Worship Schedule

DayTimeService
DayTimeService
Sunday8:00 amHoly Eucharist Rite I - Chapel
Sunday9:00 amChristian Formation
Sunday10:15 amGlad News/Sad News
Sunday10:30 amHoly Eucharist Rite II - Sanctuary w/Music
Monday6:00 pmCentering Prayer and Study
Wednesday12:15 pmHoly Eucharist with Healing Ministry

St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Sermons

First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/12/14; First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

 When last we met Jesus, he was just a little guy, a tiny baby, in great danger. His parents had swooped him away to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. Enough time passed, and so did ol’ King Herod, that it was safe to come back to his homeland. His parents weren’t too keen on going anywhere close to Herod’s son in Jerusalem, so they made their home in Nazareth. Time passes, like about 30 years, and Jesus makes his way out of Galilee to the Jordan River where his cousin John was in the habit of baptizing people.

 In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t know a thing about Jesus from the time he was that little baby being whisked here and there all the way until now. But one might guess that Jesus and John kept crossing paths throughout those years, after all, they were second cousins, and their mamas were awfully close. Remember, Elizabeth and Mary had shared that wonderful moment in their pregnancies when John and Jesus recognized one another in the womb. The paths of these two men were destined from the beginning to keep crossing. No doubt, there’d been plenty of family reunions over the years where the boys played and dreamed about what their futures might hold. Can’t you just hear Jesus asking John, “John, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And John replying, “Oh, I don’t know—I think I want to eat locusts and wild honey and be a voice crying in the wilderness preaching repentance, repentance, repentance, and telling all the religious bigwigs that they’re a brood of vipers—yeah, that sounds like fun!” No doubt, Jesus looked up to his older cousin, and probably respected the heck out of him. John might have gotten a little weird, but of one thing you could be sure, he was one dedicated guy; he was dedicated to a demanding and committed spiritual path. The spiritual life for him wasn’t something to be played at; it was for keeps. And there is something awfully compelling about that—there was something about the fragrance of John’s life that Jesus wanted for himself.

 At this point in Jesus’ journey, we don’t really know what his path will entail. In fact, it would seem that Jesus doesn’t even know what this path will entail; he only knows that at age 30, it’s time to get serious about it. It’s time to do something in a really tangible way to signal that whatever else his life might be about, it starts here and it starts now and it starts with baptism. The start of Jesus’ active ministry starts with surrendering himself into John’s hands. Even Jesus couldn’t baptize himself.

 And so he comes to John, but John has always had a sense that it was Jesus who was destined for great things. Jesus coming to him seems backwards to him. John doesn’t feel worthy to do this for Jesus, and he tries to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus has come to do. But Jesus knows this is essential for him, not essential for John, essential for him. He may not know why, but he knows he’s got to go down into those mysterious waters. And to John’s credit, he consents. He “lets this be” because all creative acts in the spiritual life start with surrender. Jesus surrendering to John; John surrendering to Jesus.

 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 And in that moment, Jesus understood why he had to start here. At the beginning of this journey, even Jesus needed to hear and know without a doubt that he was God’s beloved Son and that with him God was well pleased. This is the only place that Jesus can start, and it’s the only place that we can start. Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done anything. He has performed no miracles, no healings. He has taught nothing spectacular. He hasn’t done anything. This proclamation deals only with his being, not his doing. This proclamation is about his essence, his core identity, the fundamental truth of who he is made to be—a beloved Son of God, one in whom God delights. Things will get rocky from here on out, but Jesus will always have this moment to come back to; he will always have this ground on which to stand, this firm foundation from which he can move out again into the work God gives him to do.

 You can’t claim this identity until you surrender to it. God can’t seem to do much of anything with us unless we consent to it. That’s how much God respects our free will. Our world isn’t so hip on surrender, but it really is where new life is born.

 [Later] Today, we [will] bring Bennett Glenn to the waters. Today, we [will] invite him to surrender to these waters. He’s not quite old enough to understand all this, but his parents and godparents understand it, and though they love him with all their might, they know that Bennett needs this moment. Bennett needs to hear that he is God’s beloved son, and that in his little being, God is so well pleased. Bennett has done nothing to earn this beloved status, and he can’t do anything to lose it—the bond established in baptism is indissoluble—it can’t be undone. Today, we [will] proclaim, loud and clear, that before Bennett is anything else, he is a beloved son of God. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God’s own divine reflection, just like when a human father or mother looks into their child’s eyes and sees their own reflected back—I remember that moment when I looked into Julia’s eyes as a baby and I saw my own eyes, and I thought, “This is what God sees when God looks at us.” This is what it means to be the apple of someone’s eye. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God, and nothing pleases God more than that. Today, we mark Bennett all over, with water, with the cross, with sweet smelling holy oil, and that’s just on the outside. On the inside, the Holy Spirit is marking this identity into his heart and soul and body and mind, just like a homing beacon, so that no matter where his life goes from here on out, he will always know the way back home.

 The baptism in the Jordan River doesn’t make Jesus a Son of God; he was already that, and so was Bennett, but the public proclamation of this identity puts it out there for all to see, it puts it out there for Jesus and Bennett to see, so that Jesus and Bennett can move forward fully conscious, fully aware and awake to who they really are.

 We are all sons and daughters of God, all of us; and in each and every one of us, God is well pleased, but if we never let these words wash over us, if we never surrender to these words, if we never lay claim to them, we will continue to live in the illusion that we have to work to earn God’s love, and work even harder to keep it. You are a beloved son, you are a beloved daughter, in you, God is well pleased. This is who you were made to be; this is who you are. Whatever else you may be, whoever else you may be, this is who you are, first, last, and always. Live from this unshakeable place, and you will have all the courage you need for the journey ahead, no matter where that journey takes you, even unto death. Even more, from this unshakeable place, you will discover what it means to be truly alive which means you will know what it is to truly live. Welcome, Bennett, beloved son of God, to an adventure beyond your wildest dreams. Amen.

 The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 12, 2014                   

God is always with us

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Christmas II—Year A; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-5, 19-23

The lectionary gives us a wild array of choices this morning. We could go with the first half of the 2nd chapter of Matthew and follow the magi’s trek from the East to Bethlehem. We could go with the latter part of Luke 2 and experience Jesus as a 12-year old ditching his parents in Jerusalem so he could go hang out with the elders, or we could go to a much darker place in the second half of Matthew 2 and watch what happens when a tyrant learns that he has been tricked. The first two options are perfectly acceptable, and beautiful, stories, but I don’t think we are being true to the bigger story if we don’t deal with Herod in this Christmas season because it is there that Christianity becomes really real.

Let’s remember the story. Herod heard that the magi were looking for this child born king of the Jews and secretly summons them. He asks them to search diligently for the child, and to bring him back news of where to find him, so that he could go and pay him homage too. Do you believe ol’ King Herod? Nooooo. Oh, he wanted to find Jesus alright, but only so he could remove him as a threat to his power. The magi indeed locate the Christ-child, and they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but magi were great discerners. They knew how to listen to intuition, how to read energy, how to make sense of the stars, and how to pay attention to dreams. So, when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they hightailed it back to the East by another road.

In the meantime, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and having already seen how that previous dream in chapter 1 had worked out for him, he was all ears. That angel told Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

And here’s where it gets so dark and tragic that even the lectionary can’t go there—our lectionary omits verses 16-18—but go there we must. These three omitted verses speak the unspeakable. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from magi. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

These omitted verses pass, and so does time. The lectionary picks back up with Herod’s death. When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod (and Archelaus was just as much a tyrant as his father), he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.

 

As far as I can tell, there are three entry points into this story. We will start with the easiest and work our way to the hardest.

First, we can identify with the flight into Egypt. We can meditate on the lengths to which God will go to protect this spark of divine life. This little child, whose humanity was so infused with divine promise and hope, represented a threat to everything that Herod stood for—power, privilege, prestige, wealth, and position—all to be protected at all costs. And God will go to the ends of the earth to protect the vision and hope that love really does reign supreme, that all God’s creatures have inherent dignity, and in this marvelously blessed and abundant world, that all are meant to thrive. Innocence, dreams, vision, hope—these are precious and are worthy of our best efforts to protect them.

So, as 2014 begins, what divine spark has God placed in your heart? What nascent hope, what fledgling dream, what budding vision has God given you, and what do you need to do to give it a chance to live? What do you need to do to nurture it, to protect it, to give it space to grow until it is ready to take flight? How do you need to tune your ears and align your heart so that you can read the signs and know when it is time to hold this dream safely close and when it is time to let this vision take full flight? Mary and Joseph and Jesus aren’t the only ones who need to flee to Egypt to escape forces that would snuff out this holy light, sometimes, we need to flee such forces too. But note well, our escape isn’t final and complete; it is only until we can gather the strength and courage to come back and face those forces with even greater power as God’s presence and power grow deeper and broader within us. Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled, but they also came back.

