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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Sermons

A time of change

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Third Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 6); Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; II Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Okay, God is good. There is a lot going on in our hearts today, and all our texts bring us exactly what we need.

And we might as well head straight into the energy in the room. So, if you didn’t read your email, Friday afternoon, I sent out word that Ted, our beloved Organist and Choir Director, will be leaving us early this fall. Ted has been in discernment with me since late February, and there is something calling him, some invitation to lean more fully into the fullness of his life and being. Some “yes” has been stirring inside of him, yearning to be expressed, and I applaud him for hearing that whisper and following. That takes tremendous courage and reminds us of the work that all of us are to be about all of the time—listening to and heeding the Spirit’s stirrings.

And what this means for us is that big scary word—“CHANGE”—Ted has been with us for 12 ½ years, and this comes on the heels of saying our goodbyes last Sunday to Sarah Miller, our Coordinator for Children and Youth—that’s two of our six core staff—that’s like 1/3 of our team. As I said to the Sr. Warden last Sunday afternoon, “What is God doing?”—not in a bad way, but really, something is in the air; God is stirring things up a bit, which brings out my curiosity—what is the Spirit doing?

How wonderful that we are going to have a real-life case study, right before our eyes, in the dynamics of change. And while this is a communal case-study, I think all of this applies to change at a personal level in our own individual lives.

So, how many of us just relish living through change? My reptilian brain registers change this way: uncomfortable, unsettling, opportunity for anxiety; I can easily go into Lost in Space mode—“danger, Will Robinson, danger!” But there is this deeper place inside of me that leaps just a bit—change is also exciting, full of possibility and opportunity, and perhaps, most importantly, it takes us to our knees and calls us forward in absolute trust and faith. If control is our thing, if we approach life like the game of whack-a-mo—just keep knocking down those things that pop up until you get them all back in their boxes (which never happens, by the way)—if control and whack-a-mo are our thing, then this season is going to call us out of our comfort zone and into a space of openness and trust, expectancy and attentiveness. We are about to get a really good spiritual workout as a community.

Now then, there are some things that I am aware of right off the bat. First, SCARCITY is a big temptation. Ted, you are truly one-of-a-kind, and we will not be able to replace you. You are so gifted as a musician, and so rich in your person. The voice of SCARCITY could call pretty loudly, “You won’t find another Ted. We are in a somewhat isolated region; there just aren’t other talented organists out there who can do what we will need them to do.” And like that crafty serpent last week, some parts of that SCARCITY voice are speaking truth—we won’t find another Ted, but also like that crafty serpent, that’s not the whole truth.

We hear in Ezekiel of a God who plants twigs, in order that it might produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar…That God says, “I the LORD have spoken; and I will accomplish it.” We don’t know what God has planted that is about to bear fruit in our midst, but we can absolutely trust that God will accomplish it—we don’t have to force this, nor do we have to settle because SCARCITY is telling us that what we want will be impossible to find. God, through Ezekiel’s mouth, is calling us on that one with that audacious proclamation, “I the LORD will accomplish it.” And if that message falls on deaf ears, then remember what the angel said to Mary when she doubted, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And if that doesn’t get through, then listen to what Jesus tells his disciples when it felt impossible to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” SCARCITY doesn’t like such audacious hope.

And then there’s the psalmist who proclaims: “It is a good thing to sing praises to your Name…To tell of your loving-kindness early in the morning and of your faithfulness in the night season; on the psaltery, and on the lyre, and to the melody of the harp. For you have made me glad by your acts, O LORD; and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.” Okay, even like 3,000 years ago, different styles of music were appreciated and the capacity to sing praises was celebrated—God loves a breadth and depth of praise, and God knows how hard we have worked in this congregation to get to the range of music that we enjoyGod will provide what we need to keep sinking our roots deep in the soil of music that lifts our hearts and opens our souls in ways that words just can’t do on their own. And even if we have a little night season until the “what’s-coming” arrives, we can trust in God’s faithfulness. We’ve just got to keep singing of God’s loving-kindness early in the morning and trusting in that faithfulness in the night.

And if our confidence gets shaky, well, St. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul is there to lift us up, daring to proclaim: “We are always confident…for we walk by faith, not be sight.” And he goes on to talk about the love of Christ which urges us on and about how dying with Christ and rising with him changes everything—“We regard no one from a human point of view,” Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Fear, scarcity, anxiety—these are the old way. But we live as a new creation founded on hope and joy and possibility and life. And nowhere has our new creation-ness been more manifested than in the work we have done as a community with regards to music. This past week I made a list; in our worship, we embrace some 18 different styles of music—that’s a new creation. Over the years, we have moved beyond “personal preferences” to a deeper communal commitment to learning to love things that speak to our neighbor’s devotional heart, even if they aren’t quite our thing. We are musically integrated as a community, and you can feel the life in our worship because of it.

