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What is your relationship to power?

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR20—Year A; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Hmmmm. I just need to look at you all for a minute. Drink you in. You are beautiful, and I missed you. I want to thank you for these past three months; they have been such a gift to me and my family. They have been extremely restful and renewing, playful and peaceful and slow. My learnings and reflections will come out over time, but for now, I just want to say “thank you.” And, a special thanks to the staff—Greg, Catherine, Ted, Pat, Sarah—Jeremy and the Vestry, the priests—Steve and Toby—and the multitude of others who stepped in in ways no one will ever know. I missed y’all, but I never once worried about you because I knew you were in good hands with one another. +++ So, great lessons today. Two great stories. First, Jonah. God wanted Jonah to go preach to Nineveh. Now, I have always thought of Nineveh as kind of an ancient Las Vegas, kind of a decadent, party city, but then I ran across some notes this week in the Common English Bible. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria located along the Tigris River; it would be in modern-day Iraq, and it was a brutal, brutal place. Get this, reliefs from the walls of the ancient palace at Nineveh display horrific battle scenes that portray the removal of arms and legs and the decapitation of conquered peoples, as well as the practice of thrusting a sharp stick up through their bodies. Sounds eerily contemporary, huh? So God wanted Jonah to preach to them to try to get them to repent and turn away from their violence, but Jonah didn’t want to do that because he had a hunch that they just might repent, and he also had a hunch that God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So, Jonah, of course, obedient as he was, hightails it to Nineveh, right? Wrong! He flees for Tarshish in the exact opposite direction in the far western part of the Mediterranean Sea. There’s the whole storm thing, and the getting thrown overboard thing, and the being swallowed by the big fish thing, and the incredibly stinky sitting three days in the belly of the fish thing, ending with the fish vomiting Jonah up onto the dry land. At which point, Jonah decides maybe he will go to Nineveh after all. He goes, he preaches to the people of Nineveh to stop this brutality. And lo and behold, the king decrees a fast and proclaims, “Let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” And they did; they ceased their evil behavior. And Jonah, Jonah was displeased, thought this was utterly wrong—actually, the hebrew says that he was evil, he felt evil in response to this, and he didn’t just get angry, he burned with anger. He prayed for God to take his life; “for it is better for me to die than to live,” he said. No drama there. Jonah went out of the city and made a booth there, and he waited to see what would become of the city. God appoints a bush to come up over Jonah to give him shade; Jonah is happy, God appoints a worm to attack the bush so that it withers and sends a sultry east wind, the hottest kind of wind there is, so that the sun beat down on Jonah; Jonah asks a second time to die. And God is like, “Dude, is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” “Yes, angry enough to die.”Whoa, let me get this right, Jonah. You have compassion for the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Hold Jonah in your head. Fast forward to the gospel for today. Jesus is trying to describe what the kingdom of heaven is like and he spins out this story. So, it’s like a landowner who went out early in the morning, like about 7:00AM, to hire laborers for his vineyard, day-laborers. He negotiates with them and agrees to pay them the usual daily wage, which was a denarius, which equates to somewhere between $20-$50 US. He goes out about 9:00 and sees some other day-laborers standing around the marketplace and tells them, “You go, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.” He does this again at noon and at 3:00. About 5:00, he goes out and sees others standing around the marketplace. “Why aren’t you working?” “Because no one has hired us.” “You go too into the vineyard.” 