with God. The prophets are the mouthpiece of God to speak God’s comfort and compassion and steadfast love and challenge into the circumstances of our world. It is always a slippery slope; it is easy to confuse the interpretation that arises from my will with the one that is arises when I put in the hard work of waiting with open hands and open heart and open mind and open spirit. Do you get the nuance? One is pushed from my end—it has that energy of forcing and urgency; the other arises; the other is received like a gift—it may still possess the energy of action, but that action will be arising out of solid, grounded place; an action arising out of alignment, instead of agenda. It’s tricky, which is why Peter counsels us, “Be attentive.”
Then we come to the mountain in the gospel. It’s six days later. Six days after what? Six days after Jesus has had that exchange with the disciples up in Caesarea Philippi about who they think Jesus is, and though Peter gets the “A” for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;” Peter flunks when he rebukes Jesus when Jesus spells out that being the Christ, the Son of the living God means suffering at the hands of the religious people that should have gotten his mission, and being killed by them, and then, just when he might have gotten some peace and eternal quiet in the tomb, lo and behold, he would have to rise again.
Peter didn’t like the scenario that Jesus had spelled out, and Peter told Jesus to knock it off about such things. Jesus held his ground—called Peter “Satan” and went on to say that anyone who would come after him would have to take up his cross and follow him—that those who try to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for Jesus’ sake will find it. And Jesus then posed a piercing question, to Peter and to us, “For what will it profit if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”
It’s six days after that exchange. And the first interesting thing to notice is that while Jesus told Peter to get behind him and called him “Satan,” Jesus didn’t banish Peter to outsider status; Jesus didn’t shame Peter, make him sit in a corner, or demote him to lesser discipleship status. He told Peter to get behind him which put him in a position to follow him up the mountain, along with James and John.
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Oh Peter, he’s so trying to get this right. So trying to get this nailed down. He got the Christ thing right, and then he got it wrong when he tried to limit what it means to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. He gets that the law, Moses, and the prophets, Elijah, are central to Jesus; he gets that Jesus has a particular relationship with these two strands of the tradition that is holy, and he wants to do the only thing he knows to do, enshrine it in even more holiness. The english says three dwellings, but it’s three booths, three tabernacles to be exact, three tents to hold the holiness of God. Peter is blown away by the holiness before him, and he wants to fix the location, contain it, locate it in time and space. Why? Why do we human beings always try to contain holiness? I don’t know, but in tumultuous times, maybe we try to contain it so we’ll always know where to find it when we so need it.
But while Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” God was on to the game, so it’s time for a little cloud-time, throw Peter and James and John into the cloud to completely disorient them, so that God can completely reorient them—“Peter, don’t try to fix, contain, the law and the prophets, even Jesus himself. He is a living, breathing, beloved Son—listen to him, listen to his life, listen to what he does and what he says and who he eats with and who he heals and who he lifts up and who he challenges. Don’t turn him into a monument—be in relationship with this beloved Son of the living God.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
It’s an awfully scary thing to let go of our tried and true containers; it’s scary to let go of getting God located in our time and space so we know right where to find God when we need God; it’s a whole other thing to know that Jesus is going to be on the move and that our relationship with him is going to be constantly changing and evolving and pulling us deeper, deeper, deeper than we ever thought we go could go. Moses, Elijah, law, prophets, even Jesus—known quantities. Beloved Son of the living God quite free of our tabernacles—ooooh, that throws us in uncharted territories.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
And not only are we being thrown into uncharted territories, but Jesus is going to ask us to sit with this vision a good long while before we post it on our facebook pages. Just like God with Moses, Jesus asks us to wait. We won’t be ready to act on this vision of transfiguration, we won’t know what to do with this radiant Majestic Glory of God, as Peter calls it, that completely changes the countenance of Jesus until we understand what it means to die for the sake of love, and to rise for the sake of a love that is stronger still.
Jesus will not let this go—we have to make the journey that starts this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and see it through Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday, all the way to the Easter dawn—only then, will we understand that transfiguration changes us from the inside, out and once that glory’s grabbed ahold of us, there’s not a tabernacle holy enough to hold that glory in. It yearns to shine for everyone to see, but only when it’s been tempered by a good healthy understanding of the suffering that comes when you go all-in with love, even loving those who would rather nail that love to a cross than to see a love that could extend its arms that far and that wide. There is something in us that has to die and rise again before God can trust that kind of Majestic Glory in our hands.