Our second entry point is harder. We can identify with Herod. Think about the last time you were betrayed or tricked, can you touch your rage? Can you touch that place of deep hurt? Granted, Herod had anger issues writ large; he splayed his rage murderously and innocents fell. We can’t get inside his head and heart to know what made him tick, and ultimately, what made him crack. This is so often the case. Whether it is the mass-shootings that are all too frequent, or the individual acts of violence that plague our cities and rural communities daily that don’t make the news, whether it is a bombing of a school in Pakistan or a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, or a suicide bomber in Iraq, or those who turned planes into bombs on 9/11, a threat to one’s identity, one’s power, one’s core beliefs can turn the best of human beings into the worst.

We don’t even make it out of the 4th chapter of Genesis before we start unleashing violence on one another. We all have the capacity for unspeakable things. Somewhere, deep inside of us, there lives a Herod waiting to be converted to love. Can you touch that part of your shadow? None of us wants to, but if we cast him into the outer darkness, it is there that he will do the most harm, lashing out at innocents as far away as some unnamed distant “other” or as close as those we love the most. No, it is better to bring him into the light, to explore what drives his thirst for power and privilege, to understand why he clings to his position, to understand his fear and terror, and to help him find a different place to stand. Maybe we would never commit such atrocities, but if you were to ask the parents of the young people who have committed these horrific acts of violence, many of them could never imagine their child doing such things either. Can we befriend the Herod that lives in us? Can we imagine that he is not beyond redemption? Could we dare to hope that God’s transforming love can melt a heart even as murderous and hard as Herod’s? I hope there’s hope for Herod because I would like to think there is hope for the Herod that lives in me.

The 3rd point of entry is perhaps the hardest. I read a reflection on this passage this week by Mike Stavlund that posed a question that still has me reeling, Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” There is an unmistakable tragedy in today’s passage, Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee into Egypt and all is well there; Immanuel, which means “God is with us” is safely tucked away while terror strikes Bethlehem.

But what about all those children in and around Bethlehem? What about all those parents who didn’t get warned in a dream, who had no means to escape? What about that voice that was heard in Ramah, wailing, lamenting, weeping, refusing to be consoled because her children are no more? If God has gone to Egypt, where is God with them? This is the question of the ages when tragedy strikes. For all the ways we usually sugarcoat it, there is no sugarcoating it today, God has left the building, so to speak.

What are we to make of it? What are we to make of this? First, can we just allow ourselves to enter into solidarity with the unspeakable grief of these innocents lost and their parents whose hearts have been torn in two? Can we take a moment of silence for all the innocents who have died the world over, who had no chance to flee, those who have died from illness they could not overcome, those who have died at the hands of violence, those who have died from natural disasters, those who have died from crushing poverty and civil neglect? Can we just take a moment to let our hearts break with all those who have ever had to watch a beloved die, then and now? Silence may be our first and best condolence. Let us observe a moment of silence for all innocents everywhere.

Observe a prolonged silence.

But we are still left with the question,Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” Well, God isn’t just made flesh only in Jesus’ flesh, but God was made flesh in human flesh; God was made flesh in our flesh. So, to the extent that we don’t flee this unspeakable grief and tragedy, to the extent that we can stay present, God is present too.

But I think we can go one step more. God may have fled to Egypt at this point in the story, but the Holy Family returns to the land of Israel. And by the end of the story, the kings, still scared, still threatened, still entrenched, still drunk on power and privilege, wealth and prestige and position, they, with the help of good religious folk, will seek Jesus’ life again. This time, he will stay. This time, he will plant himself right at ground zero of the most horrific of violence. This time, he will stretch out his arms and hold that violence until its power dies with his last breath, and the Lord of Love proclaims, “It is finished.” And all that will be left after that is for Love to rise and show us what truly constitutes the love and peace that passes all human understanding.

Jesus may have fled from Bethlehem, but he doesn’t flee the cross, and from that moment forward, we know that whenever and wherever unspeakable tragedy strikes, God is there, and there, God will remain, until life finds us again.

So, there is no escaping this hard tale. Whether we flee, whether we find Herod in our shadow, whether we are the innocents and their parents in Bethlehem, today invites us into the hard realities of this world. Christian faith doesn’t dodge the hard edges of life in this world; Christian faith stares straight into them and helps us find God in the ashes. Today, we are about as far away from that sweet stable in Bethlehem as you can get, but Jesus travels us with us—to Egypt, to Jerusalem, to the cross, to resurrection life—and that ensures that every road we travel, whether it be filled with joy or filled with sorrow, we will always travel with God. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 5, 2014

We are one—with God

Christmas Day—Year C; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Last night was full of activity—angels swooping at 4:00 o’clock and confident little shepherds making their way to Bethlehem, incense rising as the thurible swung late in the night, choir and organ alike lifting their voices to heaven. It’s the kind of swirl that always surrounds a birth. This room was all abuzz, giddy in our joy. And now, the morning light brings us to the morning after, and we try to make sense of it all. Today, is the first day in this new life, and the mystery of it all only deepens.

Last night, Luke told the story of this amazing birth, but today, John takes over the story, and in his magnificent Prologue, begins to unpack the mystery beyond mysteries.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Word

—that great shorthand for God’s immeasurable desire to communicate God’s Self. First, in the very act of creation itself. This beautiful, glorious, wondrous, imperfect, finite, constricted world has divine fingerprints all over it. God spoke, and creation was born. Divinity wasn’t content to stay self-contained; divinity had to seek a bigger canvass on which to cast color and texture and life and play. Life and light, always dancing, always flowing from the creative Word. The Word would try all manner of ways to speak. The Law would speak of right relationship, the Word incarnate in covenant full of light and life and possibility. The prophets would speak in the darker times, speak the Word that would pierce our soul and reveal how we had fallen short, and with the fierceness of a hurt lover, the Word would call us back to the image of God that had been imprinted on our being. But sometimes, speaking can only get you so far. You’ve been there. Some exchange when the words only seem to take you farther from the one to whom you yearn to draw close; words that land you in tangle. Sometimes, words simply fail.

And into that moment, into that moment when God and humanity seemed to have a failure to communicate, into that moment, God took a flying leap of faith…

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word became flesh, “pitched the divine tent in our very flesh”

says the greek, an all-in commitment to live among us, to journey wherever we would journey, to suffer whatever we would suffer, to delight in our deepest joys, to drink the dregs of our human existence, every last drop, even unto our death, even unto our rising to life again, communicating God’s self to us every step of the way. In this all-in commitment to live among us, that tragic gap that exists in all communication is forever closed because God knows our lives from the inside-out. And in this Word-made-flesh, God consecrates our humanity, forever marks it as holy. Truth be told, it was always so—when God pulled us up from the dust and breathed divine life into our being, we were marked as holy, but sometimes, we need an outward and visible sign to remind us of an inward and spiritual grace. This Word-made-flesh is that outward sign that reminds us of the grace and truth and beauty that exists in each and every exquisite human being. This Word-made-flesh reminds us that God has communicated God’s self to us without restraint, fully, intimately, body-to-body, flesh-to-flesh, two-become-one, divinity and humanity, forever intertwined and bound to one another, the union for which our souls have yearned accomplished in this gracious leap of faith.

And in this act, we now become communicators of God’s very self. Our flesh, our blood, now speak of God’s life and God’s love. And God now has a million, zillion different ways to express it. How beautiful is that?! No longer are we limited by the limitations of our words. Our lives, our actions, our deeds, our silence, our presence, our being can communicate what our words cannot. We are one—with God, with one another, with all of creation, with ourselves. The Word present at the beginning runs through existence all the way to eternity. We are one. We always have been. We always will be. This is our birthright. This is our inheritance. This is our beginning and our end. This is our Alpha and Omega. This is the glory that shines out in the morning after the swirl of last night. This is the glory that can only be revealed in the quiet of this morning. Simple words can’t convey something so full of grace and truth; it takes the Word-made-flesh to do that. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 25, 2013

Join Joseph…. Go all in.

Thr Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks; Advent 4—Year A; Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Here’s a question for all partners who have ever accompanied your beloved through a pregnancy—who is the most important person during the pregnancy? The child, yes, but who is really the most important person in the pregnancy? The woman! Partners, especially fathers, find themselves relegated to the sidelines. An appendage to where the real action is taking place. This is true in any pregnancy. Now take that and multiply it exponentially. Your beloved partner is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Talk about being on the sidelines. As the father, this is not even your child! You are left in the dust. So often in the Christmas Story, we focus on Mary. It’s all about Mary. But every third year, we get Matthew’s take on these events. And today, it’s all about Joseph. So non-pregnant partners, fathers, this is your day.

Now, Joseph was a man of the world, a smart man, a man of the tradition. He was engaged to Mary, but they weren’t living together, and they had had no relations. Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Yeah, right. But Joseph was an upright man, a righteous man, a kind man—he didn’t want to expose her to the public disgrace that was rightfully hers to suffer, so he planned to dismiss her quietly. It was the kindest thing he could do. She would go away, quietly. Did Joseph really think this through? What would surely await a young woman who gave birth to a child out of wedlock? What shame would still be hers to bear? What was Joseph trying to protect? Who was Joseph trying to protect? Mary, yes, but also himself and his reputation.

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save is people from their sins.”