Yes, we will all experience a death of sorts, every loss is a death of sorts—and Ted, your going is indeed a profound loss to us all. But the loss is never the end of the story; death never has the final word—not in the Christian rhythm. No, God is already at work, calling us ever deeper into this new creation; we just need to let go of our human point of view in order to see it.

And then there are the parables from Mark—good stuff for today! Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Okay, a few things here. Jesus goes to his favorite narrative style, the parable. Scholars agree that the parable is a really distinct style whose purpose is to subvert our normal way of seeing the world. They are full of paradox; they are meant to provoke us; to turn us upside down; to shake our worldview. And they don’t lend themselves to pat interpretations, which is why that bit the narrator tacks on at the end about explaining everything in private to the disciples doesn’t ring quite true to how Jesus worked. That bit about “as they were able to hear it” absolutely rings true.

Jesus goes to the parable whenever he is trying to get us to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God“it is like…it is like…it is like…” Which means, we can’t nail down this “kingdom of God”—it is bigger than our definitions, bigger than our brains can pin down; there is no wrapping the kingdom of God up in a box, duly labelling it, and setting it on a shelf to collect dust. Parables are living, breathing things—they call us out of our comfort zone and into a strange land. They tend to resonate with the heart, sort of like music, and we have to dwell in the land of imagination to begin to touch their creative and redemptive potential.

So, these two parables we are given today—“the seed that is scattered and which sprouts and grows, we don’t know how” and “the mustard seed, that teeny-tiny seed that when sown grows up and becomes a great shrub, putting forth large branches, so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With both of these seeds, there is something wonderfully mysterious germinating and growing, hidden away in the earth, that grows into something wonderful and lifegiving.

In large part, our job is to trust the germination process, to get out of the way and trust the growth process at work; our job is not to force things, but to be open and attentive so that we can see when it’s time for the sickle and the harvest, so that we can trust and recognize thatsomething with tremendous capacity to hold all the life that is in our midst will indeed come from a very small and hidden seed.

The voice of SCARCITY“we won’t ever find the right person;” and the voice of COMPARISON—“they won’t be Ted,” will absolutely cloud our sight, rob of us of joyful expectation, and prevent us from being attentive to the seed that is already growing somewhere deep in the earth. And that seed that is hidden and growing is just waiting for a moment such as this and a community such as this,      just waiting to break ground and stretch out his or her boughs and offer his or her unique gifts that we might continue to nest and rest in the beauty of the glorious music that feeds our souls week in and week out.

The Spirit is moving in this place—there are too many people opening up to “yes’s” and possibilities for it to be otherwise. We just don’t quite know where that Spirit is leading us or what’s ahead, but the soil is rich      and God is faithful and seeds are growing even as we speak.

It’s all good, or as Julian of Norwich says so much more poetically, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well”—for Ted and for St. Luke’s. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 14, 2015

You are God’s Beloved: Believe this and it will change the world

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 5); Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Oh, I have been itching for this passage from Genesis 3 for 2 years; I have been waiting patiently for it to show up in the lectionary ever since I heard Episcopal Priest and theologian, Jay Johnson, speak on it at the Wild Goose Festival summer of 2013. So, let’s set the stage.

God has created the heavens and earth; the day and the night; God has separated the waters above from the waters below with a dome called sky; God has gathered the waters into the seas making space for the dry land; God has created plants of every kind, the sun and the moon, swarms of living creatures, birds of the air, creeping things, and humankind—male and female in God’s very own image; And God called all these things “good,” and finally, God created sabbath, holy rest. Here endeth Genesis 1.

Genesis 2 unfolds with a different version of creation. Here we have the dust of the ground—adamah—and a stream of water springing up and watering the earth. Then the LORD God formed the human—a-dam—from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.

And the Lord God commanded the human (and listen close here), “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.”

Then God figures out that it’s not good for the human to be alone—that the human needs a helpmate, a partner, and so God sets about creating animals to keep a-dam company, but there was not found a helper as a-dam’s partner. Then, we get the whole deep sleep, take a rib, create another who is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and it is at this point that we get the distinction of ish and ishahman and woman—the hebrew moves from a-dam—the living human being—to ish and ishah, man and woman. And they were both naked and not ashamed. Here endeth Genesis 2.

Then we come to Genesis 3 and that crafty serpent.The serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman replied, “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.’”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You won’t 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.”