6:00 comes, and according to the law, you had to pay a day-laborer before sunset, so it’s time to settle up. He tells his manager to call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. When those hired at 5:00 came, each of them received the usual daily wage. The manager pays out to those who came out at 3:00, noon, and 9:00. Now when the first come, what do you think they’re thinking? I mean what would be fair for them? That’s right, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Okay, that’s a whole lot of words—the three-word version of this is what? THAT’S NOT FAIR! But the landowner replied to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous.” And Jesus finishes with the oh-so-irritating “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.” +++ Oh, those of us who cut our teeth on fair wages, and equal pay for equal work, and what our work is worth, and well, the way our whole economy works, we hate this passage. It assaults our sense of fairness. Those poor day-laborers who started at 7:00, they worked harder and longer and they should get more, that’s only fair, but they got a fair wage. They got the usual daily wage for a usual day’s work. And before we go ballistic over unfair labor practices, we have to stop; Jesus isn’t teaching us the in’s and out’s of the labor market; Jesus is teaching us about the kingdom of heaven. He just happened to use an example that will turn our heads inside-out and upside-down so that we are forced to see just how radically different the kingdom of heaven is from the ways of our world. The story of Jonah is doing the same. We can laugh at the absurdity of Jonah throwing a temper tantrum about the bush dying and puzzle over the fact that Jonah is consumed with evil and burning with anger because the people of Nineveh actually repented and stopped the violence and God turned out to be as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love as Jonah feared God might be. We can think him absurd, a caricature, until we drop down and really feel how we might respond to the notion that God might forgive a people who have been practicing decapitations. Oh, Jonah just got a whole lot more real. The evil that has possessed him, his burning with anger just got a whole lot more understandable. And the depths of God’s grace and mercy and love and forgiveness just got a whole lot more radical and unfathomable. Back to the laborers in the vineyard. What’s this story really about? Is it about fairness? No. What’s it about? It’s about resentment which destroys our capacity to feel joy and contentment and gratitude. It’s about a notion of scarcity that says if you get more, I have somehow gotten less. It’s about a belief that you have to earn your worth, which makes your sense of worth immensely insecure. And Jesus takes that whole system of earning your worth and scarcity and throws it out the window. God is insanely, lavishly generous. God’s kingdom is crazily abundant. There is no way to earn your worth in God’s kingdom; it is given, plainly, simply, freely given. It is foundational. It is our DNA. We are worthy because when God looks at us, all God can see reflected back is God. We are made in God’s image. We bear God’s breath. Our humanity is dripping with divinity. We only resent others when we have failed to grasp our worth, and theirs.   And our resentment can turn deadly. Jonah can’t fathom that these violent, brutal people could be worthy of God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. He would rather die than see them awaken to that love that enables them to leave their violent ways behind. In Jonah’s mind, they don’t deserve God’s love after all that they have done. And as they rebuild their world and their relationships, even embracing their kinship with the animal world, Jonah can’t join in.  Jonah is angry about everything and taking it out on everything. I once read an article on forgiveness written by Curtis Almquist, one of the SSJE monks. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Resentment will kill us, and it destroys our capacity for connection. It festers and turns malignant, and in Jonah’s case, he becomes the very evil that he has abhorred. With all that is going on around us in the world, we need to sit with these stories and have them in our consciousness and ask some hard questions of ourselves. Who or what do we resent? How do we understand our worth and the worth of other human beings, even brutally violent human beings; how do we understand the worth of the rest of creation? Do we operate from a frame of scarcity or a trust in abundance? Would we rather keep score and stay in control or surrender to a generosity that is reckless and out of control? Are we Jonah, those 7:00AM grumbling laborers, are we the Ninevites, or are we those who came late in the day and were knocked off our feet by grace beyond our imagining? Or are we all of these? We can drink the poison if we choose—there’s plenty of support in our world to do just that, or we can give ourselves to a radically different way, the way of mercy and forgiveness and compassion, the way of steadfast love and generosity, the way of transformation that is birthed when you understand that your worth can neither be earned nor lost, but only embraced and lived. Maybe walking in this way we will discover that God’s kingdom really can come on earth just as it is in heaven. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC September 21, 2014