All of this had a deep resonance with what the Lord had spoken long ago through the prophet Isaiah, “Look, the young woman is with child, the virgin shall conceive (young woman and virgin being the same word in hebrew), and she shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

For all the talk of Mary, we have to be honest, without Joseph, and his change of heart, Jesus would have had no chance in that world because without Joseph, Jesus would have had no standing in that society. Joseph isn’t some appendage to the story, but he is central to it. The promised Messiah would come from the line of David, and the line of David flows through Joseph, not through Mary. Just as without Mary’s willing, “Let it be with me according to your word,” so too with Joseph’s decision not to dismiss Mary quietly but instead to take her as his wife—without these intentional choices, there is no Jesus to fulfill what had long been promised—there is no “God with us.”

Mary and Joseph, they are both perfectly ordinary people on whom decisions rest that change the course of the world. But they didn’t know that at the time. They just did the next right thing, even if they planned to do a wrong thing before they did the right thing. Coming into alignment with God’s desire to be with us is what enabled them to change course and allowed Emmanuel to indeed become “God with us.”

So, on this fourth Sunday of Advent just two days before we will celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, how ready are you to take on the stares, the scandal, the sneers if you really take this Lord on as your own flesh and blood? Do you find the presence of Jesus just slightly embarrassing? Are there subtle, and not so subtle, ways that you plan to distance yourself from the scandalous nature of his life? He so doesn’t play be the rules; in fact, he so overturns them. He messes with good order on a regular basis, and he keeps company with all the wrong people, including people at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in-between. His abundance and generosity so reveals our poverty as we cling to whatever we think will make us feel secure. Even while we await Christmas Eve when we can sing all those glorious hymns, are we secretly plotting our escape route and how we can dismiss him quietly before he turns our lives upside down. The angel asks Joseph to do no small thing. And we are asked to do no less.

Can we cast our fortune in with this crazy, outlandish dream? Can we trust that this One waiting to be born is indeed Emmanuel, the incarnation of God, the very touchable, flesh-and-blood stuff of God with us? Can we believe that we have a role to play, without which God has nowhere to land? Can we believe that we are called to father divinity just as we are called to bear it in our being? Can we heed a dream, risk looking like a fool, take on the possibility of ridicule and shame and all to make a way for God to become flesh in this world?

We’re not just marking time on this fourth Sunday of Advent. We’re not just waiting for the big day to come. Today is a day for intentionality and decision. Will we make space for Jesus to come into this world, or not? Will we do as the Collect suggests and purify our conscience so that Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself? We can stay at the surface, caught up in all the trimmings of the season, and ever so subtly dismiss our Lord ever so quietly, or we can wake up from our sleep and embrace him with our whole heart and mind and body and soul, no matter the cost in the eyes of the world.

Joseph had a decision to make. So do we. Will we play it safe and not risk the public disgrace of it all, or will go all in and claim this child as our own? As with all children, if we choose the latter, we need to know, our life will no longer be our own. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 22, 2013

Prepare your heart, Prepare your soul, for Jesus

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Advent 3—Year A; Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

We are deep into Advent. The third Sunday. And today, we start to turn toward, to anticipate, the coming of Jesus. That first Sunday of Advent was all about apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, second-coming-of-Jesus stuff. The second Sunday of Advent turned toward John the Baptist. Today, we bridge from John the Baptist to Jesus. We still are nowhere near the birth narrative; that is yet to come.Matthew 11: 2-11

Today is about hope and possibility and curiosity. John was in prison, and he heard what the Messiah was doing. He sent word by his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Now, remember, John had baptized Jesus—shouldn’t he have known who Jesus was??? Maybe, but for whatever reason, he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure, he was curious. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “Are you the one, Jesus? Are you the one?” There is something about that question that rings so deep, so true, so authentic, so real, so honest. Behind that question lies a yearning, a hope, that Jesus is indeed the one who is to come.

Now, Jesus could have gotten mad; he could have berated John for his blindness, for his inability to see what was so obviously so. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus says simply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see, go tell John what you are experiencing: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Impossibilities. All of these things should not have been so, and yet they were so. Jesus isn’t just giving John the evidence for being the one who is to come, but Jesus is also defining what it means to be the one who is to come. God’s anointed was anointed for a purpose—to restore sight, to restore the capacity to move, to restore those who were cast out of society, to restore the ability to hear, to bring back to life, to bring good news to the poor. And Jesus is clear—the one who does such things is going to offend a whole lot of people. Why else would he say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me?”

And then Jesus commends his fiery prophetic cousin John, says that among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. But even as exalted as John is, there are those yet even more exalted than he—the least of these. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The least—who are they? The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor—those whom society had cast down and cast out. These are the ones exalted in the kingdom of heaven. These are the ones who hold a special place in the heart of God and in the heart of the one whom God has sent.

So, this works on two levels. Jesus makes clear here, the one who is coming is deeply concerned about those at the margins of society. If we aren’t connected to the least of these, we are going to miss the place where God shows up, where God comes, on a regular basis. We don’t need to be in relationship with the least of these just because God has a particular love for them, but we need to be in relationship with the least of these because it is there that we will see God ourselves. It is there that we witness Jesus at work. It is there that we see miracles transpire. It is there that we discover the art of the possible in a world that says, “Give up, accept your lot, it’s impossible to change anything.” So, we need to witness the place where transformation isn’t just possible, but expected.

Second, this works on the level of our own soul. Where are our places of blindness? Where do we need to see something anew? Where have we lost our capacity to make forward progress? Where do we need the strength to walk tall? Where do we feel unclean and like we are on the outside looking in? What pieces of our selves have we declared unclean, unworthy of love and respect? What parts of us need to be brought back into relationship with the whole? Where have we ceased to listen? What do we need to hear? What in us has died, and what makes us come alive again? Where are we impoverished—in our bodies, in our minds, in our hearts, in our souls? What riches are awaiting us, yearning to be discovered and claimed? Can we trust that the one who is coming to set the least of these free is indeed coming to us? Can we trust that the one who is coming is coming to do this work in us?

Advent, “adventus” in Latin, it means “coming.” Something is coming. Someone is coming. To receive the one who is coming, we need to prepare. Not by way of getting things all neat and tidy and perfect like you do when a houseguest is coming, but we need to prepare by lifting up all these places where we are indeed impoverished and in such profound need. We need to bring these to light so that Jesus can fill them with his light and his life.

Then, we won’t just be witnesses of the transformation that Jesus is working, we won’t just be reporters conveying what we see and hear, but we will be the transformation itself. Then, we won’t have to ask if he is the one who is to come. Then, we won’t have to ask if we are to wait for another. Then, we will simply know. When you’ve been touched, when you’ve been healed, when you’ve been set free, when you experience transformation at the deepest level of your need, at the deepest level of your soul, then you will know, in the words of Paul, as you have always been known.

So, in these remaining days of Advent. Prepare for the coming of the Lord, but not in the frenzy that is swirling around us in the world. Prepare your heart. Prepare your soul. What places inside of you are longing for the coming of the Lord? Open those places, those spaces, and know that nothing is impossible with God. The one who is coming longs to inhabit those places and spaces. And as he moves into those places and touches them and heals them and resurrects them, we, too, will discover what it means to be born anew. And then, all those beautiful images from Isaiah will be pictures of us and our lives—the deserts of our souls will blossom and we, like those ransomed of the LORD, of whom Isaiah spoke so long ago, shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon our heads; we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

There are a lot of good gifts to be given and received in the coming days and weeks, but none so priceless as a transformed life. The one who is to come is coming. Welcome him into your deepest places of longing, and know, know you will never be the same. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 15, 2013

Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon

Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon; Last Sunday after Pentecost—Year C; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16: The Song of Zechariah; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Settle in, get comfortable, brevity is not my strong suit when it comes to this annual address. Before I say another word, I want to thank my colleagues with whom I share ministry. They root us so well in our work, day in and day out. I am immensely blessed to work with an amazing roup of people.

Charles Oaks continues to care for our physical plant. Complications from Brenda’s back surgery have not allowed her to work, and though we miss Brenda, Charles has stepped into the lead role beautifully and cares for this house as if it were his own. His work is behind the scenes, and so it’s easy to take for granted—if you ever are here when he cleans, please thank him for his work.

Mary Lyons, Teague Arnott, and Grace Neely take care of our children in the Nursery. The first formation a child gets in our church often happens in our Nursery. The fact that our children are cared for by caring, loving, nurturing, energetic young adults communicates much to our children about how God cares for us. We are blessed to have this team of caregivers.

Pat Kohles is that rare person who delights in numbers. Part of stewardship is being careful and trustworthy stewards of the monies you entrust to us. Pat keeps all the funds straight, of which there are several, keeps us in compliance with the government, shepherds our annual audit process, and is there to answer your questions when something doesn’t make sense. Beyond all that, Pat is always a source of wisdom as our staff comes together to help one another think through a challenge. Thank you Pat, for keeping the financial part of our life in good order and for doing it with a can-do spirit and a generous heart.