Well, 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.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Why are they hiding? (pause)

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Okay menfolk, how do you handle this? “Uh, the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Oh, it’s the classic double blame—not only is this the woman’s fault, it’s also God’s fault for giving the man the woman in the first place

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”

Women, whatcha gonna do? The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” Oh, the classic pass-the-buck blame game. Well played.

And so, the Lord God curses the serpent, and the formerly upright serpent goes horizontal doomed to crawl on its belly all the days of its life with dust for dinner (though it is interesting to think about the serpent ingesting that constituent part of creation itself—it all began with dust, right?—hmmm). Here ends the passage for today.

So, what’s at stake in these passages? EVERYTHING! Partly because, thanks to Augustine, the interpretation of these passages gave Western Christianity a starting place of original sin and “the fall,” instead of original goodness and blessing, as Matthew Fox named it. But even without Augustine’s spin, how you handle these passages sets the course for everything else that will come after, which is the whole sweep of salvation history, and this is where Jay Johnson turned my theological world upside down and right-side up.

Johnson contends that Genesis 3 is a story about shame, and that shame is actually the original wound. We can tell that shame is involved for a couple of reasons. First, in that culture, nakedness was taboo—people experienced shame around nakedness. And, once the man and woman’s eyes are opened, they are afraid, they know they are naked, they hide, and they start trying to cover themselves (sewing fig leaves together and making loincloths), and cover their tracks (by blaming someone else)—all classic shame responses. Brené Brown has noted that “blame is just a way to discharge discomfort and pain…and anger.” Next time you catch yourself playing the blame game, try and see what’s beneath the pain you’re trying to discharge; what is it that you are trying to cover up?

But Johnson takes this even deeper. He goes all the way back to the original temptation. How did the serpent tempt the woman? (pause) The woman internalized that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desired to make one wise. But Johnson has picked up on something else. The serpent tells the woman, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

Sidebar—did you notice that the serpent prefaces all of this by playing the scarcity card—“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” That’s not what God said! What did God say? (pause) “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, except this one for in the day you eat of that one, you shall die.” The serpent takes God’s “freely” and “every, except one” and turns it into a “you can’t eat from any”—that’s SCARCITY!

But Jay Johnson sees one more thing that changes everything. The serpent tempts the woman by telling her that if she eats of this fruit, she will be like God. Johnson notes, the original temptation was our believing that being human wasn’t enough.

Shame is our original wound in response to this original temptation that being human isn’t enough—we thought we had to be like God to be enough.

Johnson goes on to say that we have interpreted this passage down through the ages in terms of original sin, for which the antidote is forgiveness, but if you read this passage in terms of the original wound of shame, the antidote for shame is not forgivenessthe antidote for shame is always unconditional love. And that’s when my mind and heart went ka-boom!

It changes everything. If we think this core story is about our sin for which God has to forgive us then that colors how we read the whole rest of the story of salvation.

But if we think about this in terms of thinking our humanity, a humanity that God created and proclaimed good not 2 pages before,            if we think about this in terms of our believing our humanity isn’t enough, and the shame that always comes with any “I’m not enough” message, coupled with a good dose of scarcity, then the only thing that will save us, that will make us whole, is unconditional love.

And then the whole story of the relationship between God and God’s people becomes one of God trying to help us understand that our humanity is enough, that it is good, and that God loves us unconditionally.    Wow! Read the rest of the bible through that lens and see what happens—it truly becomes the story of salvation, the story of how we are made whole.

And maybe this key unlocks one other puzzle today—that weird and oddly hopeful thing in the Gospel of Mark. It’s this scene where Jesus has been healing and the crowd is pressing in on him, and his family wants to come and restrain him because people are saying he’s mad, and the Jerusalem scribes are saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Beezebul—the ruler of the demons. At one point, Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

What is this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I’ve always wondered about that; it sounds pretty intense.

To blaspheme is to show disrespect. Interestingly enough, blasphemy shares the same root in Latin and Greek with the word “blame.” Martin Smith defines blasphemy against the Holy Spirit this way: “…A profound spiritual blindness and perversity, which dares to attribute the giving of health and freedom by Jesus not to the Holy Spirit, but to the powers of evil”—it’s calling something that is good, evil.

But let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism—there the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” and let’s think about this new way of looking at Genesis 3—maybe blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the refusal to believe that YOU are God’s beloved, and that in YOU, God is well pleased; maybe it’s taking this creation that God shaped, formed, instilled with the divine image, breathed life into, and called good; maybe it’s refusing to believe in this goodness, refusing to believe that you are enough, and instead, believing you are somehow defective. It is disrespectful to the Creator to call the beloved creation defective.