So, where is God calling you to come on up the mountain? Where is God calling you into a place of complete disorientation where nothing is clear, so that God can completely reorient you? Where, in your anxiety, are you wanting to get all this law, prophet, Jesus, God stuff nailed down and contained so that something will be exactly where it’s supposed to be when you need it the most? And where is God calling you to let all that go and trust this relationship with Jesus who is living and breathing and always evolving? And then, can you sit with this vision until you come to a deeper understanding of what life in relationship with him really means?
If you feel yourself in a fog these days, know that something deep, something mysterious, something that will take time to comprehend may well be afoot. If you’re afraid, know that Jesus is going to touch you in a way that a booth, a tabernacle, never will. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And what is the first thing that Son says? Actually, it’s an enfleshed word—with that gentle touch, and those words that can calm our heart and still our swirling anxieties, he says, “Do not be afraid.”
Take those words in, sit with the vision, follow him on the journey that stretches ahead—die with him, rise with him, and then, you will understand, it never was just about Jesus’ transfiguration, but it was also, always, about our own. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 26, 2017
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks- Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Jesus is dancing us through the Sermon on the Mount, moving effortlessly between the highly personal and intimate interpersonal to the intensely communal and political, and today, he leads us into the heart of his radical teaching on engaging the powers-that-be with the power of nonviolence.
I am indebted to Walter Wink and his little book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way for helping to illuminate these scriptures that are otherwise so mystifying. And, though I’ve shared this teaching before, this is one of those teachings that we need to circle back to over and over—it’s a foundational teaching of the Jesus way and so needed in our time.
So, let’s plow in.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
First, Jesus is holding up the standard of the ancient law—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Retaliation in equal kind. And actually, this law in the Old Testament was meant to protect people from vengeful retribution where the retribution might by worse than the originating crime or injury. But once again, Jesus takes the ancient standard and ups the ante—don’t retaliate at all. Do not resist an evildoer. And again, evildoer is someone who brings toils, annoyances, perils; one who causes pain and trouble. Do not set yourself against them; do not oppose them. Huh? Aren’t we to fight injustice? Not quite, we are to strive for justice, but in the very energy of fighting you empower that which you are striving to transform. Jesus has another way.
We’ve got to understand how this striking on the cheek thing works, or we will do as so many Christian preachers have grievously done and counsel people to go passive in the face of abuse. The only way someone could strike you on the right cheek, in that culture, was to do a backhanded slap with the right hand—you can’t use your right fist, because the nose is in the way, and you can’t use your left hand because it was used for unclean acts. A backhanded slap was by definition about one person having power over another and about humiliating the one with lesser power. So, when Jesus counsels turning and offering your other cheek, your left cheek, this was not an act of passivity, but an act of standing firm and claiming your full and equal status as fellow human being. First, as you turn your head, your eyes meet, and that is a deeply humanizing moment, and then, to strike your left cheek, the aggressor would be forced to use his right fist and thereby acknowledge you as an equal.
And the direction on giving your cloak to someone who is suing you for your undergarments, well, Jesus is just brilliant here. Matthew and Luke disagree on the order here. Luke says if they’re suing you for your cloak, give your undergarment, too, but Matthew goes a step further and says, if they’re suing you for your undergarments, give them your cloak, too. What is at stake here? Well, the poor often only had their garments to give as collateral for a loan, but the law required that if you’d given your cloak as collateral, that the person from whom you had borrowed money had to return it at sundown so you could be warm as you slept. It’s rotten enough to ask someone to give their cloak as collateral, but in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying, “It’s even worse than that—they’re suing you for your undergarments! So, don’t stop there; hand them your cloak as well”—which would leave you what? (pause) Naked, that’s right. And nakedness in that culture was a big taboo, and the shame fell on the one gazing upon the nakedness, not the one who was naked. In one brilliant step, Jesus has revealed the moral bankruptcy, the absolute exploitation of the whole economic system of loans in that culture.
And then, going the second mile. A Roman soldier, a member of the occupying force, could force a civilian who had no power to carry his pack for a mile, but not for two. Again, this was humiliating for the occupied people, but to fight a Roman soldier was out of the question. So, carry the pack the second mile became Jesus’ elegant third way. A) It exposed the Roman soldier to severe military penalties because the rule was one mile and no more and B) It exposed the Roman soldier to ridicule from his buddies—“What, you’re not strong enough to carry your own pack?” and no Roman soldier wanted to be ribbed like that. Again, the person with no power has found a way to hold fast to the human dignity of which the system of subjugation was fervently trying to strip him.
