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Namaan, the Samaritan, and Privilege

Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost—PR 23—Year C; II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19. video

Oh, we’ve got some great stories today.

First, from II Kings, ol’ Namaan, the commander of the army of Aram, big and mighty and victorious, and by all the measures of his society, successful. He had all the status in the world, all the power, all the privilege, except for one little thing. Remember? (pause) That’s right, he suffered from leprosy, a skin disease that had a big ick factor, that made people turn away in fear and disgust, that made people keep their distance from you, a disease that isolated you back then, and as we saw in India in 2013, isolates you still. Big, powerful, privileged Namaan had leprosy.

Now, Namaan’s wife’s servant was a girl from Israel—she’d been taken captive in one of the raids by the Arameans—and she remembered that there was this prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his leprosy.

Namaan goes to the king of Aram, and the king of Aram sends Namaan off to the king of Israel with a letter asking the king of Israel to cure Namaan of his leprosy, and along with that letter, the king of Aram sent a boatload of stuff—ten talents of silver, six thousand shekals of gold, and ten sets of garments—a lot of stuff! When the king of Israel got the letter, he tore his clothes! He thought the king of Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. That king of Israel knew that he didn’t have the power to cure a man of leprosy.

We jump so quickly to the end of this story that we miss the error made at the very beginning. Anybody know what that error is? (pause) When the servant girl, who has no power by the way, tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure Namaan of his leprosy, both Namaan and the king of Aram assume it’s the king of Israel she’s talking about. And they set about to ply that king to do their bidding with the only currency that they know—silver, gold, and fine clothes—in other words, the trappings of power and prestige. Privilege assumes that it is privilege that will save you. But the king is not the prophet that the servant girl was talking about.

Back to the story. When the prophet Elisha gets wind that the king of Israel has torn his clothes, he sends words to the king to send Namaan on to him, so that Namaan can learn a thing or two about who prophets are and how healing works. So, Namaan is off to the prophet. He rolls up to Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots—think stretch SUV-limousine, circa 850 BCE. Elisha is not wowed; he is not impressed. He sends a messenger out to tell Namaan to go wash in the Jordan seven times, and if Namaan does that simple thing, his flesh will be restored and he’ll be made clean.

So, what does Namaan do? Does he go directly to the Jordan? (pause) Of course he doesn’t go to the Jordan River. He does what any person armored up with their own importance does, he flies into a rage because the prophet himself has not deigned to honor him with his presence and besides, Aram has better rivers anyway, and he turns around and leaves. Given a choice between surrendering his self-understanding as a person of importance and actually getting healed, Namaan chooses the armor of his identity and position and status and privilege.

Now, his servants—again, those with no power—they appeal to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he did it; he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; [and] his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”


The very things that we think will save us—our power, our privilege, our status, our position, our stuff, our identity, our self-understanding—these things that we think will save us, when we hold onto them for dear life, they can actually keep us from getting to the waters that will make us clean, and make us whole, and restore us to relationship with others, relationship that isn’t based upon our trappings, but is based upon our kinship as suffering brothers and sisters who are all in need of mercy and compassion and healing and community. Once Namaan lets go of his ego, he finds the healing he needs, and then he truly is ready to meet the prophet of Israel, not as one above, but as brother to brother.


Let’s jump over to the gospel of Luke. Jesus is passing through a border territory that runs between Galilee and Samaria, not a place you really want to be. And as he enters a village, ten lepers approach him. Oh, they keep their distance; they know the drill. Leprosy made you ritually unclean, and you don’t dare get close to someone who is clean lest you taint them, too. But they’re tired of being so isolated and despised, and they’ve heard of the things that Jesus can do, so they take a chance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Unlike Namaan, they jump at the chance. Off they go, and as they went, they were made clean.

Now, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked a very reasonable question, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Oh, I love this! Twenty two years of working with scripture, and it still absolutely has the capacity to surprise me and show me something I’ve never seen before! Ten are cleansed—καθαρίζω—like cathartic—made clean, set free. One sees that he’s been healed—ἰάομαι—cured, made whole. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well—σῴζω—healed, saved, made whole—like in that big salvation sense—whole in every way, in every sense.

You can be cleansed, you can sense that you’ve been healed, but it’s a whole other thing to be made whole in the deepest parts of our being. Three different words, three different understandings, three different ways forward.

So, why is it that the foreigner, the Samaritan, why is it that he is the only one to turn back and thank Jesus? (pause) I think it’s because, for him, there was no privilege to re-inhabit. The other nine, they were Israelites, and as soon as they were made clean from their leprosy, they were good to go; they could slide right back into their privileged place in society. But the Samaritan had no hope of that. Samaritans were defacto despised in that culture, and when Jesus really wants to make a point about power and prestige, you can bet a Samaritan is going to be close at hand to show the blindness of those who hold the power.

The nine’s privilege blinds them to the wholeness they could know. They settle for getting back to what they lost as fast as they can. The Samaritan recognizes that, though he will never get status in that society, he gets so much more—he gets a wholeness that is deeper than whether he is clean or not clean. And the only response to that is gratitude. And Jesus recognizes the faith that is deep in this man, and he goes one step more—he tells the man that it is this identity, this trust, this faith that has made him well and whole in the deepest, richest sense of that word. This truly is what salvation looks like.

Our privilege can blind us just as it blinded the nine Israelites. We can settle for being made clean and getting our groove back and completely miss experiencing the deeper healing. It’s only when we relinquish our privilege that we can experience the kind of wholeness that the Samaritan experienced and which Jesus offers us.

There is a cost to gaining privilege, but there is an even greater cost to holding on to it. It can absolutely cut us off from the things that matter most, starting with our own healing, our own need to be whole, and engulfing our capacity to be in relationship with others. Namaan had to learn the cost of privilege, and the priceless gift that comes when you let it go. The Samaritan got there a little faster because he could recognize the gift from the get-go. The nine, they never did catch on. Getting clean was enough for them.

How do we experience privilege? Through the color of our skin? Our gender? Our sexual identity? Our education? Our economic status? Our religion? Where we grew up? Where we went to school? Where we live? A hundred other ways?

And what will it take for you and me to learn just how much our privilege is costing us? What will it take for us to see how our privilege blinds us to that for which we really long? When will get it through our thick heads and hard hearts that there is so much more that Jesus longs to give us if we can just let go?

Do you want to be made well, or just clean enough to get back in the game?

As is always the case, the choice is ours to make. Relinquish your privilege and discover the healing that truly makes us whole. Taste that wholeness, and privilege will never satisfy your soul again. Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

October 9, 2016

Searching for Pablo

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 19—Year C; Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

The Pharisees and scribes, they sure are a grumbly bunch. They’ve been grumbling over the fact that Jesus heals on the sabbath, they’ve been grumbling over who’s going to sit where at the dinner, and now, they’re grumbling over who Jesus welcomes and with whom he chooses to eat. Goodness, if you’re Jesus, who would you rather eat with—the grumbly Pharisees and scribes who are obsessed with protocol or the tax collectors and sinners who are eager to listen? Jesus could simply ignore the Pharisees and scribes, but he doesn’t, he engages them and tells them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

So, how many of you relate to the sheep who is lost or to that lost coin?

And how many of you relate to the shepherd who goes after that one lost sheep or that woman who sweeps and searches for that one lost coin?

Which is it easier to be—the seeker or the sought after?

