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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

Let Jesus touch your eyes, Lent 4–Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 4—Year A; I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

What a mess of a story we have today!

Jesus is walking along, and he sees a man who has been blind since his birth. Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Okay, let’s decode that, “Rabbi, who’s to blame? Rabbi, whose fault is it, because somebody’s got to be to blame?” And we think our litigious society has a corner on this market? The search for fault and blame, it’s one of the most common, most human of reactions to tragedy, and why? Because if you can assess fault and blame, then it removes that element of randomness, it erases that element of complete and utter out-of-control-ness; if you can assess fault and blame, then you’ve recaptured the ground of predictability and control and some sense that maybe you can keep that tragedy from happening to you or to those you love. This is an illusion, of course, but we do it nonetheless because it helps us manage the anxiety we would certainly feel if we really admit the fragility and vulnerability of our lives.

And Jesus gives a very Jesus answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He says some other sort of cryptic things, and then he spits on the ground and makes mud with the saliva and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and says to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. Spit and dirt. That’s pretty earthy. I don’t care if it’s the Son of God’s spit, spit is spit and dirt is dirt and mud is mud—it’s pretty earthy. Jesus spreads the mud over the source of the blindness, and simply says, “Go and wash,” which the man did, and he came back able to see.

This man couldn’t see, he physically couldn’t see, and I have to be honest here, I don’t quite know what to do with this passage as it relates to people who are physically blind or who are going blind and who yearn for Jesus to stand before them, who yearn for him to touch their eyes, who would gladly go to the pool of Siloam if it would allow them to see. We hit this dilemma with every healing that Jesus does in the Bible. Why does this person get cured, but all the other blind people in the world remain blind? I don’t have an answer for that. I do know that there is a huge difference between curing and healing. I do know that some people who are physically blind see better than some of us who have our physical sight but shut our eyes to so much. I am not a modernist who tries to explain away all of Jesus’ miracles. Sometimes, miraculous cures happen, things that defy what should have been medically possible, and sometimes they don’t, and I can’t tell you why that is when people pray equally hard in both of those situations. So, I want to acknowledge the complexity of these healing stories and all the questions they inevitably raise, and I wish I could resolve all those questions—but those answers have not been made known to me, or I doubt to any human being. So, let’s own this ambiguity and just let it be there for today and see what we might see as we look into the heart of this story.

There are so many ways to be blind. There are so many ways that we don’t see. In some sense, the man had the advantage of knowing how he was blind. He also had the humility to allow Jesus to touch him in this very earthy way, and he had the willingness to take the actions that Jesus asked him to take. In the end, he was able to see again. Are we in touch with our places of blindness? Are there things that we are simply not able to see? Do we have the humility to allow God, Jesus, Spirit to use some really earthy avenues to open our eyes? Do we have the willingness to follow a mystical intuition to go here or go there and do something that seems a little nutty trusting that we will be given some new capacity for sight that we didn’t have before? Do we trust in Jesus’ capacity to restore our sight in some pretty unbelievable ways? Are we willing to mix it up with spit and dirt and mud, or is that too messy for our tastes? Healing is rarely a neat and tidy process.

And then it really gets interesting. The man’s neighbors see that he can see, but that doesn’t make sense, so they break out into an argument about whether or not he really is the same guy. They take him to the authorities. The authorities question the man about how it is that he sees, and instead of taking it at face value and rejoicing at this wondrous turn of events, they start arguing about Jesus and whether or not he, Jesus, is from God. The old he-did-it-on-the-sabbath (i.e., he didn’t follow protocol) argument comes up as a way to dismiss what has just occurred.

Then the larger group, known as the Jews, come into the picture. They, like the neighbors, have their doubts—they dismiss it all by not believing the man had been born blind in the first place. They call in his parents and question them. His parents don’t want to have anything to do with this question because belief that Jesus was the Messiah was grounds for being thrown out of the synagogue. If they acknowledge this healing and how it occurred, they could lose their community. His parents tell them to ask the man because he is of age to answer.

So, they haul the man in again. They have decided that Jesus is a sinner; after all, he did heal on the wrong day for goodness’ sake. The man is getting a little weary with all of this, and maybe a little sassy. He’s like, “I’ve told you already, and you won’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (That’s the sassy part.) Then, his questioners really turn on him—the text says, “Then, they reviled him.” Then, they play the my-authority-is-better-than-your-authority card. “You are his disciple, but we’re disciples of Moses.”  The man pretty much loses it—“Here’s the deal! You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” But the man’s answer just doesn’t fit their worldview. It’s just not possible in their frame of reference. So, they respond to the man the only way they can, they dismiss him completely by appealing to his sinful state and playing the purity and the expert authority card—“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

When Jesus heard that they had driven him out, he went and found the man. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man isn’t quite sure who or what this Son of Man is, but he wants to believe in him. And when Jesus says, “It’s me,” the man is all in, without an ounce of doubt, “Lord, I believe.” And then, Jesus unravels some of the larger meaning of this whole daggone story—“I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees nearby heard him, and they said, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” They can’t conceive of the possibility that they might be blind in some way. Jesus simply replies, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Fix blame and fault for the illness. Fix blame and fault for the healing. Dismiss it out-of-hand. The healing is just as uncontrollable as the tragedy of the illness. And when the healing comes, they don’t do any better with it than they did with the illness to begin with.  Given a choice of maintaining control and order and rational explanations and understanding and something that challenges their worldview, something that expands their frame of reference, something that is way beyond their control—they choose control and order. Healing is not neat and tidy and will rarely fit in the boxes we had before. True healing busts our old frames. New wineskins are needed to hold the new wine that fills our being when something in us gets healed. And it may well be that those around us aren’t prepared for us to change that much. Family systems theory has long known this, a change anywhere in the system will affect the whole system, and systems are very resilient—they will do anything to return that system back to homeostasis; they will do anything to regain their balance, even if it means keeping the sick person sick.

Would we rather live in cynicism than admit the possibility of hope and healing that might call us to change in some radical ways? Is it easier to play the blame game than it is to allow God to open our eyes to see in new ways? Is it easier to look for the loopholes about why this shift, or this change, really doesn’t count because it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions and rules about how things are supposed to work, is it easy to do that than it is to acknowledge that sometimes plates shift and the earth moves and new things, heretofore deemed impossible, are all the sudden unfolding before our very eyes? Is it easier to cling to our certainty, cling to what we see, even if it keeps us cut off from our neighbor, than it is to have Jesus open our eyes to a new reality that will compel us to see our neighbor in a new way? When you’re blind, and you know you can’t see, you don’t have the luxury of disconnection because it takes others to help you navigate this world, and in that sense, you don’t have sin, you don’t have separation because connection is your lifeblood. It is our sense that we don’t need any help to see, thank you very much, that keeps us cut off from one another.

How ready are you, really, to be healed? How ready are you, really, to have others in your circle be healed? Are you ready for the turmoil and chaos that always accompanies healing? We’re back to the same question that Jesus was asking Nicodemus a few weeks ago—are you ready to be born anew? Are you ready for a life that will have to be different from your old one? Jesus is asking for a lot here; he’s asking us to risk dying to an old life, and he’s asking us to risk walking into a new one. It’s a lot easier to blame, find fault, dismiss, and drive out these possibilities. It’s a lot easier to stay blind and to keep others blind than it is to see in a new way.

But that is his invitation today. Spit, dirt, mud, pools of water. Knowing in our bones that healing is possible, even when all the forces around us conspire against it. Let Jesus touch your eyes, even if it involves spit and dirt and mud and cold water, just don’t shy away from his touch—it will be humbling and so vulnerable to be sure, but oh, what you can see when you take the risk. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 30, 2014

Are you a canal or a resevoir?, Lent 2–Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 3—Year A; Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. There is a lot going on in this story, a lot. Jesus is on his way back up to Galilee, and he has to pass through Samaria to get there. He comes to the city of Sychar. It was a well-known place; near there, Jacob had given a plot of ground to Joseph, and Jacob’s well was there. So, it’s about noon, and it’s hot, really hot. Jesus is tired out from his journey, and he plops down beside that well.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” Whoa. Stop. Problem here. Jesus is interacting with a) a Samaritan and b) a woman. He’s alone, she’s alone; it’s just not the done thing. And Jews didn’t interact with Samaritans. Jews thought Samaritans were an unclean people and that goes back all the way to the time of exile some 600 years earlier. At that time, most of the Jews were carried off to Babylon, but some were left behind, and they married other peoples of the land, and a mixed race developed. When the Jews returned from Babylon, this mixed-race people wasn’t pure enough for their liking, and the Samaritans worshiped at the wrong place—they didn’t worship in Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim near Shechem in the heart of Samaria. Good Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, and they certainly didn’t share things in common. It’s hard to imagine such disdain for another because of their race or where they worship, until you remember that whites and blacks didn’t drink from the same water fountains in the south as recent as fifty years ago. But back to our scene in Sychar—this Samaritan woman knows this man should not be asking this of her, so she asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Jesus doesn’t even answer her question; he completely dismisses the barrier that should have existed between them; he doesn’t even acknowledge that societal barrier, but he goes straight to the heart of the matter. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is intrigued; this guy isn’t trapped by society’s boxes. She wants to know more. “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” She has a keen eye for survival, and deep wells and no buckets do not make for flowing water. But Jesus isn’t interested in mere survival; he’s interested in so much more than that. He responds, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