Why can’t the one who blasphemes have forgiveness? Because we’re not talking about the sin-forgiveness equation; we’re talking about the shame-unconditional love equation. And guilty of an eternal sin? If you fundamentally refuse to believe that you are worthy of God’s love, you will experience yourself as perpetually cutoff, separated from God and everyone else.

Throughout Jesus’ life, with every fiber of his being, with every word from his mouth, with every healing touch of his hand, with arms outstretched on the cross, from the empty tomb, he is crying out for us to hear—“YOU are God’s beloved; in YOU God is well pleased. Believe in this. Trust this. Live this. Love from this. It will change everything. It will change you and all your relationships. It will change the world.” And to his mother and brothers and sisters, Jesus says, “If you try to restrain my proclamation of this truth, then you haven’t grasped what it means to live in God beloved family.”

That serpent was crafty, but there are a thousand and one voices telling us every day that we are not enough. Entire industries are built on convincing us that we need something else to make us whole. We don’t.

            God created us; God proclaimed us good. We are God’s beloved; God delights in us.

Are you going to own your inherent worth as God’s beloved, just as you are, OR are you going to try to overreach and overcompensate and spend a whole lot of energy trying to prove yourself worthy?

How you answer this question will dictate how the story flows.

Your worth has already been determined; don’t try to earn what has so graciously been given. Dare to believe that you really are God’s beloved. Let your actions spring from that well, and see how everything changes.

You have nothing to lose, except shame and blame and fear and resentment, and you have everything to gain—a sense of belonging that is infinitely secure,     the joy of being enough with nothing to prove—only love to breathe in, and love to extend, unconditionally. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 7, 2015

Differentiation, the Trinity and Rites of Passage

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Trinity Sunday—Year B; Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday and our Rite of Passage for 13-year olds—what a day! And I think these two occasions actually illuminate each other.

The Bishop wrote about Trinity Sunday in his weekly reflection this past Wednesday. He quoted St. Augustine who said, “If you don’t believe in the Trinity, you will lose your soul. But if you try to understand it, you will lose your mind.” Bishop Taylor went on to say that “at its heart it is a paradox: three in one; one in three,” and yet, “it’s crucial that we hold onto the Trinity for a lot of reasons, chief among these reasons is that it keeps us from idolatry. God is not a thing. God cannot be another person that we can easily name.” Bishop Taylor goes on to note that “what we can say is this—at the heart of God is relationship.” He concludes, “Therefore the way to celebrate Trinity Sunday is not to think our way through this mystery (Augustine had a point). Instead we celebrate Trinity Sunday by deepening our relationships with one another and with all of creation.”

I think Bishop Taylor is right. The Trinity is the essence of mystery; we can’t comprehend it with our minds, but we can gaze upon it and recognize it and intuit that it is true. What is the nature of God? Our minds can’t fathom it, but our hearts leap forward with the answer—it is love, it is relationship, it is giving and receiving, it is filling and spilling over, it is participating in the dance, it is being in the flow. And all of this energy within God and throughout all of creation spins round and round generating life and power, helping what is living to find life in dying, helping what is dying to be born anew. It bends our minds, but our hearts and our spirits know that when we touch this, we are touching the essence of reality. It is not that the Trinity is too complicated a doctrine to unravel; it’s that the Trinity is too big a truth for that rational part in our left brains to comprehend. The Trinity will ask more of us than assent; the Trinity asks us to join the dance, to participate, to be all in.

 

The Trinity also illuminates what lifegiving relationship actually looks like. Each member of the Trinity is fully at home in their own unique being, and yet, is fully available to be connected in relationship. In the traditional language, the Father doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the Son who doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the Spirit, and yet, they all share the same divine DNA. They each bring something wonderful and unique to the table, but it is in the giving and receiving of the gift that the really good stuff gets generated. This is the essence of healthy and lifegiving differentiation. When I do premarital counseling, I often recommend the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. He does a great job unpacking just what this differentiation looks like. Most of us see differentiation on a continuum with emotional connection, with each of these holding down the one of the end(s).

  

 

                                                                                   

But he says that differentiation is actually a “higher order” process that involves balancing both connection and autonomy, like this:

 

                                               

 

 

 

 

Schnarch notes: “Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be a part of the group…Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you… Emotional fusion is connection without individuality…The opposite of differentiation is neither connection nor lack of connection—it’s a different kind of connection.”