How many of you relate to being both? At one time or another, most of us will walk in all of these shoes.

I haven’t lost a sheep, but in February 2001, we did lose a dog. It was an accident. We’d hosted a youth group event at our house and someone left the gate open. Both of our dogs jumped at the opportunity to roam the neighborhood. We couldn’t find them that night. The next morning, we searched high and low, and we got Heidi, the older dog, back. But our younger guy, Pablo, he was nowhere to be found. We searched and searched. We printed up fliers and we put them in hundreds mailboxes. We cried at night and our hearts ached. Pablo was special; he was our engagement dog. Then began this ritual. Three times a week for the next three months, I would drive the 40 minutes across town to search the kennels at animal control. I spent enormous amounts of time and energy and gas searching for that dog. But when your heart yearns, your heart yearns, and none of those rational, cost-benefit calculations matter. When you’ve lost something precious, you search for it. We never found Pablo, and to this day, I can still touch this place of yearning for him.

Losing something precious does something to us. The word for this losing is ἀπόλλυμι, and it’s intense—it carries a sense of destruction, a sense that something has perished, been destroyed, been rendered useless, it carries a sense of death and emptiness.

And when that person in the gospel passage goes after the one who is lost, the word is πορεύω, and it means “to pursue the journey on which one has entered.”

The woman who seeks for the coin, that seeking is ζητέω and embedded in this seeking is deep desire.

So, the process of losing something—it rends our heart, and it sets us on a journey, and even in the midst of our broken, aching heart, we are filled with desire for that which we have lost.

And we lose so much more than sheep or coins or even dogs. We lose someone to death. We lose a relationship. A dream gets lost. We lose a job opportunity. We lose a loved one to addiction. We lose a sense of joy or purpose or meaning. We lose the sharpness of our mind, the mobility of our body, our independence. On this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, we remember that we can lose our innocence in the blink of an eye. And I can’t get the pictures of those children in Syria out of my head and the innocence they have lost. We lose so many things, and in the losing, we become lost ourselves. Sometimes we’re the seeker, but often, we’re just lost.

God even shows us what that can look like today. God had a sense of losing the very people he loved and had brought out of Egypt, and when God loses them, God becomes enraged. And in that rage, God can’t even see his connection to his beloved people. In talking with Moses, God calls them “your people,” like they’re Moses’ people.

Moses hears God’s anguish out, but Moses gently reconnects God to what is true—“God, these are your people, you brought them out of Egypt. Yes, they’re lost, but you don’t want to destroy them; you love them.” And God changes the divine mind.

You see, sometimes in the hurt of the losing, we lose our bearings altogether and all we can feel is our separation from that which we’ve lost. And both the seeker and the sought after have to come to terms with this separation. Both have to repent. Both have to change direction. Both have to turn. God had to change God’s mind and remember the depth of connection God had, and has, with God’s people. When Jesus talks about the sinner who repents, that’s speaking to us when we’re the ones who are lost.

Unlike a sheep who doesn’t know better, or a coin who can’t choose, when we’re the lost one, we do come to a decision point—will we continue to rail against all that we have lost or will we turn and allow ourselves to be embraced, by Jesus, by God, by community. Our pride, our defenses, our grief, our sorrow, our fear—all of these can keep at bay those who would seek after us and bring us home.

It doesn’t take much. Just a gentle turning, just a small desire not to skit away when the Divine Seeker draws close, just a willingness to experience the humility that comes when you are up against the limits of your humanity and grace comes crashing through and catches you by surprise, just an openness to that great paradox that it is often when we are most lost that we discover what it is to be found in the deepest parts of our being.

And the joy of discovering that being found, even when that which we’ve lost never comes home, well, that’s a joy that’s even deeper because that’s a joy that comes, not in spite of the loss, but that comes in the very midst of the journey that the loss started in the first place. That’s that strange space we all inhabit where the losing sends us out into the wilderness, where our yearning to find that which we’ve lost eventually ignites a yearning in us to be found; it’s that sacred space where our desire as both seeker and sought after meets God’s desire as seeker and sought after. This rarely happens in the normal confines of our life; it most often happens in the wilderness when we are wandering and searching.

We can wrap ourselves in protocols. We can grumble away. But these will not protect us from loss. Sooner or later, we will lose things precious to us, and we will be lost ourselves. And, if we are faithful to the journey upon which that losing launches us, then, we will find treasure that will astound us; we will be found in ways that will shake our soul and, at the deepest level, make us new.

Make that journey, and you will understand why there is rejoicing in heaven and why that joy just has to be shared and celebrated with any and all who will gather.

It’s that deep joy that defies explanation, and be assured, the loss that gives rise to it will break your heart. But know this, without a doubt, within your broken, lost heart, desire is brewing, yearning has sent up its flare, and God has already set out to find you and bring you home. Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 11, 2016

Sit in a different place

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 17—Year C; Sirach 10-12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

So, for anybody who started school this week, what did your teachers spend a lot of time doing this week? (pause) That’s right, going over norms, do’s and don’t’s, rules; they spent a lot of time talking about how the class would work. There are certain protocols that we follow to get along in this world; there’s just a certain way things work, especially when it comes to human relationships. And when we’re talking in terms of social situations, we call this etiquette. Well, this morning, Jesus goes all first century Emily Post on us—complete with instructions for the guests and the host on the occasion of a dinner party.

Jesus has been invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (this would be a person of status and significance in that community) to eat a meal on the Sabbath (on occasion of great significance), and those gathering for this affair were watching him closely.

But Jesus was watching them closely, too, and he began to notice something. He noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, and he sees that a little correction is in order. But instead of calling them out directly, he chooses a more southern approach; he opts for telling them a parable, a good ol’ fashioned story.

 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So, a little quiz for the guests. If you’re invited to a dinner party, where do you sit? Do you aim for the high place, the place of honor, or do you go low? (pause) Good, you go low.

Now, for the host. Jesus doesn’t go southern when it comes to the host; he tackles this one straight on. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

So, quiz for the host. If you are throwing a luncheon or dinner, whom do you invite, those who can repay you or those who can’t? (pause) Good, those who can’t.

So, what is Jesus driving at here? Is he really only concerned with social norms when it comes to first century dinner parties? Well, yes and no. Who you ate with in the first century could land you in a whole lot of trouble. Doggone, who you ate with in the 1960’s could also land you in a whole lot of trouble—just ask the black and white students who integrated the lunch counters across the south.

Where we sit says a lot to the world. Whom we break bread with says a lot to the world. Jesus is concerned with the whole realm of human relationships; Jesus is concerned with how we connect to one another; Jesus is concerned that we see our kinship with all of humanity, and not just with those who can further our own status. And this isn’t just about raising up the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blindthough it is about that—but this is also about the salvation of our own soul; this is also about the wholeness of our own being.

And that takes us to our passage from Sirach.

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;

the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.

For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations. Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely.

And then Sirach spells out the unheard-of calamities—overthrowing the thrones of rulers and putting the lowly in their place; plucking up nations by their toxic roots, and planting something much more humble, literally closer to the earth, in their place; nations laid waste, destroyed, removed, erased from memory. A pretty bleak picture.

And Sirach closes with a searing observation: Pride simply was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.

And where does this all begin? (pause) Not with pride, but with forsaking the Lord, withdrawing our heart from our Maker; it all begins with sin; it all begins with separation.

