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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Sermons

Where will you stake a claim in hope?

The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks; The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 21—Year C; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

We are in that stretch of Luke where we are going to hear a lot about money, so buckle in and hang on for the ride. These are hard passages to hear.

Last week, we heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And remember, Jesus was telling that story about the rich man and his less-than-stellar manager to his disciples. But others were listening in, and the text tells us, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Then we come to today, when Jesus picks this theme back up again.

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, and Lazarus was covered with sores, and he longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Boy, that is the picture of despair!) “So, the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. And the rich man also died and was buried. When next we meet up with the rich man, he is in Hades, where he was being tormented.” (Hades—the commentary says this about Hades: In Biblical Greek it is associated with Orcus who was a god of the underworld, just as Hades was the ancient Greek God of the underworld; Hades, the infernal regions (infernal meaning “of or relating to hell”), a dark and dismal place in the very depths of the earth, the common receptacle of disembodied spirits. Usually Hades is just the abode of the wicked; a very uncomfortable place. That’s what the commentary says.) A very uncomfortable place, and so it was for the rich man. He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ The rich man accepted this. He understood that his condition was fixed, but if he could just get to his family who was still alive, if he could just communicate with them, maybe he could save them. His fate was sealed, but they still had a chance. The rich man said, ‘Then, father Abraham, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent, they will turn around, they will change course.’ Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

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A great chasm has been fixed. But that chasm that opened up between where the rich man was dwelling in Hades and the poor man was residing among the angels was only a reflection of the chasm that had opened up in the life before death. A chasm existed when the rich man didn’t see the poor man at his gate. A chasm existed when the rich man could feast sumptuously while the poor man went hungry. A chasm existed when the rich man could rest comfortably in purple and fine linen and the poor man couldn’t get his sores attended to, except by the dogs who licked them. A chasm existed between those two men. While Jesus is using the language of next-life stuff, and it is all too easy to extrapolate this story out to its eternal implications, remember, he is talking to this-life people, disciples and Pharisees, and the chasm that he describes in the next life only mirrors the chasm that exists in this life. It existed in Jesus’ day, and it exists in our day.

There is this sense that the rich man can’t see what’s going on until it’s too late. He can’t see how that chasm in this life hurts him just as much as it hurts the poor man. Any time we cut ourselves off from another, we are both hurt, we are both diminished, we both suffer. St. Paul gets that when he says in I Corinthians 12, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.” We are members one of another.

In the story, the rich man can’t see it until he dies. And maybe that is the most revolutionary thing that Jesus does in this story. To see your intimate connection with every human being on this planet, you have to die to any sense that what you do is solely an individual matter, you have to die to the sense that you are solely an individual member not connected to all the other individual members of the body, you have to die to the sense that it’s okay for chasms to exist because that’s just the way the world is. To see how deeply we are connected, we have to die to the illusion that we are not.

Having seen the vastness of the chasm, and though he cannot bridge it, the rich man doesn’t want his brothers to live in this place of torment, and not just the fact that it’s really fiery and hot where the rich man is, but the torment of living with the knowledge of the chasm. He wants it to be different for his brothers. Maybe Lazarus could go talk with them, maybe a relationship with Lazarus would help them see that Lazarus is a brother, and not some unidentified, unnamed, unemployed beggar just waiting around for handout. In the story, father Abraham, the great patriarch of the faith, says, “No, they have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man says, “Yeah, I know father Abraham, but they’re not up on Moses and the prophets, and they don’t think those texts written hundreds of years ago are really meant to be applied to today, I mean those were addressed to ancient Israel, and our situation is completely different, but if you send a guy who has risen from the dead, boy, they will pay attention then, they could see it then, and they would change.”

But in the story, father Abraham, holds firm, “No, if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they’re not going to be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And remember, it is Jesus telling the story; he places it on the lips of the great patriarch, Abraham, but it’s Jesus telling the story. So, if we have had any notion that, as Christians, the prophets don’t matter; Jesus has just told us, in no uncertain terms, oh, they really do.

Jesus is saying to the disciples, and to those money loving Pharisees, “It’s all there in the prophets.” Jesus is saying, “Are you listening? Are you awake? Over and over, they talk about this gap that is growing between the rich and the poor, income inequality—it’s there, it’s in the prophets. Over and over, they talk about the complacency of the comfortable while the poor are getting trampled. Over and over, they talk about this chasm. Are you listening? Are you hearing? Do you have the capacity to have your heart of stone taken out and receive a heart of flesh in its place, as Ezekiel says?” Jesus is saying, “Are you ready to die so that you may see how distant you have grown from one another? Are you ready to have your eyes opened and your hearts broken? Because the chasm is everywhere, all you have to do is look and listen.”

Dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is telling a story, but it’s not a story about eternal torment—it’s a story to shake our hearts awake to get us to recognize the poor who lay at our gate. It’s a story to get us to see that we have all the tools we need, right here and right now, we have all the tools we need to see the chasm and touch the chasm and understand the chasm, and close the chasm, a chasm that we all have been complicit in creating.

Jesus doesn’t tell this story to leave a rich man in Hades, or to scare us; Jesus tells this story to help us see our kinship with whomever is on the other side of the chasms that exist in all the circles we inhabit.

And lest we plummet into despair as we face head-on the implications of this story, we have to circle back to the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah is under arrest. The army of the king of Babylon is besieging Jerusalem. They are about to be carried off into exile. It is bleak. It is all about to implode all around him. And what does God do? God tells him to go buy the field at Anathoth, a little community just north of Jerusalem. That’s insane. They are getting ready to be carried off into exile. Now is not the time to be plowing money into buying property. That is really not a sound investment to be making! But Jeremiah buys the field, “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah had every reason to despair, and he was an Eeyore kind of guy, but he stakes his life, and his treasure, on hope. The despair that surrounds us, the chasms that divide us and threaten to swallow us whole, this is not what God intends, and this is not what, ultimately, shall be. Faith is a powerful force when hearts of stone wake up and become hearts of flesh. Chasms close when hearts connect and commit to one another. So, though the chasms that exist in our world seem vast and insurmountable, I do not despair. We are being asked to make a crazy investment and buy a field in a place that is about to be desolate and to trust that if we take a crazy leap of faith, something good will grow there. And that field could be anything. Maybe that field is the kind that the poet Rumi describes when he says, “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Or, maybe that field is much more tangible and hands-on, a field to be plowed and tended and watered and loved, a field which will meet the needs of weary, bereft, grief-stricken exiles.

I don’t have any idea what shape, or even exactly where, this field is that we are supposed to buy; I just know that the Spirit is blowing and God is doing some new thing in our midst. And with the prophets to guide us, and Jesus to coax us, and God to sustain us, we can die in the ways we need to die, and we can be born in the ways that God is yearning for us to be born.

What field is God asking you to buy? In the insanity that surrounds us, where will you stake a claim in hope? Where can you take the first step toward a future that right now, today, in unimaginable? The chasm is wider than it has ever been; and into this tragic moment, God says, “Go buy that field.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 29, 2013

How you hold your wealth will tell you how you hold your heart

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 20—Year C; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Okay, I need help with this gospel. Can you all help with this? Okay, Jesus lays this scenario out before his disciples. There was a rich man, sort of an absentee landlord. So imagine you are the rich man, and you live in Orlando, Florida (where Disney World is). But you have this business here in Boone. Well, you can’t manage it from Florida, so you hire a manager to manage your business affairs here in Boone. But your manager isn’t very good at his job, in fact, he squanders, he wastes, the rich man’s property, starts to drive his business into the ground. Word of this gets back to said rich man, and so he calls the manager down to Orlando—“What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you can’t be my manager any longer.” That gives the manager pause. He says to himself, “What will I do, now that I am going to lose my job? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Ah, and you can see the light bulb go off over his head, I know what I will do so that when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, the manager returns to Boone, and summons (that’s a fancy word for “calls”) his master’s debtors (those who owed the master money) one by one. The exchange goes likes this:

Manager          “How much do you owe my master?”
Debtor 1          “A hundred jugs of olive oil.”
Manager          “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”

Manager          “And how much to do you owe?”
Debtor 2          “A hundred containers of wheat.”
Manager          “Take your bill and make it eighty.”

What do you make of this? Is this honest? He’s changing the amount the debtor owes. What about this fifty? What about this twenty? Who is he cheating? The master? Is the manager undercutting the master? How do you think the master will react? And what about the debtor? Is the manager overcharging the debtor?

Oh, it’s a trick question. The manager is cheating himself. You see, in that day, it was the custom for a manager to tack on a really high commission, sort of a tip if you will, on top of the bill to compensate for his managerial efforts. So, when the manager tells the debtor to mark down his bill, he is eating his own commission. The master will still get what is due him, and the debtor is really grateful because he doesn’t have to pay so much. So grateful, the manager believes, that when the manager loses his job, these grateful debtors will invite him into their homes, and he will have shelter. Kind of strange, but you might call this the first unemployment insurance program.