Catherine King makes the office go. Communications, bulletins, website, scheduling the bijillion of groups and individuals who use our buildings on a weekly basis—you name it, she makes it happen, and she brings peace and calm when the chaos descends. She does all of this with pastoral sensitivity, great wisdom, and just the right amount of humor to keep us all sane. When I am puzzling through something, Catherine can cut through to the heart of the matter and name what is. That kind of clarity ten feet away is immensely helpful to me. It is great to work with someone who can take it all in stride and keep focused on the big picture. Thanks Catherine, for being a great partner in ministry.

Sarah Miller continues to show amazing creativity and flexibility as our Director of Christian Formation. Now, for the fourth year in a row, we continue to create new curriculum for our older elementary and middle school age kids. She has a wonderful sense of children and the educational process; she has vision and is a great brain-stormer. It is Sarah who helped us grab a hold of the fact that formation happens in worship just as much as it happens in a Sunday School class. We continue to find wonderful new ways to do Christian formation with children. She resources those of you who teach and is always there to think through your questions. Sarah, we are blessed to have your open spirit, your deep grounding in the faith, and your lifetime of educational experience. You help ensure that the way we form our children actually coheres with the gospel we proclaim. Thank you for rolling with our ever evolving way of doing Christian formation.

Ted Gulick. Ted has been equally flexible this year exploring all kinds of new territory. Not only is Ted the most talented organist I have ever worked with, he’s also the most game to try just about anything. We have searched out new musical resources and have expanded our musical breadth as a community. He continues to shape the choir and set free their gifts so that they can open up that thin mystical place for all of us as we worship. And this year, something has been set free in Ted as well. We receive such blessing from his willingness to continually grow and stretch as a musician. I am deeply grateful for his liturgical sensibility as we craft liturgy. Thank you for being the best musical colleague a priest could ask for.

Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg has been on sabbatical this fall, and boy, have I missed him. It’s not just the multitude of details that Greg attends to every Wednesday and Sunday, but it’s the way his spirit anchors this community, and anchors me. Greg is all heart, and his open heart has a way of opening the hearts around him. He is a hands-on kind of guy immersing himself in the needs of the world and inviting us to do the same. He is an incredible partner in ministry, a wise counselor, and my brother in Christ, and I can’t wait for him to return, which will be next Sunday.

This is your staff. They do what they do because the love this place. Please, let’s give them a hand in thanksgiving, and please, take a moment to thank them personally as you see them.

+++

From time to time, I get asked that question, “What’s your vision for St. Luke’s?” The only answer I have ever really been able to come up with is quite simple… “We do life together. Life will bring us what we need to work on.” That just seems to be how it works for us. It’s not fancy, but I think it’s true.

And so, this time last year, we were scratching our heads wondering what we were going to do with Karen Robertson leaving as our 9:00 Music Director. I was busily resisting invitations to consider combining the 9:00 and 11:15 services, until the Holy Spirit invited me to reconsider via those of you who kept asking the question. And so, last spring, we set out to have conversations, lots of conversations. And we busted all kinds of myths along the way. We learned some amazing things about ourselves. Older people do like children, and children do like the organ, and our musical tastes are much more varied than we thought. We weighed what we might gain; we considered what we might lose; we trusted one another, and in the process, we have gone deeper into the essence of what liturgy is all about. We are moving beyond personal preferences into a willingness to love something that may not be our cup of tea simply because we know that our brother or sister at the other end of the pew loves it. We are stepping beyond family-friendly worship into a truly intergenerational experience, and we are learning all along the way. We decided we could take a risk, run an experiment, and just see what we could create if we put the 9:00 and 11:15 communities together. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all of you for your willingness to give this a go. We will do more formal evaluation later in the spring, but the comments around the edges have been so positive. It feels so alive, and my heart melts as I watch the interactions between the generations—something feels awfully right about what we are doing. But we couldn’t have attempted this without your wholehearted willingness to trust one another, and to trust Ted and me. I am as proud about how we have come through this change intact as a community, as I am about the worship experience we have been able to create.

One of the side benefits of combining services was freed up energy to really explore the nature of ritual and liturgy. And so, this fall, we launched our experimental services on Sunday evenings. We have done two so far. The Service of Anointing where we explored what it means to be anointed as God’s beloved sons and daughters and The Service of Lament which gave voice to and transformed the individual and communal cries of our hearts—both services closing with sharing Holy Communion gathered around the altar. All the prayers have been homegrown, as well as the rituals themselves. We have been able to take our spiritual learnings and offer them to the wider community in some new forms with new words. We have explored how improvisational music can carry heavy hearts and to a new place. And we are seeing folks at these services whom we have never seen before. Folks in their 20’s on very intentional spiritual paths are finding something in these forms. These services aren’t just feeding people within our own community who have been yearning for this kind of experimentation, but they are feeding people who are hungry for God. They are unapologetically Christian, but the Jesus they find in these services may not be a Jesus they have met before.

It is true, as we let things go, other things can be born. It letting go of the Sunday-morning three service structure, these new liturgies had the space to be born.

And then, long about June, the legislative session in Raleigh made its way to Boone. Moral Mondays were no longer a handful of people raising their concerns, but thousands, and some of you felt drawn to participate. This led to some challenges for us. Announcements got interesting, which pushed me to think through a theology of announcements so that we could find a way to live together in the midst of different passions and different ideas about public policy. In August, Raleigh seemed to spill over into local politics and all of the sudden Watauga County was making the national news.

About this time, 20+ of us went to the Wild Goose Festival. Some pieces came together for me, sort of like tectonic plates lining up. I heard James Allison talk about the cross and Jesus as the forgiving victim who ends the cycle of violence when he refuses to retaliate. I heard civil rights elder Vincent Harding talk about his love of the constitution and how important it is not to demonize the other. I experienced a workshop in nonviolence. I heard William Barber preach on the prophets. I heard John Dear tell of how Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 40 years and how he meditated an hour every morning and an hour every night because the deeper he went into the work of nonviolence the more he understood that he had to confront the violence in his own heart. I sat in a roundtable of Christian educators who wondered how to go about teaching the stories of our scriptures to our children in ways that we don’t have to undo as they get to be teenagers and adults and they start asking really hard questions of the scriptures. And I realized that, here at St. Luke’s, we’ve figured some things out about that in a really life-giving way.

I came back with all of this buzzing around my head and knowing that the Moral Monday energy was in the room whether I wanted it to be there or not. I also had become increasingly concerned with the tone of public discourse. It has gotten toxic and angry and mean. It flunks our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human” on a regular basis. And, at times, it has spilled over into our beloved St. Luke’s community. We can’t talk one way when we are present together in this sacred space, and another way on social media. It hurts brothers and sisters here when we lash out there. The legislator is an “other” whom we are bound to respect no less than an unemployed or poor person impacted by their policy is an “other” whom we are bound to respect. And when things heated up locally, it felt like we were at a tipping point of really going over the edge. And as I talk to priests around the diocese, this Moral Monday energy is in all of our churches. So, the energy is here, the only question for me was whether to engage it directly or indirectly, and since it was spilling out all over the place, I chose to go the direct route. Just like life brought us Amendment 1 last year, life brought us this energy, and I figured it was our job to steward it somehow.

And so, the Social Justice Training Group was born in late August. I have become convinced that if people are going to engage in social justice work, then they have to train for it, just like the civil rights workers did in the 50’s and 60’s. And it takes a lot more discipline than we have generally had as of late. The vision that God gave me for this is six-fold: go deep in the Christian scriptures; think in terms of Christian ethical frameworks; study the legislation itself, primary sources and not hearsay; learn the history of North Carolina; practice nonviolence, particularly nonviolent communication; and ground all of this work in practices of prayer and meditation, because it is so easy to get swept away in a sea of emotions, and prayer and meditation is the precondition for finding a third way. It’s a daunting vision—it demands a lot of hard work and discipline, but many of you have said “yes” wholeheartedly to this process. Thus farm, we have had 60+ people participate from 7 or so congregations across 6 or so denominations.

For my part, it has been some of the funnest teaching I have done in 20 years. I will also tell you it has been some of the most conservative and orthodox teaching I have done in 20 years. I thank God every day for The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Breidenthal who taught me two courses in Christian ethics in seminary and worked our little fannies off in the process. I have discovered two things the deeper I go in my walk with Jesus. One, I am more progressive than I ever thought I would be, and two, I am more conservative than I ever thought I would be. I don’t fit neatly with anything that is going on politically, and that’s because as Christians, every position we hold has to start from our faith, and the scriptures, and the tradition, and then find its expression in the public arena. The deeper I go with Jesus, the more I accept that he is Lord over every area of life, and so I can’t keep these different realms separate anymore.