It’s actually a really vicious cycle—when we see ourselves as separate from God and from one another, we enter that never-ending, death-dealing cycle of comparison—“He’s just a little better than me; I’m just a little better than her.” And we start asking, “What do I need to do to improve my position? Who do I need to sit next to at lunch?” And that applies to grown-ups as much as it does to the school cafeteria. As Brené Brown says, “We start hustling for our worth,” and we forget that our worth is not on the table; we forget that our worth is not a commodity to be traded; we forget that our worth is a given, and not something we earn; it is not up for negotiation. And when we forget that our worth is our birthright as those created in the Maker’s image, then we start jockeying for position, our pride takes over, and nothing good comes of that, not as individuals, not as societies. Sirach is right, violent anger is the endpoint of this trajectory more often than not, and more separation, more sin is left in its wake.

That’s why Jesus is so concerned with where we sit and who we invite to the table. If we go for the high place, we don’t see those who sit below us because we’re too afraid that we’ll lose our position, and we certainly don’t see those who aren’t even at the table at all. When we only invite those who can repay us, then we have turned people into a means to our end. And when we can’t see the most vulnerable—the poor, the lame, the crippled, the lame—as honored guests at the table, then we haven’t begun to grasp how great and glorious and vast and deep and broad and wide God’s table is, and we will miss the essence of the feast that God longs for us to share—not just the feast of Isaiah, of well-aged wines and rich foods, but the feast of drinking deep of relationships with the whole of humanity and coming to see God gazing back at us in each and every set of eyes.

I don’t know about you, but this is a party I don’t want to miss. But if I cling to my pride; if I cling to my station, my role, my status, my position, I will do precisely that because you can’t see your connection with others when you are bent on proving you are better. For Jesus, it’s always a race to the bottom because that’s where all the trappings are stripped away and all you have left is the essence of God in you meeting the essence of God in another, and when essence touches essence, well, that, indeed, is to taste of the heavenly banquet.

So, today, Jesus is inviting us, both gently and not so gently, to think about where and how we are seeking the place of honor. Jesus is inviting us to consider whom we see and don’t see when we do that. Jesus is asking us, point blank, who is sitting at our tables? Are we dining in our own little echo chambers with people just like us? Sirach is calling us to examine those places where we have separated ourselves out from God and one another, and to see how that separation plays out as pride, and to roll that tape forward and see how pride leads to a whole lot of not good outcomes.

And then, Jesus invites us to imagine a different vision, a different table, a table of mutuality and reciprocity and connection and kinship, a table not based on repayment, but based on inherent worth and dignity and value that can’t be quantified or measured, but only enjoyed.

So, unsettling though it might be, sit in a different place,  take a seat that lives you a different view, invite somebody to lunch or dinner that would hurt your image and discover the image of the Maker in the other that has been hidden from your eyes.

Reach across the great divides that would keep us apart       in this community, in this nation, in this world—for those brave enough to try, a banquet of heavenly proportions awaits you. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

August 28, 2016

Jesus said What?

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 18—Year C; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Oh, I’d love to preach on Deuteronomy today, or Psalm 1, or Philemon, but that’s not where we all went “Huh?” No, we gotta go with Luke.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” so sayeth Jesus to the large crowds who were traveling with him, and not just like tossing this phrase over his shoulder. No, he turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Hate? Really, Jesus, do you mean hate? I mean, I don’t want to hate my mother; I’ve spent the better part of my adult life apologizing to my mother for my attitude as a teenager and young adult. And I don’t want to hate my husband and children, I work hard at those relationships; and I sure don’t want them to hate me. And I’ve got great siblings, they are a blessing in my life; I don’t want to hate them. Really, Jesus, are you saying that to follow you, I have to throw them all under the bus?

And hating my life? But life is a gift, why would you want me to hate it? Oh, and by the way Lord, you’re not being ethically consistent here. You’re the one who told us to love one another as you have loved us. You’re the one who told us that you came that we might have life and have it abundantly. I’m confused. Are you confused? Good, we’re confused together.

So, let’s turn to the greek because the greek often clarifies things. So, the word for hate in the greek is μισέω, and it means “to hate, to pursue with hatred, to detest.” Oh, so hate means hate. No hidden meaning here to save us; no nuance in which we can rest today. Nope, we’re going to have to wrestle this one to the mat in order to find blessing in this text.

So, let’s unpack hate a little deeper. In fact, some of us gathered this past Wednesday to join others in our community for a conversation sponsored by the NAACP Unpacking Our Own Hate. We started with the question, “What is hate?” We talked about how it’s on a continuum with anger and resentment and how it’s a strong emotion. We talked about how betrayal can take us there. We talked about how, in hate, we don’t feel empathy for the other. We talked about how it has something to do with the story about another that’s running in our head on a constant loop that is unhinged from reality. We talked about how hate is a hardened place—hardened anger, hardened resentment, hardened lack of empathy. And many confessed that as good, southern, nice people—we just don’t do these kind of emotions.

Then, there’s the casual way we throw around hate. I hate Brussel sprouts. As a KY fan, I hate Duke basketball—that little matter of a basketball game 24 years ago, not that I hold on to things.

And then there’s the hate that cannot see the other as human in the same way that I’m human—that can’t see them as good ol’ flesh and blood, holy, beloved of God, broken just like me, and so we de-humanize them—we hate people of other races or religions or genders or sexual identities or social and economic classes or political beliefs.

Webster’s defines hate this way: intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury; extreme dislike or antipathy. Antipathy—I think that’s like the opposite of empathy.

But here’s the thing about hatehate isn’t just an abstract thought, or belief, or position, and hate isn’t just a really strong feeling; there is an energetic to hate. And much as we would like to believe that hate places distance between us and the object of our hate; hate actually binds us to that which we hate, just like a magnet. The energetic of hate is all about attachment.

So, let’s put a placeholder here, and look at the rest of this passage from Luke. Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Then he talks about assessing your resources and knowing your limits before embarking on a building project and how kings assess their strength before going to war. And then we come to Jesus’ closing statement, the summation of this chunk of teaching, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Carrying the cross, being willing to die; knowing your resources and limits, being willing to let go of a vision; knowing when to engage and knowing when to surrender. Being willing to give up all your possessions; being willing to give up possessing at all. Now we’re beginning to drop down into the depths of this confusing teaching from Jesus; now we’re getting down to the core.

If hate attaches us to the object of our hate, this can’t be what Jesus means when he tells us to hate families and our life; Jesus is using this intense language to grab our attention, and it works. He has our full attention this morning, but Jesus is not calling us to attach to our families through the energy of hate. Jesus knows full well that hate can actually become our most prized possession, and at the end, he tells us that we must be willing to give up all our possessions, including our hate.

No, Jesus is calling us to give up possessing. Jesus is calling us to sit loosely to everything. Jesus is telling us, “You can’t cling to your family, you can’t possess them, you can’t control them; and you can’t use them as an excuse to avoid the tough places that will surely come if you follow me. You’ve got to be willing to relinquish; you’ve got to be willing to release—be it your intimate relationships, be it your vision of what will be, be it the rightness of your cause—you’ve got to be willing to release, if you want to follow me, because my love is made to flow, and whenever you step over into the energetic of clinging, and attaching, and possessing, that flow stops.”

I don’t think Jesus is commanding us to hate the way we think of hate; I think he’s using this over-the-top language to take us to the brink, to take us to the foot of the cross, where we have to relinquish any notion that the people, or anything else, in our lives are our possessions. This whole passage is about surrendering the things we hold so that we can remember that to love and live like Jesus is to keep our hands open, always receiving, always releasing, always letting love and life flow.