Okay, let me translate that—my words now: differentiation is about being who you are with all the uniquely wonderful uniqueness with which God made you while at the same time being in relationship with others. It’s not about being solely autonomous, independent, individual me, and it’s not about being emotionally fused with another—it’s about being able to be who I am while at the same time being connected to you. To stand and live in this place in all of our relationships is a lifelong task and one that begins writ large in adolescence, which brings us to the other occasion we mark today—the Rite of Passage.

These 7 soon-to-be or already-turned 13-year olds and their parents stand before us as a living icon of this dance of differentiation. Parents who have raised these young people, nursed them, fed them, comforted them, and guided them have to loosen their hold. Young people who have been so very dependent are moving in ever wider circles to discover who they are in their own right. And the trick for both, the elegant dance that each must do, is to allow the other to blossom in their own unique way while at the same time staying connected. And this isn’t just true of the parent-child relationship, but it also holds true in our partnerships and intimate relationships, this holds true in friendships, and in all the other configurations of relationships that we experience—family, work, church. Schnarch gives us one picture of the task before us, the Trinity icons for us what this life looks like.

There will surely be missteps along the way—parents holding too close or not close enough, young people pushing too hard against in an effort to claim their individuality, or not claiming their voice strongly enough.

Young people, being an island unto yourself, doing your own thing because it’s your own thing is not the goal—being the wondrous, gifted, blessed son and daughter of God that you are fully engaged with the rest of the world is.

Parents, holding them close in an effort to spare your child suffering is not the goal—we are a death and resurrection people—as parents, we have to continually let the images we have of our children die if they are to be born anew into the person they are becoming.

And for all of you, parent and young person—the goal is to stay connected while each of you continues growing into the full stature of Christ. You are all on a journey, each and every one of you. And as with the Trinity, we don’t do any of this in isolation, but we always do this journey in community; we make our way together.

You are never alone—God is always flowing around you and through you, drawing you into the circle, in one moment holding you close, in the next releasing you to dance your unique step, but you are always connected, even when you are soloing because God is the dance itself.

So, Rebecca, Galen, Riley, Maggie, Alice, Bailey, and Emma—we welcome you to this season of your life. It will be full of adventure, steps forward and steps back. Welcome to ever-widening circles of life and experience and to dances that are more intricate and complex.

Always remember this flow of love that sustains you—flowing in and through God, flowing in and through your parents, and flowing in and through this community of faith. And parents, remember this same flow of love is sustaining you, always, as Jesus said, “Even to the end of the age.”

Thank you for giving us a living breathing icon today of the work that we all are to be about—living the Trinity with our whole hearts—celebrating the glory of God that lives inside each one of us made that much more glorious for sharing it with one another, watching the wheel of love go round and round, birthing life and creation itself as it goes.

Our blessing goes with you as you now step out in faith. Be patient with those of us who don’t know all the new steps, but also be open that we might be able to show you a step or two—old school isn’t all bad.

It takes all of us to dance this great and glorious dance, and in the dancing, we will know God, not by a name that we can speak, not by a doctrine that we can comprehend, but by the rhythm of love that beats in our hearts, in our souls, across creation, across the realms—within us, beyond us, between us. Don’t lose your mind trying to understand this mystery, just dance it until you feel it in your bones. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 31, 2015

Let it go!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 7—Year B; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

I love the liturgical calendar. I love the fact that we mark time just a little bit differently than the rest of the world. And all of the seasons and feasts and fasts that we mark help us hone in on a different aspect of our spirit and life.

Today, we are right in the middle of one the strangest periods of liturgical time that happens all year long. We are in the consummate in-between time. This past Thursday, was the Feast of the Ascension—that rather bizarre moment when we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to heaven—an event that leaves our very Enlightenment oriented left-brains absolutely befuddled. And down the rabbit hole we go—where did Jesus go? Where is heaven? What is up there beyond the sky? This often leaves us imagining the Wicked Witch of the East with shoes hanging out from under the house, except flipped vertical with two feet dangling from the clouds. Am I right???

But to our heart, that spiritual homing beacon that locks onto deep mysterious truths, a different scene unfolds. Not a flying up, up and away, but a moving out in every direction—down, up, within, beyond—a moving out throughout the whole cosmos—Jesus being set free from one incarnated, enfleshed existence in one specific historical time and place to exist in all things throughout all time throughout all space. Christ in all things. His fullness filling all things and immanently accessible. Think mystical, not logistical. It’s definitely a leave-taking—Jesus is not embodied in the same way that he was before the cross, or even since the resurrection up until his ascension. But it’s a leave-taking anticipating a something else.