It didn’t make logical, rational, practical sense, but that woman knew that Jesus had something that she desperately wanted, something that would change her life, forever. She’d been coming to this well for a long, long time, but wells can go dry, and so she had to keep throwing that bucket deeper and deeper and deeper to draw up any water at all. Ever been there? Ever felt like the well is starting to go dry, and you’ve got to dig deeper and deeper and deeper to find that water that can replenish your soul? Have you ever known the fear that that well might go completely dry, and then, where will you be? That’s scary stuff. But Jesus is promising something radically different, and she wants it more than she has ever wanted anything before—“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Last year, I heard this quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the 11th century. He said, “If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than as a canal. A canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, and a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus without loss to itself communicates its superabundant water. In the church at the present day we have many canals but few reservoirs.” Bernard could be living in 2014; Bernard captures perfectly what Jesus is offering to the Samaritan woman and to us.

 So many of us try to be good canals, letting God’s love pour through us, and this is a good and noble thing. Of course, we want to pass God’s love along, but it can easily slip into this seductive place—“if I’m just a good enough vessel of God’s grace, if I am just a clear enough channel, then God’s love should be able to just flow and flow through me to all these places of need in the world, and I’ll never get tired out because it’s God flowing through me, or Jesus flowing through me, and I’m just the vessel.” It’s a good theory, a theologically sound theory, but it just doesn’t seem to work out that way in real life. Why doesn’t it work out that way? Well, partly, because we are infinitely human with lots of cracks, and partly, because we confuse who the Savior is—that would actually be Jesus and not us, but we forget that when we are out in the world trying to do the work. And so, we often find ourselves depleted by constantly giving, and we have to throw our bucket down farther, deeper, and our bucket feels like it has holes in it, and there’s just not enough water to quench the thirst in the world.

But today, Jesus and Bernard give us a new image—you aren’t a canal; you are a reservoir. And Jesus is a spring of water gushing up within you, and the rains of God’s grace shower upon you, and you are overflowing with water. It’s not just flowing through you wearing down your heart as it passes through on to somewhere else; it begins by gushing up within you, filling you full to overflowing with superabundance, and out of your fullness, this love and grace flow out into the world, and as they flow out of you, there is no loss to you, because the flow is coming out of the superabundance. That is a mindbending, lifechanging image. It’s the difference between feeling depleted and bone dry and experiencing a fullness that never diminishes.

Wow, that would be enough right there, but Jesus isn’t done with this woman yet, nor is he done with us. He tells her to go and call her husband knowing full well that she doesn’t have a husband. But Jesus gives her the chance to name that reality and bring it to the light. In fact, once she names that reality, he brings it even more fully out into the light—“Yep, you’re right in saying ‘I have no husband’—you’ve had five husbands, and the one you have right now is not your husband.” This woman’s life was shrouded in shame—in Israel, you only come to the well in the heat of the day at noon for one reason—you’ve done something so beyond the pale that you are not allowed to be with the rest of the community. This woman is ostracized within an ostracized community. And something about her shame being brought to light sets her free to go for the big question—the issue that put her whole community on the fringe—the right place to worship issue. It seems a little nutty to us, but it was a big deal in that world. She challenges Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped here, but you say that the right place to worship is Jerusalem.” And Jesus blows right past the right and wrong of that question to a deeper truth—“the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” It’s not about the right place because it’s not about a location; it’s about a relationship; it’s about the spring gushing up within you; it’s about being a reservoir of that grace. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem—it’s about knowing and worshiping the spirit of God, and that spirit is free as a bird and wild as the wind and as hot and passionate as the fire—you can’t nail that down to a place; you can only let it flow and fill your being and spill out into the world.

When all this had happened, the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She didn’t need to carry the water; she had discovered the infinite source of that water that was gushing up within her. She understood that living water made it possible to bring her shame to light, and she understood why being known, even being known in the darkest recesses of our brokenness is such good news; it is the very essence of liberation. Shame whispers that we’re not worthy of the living water; shame whispers that we don’t deserve this superabundance of God’s love—and Jesus says, “I know exactly who you are and what you’ve done, and you are worthy because I love you, you are worthy because I live inside of your skin, my spirit has taken up residence in you, in you, you are a reservoir overflowing with my love and grace.”

Many people in that city believed because of what the woman said. They asked Jesus to stay in their city a couple of days. He was glad to do so. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” They weren’t content with second-hand knowledge; they wanted to know for themselves, primary experience, first-person experience.

We can hear this story of the Samaritan woman at the well and be profoundly moved by it, but that is not where this story would have us stay—in the end, we are invited into a first-hand experience of Jesus, the kind of experience where we believe, not because we are told to do so, but we believe because we know it to be true from inside our experience.

So, on this Third Sunday of Lent, how thirsty are you?

What is the water for which you long?

What parts of yourself have you ostracized, and which parts of your ostracized self have you ostracized even further?

Have you consigned a part of your being to the noon day sun and left it there to toil alone?

Can you wrap your head around the fact that that is the very part of yourself that Jesus has come to encounter today? Can you accept that that is the very place where Jesus can make the waters flow?

Are you ready to be known as fully, deeply, and intimately as Jesus already knows you?

Are you ready to have your shame lose its power—it can’t live in the light you know? This is no small question—some of us have lived with shame for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.

And as you experience this flood of good news, and release, and liberation, are you ready to lay down whatever jar you’ve been lugging around? Are you ready to travel lighter?

Are you prepared to share this good news that has engulfed your life?

Are you prepared not to settle for second-hand knowledge of Jesus anymore? Are you ready to know these truths for yourself?

Are you ready to let the waters top over the dams you have constructed in your heart?

Are you ready to live in a state of superabundance trusting that these living waters welling up from within really are without end, eternal?

There is a lot going on in this passage, and a lot for us to experience. The woman has left her jar to go back to the city; now it’s your turn. Sit down by that well. Jesus is about to open up a conversation with you, and he is thirsty for you to know the living water he came to give. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 23, 201

It’s Temptation Sunday, Lent 1–Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 1—Year A; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

It’s the first Sunday of Lent, and that means it’s temptation Sunday! So, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just been baptized. He’s just experienced the Spirit of God coming down on him; he’s just heard that voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” So, kids, when you were baptized, what did your family do for you right after the service? That’s right, they had a party! You know what Jesus got right after his baptism? No party! The same Spirit that came down upon him in that really cool way, that same Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The devil, diabolos, the one who throws things apart not caring where they fall. In teaching this passage to our 4th-8th graders last month, it dawned on me, this wilderness experience is Jesus’ initiation rite; this is his rite of passage, and a rite of passage is about coming to terms with your identity as you transition from one stage of life to another. Jesus is in the process of going public as a Beloved Son of God. He has always been that, but now, he is coming to terms with it at a deeper level, and he has to go into the wilderness to work out what this identity and vocation is, and what it is isn’t.

So, Jesus fasts for 40 days and forty nights—that’s a long time. And afterwards, he is famished; he’s really hungry. Then the tempter comes. Now, we’ve got to understand a little about the nature of this tempting. So, the word for “to tempt” in greek is “parazo” and it has several meanings:

  • to try whether a thing can be done—as in to attempt, or to endeavor;
  • to make trial of, to test: for the purpose of ascertaining someone’s quality, or what he thinks, or how he will behave—and this can be in a good way, or in a malicious and crafty way where the person is expected to prove their feelings or judgments;
  • and finally, it means to try or test one’s faith, virtue, or character by enticing them to sin.

There is a lot going on in this business of temptation.

So the tempter comes to Jesus, and presents him with three tests. What are they? Turn stones to bread, leap from the pinnacle of the temple and dare God to catch you, and the gaining the kingdoms of the world if you’ll just worship the one who lives to drive people apart. And the first two are loaded with a challenge on the front end—“If you are the Son of God…” “C’mon Jesus, if you are the Son of God, do this…” Hmmmm. Them’s fighting words.

What is the nature of each of these temptations? To what is Jesus having to say “No”? Remember, baptismal life is always about saying “Yes” to some things and saying “No” to others.