Let Jesus rewrite your story–Easter 3, Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 3—Year A; Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35


Two weeks ago, we were on “the first day of the week.” Last week, we were on “the first day of the week.” Today, we’re on “the first day of the week.” We just can’t seem to get off of “the first day of the week,” and that’s a really good thing. Easter, resurrection, it’s just way too big of a thing to wrap our hearts and minds around on the first go round. Some of us experienced full-on resurrection on that glorious Easter day two weeks ago with the flowers and the brass and the children and that fabulous party; some of us came back to life on that very first day. But some of us still had our hearts somewhere in Lent; some of us got detained on the way to the tomb and found ourselves very much still in Holy Week. If you have been slow to come to this resurrection thing, the church is going to keep circling back for you until you, too, know the fullness of resurrection. If you aren’t quite feeling in step with all of this Easter joy yet, today is for you.

So, on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ followers were going to a village called Emmaus, it’s about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and fell in step with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” And they weren’t just having a nice, calm, very rational discussion; they were throwing these words back and forth, telling these stories as fast as they could get them out, you know, like when you are full of adrenalin because something has really excited you or upset you, and you’re talking just a little too fast. They stopped dead in their tracks, stood completely still, and maybe for the first time, let this stranger look into their eyes, and those eyes looked so sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days? Are you not on Facebook? Have you not been following the Twitter feed? Have you checked your email? Don’t you listen to the radio, or read a paper, or watch the news?  Don’t you know what’s happened? Don’t you know the things that have taken place?

The stranger asked them, “What? What things?”

They replied, “Oh my gosh, the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” And here, they are starting to talk a little fast again. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, it’s almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. He didn’t say a ton of words; he wasn’t talking way too fast, he just took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. The eleven were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Slow of heart. These two followers of Jesus were slow of heart. What a great phrase! What a wonderful image! The heart that is slow to see. The heart that is slow to believe. The heart that has been broken that is so slow to trust again. The heart that is afraid to leap because it might crash and break into a thousand pieces. The heart that is slow to warm when pain and grief have frozen it. That heart that is so fixed on a particular story, on a particular narrative that, evidence to the contrary can stand right before it, the heart that can be looking straight at a different narrative, and it still can’t see beyond the story it knows.

Resurrection is a whole new story, but you can’t see it if you are clinging to the old story.

Those two followers of Jesus had a sense about how this Jesus-story ought to go, and crucifixion was definitely not in the plan. Suffering and Messiah were not two words that were ever supposed to go together. Messiah-liberator-of-Israel might have been a combination. Messiah-hero might have been another, but not suffering Messiah. That is not the narrative. And though they told the tale of the women and their vision of angels who announced “He is alive!” they mostly dismissed all that as an idle tale. They were still stuck on the suffering-Messiah-dead story which did not compute.

The stranger set about going back through all their stories, starting with Moses and rolling all the way through the prophets, pointing out all the things that would point to him. They knew their stories, but they couldn’t see the thread running through them that made it all make sense. They couldn’t see a bigger story than the one they thought they knew, and they still couldn’t recognize him.

But something in them was beginning to wake up because when they came to the village, and the stranger appeared to be continuing on, they asked him to stay with them. And it was at supper, when the words feel away, when it was just bread, just blessing, just breaking, just giving, it was then that their eyes were opened, not these eyes (point to eyes), but these eyes, the eyes of their hearts were opened. They had been looking all along, but now they could recognize the stranger for their beloved Lord.

Recognition is never just a function of physical sight, but it is always a function of the heart that awakens, and it cannot happen if we won’t let the narrative change.

What narratives are we fixated on that are keeping us from recognizing the Risen Christ in our midst? What stories are we telling ourselves that keep our feet firmly planted in death so that we cannot recognize that Resurrection Life is tapping on our hearts begging to get in?

Are we trapped in narratives that our race, our gender, our ethnicity, our economic status is superior to another’s a la Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling? Or, how about a narrative that says we need to cast Donald Sterling to the outer reaches of the universe, or further, forget our baptismal vows, and strip him of all dignity as a human being—is that the story we want to cling to? And all of these narratives, all of these stories, miss the Resurrection Life that calls us to a new story, that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female, racist or reconciler; for all of us, all of us, are one in Christ Jesus.

Are we trapped in narratives that say we, as a society, can figure out humane ways to execute a human being if we just figure out the right ingredients and amounts of the lethal cocktail? Are we trapped in stories of what is deserved and narratives that tell us that state-sponsored violence will somehow bring the healing we long for when our hearts have been broken? All the while missing the Messiah who was executed on a cross and who absorbed that state-sanctioned violence so that this death-dealing cycle of violence could stop. All the while missing the Resurrection Life who calls us to transform our wounds not perpetuate them.

Where are you caught? What narrative has so enveloped your heart that it can’t recognize the new life that stands before you?  

What story has so captured your focus that you can’t recognize the Love who is calling you out of death and into life?

What words are you throwing around, if not with another live person, inside your own head, that leave no space for your heart to recognize the Holy Companion who has come alongside you?

And if you just can’t square all the words and all these stories, the ones inside of you, and the one standing right before your eyes, then just stop trying to figure it all out and simply gaze on the bread, the blessing, the breaking, the giving. Just let this meal bypass your eyes and work on your heart from the inside out. Take this bread, blessed, broken, and shared, and your heart will know in the twinkling of an eye what the eye has not yet been able to comprehend.