Discipleship is costly because we surrender any notion that we get to possess anything. No wonder Jesus talks about this way being narrow. It’s hard, and very few of us willingly surrender anything without going to the mat. It takes time to discover the deeper truth that surrender truly is the way to life.

It takes time to understand, as Moses did, that daily, moment by moment in fact, come these decision points—this way leads to life, this way leads to death—and that the spiritual life is about choosing, consciously, the way of life.

It’s about understanding that we have rights to all kinds of things, just as Paul understood that, in his culture, Philemon had a right to own Onesimus as a slave, but that Paul was appealing to Philemon’s heart to relinquish that right, to surrender that right, for the sake of gospel love and to receive Onesimus as a beloved brother and not as a slave that he possessed, and then to free his beloved brother for service elsewhere.

So, in the end, these are the questions facing us today: To what do we cling? What are we holding on to for dear life? What are our possessions? Where is our energy attached like a magnet? Where is our possessing energy showing up? Where is Jesus trying to pry our fingers free, trying to loosen our grip, so that our hearts are in the flow of his love? Where are we stuck, and what do we need to give up, so that we are once again living the abundant life that he promises?

Following Jesus is costly because we have to discover, over and over again, that when you are a disciple, your life is not your own.

But in the giving over, we discover this sacred and holy space expanding in our being. And into this space, God pours this love that cannot be possessed, but only tasted, and experienced, and integrated and incarnated, and then, offered in the pouring out of our lives for the sake of the world that God so lovesJohn 3:16, for God so loved the world—we’re being invited into the passion of that loving.

Understanding the energetics of hate, understanding the power of our attachments, understanding the dynamics of possessing—this is deep spiritual work. We didn’t want to wrestle with these things on this last holiday weekend of summer, but this morning, Jesus has brought us face-to-face with these parts of our shadow.

So, tease out hate in your own life, wrestle with your attachments, come to terms with your possessing energy, and then surrender these things, give up these possessions. It’s not just that we have to give them up to follow Jesus; it’s that we won’t taste of the abundant life he promises until we do. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 4, 2016

Putting on the new self

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—PR 13—Year C; Ecclesiastes 1:1-2,12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

It would appear that the Teacher in that passage from Ecclesiastes is not having a good day. The Teacher can’t get past the second verse of his book without using the word vanity five times. “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He sees all the deeds done under the sun, and all is vanity. He hates all his toil, and he’s aware that he has to entrust it to those who come after him, and they could be really foolish, yet it will be in their hands—and this is vanity. And so he gives himself up to despair because one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill has to leave it all to one who didn’t work for it—and this is vanity. And what do you get for all the toil and strain? Days that are full of pain and work that’s full of grief and anger born of frustration and minds that spin in the middle of the night—and this also is vanity.

Whoo-ee. That is one despairing soul. The hebrew word for vanity—it’s hard to translate. It’s a vapor, a breath, a puff, it’s fleeting; it’s the epitome of emptiness; the meaninglessness born of hopelessness. This is the “What does it matter?” question that comes when you can’t see the fruit of your labors or when you have labored hard only to see another come behind you and dismantle your work. What does it matter? None of it lasts anyway. Why try? Why try at all?

And at the end of this passage, the Reader stood at that lectern and said, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” and we all responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Goodness, what in the world is the Spirit trying to say to us through this passage, and how in the world can we give thanks for such a hopeless, despairing message?

Well, sometimes, the scriptures go dark, really, really dark, to mirror back to us those dark places that we, in our darkest moments, inhabit. If we’re honest, we’ve all had moments when we wonder “What’s it all for?” and answer that question with a big fat “Nothing.” We’ve all had moments of sheer frustration in having worked so hard to build something only to place it in someone else’s hands and watch it fall apart. We’ve all had moments of counting the cost of our work and lying awake in the middle of the night and wondering why on earth we care so much.

Cynicism, skepticism, despair—these are alive and well all around us right now, maybe even within us. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, “All is vanity.” Today, we’d just call it the spirit of nihilismnihilism, according to Webster’s, is“the belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs, etc. have no worth or value” and more specifically, “the belief that a society’s political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.” Oh, this just got uncomfortably close; this sounds like where so many in our country are living right now.

Maybe the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is just describing what the society is mirroring. Maybe the Spirit is just trying to show us the sea we’re swimming in. Maybe our thanks is about knowing the degree of despair and hopelessness that is all around us right now.

And in this environment, the temptation is to hunker down, take care of your own, get what you can, store it up, look after your own happiness, and cut everyone and everything else loose. Maybe that’s the stance of the person in the gospel today who wants Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus won’t get in that family triangle, but he tells a parable instead about the rich man whose land produces abundantly and who wants to tear down his barn and build bigger ones so he can store up his goods and grains and sit back, relax, eat and drink. And then his life is demanded of him. The moral of the story is delivered at the beginning when Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Life“zoe” is the word used in the greek—this is vital life, genuine life; life that is immeasurably real, this is the absolute fullness of life, both in its essence and in its alignment with its deepest values; this is the abundant life that Jesus promises us. You can’t find this life in what you accumulate, whether that accumulating is in tangible, real goods and possessions or in the intangibles of status and privilege or even in the success or lasting nature of our work.

Daggone it, one more death to our False Self. Transformation is really hard work.

As is always the case, the spiritual life is all about letting go. Letting go of old behaviors and old patterns. That’s really what Colossians is trying to spell out for us when it talks about putting to death whatever in us is earthly. Oh, it lists a bunch of things, but they’re all different ways of describing what happens when we live our lives out of alignment with our deepest values. Colossians calls us out on the ways we once followed when we were living life thinking that the trappings of the False Self are the goal—thinking the goal is about gaining power, being in control, making an idol out of safety and security, doing anything to gain esteem and affection. Colossians says, “These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things” and then it gets even more specific in saying that anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth, lying to one another—these all have to go, seeing as we have stripped off the old self with its practices.

Oh wow, we all might as well put tape over our mouths from now until the election just like old Zechariah who was struck mute for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

But the stripping off of the old self, the stripping away of the False Self, doesn’t leave us standing there naked. No, Colossians reminds us that we have been clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. And in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (who were the really, really barbarian people), there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer Republican and Democrat, enlightened and unenlightened, those who see what’s really going on (however you define that) and those who don’t have a clue (however you define that); but Christ is all and in all! All the ways that we have of dividing up the world, they have no place in the new self that knows it rests in Christ and knows that the image of its creator is indelibly imprinted on every human being.

Colossians reminds us that we who have been raised with Christ have to seek the things that are above. We’ve got to rise above the noise to where Christ is, to where God lives. We’ve got to see the world through those divine eyes that only have love and compassion for this broken, broken world. We’ve got to set our mind on those things, not on all the ways that the world has come up with to keep us apart from one another. We’ve got to die to this insatiable appetite for division. And we’ve got to understand that our life, our “zoe” life, our True Self, it is hidden with Christ in God.

In other words, there ain’t going to be no reward that will be tangible and visible by the world’s standards.

But when Christ shines through our life, then our truest most real self is revealed. When we move into the abundant life, full of essence, lived in alignment, we come to know experientially that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and glory is just another way to describe the beauty of this transformation.