At every turn, Jesus is showing people how to resist without standing against, how to hold fast to your dignity as a beloved son or daughter of God when the powers-that-be are trying to strip it away, how not to replicate the very system of retaliation that people of the Jesus way are called to transform. And this is crazy hard. Retaliation is so much easier; it’s the default of our primitive brains. And when we’re really stuck in our primitive brains, we don’t even stop there—we go straight for vengeful full-on retribution, forget “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”
But lest we start to get puffed up with the sheer elegance and brilliance of Jesus’ third way as a tactical coup on those who hold the power, Jesus is going to drop us right back down into our hearts. Ancient standard, up the ante.
But before we get to the up the ante part, let’s revisit the ancient standard of loving your neighbor because Leviticus unpacks that for us this morning: You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Leviticus would remind us this morning that this loving stuff extends far and wide and close and near. Kin is anyone in your tribe—sometimes translated as “fellow countrymen.” Oh, this just got really relevant—thank you Leviticus! You shall not hate in your heart your fellow countrymen. And reproving your neighbor is more complicated than it sounds—it’s not only about correcting them, proving what is right, but the hebrew word also possesses this sense of reasoning together with them. And you reason with your neighbor, you risk the conversation, because when we don’t risk the conversation, then we are complicit in this sin of separation, then we bear this sin of separation together.
Leviticus will not let us up for air—no taking vengeance, no avenging your feelings against any of your tribe, your kin, your people, your fellow countrymen. In fact, you don’t even get to keep your anger like a prized possession, like really it’s a word that’s repeated in hebrew—you really don’t get to keep your anger; you don’t get to guard yourself against these your kin, but you shall love your fellow-citizen as yourself, as a part of your own being. Ouch—bye-bye caricatures of people paraded across our tv screens, radios, and social media. That’s where God starts us in Leviticus. That’s the ancient standard, and now, Jesus is going to up the ante.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Are you kidding me? Love my enemies? Pray for those who persecute me? This is what it means to be children of God? God has care and concern for the evil, the annoying, the ones bringing all this pain and trouble, God has concern for them and the good? God has concern for those who are living their lives in alignment and in right relationship and those who could care less about living in alignment with God and make a mockery of right relationships? I have to love them? I have to greet them? I have to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect? Are you kidding me, Jesus?
And with those kind and compassionate and piercing eyes, Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says the hard thing—“Nope, I’m not kidding. What I am asking you to do is that hard; my way is that radical.”
And this being perfect is not about perfection like we think about it—it’s not about being without mistake or error—it’s teleios—it’s a word that comes up a lot in theology. It’s the endgame, it’s when something is brought to its end, wanting nothing to be complete; it is utter integrity and the capacity to live that path of integrity, what we call virtue. And here’s the really bad news—it’s full-on, full-grown adulthood, that fullness that comes with age, otherwise known as MATURITY.
Oh man, Jesus is calling us to grow up, really grow up into the full stature of Christ. Jesus is calling us to look out upon this world with compassion, to understand that those we would call enemy are no less beloved of God than we are. We need to love and pray for those (fill in the blank) people that get on your every last nerve, those people who make your blood boil, Jesus is telling us we need to love and pray for those people and to know that that love is sourced from God’s heart emanating from within us. Jesus is calling us to put on the mind of Christ and love from a place so much deeper and broader than we could possibly imagine.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t engage matters of injustice; Jesus certainly did. It’s just that the water from which we drink as we thirst for justice comes from a far deeper well, from a place where the living water flows, from a far deeper place than our culture is offering us right now.
It doesn’t matter if we are doing the right thing if our hearts are still wanting to stick it to our enemies. We may achieve a human end, but it won’t be a divine one. God’s heart has room for the enemy, and when we meet our enemy there, there is the possibility that we will both be transformed.
This teaching is not for the faint of heart; this teaching is about the utter and complete transformation of our heart, and as we start to understand the enemy is our kin, and our kin is our neighbor, and our neighbor is our very own self, well, there is no end to the transformation that God can work then.
Yes, in solidarity with Jesus, we are called to third way acts of nonviolence in the face of injustice and power differentials, but our first step in the radical way of nonviolence, as Jesus embodies it, will be in the radical expansion of our hearts that can hold a place at the table for even our enemy.
No wonder people take the easy way of dualistic-plain-ol’-in-your-face opposition. Fighting, fleeing, freezing, appeasing—all of these are far easier than coming alongside neighbor, kin, enemy and dwelling together with them in God’s heart until both they and we are transformed. But truly, this is the only way big enough to move into the peaceable kingdom that God yearns for and that we all long to inhabit.
Today, let God do a radical number on your heart, and then move out into the world with courage as you seek to walk in Jesus’ third way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 19, 2017
This interpretation of Matthew 6:38-41 has drawn on the teaching of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. Please read his book.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Whew. Jesus gets downright personal today. We continue with the Sermon on the Mount and some of the most demanding ethical teaching anywhere. There’s a lot here, so let’s jump right in.