Life has brought us this moment, and as followers of Jesus, I think there is work for all of us to do—we have got to get serious about understanding what our ethical framework is and where it comes from. Ethics is about a coherent moral vision as you look out on the world. What is sourcing our ethics? Is it a political perspective, a market perspective, a common good perspective, a bottom line perspective, a pragmatic perspective? Is it the prophets? Is it Jesus? Is it St. Paul? Is it the law that sustained the people of God in the wilderness and during the exile? What sources your ethical framework? This is the question that I have been asking everyone I meet, and most of the time, I get a blank look back—most of us just haven’t thought about where our positions come from. And if we’re followers of Jesus, most of us don’t have a clear sense of what a coherent ethic arising from Christian faith looks like. We may have a vague sense that our values connect to our faith, but it doesn’t feel coherent to us. So, this is a huge piece of work ahead of us. What I’m really talking about is this: How does our faith find expression in how we view and behave in the world?

I want to add that, as your priest and pastor, I want to be talking with you about this, in groups and in private conversations. I want to talk to liberals; I want to talk to conservatives; I want to talk to all those for whom those labels just don’t work anymore. I want to understand more about your moral vision and help you make connections to the treasures we have in our scriptures and tradition. I am finding these conversations to be so rich, but it takes an immense amount of trust to talk with one another this way. I and fellow clergy in Boone across the spectrum are beginning these conversations with one another. I am talking with pastors from Crosspoint and Alliance Bible Fellowship and First Presbyterian and a variety of Methodists. As clergy, we understand that if we can’t talk about these things that matter in civil ways, then our people are sunk and our wider community is sunk. We understand that Boone is a small place, and that we can do better as a community, and we are excited about the possibilities that are coming out of reaching across to people we haven’t talked with before.

As we do this work, we must begin with an absolute commitment to be nonviolent in our speech, across the board. David LaMotte said something in his Third Way Workshop when he was here in October that really struck me. He said, “I think that we think we are having lots of conversations, but I don’t think we are. We are having imaginary conversations with imaginary people. We are talking back to the radio or the news on the tv, but we aren’t talking to real people, and real people are much more complicated (and I would add multi-faceted) than imaginary ones.” I think he’s absolutely right. No real person fits in the boxes we put our imaginary opponents into. So, let us be about real conversations about things that really matter with real people. Let us begin here, with one another. If we can’t do it here with people we love, how will we ever learn to do it out there in the world? Our world is aching for us to do this work.

I think this is work that God is calling us to in this moment into which God has placed us. No matter where you sit on the spectrum, there is spiritual work to be done, plenty.

We do life together. Life will bring us what we need to work on. Life brought us this; we can find our way together.

But life doesn’t bring us only this. Life brings us so much in this community. Life brings us the Mary Boyer Garden and FARM Café and Third Place. Life brings us the Bread of Life and Community Care Clinic and the Hunger Coalition and Hospitality House. Life brings us Wednesday Quidditch and Bible, J2A, Godly Play, and Adopt a Grandparent/Adopt a Grandchild. Life brings us Choir and Altar Guild and Flower Guild. Life brings illness and Meal Train and Community of Hope. Life brings us Friday Morning Book Study and Centering Prayer. Life brings us death and burying our brothers and sisters and hosting receptions so that we can grieve together and potlucks and pancake suppers. Life brings us birth and babies and young children who take up offerings. Life brings us fellowship with Women and workdays with Men. Life brings us work outside of these walls in the literally hundreds of places that you go out and give witness to your faith throughout the week in the work that God has blessed your hands to do. Life brings us friends and families and sabbath time to just sit and breathe and rest in one another’s company. Life brings us burdens to help one another bear and joys that must be celebrated together.

In February, I will celebrate my 10th year as your Rector. I am not the same priest that came to you 10 years ago. God continues to shake me up and make me new, as a follower of Jesus and as a priest. I am blessed with a wonderful partner in life and faith in Jim, a terrific daughter in Julia, a wonderful son in Jimmy—Jim and Julia, thank you both for walking this journey with me. You see my rougher edges and keep my feet firmly planted on earth, but you also open my heart toward heaven. St. Benedict understood that Christian community was a school of love. I thank my family for being that first and most intimate school of love. I am not perfect—not as a wife, not as a mother, not as a priest, not by a long shot. Our family trades in the currency of grace and forgiveness—we have to. I think the same is true of all Christian communities.

I don’t know where this journey is going, but I do know that the Spirit is blowing strong. I have never felt this community more alive. I thank you for the immense amount of trust that you bestow upon me as your priest. That trust is sacred to me. I thank you for your willingness to let God continue to work with me and shape me as a priest, which means I can’t predict where God might lead me next and where that might lead me to lead you next. And actually, since we do life together, your passions and questions and dreams are often leading me as much as I am leading you. So, the only guarantee is that we are in for a ride, and I can’t think of a community with whom I would rather take this ride than with you. I love you for who you are and for your willingness to fall ever deeper in love with Jesus and his Way.

I get to look out over the church from time to time, and you need to know, you are special. There aren’t many communities out there like you; there just aren’t.

I am so blessed to serve here with you. Thank you for letting me be your priest and your pastor. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 24, 2013

Resurrection isn’t about winning; it’s about living

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks;The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 27—Year C; Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

We’ve got an interesting exchange this morning in Luke’s gospel. But before we get to the Sadducees and Jesus, we need to set the stage. This is the last week of Jesus’ life. Palm Sunday with its grand procession into Jerusalem with everyone hailing Jesus as their king has already happened. Jesus has wept over the city, driven out those selling things in the temple, and is drawing huge crowds who are spellbound by what they hear from him. The religious leaders are starting to get nervous. So, when you want to silence someone, what do you do? Well, if you’re smart, you try some subtle ways first. How might you do that?

A good place to begin is to try to undermine the person’s authority to say and teach the things they do. So, the chief priests, scribes, and elders point blank ask Jesus by what authority he does the things he does and they ask him, “Just who gave you this authority?” Jesus is wise, so wise, and he turns the question back on them in a way that leaves them scratching their heads.

He then tells a story that the chief priests and scribes rightly understand is against them. They wanted to get their hands on them, but they feared the people. So, they sent spies to try to trap him by what he said, and since they wanted to get the civil authority involved, they went for a question on the legality of paying taxes. Again, Jesus slipped through their fingers by refusing to get trapped in an either/or answer, and giving a third way answer instead.

The chief priests, elders, and scribes weren’t getting anywhere, so what do you do when you can’t figure something out? You go get help; you call in the second string. Enter the Sadducees.

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

And you can just see the smug smile on their faces; you can just feel that sense of “We’ve got him!” [And can we just bracket here an acknowledgment of the poor woman who has to marry seven men whom she may or may not love? The woman is no more than a vehicle to bear children so as to ensure the line of inheritance in the family. Can we take just a moment to stand in her shoes and feel this scenario from her standpoint?] But back to the Sadducees. In the art of debate, in the art form of trying to trap your opponent rhetorically, they think they have won, and they are feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

And you can just feel Jesus going, “Really? Really, guys? You want to talk about this? We could be talking about 5,000 people who were by a seashore and needed to be fed. We could be talking about the droves of people who have followed me all over this country who need to be healed. We could talk about the Roman occupation and what that is doing to people’s dignity. We could talk about all the people who feel like outcasts, and in fact, are treated like outcasts because of a disease they have, or their ethnic background, or their gender, or their job, or some other fact of life beyond their control. We could talk about the temple economy and how it is crushing the poor. We could talk about all those people who just feel lost. We could talk about what it means to pray and what it means to take action. We could talk about what it means to sit down and break bread together. We could talk about what it means to love God and your neighbor, and we could talk about who your neighbor is. We could talk about how we are to treat “the other,” the one who is in some way “foreign” to us. We could talk about grace and law. We could talk about all these things, and you want to talk about THIS? Really?”

The Sadducees question feels like some intricate 5th grade math problem, some if/then equation that I just can’t figure out. This is the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question. This feels like the conversations that we would have late at night in seminary arguing about the finer points of eschatology and how that impacted your doctrine of atonement and did that line up with your doctrine of creation and what did that then say about your belief in the incarnation, and if you don’t know what half of those words mean, you are in great company—most of us in seminary didn’t know what they meant either, but we sure acted like we did. And we would look for holes in the other’s arguments, just waiting to trip them up. We were good Sadducees in training.

“In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” What the Sadducees put forward feels like some trick EOG question. And it is a trick question. Anybody know why? The Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection. The Sadducees say there is no resurrection. The Sadducees ask a question about something they don’t even believe in. This is about winning, not earnestly seeking the truth from a place of curiosity and wonder.

So, again, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t get caught in theological minutia or gamesmanship. Jesus doesn’t figure out the silly scenario. Jesus speaks to the heart of their disbelief. Jesus talks about resurrection. Whatever we think matters now, it just doesn’t matter then. In whatever lies beyond the veil, it is not like it is here. Whatever has constrained us here in the brokenness of our hearts or minds or souls or bodies, it’s all made whole there. Whatever has kept us apart, it is in perfect union there. And there may not be a physical place, at least not with lots of gold and ethereal white boulevards, but it is an objectively real place. It is a place where the dead are alive, and quite possibly are more alive than they ever were in this life because whatever was in their way is done away with. Moses knew that when he spoke about the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For Moses, all of those patriarchs were living, breathing, guiding forces still. We believe it, too when, just before the Sanctus in worship, we pray with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We profess it when we talk about the communion of saints. And these aren’t just beautiful, pretty words; this it isn’t just a hoped for possibility; no, it is a lived reality. I know it’s a lived reality because I have experienced it in my lived reality, and I have heard you tell stories about how you have experienced in your lived reality. Jesus goes for the heart of the matter, “Oh, Sadducees, you want to talk about inane, pointless, meaningless scenarios; I want to talk about what is infinitely alive!”