So, what does the master do? The text tells us that his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Do you know what “shrewdly” means? It’s the ability to understand things and make good judgments; it means you’re really sharp in your head, clever. Jesus goes on, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Okay, got that? Tell me what that means. The children of this age are better at understanding the way the world works than are the children of light. Okay. We would expect that. But what about Jesus’ instructions on how to make friends? How does Jesus tell us to make friends? Okay, by means of dishonest wealth. So we make friends by being dishonest and throwing money at them? Okay. And why do we do that? So that when it is gone, those friends we have made through dishonest means will welcome us into the eternal homes. Perfectly clear. Such the ethic I want to teach my child about how to win friends and manage money.

This is bizarre. It gets better.

Jesus continues, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Huh? But Jesus just told us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth, and now Jesus is telling us we can’t serve God and wealth? Oh, this makes no sense.

You can be seated while I keep scratching my head.

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What do we make of this story/teaching that Jesus shares with his disciples? This is confusing. So, I will just jump into the deep end and see if we can swim.

First of all, is there anything redeeming about the first half of the story? Anything at all? Why would Jesus hold up a manager who is a bad manager, a squanderer, and dishonest? Why would this guy be commendable?

We have to remember that this story comes on the heels of Luke 15, the lost-and-found chapter. Remember, leaving the 99 to go for the 1. Searching crazily to find that 1 lost coin when you still had 9. And that delinquent-property-squandering young son, who gets the ring and robe and the party with the fatted calf when he finally pulls himself home. Last week, Jesus was in the business of squandering love and abundance and forgiveness. Through that lens, things look different. In Jesus’ eyes, squandering gets redeemed; squandering gets transformed. So poor management gets transformed into personal relationships that will sustain the manager when he’s out of work. Through his ability to size up the situation, the manager chooses a course that will tie him back into the community relationally, and in doing that, he finds the true riches—relationship with others who will share your joys and bear your burdens. Eternal homes are the places where we know communion, and by the end, that’s exactly what the manager will know.

That second section is also puzzling. I get the part about faithful in a little is faithful in much, and dishonest in a little is dishonest in much—that all computes. But this whole bit about “if you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches…You cannot serve God and wealth” sounds like a bit of a mixed message. Jesus seems to be telling us to be good shrewd stewards of dishonest wealth, but then he tells us we can’t serve God and wealth. Boom. End of story. Crystal clear command, and a bit harsh, too. “You can’t serve God and wealth.” Really Jesus? Ouch. There has got to be something else going on here.

So, let’s work in reverse. What is the problem with wealth? From Jesus’ perspective it has to do with the tendency to cling, to hold onto, to hoard, which is a danger when you are accumulating wealth. It is hard to think of wealth without thinking about accumulating, amassing (it’s kind of built into the definition of wealth), and accumulating and amassing is a holding stance. Stay with me here.

If we hold dishonest wealth, if we cling to our wealth, if we hoard wealth, if we don’t know how to come into contact with money and release it back out into the world easily and freely, if it tends to stick when it hits our hands, if it tends to occupy our minds and consume our hearts, if we can’t develop a healthy receiving of abundance and emptying of that abundance back out into the world, then we will not be capable of handling the true riches, which is love.

If we cling to wealth, we will cling to love. If we don’t know how to release wealth, we won’t know how to release love.

The problem for Jesus isn’t money, per se, it is attachment. Jesus doesn’t attach to anything, he drinks in the abundance of love from God and others, and he just as graciously and just as freely pours that love back out into the world in abundance. Nothing is hoarded, nothing sticks, he clings to nothing. If we are clinging to anything, wealth or anything else, there is no way we can love with the abandon with which Jesus loves, and if we can’t love freely and cleanly, then serving is impossible. The big church word for Jesus’ way is kenosis, self-emptying love, but love freely received, freely given will do.

So, where do you catch yourself sticking, holding, hoarding, clinging? Maybe it is wealth. A lot of us have to wrestle in this arena, but maybe it is someplace else. Where are you being called to be faithful, to release, to let go, so that you will know how to receive and bestow the true riches? What bills do you need to rework that might open the way to new relationships and a new communion with God and others? Where are you being called to exercise your ability to discern well and to make sharp judgments?

God provides all of us the schools we need to grow in God’s way of loving. We have a lot to learn about abundance, and we have a lot to learn about giving it all away. Wealth, for many of us, is a stumbling block. Jesus, in a very bizarre way today, is calling our attention to a simple truth—how you hold your wealth will tell you how you hold your heart, and how you hold your heart will tell you everything about how you will love. Figure that puzzle out, and you will understand what the true riches are all about. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 22, 2013

Come to the table where lost and found rejoice together!

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 19—Year C; Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

In Jeremiah this morning, God has gone to that Eeyore place. Totally pessimistic. Totally dualistic. The land of superlatives and negative extremes. Just listen. “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good…The whole land shall be a desolation…the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black…I have not relented nor will I turn back.” Not a lot of room for grey here. Somewhere in this passage, God does promise not to make a full end, but that one little ray of sunshine has a hard time peeking through all this doom and gloom. Foolish, stupid, evildoers, desolation—that’s extreme. I think God could use a little training in nonviolent communication.

The psalmist does no better. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good…Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one…Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord?” Fool, all, none, every one, evildoers—this is black and white language. Talk about dividing the field into good vs. evil. Wow!

Now, imagine that you are a Pharisee and scribe steeped in this language. Imagine that you have grabbed ahold of the notion that there is a good and righteous way to live in this world; imagine that you have taken Moses’ counsel in Deuteronomy 30:19 to heart—that God has set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses, and you have chosen life! You are ethically upright and morally consistent—you get it, and you have shaped your life accordingly. You understand that there are right ways to live and wrong ways to live, and people can be divided according to the ways in which they live. So, you, as a Pharisee and scribe understand yourself to be righteous because you are living the right ways; you are really good at being really good. Tax collectors and sinners are living the wrong ways, and therefore, they are to be avoided because there are no shades of grey here. Right is right, and wrong is wrong.

But that’s not how Jesus sees it. The Pharisees and scribes see good vs. evil. Jesus doesn’t see good vs. evil; Jesus only sees lost. So, as the Pharisees and scribes grumble at his choice of those evil tax collectors and sinful sinners as his dinner companions, Jesus tells them a story.

“If you’ve got a hundred sheep, and you lose one of them, what do you do?” Well, let’s stop right there and think about this. You’ve got a hundred, and you lose one, do you go after the one? What about the other ninety-nine? Are you going to leave the unprotected in the wilderness? There are wolves out there, and bandits! Wouldn’t it make sense to cut your losses and let that one go to preserve the ninety-nine you still have? That’s just good business sense. But that’s not Jesus. He continues, “Which of you does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” Well, again, we have to weigh the amount of energy we will expend in the search vs. the possibility of finding that one coin. Is worth it to spend all of that energy if you still have nine coins? Aaah. Not so sure. Nine coins are pretty good; nine is enough. But not for Jesus. “That woman will light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it. When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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We are concerned over what we still have and what we might lose, be that ninety-nine sheep or lost energy, but Jesus is only concerned over that which is lost. For Jesus, all of this either-or language, all this us-vs.-them thinking, all of this righteous-vs.-evil-dividing-the-field-of-humanity gives way to a simple question, “Who is lost, and how do we search for them, how do we find them, how can we bring home? And oh, by the way, you can be just as lost in your righteousness as you think these tax collectors and sinners are lost in their life choices.”

St. Paul gets at the same truth with a little different language. It’s not this hard-and-fast-good-vs-evil for Paul. Listen to his experience. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Paul understands that he was lost; he wasn’t evil. He acted ignorantly in unbelief.

Think about those times when you have lost your way. We all lose our way from time to time. And when you are in that place, has it ever helped you to find your way back if someone came at you with shaming language? Has black-or-white thinking ever helped you navigate a really grey stretch of your life? Has being described as a “you” who is part of an “all” or part of a “none,” has being called “stupid” or “foolish” or “evildoer” ever helped you to turn and find your way toward home one minute sooner? Probably, if you’re like me, all that shame has ever done is make you dig your heels in deeper and send you deeper into the wilderness.

Jesus seems to intuitively understand that the broken heart and wounded soul longs to be found, not shamed. And so, Jesus showers us with mercy and grace; Jesus reconnects us to the whole. Jesus chooses rejoicing over shaming. Jesus invites those really good Pharisees and scribes to a full table at a great party, where lost and found dine together, and all are free to acknowledge how lost they really are, and all can experience how incredible it is to be found by a God who refuses to give up the search for us no matter how deep in the wilderness we have wandered.

The only thing that ever keeps us outside the party is our unwillingness to come in. The only thing that ever keeps us from being found is our refusal to admit we are lost. It’s our refusal to stop, to repent if you will, and maybe ask for directions that makes it so hard to find our way back home, and it’s really hard to ask for direction if you have staked your Pharisaic and scribal identity on being really, really right all the time.

So, how do you divide the field of reality? Are you an Eeyore type? Are you a grumbler, like the Pharisees and scribes? Are you part of the ninety-nine, or the nine, or are you the one who is prone to wander? Are you an eager seeker of the lost? Are you a willing member of the found? Are you willing to come to the table where lost and found rejoice together, or would you rather preserve the clear boundaries of “those that are good” and “those that are evil”?

