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What keeps YOU imprisoned?

Cynthia KR Banks — Easter 7—Year C; Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 21-22; John 17:20-26

Prisons, jails, innermost cells. Earthquakes that shake the foundations. “That they may become completely one.” Protests. Burials. Lots of images swirling around this week.

Let’s start with the story from Acts.

Paul and Silas are still wandering around Philippi in Macedonia, and as they were going to the place of prayer, they met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. Now, one gift of divination is to be able to see into the future, but another gift is the gift of insight, you know, that scary kind of spot-on intuition. Well, this girl made her owners a whole lot of money by fortune-telling. So, while she followed Paul and Silas and the others, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She did this over and over and over for many days. So, Paul moves from being bemused to irritated to annoyed to very much annoyed. Eventually, he wheeled around and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And, lo and behold, it did!

So, if you are slave’s owner, how are you feeling about this? Not good. Their money-making well has just dried up, their source of income—gone. So they seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace before the authorities, the magistrates. And the owners told those magistrates, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (They left out that little part about them being Roman citizens and, therefore, entitled to certain rights.) Well, crowd mentality took over, and the crowd piled on joining in the attacks. The magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After that, the magistrates threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. The jailer, he was a J’s J, a total 6 on the enneagram; he was a rule-follower of the highest order, so he took Paul and Silas to the innermost cell and fastened their feet in stocks.

Well, about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly, there was an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison itself were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. Now, if you are a prisoner and the doors have been thrown open and your chains are unlocked, what are you going to do? [Run for it!] When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he thought that exact same thing, and he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he figured that all the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Stop! Don’t do it! Don’t hurt yourself, for we are all here!” The jailer ran in and fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved, healed, made whole?” The Message translation says, “really live,” “what must I do to really live?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” and they told the story of Jesus and his way to him and to all who were in his home.

And that jailer took Paul and Silas and washed their wounds. He and his whole family were baptized right then and there, and he brought Paul and Silas up into his house and spread a feast before them, and that jailer and his household celebrated, in the immortal words of Prince, “like it was 1999.” Okay, for those of you who don’t remember Prince, or his music, that means they celebrated like there was no tomorrow; they had a party to remember.”

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There is so much in this story! Very real prisons, locked away places, innermost cells. What prisons do we see around us? Tangible and external ones and internal ones? How are we locked away, or who have we locked away? Are we the imprisoned ones? Are we the magistrates locking others away with our judgments? Are we the jailer guarding the door making sure no one gets out of line, ensuring that no one escapes the box we have put them in? What chains are fastened around our feet that keep us from experiencing wholeness, healing, that keep us from “really living”, as Eugene Peterson says in The Message?

And can we see that no locked away place is beyond the reach of the God? Can we trust that God can penetrate even our thickest walls and most impenetrable prisons? Sometimes, it will be a violent earthquake that shakes our foundations and sets us free, something that flings open the doors and throws off our shackles through no exercise of our will—that’s the very definition of grace. And here’s the amazing thing, when that happens, you don’t have to run away; no, you actually receive the grace to stand still, to stay put, because whatever has kept you locked away no longer holds any power over you. Wow! That’s amazing!

And when something like that happens to you, the ripple effect is astounding. That jailer was blown away that Paul and Silas were free and yet did not run away. Paul and Silas had a deeper kind of freedom—that jailer didn’t understand it, but he wanted it for his life and for the lives of everyone whom he loved. Prison no longer made sense to that jailer—all he could do was bind up wounds and bring them into his home and break bread and celebrate—no longer jailer and prisoner, but now, only brothers. He and his family belonged to Paul and Silas, and they to them. “That they may become completely one”—that was Jesus’ prayer the night before he died—this is what it looks like on the ground, in the flesh. It is radical, radical stuff.

How radical? As radical as Martha Mullen, a 48 year old woman in Virginia who was on her way to Starbucks this week when she heard on NPR that no Massachusetts cemetery would bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body. People protested the funeral home in Massachusetts that was holding his body. Comments made like, “He shouldn’t have rest. I hope his soul is in eternal damnation.” “… I think …they should have cremated him and put him in the Boston municipal dump with the rest of the trash.”

What is becoming of us? What are we becoming?