But lest we are too hard on the Sadducees, could we do a little log check in our own eye before trying to take out the speck in their eye? As words fly around our TV screens and electronic devices and kitchen tables and coffee break conversations, are we talking about things that matter? Or, are we trying to trap our imagined opponents with their own words? Are we playing round after round in an eternal game of gotcha by painting the other in a corner with trick questions? Are we doing everything we can to undermine the other’s authority to speak and say as they do? Are we putting our desire to win above an earnest desire to seek the truth? Are we distracting ourselves from the deeper reality of resurrection? Because quite frankly it’s harder to live from a place of resurrection life and power than it is to engage in all these games.

For some reason, the world is drawn to cynical patterns of death, ways of being that say, “Winning can make you feel alive.” Or, “Keep the game going because you can’t really change anything that matters—the forces at play are just too big to shift. It’s all futile in the end.” And that would be true if we weren’t in communion with a God who is infinitely alive; that would be true if we weren’t woven into this great communion of saints whose collective power to guide us and sustain us and fuel us with hope and courage and strength is far beyond our imagining. The Sadducees might get Jesus; in fact, by the end of this week of Jesus’ life, they will do just that—he will die on a cross. But they can’t stop the power of his life; they can’t stop the power of resurrection to breathe life into that which is dead. They can think they have buried that love and power deep in the ground and sealed it up tight, but they can’t stop a God who wants to roll that stone away; they can’t stop a God whose deepest desire is for communion with all of creation; and within that communion, all the old rules and equations and divisions are rendered null and void. Perfect love flowing in, flowing out, flowing among; perfect love perfectly given, perfect love perfectly received—that’s the new equation—there’s no trick to it, no gotcha quality, just love and light and life.

We have a choice. We can keep playing our Sadducee games. We can stay totally distracted arguing about things that don’t amount to a hill of beans. We can give our energy to these patterns of death. Or, we can throw our energy toward resurrection. We can direct our energy to resurrection realities. We can draw strength from the great communion of saints that surrounds us. We can feel their guidance, celebrate their wholeness, and find healing for ourselves and the world in the process. We can refuse to stay stuck in either/or patterns that demand winners and losers. We can follow Jesus and seek a third way always.

The Sadducees saw life, and they saw death, but they couldn’t see resurrection—they couldn’t see the kind of life that lives on the other side of death. For us to see this life will demand that we die to a whole lot, but the life that awaits us is so real and beautiful and deep and rich. Resurrection isn’t just resuscitated life; it’s life of a whole different order. It is not to be found in books or equations or gotcha games; it is only discovered in the lived experience of dying and rising again.

The way of the Sadducees is so tempting because it looks like winning, but don’t take the bait. Resurrection isn’t about winning; it’s about living. It’s about truly living now and trusting in the web of communion that surrounds us and holds us and permeates every level of existence, always.

Everything is alive to God. We can live in a world of Sadducaic hypothethicals, or we can go to the heart of the matter and throw our lot in with resurrection. The choice is yours. Where will you choose to live? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 10, 2013

Why give?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 26—Year C; Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-14; Luke 19:1-10

So, Jacque Dunbar preached a wonderful sermon last week about stewardship—I want to thank her for that—and today, it’s my turn to pick up that stewardship ball and run.

It seems to me that it is as simple as two questions…First, why give? And second, why give to St. Luke’s? And the first does not necessarily lead to the second.

So, let’s explore that first question, “Why give?” And today, Jesus gives us the answer, “It’s for your salvation.” I remember several years ago when Bishop Taylor had come to speak at a dinner in the evening and talk about stewardship—he said the same thing, “You have to give for your salvation.” Do you remember that? I do, because people went bezerk. Somehow, people understood him to say that you had to give to secure your place in heaven. That’s not what he meant, but I distinctly remember having lots of conversations in the weeks that followed untangling that perception. Over the years since, I have come to believe that Bishop Taylor was right. By the way, he actually thinks that everything in our lives is about our salvation; so do I, but here’s what I mean by that. In the greek, saving has to do with rescuing, with bringing back something that has been lost, with healing. Salvation is about being brought into the wholeness that God longs for us to have and that wholeness goes out in all directions and permeates every layer of our life.

So, what does this all have to do with money? Let’s look at the story today from Luke. Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature (isn’t that an elegant way to say he was really short). So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he [Jesus] was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble (not just the bad ol’ Pharisees and Sadducees, not just the bad ol’ lawyers and scribes, but “all,” which presumably included “all” of Jesus’ closest friends, disciples and followers) and they all began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Tax collectors were considered sinners because they were notorious for swindling others out of their hard earned money—Jesus was prepared to sit down to dinner and spend the night in the home of one whom others considered to be an unclean sinner at best and an enemy at worst!). Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

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Wow! Zacchaeus knew that something in his life wasn’t right, that it rang empty and hollow. Oh, he may have had a lot of money and a lot of material things, but he wasn’t happy; he wasn’t fulfilled. He didn’t have a circle of friends; shoot, nobody would have him and his family over to dinner; nobody would ask him out for a cup of coffee. Something in him knew that there was something about this Jesus that he needed to see. But something was in his way. Actually, everything was in his way. He couldn’t see, and it wasn’t just because he was short that he couldn’t see, but his relationship with money, the gap between his wealth and those who suffered so that he could have his wealth; that disconnect between him and his neighbor, that also made it so that he could not see. But to his credit, he got resourceful. He probably didn’t know what lay ahead when he climbed that sycamore tree. He didn’t know that not only would he be able to see Jesus, but in a moment quite beyond his control, he exposed himself so that Jesus could see him.

And when Jesus saw him, when Jesus reached out and pulled that man back into relationship, Zacchaeus couldn’t stay the same. And the scales fell from his eyes, and all the sudden, he could see what he couldn’t see before. His money, his relationship with money, his relationship to money at the expense of his relationships with others who didn’t fare well in this economic system—all of these things kept him out of communion. But now that Jesus had pulled him back into communion, he couldn’t go back to viewing people as means to his economic ends. Now that he was in relationship, he had to stay in relationship. For him, that meant giving half of all his possessions to the poor and paying back four times as much to any one whom he had defrauded of anything. Can you imagine if that became a guiding principle in our society??? But Jesus knew it was salvation for Zacchaeus. It was the way Zacchaeus found healing. It was the way Zacchaeus found wholeness. It was the way he was found. It was the way he reclaimed that he, too, was a son of Abraham connected to all the other sons and daughters of Abraham. Zacchaeus had to give because money had trapped him and cut him off from others. He had to give because giving was his way to wholeness and his way to communion with others. For Zacchaeus, giving wasn’t about guilt, or duty, or obligation; for Zaccheaus, giving was about wholeness and life and relationship.

Why give? Because money, and our relationship to money, can be such a trap for us. We can get swept away into a world of possessions. We can get consumed with notions of security. We can forget our kinship to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters with whom we share this world. We can forget that in God’s economy, there is always enough, if we don’t cling to it. So, we give because it has all come to us as gift to begin with. We give as an expression of our communion with one another and with the Giver of Life. We give to participate in the flow of love that is always pouring itself out. We give because in doing so we find wholeness. We give for our own salvation.

So, giving is not negotiable; we are made to give; we need to give. But that doesn’t answer at all to whom we should give. My answer to that question has always been, “Give anywhere you see God’s work being done. Bless that work. Bless it with your time, bless it with your particular gifts and skills, bless it with your energy, bless it with your passion, bless it with your money.”

So, why give to St. Luke’s? Because this is a place where God’s work is being done in a multitude of ways. Take this week. Friday morning’s book study held a profound conversation about violence and nonviolence as they studied John Dear’s book The Nonviolent Life. Yesterday morning, the Social Justice Training Group met to continue our exploration of current issues in light of our scriptures and our Christian ethical tradition, all the while committing to deep and difficult spiritual practices. At Noon yesterday, we celebrated Peggy Atzel’s life, and once again, you gave such beautiful loving care to the family as you provided for and hosted a reception for the family. In the afternoon, we opened our doors to an organizational meeting for a forming chapter of the NAACP in Watauga County. Just as we open our doors to all kinds of 12-step groups to help individuals heal their demons around addiction, so too we open our doors to groups who are committed to helping our larger community heal societal demons, like racism. This morning our children learned about the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in Godly Play and the reality of hunger in our local community and across the globe in the older class. Adults explored the spirituality of dying. And other adults practiced the spirituality of singing. This afternoon after church, the Women’s Group will meet for fellowship and study. Tonight, we will host our next experimental worship service, a Service of Lament using improvisational music on piano and trombone to give voice to the cries of our hearts, but not just to lament, but to help transform that energy into something lifegiving. This coming Wednesday, our 4th-5th graders will gather for Quidditch and faith formation. Next Sunday, we will launch a new group of folks who want to explore their Christian faith and the Episcopal Church, and our children will launch a program that they have dreamed up in the inaugural gathering of the Adopt a Grandparent/Adopt a Grandchild program. Our building is used every day of every week for 12-step groups and dance groups and all kinds of other activities, as well as all the St. Luke’s activities, and outside our building there’s the Mary Boyer garden to feed the hungry in our community.