So many choices. So many places to stand. So many wildernesses to navigate. There is joy to be found on earth, as well as in heaven, when we repent of our judgments. There is joy to be found when we know ourselves and one another as both lost and found, and there is immeasurable joy when we sit down together at the table and enjoy the feast that God has spread before us. Amen.

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

What is that third way waiting to be revealed?

The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 18—Year C; Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Hold on folks—the scriptures just aren’t going to let us up for air today. Jesus is going to push us on inner transformation, Paul is going to push us transformation in our relationships, and no less than God speaking through Jeremiah is going to push us on the transformation of the nation, yes, the nation. So, let’s dive in.

Large crowds are traveling with Jesus and he turns to them and says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” He then launches into a teaching on cost-benefit analysis. “Which of you, intending to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, you lay a foundation, and you can’t finish it, and you get ridiculed. Or what king going out to wage war against another king doesn’t first sit down and gauge whether he can with 10,000 go up against one with 20,000? If he can’t, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation to ask for terms of peace.” And after this little cost-benefit, Jesus continues, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not first give up all your possessions.”

Huh? We were just talking about building towers and military planning, how did we get to “if you don’t first give up all your possessions, you can’t become my disciple?” Jesus seems to be saying, “You better do some hefty cost-benefit analysis if you are thinking about jumping on the discipleship bandwagon because it is going to cost you everything. I want you to know exactly how much it’s going to cost you if you want to follow me.”

How much is it going to cost? Give up all your possessions, and not just your material possessions, though that’s entailed, too, but it’s even deeper than that. You have to give up possessing, period. Any notion that you can possess another in a relationship, any notion that we can possess our parents, or our partner, or our children, or our siblings—we’ve got to give it up. Any notion that our life is ours to possess, any notion that we can relate to our life as anything other than complete and utter gift—we’ve got to give it up. Any notion that we can escape the cross—we’ve got to give it up. And how radical is the cost of the cross? Well, we can start with the fact that Jesus receives all the violence of the world and refuses to retaliate, refuses to return violence for violence. If we are called to carry the cross and follow Jesus, then we cannot further the cycle of violence that he died to stop. Inner transformation. The way of Jesus has no room to possess anything—that’s the only way that our vessel is empty enough to be completely filled with his love and free enough to empty all of that love back out into that world. We are permitted to possess nothing.

On to Paul. Paul understands that when you have undergone an inner transformation that this automatically gives birth to a reordering of all your relationships. You cannot lord it over another—all are one in Christ Jesus. And so, Philemon has to understand that his relationship to his former slave, Onesimus, has to change. They can no longer be master and slave, but they can only be brothers in Christ. Paul is gentle and elegant in how he coaxes Philemon into this new understanding, but make no mistake, Paul has just upturned the social order applecart. If Christ has taken possession of us, if Christ has taken up residence in our souls, then we have to rethink every relationship we have in light of the radical equality Jesus calls us to. We can’t keep people in boxes, labeled by our definitions; we can’t hold distinctions that enable us to enjoy more power or status; we can’t keep a nice, comfortable distance from those who make us uncomfortable—the “other” is our brother; the “other” is our sister. Thanks a lot Jesus—it was a whole lot easier when I could keep “those” people over here in my head; a whole lot easier when I didn’t have to recognize my neighbor as my kin.

And then we have the LORD God speaking through Jeremiah, and here is where the rubber really meets the road. Here the text again: The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house, and there the potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, [Kids, what do you do when you have a piece of clay, and you shape it into something, but it doesn’t look quite right, what do you do? (pause) Right, you make it into something else.] And the potter reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

God continues: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it (we had that lesson two weeks ago), but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

Really God, do we have to deal with nations today? When our nation is contemplating military action against another nation, do we have to hear this today? What are you trying to tell us? Well, first of all, God cares about what nations are doing. It’s not enough to be just about inner transformation and relational transformation, but God wants communities, even communities as big as nations, to be transformed. We are vessels; nations are vessels; and as we are formed and shaped, we can lose our shape so easily. And if we lose our shape and form as vessels of grace, then God is going to rework us into some other kind of vessel. The only problem for God is that God has us as co-creators. We aren’t just lumps of clay, but we also bear the potter’s image, which means we have agency and choice and will and power. Don’t you just know that God has some days where God wishes he/she hadn’t breathed divine breath unto us and had left us as lumps of clay completely shapeable according to God’s desire?

God is saying here that national transformation matters. God reiterates today that God is in the plucking up, breaking down, and destroying business, as well as the building up and planting business. Vessels, be they individual or collective, need to be vessels of life and grace—if they’re not, then God is going to find a way to rework that clay until that vessel of life and grace is once again revealed. And for the clay, i.e. for us or our country, that reworking sounds painful.

So, how does all this bear on our country right now as we contemplate action in Syria? What are we, as Christian people, to think? Well, Jesus might challenge us this morning with this question, “Just what are you trying to possess in this proposed military action?” And God’s counsel in Jeremiah means this is not a simple question. Are al-Assad and his government engaging in evil? Dropping chemical weapons on one’s people certainly seems to qualify. But before we take out the speck in our neighbor’s eye, are there any logs we need to be aware of in our own national eye? We are hearing words these days like “in the national interest,” “in our strategic interest,” “security,” but do these notions become the possessions that Jesus is calling us to give up? And what of the call to carry the cross, that icon of total nonviolent response?

As followers of Jesus who are called to inner transformation and relational transformation, as those addressed by God through the prophets to be about national transformation, what are we to make of Syria? What are Christian responses? And hang on, because here comes a crash course in Christian ethics. There are several responses that Christians can make when it comes to war: pacifism, just peacemaking (which is closely related to pacifism), and just war.

There is one response that is NOT permissible for a Christian to make, and that is the position of realism. Philosophically, realism is a position which sees the international arena as anarchy in which the will to power wins. This position emphasizes power and security issues, says that nations are all about their self-interests, and is suspicious about applying moral concepts, like justice, to the international arena. You can’t square this stance with the scriptures or the Chrstian tradition because moral concepts simply aren’t on the table.

Pacifism holds that war is always wrong because it violates the duty not to kill human beings. Period. End of story. This stance is grounded in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.

Just peacemaking supports the prevention of war through nonviolent direct action and cooperative conflict resolution. This, too, is rooted in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus counsels, “If your enemy strikes, turn the other cheek,” this was not a meek action because as you brought your cheek around you met the eye of your oppressor, you humanized that oppressor, and in so doing you claimed that that person had no power over you—you were their absolute equal, and in this you can hear echoes of Philemon and Onesimus.

The most complicated position to understand is just war. And since this is thrown around a lot right now, we need to understand it. Just war has its roots in Greco-Roman culture, and it is Augustine and Aquinas who give it its Christian formulation. There are some problems with just war theory at the root because this theory doesn’t develop until Constantine marries Christianity to the Roman Empire—in other words, you don’t need a just war theory until you have to justify your army going to war. In the first few centuries of Christianity, just war would have been unthinkable because followers of Jesus were committed to his way of the cross and simply received suffering, and even death, without retaliating. However, just war has long been an acceptable Christian ethical framework, and there may be times when it is permissible in this morally tragic violent world. Hitler comes to mind. But just war has a whole lot of criteria. There are criteria that must be met before one goes to war, there are criteria to be met during the conduct of the war, and there are criteria to be met post-war.

Vis a vis Syria, we are still on the “before” end. To be a just war one must meet all six of these criteria before taking action. First, there must be just cause—protection of innocents from brutal, aggressive regimes qualifies. Second, there must be right intention—you fight the war only for the sake of its just cause; you can’t do power grabs or land grabs, revenge or ethnic cleansing. Third, the decision must be made by proper authorities according to the proper process and made public. Fourth, it must be the last resort—you must have exhausted all plausible, peaceful alternatives to resolving the conflict in question, in particular diplomatic negotiation. Fifth, there must be the probability of success—you can’t resort to war if you can foresee that doing so will have no measurable impact on the situation. And sixth, proportionality—you must weigh the universal goods expected to result, such as securing the just cause, against the universal evils expected to result, notably casualties, especially civilian casualties. [These definitions come from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on war].

As I keep listening and learning, thinking and praying, you could make a Christian ethical case for having met just cause, right intention, and proper decision making. But probability of success and proportionality are still very much in question, and last resort still seems a long ways away.

I offer this today because, as Christian people, you need to know the Christian ethical lens through which we view a situation like Syria.

There is one more thing we need to throw in this stew, and it comes from a Christmas Sermon that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on Christmas Eve in 1967. He says, “If we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere…We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach a good ends through evil means because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” Jesus would agree when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” Can a violent military action on our part produce a peaceful end? Can that seed produce that tree? The ends and the means must cohere.

Oh, it is costly when you embrace such a stance towards life. It is costly to say that our ends and our means must cohere. We will give up a lot to live out such a vision, but according to Jesus, at least this morning, discipleship is that costly.