The stones to bread bit is about the quick fix. I mean, it’s understandable, Jesus is really, really hungry. A little bread would be lovely right about now. It would be so expedient to change all those stones in that Judean wilderness into bread. But Jesus is not about the quick fix. Jesus is about something much deeper—transformation, and often times, transformation is no quick process. Sometimes, it is quite sudden and dramatic, but often it is a long, slow, process. The quick fix often feels good; it brings relief, but that is a hair’s breadth away from turning Jesus into a dealer feeding our various and sundry addictions. Jesus says, “No. No quick fix. Come and follow me. This is the work of a lifetime.”

The second temptation, “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and dare God to catch you.” Ah, this is the temptation to the miraculous, the temptation to turn God into a magician at our beckon call. This is the temptation to avoid pain; this is the perspective that says, “If I just believe hard enough, if I just have enough faith, then nothing bad will ever happen to me. God will swoop in and make it all okay.” And sometimes, the miraculous does happen; I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have also seen suffering that is deep and profound that is not alleviated. Jesus doesn’t take the bait of turning God into a magician who can magically pull some levers to make it all okay. Jesus is going for something so much deeper—a God who will plant God’s very self at ground zero of suffering. The fact is bad things do happen to us no matter how much we believe in God, no matter how much faith we have. Cancer happens, car wrecks happen, violent death happens, war, hunger, unemployment, broken relationships, rejection—these all happen.  Sometimes, they happen through no fault on our own; and, sometimes, it’s as if we’ve taking a flying leap off the pinnacle of the temple careening toward the mess that is fast coming to meet us—whatever the root cause, bad things will happen, and when they do, Jesus refuses to turn God into a Superhero who will swoop in, wave a magic wand, and make it all okay; Jesus does something much more radical—he willingly stretches out his arms and bears God right into the heart of the suffering and says, “I am here; God is here; and here God will remain. Period.”

The third temptation, the kingdoms of the world. Oh, the temptation to power and control. Just think what Jesus could do if he were in charge. Why, he could make countries get along and make governments do the right thing by their people. He’d be a great king, a wise and benevolent leader. But that’s leading from the top, leading from above, with a good bit of loving coercion, I might add. But that is not the way of Jesus, that is not the way of the Beloved Son; he will lead from below. He does not want to lord it over anyone—that would make a mockery out of the whole notion of incarnation. Jesus wants only to dwell with us, right where we are, breathing his life into our skin, shining his light into our darkness. To rule over all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus would have to relinquish his solidarity with all of humanity, especially his solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the weak, and he just can’t do that. He came to breathe divinity into all flesh, and he won’t do anything that pulls him apart from that communion with us.

When it was all said and done, the devil, diabolos, left him, and the angels came and waited on him.

There is one other aspect of temptation that comes out this morning through the Genesis passage that is important for us to think about. There, the LORD God has put the man in the garden and told him he could eat freely from every tree of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil—if you eat from that one, you shall die. Time passes, the woman comes on the scene, and the crafty serpent says to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” Did you catch that? God says, “You have all of this, every tree, to eat from”overflowing abundance—and the serpent turns that on its head and goes to the place of deprivation“You can’t eat from any tree.”

The woman corrects the serpent, but when she does so, she takes the command not to eat and extends it to a command not to eat or touch. The serpent tells the woman, “Oh, you won’t die. God said that because God knows that when you eat of that tree, then you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, when the woman saw that the tree was (1) good for food, (2) a delight to the eyes, and (3) desired to make one wise, she took of that fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

So, who was right, God or the serpent? Both. The serpent was right, the woman and the man didn’t physically die, and their eyes were opened to a new kind of knowing. And, God was right; the woman and the man did die that day—they died to their innocence. And somehow, as they came into that deeper knowing of good and evil, so also something else was born, a capacity for shame and a desire to cover our nakedness, that innate desire that we human beings have to cover our vulnerability was born.

The temptation came in the form of something good, in fact, several somethings good: food, beauty, wisdom. But hidden in that temptation was the desire to be like God with the fullness of knowledge, but are we really ready to know that much? There is such a fine line between being content with our humanity and its capacity to enflesh the divine radiance that lives within us, there is a fine line between standing in that place and easing God right on out of the picture and putting ourselves in God’s place trying to control every last aspect of our existence by trying to know and anticipate every contingency. The first is lived in relationship with God, with the Creator, the second is lived trying to be God in our life and in the lives of the those around us. It’s tricky, and there is always the temptation to move from the first to the second.

 

As we see these four temptations this morning, where do we see the dynamics of temptation in our life?

Where do we yearn for the quick fix?

How does a belief that bad things should never happen to us separate us from those who suffer?

How does our desire to be on top break solidarity with others?

How do we attempt to exercise Godlike control over our life and the lives of others?

What are we saying “Yes” to, and where do we need to say some “No’s”?

Jesus is working out what it will mean to live as a Beloved Son; he is working out the parameters of his vocation.  In this Lenten season, this is our work. What will it mean for you to live as Beloved Son or a Beloved Daughter of God? What will be the parameters of your vocation? How will you say “Yes”? To what do you need to say “No”? And we can rest assured, that as we enter this wilderness time, as we wrestle with our own temptations, Jesus will be right there with us. He knows this journey, intimately. And in the end, the devil will not win. We will not be thrown apart. We are in communion with Jesus, and that can’t be undone. And just as the angels came and waited on Jesus, so too, one day, we will look up and see the angels all around us—in a hug, in a knowing look of compassion, in an unexpected kindness, in a felt presence of God. The wilderness doesn’t last forever, though 40 days can seem like an eternity. Nevertheless, this is a rite of passage we must make if we are to discover the transformative power that yearns to be set free within us. The Spirit will lead you there, Jesus will meet you there, and the angels will be waiting for you on the other side.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 9, 2014

Ash Wednesday

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Ash Wednesday; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Sunday, Jesus led us to the mountaintop, and it was a glorious sight! And if we had any illusions about what he said on the way back down about the Son of Man having to die, if we had any doubts about this descent journey that Jesus had in mind, we don’t have them now. That mountaintop seems a world away. Our feet are firmly planted squarely back on earth, and all we are left with today is the nakedness of our utter humanity.

This is one of those liturgies that strips us bare. By the end of it, we just have nowhere left to hide. For the vast majority of our life throughout the year, we can hold it together, wear the mask, put forward the face we want the world to see—this is actually what Jesus is getting at when he tells the disciples not to do as the hypocrites do. We all know what a hypocrite is—it’s a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs [Merriam-Webster]. But the original meaning is deeper than that. In the greek, it means “an actor, a stage player, a pretender, a dissembler.” Ooooh—I had to look that last one up. To dissemble is “to put on an appearance of, to simulate, to hide under a false appearance, to hide your true feelings and opinions.” A dissembler is one whose outsides and insides don’t line up. And it can go both directions—it may be that you see lots of great external actions, but the inside motivations are dark, or it could be that one has thoughts, opinions, feelings, dreams, hopes that live deep within but never find their way to the surface—all those possibilities remain hidden. In both cases, we act our way through life, never really inhabiting our own skin.

Jesus is telling the disciples, “This is not the life I have in mind for you. Your inner life is aligned with me, with God, with Spirit, and your outer life is the sacrament of that—your outer life is the outward and visible sign of that grace that lives within you—that’s what it means to live a holy life. Not a perfect life, but a holy life.”

But the problem is we are mortal. We are infinitely human. We bear the divine breath, but it is breathed into dust—we have feet of clay. We get out of vertical alignment with God, and our lives fall out of alignment in that horizontal plane of time and space, and it all starts to go awry. And today, our scriptures and our prayers of confession mark out all the ways it can go astray.

Isaiah calls attention to what this looks like communally—widening gaps between rich and poor, disregard for workers, disregard for those in need, deepening levels of oppression of all sorts—and in the classic sense of “hypocritical”—all these actions are done under the cover of good, pious, religious expression. Hear again Isaiah: “They delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ And God responds, Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day… Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist…”

Paul reminds us that salvation isn’t some future state, but it is a present reality. When we are out of alignment, little fault lines start to develop in our relationships—sometimes, they’re barely noticeable; sometimes, chasms open up. Paul is right, we are in need of reconciliation, and the time is now: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.” The only obstacle in our way is us. Now is the time to be reconciled, to God, to our neighbor, to ourselves, and in that reconciliation, we will discover our salvation, the wholeness for which we long.

Jesus does a direct assault on the False Self in the section of Matthew we hear today. All the things the “hypocrites,” “the actors,” do is “to be praised by others, to be seen by others, to show others, to store up for themselves treasure.” These go to the heart of at least two of the three power centers of the False Self—our insatiable need for esteem and affection and our need for safety and security. And, in the passage just before this section of Matthew where Jesus lays out his radical teaching on nonviolence, Jesus drains the third power center of the False Self of its juice—our need for power and control.