Why give to St. Luke’s? Because we are alive! I have never felt more life and energy in our faith community than what I do in this current season of our life. We are reaching out far beyond our doors. Exploring and experimenting in ways we have never tried before. We are going deep into what it means to claim Jesus and his way. It’s exciting, and unsettling. I told the Bishop this week that I left my comfort zone about 4 football fields ago, but I believe deeply in what we are about in this community.

I need to give for my salvation, I need to give to align myself with God’s never-ending, overflowing abundance that is always more than I can ask or imagine, I need to give to experience what it means to stand in the flow of God’s love, I need to give for my wholeness, but my family gives 10% of our income to St. Luke’s because we believe with every fiber of our little three-person collective being in the work that God is doing through this community of faith.

Jacque gave you a lot of numbers last week, and a letter will come out this week that will help explain that again. We can’t do what we do without you and your support—we can’t do the work that God has given us to do without your prayers, your passion, your energy, your gifts and skills, and your financial resources. And so, the Stewardship Committee asks you, your Vestry asks you, I ask you to join us in this wonderful and sacred mission of being Christ’s body in Boone, NC. What we are doing at and through St. Luke’s matters. It matters to the world. It matters to God. It matters for our own individual salvation; it matters for our collective salvation. Join us, as together, we discover the wholeness that God longs for the whole creation to know. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 3, 2013

Put down your swords….

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 24—Year C; Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

What a few weeks this has been! What a rollercoaster ride for our nation, and with Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg as my witness, I just don’t do well with rollercoasters. The only thing that has felt more protracted and relentless than these last three weeks has been the last eight weeks we have had of the prophet Jeremiah. He has had us pinned to the mat and just has not let us up for air. Week after week, we have had to hear about how God was going to pluck up and break down, overthrow and destroy nations. And as the weeks dragged on, Jeremiah got louder and more despondent, and finally just flat out depressed. It all ended with God’s people living in exile, and maybe that’s how these last few weeks have felt to us, too. People have gotten loud, people have grown despondent, people have been depressed, feeling totally powerless to shift this crisis. Finally, we all landed in exile, in strange territories where no one could predict what the next day would bring and what the shock waves of decisions might be, what impact it might have for our nation and for the global economy, and like those exiles of old, it has been hard to sing the Lord’s song on this alien soil.

But today, today, Jeremiah finally lets us up for air. Today, God promises that just as God has presided over all this plucking up and breaking down and overthrowing and destroying, so too, God is going to watch over us as we build and plant. In former times, the parents ate sour grapes, but it wasn’t their teeth that were set on edge; it was the children’s teeth that were set on edge. Today, marks a turning point, now if you eat sour grapes, it’s your teeth and your teeth alone that will pay the price. The children are getting wiser. Somehow, the children are learning how not to get hooked by the sour grapes of their parents. God has brokered a new deal today; God is talking a new covenant. We broke the old one, but it’s a new day. This time, God is not going to work with stone tablets; this time, God is writing that law on our hearts.  God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The old ways of knowing God—that way of knowing where it all had to be mediated through a teacher, or a leader, that old way of mediating God by virtue of the authority—that way is done. God says, “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God is implanting God’s way within us, within our hearts. This is big folks! The authority, and the responsibility, now lives here, not out there, but here—we have everything we need to be God’s people in this world.
And II Timothy reminds us of a chief tool that we have at our disposal—the sacred writings that we listen to week by week. In his letter to Timothy, Paul reminds us that all scripture is inspired by God, not written by God, but inspired by God. It’s still human beings putting the ink to papyrus, so there is still a whole lot of room for error and projection, and not good stuff to creep in there, but, but, Paul also reminds us, the scriptures are useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

And Paul pushes us further: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable: convince, rebuke, and encourage, with a ton of patience in teaching. Paul was good at reading the tea leaves, and he saw a time coming when people were going to have itching ears and would accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, a time when they would turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. Take a cruise around our culture, and we are there. We have retreated into our huddles of like-minded people, each drawing on our favorite authorities and teachers. We have lost the capacity to listen for and discern truth together. We each construct our myths of the world, and our myths of the other, and then live as if they were true. And beneath all of it, our sacred scriptures whisper to us, “This is what death and destruction look like, and this is what life looks like, choose life.” The scriptures critique us and correct us (gently, and sometimes not so gently). The scriptures can train us in the ways of righteousness and justice. The scriptures can equip us with a narrative that can counter the myths that are threatening to destroy us as a people and as a nation.

But the scriptures can only equip us to the extent that we will grant them authority to do so. I’m not talking about a blind obedience to scripture; I am talking about a straight Anglican/Episcopal way of engaging them in community with one another using our Godgiven reason with Jesus as our Master Teacher. And if you allow the scriptures to be the source of the narrative that shapes and guides your life, then I promise you, you won’t sit comfortably with anything that has gone on these last several weeks in our nation. You will start to see how everyone on all sides, including yourself, has itching ears. You will start to see how we all are in need of mercy; we all need that newly minted heart that God has promised in Jeremiah. So, let us take Paul’s counsel to heart and recommit to these sacred writings, these sacred scriptures who can help us see our own time and situation in a clearer light.

This is not a time to lose heart. Jesus tells us, “Pray always and don’t lose heart.” The story of the persistent widow, that widow that just won’t give up bothering that unjust judge, who bothers that judge so much that he finally gets worn down (parents, you know something about this), and gives in to her request, Jesus tells us this story as if to say, “You never know when the tables will turn. You never know when a heart might soften, you never know when a mind might change, you never know when a heart opens to hear what has thus far been refused. You never know, so pray always and don’t lose heart.”

And after the last month of praying for our nation in ways that I have never prayed before, I have become a believer. We prayed for a third way to emerge in Syria, and who knows if it was Pope Francis calling the world to pray, or little St. Luke’s in Boone, NC that tipped the balance, but here came Russia with a new peaceful possibility that averted another military action. Who knows how many prayers were uttered this week that worked their way into the hearts of Susan Collins of Maine, who was then joined by two other sister senators, who were then joined by eleven other brothers and sisters from both parties who then set the ball rolling toward a deal that moved us through this crisis. Who knows which specific prayer it was that helped Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell put down their swords and actually come together. You never know when a heart changes, and new possibilities are birthed, so pray always and don’t lose heart.

The Collect says something bold today, that amidst all of this really hard stuff, we also need to hear: “Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations.” It is easy to look at our nation right now and see all that is wrong, but let us not lose sight of the fact that our nation is also a place where God’s glory is revealed. In the myths we construct, and in the echo chambers of the media that fuel those myths on all sides, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that glory is everywhere, but we have to look for it. Those with itching ears on all sides don’t want us to see it. But we are the people of God, and we are a people of hope, and we are a people who are trained to see glory, and it is a sin to deny it when it shines through.

So, let me tell you a small story of where I saw God’s glory revealed in our nation’s capital last Sunday. Last weekend, we were in D.C. for Lara Shine’s wedding, which was glorious in its own right. Before driving home on Sunday morning, we went down to the National Mall. We knew the monuments were closed, but we thought we still might be able to see something. There were throngs of people there, and then we started to see flags, lots of yellow flags, with coiled rattlesnakes on them that said, “Don’t Tread on Me.” I hadn’t seen these before, and wasn’t quite sure what it meant. So, here’s your history lesson. This phrase and flag first surfaced when our country was fighting for its independence. Benjamin Franklin penned the first political cartoon ever in an American newspaper in 1754, during the French and Indian War, which showed a rattlesnake cut into eight sections representing the eight colonies at that time, and underneath the words, “Join, or Die.” In Franklin’s mind, we had the choice to band together or die apart—what prophetic words for us today—we will either band together as one people, or we will die apart. Christopher Gadsden designed the flag with the rattlesnake in 1775 during the American Revolution. It’s seen a resurgence today and tends to symbolize the courage and independence of the American individual and has been taken up by the Tea Party. So, there were lots of yellow flags with rattlesnakes on the National Mall.

There were some “Impeach Obama” signs, and, about then, I realized that we had stumbled into a major protest that had been scheduled for that morning—we heard Sarah Palin was on the Mall, as was Senator Ted Cruz. And then, right at the moment we were walking across the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, people started removing the barricades; some threw them down; it was a little spooky, and throngs of people stormed the steps to liberate the Lincoln Memorial, running with American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Being the rule follower that I am, I stayed at the bottom while Jim and Julia went up half-way. As we moved around the Mall, there were bands of people roaming removing barricades, and as they would pass on, dutiful Park Service Employees, there without pay, would put them back. We told the Park Service people how we ached for them, and we thanked them for their service. Eventually, we made our way over to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial—the barricades there were still intact. And I must confess to you, I broke the rules. Jim went over first; I waited, and then, I couldn’t stand it, I lifted Julia over, and followed suit myself—for the record, Julia was not at all sure about this, but I needed to hear Martin that morning. And so, it was just the three of us and this huge statue of Martin with his words surrounding us.