I still don’t know the final answer in Syria, but as a Christian, there is a whole lot more to think about than just security interests, or national interests, or even a just cause with a right intention. How we do this as a nation really does matter—it matters to us, and it matters to God. So, we have to keep going deeper. What is the third way? What is that third way presently known only to God that is neither “respond violently” or “do nothing”? What is that third way waiting to be revealed, waiting to be born? Can we pray for that? Can we discern that? Can we, as a national it’s-either-this-or-that lump of clay be reworked into some other vessel that can move all of us toward life and light and grace and peace?

God have mercy on us all and make us into the vessel, as individuals, as a nation, that you long for us to be. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 8, 2013

Why, why do we resist the unfathomable grace of God’s boundless love?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 17—Year C; Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Great story today from Luke’s gospel! Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, and they were watching him closely. Wait, wait, stop right there. Didn’t we hear just last week how Jesus got in hot water with the leader of the synagogue for healing on the sabbath? Aren’t the Pharisees and Jesus tangling a good bit these days? Well, yes and no. Yes, Jesus is tangling with the Pharisees, but Pharisees don’t all think alike, or talk alike, or act alike. In fact, in the chapter just before this one, some Pharisees came to warn Jesus, telling him to “get away from here because Herod wants to kill you!” But there were other Pharisees that seemed to delight in playing gotcha with Jesus. And it would seem that it was these Pharisees who were going to be at this particular dinner party. So, the first item of note is that Jesus went to have a meal at the home of his opponent. And actually, kudos to the Pharisee who invited his opponent, Jesus, to come have dinner at his house. Jesus and he could have kept a polite distance from each other; they disagree about a whole lot of stuff. But Jesus and the Pharisee didn’t keep a distance; the Pharisee invited and Jesus accepted an invitation and opponents sat down to dinner. Think about that. When was the last time you went to dinner with a bunch of folks who thought differently, radically different, from you or your circle?

Well, the night gets off to a bit of a rocky start. It’s omitted in the lectionary passage for today, but right off the bat, a man with dropsy appears right in front of Jesus (dropsy is a condition where you swell from abnormal fluid retention). So, Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” Because Jesus remembered getting in trouble last week for curing that woman on the sabbath who had been crippled for eighteen years; Jesus knows he’s on thin ice here. But they were silent. So, Jesus took the man and healed him and sent him on his way. Then Jesus said to those Pharisees and lawyers, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. The laws around sabbath were clear, and yet, when a person in need is standing before you, a man with dropsy, a child, an ox, what takes precedence? The imperative of the law or the imperative to love the neighbor as yourself?

Well, one might imagine that a little bit of social tension has just been introduced into this little dinner party. Wait, it gets better. Jesus started watching how the guests chose where they would sit. So, let’s try this out. Okay, we’ve got the leader of the Pharisees sitting at the head of the table; he’s a big deal, a lot of status, a lot of honor. And there are seats all along each side. Now, according to Emily Post, and the traditions back then, the seats closest to the head of the table have more honor, and the ones farther down the way have less honor. Where would you choose to sit? Go ahead, pick your seat, go ahead and fill in. [Let the kids fill in]

So, you did exactly what the folks at that dinner party did. But when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he went, “Hmmmm.” Now, he didn’t tell them that they had poor etiquette. No, he just told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, don’t sit down up here at the place of honor because if someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, then the host who invited you both might come to you and say, ‘Give this person your seat,’ and, then what? You would have to move down to the lowest place, and that would be what? Right again, embarrassing. But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, and when your host comes, he might say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. Because here’s the deal, everyone who exalts, who lifts themselves up, will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted; it’s just one of those pesky turn-everything-upside-down things that tends to happen whenever Jesus is around. So, that’s Jesus’ etiquette 101 for the guest, but listen to what he’s got to say to the host!

Okay, if you are having a luncheon or a dinner party, who would you invite? This is one of those you-can-invite-any-six-people-to-dinner-who-would-you-invite scenarios. So, who? Who would you invite? Interesting people, fascinating people, people who excel in their fields, writers, artists, societal change agents, governmental leaders, people in movies, sports idols, or closer to home, your family, aunts and uncles and cousins, your friends, rich neighbors? Who would you invite? [pause] Well, whatever list you just made, Jesus says, “Toss it out because all of those people have the capacity to invite you back, and you would be repaid. No…” and here comes another one of those turn-it-all-upside-down things…”No, when you give a banquet, you invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

This is Jesus’ etiquette 101 for the host. What do you think of that advice? What do you make of it? Why does Jesus point us toward the definitely-not-rich-nor-famous guest list? What is Jesus trying to help his host, the leader of the Pharisees, to see? What is Jesus trying to get this upstanding, rule-following, pillar-of-society, really good guy to see?

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What is Jesus trying to get the Pharisee, and all of us who follow in his footsteps, to see? Why does Jesus continually throw us into these whiplash reversals? Well, it’s easy to get into a groove, a comfort zone, and our hearts can grow pretty insulated in such spaces. There’s not much challenge to our heart to expand if we only hang out with people who think and feel like we do. And it’s generally not until we are thrown out of our comfort zone that our hearts can grow, just like the Grinch, and bust out of the tiny frames we have placed them in.

And what of the guest list? Did you notice some of the nifty shifts in language that Jesus employs? Fairness and scorekeeping move to sheer blessing in this realm and repayment in the next realm when scorekeeping is completely irrelevant and there are no gradations of human beings, only a beloved community of brothers and sisters sitting around one big table. And, and, the luncheon or dinner turns into a banquet, a lavish, overflowing, feast.

These particular Pharisees were awfully good at knowing the law, and keeping the law, and applying the law, and keeping score, and keeping it all very fair. They knew how to do things decently and in good order, kind of Jewish Episcopalians. Rules are good. Fair is good. Fair is fine, but fair is far too little. Quite frankly, God isn’t interested in fair; God is interested in love, and abundance, and blessing—blessing so deep and rich that it blows right past repayment and throws the heart wide-open.

There is so very much in this world; why on earth do we settle for what’s fair from the vantage point of our little calculating minds, and I say that as someone who used to make a living calculating and who loves to keep count of just about anything. But in God’s kingdom, in God’s world, in God’s grand vision, this way of transacting human relationships is just far too little. It’s just not rich enough for Jesus. He knows, God knows, that blessings beyond measure are found whenever we open ourselves up to an encounter with pure, sheer grace. A poor person, a crippled person, a lame person, a blind person cannot pay you in the currency of this world; they can only pay you with the gift of their very self, and that is everything.

It’s the same point that Jeremiah is trying to drive home this morning in his very Jeremiah sort of way. But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

What is it about us human beings that we forsake, we leave the fountain of living water. We leave God’s overflowing, never-ending, pure grace, completely unearned-and-undeserved abundance and start breaking our backs digging out cisterns of our own design that are cracked to begin with because they are hewn out of things that are not God, and a cracked cistern just can’t hold water, and so we end up parched, dying of thirst, scared, empty, sure that there is not enough because in that cracked cistern, there is indeed nothing to satisfy our thirst. ***

***And here’s where my sermon has an asterisk that says, “Syria” because in the three times I woke up last night, I realized that I needed to say something about Syria this morning, even though I don’t yet have the words. So, here it goes. I am about 4 days behind in the news this week, but late last night, I did listen to the President’s statement about his decision to take military action. Honestly, as a Christian, I don’t know what the right thing to do is. As a person of faith who is growing in non-violence, is military action the right course? But if a leader is killing innocents…WWII comes to mind…it’s hard to imagine not intervening as Hitler exterminated millions. I always struggle with a lack of intervention when genocides take place, it just seems we ought to do something, but how, what? I do not envy the President or our Congress, but I think we all need to discern this, and we need to pray like we haven’t prayed in a long time. So, let’s think about this in light of Jeremiah. Has al-Assad, President of Syria, forsaken the fountain of living water? Has he been seduced into digging out cisterns of his own making, scared to death of losing control, trying to control his country, his people, through the use of terrifying chemical weapons? It’s pretty clear those cisterns are cracked. But what cisterns might our leaders be digging out that will be cracked and which, ultimately, just won’t hold water? Does a violent response ever end violence, or does it just set another cycle of violence in motion? Do we take a violent action just because our words have boxed us in? Where might we lose touch with the fountain of living water, and start trying to dig out cisterns that are going to leave us all feeling thirsty? I truly don’t know how our country should proceed, but maybe if we hold fast to the fountain of living water, some new third way will emerge that we can’t even see right now, but some creative way that will hold water and that can lead us all forward, maybe such a way will emerge.***

Because all the while, the fountain of living water is flowing. All we have to do is hold fast to the Source and say “yes” to the abundance that never stops flowing.

Why, why, can anyone tell me why, why do we resist the unfathomable grace of God’s boundless love? Why do we try to constrain it in rules, force it into acceptable channels, build cisterns to contain it? Why don’t we just let it flow? Why don’t we just drink it in and let it flow back out through our lives toward every other living thing in this cosmos? Jesus never hoards love or clings to love; love is always superabundant, and always, always flowing back out through his words and actions. Why invite those who can’t repay you? Because it’s the only way that we will ever understand that the love he has in mind is so much richer than repayment. And I don’t know that we can conceive of just how vast this love is until we sit down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind and share a feast of God’s making. I don’t know why it works this way; I only know that every single time I have been in the presence of people whom society has cast-off, but who are so precious in God’s sight, every time I have been in their presence, my heart knows something about riches and blessings that the cracked cisterns of this world, of my world, simply cannot comprehend, and I want more of that love, I want more of the living water that flows from that Source. I want to know more about that grace.