The False Self is that part of us that emerges when we lose sight of our alignment with God. That alignment is always there, but we forget where True North is, we fail to see our True Self, we fail to live in the fullness of our irrevocable, indissoluble, incomprehensible connectedness to God that is the basis for all reality. The glorious truth is that we are never not connected to God. But we lose touch with this alignment, and when we do, the False Self is ever at the ready to spring to life in its anxious search for God—if only our False Self could see who we really already are! Richard Rohr is right, the False Self isn’t the bad self; it’s just not the True Self.

The ashes we receive today ground us firmly in our earth-based, feed-of-clay humanity. And if we aren’t deeply in touch with our mortal limits as we are marked with these ashes, our prayers of confession will finish us off with exquisite specificity. They leave no rock unturned. Every last way we blow it is laid bare for all our brothers and sisters, and God, to see.

Today, and this season of Lent that stretches in front us, is meant to strip us bare, right down to the core, right down to the heart, so that our heart can be calibrated once again to True North, to that Holy Mystery whom we call God. This season is about searching out and discovering all the ways we have lost our alignment, so that, with God’s help, we can once again live out of that space of holy alignment where our divine bearings find expression in our human living, and our outsides and our insides once again express one another with that integrity, that wholeness that is the very essence of salvation.

This is the hardest journey you will ever make; it will feel like death, but this is always the price of discovering resurrection life. As hard as it is today to begin this journey, do not forget that, at the end, an empty tomb awaits us, our burial chamber will be opened, and we, with Jesus, will leave our graveclothes behind. Amen.

 

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

The Transfiguration, Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A

Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A; Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Someone asked me this week, “I thought the Feast of the Transfiguration was in August, so why do we get this story today?” It’s a good question.  Every year, on the last Sunday after Epiphany, on the Sunday before we march into Lent, we get this story, why? And I think there are several answers to that question.

Way back on January 6th, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany—a feast that is full of light, and the Sundays that follow are all about all the ways that Jesus is made known in the world, all the ways that he is made manifest. And so, now, as we close out this season after the Epiphany, we get this scene that is full of light and radiance—Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.

And, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we hear all about Jesus’ baptism, and we hear that incredible proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then today, we hear again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” So, today is kind of a bookend to what was proclaimed at the beginning of this season.

And finally, there is this sense of movement in the gospels. Up to this point, we have been climbing. It is still very much an ascent theology, almost a belief that Jesus is the ONE, and he’s going to lead us to these incredible heights, and it’s all going to be great. And today we reach the pinnacle—this is the quintessential experience, this is the epitome of “the mountaintop experience” literally. And yet, at the end of the passage, as they [are] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Uh oh, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” which means that the Son of Man is going to die, which means this is not going to go as we thought this was going to go. This is not going to be a perpetual ascent until we are all sitting on top of the mountain enjoying our panoramic view of life. No, the journey with Jesus is going to be about descent. He is going to drag us off this mountaintop all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to Good Friday, all the way to the cross. And so, it makes sense that we go to the mountaintop today before we start our Lenten journey to Jerusalem on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.

Just a couple of other things about this story, places where we might connect. First, treks up mountains aren’t easy—climbing up mountains can be a slog. It may be easier with Jesus leading the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy work. Sometimes, walking the journey is just plain hard.

Next, there is this element of surprise, of things not going quite like you had envisioned. Peter and James and John may have been excited at the prospect of getting some alone time with Jesus. I mean, after all, there were always those crowds wherever they went, and if not the crowds, there were always those other disciples—Peter, James, and John probably craved some time to have Jesus all to themselves, some time to hangout with Jesus with just a few buddies. And lo and behold, Moses and Elijah come and crash their party. No doubt they were shocked and stunned to see Moses and Elijah there, but they might also have felt a little jealous. One thing is to be sure, the journey with Jesus is always full of surprises and will rarely go how we think it will go in any given situation.

And what of Moses and Elijah? Why Moses and Elijah? Well, they are the premier icons for the law and the prophets. Because of all the passages that we have been hearing the last several weeks from the Sermon on the Mount about Jesus not coming to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, it seems even more important that it is Moses and Elijah who come to stand next to Jesus, one more way for us to see that Jesus stands in continuity with the law and the prophets, not apart from them. But just as the “but I say to you” passages in the Sermon on the Mount reinterpret the law and the prophets and take us beyond the “letter of the law,” so too what happens on that mountaintop takes us to a new place.

So, Peter, bless his heart, once he gets over his shock that his afternoon picnic with Jesus has just been crashed by Moses and Elijah, Peter sets out to do what he does best, give voice and action to our most human inclinations. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” So, Peter grabs ahold of the fact that the law and the prophets are right there with Jesus, and he wants to immortalize it, box it in, concretize it, fix it in a place. And what happens next is fascinating! Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

And now, the words from II Peter today start to make sense: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

We can’t fix the law and the prophets in one place; Jesus pushes them always further…“you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” And now, we get an even deeper interpretative lens—“the Son, the Beloved, listen to him!Everything we hear in scripture, all the law, all the prophets, it has to run through the Beloved One; it has to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus, his life, his love, his healing, his provoking, his dying, his rising. You can’t fix it in a place; you have to let it grow and evolve and move and breathe as he lives and moves in each situation we encounter. We have to listen continually for his voice in each situation. None of this is static; it is always evolving.

Finally, there’s the really odd command to tell no one. As [they’re] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” As we noted earlier, a part of this is pointing us toward what’s coming, but there is another piece to this as well.  Sometimes, an experience is simply beyond words. Sometimes, you just have to sit with the experience without words, without trying to process it, without trying to talk it out. Sometimes, you just have to let the vision swirl around in your soul, resonate at deeper levels of your being. There will be a time to talk about it, but it will be later, for now, just be with the experience and let it continue to teach you from the inside.

So, today, we get to go to the mountaintop and see Jesus in a new light and wrestle with a different set of temptations—it’s good for us to know that temptations don’t always come in the dark, sometimes they come with the light. And as we face our desire to fix things in a certain place, as we hear that voice point us in a different direction, as we confront our fear, and as we understand that we have to leave this mountaintop and start our descent, Jesus [comes to us] and [touches us], “Get up and do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” Fixed dwellings here won’t help us on the way to Jerusalem, or anywhere else that life might take us—we have something so much better, and we hear Jesus say it in the very last sentence of Matthew’s gospel. This is after Jerusalem, after the cross, after the resurrection, Jesus says, “You have me. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We have the presence of our Lord, before us, beside us, within us, meeting us, moving with us, always, to the end of the age.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 2, 2014

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – 2/23/2014

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Okay, today we get to keep on rolling with the “You have heard it said…but I say to you” passages. This is more of Jesus unpacking how he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them and how our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Yippee!

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Okay, kids, what’s it called when someone hurts you and you hurt them back thinking that will make you feel better? That’s right, the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus continues, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;” Okay, you’ve got to know a couple of things for this to make sense. And here, and throughout this sermon, I will be drawing heavily on the teaching of Walter Wink in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. I commend his book to you.

Wink notes that this was a right-handed culture. So, if you make a fist with your right hand, where is the blow going to land? That’s correct, on the left cheek. To strike the right cheek, would require using your left fist, you’d have to use your left hand, but you aren’t permitted to use your left hand because in that society, the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. In fact, in the Qumran community, even to gesture with the left hand carried a penalty of exclusion and ten days’ penance. So, if your right fist can’t do it, and your left fist can’t do it, how do you land a blow on the right cheek? That’s right, you use your right hand, and you do a backhanded slap.

This is not a fistfight, a blow delivered between equals. Wink notes, “This is a slap meant to humiliate, meant to put someone in his or her “place”; back then, this was the normal way of admonishing inferiors—masters backhanded slaves, parents backhanded children, men backhanded women, Romans backhanded Jews….[This is] a set of unequal relations, [and in each situation] retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission”—to fight is suicidal which leaves only flight as the other alternative.

But Jesus offers a third way. At first it seems bizarre until you get what he’s doing. So, if you do as Jesus says and turn and offer your left cheek, you have just robbed your oppressor of his power. He can’t backhand your left cheek because your nose is in the way, and if he strikes you with his right fist, he’s just acknowledged that you are his equal. The oppressor has just been forced to recognize [the] subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his ability to dehumanize the other. Wink notes, “This act doesn’t admonish passivity and cowardice; this is an act of defiance.”

+++

Next, Jesus says, “…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What’s going on here? Wink provides the context here as well. Really, really poor people often didn’t have collateral to offer up as a pledge for their loan, so they would offer their outer garment as collateral. But the law demanded [Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17] that the lender give the outer garment back at sunset so that the borrower would have it to sleep in. So you’ve got someone here who’s really poor and who’s gotten so far in debt that the lender, the creditor, is trying to haul them into court and seize their outer garment. Indebtedness was a huge issue in this society, so Jesus’ listeners are all ears. Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—indebtedness was a huge issue. So, what does Jesus counsel? Give your undergarments too!