We may have started this morning believing that “all is vanity,” but we can leave this morning filled with a crazy kind of hope. We are only bound to the old self if we choose to stay there, but remember, that old self was buried with Christ. We have been raised with him. We have been clothed with a new self. We don’t have to buy into the nihilism, the division, the definitions of success, the idols of the False Self; our life is hidden with Christ. We can rest there; we can anchor ourselves there; we can align our values there; we can live our life from there. The old ways are the way of death, for all of us and certainly for our society. Renewal will come in knowing that Christ is all and in all and that the image of the Creator is everywhere.

All is not vanity; there is a LIFE—vital, essential, aligned, infinitely full, infinitely alive—there is a LIFE so worth living. It’s a hidden treasure; hidden with Christ in God. It’s just waiting to be discovered, and it’s yearning to be revealed. The way to find it isn’t to build bigger barns; no, the way to find it is to die to the old self that thinks this LIFE will fit in any box that we construct. Strip off the old self and discover the treasure that rests underneath, your LIFE, hidden with Christ in God, now and forever. Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 31, 2016

Noncomplementary Behavior: the Way of Jesus

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 12—Year C; Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13. Video

Things aren’t looking too good in Sodom and Gommorah. A great outcry against them has come to God’s ears, and God is determined to see if they have done that which the outcry says they’ve done. Their sin is grave; the degree of separation in that society is profound, and remember, Sodom’s great sin, according to Ezekiel 16:49 was this: pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but doing nothing to aid the poor and needy. It was the land of “us” and “them.”

And God has just about had it; God is about ready to wipe the slate clean, start all over, burn the house down, so to speak. What else can you do when society is in complete disarray? So, God sends those men who’ve just received hospitality from Abraham and Sarah on to Sodom and Gommorah to check it out. Abraham can sense God’s outrage, but Abraham is a man who clings to hope, who believes that there is still something there to work with, something from which the process of redemption can begin.

And so Abraham starts the bargaining—“Uh, God? Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if you find fifty righteous there? Will you sweep away the place and not forgive it if you find fifty righteous in it?” God ponders the question, and agrees that if fifty righteous are found, he will forgive the whole place for their sake. Abraham presses further“What if five of the fifty righteous are lacking?” That Abraham is sneaky—five lacking sounds so much better than forty-five. God considers this proposal and declares, “For forty-five, I won’t destroy it.” And Abraham continues this dance with God, back and forth they go—“Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?”each time God answering, “For the sake of forty, thirty, twenty, ten, I won’t destroy it.”

The principle here is simple and profound, a small number of righteous people can affect the whole in life altering ways. Of course, as the story unfolds for Sodom, we discover that they are, in fact, on a collision course with destruction. Is it possible that there just weren’t ten righteous people to be found? Frightening though it is, we can indeed run societies straight into the ground. We are fully capable of descending the world into chaos. Madness is well within the realm of possibility, and we are absolutely complicit in the madness.

Brothers and sisters, the stakes are high, so we better well get to understanding what a righteous person looks like and how we can move in that direction because where the whole goes from here is directly connected to how we move forward from here.

Let’s start by being clear that being righteous is not about being right. Webster’s defines righteous as “acting in accord with divine or moral law.” This is about acting in accordance with some ethical framework that is coherent, and for us, grounded in God and the way of Jesus. This is about coming into alignment with those values, rooting deep, and having the courage to act accordingly.

What does that look like? Not like most of what we’re seeing around us these days. It doesn’t look like stoking fear. It doesn’t look like scapegoating. It doesn’t look like blaming. It looks like the counsel we receive in Colossians 2. It looks like living our lives in Christ Jesus, being rooted and built up in him; it looks like abounding in thanksgiving, even in the face of madness and death.

According to Colossians 2, it looks like not being taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, or as we might say today, it’s not about buying into our lowest levels of consciousness that only knows how retaliate in kind.

It’s about dying with Christ and rising with Christ and forgiving when you have every right not to do so. It’s about nailing “the could’ve’s” and “should’ve’s” and “I’ve got the right to destroy you’s” to the cross and completely disarming the rulers and authorities in the process. It’s about holding fast to Christ as our head, literally putting on the mind of Christ, and acting from that place. The world will not understand this. The world will call us naïve, but it’s the only way out of the madness.

Living as a righteous one—it looks like praying for God’s kingdom to come, on earth, on earth, in the here and now, and not just in heaven in the future. It’s about daily bread, for everyone, and forgiveness, not just in the hurts and wounds that infect our hearts, but in real and tangible ways, as in forgiveness of the debt, dollars and cents debt, that enslaves so, so many people. I’ve got no idea how we put that into practice in our economy, but as people of faith, we’ve got to wrestle with the fact that our Lord places this practice at the center of the one prayer that he taught his followers. To live as a righteous one is not to be cavalier about walking through trials—we do not have a choice about this time of trial that has engulfed our world, but let’s be clear, this is not a time for bravado—this is a time for humility and understanding the monumental tasks ahead of us. The very life of the whole is depending on us.

Living as a righteous one is about relentless persistence and asking and searching and knocking until we can find a way forward out of the madness. It’s about choosing the cross and throwing your arms open when the only thing the world knows how to do is lash out and crucify that which it fears.

It’s about doing the surprising thing, and Jesus was the master of this! I heard a story on NPR this week and learned a new word for this kind of righteous living—noncomplementary behavior—it sounds like a bad thing, but it’s a good thing; it’s the act of departing from an established script when that script is likely to lead to conflict. Montrell Jackson was an African American police officer in Baton Rouge, and one of the three who was killed last Sunday. Montrell Jackson departed from the established script when he posted this on Facebook on July 8, and I’m going to read his full statement:

“I’m tired physically and emotionally. Disappointed in some family, friends, and officers for some reckless comments but hey what’s in your heart is in your heart. I still love you all because hate takes too much energy but I definitely won’t be looking at you the same. Thank you to everyone that has reached out to me or my wife it was needed and much appreciated. I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core. When people you know begin to question your integrity you realize they don’t really know you at all. Look at my actions they speak LOUD and CLEAR. Finally I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protestors, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.”

Talk about a third way! Montrell Jackson could name his exhaustion, his disappointment, his love. He could name his awareness that hate takes too much energy, have compassion for those who were being reckless in their comments, and yet, set a boundary for what he would let into his own soul. He could name the complexity of how the world was viewing him, as a policeman and as an African American male. He was fully aware that so much of what was coming toward him was sheer projection, and he refused to let it rob him of his deep integrity. He understood hate as something that could infect us and threw his arms open to protesters, officers, friends, family, strangers, whoever—“if you need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.” Montrell Jackson, he may have been one righteous man, but in my eyes, he counted as ten. In his witness, his action, he has changed the whole.

And his brother, Kendrick Pitts, joined him as a righteous one when he did the surprising thing. Where other voices would shout for retaliation, Kendrick simply said: “Let’s put an end to all this madness, and everybody come together.” He went on: “I just want to ask God to bless these killers. I continue to pray for those guys, too.” Kendrick Pitts would have every right to want to lash out and retaliate, but he didn’t follow the script. He responded with blessing and prayer and a plea to end the madness.

And another righteous man is added to the ranks, and the whole is changed.

And last Sunday, as Baton Rouge was coming to terms with the deaths of those three officers, the police department and local African American activists in Wichita, Kansas did a surprising thing. A protest was scheduled for that afternoon, but after a meeting between the chief of police and the local activists, they held a joint cookout with the local community instead. They didn’t follow the script. And many, many righteous were added to the ranks that day, and the whole is changed.