Jesus starts by laying out the ancient standard—the minimum demands of the law or what is allowed by the law—and then ups the ante—“You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”
For instance: ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Oh, the english just can’t quite get us to the heart of the greek. The greek is more piercing—if you’re angry with a brother or sister, you’re going to be under obligation, bound, subject to a crisis, a sundering, a divide, a split, a rending; and then, if you call your brother or sister a rhaka, a derogatory term for a senseless empty-headed person, a term of utter vilification depicting someone as worthless, then you’re going to be subject to the council; and then, if you call anyone moros, foolish, empty, dull, stupid, as in moron, then you will be subject to the fiery geenna, Gehenna, that Jewish depiction of future punishment, otherwise known as the dump south of Jerusalem where the trash and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned.
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He’s taking one standard of law that applied to a few people, those who commit actual murder, and applies the standard to all of us in our relationships, and shows us how this escalates in us. Anger brings us to a crisis point, to a point where something is tearing in the fabric of the relationship.
At that point, we have a choice—we can reconcile, we can speak the truth in love, we can hold accountable—we can do many things that will pull us through the crisis point toward life and richer relationship.
Or, we can blow past that point and head for the gutter, hurling derogatory words at the focus of our anger and frustration, stripping them of their worth. That will land us before the council. A stiffer consequence than a crisis point, a place where we have to stand accountable before the assembly of our tradition and have held before our eyes that tragic gap between the values we profess and the reality of our words and deeds.
And, we can choose to blow past that point, and move beyond the singular brother or sister who is the target of our anger, and spray our venom out upon anyone who’s in the way—and in one broad sweep, they’re all stupid, foolish, completely empty, devoid of any forethought or wisdom whatsoever, morons, and that will land us in hell, a place full of the stink of dead, rotting, burning trash, surrounded by our own venom.
And that’s just where Jesus starts. It’s going to be a long morning.
He then goes for the heart of the matter, and it’s brutal. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Did you get that? It’s not if you remember that you’ve got a beef with your brother or sister; no, as we come to this altar today, Jesus wants us to do a heart scan on ourselves—can we think of anyone who’s got a conflict with us? Can we think of any relationship in our lives that’s experiencing a tear in the fabric? Yes? Okay, pause, if you’ve got a pen, write that name down on your bulletin. If you don’t have a pen, etch that name in your mind. Jesus wants us to leave our gift here, and go and be reconciled with that person. I’ve always had this fantasy of stopping church right now and letting everyone go out into the world to do just that. What would happen if we did that? But back to the text.
Reconciled—it actually means “change, to change the mind of anyone, to renew friendship”—so change course with someone who’s in conflict with you, and then come back and offer your gift. So, what if you commit to doing one thing this week toward reconciling before coming back to this altar? It could be a phone call, a letter, a cup of coffee to talk it out; it could be a commitment to hear them out; it could be a commitment to pray for a softening of hearts, theirs and yours.
Because here’s the deal, that accuser that Jesus tells us to come to terms quickly with on our way to court, that accuser is just another way to talk about our opponent, our adversary, our enemy. And, in the greek, Jesus doesn’t tell us to come to terms with that person, but rather, Jesus tells us to wish them well, to be of a peaceable spirit with them, literally, to be well in the mind toward them. And Jesus is so right, if we don’t, then it lands us in prison, we are locked in a cage, and it is so hard to get out of that place.
Then Jesus goes on to do a really graphic lesson on how we can’t really compartmentalize our lives. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
How we view something matters, and how we view things changes our hearts. We think we can do this thing over here quite in isolation, and not have it affect the rest of our being, but we are coherent, whole selves. What one piece of our body, spirit, mind, heart does impacts the whole of who we are. We can’t quarantine off parts of ourselves—the actions of our bodies, the vibrations of our spirits, the fixations and ruminations of our minds, the ripples of our hearts—these cannot be contained. We either move through this world as a coherent whole, or we leave parts of ourselves behind and cut ourselves off from the abundant life of which Jesus speaks.
Jesus moves from there to pull into our consciousness the difference between what the law allows, what is permissible, and what is moral. The law certainly allowed divorce at the whims of the husband, but that doesn’t make it right. The ease with which a man could divorce his wife left the woman exposed and economically vulnerable. Jesus is saying to us, “Yeah, I know the law allows it, but you don’t divorce on a whim. Do not treat this most intimate of relationships with an air of convenience. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral; there are grave consequences to this action—for everyone involved.” What’s motivating Jesus here is his concern for how men, who held the power, were trivializing marriage and putting women, who were property, in unbelievably vulnerable positions, and thinking that one could take those actions and go along one’s merry way. Anyone who’s been through the tragedy of divorce knows it doesn’t work that way.