So, as you look out over your life, are you spending a lot of time and energy digging out cisterns? And if you’ve constructed a really fine cistern, are you starting to notice any cracks? Is it holding water like it used to? Are you beginning to discover that that water just doesn’t satisfy your soul thirst anymore? Maybe you’ve heard tell of a fountain of living water, maybe you’ve begun to taste it yourself, are you ready to go all in? Are you ready to give up keeping count, are you ready to let go of fairness, are you ready to forget about tidy portions and leap into a sense of abundance that transforms luncheons and dinners into banquets with more than enough to feed the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Are you ready to discover that the gift of one’s self far exceeds any value that the world might assign? Are you ready to risk being soaked by grace beyond your imagining?

It’s yours. It’s yours for the taking. All you have to do is drink it in, and hold nothing back as you let it flow back into the world. That’s how it works. Once you drink of this fountain, you become part of the fountain. The Source and you are one. Drink it in, release it freely, and watch the fountain flow. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 1, 2013

God has appointed YOU. What are you going to do with that?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 16—Year C; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

The call of Jeremiah. The call of a 20-something who definitely did not want to do what God was asking of him. Remember, the memory of the northern kingdom falling was very much in the collective memory of the people of God. And Jeremiah is watching Judah and Jerusalem fall into utter decay. They have chased after other gods, oppressed the alien, the orphan, and the widow [Je 5:5-7]. Exile is coming if they can’t straighten out their ways. It’s a pretty ugly scene. And into this moment, God comes to Jeremiah, God comes to Martin Luther King, Jr., God comes to me, God comes to you, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Brothers and sisters, how is that sitting in your soul right now? I would imagine about as comfortably as it was for young Jeremiah. He played the age card. “Uh, me Lord? Truly, I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy. Really God? You want me to go talk to kings and priests and people in power? Have you heard what they say about millenials? TIME magazine called us the “Me, Me, Me Generation.” What on earth makes you think that I will get a hearing? What on earth makes you think that I have something to say? I am only 10, or 20, or a young parent, or middle-aged, or way too old. I don’t know how to speak. What do I have to offer into this moment?”

But the Lord said to Jeremiah, and to Martin, and to you, and to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you says the LORD.”

Oh no, are you ready to surrender to that? Are you ready to go to all to whom God will send you? Are you ready to speak whatever God will command you to speak? Are you ready to be fearless? Do you understand that God is with you to deliver you? Do you understand that when you feel like you are about to be overwhelmed by this situation, do you understand that God has promised to snatch you away, that God will not let you let you be consumed by it, that God has you in God’s sights every minute of every day? Do you know that?

You don’t get to play the age card, or the inexperience card, or the wrong kind of experience card. As Jesus shows us so clearly today, you don’t even get to play the this-breaks-the-law card, or the this-messes-with-tradition card, or the it’s-just-going-to-be-so-disorderly card. I heard a quote a few months back from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail that is still haunting me. King was writing to white liberal clergymen, and he says this, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Ouch.

Jesus healed a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. But the leader of the synagogue was indignant

, indignant because Jesus had cured her on the sabbath. That leader proclaimed, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Jesus was appalled, and it was his turn to be indignant. “You hypocrites! You untie your ox and donkey and lead them to water on the sabbath. And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan had bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

You don’t get to play the age card, or the inexperience card, or the “good order” card. God formed you, God knew you before he formed you, God has consecrated you, God has appointed you. What are you going to do with that?

And if that isn’t enough, God puts out God’s hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth, and Martin’s mouth, and your mouth, and my mouth, and God says to us, “You don’t know how to speak, but I do. Now I have put my words in your mouth. And today, today, I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow systems and structures that hurt and oppress my beloved children, my beloved creatures, my beloved creation. That is your task, oh prophet, that is your work. But do not forget, never forget, that all this plucking up and pulling down, all this destroying and overthrowing is only toward one end, to build up and plant a new creation, to build up ancient ruins, to raise up former devastations, to repair ruined cities, and the devastations of many generations [Is 61:4], to be repairers of the breach as Isaiah says [Is 58:12]. You must understand, oh prophet, as the Letter to the Hebrews does, that the sprinkled blood of Jesus poured out on that cross in the ultimate act of non-violence speaks a better word than the blood of Abel [Heb 12:24] shed in anger. This calling, this sacred work that I have called you to won’t just be for the transformation of the world, but it will remake your heart in the process.”

 

And do you want to know the power of a transformed heart? It can stop a man with 500 rounds of ammunition ready to shoot up the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, GA near Atlanta. Meet Antoinette Tuff, the nation’s new hero, and my personal hero. If you haven’t yet, go google the video of her account of this past Tuesday, all 16 minutes and 18 seconds of it. She engaged a gunman because she didn’t see a gunman, she saw a hurting human being. She talked about how her pastor had been teaching them at their church to anchor themselves in the Lord. So when Antoinette looked at this young man, she saw someone who was hurting and she started praying for him. Then she started to tell the man of her life and her struggles. She talked about her child with multiple disabilities and how dark it was for her after her divorce. She noticed that he had the same name as her mother’s maiden name, and she said, “We could be family.” “We could be family.” But here’s the part that blows me away, she knew that this man was going to kill everyone because he told her that was his intent. He told her that he was hopeless, that he didn’t have a reason to live, and that nobody loved him. She told him that she loved him, that she didn’t know his name, she didn’t know much about him, but she loved him. When she was asked how she could show such compassion toward this man, she said this, “When I looked at him, I seen myself and my kids.” When Antoinette looked into Michael Hill’s eyes, she saw herself. Love your neighbor as yourself. Antoinette didn’t see an enemy, she didn’t see a gunman, she saw a beloved, hurting reflection of herself and her family; she knew her kinship to this young man. She looked at Michael, the way God looks at us, and love poured out and spoke a better word than the blood of Abel.

God knew

Antoinette before God formed her in the womb. God consecrated her and appointed her, and on Tuesday morning, she lived out the fullness of that call. She spoke what God gave her to speak. She plucked up and pulled down despair, and she built up and planted love and hope, and in a world that knows violence only too well, bullets were stopped and lives were saved.

God knew you before he formed you in the womb. Before you were born, God consecrated you. God has appointed you a prophet. Go to all to whom God sends you. Speak whatever God commands you. Do not be afraid. Pluck up what needs plucking up, pull down what needs pulling down, build and plant a new creation. Speak a better word than the blood of Abel. And never forget, never forget, that the LORD God is with you…always.

Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 25, 2013

Amidst all the noise, what is a faithful seeker to do?

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 12—Year C; Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Do you ever wish that you could have lived in those early church days as the Christian faith was springing to life and catching fire, and it stood in close proximity to the Christ event? It would have been so much easier to follow the Way back then because who Christ was, and what his life meant, and how one was to live—these were all crystal clear. Or, as my daughter often tells me, were they? I think one of the illusions we have is that there was this time when faith and practice were crystal clear to those who sought to follow Jesus, but it’s just not so—the disciples are perpetually exhibit A of not understanding, and Paul’s letters are also testament to this reality.

Followers of Jesus have always struggled with who he was, what his life meant, and how that then translates to their life and practice, especially in light of all the currents swirling around them. Our passage from Colossians this morning is a good case in point.

So, Paul starts out by reminding this community that first and foremost, they are to continue to live their lives in Christ, rooted in him, built up in him, and that the hallmark of this way of living is thanksgiving. Before Paul addresses anything, he affirms the reality that these people live and move and have their being in union with Christ Jesus. They are inextricably bound up and united with him. He lives in them, and they in him. This is their beginning and their end, and everything else runs through that.

Reading between the lines, we can see that a lot of philosophies, a lot of theologies, a lot of worldviews were competing for the hearts and minds of the people of Colossae, not unlike in our day and time. There is a Platonic worldview that talks of shadows and substance. There is the Jewish frame with its attendant laws and restrictions and festivals. There is a take on reality that is based on the four basic elemental spirits of the universe—earth, air, fire, and water. There is an ascetic worldview that is pretty anti-body, anti-flesh. There is the worldview of the rulers who flex their muscles and throw the weight of their power around. There is the worldview of the authorities who had a system of tradition that was working just fine for them, thank you very much. There is a smattering of esoteric philosophy with a pinch of angelogy and a good dose of visions for the specially initiated. What is a faithful Colossian to do? What is a spiritual seeker who sincerely wants to follow a spiritual path to do? How do you know whom to follow and what to practice? How do you know?