Noncomplementary behavior—departing from the established script. This is the way of the cross. What scripts are you running in your head right now? What scripts are being fed to you day and night by the world around us? What is one small thing you could do in your life, in your circle, in the wider community that could depart from the established script? How are you rooting yourself in Christ, so that you have the capacity to open your arms on the cross instead of reaching for the same old tired script that’s leading all of us deeper into the madness? What inner capacity do you need to build and what outer support do you need to sustain it, so that you can join the ranks of the righteous.

Sodom isn’t a far away place in a long ago time—Sodom is here and now. Our world is crying out, our sin is grave. Ten righteous can change the trajectory; ten righteous can change the whole.

Montrell Jackson, Kendrick Pitts, the Wichita Police, African American activists—they’ve all stepped up. What about you? What about me? Will we take our place next to them in the ranks of the righteous? Depart from the script and “let’s put an end to all this madness.” Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 24, 2016

Models of Hospitality

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; July 17, 2016; Bishop Gary Gloster.

Orlando: Revealing Our Demons and Restoring Our Right Minds

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39; Video

Settle in. As they say, “God has laid some things on my heart,” and I just can’t say it in fewer words today. This sermon feels a little ragged to me, a little rough around the edges, a little raw. Orlando—49 people dead, 53 injured. Our thoughts swirl, our hearts break. We don’t know what to do, and so we do the only thing we know how to do, we come together, we come here, and we try to climb to a different place to get perspective. Goodness knows, words have been flying all week, some of them helpful, some of them not. It’s about guns, it’s about immigration, it’s about Muslims, it’s about LGBT people, it’s about hate, it’s about ideology, it’s about terrorism and mental health, it’s about security and rights and the 2nd Amendment and civil liberties and fear, and you know and I know that it’s about all of these things. But we have to get to a different place to find our way forward because as followers of Jesus a different place is where we’re called to stand.

Yes, there are actions to be taken, but before we move to action, we have to ground ourselves—we have to ground ourselves in Jesus, we have to steep ourselves in scripture, we have to double-down on our prayers and anything else that can help us quiet the cacophony of voices in our culture and in our heads—otherwise, we will not be acting with the mind of Christ, but we will be acting from our egos and our false self, and that self will never get us where our hearts long to go.

And so, we go to the text. Luke 8. The story of the Garasene demoniac it’s often called.

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. His was a living death. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Don’t you see, we are that Garasene demoniac; we are that man living among the tombs. We, as a people, as a country, we have an unclean spirit. We are tormented. We keep being seized, and we are bound up, chained, and shackled in so many ways. Our life is constrained, and we keep thinking these bindings will somehow keep us safe, but these forces at play are bigger than we are, and we keep getting driven deeper and deeper into the wilds.


essential true self that is buried deep inside and who longs to be called out. He asks the man, and us, “What is your name?” The man has lost sight of who he is in his core; he only knows the demons. He said, “Legion”, my name is “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. “Legion”—we think of this word as meaning “a very large number”, but it comes from the Roman army, and it consisted of 6,826 soldiers. This man is experiencing a war within himself with thousands engaged in the battle. Boy, it feels that way in our world.

But Jesus knows that there is power in naming the demons, and that we are utterly stuck until we do so. And naming these demons is spiritual work because how we see this as people of faith is different than any of the other allegiances, affiliations, or perspectives we hold. This is all so complicated because, as one commentator noted this week, the massacre in Orlando has brought together the perfect storm of issues that have gripped our country’s consciousness as of late—LGBT people, guns, and immigration.

We have to try to name the demons if Jesus is to help us get free.

  • We start with the demon of hate. Pure and simple hate that begins when we see our brothers and sisters, not as our neighbors, not as ourselves, but as “other”, and you can do awful things to the nameless, faceless “other”.
  • There’s the demon of religious ideology that sees LGBT brothers and sisters as evil and therefore expendable, and all the religious traditions bear some responsibility here. The witness of countless gay people who have had to fight their way to faith in God because their religious tradition told them they were an abomination bears witness to this destructive demon. And here I have speak pastorally to those among us who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender—you bear the burden of this massacre in a very deep and personal and particular way. I cannot know what it feels like to be in your skin right now, but I want you to know that you do not bear this burden alone. This community holds you in your particular pain. Nobody is expendable in God’s sight.
  • There’s the demon of simplistic and reductionistic projection. Taking an individual’s actions and projecting them across a whole population. This is always a temptation of majority culture, but when Dylan Roof opened fire in that church in Charleston a year ago, we did not attribute his actions to all Lutherans or to all southern white men. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we did not attribute his actions to all Roman Catholics. We cannot, and should not, attribute Omar Mateen’s actions to all Muslims. What Mateen espoused is no more a reflection of Islam than Roof or McVeigh’s ideology is a reflection of the way of Jesus.
  • There’s the demon that’s whispering in our collective ear that if we just have more guns, we’ll be safer. I have seen no evidence that this is so. And, in fact, more people carrying more guns makes me feel less safe. In the shooting that happened on a college campus last October in Oregon, there were students who were carrying guns but who were afraid to shoot for fear that the police would think they were the shooter and would shoot them instead. In a chaotic crisis situation, what if multiple people started responding and shooting, and then, how would anyone know who was shooting whom?

I can get my head around guns for the sake of hunting or the necessary uses that come if you farm or have livestock that you need to protect. I can get my head around the sport of target shooting—I have enjoyed shooting skeet myself. And I understand that the 2nd Amendment has been a fundamental right within our country, though I am not clear that how that right is being interpreted today is how the framers of the Bill of Rights conceived of that right in 1789, but I can get that there is much to be discussed with regards to that right.

But I can’t get my head around civilians possessing assault weapons whose only purpose is to extinguish as much life as possible as quickly as possible. I can’t understand why we can’t come to some consensus around sane gun laws. We seem to believe that if we just arm ourselves more that we will be more secure.

And here’s where being a follower of Jesus just pulls us up short. I can’t find a single place in the gospel where Jesus says to us, “Defend yourself.” In fact, what Jesus does say is “Turn the other cheek” and far from being a doormat response, Walter Wink has called this counsel Jesus’ Third Way of Nonviolent Resistance.

Some will call to mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” But in that context, Jesus is talking about the demands of “following him before all others and the call to take up our cross and how we have to lose our life for his sake to find it.” Jesus is talking about following in his way before we follow in the way of any other ideology or affiliation we hold. And Jesus’ way is the way of nonviolence. Period.

In John 18, when they come to arrest Jesus, it gets chaotic, and the disciples are afraid, and Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. The last thing Jesus tells Peter before they take Jesus into custody is this: “[Peter], put your sword back into its sheath…Peter, put your sword away. Jesus never counsels the way of the sword; Jesus counsels this (stretch out arms cruciform). To take up our cross is to open our arms and extend them. From the cross, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus understands that we just don’t know what we’re doing.

As followers of Jesus, we are never promised the security of the sword; we are promised the cross. Crucifixion is what we are promised. Forgiveness is what we are promised. The infinite security of being held in God’s love always is what we are promised. The security of resurrection and abundant life is what we are promised. I fear we have turned security into an idol, and it is killing us.