And then, there’s that whole sort of odd bit about how it was said in ancient times that people should not make false vows, but should fulfill their vows to the LORD, but how Jesus says, “No, don’t swear an oath at all, not by heaven, not by earth, not by Jerusalem, not by your head. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this full of anguish and hardship and labor.” Oh, so true. How hard it is to just say what you mean, and mean what you say, and set your boundaries, and say your “yes’s” and your “no’s” without hedging, apologizing, or explaining yourself ad nauseam. Keeping it to a simple “yes” or a clear “no” just feels so not southern, feels so wrong. Sometimes, we fear the distress that we think our clear “yes” or “no” might cause, and so we hem and haw, but oh my goodness, the tangled web of explanations we weave are a load of work. Jesus is counseling us that clarity is a gift. He had that clarity, and his clarity allowed the people around him to make the choices they needed to make. Honor your wisdom, and honor the discernment of the people around you. Let your “yes’s” and “no’s” simply be, and use all that freed up energy to move more deeply into the “yes’s” that God’s calling you to say.
Hard stuff, ehhh? Jesus is demanding an ethical consistency and coherence that few of us possess. It’s the narrow way he talks about, and yet, this is the way to life. And it has always been so. Moses reminds us today: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. We have to consciously choose this life, for this is where we will find life and blessings and the promised land of abundance and right relationships.
This is the solid food that Paul talks about that so few of us can stomach. We’d rather follow our human inclinations and cling to our jealousies and quarrels and divisions, but this isn’t the field that God’s growing, and it’s not the field that God is building.
The scriptures focus a lot on systems and structures, but today, Moses, Paul, Jesus, they get downright personal. There are choices before each one of us, every single day, in every single relationship. What will we choose? Will we let our anger escalate? Will we work to reconcile? Will we wish our adversary well and allow our mind and hearts to soften? Will we compartmentalize our lives? Will we hide behind what is allowable and forsake what is moral? Will we stand by our “yes’s” and our “no’s,” and know that, while not perfect, we are enough? Will we choose life, or death? Blessings, or curses? Will we grow up into the full stature of Christ and feed on this solid food?
So many hard choices; it all seems a little overwhelming to tell you the truth. But you are here, and that’s enough to begin. This table is set, and in this food, we will find the strength we need to choose the way that leads to life. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 12, 2017
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
I Corinthians 1:18-31
Oh, settle in. As they say, “The Lord has laid a lot on my heart today.”
The scriptures are not going to be kind to us for the next stretch of time. I looked ahead—we get Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew for the next four weeks. The Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7—is the heart of Christian ethical teaching, going all the way back to St. Augustine. Christian ethics—those moral principles that govern the behavior of one who professes to follow Jesus; that discipline that helps us know what is good and guides us to act in accordance with that knowledge. Christian ethics draws its juice from Jesus’ teaching, most especially the Sermon on the Mount, and the ripples from this teaching go out and out and out. It is said that Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 40 years to ground his ethical vision and practice.
And the prophets and Deuteronomy and Leviticus—they’re just going to hammer us over the next several weeks. So please, don’t shoot the messenger—I’m just holding the space where we have to wrestle with these things.
And I’m going to confess to you right now—I am struggling. I visited my mom up in Louisville earlier this week, and she loves to watch the news. We don’t have cable at our house, so this is a world I don’t really know—I was doing some serious channel surfing. We watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and then we watched Sean Hannity on Fox News, and frankly, at the end of an hour or so of this, I felt sick, physically sick, and really agitated. Both commentators were making leaps of logic that didn’t make sense to me, jumping from A to Z and skipping the 24 steps in-between, and interviewing people to shore up their perspective. I didn’t feel any more enlightened by the end, but my soul was definitely more troubled.
So, I want to circle back to what I said in my annual address in November when I was unpacking what it looks like to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, especially this side of the Presidential election. Here’s what I said back in November:
I don’t know what the future looks like under Mr. Trump’s leadership; that will be revealed over time through his actions and through the actions of his administration. I know people’s minds are racing forward into a thousand different scenarios, but worry about the future is rarely productive or life-giving. We hold people accountable for word and deed, not for our fears of the what if’s. I will say of Mr. Trump what I have said of every President, no matter their party, my baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being extends to them, even if I disagree with every policy position they take. This vow extends to the President’s followers. This vow extends to those who oppose the President. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being, while at the same time, calling out any and all words and actions that diminish the dignity of another human being. Living like Jesus is really hard.