Quite honestly, the whole scene was surreal, but there was also glory, and here’s where I found it. When Jim and Julia came back down from the Lincoln Memorial, over to the left, I noticed an elderly veteran, in a wheelchair, probably in his late 80’s, maybe 90. He looked old enough to be a WWII vet. He was there with his four adult children, and they were snapping his picture with the Lincoln Memorial in the background. You had the sense that that was a pilgrimage for them. Julia waited patiently until they were done, and then she went over and in her quiet voice said, “Thank you for your service” and shook his hand. His children teared up. I teared up, like snifling, embarrassing, I-gotta-turn-away teared up. They snapped her picture with him. We snapped her picture with him. They told us his name was Eddie. I noticed he had an East Tennessee Veteran cap on, and I asked, “Where are you from?” They said, “East Tennessee.” I said, “Where?” They said, “Johnson City.” I said, “We’re from Boone!” And Eddie said, “I grew up in Newland!” Amidst all of the swirl that has engulfed our nation, amidst all of the swirl that engulfed the National Mall that morning, amidst all of that, there was a human connection between a little girl and an old man, born out of gratitude offered and gratitude received, and an acknowledgment that though it seems like we should be miles apart, we aren’t so far apart after all.

So, don’t lose heart. Even in the midst of national chaos, there is glory to be found, there is glory to be acknowledged, there is glory just waiting to be revealed, there is glory to be made manifest, if we will just open our hearts to one another. So, let us all put down our swords, rhetorical and otherwise; let us see where we can make communion with a stranger. Wherever we stand, let us find ways to share space with those at the other end of the spectrum, and let us stand in that space together long enough that our myths about each other can fall away, and we can see the glory in each other and in our nation and across the world.

Jeremiah has finally let us up for air; can we now extend that same grace to one another? Whatever transgressions have occurred, on either side, can we live into the vow that God makes this morning—can we forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more? Can we be about the building and the planting? Can we name glory and celebrate glory and reflect glory and share glory? It has been a long hard fall, in the nation, and in Jeremiah—it’s okay to take a deep, long breath in and give thanks for the glory that has broken through. Just for today, drink it in. Let it permeate your being, and then shine it wherever you can. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 20, 2013

Just start where you are.

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 22—Year C; Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; II Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

We have another really bizarre teaching from Jesus today! So, help me with this. The apostles have said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus replies with this, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” So, let’s unpack that. Here is a mustard seed. How big is this? It’s tiny. So if you have just this speck of faith, this teeny-tiny little bit of faith, you could say to a mulberry tree, you could say to a tree that grows about 30 feet high and whose canopy extends out about 30 feet and which has a really extensive, large, intricate root system, you could say to that tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would do just that. Does this make any sense to you? A) Can a tree with a really extensive root system be uprooted? and B) Can a tree be planted in the sea and live? What’s going to hold those roots in place in the waves? Hmmmm, puzzling.

Hold those questions in your mind.

Jesus then continues, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

This sort of assaults our ears, too. Actually, I do want the slave to come at once and take his or her place at the table, and it’s Jesus’ fault I think that way! He’s always telling us how we should care for the least of these in our society. Just 3 verses before today’s passage, he was talking about how awful it would be for anyone who caused one of these little ones to stumble. Wouldn’t the slaves be some of the little ones? So, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this teaching, too.

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Oh, these scriptures don’t make any sense. And that is our first clue. Any time a passage completely stumps us, anytime it just doesn’t make any sense, we need to ask, “Is this a wisdom teaching?” And that puts a whole new interpretative lens onto the situation. Instead of puzzling over a paradoxical passage, we embrace it. Instead of throwing our hands up in the air because it makes no sense, we turn straight into the passage and try to enter the riddle. So, if this is a wisdom teaching, what might Jesus be trying to reveal to us because wisdom is always about revelation?

All that Jesus is saying today comes in response to a request from the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” On the one hand, Jesus is saying something simple to his disciples; he is saying, “If you just have a little bit of faith, a smidgeon of faith, you can do the impossible. And, for my followers, the impossible isn’t an extraordinary event, but is simply what ought to happen; it is what one would expect, just like it is expected that a slave would do what is commanded.” That’s one way to see this, but there is something else going on here.

Why did the disciples need more faith? What kinds of things would you need more faith to do? Eradicate hunger, bring about world peace, heal illness, get people in Washington to work together in respectful ways for the good of the country? What kinds of things would you need more faith to do?

What was Jesus asking the disciples to do that they had to ask him to increase their faith? What hard thing had Jesus just asked of them?

Well, Jesus had just told the disciples that “if a fellow disciple, if a sister or brother, if they sinned, if they missed the mark with you, Jesus said that you had to rebuke them, you had to bring it to their attention in a really sharp way, and if that fellow disciple turned around, then you had to forgive them. And if that fellow disciple sinned against you seven times a day, if they hurt you seven times a day, and if they turned back to you seven times, and said, ‘I repent,’ ‘I change my mind,’ ‘I amend my ways,’ then you had to forgive them seven times.

Oh wow! No wonder the disciples were begging Jesus to increase their faith! What he is asking them, and us, to do is harder than eradicating hunger, or bringing about peace, or healing illness, or getting Washington to work, it’s harder than all of that because what he wants us to do is to forgive, and forgiveness, or the lack of forgiveness seems to be at the root of all of these other intractable problems.

Let’s go back to the mulberry tree. What if that mulberry tree is a metaphor for resentment, which is just another name for what happens when we can’t forgive? Think about how those resentments send their intricate roots throughout the soil and begin intertwining with every facet of our lives. Think of the narratives we begin to weave around that event, the stories we begin to tell ourselves. There is the original hurtful thing that was done to us, but we water that hurt, and nurture that hurt, and that hurt grows into a great big tree whose canopy casts a shadow over everything. And pretty soon, the story of that hurt is all we know. Do you want to know where this goes? Was anybody listening to the psalm this morning? Psalm 137:8-9—“O Daughter of Babylon, happy is the one who pays you back…who dashes your little ones against the rocks.” That is the myth of redemptive violence, and that’s where this goes. Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.” But still we cling to it, and we can’t imagine how that tree of resentment could ever be uprooted; it seems impossible to us, but Jesus is saying, “It just takes faith the size of a mustard seed, and it can be uprooted, and planted in the sea, where it can’t live at all.” Just a little bit of faith that you can live without that resentment, just a smidgeon of willingness to let that resentment go, to let that narrative go, to let that storyline change, and the roots of that resentment will begin to loosen, and soon, we begin to see how that tree of resentment can be uprooted, and if we are really willing to release it, then it won’t be able to take root somewhere else.

And the slave only doing what is expected is just Jesus’ way of saying, “Letting go of resentment is not heroic work; this is what I expect of one who professes to follow me. You don’t get a special reward for letting go of resentment; what you get is your life, and in the process, you gain the freedom to serve without calculation.” If you’re keeping score on the hurts, you can’t serve because you are still pouring energy into a narrative that you are constructing, instead of the merciful, gracious, abundant story that Jesus is inviting you into.

That is not to say this is easy; it’s not; it’s hard work, but in the end, it’s a whole lot easier to let go than to hold. Most of the time, that bag of resentment just gets heavier the longer we hold onto it. And which is easier, to expend energy to keep holding that heavy sack of tangled, vengeful, festering resentment, or to release it and let it go? What energy could be set free if we let go? What energy could be set free if we let that resentment be uprooted? What energy could be set free if we allowed the story to change and didn’t cling to the narratives we’ve constructed about the one who hurt us? What energy could be set free if we let forgiveness sink its roots deep in our souls and psyches; what might grow from those roots?

Can you imagine what might shift in Washington if every member of Congress had genuine concern for each other when they miss the mark, and experiencing that concern from their fellow member, the offending member then found themselves free to exercise the virtue of repentance, the virtue of changing their mind? Can you imagine what might grow in Washington if the members of Congress practiced letting go of their resentments and their storylines and sunk roots of forgiveness instead, and not just once, but what if they went through this process repetitively, like seven times a day if that’s what it took? Can you imagine?

Oh, it seems impossible, and so we cry with the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” “It just takes a mustard seed’s worth,” is Jesus’ reply which is his way of saying, “It is in your reach. It just takes a small beginning, a willingness somewhere, anywhere, to let go and take that first step away from the practice of resentment and take that first step toward the practice of forgiveness. Start where you are. Start with yourself. Start with your family. Start with your community. And once you start, those ripples will spread far and wide, and pretty soon, together, we will uproot those tentacles of resentment and dissension and hate. Pretty soon, we will see a new tree take root and grow.” Jesus says, “This isn’t optional; this is the work I have called you to do. But don’t despair. Don’t give up. You are made to forgive, and all it takes is a mustard seed’s worth of faith to begin.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 6, 2013