  • There is the demon that refuses to recognize our call to care for the immigrant. Of course we need sound and sane immigration policies, and we need the best minds and hearts working on it, but as people who follow Jesus and are steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, we dare not forget God’s command to care for the resident alien in our midst—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.”

We dare not forget Jesus’ command in Matthew 25 to care for the stranger, the xenos, as in xenophobia, and that in caring for the stranger, we are caring for him. We dare not forget that caring for the stranger is one of the criteria by which Jesus will judge the nations.

  • And there is the demon of our righteousness. This is not the righteous anger that we see in the prophets, or even in Jesus. This is the righteousness that is born out of our false self that is absolutely convinced of the rightness of our own small perspective. This is the righteousness that is fueled by adrenalin. You know this demon is on your tail when you just can’t get enough of the news cycle, and you are arguing back with the TV or radio or the politicians, and you just can’t settle down. Sometime during this past week, we probably have all danced with this demon.

And demons never go quietly. These things that possess us, they don’t want to let go, they don’t want to back into the abyss. They will latch on anywhere they can—even onto our grief or our holy anger, if they think they can turn that to their use. C.S. Lewis knew that when he wrote The Screwtape Letters.

Jesus asks us, “What is your name?” It’s time we answer, “Legion”, for so many demons have possessed us.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

You know, the swineherds weren’t happy about Jesus’ actions—they go and whip up a crowd who asks Jesus to leave. The price for getting free of the demons that had possessed the man was the loss of their herd. They had to let go of something significant for the man to be made whole. What might we need to relinquish, as a country, if we, as a country, are to be restored to our right mind?

In the end, the man was sitting at the feet of Jesus, the demons gone, clothed and in his right mind. “Right mind”—when you peel back this phrase in greek, you land with two words—“sozo” and “phren”; “sozo”—it means “to heal” and “make whole”, it’s the root word that gives us “salvation” and “phren”—it means “mind”, those “faculties that can perceive and judge”, but it also points to “the parts of the heart”. To be in one’s right mind is to be made whole, to have our heart and mind perceiving and judging rightly.

What would it look like, right now, for Jesus to grant our demons permission to leave us, individually and collectively, and to let him restore us to our right mind, for him to make us whole again, as individuals and as a people? What would it look like for him to get our hearts and minds working as his heart and mind?

The man so wants to go with Jesus because the people in his hometown are frankly afraid of him. It’s odd, but there seems to be nothing more frightening that wholeness, nothing more unsettling that someone who is calm and in their right mind. And if we truly walk in Jesus’ way, a whole lot of people are going to be afraid of us too. To keep our arms open, to embrace the way of the cross, to double-down on our commitment to nonviolence, to welcome the stranger, to put away our swords, to see our oneness across the great divides in our culture as Galatians lifts up this morning—this won’t make sense to most of the people around us. But this is the place we are called to stand, and Jesus calls us to stay and do this work in the communities in which we live.


I don’t know all the actions we can and should take. Surely there are actions to be taken, but until we let Jesus cast out these demons and put us back in our right mind, we are sunk. I named 6 demons in this sermon—that leaves 6,820 to go, and they will manifest differently in each one of us. So, search your soul, name your demons, let Jesus clear them out of your being. Do this work individually; engage in this work collectively.

And then, as Bishop Taylor reminded us this week in his weekly reflection, maybe we can find our way to that field to which the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi points—“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

If we can meet each other in that field, then surely, clothed and once again in our right mind, we can find our way out of the abyss and into the abundant life that God has promised. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 19, 2016

The Whoosh of the Spirit and Our Rites of Passage

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Pentecost—Year C; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27). Video

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Pentecost than our Rite of Passage for 13-year olds and their parents! Each of these events has a dance to it, and the dances mirror each other.

Pentecostthat wild rush of the Spirit whooshing down upon those unwitting disciples who were just hanging out together, just minding their own business. And this isn’t just a little, gentle, whisper of a breeze. No, this is a rush of a violent wind. Think back to your teenage years. Did it ever feel like a violent wind was rushing through your life, and your relationships, and your body??? And then, on that first Pentecost, divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

So, Kate, Julia, Jessie, and Carmena tongue of fire has touched you; you are filled with the Spirit, and in so many ways, you speak a different language than the rest of us. The Spirit has given you the ability to communicate in ways that many, including your parents, will never understand. And it will be up to you to sort out that unique, special ability that the Spirit has given to you, that unique good news that is yours to speak into the world.

Now, it wasn’t a polished powerpoint presentation when the disciples started speaking from this place of newfound power. In fact, it was pretty chaotic. All these people from all these places—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome—both Jew and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, teenagers—each of these heard the disciples speaking to them, in their own native language, about God’s deeds of power. It didn’t make sense. All were amazed and perplexed. They wondered, “What does this mean?” So, as you speak in this strange tongue that goes with the teenage years, some will give you a hearing and will try to understand what it is that you are speaking into the world; they will honestly try to understand, “What does all this mean?” And others will be more skeptical. They will dismiss your voice; they will sneer and simply chalk it all up to being filled with new wine, i.e. raging hormones.

But speak you must.

You must raise your voice along with Peter’s and proclaim, “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’”

It falls to you to remind us that the Spirit that falls on you, and falls on us, has been poured out upon all flesh. It is up to you to remind us that it is your God-given task to claim your prophet’s voice. It is up to you to remind us that sometimes the vision comes from the young, and it is up to you to remind us that we need to heed our elder’s dreams. And frankly, it is often the case that your vision and energy do their best work when you can do an end run on your parents and make common cause with your elders. This is one of the chief reasons that we hold fast to the community of this church. It is one of the last places in our society where the visions of the young can be fused with the dreams of the old and give birth to all kinds of possibilities that just don’t get birthed when we are isolated by age.


And while we are zeroing in on you today, your moving through this Rite of Passage icons for all of us the journey of transition that we all experience throughout our lives—the movement of releasing one stage of life to enter another. Again, this is why we do this ritual in community.

At some point, in every Easter season, we need to circle back Ronald Rolheiser’s understanding of the paschal cycle because this cycle explains so clearly the rhythm of Christian life. He marks five places in the cycle.

  1. Good Friday is about real death. This is about all the losses, and endings, and deaths we experience.
  2. Easter is about resurrection. The new life and new beginnings that always await us on the other side of death.
  3. That 40 days after the resurrection but before the ascension is this period of transition where we are letting go of the old life and adjusting to the new life.
  4. Then on Ascension, it’s time to let the old life ascend.
  5. And on Pentecost, we receive a new Spirit to match the new life that we are, in fact, already living.

Sometimes, we can already be living a new life, but our Spirit, our psyche, our soul, our perspective, haven’t quite caught up to the new life that we’re living out. The disciples were already living in a new way, but on Pentecost, they received the Spirit that could give voice to it. You four 13, or almost 13, year olds have probably been leaning into your teenage years for some time now, but today, we mark that you get a new Spirit that matches this new stage of life. And parents, we have also been in this period of profound adjustment as we have had to let go of our children and come to see that they are growing, budding young adults with their own ideas and vision. Today, we, too, get a new Spirit to match our new life as parents of teenagers.

And for the rest of our community, what new life have you been living? And what Spirit might you be receiving on this Pentecost to match this new life of yours? What is your unique good news to speak into this world at this moment of time? What message might be so crazy to proclaim that others might dismiss you as being drunk with new wine? And yet, just like our teenagers, speak it you must.