Think of all the philosophies and theologies that are competing for our hearts and minds. There are economic worldviews, with varying roles for the private and public sector. Platonic worldviews with their vision of perfect ideals and shadowy realities still plague our culture—like the ideal of youth and beauty—and these Platonic worldviews still plague our reading of sacred scripture and our understanding of our faith. There are certainly elements in our world that function only within rules and restrictions and laws, just as there are elements that don’t hold to any human tradition and take their cues only from the elements of the universe. There are still the ascetics who deny the goodness of the body, the flesh, and there are still those who feel like they have a special spiritual knowledge and the rest of us are just hopeless. There are all kinds of worldviews espoused by our political leaders and religious leaders and pop culture celebrities. Even within Christianity, there are a thousand different ways to go. What is a faithful person to do? What is a spiritual seeker who sincerely wants to follow a spiritual path to do? How do you know whom to follow and what to practice? With so many options and so many choices, how do you know?

Well, on one level you don’t know, but on another level, you already know, you know at the deepest level of your being. This is not something you will know with your head, though your mind is a great help in reflecting on and understanding what you already know. It’s just that, hard as you try, and believe me, I have tried, you can’t think your way there. No, this is a matter of something we have already received. We are already rooted in Christ, joined with him, built up in him, established in him. And in him, the whole fullness of deity, of divinity, of Godness, the whole fullness—that’s like a double-dose of wholeness, a completely full fullness—in Christ, the whole fullness of God dwells bodily, not abstractly, bodily, incarnationally, in the flesh. I think I am starting to channel Paul’s grammatical constructions, but hang in there with me. And you, you have come to fullness in him. All that Christ embodies, all that Christ is and has, all that fullness, all of it is yours.

Can we just drop to our knees before that truth?

Do we get it? Do we realize that the whole fullness of God that dwells in Jesus, dwells in us, too? This is way beyond the power that the rulers and authorities throw around.

In him you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ. Uh-oh, that sounds awfully anti-body, but Paul is really clear that the fullness of deity dwells bodily, so this can’t be seen as just an anti-body diatribe. No, Paul is trying to get at something else here. Maybe this circumcision is a way to mark holiness, a way to consecrate us—that’s certainly what it meant for our Jewish ancestors. Maybe this is Paul’s way of saying, “Your flesh is holy.” Far from being anti-body, anti-flesh, Paul is saying that your flesh and blood is a place of divine revelation, if we are awake to what we are; if we are awake to what we bear.

Do you see yourself as a manifestation of the Divine, as a Godbearer in the very real flesh and blood of your existence?

Paul goes on to say that when we were buried with Christ in baptism, we were also raised with him in his resurrection. Whatever in us needs to die to embrace the fullness of divinity that we possess, Christ shows us how to die to it, and how to bury it. And if we can take the giant leap to die to our ego—to our patterns and attachments and dramas, as we all must—then we can trust that Christ will carry us through to a new and resurrected life.

When our egos are running the show, when our passions are whipping us around like those crazy rides at the amusement parks that make me sick, we are as good as dead. We might be going through the motions of living, but we are hollow inside. Maybe that’s what it means to be dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of our flesh. But God finds us in that precise place and makes us alive again by showing us what wholeness and fullness and divinity-in-the-flesh looks like in the grit of Jesus’ life.

And no place reveals this power more clearly than the cross. All the keeping score that humanity had surely done with God throughout the ages, all the trying to measure up and failing miserably, all the guilt and shame and fear, that whole system was nailed to a tree and done away with. All the power that rulers and authorities thought they had was revealed for the illusion and lie that it was. Jesus, of his own free will, in an act of love poured out fully, stretched out his arms and simply let go. And in that one act, completely disarmed the rulers and authorities and powers of this world.

So, Paul continues, all the competing philosophies, all the rules, and regulations—they don’t mean anything. In Christ Jesus, you are rooted and grounded in a love that surpasses all understanding. His life lives in you. The fullness of God lives in you. As you embrace that, as you wake up to that, as you let that move out in your very real flesh and blood life, you will know the liberty that is so free that it can willingly and freely yield and restrict itself because love compels it to.

Paul is making an outrageous claim—in Christ is the substance, the glue, that holds the whole universe together. It’s about embracing the fullness of deity that dwells bodily in you and in me and in every element of this world. You don’t have to eat a certain way, or drink a certain way, or observe this festival in that way, or follow the new moons, or observe the sabbath according to the law. You don’t have to abase your self or your flesh. You don’t have to be up on angelogy or have spectacular visions.

You just have to hold fast to the One who shows us what the fullness of divinity lived in the flesh looks like. You just have to drink of that Divine Life that is pulsing through the world, that is resonating deep in your own soul.

In a very real way, that’s why we come to this table week after week to eat of his body and drink of his blood—it’s the way we remember that he is who we are, that his breath is our breath, this his blood is running through our blood, that his life is living in us and through us.

Back to the question that confronted the Colossians, and confronts us still, “Amidst all these philosophies, and choices, and spiritual options, what is a faithful seeker to do?” As I read Paul, and as I experience Jesus, the answer that rises up is this—LEAP. If you can’t intellectually grasp it, simply leap into the possibility that what Paul is saying is true. Leap into the possibility that through Christ, things that need to die in you are dying and things that need to be raised up in you are being born. Leap into the possibility that the whole fullness of deity that dwells in Christ Jesus is yours and that you are coming to that fullness in him. You have been made holy; you are all swaddled up in divinity. Leap into this possibility, and live into the places that such a perspective, such a vision, such a worldview, such a philosophy will surely carry you.

And then, don’t be surprised when the possibility you leapt into becomes the deepest truth you know. Then, you won’t need to ask, How do I know?” Then, the knowing itself will be enough. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 28, 2013

Choose that better part

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 11—Year C; Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Okay, I need the kids up here to help me tell this story, and Bill Marr. Okay, I need you, you, you, and you to be my Martha characters. You dust, you sweep, you polish silver, you are cooking. And you, you, and you are my Mary characters. You sit here at Jesus’ feet, and you soak up every single word that Jesus is saying. That’s all you do. Okay, Martha’s, work on your task; now rotate tasks and do another task; okay, switch again; okay, switch yet again. Martha’s, what do you notice about Mary? While you are doing all of this work, what is she doing? How are you feeling about that? Is it fair? What do you need from Mary? What do you need from Jesus? What would you like to say to Jesus? [pause] But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me. (I think Martha is a “2” on the enneagram, or maybe a “1” who has gone to that bad “4” place—in either case, we’ve got a little bit of a martyr thing going on here.)

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

+++

Okay, let’s ‘fess up—who in here are the Martha’s? Who in here are the Mary’s? Think back to chore time in your families growing up—if you were to ask your siblings if you were a Martha or a Mary, what would they say?

And honestly, isn’t there a part of us that kind of feels for Martha? I mean, she is just trying to extend gracious hospitality to a guest; she was just trying to do what every good Middle Eastern host would do—knock herself out to make sure that her guest would enjoy a good meal and a clean home and a peaceful, restful stay. I mean, just how is that house going to get clean, or that meal cooked, or that peaceful, restful atmosphere established if she doesn’t do it? It’s sure not going to happen if Mary’s in charge because she wouldn’t get off her duff to a lift a finger to make any of those things happen. I would love to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in all that great energy, but chores have to get done, and if they don’t get done, it will be a disaster! I mean this house will spin into chaos; it will be a wreck; it will be out of control, and I can’t function in chaos!

And I think we have just left Martha and Mary’s house and entered a typical day in the Banks’ household—am I alone here? Are these conversations happening in any other houses, or in any other heads?

This passage evokes so many feelings. Some of those feelings get churned up because it is so daggone familiar. I would imagine that all of us, at least once, have had an experience where we felt like we were doing more than our fair share. And if you can touch that memory, can you feel that anger building toward a big whopping resentment? And can you then sense how your anger and resentment absolutely undermine the hospitable, peaceful, restful atmosphere you are trying to create? Oh, it’s a deadly stew.

And then there is the tragic side of this passage that has pitted these two women against each other throughout the ages. The doing-type Martha against the being-type Mary, always judging one acceptable and the other wanting. Pitting the traditional-womanly role of Martha against the boundary-breaking-moving-into-the-male-position-of-discipleship role of Mary. As a woman, it feels like the judgments that sometimes get flying around women’s choices today: mom’s who stay at home working their tails off vs. mom’s who work outside the home trying to balance it all vs. women who make a choice to pursue a work vocation as their primary vocation vs. women who have no choice at all because of economic necessity. Judgments can abound, and nobody comes out feeling good—and it partly goes back to this passage where judgment is passed, and judgment is felt. If we’re going to look deeper into this passage, we at least have to acknowledge that this has always been a difficult passage for women who have wrestled with their roles—always.

So, let’s just set the Martha-gets-a-bad-rap feeling aside for minute and simply look at what Jesus is trying to get at here. First, Jesus isn’t judging Martha as a doing-type. In the passage just before this one, Jesus makes a powerful case for the loving action of the Good Samaritan vs. the callous inaction of the Priest and the Levite who left the man bleeding in the ditch. So, it’s not that doing is bad and being is good. That is a false choice. What Jesus is critiquing Martha for is her level of worry and distraction. It’s Martha’s inability to be present that is her problem. The worry, the distraction, the anger, the resentment—these all pull her out of presence. When you are filled with worry or anger or resentment, when you are distracted, which our world has taken to an artform, are you able to be present to what is? Are you able to attend to Presence capital “P”? Are you able to attend to the Holy that is within you and above you and below you and all around you? Does it really matter if the house isn’t perfectly clean? Does that really equate to world-ending chaos? And even if chaos ensued, is that always a bad thing? As Genesis reminds us, creation itself was borne out of such chaos.