And as soon as they recognized him, he vanished, he was gone. He didn’t need to be in their sight because now, he was permanently fixed in their hearts. Once the heart sees, once the heart recognizes, that recognition is forever. They don’t have to see him out there because he lives in here.

Our stories can kill us, and they have real power to kill others, if we refuse to let them go. Resurrection is a whole new story, a wonderful story, an immensely real story, a story of wholeness and life and possibility, a story of wounds that get redeemed and losses that get transformed, a story of forgiveness and mercy and power and life that is so much bigger than what most of our stories can imagine.  The road to Emmaus reminds us that even followers of Jesus aren’t immune to having stories that are way too small of a container for the incredible love of God that knows no bounds.

So, let Jesus rewrite your story. Let him walk back through the narrative of your life and point out the thread of coherence and meaning that runs throughout and begins and ends with him. Let him show you a bigger vision. Feel your heart burn as you see your own story written anew.  And then, in that broken, blessed, given bread, feel the eyes of your heart open. Feel your whole being come back to life and know that the One you’ve been looking for out there now lives within you never to be a stranger again. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 4, 2014

Recognize Resurrected Life – Easter Day- Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter Day—Year A; Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18


 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” To understand this, we have to go back to the day before this one, and the day before that, and the week before that. We have to go back to all the miles she had walked, all the way from Galilee. We have to go back to all the conversations, all the experiences, all the encounters, all the teaching, all the questioning, all the learning. And between them, between Jesus and Mary, it never did just flow in one direction, but it was a back-and-forth, a give-and-take; it was a dance. All four traditional gospels testify, as well as gospels more recently discovered, that Mary and Jesus had deep love for one another. Something in each of them recognized the divine in the other and called that forth. In him, she had discovered what it meant to be fully alive. She had awakened to the truth of her deepest being. She tracked with him in ways that the others sometimes didn’t.

It was hard to love so much. It leaves you completely exposed. The heart can be broken. It was hard to watch the others betray him and deny him and desert him. It was hard to watch it all go so wrong, and to know that you could nothing to fix it, to set it back right. It was hard to bear witness to the utter injustice of it all. It was hard to watch his mother cry that cry of grief. It is hard to watch someone you love hurt that much. But, even as much as it hurt, she couldn’t leave. He was the one who had taught her all about Presence; he might be gone, but she couldn’t, she wouldn’t, be thrown out of Presence. Like a homing beacon, her soul was fixed on his. She had tracked him all the way to the cross, she had tracked him to the place of his burial, and, according to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she tracked him even beyond that. She tracked him as he traversed the terrain of death, she tracked him through his harrowing of hell, and so while it is still dark, she comes to the tomb, still tracking her Lord.

He might be dead, but she had some intuition that his Presence would still be lingering around that place. If she could just touch a bit of that, it would be enough. Nothing prepared her for what came next. “[She] came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” Panic set in. How can she sit vigil with his Presence if he’s not there?

 “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (Don’t you just love guy-energy, even going to the tomb Peter and the Beloved Disciple have gotta race). “[The other disciple] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. [Peter] saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first (in case we missed it, who won that race?), “[then the other disciple] also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” Huh? That doesn’t make any sense. They saw, and they believed, but they go back home. I can’t square that.

Mary couldn’t either. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” And this isn’t just a little bit of soft crying, this is full-on lament, this is wailing, this is raw grief. “As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. I know I have lost him to death, but now, I have lost the last sense of his Presence, and without it, I am completely and utterly lost.’” In a wonderful image, Cynthia Bourgeault says that “Mary [remained] intent on recovering that last outpost of his physical being.”

 “When [Mary] had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’” Did you catch that? The “why” turns into a “whom”—this loss is so devastating because it is attached to a “whom”—it’s the loss of this relationship that has wrecked Mary Magdalene.

 “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” I imagine her eyes were flashing with the intensity that comes when someone has been ripped away from you before you were ready to let them go. She is out of patience. It doesn’t matter that he is dead; she wants to be near his Presence, and everyone is conspiring against her. As Bourgeault notes, “She was still looking for Jesus as a tangible corpse, not an intangible aliveness.” “Just tell me where to find him, just tell me where to find him, and I will take him away.”

 “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni! Teacher.’” It wasn’t the sound of his voice that made her recognize him—she’d been talking with this stranger/gardener; it was the calling of her name.

He knew her name. He knew her, and her heart, her soul, her being saw him, knew him, recognized him.