The words in this passage for “coat” and “cloak” are two different words—one means an outer garment that you wear to protect yourself from the weather and the other is your undergarment. Jesus is saying if someone is trying to sue you for your coat, strip down right there in court and hand them your underwear too and walk out naked! What?! Wink writes, “You have said in effect, ‘You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”

Oh, it’s such an elegant response because, as Wink rightly points out, in Judaism nakedness was taboo, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness. [Genesis 9:20-27]. So, as you walk out into the street buck naked, you are calling attention to the whole crazy system that renders a whole social class landless and destitute; you’re calling attention to a system that relentlessly oppresses debtors. And maybe, because this is such an outrageous scene, the lender can see, maybe for the first time, how his practices impact the life of a real human being.

Jesus continues, “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Again, Wink helps us understand the context. A Roman legionnaire, or any of the auxiliary soldiers that were stationed in and around Judea at the time, could ask a civilian to carry their pack one mile, but no more. Mile markers were placed regularly along the roads. It was actually an enlightened practice serving both to keep the army efficiently on the move while at the same time limiting both the burden on and, more importantly, the anger of the occupied peoples. Under military law, violation of this rule carried severe penalties for the soldier. Wink notes, “Nevertheless, this [practice] was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.”

Wink notes that Jesus doesn’t counsel revolt—to revolt against Roman imperial might was futile, but, he asks, “Is this some kind of aiding and abetting the enemy?” Wink writes, “The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules, that is God’s, and Caesar has no power of that.”

So, you are asked to carry this 65-85 pound pack, and at the one mile marker, you keep going. What’s the soldier thinking? “What are you up to? Why are you doing this? What are the other soldiers going to think? Are they going to think that I’m weak? Am I going to get in trouble because you’re going the second mile? Are you going to file a complaint against me because you are going a second mile?” And you have just thrown the soldier completely off his game. Wink concludes, “You have just taken back the power of choice. If the soldier enjoyed feeling superior [over you], he won’t enjoy it today…Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, ‘Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!’ The humor would not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.”

Jesus continues with another “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is about not dividing the field, not even with your enemy. This is about refusing to cede away the ground of kinship. This is about refusing to dehumanize your enemy, even as they dehumanize you. It’s just impossible to dehumanize someone while you are sending love toward them and praying for them. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous—we are radically equal in God’s eyes. Love has to flow without constraint, out in all directions. Compassion, respect—these can know no boundaries. “Be perfect, be perfect as God is perfect”—who can live up to this? But the greek work for perfect here is “teleios”—it’s the kind of perfection that comes when something is brought to its end, finished, when it doesn’t need anything else to be complete. We are incomplete when we are cut off from others. The perfection that God longs for us to have, and that God already holds in the divine heart, is that we are all equal before God; we are all kin; indeed, we are one.

So, why is this passage from the Sermon on the Mount so important? Well, partly because, throughout the ages, the interpretation of this passage has been such a train wreck causing profound damage and leading people to be doormats because they thought Jesus told them to do so. This is one of the most misunderstood of all of Jesus’ teachings, and so it’s important that we see what Jesus actually meant.

There is some history here, and again, Walter Wink throws light where we desperately need it. When the King James’ translators translated the greek, they translated the word “antistenai” as “resist not evil”, and they translated nonviolent resistance into docility. But the word is a compound word coming from “anti” meaning “against” and “histemi” which in its noun form means “violent rebellion, armed revolt, or sharp dissension”—it’s used primarily for military encounters. Wink says that a proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would be, “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.” “Do not retaliate violence with violence.” Wink believes, and I agree, that Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than Roman resistance fighters, the difference is over the means he uses: how one should fight evil. The King, as in King James, had no interest in a nonviolent means that was active and engaged and would dare to fight evil. The crown did not want the subjects thinking they could challenge the crown, and we have been living with a lousy translation and interpretation ever since.

If our biological programming gives us fight (violent opposition) or flight (passivity) as the only responses to evil, Jesus gives us a third way which Wink calls militant nonviolence. Wink says, “Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.” And the three examples Jesus uses this morning point to the ways this gets worked out on the ground. One might wish that Jesus had given us about a 100 more examples to see what this looks like in the flesh, but that is what we will have to work out together when something comes at us, and we feel we are in that fight or flight position.

Wink does tell one modern story that I think is worth passing along, and maybe our kids will appreciate this more than the grown-ups. So, there was a kid who was the smallest kid in the class, and he suffered greatly with sinusitis, so he also had a lot of gunk coming out of his nose. There was this bully on his bus who terrorized all the kids. One day, the small kid with the active nose had had it with the bully. He blew his nose into his right hand and walked back to the bully and extended his hand and said, “I’ve always wanted to shake the hand of a real bully.” The bully backed up all the way to back of the bus until he meekly sat down. The bully never bothered anybody on that bus again. And, Wink notes, the really cool thing here is how the kid used a weakness as a strength to deal with the bully.

So, let’s be clear hear, Jesus isn’t counseling victims of domestic violence to keep getting beaten up, but what creative act can they do to gain back their power, to stop the cycle of humiliation, to reclaim their dignity and equal status? It may be something that gets the partner to see them as their equal, or it may be taking action to get out of the relationship. The action has to be worked out in each specific context. What Jesus is encouraging here is to move beyond fight or flight to a creative, empowering, liberating third way that’s not passive and that’s not violent retribution, but an action that has the capacity to birth something new into the situation. Such an act will not only have the capacity to transform the one who has been on the bottom for so long by restoring dignity and worth where none has been accorded, but such an act also has the capacity to transform the one who has held the power by pulling back the curtain on their act and putting them in a situation where they have to see the one whom they are oppressing in a new light. Wink notes, “There is…the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.” What a powerful statement!

So, whether it be at the structural levels of our society where we are confronting the Powers That Be, or whether it be in the more immediate realm of our personal relationships, there are times when we all feel that fight or flight reaction. Can we cultivate such a spiritual discipline that, in those moments, we can pause and access the Christ who lives deep within us and ask ourselves:

“How could I choose to respond right now that would neither retaliate nor flee nor do an impersonation of a doormat, but instead would lay claim to my dignity as a beloved son or daughter of God?

What could I do to enflesh my equality and proclaim my kinship to every other human being on this planet?

What could I do to unmask the injustice and unleash the love that knows no bounds?

What could I do that would step out onto a third way path, and do I trust, do I believe, that Jesus will walk that path with me?”

If today’s teaching from Matthew is any indication, Jesus can’t wait to see what we’ll do. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 23, 2014

 This sermon has drawn heavily on the teaching of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. Please read his book.

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – 2/9/14

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9;

Matthew 5:21-37

Remember last week how Jesus told us that he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, and how he said that [our] righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, today, he starts working out exactly what that means, and each section starts with a familiar refrain, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” Oh, that “but I say to you…” that’s always the problem; that’s always where the rubber meets the road.

The law said, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,’ but Jesus extends this to how we strike down one another with our anger, our insults, and our slights.

When something is amiss in our relationships, and we’ve been wronged, it’s hard enough to make the first move toward the one who has offended us and seek reconciliation, but Jesus has us go a step or two or a hundred further; Jesus asks us to think about what our brother or sister may have against us? As we stand before this altar, preparing to make our offering, what wrong might our brother or sister perceive that we have done to them? We have to think about that; Jesus asks us to leave our gift right here before the altar and go to our brother and sister and work it out, be reconciled to them, then we are to come back and offer our gift. Wouldn’t it be something if some Sunday we just stopped church right at the offertory and went and made peace wherever we needed to and came back the next week and resumed our worship. Something to think about.

Jesus continues. If we’ve been accused of some wrong, Jesus wants us to sort it out with our accuser before we hit the courts. What if we embraced mediation as the norm in resolving our disputes?

Next, Jesus moves into the realm of the personal. The law says, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but Jesus says if you look at a woman, and let’s be equitable and add “or a man,” if you look at a woman or a man with lust in your heart, you’ve committed adultery already. Jesus teases out that we can keep to the letter of the law in our closest relationships, but still violate the sanctity of our commitments. It was also said, that ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but Jesus says divorce is no small thing; it is a very big thing. Even Jesus thought there were legitimate grounds for divorce, but the reality of divorce in that society was a socioeconomic disaster for the woman. This is addressed to men who held the power in that day, and it is hardness of heart here that Jesus is after. Breaking off a marriage for trivial reasons or because the grass looks greener somewhere else will ripple forward in all kinds of waves of brokenness. The law allowed it, but Jesus saw the profound ramifications of a casual attitude toward marriage.