So, here’s the rub. This week, we started to see some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds through Executive Orders. There are several that come into direct conflict with what I know of the way of Jesus and the law and prophets that formed him. The ones that have grabbed my heart and won’t let go include the ones on Thursday relating to Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, which include: the deputizing of local law enforcement to act on behalf of Immigration (which many local law enforcement agencies don’t want); the building of more detention centers along the border (most of which are run by private contractors with a poor record of living conditions); the erasure of due process (you can be deported not just for a conviction or being charged with a criminal offense, but also for committing an act that constitutes a chargeable criminal offense); and the intent to strip federal funding from local communities that are sanctuary communities. And the Executive Order on Friday Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, which suspends entrance into our country from Nationals of Countries of Particular Concern for 90 days while a review of our visa process is undertaken. In addition, the entire U.S. Refugee Admission Program is suspended for 120 days. Entrance of Syrian refugees is suspended until such time as the President decides they are not a threat to national interest. In addition, there is a right to review in this Executive Order for those who are religious minorities facing religious persecution in their country of nationality—so Christians persecuted by ISIS in a majority Muslim country may come, but Muslims persecuted by ISIS may not come if that country is majority Muslim. And this Order was given on the same day that the President marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day and promised that “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”
As your priest, as your pastor, as your teacher, as a preacher, I am in some serious conflict because I can’t not know what I know about the scriptures and the way of Jesus and what these demand of us. And I can’t let you not know these things either. I can’t not know Leviticus 19:34—The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Period. I can’t not know that Jesus himself was a Jew who had to flee a brutal dictator, every bit as brutal as the leader of Syria who dropped chemical weapons on his own people, Jesus and his parents were refugees who had to flee to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their back. By the standards of these Executive Orders, Jesus himself, as a Jew from a majority Jewish nation, would not be prioritized for coming into our country.
I know I am talking politics from the pulpit here, but I’m not talking to you as a Republican, because I am not one, and I am not talking to you as a Democrat, because I’m not one, but I am talking to you as one who has given my life to Jesus and his way and that way doesn’t just stop at these doors, but that way seeks to reconcile the whole world. So, I don’t have the luxury of not wading into this stuff. Jesus didn’t compartmentalize his world, nor can I, nor can you. Our faith and our world are in a world of conflict right now—as Eucharistic Prayer C says: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.
But I also need to say that how we engage these ethical issues from the place of our faith matters; it matters a lot. It is always up to each of us to discern what actions we are called to take in this world, and that demands of us discipline and spiritual practice. So, I am starting back up the Social Justice Training Group. If you are feeling called to take action, I am calling on you to ground yourself and form yourself deep in the way of Jesus, so that you can, as St. Paul said, put on the mind of Christ and discern clearly the actions you are called to take; so that the way you take those actions doesn’t replicate this cycle of violence in word or deed. First meeting—next Saturday.
I would also encourage you strongly to do some fasting from Facebook and cable news. I don’t think these swirling, adrenalin-fueled exchanges are going to increase our wisdom. I encourage you to search out and read primary sources. If you want to know what the President is doing, go out to whitehouse.gov and read the texts of the actual Executive Orders. Watch hearings on c-span. Don’t take commentators views for your own, and don’t depend on summaries. God has shaped you and formed you, and you have put on the mind of Christ—you have a unique perspective to bring and a unique way of understanding what you read and hear—do not cede that authority away.
And in this time, we have got to double-down on our efforts to be in conversation with people who hold different perspectives than we ourselves might hold. We’ve got to listen to their perspectives, and even more, learn their stories and what shaped them to see the world as they do. There are legitimate policy differences between conservative and liberal perspectives on all of these issues, and all the ideas out there deserve to be heard with respect. We are dealing with huge, complex problems—we can’t afford to curtail any creative possibilities. And as we listen to ideas that might strike us as absurd, let us not reduce the person speaking them to a caricature. They are made in the image of God no less that we.
And, for us in this room, all of this work has to be run through the lens of Jesus and our sacred tradition. So, as is always the case, we turn to the scriptures given us today.
First, Micah. And sneak preview, next week, Jesus will remind us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—not being scholars knowing every aspect of the law and the prophets doesn’t get us off the hook.
So, Micah, what do you have for us?
Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
Uh oh, the LORD has a controversy with his people, and the LORD is going to contend with the whole nation. And what is that controversy? Well, the LORD gets really specific about it verse 12—your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
The LORD continues: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…
Micah continues: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
So, it won’t be our worship and our offerings, even our most precious offerings, that will fix this. No, God has told us what is good and what the LORD requires—and these are always the two central questions of ethics—what is good and what behavior is required to get there—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
Justice matters, and it is clear throughout the law and the prophets that God is keenly invested in how the poor and the oppressed, the widowed and the orphans, and a whole multitude of others in society are getting along. And God gets downright incensed when they are getting crushed, especially when this happens at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful.