Yes, what this man did is horrific. Somewhere along the way, Tamerlan forgot that we are one, that we always belong to one another. Somewhere along the way, the flow of love in which we all live and move and have our being got blocked. Who knows how it got blocked, or why it got blocked, or what part his own will played in that blocking—I cannot presume to know such things, but the point is, the flow of love got blocked, and when that happens, we human beings are capable of horrific, evil acts, like setting off bombs at a marathon of innocents. However, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is still a child of God. He is still a human being in whom God has breathed the breath of life, and as such, he has an inherent dignity.

I am so struck by the contrast between the protest at that funeral home in Massachusetts and the calls for this man to be eternally damned, and the witness of the Amish in 2006 at the funeral of Charles Roberts, the man who had shot ten of their children, five of whom died. The day of that shooting, the grandfather of one of those little girls said, “We must not think evil of this man.” Amish neighbors comforted Charles’ family that same afternoon and extended forgiveness to them. The Amish outnumbered the non-Amish when they attended Charles Roberts’ funeral. Somewhere, the flow of love had gotten blocked in Charles Roberts, maybe it was connected to the premature death of his baby girl nine years before. But the Amish live in that flow of love and could gratuitously extend it, even to the murderer of their children.

Everybody deserves to be buried. Every body, as the sacred vessel of God’s breath, deserves to be treated reverently and with honor, even when that sacred vessel is broken.

What is becoming of us that we can’t see that???

Martha Mullen wondered the same thing. When she heard that story on the news, she first thought, “Jesus says love your enemies not hate them after they’re dead.” Her second thought went like this, “We can bury Adam Lanza, or the guy who shot up [Virginia] Tech, and this guy for some reason is different. And the only difference that I can tell is that people think that he’s a terrorist or he’s a foreigner or he’s Muslim.” Then she thought, “Maybe I could do something.” And she did. She emailed faith leaders throughout Richmond, Virginia, and an interfaith coalition came together—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian—and Tamerlan has now been laid to rest in a small Islamic cemetery in Virginia.

To know our oneness, even with a person who has committed horrific evil, that is faith pressed down to the depths, faith pressed down to the outer limit of what our small human minds can fathom. Jesus himself was killed outside the city limits—he was considered cursed because he hung on a tree, so the religious law itself proclaimed. And our tradition proclaims that when Jesus descends into hell, he simply holds all the brokenness and sin that lies there, holds it in Love’s embrace until even that brokenness is reconnected to the whole.

This is grown-up faith.

This is the faith that doesn’t run from prison but stands there until the one who put you there is also reconnected to the whole. This is the faith that can’t hold another in chains because that other is brother, that other is sister. This is the faith that says, “Tamerlan deserves to be buried, and maybe I can do something about that.” I heard that same NPR story, and I, too, was deeply troubled. It was one of those stories that got under my skin. I got as far as asking, “What are we becoming?” but I didn’t get to the “maybe I can do something.” Martha Mullen is no famous person; she was on her way to Starbucks—I frequently make that trip myself—but an earthquake happened in her soul, and she was compelled to act. It was a little something that changed everything. The ripples from her action will be huge. Maybe next time, I’ll take the next step. Maybe next time, I will realize that I can do something, and that little something will be everything.

We never know when the earthquakes will come, but come they will. And when they come, doors open and chains fall off, and we can see with a clarity that we didn’t have before. The good news, and hard news, of Jesus is that we are one. Are we going to step into the flow of love that binds us to one another, or are we going to block it? What are we becoming? The answer to that will be revealed in the choices we make each and every day, in the midst of still waters, in the midst of small tremors, in the midst of earthquakes. We can choose to flee the prison, or we can choose to stay and engage the jailer and trust that his salvation and ours are inextricably bound together.

I may not know much, but I do know this, I want the freedom of the Amish to forgive, I want the courage of Martha Mullen to act, I want to know the love of Jesus that can reach out even to the enemy, I want to know that Love that can descend into hell and sit there until even that brokenness is reconnected to the whole. I want these things because my heart senses and my soul knows that this is what salvation looks like; this is what it means to really live.