“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” What is the one thing? There is a footnote to this verse that reads, “Other ancient authorities read few things are necessary, or only one.” So, according to these other ancient manuscripts, Jesus says to Martha, “Few things are necessary,” or “There is need of only one.” Again, the question that comes to Martha, and to us, is, “What is the one thing? What few things are necessary? What is the one? Who is the one?” Each of us has to answer this question for ourselves. It’s like when Jesus turns and says to Peter, and to us, “But who do you say that I am?” For Mary, her one thing is to sit in the presence of Jesus and to listen to him and him alone. Martha struggles to hear the one thing because her energy is going in 40,000 different directions.

How do you answer the “one thing” question? As I meditate on this question, the answer that that has been given to me is another question, straight from the mouth of God, “Do you know how much I love you?” That’s my one thing. Do you know how much God loves you?

Nothing else matters because everything else holds together in that one question.

It’s the same kind of mystical sense that Paul is struggling to express in Colossians—“Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God…all things have been created through him and for him…and in him all things hold together…for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” and Paul goes on to say that this is the hope promised by the gospel…which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. To every creature under heaven—this is about the whole cosmos—wow! When we grab a hold of the one thing, or when it grabs a hold of us, then it all comes together, it all hangs together, it all holds together. As those studying Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Fridays are discovering, this is the place where the horizontal and the vertical meet, and Jesus shows us what this place of intersection, what this love looks like, in his life, in his teaching, at the center of the cross, and in his Risen Presence that bids us “Come” at every moment of every day. The one thing is the love that is both our ground, our source and our goal. This love is the root of all of our action, and it is the action itself.

Mary won’t just sit at Jesus’ feet forever. Remember John 12? John 12 tells us that one week before his death, she will rise to her feet, and perform an action that will blow the lid off of any notion that love has a limit. She will rise to her feet, and she will take a pound of costly perfume—a year’s worth of wages costly— made of pure nard, and she will anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair in an act of such lavish love that the shockwaves of its extravagance are still reverberating in heaven and on earth.

The thing is, these aren’t just two women, these are two energies that live inside of each one of us, often duking it out, but secretly longing to come together. We get so distracted, but deep down, we know, we know that we have a Mary energy that sits at Jesus’ feet in perfect alignment with him. And there is a Martha energy in all of us that frets and worries and is so distracted, but she, too, longs to rest at Jesus’ feet. She, too, longs to come into that perfect alignment and to have her actions driven by only one thing, the love that surpasses all understanding. She longs to be driven by love and joy and peace and to shed all fear of what others think about her; she longs to shed all fear of what she thinks of herself; she longs to rest at the feet of Love, and to know that nothing else is necessary.

Yes, there will still be work to do; the chores don’t go away, but when you are aligned, when you are firmly rooted in the one thing that truly matters, when that Love, that Presence, is filling you, then as you move along your life in this horizontal realm of time and space, as you go about your tasks, you do so as a single one with a heart aligned with the One in whom everything holds together, and then, every act becomes a manifestation of that Love.

Mary has indeed chosen the better part—to move through her life united with, aligned with, the fullness of God. She acted when she chose that better part, and that choice dictates all her actions for the rest of her life. Today, Mary issues a most gentle invitation to Martha, her sister, and to all of us: release your worries and distractions and let the one thing that is needed fill your being—let it fill your heart, let it fill your mind, let it fill your body, let it fill your spirit, and then your work will be just one more outpouring and manifestation of the Love that never ends. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 21, 2013

Leap with our Lord with a “yes!

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 72:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Okay, time for a little trivia, and this will date you. Who remembers Schoolhouse Rock—that great TV show that first aired in the ’70’s that taught us so many important things that we needed to know about the world? I mean, who can forget the classic “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill”—how many of you learned the legislative process from that little tune? Or “Three is a Magic Number.” Or the absolutely iconic, “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses” that told the story of “and,” “but,” and “or.” The conjunction—that great grammatical connector that joins two things together. Except in the case of “but” which is the great negator of whatever went before. For example, your partner, or child, or friend, or boss has done something that has hurt you, and they say, “I am sorry, but…”—how’s that apology feeling with that “but” in there? “But” is pretty much equivalent to “not so much,” “I’m sorry…not so much, not really.” Who’s been on the receiving end of that kind of apology? Who’s got that t-shirt?

As we were doing a slow meditative reading of this passage in the Friday morning class, the prevalence of the conjunction “but” in today’s gospel leaped out at me. A lot of power for a little three-letter word. When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And in Luke’s gospel, it is clear that Jerusalem equals the cross. And [Jesus] sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him…but they did not receive him. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus actually thinks highly of Samaritans, which was pretty unusual because most Jews despised the Samaritans with their mixed lineage. Jesus probably expected to receive hospitality from the Samaritans. Why didn’t they receive him? It wasn’t because they weren’t good at hospitality; it was because his face was set toward Jerusalem. Their “but” had to do with their fear of the future. Jerusalem was not a happy place for Samaritans—they weren’t especially welcome in Jerusalem—the Jerusalem community had always looked down their noses at the Samaritans and their quasi-pagan, syncretistic worship. They also may have had a keen intuition of what happens to people like Jesus when they challenge the priestly elite, and they were none too eager to suffer the same fate. Again, their “but” wasn’t because they were inhospitable; their “but” was because they were afraid. Afraid of the future; afraid to be persecuted.

Enter James and John. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Not quite the response we expected from transformed followers of our Lord. That’s just a wee-bit dualistic; just a tad tribal. But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them. There’s that conjunction again. Jesus completely negates the fiery desire of his disciples to zap those whom they perceived had dissed Jesus; it is the disciples who earn the rebuke, not the Samaritans. Sometimes, a “but” is good and necessary to offer. Sometimes, an impulse, desire, or action needs to be checked and rebuked.

Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There it is again—“but.” Someone, in their exhuberance, professes that they will follow Jesus wherever he goes. “Really, really,” Jesus seems to say—foxes have a home, birds have a home; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Nowhere. There is no there there. There is no being with me there, if you can’t be with me here. There is no home out there; there is only home, here, on the journey, on the way, always on the way. Can you handle that much flux? We’re talking tents, not 30-year mortgages on a fixed piece of real estate.”

To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Three “but’s” in that little exchange. This would-be follower negates Jesus’ invitation by clinging to what is no more. This is pastorally difficult for me. I believe in the importance of burying bodies and saying our goodbyes. On this count, Jesus would flunk pastoral care. However, if I take a step back and ask, “How often do we not leap forward into Jesus’ invitation to new life because we cannot release what has died?”—well, then, I can begin to see what Jesus is after here. It’s like those otherworldly men said to the women at the tomb in Luke 24, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Jesus is clear, this would-be follower has to release what is dead so that he or she can be free to proclaim the kingdom, the presence of God that lives and moves and has its being right here, right now.

Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Here we have an explicit “but” and an implicit one. This would-be follower professes a willingness to follow Jesus, but—which negates that willingness—“I’ve got to go do this first; I have to go and say my goodbyes.” And with an unspoken “but” Jesus responds with that rather cryptic, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Pretty stark. Pretty direct. Pretty demanding, and even harsh. But think about it. If you have a hand to the plow, and you look back, you can’t see the ground in front of you that you are trying to work.

Though Jesus’ pastoral care skills are sorely lacking in the diplomacy department today, I think he is trying to shake the complacency and cavalier approach to discipleship contained in the profession of all of these would-be followers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed such approaches to discipleship in The Cost of Discipleship—he called it “cheap grace.” Remember, Bonhoeffer was during WWII, laid it on the line in the German Confessing Church, and eventually ended up in prison. Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer knew the cost of discipleship—it cost him his life.

I think Jesus is trying to shake these would-be disciples out of all the sideshows and into Presence, Presence in the midst of something that will always be in perpetual motion. If you are looking back, you can’t be present to what is right in front of you. If you are racing forward, you can’t be present to what is. If you are clinging to the dead, you can’t be present to what is alive. If you are clinging to stability, then you will never know what it means to be at rest, even while the ground is shifting beneath your feet, and even, as Bonhoeffer knew so well, when you are on the way to Jerusalem.

So, in our conjunction junction, in that place where Jesus is longing to join together with us, where do we assert our “but’s”? What specific shape and form do they take? When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” how do we deflect, delay, decline, negate the invitation? What keeps us from being fully present, with him, to what is, right here, right now, on our never-ending journeys to Jerusalem? Where do we long for the stability of fixed and unchanging, when what is being offered to us is a tent on a journey? To what are we clinging, that keeps us from saying an unequivocal “yes!” to Jesus? What to-do’s on our infinite “to-do” list are getting in our way of simply getting on with living our life as a disciple of Jesus? How can we work more toward an “and” life with Jesus, instead of negating all Jesus’ attempts to join us where we are and avoiding all his attempts to bring us to where he is?