And sandwiched in-between the counsel on adultery and the counsel on divorce, there is this truly bizarre teaching which is pretty graphic. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it’s better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” What are we to make of this? Is Jesus counseling amputation? For those in our community who have had to experience amputation for medical reasons, this seem outrageous to consider; that Jesus would simply tear out or chop off a part of the body that was working perfectly well medically is unthinkable. Okay, this is one of those places where we need to give Jesus a little credit for his rhetorical skills, for his highly skilled use of hyperbole. If we literalize Jesus here, we will totally miss the point. Jesus is saying, “There is no such thing as sin in isolation. There is no such thing is an ability to compartmentalize sin. There is no such thing as thinking we can contain sin to a little part of our life, to a small part of being and think it won’t affect the whole of our life and the whole of our being.” If there is some piece of us that thinks we can dabble in this or that which is contrary to the lifegiving way of God, we are kidding ourselves.

What Jesus is pushing for here, and throughout all of these “but I say to you” passages, is an integrity of life and being. So, if some piece of us is pulling us off center, pulling us off the path, we need to let it go so that we can be whole. The alternative is hell—a state of being where we are at war with ourselves, a state where we experience separation within our self, with God, and ultimately with our neighbor. If we are being dishonest in some part of our life, it ultimately will poison all of our relationships. Cultural examples to the contrary, we human beings just aren’t made to live dual-lives, and human beings that are even just a little awake will eventually buckle if they try to do so. Covering tracks, keeping a false story going, not ever being able to be fully honest with yourself or anyone else, that’s its own kind of hell. Jesus is using really strong language here, but what he is arguing for is an integrity of being and life that ultimately is lifegiving.

The law said, “You shall not swear falsely,” but Jesus says don’t swear at all. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than that comes from the evil one, the diabolical one, the one who seeks always to throw things apart. So many of us struggle to be clear in our “Yes’s” and “No’s”—it just is so hard for a southerner to be that straightforward—we’re so nice, so polite.

When I was a young intern at the Cathedral in Louisville, the organist from deep southern Alabama and I had to sit down one day with the Dean of the Cathedral, who was from Philadelphia (she was a Yankee). She couldn’t figure out why she kept landing in hot water with the things she’d say to people. We explained to her, that in the south, you take 15 minutes to say “No” and then the other person isn’t ever quite clear that you have said “No.” She thought that was ridiculous. Our counsel may have been sound diplomatic counsel, but it was dead wrong where Jesus is concerned.

Say “Yes,” say “No,” say it as lovingly as you can, but say it clearly, otherwise, everything gets all muddled, and no one can move forward when it’s all murky.

Not to mention the fact that baptismal life is always about saying “Yes” and saying “No.” We say “No” in our baptismal renunciations; we say “Yes” in our baptismal affirmations. Take a look at the baptismal vows, they are all about saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others.

In many, many ways, the law laid out a good ethic, and in so many ways, a such better ethic than what the people of ancient times had known, but Jesus sees how easy it is to slip into a legalistic keeping of the law that sacrifices the spirit of what it intended. Jesus sees how a righteous keeping of the law can actually hide horrific practices that hurt and destroy the creatures of God. Jesus is calling us to a deeper ethic of love that will push all of us out of comfort zones at every turn.

So, how are we doing with our anger?

What language are we using to describe those with whom we disagree?

Are we stopping to think about what others may have against us?

Are we eager to escalate conflict?

How are we doing in our most intimate relationships? Are we avoiding the hard work of intimacy opting instead for the infinite number of distractions our culture offers us on a daily basis?

Are we compartmentalizing our lives and declaring some areas off-limits to God?

How are we holding to our commitments?  Are we treating them as holy and sacred?

What about the integrity of our word? Are we able to say the “Yes’s” that we need to say, and just as importantly, are we able to say the “No’s” we need to say?

Our faith dares to proclaim that there are ways to live that are more lifegiving than others, and our faith has been proclaiming this since Moses stood up and addressed the people just as they were getting ready to cross over into the promised land—“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess…

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

There are ways that we can live that bring life and allow us to enjoy the land that God promises when our lives line up with an ethic of love, or we can hand our lives over to other gods and lose our capacity to be present to the life of wholeness that God longs for us to know. And it is always a choice; it is always a choice.

Today, Jesus is as clear as he can be, “You have heard it said…but I say to you, ‘Choose to live this way; choose life.’” Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 16, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/9/14; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Okay, this is one of those “don’t shoot the messenger” sermons.  I didn’t write these scriptures, and I didn’t assign them for today, but this is what we have, and this is what we have to wrestle with, and the “we” includes me, as well as you. 

So, hang on, and here we go.

Isaiah 58—Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

This is a convicting passage, hard to hear, brutal to receive.  This is chapter 58, and best I can tell, Isaiah has been railing about these issues since chapter 3.  There Isaiah says this: The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.  The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.  In chapter 10, Isaiah gets sharper: Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! 

God is not happy with the state of the house of Jacob, i.e. Israel.  God’s chosen people have forgotten why they were chosen—always for service, never for privilege.  God sees a situation where the elders and princes, the elites of the day, are getting rich on the backs of the poor.  God isn’t just addressing individuals here; God is addressing the nation.  God sees workers who are being oppressed, homeless poor who have nowhere to lay their head, and those who are naked, completely vulnerable.  God sees a society where the fabric is so torn that the people at the people at the top can’t bear to see the people at the bottom—“they hide from their own kin”—they have forgotten that the poor and oppressed are family to them.  God sees a world where those in power are writing ordinances that continue to fill their own coffers and statutes that continue to stack the decks against the poor and put justice for the needy out of reach.  And the most galling part of all of this is that it’s all being done under the guise of religious piety.  The elders and princes and priests are still keeping all the appointed fasts, and making all the appointed offerings, all done decently and in good order, and all the while the world outside their doors is absolutely falling apart.

This is painful to hear, painful because it is way too close to home.

You can’t turn on the news right now without hearing some story about income inequality and reduced social mobility.  Let me run down a couple of the statistics.  The Dodd-Frank rule that came out of the 2009 financial meltdown requires public companies to disclose the pay gap between CEO’s and their workers.  The Securites and Exchange Commission is still working to implement this rule.  The Washington Post reported this past June that the ratio of CEO pay to average, not lowest paid but average, worker pay is 273:1, 273 times more.  In 1965, that ratio was 20:1.  The average pay for CEOs of the top 350 firms was $14.1 million in 2012, up 37.4% from 2009.  The most egregious case is JC Penney.  That CEO made 1,795 times more than the average worker—that works out to $26,625/hr vs. the average worker whose rate was $14.27/hr, and by all accounts, he did a lousy job lasting just 17 months in the job.

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that 95% of income gains from 2009-2012 went to the wealthiest 1%.  During that period, the top 1% saw their incomes climb 31.4% while the bottom 99% saw growth of .4%.  Granted, the top 1% lost a ton of money (36.3%) when the financial markets tanked, but a whole lot of people at the bottom lost their retirements, their pensions, their wages, and their jobs (11.6% loss of income).  Those at the top have recouped those losses almost completely (31.4%), the bottom 99% have not (.4%).  Last year, the richest 10% received more than half of all income—50.5%, the largest share since such record-keeping began in 1917.  The bottom 90% share of income is below 50% for the first time ever. 

And closer to home, the US Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate in 2012 in Watauga County was 29.5%, almost 1 in 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  22% of our children, in our county, are living in poverty, 1 in 5.  And the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is $23,492.  See how far that annual income will take you in the High Country. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this isn’t ancient Israel; this is us.  This is us.

Can we hear the God who speaks in Isaiah addressing us?  Can we hear the cries of that God trying to shake us out of our complacency?  Something is dramatically, drastically wrong in our society when one person is making millions and millions a year, thousands and thousands an hour, and 1 out of every 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  Something is wrong.

And turning to Jesus isn’t going to make today any easier.  He tells us clearly, “You are the salt of the earth; but if you’ve lost your capacity to get in there and season the food—what good are you? You are the light of the world. You can’t hide your light; you need to throw your light everywhere, especially into the dark places where no one wants to look.”  And then, in the lines that are going to spin us right back to Isaiah (there’s just no escaping Isaiah today, sorry),   Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Ouch. 

Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.  What did the law say about such matters as we have been discussing?  Well, there’s the manna principle from Exodus 16: “Gather as much as each of you needs, according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents…those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed”—and if you tried to hoard it, it rotted.  There is the year of Jubilee put forth in Leviticus 25 which was all about debt forgiveness and redistribution of land which prevented an accumulation of wealth because the land belonged to God anyway.  There was the law not to glean to the edges of your field in Leviticus 19, so that the poor would have food to eat. 

Jesus didn’t come to say Isaiah was irrelevant, but he came to embody that teaching at every turn.  Remember, it is Isaiah that Jesus will use to preach his first sermon in Nazareth when he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him, then he said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook.  No, he’s going to place us more firmly on it—our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  The concerns of the prophet must be our concern as followers of Jesus.