There is one other piece we need to bring in as we embark on this journey, and that is to hold fast to the truth that Paul proclaims today in Romans—“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we might be glorified with him.”

In your young lives, each of you have already suffered. Kate, Julia, Carmen, and Jessie—each of you has already suffered in your young years, and be assured, there is more suffering to come—that’s just part of being human. But a mighty Spirit lives inside each of you that will sustain your spirit when your spirit feels lonely and unsure. That Spirit has wrapped you in God’s love and whispers to your soul in sighs too deep for words “You are my beloved daughter. In you, I am well-pleased.” That Spirit reminds your soul of its majesty and reminds you from the inside out that you are made for glory. And what is true for you four young women is true for your parents and is true for each one of us. We have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we are children of God, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ, made for glory.

Jesus promised that he would give his followers an Advocate to be with us forever. And here’s the beautiful, beautiful thing—this Advocate is the Spirit of truth…Jesus says, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you…This Spirit will teach you everything, and will remind you of all that I have said to you.” And for the second time this Easter season, we hear Jesus say this, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I can’t think of words we need to hear right now more than these.

Kate, Julia, Carmen, Jessie, fellow parents, St. Luke’s community, the Spirit of truth lives inside of you. A peace has been given to you. Not a peace that the world can give, or even understand. Your heart need not be troubled. You don’t have to be afraid. You are not alone, ever, ever.

In all the changes and chances and transitions that come to us throughout our lives, we can rest secure in these promises.

The Spirit has come. The Spirit lives inside of us. The Spirit is not content with the world as it is and yearns to speak good news into it in fresh ways. And, as we join this movement of the Spirit whooshing through our world,             as we allow these tongues of fire to ignite our souls and shape our passions, we will find the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 15, 2016

Finding our way home

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 6—Year C; Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29. Video

Can we just start by admitting that the Revelation to John is just weird? However, it’s been a really weird week in our house, a week that started with witnessing a tragic crash and ended with the death of our beloved dog, Luke. Ever had a week like that? Where you are aware of the fragility and preciousness of life, where our utter vulnerability as human beings is absolutely inescapable? Throw into that mix this year’s political process that feels completely chaotic, and often disheartening in its lack of civility. And the crush of world events that feel so completely out of control and intractable. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and it’s disorienting when that happens. So, from this weird space, this passage from Revelation feels oddly comforting.

A vision is given, and from the get-go, for one who was used to seeing God “in a certain way” and “in a certain place,” the vision itself disorients, “I saw no temple in the city…” What? The city is Jerusalem. Everything in Jerusalem was built around the temple. That would be like saying, “I saw no White House, no Capitol, no Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.” Some things just go together. Jerusalem was the holy city, and holiness was most especially located in the holy of holies, which was located in the heart of the temple. The presence of God was to be found most intensely there.

But not any more.

 “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. No need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

Holiness was not to be contained in the temple, only to be viewed by the elite of the elite, but holiness, glory, would radiate throughout everything. God’s presence will fill all places of the city—the political places, the economic places, the religious places, the despised and broken places, the vulnerable places, the forgotten places, the back alleys and places that never see the light of day—God’s glory shines there. Nations are caught up in this light. This glory even pulls glory out of kings. It calls forth the best from the peoplepeople bringing the honor of the nations—the honor of the nations, can you imagine? Seriously, take that in. Imagine it.

The last line of that section sounds so exclusive—only those will enter it who are written in the Lamb’s book of life—but I don’t think exclusion is at the heart of it. Let’s pull out and view this from that high mountain where that angel has carried John to see all of this. And remember—visions are like dreams, they are not linear, but circular; not left-brained, but right-brained.

Nothing unclean will enter. The greek for unclean simply means common. Nothing common here. All is holy, all is deserving of respect and honor and dignity. And the practice of abomination—that’s the practice of idolatry. Oh my goodness, idols. What are the idols holding power over our religious, political and economic common life?

 (pause) Power, control, success, greed, security, prestige, status, etc. Can you imagine the heartbeat of our religious, political, and economic life being free of these idols? Practicing these idolatries has no place in this “city” filled with the glory of the Lord.

And those practicing falsehooddeceit, lies, duplicitous words and deedsnot here.

The only people who can live in this “city” are those who are committed to the abundant life. It’s not that the Lamb wants to exclude others; it’s just anything short of the abundant life—life in its fullest, most whole form—anything short of that isn’t worthy of the vision. Not worthy as in deserving, but worthy as in “this is what God in the fullness of God’s presence and light and glory longs for us to have and know and live.”

And the vision gets richer.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.

The water of life flowing as a river. Trees producing a rich variety of fruit, all year long. Creation lavishly flourishing. And the trees, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And oh, how the nations, all the nations, long for healing. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. Back in Genesis, back at the very beginning of the story, the tree of life was out of reach, but now, it is the source of healing. Whatever curses we were under before hold no sway now.

Have you ever felt like some event or experience or some unfulfilled dream defined you? How would you live differently if that story, that narrative thread, was no longer your chief plotline? How would you live differently if you could see in the very thing you perceived as curse, the source of your healing? And what would this look like if we extrapolated this out to our nations? What if we saw all the things that feel like curses among the nations, what if we saw all of those things as vessels of healing? How might interactions between nations change?

It is so clear in this passage from Revelation that God is not interested only in individual salvation, individual wholeness, but God desires salvation, wholeness, for the whole world. God desires that our nations experience wholeness. God desires this wholeness for our leaders and for the peoples of the nations of the world. God will not rest until everything is transformed and healed and made new. God will not rest until everyone is participating in this glory and walking in this light.

Is this a pipe dream? Well, of course it is, but dreams and visions have a way of reorienting us. And I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling disoriented, a vision gives me some place to fix hope, and hope has a way of helping us find our way home.

A vision helps us see what is possible, helps us claim our deepest longings, helps us connect to God’s deepest yearnings. We need that thing out there to aim for.

And we need something in here to ground us. And that’s what Jesus promises us today. He knows the time is coming when he won’t be physically present to his disciples, but they won’t be abandoned. As he is gathered around the table with them on that last night before his death, he tells his disciples this: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Jesus is saying, “The God who creates all that is, the God who has lived in me, the God who blows as the Spirit—this God makes a divine home in you.” Jesus gives us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit continues to teach us. That Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus has said to us. That Spirit reminds us that a peace lives within us, Jesus’ peace, and this peace is the peace that surpasses all understanding. This peace is not the peace of unanimity or agreement or the peace that comes when we don’t make too many waves—this peace is the peace that allowed Jesus to stand still in the swirl, to hold fast to Love while at the same time extending his arms wide-open to embrace the whole world, this is the peace that can hold space when everything else wants that space collapsed, this is the peace that can live in the tension of paradox and know that Love is the only ground that is firm beneath our feet. And when we stand in that place, our hearts are not troubled, nor are they afraid.

No matter how weird and disorienting our lives get, no matter how out of control the world feels—we have a place to stand. We have an Advocate to guide us. We have a Spirit to sustain us. We have a peace that fills us, and a Love that grounds us. We have a vision to move towards, and the inner provisions to make the journey.

We might yearn for more; we might long for a 10-point plan, but I don’t know, from that high mountain, alongside John, from that seat across the supper table from our Lord, this week— a weird vision, the promise of an Advocate,  the indwelling Spirit, an unshakeable peace, a Love that holds fast—I think these are enough. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 1, 2016