His aliveness, his Presence, overwhelmed her. And as fierce as she was with the gardener, with equal intensity, she embraced her Lord. “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

 “Do not hold on to me, Mary, do not hold on to me.”  She had tracked him so faithfully as she had known him, but resurrection life is a different terrain. His Presence was no longer confined to his physicality, his Presence had gone to the depths of hell and back again, and like that earthquake when he breathed his last, the tremors of his resurrected life would now be felt throughout all of time and space. Do not hold on to me…if you look for my Presence in only one place, be that in my body, be that in this church, be that in the Bible, be that in this sacred ritual, you will miss me in all the other places that I now dwell. Do not hold on to me as you have known me, but come, come away my love, and discover me in this new life that is mine and yours and all of creation’s.”

The question today isn’t whether the resurrection is true. The question today is do we recognize resurrection life when it stands before us, or do we miss it because we are so focused on what we have lost? Do we miss it because we want things to go on as they were before? Do we miss this Resurrection Presence because we want to hold onto it with our small embrace instead of letting it throw our arms wide open to see that resurrection is everywhere?

And so, the One who had called her back into life those many years before called her once again, and her heart, her soul, her deepest being knew that she would have to trust him yet again. She released him knowing, trusting, that the real journey with her Lord had just begun, and she couldn’t contain the good news of that truth. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Throughout this week, we have been so many people. We have been Peter. We have been the disciples. But today, we are Mary. We might still be looking for Jesus among the dead, but he meets us on the path nonetheless. Even in our distraction, even in our grief, even in our misguided longings, he has been tracking us, and something deep in our being has been tracking him. He has called us by name, and in that calling, we recognize our Beloved Lord.

Don’t settle for holding on to the Jesus you have always known.


Leap into resurrection and discover life with the One who has made all things new.

Leap into resurrection and discover the Presence that now knows no bounds.

Leap into resurrection and discover the Love that cannot be held but only lived.

Leap into resurrection and “let your alleluia’s rise.” Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 20, 2014

This is the night! Easter Vigil – Year A

Easter Vigil—Year A; Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22; Gospel of Truth 4:1-8; Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Ephesians 1:17-22; Romans 6:3-11 Psalm 114; Matthew 28:1-10

This is the night!  Tomorrow will be its own celebration.  Tomorrow, we will come at first light to the tomb.  Tomorrow, we will see that the stone is rolled away.  Tomorrow, we will have to make sense of that empty tomb.  But that’s tomorrow.  “This is the night,” the ancient hymn rings out.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.  This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell.

This is the night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life…This is the Passover of the Lord.

Passover, that night ever longer ago, when God brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.  That night made present on this night

Liberation wrought at such a cost—Egypt’s sons, the Son of God, you, me, dying forever joined to rising

St. Paul got it.  We cannot escape this dying business, but nor can we escape the risingAt his mystical best, Paul gets it, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

What better news could there possibly be on this night

Our old self, our false self, that self that tries so hard to make it on its own, that self who believes it is never enough, that self who believes it is disconnected from God and tries so very hard to reconnect with God, that self was crucified with Jesus, so that that sense of separation that permeates everything in our life might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to that belief that we are separate from God. Sin, at its root, is that most fundamental separation anxiety—the false self’s belief that we have been rent asunder from God. Jesus died to that, and through him, we have died to that.   We have been liberated from that sin.

All Lent long, and most especially this past week, we have been dying with Christ, and this is the night when the cosmos shifts, and we discover what it means to liveThis is the night when Jesus Christ passes over from death to life, and like those dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, we, with Christ, come rattling back to life.  Divine breath blows all that gloom of sin away, and we step out with Christ in radiant splendor

We, who have long been asleep in our forgetfulness awaken to our truest of natures, remembering who we really arebeloved sons and daughters of God.  Whatever our life has been, this is the night when it is all made new

You are dead to all that has separated you from God, you are dead to all that has separated you from others, you are dead to all that has separated you from your self; you are alive to God in Christ Jesus.  This is gospel, good news, in the very truest and deepest sense of the word. 

The winter has been long, so very, very long, but no more—this is the night when “Love comes again like wheat that springeth green.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 19, 2014

Separation from God, “It is Finished”… Good Friday – Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Good Friday—Year A; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

So much of this week, it is about us. We walk through this hall of mirrors catching a glimpse of our face in all of these characters that we encounter. And each gospel takes us down a different hall, showing us yet one more facet of our character.