Is there hope?  God offers us a way forward in Isaiah.  It’s a hard one, but there is a way forward.  We are to loose the bonds of injustice, we are to undo the thong of the yoke, we are to work to free those who are oppressed, we are to break the yoke that treats people as a beast of burden, a means to an end.  We are to deal squarely with the food insecurity that exists in our county, 24.2% of our kids are food insecure, 1 in 4, we are to deal squarely with this, and share our food to alleviate it.  The homeless poor are our responsibility.   Those who are vulnerable and exposed are our responsibilityThe poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed—these are our kin; these are our family

And this can’t just be us as individuals doing individual good works.  We must do that; that is a given as a follower of Jesus, but it can’t be only that.  The prophets address the nation.  So does Jesus in the well-known Matthew 25 passage “as you did these things to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did them to be”—when the Son of Man says that, he says it before the nations. The prophets address squarely, and to their own detriment, the power structure that is crushing the poor, and so must we.  We might disagree on precisely how to address these powers and structures; we might disagree on policy approaches, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to call out the powers-that-be when the policies, the ordinances and statutes (to use Isaiah’s words), that are the works of their hands are afflicting so many.  These are not partisan issues; these are foundational moral issues for people of faith.

God has a dream that all of God’s children not just survive, but thrive.  You see, Jesus, and the God whom he enfleshes, they are never about scarcity; they are not even about enoughness; they are about abundance.  A quote from Sr. Joan Chittister came across my email this week, and it stopped me cold.  She says this, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.”  Let me say that again, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.  The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind that sings of the lavish love of God, the kind that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind that reminds us that God is with us always.”  God has a dream that all of God’s children thrive, and as we join God in this dream, Isaiah tells us exactly what will happen: “Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Isaiah says it better than I can.  Today, he gets the last word.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 9, 2014

The Feast of the Presentation

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/2/14; The Feast of the Presentation—Year A; Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 84; Luke 2:22-40

Today is part sermon and part history lesson.

The Feast of the Presentation. It doesn’t often happen that this feast, which takes place on February 2nd, actually lands on a Sunday and gets to take precedence over our normally assigned lessons for today. These are the kinds of things that make a priest’s heart leap for joy—like how to calculate the date of Easter in any given year by finding the Golden Number and the Sunday Letter—yes, it’s true, and if you ever get really bored with a sermon go to page 880 in the Book of Common Prayer, and it tells you all about these magical calculations, but don’t do it today.

But back to The Feast of the Presentation. In the 1549 Prayer Book, the very first prayer book in our tradition, and in the all the prayer books since—1552, 1559, 1662, 1789, 1892, all the way up to the 1928 Prayer Book, there was a little service called The Order for the Purification of Women, a.k.a. The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth commonly called The Churching of Women. It’s been transformed in our prayer book into A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. You can find it on page 439 sandwiched in between the Marriage service and the service for The Reconciliation of a Penitent, and it is a lovely, powerful service to do.

Now, the hearts of those who penned the prayer books, their hearts were in the right place. The Order for the Purification of Women was a service for the woman to give thanks for having survived the pain and perils of childbirth. By the 1928 prayer book, an instruction was added that the Woman needed to come decently apparelled and a blessing for the child was added that the child of this thy servant may daily increase in wisdom and stature, and grow in thy love and service. The rubric that then followed that prayer (a rubric is like a little instruction or stage direction), said the following: The Woman, that cometh to give her Thanks, must offer accustomed offerings, which shall be applied by the Minister and the Church-wardens (heads-up Sr. and Jr. Warden) to the relief of distressed women in child-bed; and if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the Holy Communion—because of course, the woman wasn’t in church prior to this service and would not have been receiving communion.

It all seems a bit antiquated now, but in those days when many women did not survive childbirth, well, you can see why giving thanks for having survived was a big deal. And the offerings were kind of a way for the women to pay it forward and care for other women who were struggling with their pregnancy—kind of a community commitment to the pre-natal care of all women—that’s cool.

The roots of this ritual go all way back to Leviticus 12:1-8. Here, the woman was ceremonially unclean after childbirth7 days for a male child and 14 days for a female child, and her time of blood purification was 33 days for a male child and 66 days for a female child. When the days of her purification were completed, whether for a son or a daughter, she was to bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. The priest would then offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she would be clean from her flow of blood. If she couldn’t afford a sheep, then she was to take two turtledoves or two pigeons, the priest would make the offering, and she would be made clean.

+++

Okay, would all the women in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

These rituals have fallen out of use, but we have to understand that gender bias is deep, deep, deep in our tradition, we have to understand that women have always had this added weight of being called “unclean” simply because of the natural rhythms of their bodies, and that from the beginning, boys were valued more highly than girls. And if we think we are not still dealing with the damaging shockwaves of these beliefs, we are kidding ourselves. Hold that thought.

So, this is what Mary, mother of Jesus, has come to do this morning in our passage from Luke. She and, to his enormous credit, her husband Joseph have come to offer the appointed sacrifice, and since they offered the pair of birds, we know that they were on the lower end of the economic spectrum. They have the added impetus of coming to offer the appointed sacrifice for their firstborn son in accordance with the law. According to Exodus 13:11-16, one was to offer every firstborn male, whether animal or human, except you got to substitute an animal for the human so you weren’t actually practicing child sacrifice. One might ask, “What is all this about? Why do this?” And the law anticipates these questions. It says, “When in the future your child asks, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but the firstborn of my sons, I redeem.’ It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

So, firstborn male animals had to be sacrificed and firstborn male humans had to be redeemed, which meant they were offered but not killed—the animal took the son’s place in the actual act of sacrifice. Now, all of this harkened back to a liberating event—the Exodus—but that liberation was wrought at such a huge, unbelievable cost—the death of so many firstborn sons of the land of Egypt. And so it has been ever since—we sacrifice our sons on the altar of war, we sacrifice our sons on the altar of a version of manhood that says “boys don’t cry” or “man-up,” we sacrifice our sons when we don’t allow them the full range of human feelings because some of those feelings don’t seem very manly or, at the other end, when we tell them that some of their feelings are way too powerful for our comfort—the now infamous Richard Sherman football interview of two weeks ago being a case in point. We have been sacrificing our men for a long, long time.

Okay, would all the men in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

And then there is the whole animal sacrifice thing where animals are completely expendable. The sacrificial system of the temple was violent and bloody and severed the connection between humanity and their kin in the animal kingdom, all of whom God created and all of whom God called “good.”

Would all the animal lovers in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

There is a way in which we all have been harmed by these rituals that are in the marrow of our tradition. Women have been harmed. Men have been harmed. Animals have been harmed. We need to see this harm for what it is, name it, and resist it whenever and wherever it rears its head in today’s world. Take a moment. Look across our culture. Look across the world.

Where is violence against women still raging? Where are women still valued less than men? What ways of being a woman are offered to our daughters?

How are we locking our sons away? It what ways are we pushing or constraining them? What ways of being a man are being offered to our sons?

And how do we understand our care of our animal kin? I never used to think much about this until I had two experiences this past year. The first was seeing the absolute and blatant abuse of animals in India which felt so wrong and somehow seemed related to the unrelenting conditions of poverty that were everywhere—when people feel expendable, everything feels expendable. The second experience has been a weekly occurrence in our Wednesday Healing Service. Every week, faithfully, one person has felt called to stand in for all the abused animals and for those who care for them. Praying healing prayers every week for this has reminded me that we are made to be in relationship with the animals with whom we share this Godgiven creation.

So, what does The Feast of the Presentation say about any of this? It says a lot. Mary and Joseph participate in the traditions of their faith, yes; they are faithful to the law, but as they enter this tradition, and as Jesus embodies this tradition in his flesh, he upends it completely. Those great elders, Simeon and Anna, witness this and immediately see the power of what is happening before their eyes. Simeon praises God saying, “Master, Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon then turns to Mary and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The prophet Anna can’t stop praising God, and she heads out to speak about this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When Simeon speaks of being dismissed, the greek carries the sense of “a slave being set free.” In Jesus, Simeon sees the salvation that God intends—we are set free from all these things that have enslaved us, and set free for wholeness, for healing, for the binding up of wounds, for the reconciling of what has been rent apart. And this healing, this wholeness is for all people—it’s for women, it’s for men, it’s for Gentiles, it’s for Jews, it’s for all of creation. And you can see this as Jesus moves through the gospels in his adult ministry—he’s lifting up women, he’s speaking to the heart of men, he’s crossing every ethnic and racial boundary imaginable, and he has a profound love of lost sheep and things of the earth, which show up rather prominently in his storytelling.

But Jesus’ way of being in the world is not the way the world works. His sheer presence pulls back the curtain on all the ways the world diminishes women and men and all the other ways we divide up and exploit creation—humans, animals, the ground under our feet, the water we drink. His presence will be a sign always revealing how far short we have fallen of the wholeness that God intends for the world. Jesus’ presence will be a sign that will draw opposition from those voices, those powers-that-be, who benefit from, in the words of our baptismal renunciation, “corrupting and destroying the creatures of God.” And we have to be honest, sometimes, those voices live deep inside of us; we have internalized these voices by virtue of the fact that our tradition has perpetuated these distinctions for thousands of years; it is the air we have breathed.