To love kindness—and it’s even stronger than that—the hebrew talks about loving hesed, which means loving steadfast love. Steadfast love is the kind of love that God loves us with—it is a fierce love. God is calling us not just to act with steadfast love, but to love acting with steadfast love. This is the love that refuses to let go, ever, which means that we can’t just write off our enemies—they, too, are made in the image of God.
And we have to walk humbly with God. And there’s two parts to that. We have to walk. We have to walk where God walks. And in this passage, God is going to march us straight into doing justice. But we must also walk humbly, with humility. Walk we must, but we don’t walk with arrogance or, that great enemy of faith, absolute certitude. We must always be open to critique. None of us is infallible when it comes to discerning the mind of God. Paul reminds us, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do”—that’s the human condition. I once heard an Anglican theologian call us to act with a bold humility or a humble boldness—either perspective will get us to the right place. We have to act, but always with the knowledge that this side of the kingdom, we don’t really know the full picture.
These are the teachings which formed Jesus. If we don’t ingest and internalize them, we won’t understand him.
And then there’s Jesus’ own teaching today. The beatitudes. They are beautiful. They are poetic. And they can fly right by us with how hard they are because we are so accustomed to their beauty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The greek for poor here actually points to those who are destitute of a wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford. This could be huge swaths of people across rural America and the rust belt and Appalachia and inner cities. And this poverty infects the spirit—spirits who have been crushed through neglect and lack of opportunity.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And the mourning aren’t just those who are grieving, but also those who are lamenting.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Oh the meek—these are those who possess a gentleness of spirit.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who hold integrity ever before our eyes, who hunger for it and thirst for it; those who won’t let us forget that our words and our deeds have to match up; they have to be in alignment; they have to embody right relationship with God and each other and with all that God has made.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Mercy, oh my goodness is this in such short supply. Blessed are those who know they have power and authority and rights to do all kinds of things, but who can yield for the sake of hesed, who can yield for the sake of that steadfast love which never lets go.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Cynthia Bourgeault would remind us that only those who can drop their minds down into their hearts can see God clearly. The mind and the heart have to be talking; they have to be connected if we are to see God and to see as God sees.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. We are back to the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus will make clear that this isn’t roll-over-and-play-dead-peace-at-any-costs peacemaking. But it is to say that we don’t get to opt out of seeking peace wherever division infects our hearts and the hearts of our society.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And here, Jesus turns from those amorphous 3rd person groups, to the people right in front of him—his disciples, the crowds, and that would be you and me—and Jesus gets real: “You seek to make real these right relationships, you seek to speak and act and hold out before the world a life lived in alignment with God’s vision—oh, you’ve just signed up to be persecuted and reviled and to have all kinds of evil things uttered against you falsely on my account. But rejoice, be glad, because you have just entered into that great communion of saints with all the prophets who have gone before you—it got pretty rough for them, too, but community and solidarity go a long, long way.”
All of these ways of being are so hard, and yet, it is in these beatitude places, some of which are contemplative stances, some of which are ways of being, and some of which are ways of acting and doing—it is in these places and spaces that we find blessing that the world cannot fathom.
Micah tells us what the LORD requires of us and Jesus gives us a whole frame for where we are to engage and, more importantly, how we are to engage. And I know that what they are asking of us is just plain hard, but this is the life to which we’ve been called. It isn’t going to make us popular, but it is profoundly full of blessing.
The details of how exactly we engage all that is before us will be as different as the people in this room. Let us not judge one another, but let St. Luke’s be the generous community that we have always been and accord one another the best of motivations and intentions. Let us support one another, even if we totally disagree with the action another is called to take, knowing and trusting that we are all trying to find our way as we seek to follow our Lord. That same Eucharistic Prayer C that I quoted earlier, it goes on to say: Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
I will continue to do my best to bring forth the clearest teaching I can, even when it rattles our cages. Living and moving among all these places of conflict, all these places of division, all these places so filled with paradox, all these places so full of pain—this is the way of the cross, but let us never forget that this is also the way that leads to life, abundant life Jesus promised.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, welcome to the hardest spiritual work you’ve ever had to do. Together, let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God and discover the blessings that will surely come as we walk in this way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 29, 2017
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Well aren’t these interesting lessons for today? From Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
That’s a great thing to hear after an election cycle that revealed our deepest divisions and on a weekend that has held both Inaugural celebrations and Inaugural protests.