We feel the disciples’ bafflement as they can’t conceive of a situation where they would ever betray their Lord—“Surely not I,” forms on our lips just as easily as it formed on theirs.

We see our hesitancy to receive love as Peter balks when Jesus kneels before him to wash his feet.

We know what it is to be so tired, so heavy, so weary that, try as we might, we just can’t stay awake.

All of us, at one time or another, have put someone on a pedestal, and when they fall and disappoint us, as they inevitably will, we also know how quickly our admiration can turn to rage—Judas, we know Judas.

And then there are our various levels of panic. There’s the panic that comes when you sense that something is about to unravel in a big way, and you strike back with some futile sort of an act thinking that this will somehow keep it from unraveling. But, it’s still going to go right on unraveling, and Jesus tells you to “put your sword back into its sheath.”

Or, the panic that sets in when it really starts to go south, and you see where all of this is heading, and it’s just way too scary, and so you deny the deepest parts of your being, you deny the most essential parts of your journey, you deny that which has made your heart come alive—it’s just easier to fall back asleep to your deepest longings than face the pain of dying and rising.

Then we turn down that hall that is all too familiar in our day and time—that’s the hall filled with posturing and positioning and dividing and conquering and plotting, always plotting to come out on top. We can swap out the faces of Annas and Caiphas and their minions for any number of politicians and their operatives, but remember, we are in a hall of mirrors, and behind all of those contemporary faces that we love to ridicule, we catch a glimpse of our own. Every time we pass a judgment that makes us feel just a little bit superior, a little bit more righteous than they, we have just jockeyed for our position.

And what of Pilate? “What is truth?” he asks. It’s an honest question, one that has surely swirled around our hearts and minds, and yet, it is costly to pursue that question to its end. It is costly to follow that question wherever it leads. Too costly. Too costly. Too risky. Too unpredictable. Too vulnerable. No, better to wash our hands of that pursuit now and maintain control.

And, this hall of mirrors also reflects back to us our better angels.

The part of us who is willing to take on a great responsibility because we’ve been asked to.

The part of us who refuses to leave even as our heart breaks.

The part of us that knows there is no fixing this, that knows our world is falling apart, and yet, also knows that there is no place else for us to stand.

And there is that part of us that knows what we must do when the earth finally stops shaking and everything is in a shambles; that’s the part that knows how to lovingly care for that which is dead; that’s the part that knows how to bury that which must be buried.

This week is so much about us—the good parts of us that possess courage that surprises even us, and the parts of us that we keep locked up in the shadows, those parts that we’d just as soon never saw the light of day.

But if this week so far has been so much about us, today, today, is all about God.

In this confusing hall of mirrors, there is a face who looks back at us with piercing clarity. One who loves us. Period.  One who forgives us. Period. One who walks into the depths of our suffering and sets up residence there. One who refuses to let us go.


This is the One who proclaims, “It is finished.” The cycle of violence that put Jesus on that cross—in his arms outstretched, in his refusal to retaliate, that cycle of violence “is finished.”

That space of total abandonment, of feeling utterly forsaken—Jesus has occupied that space; God has occupied that space—that despair of feeling utterly alone—“it is finished.” Sometimes, we might still feel forsaken, but today, the foundation of reality is changed—because of this day, God now occupies that space with us. Our separation from God—“it is finished.”

Even death, even that loneliest of places that ultimately we must traverse alone, even that sense that our death is ours to face and ours alone—“it is finished.”  Jesus has taken his last breath; Jesus has filled even that space full with God’s presence.

The psalmist knew it well, “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.”

We dare to call this Friday Good because there is nowhere, nowhere in our human experience, our human existence, our human journey that we have or will travel that God, through Jesus, has not gone before us to fill it with God’s presence. Any sense that we make our way alone in this world “is finished.” On this cross, God is in the hall of mirrors, looking at each and every one of us, and all God can see is a thousand reflections of God looking back.

Any notion that we are separated from God—today, “it is finished.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 18, 2014

Palm Sunday – Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Palm Sunday—Year A; Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

 What a trainwreck of a day! We go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” before we can even think about it. It’s all too much. It all happens too fast. How did it spin this far out of control? How did we lose our way this much?

How is it that we could proclaim him as our king on one day and seal his death by week’s end?