May the earthquakes come, may the doors fly open, may the chains fall off, so that we may know that we are completely one. Then, let the celebration commence. You can do no other when you are that alive. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 12, 2013

What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 5—Year C; Acts 11:1-8; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus? I mean, there were certain things I had to do as a kid to be a girl scout. There were certain things my father had to do to be a Shriner and a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason. There are certain things you have to do to be a part of a sports team or a club or a civic organization. So, what do you have to do to be a disciple of Jesus?

Guesses?

Well, we get some clues from our lessons today—let’s see what they have to say.

Take the passage from Acts. Peter is in hot water with the circumcised believers. The Judean folks had heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God, but uh-oh—Gentiles do what? Eat all that meat expressly forbidden by the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. And Peter, hmmmm, he ate that forbidden meat with them. That violated the rules, that went against the customs.

Peter explained it to his Judean brothers and sisters this way. “I was in the city of Joppa, just praying and minding my own business, and I went into this trance and I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, and it was being lowered by its four corners; and it came real close to me. As I looked at it real closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. And I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I replied, because you know I follow the customs of our people, I told that voice, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice spoke a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, then everything was pulled up again to heaven. Then three men came to me from Caesarea, came right to the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. Six of my brothers here, they came with me. We entered a man’s house, and he told us how he had seen an angel standing right in the middle of his house and that angel was telling him, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; and he will give you a message that will change your life and the lives of everyone in your household, it will make you whole.’ So, I began to speak, and the Holy Spirit fell upon them just like it did us at the beginning…I ask you this, ‘If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.’”

Well, when his critics heard that, they got real quiet, like total silence quiet, like they were speechless. Then, they praised God saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus?

If you’re a Gentile, it takes a willingness to admit the possibility that someone who knows Jesus just might know something, be able to say something, that will change your life, that will make whole something in you that has long been broken.

If you are already a believer, being a disciple of Jesus means cultivating a capacity to rethink, constantly, what we think we know about where God’s boundaries rest.

To be a disciple of Jesus means we have one ear open, always, for the Voice that will call us to go beyond where we think we can or should go.

To be a disciple means we have our eyes open to a vision that doesn’t make sense to us, but sure feels of God.

To be a disciple means we commit to being in a conversation with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit, with whomever and however the Holy manifests itself to us. Notice that Peter doesn’t just take the Voice’s commands on the first round, but that Voice came round three times before Peter agreed. When the Voice keeps knocking on our door, either in a voice, or in a dream, or in a nagging thought that we just can’t shake, then it’s time to tune in.

To be a disciple is to throw our distinctions to the windsGod will do what God will do—we don’t get to decide who is in the club. As the psalmist makes clear, from God’s perspective, everything belongs, even the sea-monsters, even the deep, even the hail, the fire, and the tempestuous wind; old, young; princes, paupers; everything, everyone belongs.

The Revelation to St. John tells us some other qualities we’ve got to have to be a disciple of Jesus. We’ve got to be willing to be made new. We’ve got to be willing to toss aside this notion that God is some far away distant being, either easily angered or mostly indifferent or just plain impotent. According to the Revelation, God is madly in love with us, bridal chamber kind of love. And that love can make us new.

Oh, and there is one other thing that we need to be a disciple of Jesus according to the Revelation. We’ve got to be thirsty for the water. If you want the water from the spring of the water of life, you’ve got to admit how thirsty you are for it. Maybe we don’t think we’re thirsty because we’re pouring all kinds of stuff into our souls, but really, is any of it touching that deep soul thirst we have for the Living God? Does any of the stuff that promises to jumpstart our life compare to the water that comes from the spring of the water of life? You taste that water, and you will never be satisfied with anything else.

So, humility, openness, a willingness to listen and to see, a commitment to be engaged in the conversation with the Holy, a willingness to be intimate with the Holy and to acknowledge our thirst, these are the qualities we have to cultivate to be a disciple of Jesus, but there is one thing more, and it is revealed in the Gospel of John. What else do we have to do to be a disciple of Jesus?

Love. We have to love. This is the new commandment that Jesus gives his followers the night before he has to enter the darkness of Good Friday. In fact, this is the only commandment that Jesus gives his followers. “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When I was a girl, you knew a girl scout by her uniform and the infamous cookies. You know a Shriner by the funny hat he wears, the good works he does, and an insatiable appetite for fun. You know a disciple of Jesus by their love. It is not by our creed or our customs, it is not by our denominational affiliation or where we go to church, people will know we follow Jesus when we love like Jesus. It really is that simple.