Paul continues: For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” We might add, “I belong to Donald,” or “I belong to Hillary,” or “I belong to Bernie,” or “I belong to fill in the blank.”
Paul continues: Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
Okay, that’s getting a little personal, seeing as I am about to baptize Leo here. And God love Paul, He just can’t help himself. Here he is trying to make clear that the baptism isn’t really about him, and his ego just sneaks up there and has to say, “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, well, except Crispus and Gaius, oh, and (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)” Our little false self just can’t stay quiet, can it? It lives within us, ever ready to leap up and take some credit, claim some ownership.
But, Paul continues: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
Oh, now we get down to the heart of the matter. Parochial Report statistics aside, it’s not about how many people we baptize under the age of 16 and over the age of 16 (honest to goodness, our denominational report asks us that), and it’s not about who does the baptizing (though I am quite thrilled that I get to participate in Leo’s baptism this morning); it’s not about adding members to the Jesus team, but it’s about proclaiming the gospel; it’s about announcing glad tidings, like that angel did to the shepherds on the hillside; it’s about proclaiming good news. And our proclamation isn’t filled with fancy words, and it isn’t accomplished with eloquent wisdom, or as the greek says, “cleverness of speech” because that “cleverness of speech,” that “turning of the word” might grab our attention and distract us and then, the cross of Christ might be emptied of its power. No, proclamation of this good news cuts through all of that.
Paul reminds us: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But the NRSV translation misses something here. The word it translates as “message” is the same greek word that popped up in that “eloquent wisdom,” that “cleverness of speech, turning of the word” that Paul warns us about in the verse before. This “message” about the cross is also λόγος—“the word”—as in, “In the beginning was the λόγος and the λόγος was with God and the λόγος was God…and this λόγος was made flesh—and the word was made flesh and lived among us.”
This isn’t about a message; this isn’t about a doctrine; this is about a witness—this is about the word made flesh who lived among us and who stretched out his arms upon the cross to touch and hold and embrace all the extremes, all the divisions, all the places that are flying apart; this is about the word made flesh who stretched out his arms on the cross to transcend all the enmities and animosities that drive us all to violence, who stretched out his arms to gather all the us’s and them’s into one body, into his body, to take down the dividing wall that keeps us apart, and to gently reconnect us to the whole and to one another.
Paul knows this word is foolishness to those who have lost their way—and we’re not talking about those who are perishing for eternity here. No, it’s much, much closer in proximity than that. Context is so important. This word made flesh on the cross is foolishness to those who have lost their way in the adrenalin of division. It’s foolishness to those who would rather stake their claim on whom they belong to—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, even Christ—instead of understanding that being baptized into Christ’s body means you belong to everyone.
To those who can receive the wholeness this baptism offers, well then, you’ve just tapped into the deepest, most intimate, most creative power of God.
Oh Leo, you have come into this world at such an interesting time, and you are being baptized at such a crossroads moment.
Division is all around us. And yet, and yet, here we gather at these waters to bury you with Christ in his death and to raise you with him in his resurrection.
Today, we will mark you with the sign of the cross and seal you with the Holy Spirit and mark you as Christ’s own forever. Today, we proclaim the good news that you belong to him, and when you belong to him, you belong to all of humanity.
Today, we imprint into your being the capacity to reach beyond all the divisions that will swirl around you and to hold a space with Christ where those divisions may be healed.
Today, water will flow over you reminding you that you are held in the flow of love always, no matter what, without exception.
Today, we invite you into this utter foolishness that we call the way of Jesus, and we watch in awe as this portal of power opens before you that will allow you to know and be that light that shines out in the deep darkness.
You, of course, don’t understand a single word I’m saying right now, and that’s okay, Paul’s already reminded us that it’s not about eloquence, but about simply announcing glad tidings, and that gets quite, quite simple when it’s all said and done.
Leo, you are God’s beloved son, and in you, God is well pleased. Always has been, always will be, no matter what. And no matter how divided this world gets, no matter how much division you will witness in your life time, there is a deeper truth that holds you—you are knit into the body of Christ, woven into a wholeness that surpasses all our human understanding, and from this place, you can move with strength and power.
It will look like foolishness to all those who would rather stake their claim on the rush of division, but truly, this wholeness is salvation.
You will spend the rest of your days figuring out how to live from this place of this wholeness, and as your light grows, that darkness out there won’t be near as dark.
In a land of where everyone wants to belong to someone and “their someone” is the best, welcome to the revolution, Leo. You belong to the body of Christ whose love knows no bounds. Help us reach across all these places of division and knit back together this broken body one glad tiding of wholeness at a time. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 22, 2017