How is it that we can break bread with him and share the cup late into the night only to desert him at the morning light?

How is it that we sold the one in whom we had placed all our hopes and dreams, how is it that we sold that one for 30 pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss?

How is it that for all our professed love and loyalty, when push came to shove, and it really counted, we just couldn’t stay awake?

How is it that we denied our best friend?

How is it that this healer, teacher, preacher, feeder, sabbath-breaker, how is it that this man was such a threat to us that we had to get rid of him?

How is it that we, who ought to know holiness when we see it, how is it that we came to love our rituals and laws and traditions more than the one who showed us the heart of God?

How is it that expediency won out over our best intuitions?

How is it that we couldn’t convince the powers-that-be to listen to our dreams?

How is it that we got swept up in that mob and found ourselves shouting things that shocked our sensibilities?

How is it that we joined the cynics and the teasers and the taunters?

How is it that our hearts turned so cruel?

AND how is it that we found the strength to step out of that crowd and carry his cross?

How is it that we, who had followed him all the way from Galilee, how is it that we stayed when all the others had left? How is it that we kept our eyes fixed on him as the life drained out of his?

How is it that we stayed present when we felt completely forsaken by God?

How is it that we could step beyond our station, beyond our prescribed role, lay down our arms, and speak the truth even while the earth shook to its foundations?

How is it that we would risk our position, our status, everything, to ensure that this man got a proper burial?

And when that stone was rolled in front of that tomb and our hearts were broken with grief, how is it that we had the capacity to sit down and simply wait?

How is it that we can be such complicated, conflicted, callous, fearful, compassionate, heroic people?

We aren’t just one of these characters in this drama; we are all of them. All of these live inside of us; painful as it is, if we’re honest, all of these shoes fit our feet.

THIS is the drama that holds every aspect of our human existence, the good, the bad, the holy, the diabolical. It’s all there, and thank God it is, because it’s all of this that Jesus redeems when he stretches out his arms and holds it all in love.

It’s Holy Week. There is no getting to Easter without walking through this week, and it is painful to be sure, but laboring to be born anew always is. Follow him through all the twists and turns of this week. Follow him to the cross, and let him lead you through whatever it is in you that has to die this week.

Because, how else will you know the depths of joy to be found when the stone is rolled away? Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 13, 2014

Come out, unbind, let go, and live! Lent 5-Year A

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 5–Year A; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Well, we continue with our marathon readings from John, and today, we turn to the raising of Lazarus—it’s a powerful story.

In John’s gospel, it is clear that Lazarus and his sisters—Mary and Martha—are some of Jesus’ closest, most special friends.  So Lazarus falls ill, and Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that his friend is ill. Illness in that time was a serious thing, often life-threatening. Now, if you heard that news, what would you do? What would most of us do? We’d hightail it to go see our friend. What does Jesus do? He stays put, right where he is, for two more days. Then, he determines it’s time to go to Judea. His disciples weren’t too keen on this plan, after all, there are folks in Judea who want to stone him. But Jesus explains, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” His disciples are pretty literal-minded, “Well, if he’s asleep, he’ll be alright.” Then Jesus says the truth of the matter as clearly and plainly as possible—“Lazarus is dead.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet him. Mary stayed home. Martha confronts Jesus, and based on that little Mary-Martha-Jesus exchange that we witnessed in Luke’s gospel where Martha is pretty daggone clear that Mary isn’t pulling her weight in the kitchen, I don’t imagine that Martha minced words with Jesus when she caught up with him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus promises her that her brother will rise again, and she says that she knows he will in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus is trying to tell her something that she can’t comprehend—he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And she confesses that she does.

A few things to note here. First of all, I am not too sure that Martha went from the anguish of “Lord, you could’ve done something if you’d just been here” to “but I know it’s all going to be okay now that you’re here” in that short of a span. She has just voiced the “Where are you, God?!” question that rises in our hearts when we have lost someone we love. I know when that question has come into my heart, it doesn’t turn around to trust and faith that fast. Secondly, nowhere in this initial exchange does Jesus promise to resuscitate Lazarus. The language is still working with the wonderful vision of how we live in the life of God, even when our life on this earth has ended.