So, what do you have to do to be a disciple of Jesus? Not much, just love the world, all the world, even your enemies, love the world as much as Jesus did. By the way, loving that way will kill you, but that is never the end of the story. Sometimes the old has to pass away if we are to dance among the living in a world where God cannot be hindered, and everyone gets the gift, and God is making all things new. Amen.

 

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

Engage in ongoing conversion

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 3—Year C; Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

So, instead of preaching today, I’d like to have each of you stand up, individually, and share your conversion story. That’s right, you get to share your conversion experience, but before we start, I just want to check-in, how are you feeling right now?

Now, I’d imagine that a few of you could actually get excited about this exercise, but I am guessing that most of you are thinking, “She’s lost her mind.” “There’s no way.” “Episcopalians don’t talk that way.” Nothing can strike more fear in an Episcopalian’s heart than being pressed to speak of their conversion.

OK. Breathe. I’m not really going to ask you to share your conversion story this morning, but why do a lot of us freak out at the prospect of doing just that?

Well, some of it has to do with how we understand conversion. Some of us get nervous because we can’t point to a specific moment, a specific experience where everything changed. I think it was William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience that first introduced me to the concept of “ongoing conversion,” that conversion isn’t a one-time event but is a lifelong process. When I learned that, it was an “ah ha” moment for me—that made sense to me because, at that point, I hadn’t had a sudden experience that changed me, but it had been a slow steady process of transformation—the kind of thing where you can look back and realize that you were once here and now you are here. That’s how conversion happens for a lot of us.

This is one way of broadening our understanding of conversion, but there are some other ways we need to rethink it too, and three characters from our scriptures this morning are our guides.

First, Saul. Saul of Tarsus. Persecutor of those early followers of Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to round up some more people of the Way when boom, flash of light, Saul falls to the ground, struck blind. He has a profound conversation with the Risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Lord, who are you?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Pretty dramatic stuff. I think a lot of us can’t articulate our conversion experiences because this is what we think conversion is—sudden, dramatic, flash of light, struck blind, total life change.

Saul goes on to Damascus where he waits for three days until he is visited by Ananias who restores his sight and baptizes him. His conversion was so profound, his name even changes to Paul, and the rest of the story is history.

But let’s go a little deeper. It wasn’t just a conversion to Christ for Saul; it was a conversion to “the other. He was persecuting people. Saul saw those followers of Jesus as a threatening “other,” not as brothers and sisters. And any time we see another as completely “other, we can do profoundly awful things to them. Saul’s conversion was to see how deeply related he was to these very people he hated. And when Jesus made known that kinship, Saul couldn’t persecute them anymore. Saul’s conversion enabled him to get reconnected to the whole.

Have you ever persecuted another? Maybe not as dramatically as Saul, but have you ever dismissed another because you have somehow framed them as “other” in your mind? And have you ever had a conversion experience that gave you pause, that helped the scales fall from your eyes and see that “other” as a brother or sister? If you are open to it, this can be a profound experience of conversion.

Or Peter. Wow. Peter. Now Peter is a follower of Jesus, so his conversion isn’t about his belief in Jesus. His conversion is about his belief in himself. He was deeply converted to Jesus through having followed him for three years. But, as we well know after Holy Week, he denied what he knew three times. Can you imagine how truly awful he must have felt? And he’d encountered Jesus a few times since that first day of the week, but he was still all bound up—guilt and shame, they do horrible things a person. He goes back to the one place where he understood how everything worked—fishing—he knew how to do that, and when nothing else makes sense, that’s usually what we do. But it wasn’t the same. He’d lost the touch. That is, until the Abundant One called him back to life. And with incredible elegance, Jesus gave Peter three chances to profess the love he had three times denied. Jesus’ overflowing love and forgiveness made the scales fall from Peter’s eyes. Peter’s conversion was about getting reconnected to himself—shedding his guilt and shame and touching once again his first love.

