Worship Schedule

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

St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Sermons

Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why give?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put down your swords….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just start where you are.

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

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

Hold those questions in your mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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