Well, Martha sends word to Mary that Jesus has come, and Mary comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet and shares her anguish, just as Martha had done, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This gets to Jesus. Seeing his friends in pain, this disturbs him, this moves him. He asks where they have laid him. He comes before the tomb. He weeps. He weeps. Jesus could call people back into life, but he couldn’t prevent death, and that will even be true when it comes to his own life and his own death. Death is still a reality in this world, and an excruciatingly painful one at that. He weeps for the sisters who grieve, he weeps for his friend who has died, he weeps maybe even for himself, at what he couldn’t stop. He weeps for the pain of it all.

He stands before that cave with the stone lying against it. “Take away the stone,” he says. Martha is like, “What?! Oh, Lord, what are you thinking? He’s been dead four days. It’s gonna stink. It’s really going to smell bad.”  But Jesus will not be deterred. This is about something deeper than simply doing the 1st century equivalent of extraordinary measures to start a dead person’s heart.

“Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

And that, I think, is the heart of the matter. Let’s let go of our 21st century fascination with how-did-he-do-it?, how-did-Jesus-resuscitate-this-dead-man?; let’s let go of those questions, and enter this as a wisdom teaching. “Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go.”

I think there are several ways to come at this.

How often do we bind something up and strangle the life out of it until it is as good as dead? We can do this in our relationships. We can do this with our passions. We can bind up something so tight that it can’t move, and if it can move, it can’t breathe, and if it can’t breathe, it can’t live. And Jesus calls to us, Unbind it, and let it go. Unbind it, so that whatever you have bound up is free to live, not on your terms, but on the terms of life that I have placed on that person, or passion, or situation.” We have to let go to discover the life that is waiting to be born anew.

Then, there is the binding that we do to someone who has died. Someone that we love, someone that we care about dies, and we wrap it up with layer upon layer of cloth. We wrap it up tight, and we seal it away in a cave, and we lay a stone in front of that cave so that no one can enter that place. It is a place in our heart that is off-limits. Maybe this is the only way that we can keep breathing. Maybe we do this in hopes that we can somehow move on. But in the dark, it festers; maybe that sealed away pain starts to smell. Jesus calls our grief out into the light, calls the memories forth, calls us to unbind the dead and let them go to live on their terms in the life that now is theirs to live. What if what Jesus is telling us is true? If the dead really do live in some sort of resurrection reality with him, if there is some mystical way that the dead are now alive and actually live on, we can actually miss the possibility of relationship across the realms because we are so bound to that person in their state of death; we are so bound to them in their death that we miss their current aliveness. And maybe this plays out beyond our relationships; maybe this is also true of other deep losses, other deaths that we experience. The point is, how do we bind up that which has died and seal it away, and how do we need to unbind that experience, so that that beloved, that situation, and we, may be free to live in a new way?

And, there is the binding that is done unto us, maybe even the binding we do to ourselves. How might we feel dead? Have we given up all hope that our life can be full and meaningful and alive? Has society wrapped us and our dreams up in bands of cloth proclaiming them unrealistic, dead-on-arrival? Has society told us that our deepest longings stink? Have we allowed that spark inside of us to go out and determined it’s just too much effort to try to get that fire going? Have we wrapped layer upon layer of cloth around our hearts and imaginations and gifts and passions? Have we retired to the cave and pulled a stone against the door because it’s just too much to risk another failure? Jesus calls, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Maybe this is what we are called to do for one another, to touch that which is raw and dead and painful and wounded, to undo the cloths that bind, to call back to life that which has died in each other. Maybe this is what Jesus calls us to do to ourselves, to unbind those parts we have sealed away, and to let them live again.

“Come out!” Jesus says, “Come out!” What inside of you is screaming to be set free? On this Fifth Sunday in Lent, can you open up the cave that has contained all of your losses, all of your deaths? Can you look there, can you stay present there, even if it smells really bad? Can you start to unbind those layers of cloth that have been so constricting? Can you allow Jesus to call you back into life again? Can you shed those graveclothes and dance your way back into life?

I don’t know how it is that Jesus resuscitated Lazarus on that day so long ago, but I do know that Jesus calls all of us back into life. I do know that we can bind ourselves up in ways that we can’t experience that life.  “Come out. Unbind. Let go. And live. Dare to live the life that Jesus promises. Dare to live the life that lives underneath all those bands of cloth.” Amen.




The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 6, 2014

Let Jesus touch your eyes, Lent 4–Year A

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

What a mess of a story we have today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the water for which you long?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It’s Temptation Sunday, Lent 1–Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Where do we yearn for the quick fix?

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

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

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

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

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


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