So, we marked Ascension on Thursday. And a week from today, we will mark Pentecost—that feast when the Spirit whooshes in and sets hearts on fire and spirits blazing and tongues speaking deep wisdom that they didn’t even know they possessed. But today, today, we are in-between, and what do we make of that???

To understand where we are right now, we need a bigger frame for this whole paschal cycle of time, as Ron Rolheiser calls it. I’ve talked about this before, but some things are worth circling back to again and again and again. And this frame is the essence of the Jesus’ way, so here we go.

In his book The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality, Rolheiser diagrams the paschal cycle like this:

  1. Good Friday… “the loss of life—real death”
  2. Easter Sunday… “the reception of new life”
  3. The Forty Days (that’s from Easter Day until Ascension)… “a time for readjustment to the new and for grieving the old”
  4. Ascension… “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling”
  5. Pentecost… “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living”

He then translates all that church language into a personal, paschal challenge for each one of us:

  1.  “Name your deaths”
  2. “Claim your births”
  3. “Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality”
  4. “Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing”
  5. “Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living”

And here’s what Rolheiser then says, and this will change your life: “This cycle is not something that we must undergo just once, at the moment of our deaths, when we lose our earthly lives as we know them. It is rather something we must undergo daily, in every aspect of our lives. Christ spoke of many deaths, of daily deaths, and of many rising and various pentecosts. The paschal mystery is the secret to life. Ultimately our happiness depends upon properly undergoing it.”

This has absolutely been my lived experience. And if you look back over your life, I bet you can spot this pattern everywhere. Think about something that you are moving through right now. Can you spot a death of some sorts that you have had to undergo? Could you see the budding of new life that eventually followed that death? Can you identify those feelings of grief as you grieved what you lost, and can you mark those fledging, unsteady steps as you stepped out into that new life? Can you mark a moment when you finally surrendered and let that old life go, and could you feel a smile come across your face as you recognized its blessings? And can you feel that spirit that came to you when it felt like your heart and soul finally caught up with your new reality, your new life? This cycle is some of the most practical spiritual insight I have ever come across for actually making sense of our lives in the pattern that Jesus’ life actually followed.

And of all these steps, I actually think the one we have talked the least about is this piece around Ascension. “The refusal to cling…letting go of the old…letting it bless you and letting it ascend.” And this is where I think the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful. We construct narratives around our lived experience, and those narratives aren’t always benign. Those stories can keep us stuck; they can prevent us from being present to all that is, right now, right here—they can even keep us from seeing the person we actually are and the life we actually have because we are still clinging to some other narrative.

Just this past few weeks, I have had a fascinating lesson in how powerful this dynamic can be. Okay, so are you ever going along in your life and things are going just dandy, and something pops up that takes you back 20 years—you run into someone, or you have to do a task that throws you back to another time you had to do that task, something like that? Got that picture in your head? Well, that happened to me. I had to do something that took me back 20 years to an experience that, every now and again, I’d feel that groan feeling. You know that ohhhh-wince-avert-the-eyes feeling. It was one of those experiences where I went out on a limb, and well, let’s just say, I learned about Newtonian physics and the law of gravity—I fell pretty flat on my face. I then did what we human beings do, I started constructing a narrative around this experience, and for all my fancy processing of that experience, beneath it all, there was still a good dose of shame.

So, this current experience that triggered that past one, it prompted me to go hunting through some old journals, and I found the one for that season of my life. And here’s what I learned: the narrative that I had constructed, the story that I had been telling myself all these years, it didn’t actually happen—the actual events did not match the narrative I had been telling myself. In fact, the reality of that experience 20 years ago was this: I entered an arena that was really important to me, and I did so with incredible integrity, and I was incredibly brave. Are there things I wish I had done a little differently, sure, but as I read that journal, I realized, there was NOTHING to be ashamed of. The courage that I have consciously cultivated these last couple of years, it was there all the way back then. But that old story, from time to time, it would bubble up, and I would feel that icky groan feeling, and this week, I found out that that story wasn’t even true. Not by a long shot.

How much energy do we expend clinging to our stories about the past? And not only that, but I’d be willing to bet that if we could look back with compassionate eyes, we’d find much more courage and wisdom present in the real experiences of our lives.

But here’s the thing, resurrection is an ongoing, lived reality. We can actually be living our new lives even while we tell ourselves those old stories. We’ve got to let those stories go, receive their blessing, be grateful for the wisdom we’ve accumulated because of them, but LET THEM GO. Thanks to the movie Frozen, even our 5 year olds know how to sing “Let it go! Let it go!” Maybe we need to let them teach us how to sing a new song.