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” Is it to leap with our Lord with a “yes!” or just to keep kicking the can of our commitment on down the road? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 30, 2013

Bring your “Legion” to the table

The Rev Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42, 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

We’ve got wild language today. Demons and unclean spirits and pigs gone crazy throwing themselves off a cliff into a lake. Wild language that’s a little hard to connect to. Or from I Kings—we’ve got wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks and quaking earth and fire. Pretty calm here at old St. Luke’s in Boone on a beautiful summer day. How do we enter into these stories?

Let’s start with the gospel. Jesus and his disciples have come across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Garasenes. [set the scene around the Sea of Galilee] Who knows why they came to this land? Maybe they were wanting a little seaside holiday after all the teaching and healing and feeding that Jesus had been doing on the other side of the lake. No sooner does he step out on land, and a man of the city who had demons met him. He was naked, and he didn’t live in a house but in the tombs—he lived in the cemetery; he lived among the dead. He saw Jesus, and he went bezerk—he yelled at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” You see, Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes. What would you do? This crazy man is in front of you, full of darkness and brokenness and sheer wildness, what would you do? You know what Jesus did? He turned to the man and asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. [name some demons] Those demons begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss, back into that deepest, darkest, lowest, most innermost part of the earth that was where the dead and the demons lived. Funny that even the demons are scared of the dark. They spied a herd of swine—“let us enter these.” So Jesus gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. I just want to note here, I don’t like the fact that the pigs are driven to their deaths—they seem to be innocent by-standers here. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

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On the one hand, this story seems far removed from us; on the other hand, this story is way too close for comfort.

“What is your name?” “My name is ‘Legion.’”

Last December, I started working with Chelsea Wakefield’s book Negotiating the Inner Peace Treaty. She’s the person who is coming to present here at St. Luke’s at the end of July. Her premise is that we all have an inner cast of characters, and that any time we are in conflict, it is because two or more of those characters are in conflict with one another. Her book walks you through the Main Players, the Supporting Cast, the Not So Supporting Cast, and so on. She has a list of possible characters in the back of her book as a way to help you start identifying your own characters. Some are easy to identify; others take some excavation work to unearth. Some are positive and full of light; some lurk deep in the shadows. Some have been silent for far too long; some won’t hand over the mic. Some need to retire, or even die. I was on retreat when I first started charting out my inner characters. At the end, I had 67 characters around my round table. “No wonder I’m tired!” I thought—“I have 67 voices in my head.” Another person I know has identified 123 characters, another 16. It varies from person to person. So, I totally get that the demon’s name is “Legion” and actually feel better, because that poor man that Jesus is dealing with has 6,826 voices in his head—67 is no big deal!

We all have voices, characters that live inside of us, characters that hold us captive. Even if you don’t buy into the inner characters framework, most of us can identify three voices that we live with: voices that can’t let go of the past, voices that rest in the present, and voices that worry about the future. The point is, if you have a multiplicity of voices conversing in your head—it’s hard to hear anyone else, it’s hard to hear your own inner wisdom, and most especially, it is hard to hear God. In Jesus’ time, they called them “demons;” in our time, we might call them “inner characters,” but either way, they can possess us. They can chain us; they can shackle us; they can bind us up in unbelievable ways. We guard them, we try to chain them, we try to shackle them, we try to keep them under raps, we try to silence them, and the more we do, the stronger they get. They drive us deeper into the wild until we eventually find ourselves completely cut off from the people around us and completely cut off from ourselves; they drive us deeper into the wild until we find ourselves living among the dead.

Elijah knew something about that. He ended up in a cave a forty days journey from Beer-sheba. That is a long way from anywhere. Why was he there? He was fleeing for his life from Queen Jezebel. Why did she want to kill him? Because in an act of retribution, he, Elijah, had slaughtered all of Baal’s prophets in the Wadi Kishon—this after he had humiliated them in a prophet’s duel about whose god was the real God (we heard that story a few weeks ago). Elijah had been taunting those prophets even then—mocking and berating them. Elijah won that duel hands-done, and then he had all the prophets of Baal gathered up, marched them out to the Wadi Kishon—a wadi is sort of a valley made by a dry riverbed—and killed them. Gruesome. What characters were driving Elijah, a great prophet, to commit such an atrocity? God didn’t tell Elijah to murder those prophets—what caused him to seek such revenge? He flees into the wilderness, and which is exactly where we land when our demons are running the show. Eventually, he ends up in a cave at the mount of God, mount Horeb. But—and if you have ever traveled this wilderness path, you know this—the psalmist is right, “there is nowhere we can go to flee God’s presence.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gave a well-prepared speech about how he has been very zealous for the Lord and how the Israelites have forsaken God’s covenant and thrown down God’s altars and killed God’s prophets with the sword and how he alone is left and how they are seeking his life to take it away. Did anybody catch Elijah’s omission? Yeah, he left out that little part about where he marched all of Baal’s prophets down to the wadi and executed them.

God told Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, a splitting-mountain, breaking-rocks-into- pieces kind of wind, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire, after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.

Have you ever heard sheer silence? Oh, it’s the most eerie kind of silence there is. I have heard it a couple of times in my life, once on that very same mountain in the Sinai desert where Elijah hid in that cave. Sheer silence will pierce your soul. It is so sharp and so deep that you can hear your own heart beat. And what I know about that silence is that all of your thoughts, all of your voices, all of your characters, even the ones you try to keep pushed way down deep—they are all laid bare, completely exposed—and that is a frightening thing. When Elijah heard that silence, he knew the game was up. He wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And the voice spoke again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He gave his same well-rehearsed speech a second time, exact same words, but deep, deep down, he knew the game was up. Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

We can run for a long time, but at some point, we will come to a place where the game is up. And it won’t be a great wind, or an earthquake, or a fire that gets us there, but it will be a sheer silence where it is all laid bare, and we know that we can’t run anymore. The difficult thing about our culture is that we are masters at distraction. We are so plugged-in that we can avoid the sheer silence for a really, really long time. But it will find us. Eventually, it will find us.

And whereas we either try to run from our demons/characters or banish them, Jesus neither runs from demons, nor banishes them. Jesus engages them. Jesus asks them their name, and when he does, they are more than willing to be known. They didn’t want to be sentenced to the abyss. They didn’t want to be sent into darkness to fester in the deep, deep places of the earth. Nor do our characters, even our shadow selves, nor do they want to be banished to the dark. They want to be known, and they want to live in some new way. The demons understood that they had to change, but they could only see two alternatives—the abyss or the pigs—they didn’t want the abyss, so the pigs looked good. Jesus was respectful enough that he granted their desire. Jesus told the demons they had to come out, but he didn’t tell them what they had to do once they showed their faces. I wonder what might have happened if the demons could have seen a third option—to be reconnected to the whole. Maybe they could not have tolerated giving up control; maybe they could not have tolerated being in relationship with all the other lifegiving characters in that man without running the show—in that instance, they clearly needed to go. But what if they could have allowed themselves to be brought back into right relationship with the other parts of that man, parts that had long been held hostage by their demonic demands. In my own experience, I have had some characters that have needed to retire, and at least one that has needed to die, but most of my characters, even my shadow characters, are eager to be transformed into new and lifegiving expressions of themselves.

Our demons are too big for us to confront alone. Most of us have been thrashed about by them for far too long. But that is the good news of today’s gospel. Whether we have 2 characters, or 3 charcters, or 16, or 67, or 123, or 6,826, Jesus is not frightened of any of them. We might be scared to death to let parts of ourselves see the light of day, but he is not. He wants to know their name. He will listen to their needs and concerns, even if we have spent a life time ignoring those voices and needs and concerns. He will listen and help them find a way out so that they can stop wreaking havoc in our lives. If we can show our demons the care and concern and respect that Jesus does, maybe most of them can be brought back into right relationship with all the characters we possess. And if there are some who need to plummet to their death, maybe we can allow them the freedom to die and honor them with a good burial. I still think we can find a better way to for them to die than to take a pig’s life with them, but even that is probably truer than we care to admit. Demons on the loose are destructive forces to be sure.

This morning is a call to oneness, an opportunity to regain our right mind. Maybe this is what Paul is actually talking about in Galatians. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I have always read that as a call to be in right relationship with one another across whatever divisions exist in our society, but maybe it is also a call to be in right relationship within ourselves, to bridge the divisions within ourselves, to know a singleness, a oneness, to know peace within. Jesus had that unity, that singleness, that union, that unitive consciousness within himself—that’s what the demons recognized in him, and that’s why they were terrified of him. They couldn’t stand the wholeness he embodied, and yet, even a piece of them longed for it, or they would have been quite content to be thrown back into the abyss.

If your name is “Legion,” don’t be afraid. Jesus wants to know your name. He wants to know all your names, every last 6,826 of them. He will show you which can be transformed, and which you need to let die to make space for others that have yet to live. It’s a terrifying prospect to be sure—how will you be received if their names become known? How will you be received if you let characters go? How will you be received if you, once again, are in your right mind? There are very real costs involved. But the alternative is to end up living among the dead. Christ made us for oneness—oneness with him, oneness with each other, oneness within ourselves. Bring your “Legion” to the table—they, too, are hungry; they, too, are longing for oneness; they, too, are longing for peace. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 23, 2013