But this morning, Jesus, in his infant flesh, is lifted up, and his presence declares, “No more. In me, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in me. All of creation has dignity and worth. All are beloved in God’s sight. All are declared, at the moment of their creation, ‘tov’, ‘good’.”

So, our work is cut out for us today.

We’ve got to come face-to-face with the dark side of our tradition; we have to come clean about how women have been devalued, how men have been sacrificed, and how animals have been treated as expendable means to an end.

We need to lay claim to the wholeness embodied in Jesus and understand than nothing less than salvation for all of creation is at stake—the prophet Anna is right—the redemption of our world is to be found in this child who makes whole all that is not.

We need to renounce any powers, out there (in the world) or in here (in our heart) that corrupt, destroy, or diminish the creatures of God, and we need to speak and enact Jesus’ vision of oneness, equality, healing and wholeness in all of our words, in all of our deeds. We need to embody the wholeness that Jesus embodies—giving our hearts to that which increases it, withdrawing our energy from that which diminishes it.

And, we need to know that if we go down this path, our own soul, just like Mary’s, will be pierced, but that is how a heart and soul grow tender—such piercing always births a deeper compassion.

Name, claim, proclaim, with all your heart and mind and body and spirit, the good news that is all tied up in the flesh of this child lifted up before God this day. Join Simeon in blessing. Join Anna in sharing the good news. This Feast of the Presentation isn’t just an outdated, archaic, antiquated ritual, but it is hope for the salvation of our daughters and our sons, it is healing for women and men, it is reconciliation for our divisions across the world, it is a weaving back together of the torn fabric of our creation. It is all of this, if we will hear its deeper call and heed it. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 2, 2014

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/19/14; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

There’s a lot cooking in today’s scriptures! Isaiah wrestling with his calling and failure and despair and hope. The psalmist wrestling with despair and finding his footing. Paul reassuring the church in Corinth that they already have everything they need for the work that Christ has given them to do. And John telling us the story of how those first few disciples said “yes” to Jesus. That’s a lot!

Let’s take them in turn and see where we land.

Isaiah is clear that the LORD called him before he was born, called him in the womb. Isaiah knows that God had definitely given him a word to speak to the people of Israel, but Isaiah’s track record has been abysmal. No matter what he said, the people moved farther and farther away from God. God is still convinced that Isaiah is the right vessel to bring God’s people back to a lifegiving path; Isaiah, Isaiah is not so convinced; Isaiah is in despair. “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But on the heels of that despairing voice, another voice rises up. Isaiah continues, “Yet surely my cause is with the LORD…” Then, Isaiah’s little mission explodes like the big bang that gave birth to the universe into this huge, crazy big mission. Isaiah knows that the LORD has called him to something much, much bigger—“[The LORD says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Wow! God isn’t content just to bring back Israel; God wants healing and wholeness and life to reach to the ends of the earth, and Isaiah is to be the light that shines on that hope; Isaiah is to illuminate that vision, point to that path.

First, do you understand that God has called you, specifically you, given you a word to speak into this world, a word of hope and healing and reconciliation? Can you grasp that this word started taking shape while you were taking shape in the womb and that this word continues to grow and take shape as you continue to grow? Whatever call you may have sorted out is yours at this point in your life, could you consider how God might be asking you to expand it in directions beyond the boundaries of what you can see? Isaiah could only see his call to the people of Israel; God asked him to think bigger. How is God asking you to think bigger for the sake of the world which God loves?

The psalmist has been in the desolate pit, mired down in the mire and clay. I didn’t know until this passage that “mired,” which means “to hamper or hold back, to entangle” comes from “mire,” which is “wet spongy earth, heavy often deep mud or slush.” So, the psalmist is in the pit and stuck. Gosh, any of you ever feel like that??? Do you ever feel like you are spinning your wheels and sinking fast? But the psalmist also has this experience of finding his feet again, of God lifting him out of that space and setting his feet upon a high cliff and making his footing sure. Now then, the psalmist is not out of danger. I am afraid of heights, so I frankly am not too sure whether I would rather be in the desolate pit or up on a high cliff? What I can grab ahold of, though, is that if I’ve got to be on that high cliff, God is there to ground me and make my footing solid and sure. The other thing that is intriguing is that the psalmist is experiencing a new song. Whatever song he’s been singing, whatever story he’s been living out, it’s time for a new one, and that new song has come to the psalmist as gift. The psalmist also knows that there are all kinds of ways to fall off the path. He is choosing to trust in God, but there are plenty of false gods out there, and there are plenty of folks resorting to evil spirits, destructive spirits, destructive ways to move forward. Finally, the psalmist is having to rethink what it is that God really does desire from God’s people—it is burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, animal sacrifices, or is God requiring something else of me? The psalmist finally understands that God isn’t desiring or requiring those externals; what God wants is him. What God wants is you. What God wants is me. And so, the psalmist says, “Behold, I come.” Can we say the same?

Paul is at the very beginning of a very long letter to the church in Corinth, and he will say plenty to challenge them along the way, but right at the beginning, he does two things: he gives thanks for them and he reassures them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift as they wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, thank you for being the body of Christ, for coming together as a community, for bearing one another’s burdens and for celebrating one another’s joys, for helping one another to die, and for giving witness to what it means to truly live. This morning, hear Paul speaking to you, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Got that? You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Everything you need to meet every challenge before you, you already have. It lives inside of you, that’s called the Holy Spirit, and it lives among you and between you as you live as a community as the body of Christ. It is sometimes a matter of unwrapping the gift you have, making use of it, exercising it, sharing it. You have everything you need. That is indeed worth meditating upon.

Finally, the calling of the first disciples. Actually, in John’s gospel it’s not so much a call story—there’s no leaving behind nets in this story. Cynthia Bourgeault has rightly called this “a recognition event.” Something in these disciples recognizes who Jesus really is. It starts with John. Boy, it’s really clear from this passage that he doesn’t understand it at all. He says, “I myself did not know him…I myself did not know him…I myself did not know…but I saw the Spirit descend…I myself have seen…” John didn’t know a lot, but something in him saw Jesus, and seeing, he recognized that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Okay, take off all the filters that immediately fly onto our brains when we hear language like Lamb of God and takes away the sin of the world. Lamb of God is tied to Passover imagery which was ultimately about preserving life and setting a people free. And taking away the sin of the world—could we just think about Jesus closing all the chasms that we open up? If sin is about separation, could we consider that, in Jesus, all the divisions and separations and oppositions of the world are held and loved and reconnected and reconciled, and that this is at least part of what it means to take away the sin of the world?

The main point here is that John recognized something in Jesus that drew him straight to the heart of God, so much so that he tells his disciples about it the next time Jesus walks by, and they off and follow Jesus. Whatever John saw, they saw it, too. Jesus gets the sense that they are following him. Jesus turns around, and he sees them, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” All they can say is, “Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” And they do, and they remained with him that day, and they never left, except to go tell others, “Come and see; we’ve found him. He’s the one. I can’t quite explain it, I can’t articulate it, but there is just something about him. When I saw him, I knew. I don’t know what knew, but something in me knew; I had to follow him, and I had to remain.”

Bourgeault makes the point that the very first disciples didn’t follow Jesus because he had been raised from the dead—that hasn’t happened yet. They didn’t follow Jesus because they learned about Jesus in the creeds—the creeds would come three hundred years later. They follow Jesus because when they looked at him, something in them simply knew, “This is it. This is what I have been looking for. This is my heart’s desire. I have to follow him; I have to stay with him.” Everything else, for them, started there and flows from that point. The way of life they would ultimate live out comes from a moment when they looked at Jesus and saw Jesus and let their heart leap where their heart longed to go.

I might add, that for John, pointing his disciples toward Jesus ultimately would mean the diminishment of his own following—that took some ego strength on John’s part to release his followers to the path that their hearts had to follow. Are we, in the church, prepared for that possibility? If we really truly point people to Jesus, it may mean that their path takes a whole different direction from the one we have been on. Can we trust that this is as it should be? It’s not about St. Luke’s pointing to itself; it’s about St. Luke’s pointing to Jesus. It’s about this community pointing out, “There he is. He is life. Follow him. Remain with him. Let him pull you out of the mire and the muck and the pit. Let him change your name. Let him work with your tender heart. Let him set you on a sure footing. Let him make you steadfast, solid, like a rock. Let your heart leap at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the most ordinary of times and do something crazy like follow Jesus on a journey that you can’t possible control or dictate. He will show you how to die, a thousand times if you let him. And he will show you how to rise again, a thousand times if you let him.”

This is so beyond our heads. This is a recognition event at the deepest levels of our hearts. Jesus isn’t asking you to do anything, except “Come and see.” Do that, and you will never be the same. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 19, 2014