We’ve got to let these stories go, so that we can actually lay claim to the new life we’ve been given, so that we can cultivate the new life that is springing up all around us. Those old stories, they cloud our vision and rob us of joy. Letting these stories go is an essential step if we are to have enough space to receive a new spirit for this new life that we are, in fact, already living. This new spirit will give us the intuitive wisdom and language and guidance we need to move more deeply into this new life, this resurrection life, but there’s no room for that wisdom if our brains are full of old stories, and we are weighted down with fear, anxiety, resentment, or shame.

There is one other piece that it seems important to address. Okay, in one sense, Jesus leaves us on Ascension, and he will send his Spirit to us on Pentecost, so that we are not, in the words of the collect for today, “comfortless”but what about this in-between time? Where is he right now? Pondering this conundrum this past week, I got a little panicky because one of the premises of my spiritual life is that Jesus never leaves us, and that he has filled every aspect of our existence with his presence. But this in-between time is a time where he seems not to be present, where he has “left the building,” so to speak.

But then I remembered, resurrection life. We are still in Easter time. His resurrection life remains. This new life, it is still unfolding even in this in-between time. Every experience of resurrection that we have just weaves us more deeply into the rhythm of Jesus’ life. So, in the words of the angel, “fear not,” resurrection is still the heartbeat of the universe, and like we worked out in the beginning, Jesus has not ascended away (vertically), but his presence is moving out, expanding, filling all things. Come one week from today, on Pentecost, we will be given a new spirit that will help us understand and lay claim to that new mind-blowing reality.

It’s all good. Or, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.” Let go of your old story; it doesn’t fit your new life, and come next week, a new spirit is gonna grab hold that will give you eyes to see what has been there all along—and then, baby, watch out, because there is no power greater than when this all lines up. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 17, 2015

It’s all about love

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 6—Year B; Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

So last week, this theme of love started to sound, like 29 times in the passage from I John. And we heard things like “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” And in the gospel passage, Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it means to abide. He told them that God was the vinegrower, “husbandman, tiller of the soil” in the greek, and he, Jesus, was the vine and his disciples, they were the branches. Jesus told them that branches can’t live if they aren’t connected to and drawing their life from the vine. Think about it, a branch lying on the ground can’t live—it gets dry and brittle.

Jesus told them, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” I love the word “abide.” It means “to remain, to stay, to continue to be present, to wait and await.” So there’s an aliveness to abiding, a steadfastness, a stability, even if everything is moving and swirling and spinning; there is this deep, deep sense of being anchored, and it is deeply relational. And there is also this sense of expectancy, of waiting, of awaiting the other, of open arms waiting for someone or something to fall into them. And Jesus does this twist—instead of just having this go one way, it goes both ways—he is inviting the disciples to abide in him just as he is already abiding in them. Jesus has already sealed the deal from his side—that happened when he entered our flesh. And he is waiting for us to embrace and claim what it means to abide in the fullness of his being. This is good stuff.

This week, Jesus picks up this theme of abiding and just keeps taking it deeper. This abiding isn’t just about being, but it’s about that thing that got named 29 times last week—it’s all about love. And this love is dynamic and flowing and electric and alive. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Okay, stop. The punctuation in that sentence is a semicolon. God has loved Jesus and Jesus knows it and Jesus has loved us; [semicolon] and Jesus wants us to stay in that love.

Jesus continues, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Uh-oh, that’s starting to sound conditional and like law, and not love; commandments sound like rules and duty and obligation, not love. But Jesus goes on, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So, this commandment is about something different. If joy is involved, this has to be about something different. And then Jesus tells us that this isn’t really about a ton of laws, rules, duties, and obligations, but it is only about ONE—“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is only and ever and always about love. And it’s all one loveGod’s love to Jesus, Jesus’ love to us, our love to one another. The love has to flow; if it’s not filling and spilling over and flowing, it’s not love. And that little promise tucked in the middle there—did you catch it? “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy, your joy, may be complete.”

That Jesus’ joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Could we just stop and meditate on that for a moment? What is Jesus’ joy? What does his joy look like? What does true, deep, abiding joy look like? When we talked about foreboding joy a few weeks ago, some of you indicated that joy is a hard thing for you too and not something that you can easily rest in. Well, what does joy look like as we see it in Jesus? (pause)

I think it looks like freedom, a sense of comfort in your own skin, the freedom to speak the truth you know, a sense of authority that is ground-truthed deep in your being when your being is rooted and grounded in Being itself, capital “B”, a.k.a. God. I think that joy looks like an absence of fear and anxiety which frees you to meet and stay present to the person right in front of you, whomever they may be. I think it looks like delight and pleasure and laughter and abundance and feasting—enjoying beauty and nature, relishing friendship, sharing in food and drink, maybe even dancing, no, surely dancing. This joy looks like delighting in all sorts and conditions of people. It looks like time and space to rest, taking sabbath, even in the face of profound never-ending need. It’s the freedom to circle back when you blow it without shame. It’s an un-self-consciousness.

Would you want some of that joy???

“It’s yours,” Jesus says, “I’ve said all these things to you so that my joy may be in you, my joy, and that your joy may be complete, whole.” Abiding in Jesus’ being is abiding in his love is abiding in his joy—we can’t pull these apart. We get the whole package.

And somehow, this deep, deep joy that’s tied to this deep, deep love gives birth to a deep, deep courage, even a willingness “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus says.

So, now, we need to circle back to a year ago. It was this Sunday a year ago—

Good Shepherd Sunday—when Boko Haram had just kidnapped those school girls in Nigeria. We talked about Jesus being the shepherd that would know those girls’ names, who would close a sheepfold around their souls, who would enclose a space around their hearts that those thieves and bandits couldn’t touch. We set our energy and intention and prayer toward that vision. It seemed hopeless at the time, utterly hopeless; our prayers seemed so small in the face of that vast horror. But fast forward to this week. Close to a thousand women, girls, and boys rescued by the Nigerian army. It’s not clear yet if, among those rescued, are those exact school girls taken a year ago, and even the rescue had its tragic elements, but there was this one story—maybe you heard it, too. Melissa Block, the news anchor, was asking the reporter, Michelle Faul, if one story stuck out to her, and this is what Faul said:

“Bingta Ibrahim (ph)—she was 16 years old when she was abducted and taken with her sister-in-law and two other sisters to a village where she found three children who’d been abandoned in the warzone. But she knew the parents of these kids, so she took them under her care. Now, bear in mind, she’s 16 years old. This was 13 months ago. Six months ago, there was an air raid on the village where they were, and her sisters said, let’s go. We can escape. There was pandemonium, chaos – let’s go. And her sisters escaped, and she didn’t. She said, ‘How could I abandon those children again?’

 “And what really touched me about this,” the reporter said, “Bingta is a Muslim. The three children that she brought to safety at that refugee camp are all Christians. Now the Islamic uprising in the Northeast has really polarized Nigerians across the country on religious lines. And here’s this young girl. When I said to her, you know, how do you feel about the kids? She says, ‘I love them like they are my own.’ And she, like, beat her chest with both her fists to show how deep her love is for them.”

The news anchor asked, “What happens to them from here?”

The reporter responded, “Well, she’s hoping that there are parents alive out there that she’ll be able to return the children to.”

Talk about a Mother’s Day story!

Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you…You did not choose me but I chose you.”

And what is that command? “Love one another.”

And in that complete gospel twist that Jesus so often throws our way, the woman who acted as Jesus’ commands, who laid down her life for these children, who abided with them and in them, even as they abided in her, who enfleshed what it means to love one another, she is a Muslim—you might as well say, “Gentile” or “Samaritan” to drive the point home. The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows, and Bingta icons for us today what happens when love drives us and joy fills us and courage is set free.

In the midst of all the bad news across the world, in the midst of prayers uttered in this place a year ago from a place of abiding hope, comes a story that reminds that hope is not futile, that love is stronger than death, and that joy can reign, even in most tragic, horrific, broken, pained of places. Can we, with Bingta, rejoice that these women and girls and boys have been set free, can we taste this joy just for a moment? Jesus surely would.

I cannot fathom the courage of this young woman, but then, I bet she couldn’t fathom it either. She just knew that love compelled her to do what she did.

What, in your life, has been abandoned that Love is compelling you to love? Where is Jesus inviting you to abide? And if you leap into that place, what crazy joy might you discover that will take your breath away?

We live in a world that is so full of death and brokenness right now, and yet, we also live in Easter time.

Jesus keeps calling us, awaiting us, yearning for us to remember, that Love is come again.

This is our only hope, and in that hope is our greatest joy, and in that joy, we will be set free for courage beyond our imagining, and with that courage,           as the angel always says, nothing is impossible.

With that courageour hope, Jesus’ hope, God’s hope is never in vain. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 10, 2015

Feed my sheep: A sermon for Chester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

Okay, you may go sit down.

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 26, 2015

Resurrection: Being all in with life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 19, 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter

The Rev Mike Tanner — Video — Lectionary

Today is The Day For Our Hearts to Leap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 5, 2015

Our Wilderness Wandering is Done!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 4, 2015