Have you ever blown it in a tragic way, in a relationship, in a violation of your own integrity, in a forgetting of your first and deepest love? And have you ever had the grace of a profound experience of reconciliation or forgiveness or a finding again of that love or passion that you had lost? This, too, is conversion of a most profound nature.

And then there is Ananias. He, too, is already a follower of Jesus, so his conversion is also not about belief. His challenge is resistance. The Risen Lord wants him to go visit Saul. What?! Ananias knew Saul oversaw the stoning of people like him. And Jesus wants him to go to Saul and heal him? Ananias had Saul in a box, had him figured out, defined and labeled and with good evidence to back up his assessment of this man. He’s actually not too much different than Saul—he saw Saul as totally “other”—Jesus helped him see that Saul was brother. Isn’t it interesting how it doesn’t seem to matter what side we stand on—we can still box in the other, and Jesus is always reconnecting us to each other, showing us our kinship when all we can see are our sharp edges and differences, labels and definitions, that box us in.

Ananias’ conversion is about overcoming his resistance and releasing his certainty about who Saul was. Ananias has to allow for the possibility that even a man like Saul can change.

Have you ever defined someone right into a box, imprisoned another by your assessment of who you thought they were? And then, have you grabbed an opportunity, maybe not of your own choosing, to encounter them in a whole new way? Again, Ananias got reconnected to the whole when he found room to heal his enemy. The scales didn’t just fall from Saul’s eyes that day, but they also fell from Ananias’.

If today is any indication, conversion is much more about how we get reconnected when we have been rent asunder, from ourselves, from each other, from God, than it is about professing our belief. It’s not that belief is unimportant; it’s just that it is the fruit of transformation, not its source.

Our deepest conversion happens when we get reconnected to the whole. This is the conversion that Jesus lives for, this is the conversion that Jesus died for. This is the conversion that Jesus rose for, this is the conversion that changes our lives, this is the conversion that makes us, and the world, whole. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 14, 2013

Jesus has risen, and he will find you

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Easter 2—Year C; Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…I love the lectionary. Here we are one week out from Easter, and the Church brings us back to that day, that very first day, as if to say, “The resurrection is way too big to get it all at once. Maybe your tomb opened last Sunday, but maybe it didn’t, and if it didn’t, that’s okay. Today, you get to go back to that day. In fact, we’re going to give you 50 days for this new reality to soak into your soul.” Thank you, Church for that! And honestly, with all the time we have spent in intractible ruts, with all the time we have circled round and round in deadening patterns, with all the time we have spent being so stuck, how could we possibly turn on a dime and embrace the astounding news that we have been set free for life? How could we possibly wrap our hearts and minds and souls around the reality that what we thought was dead, is not? What do we do with such freedom and possibility when we have only known sealed tombs? It takes time to adjust to resurrection reality, and today we acknowledge that we have all the time we need.

The temptation is to stay locked up. It’s our default reaction; it’s familiar territory. The disciples were locked away for fear of the Jews, but why do we stay locked up? What are we afraid of? But even if we lock ourselves away from this new life, this new life will find us. And when it does, it has only one thing to say to us, “Peace. Peace be with you. Peace.” And we look up, and we see the wounds, and we know that, whatever this Peace is that stands before us, it understands, it knows to the core, this darkest reality we have just lived through, and that makes it safe enough to trust this incarnation of resurrection.

But it comes with a cost. If you have died, and if you have risen, you have to share it. We are not given the gift of resurrection to stay locked up in ourselves, we must give it away to a world that is starved for it.

And then there’s the breath. The breath. Jesus breathes on us. And the breath that breathed life into creation in the very beginning, now breathes life into us. And we are given an even greater abundance of gifts. The Holy Spirit. Power. Forgiveness. The ability and responsibility to unbind one another, to set each other free. And the burden of retaining. I have always thought of Jesus’ words, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” as his way of speaking about how we hold grudges—that if we retain the sins of another, neither they or we are ever set free.

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But what if he is actually asking us to do something much more audacious than that? What if he is asking us to risk bearing the brokenness, the separation caused by another’s sins, what if he is asking us to hold that broken space, and in the holding of that brokenness, be a part of reconnecting it to the whole, just like Jesus held all of sin and separation and brokenness of the world when he stretched out his arms on the cross? What if that is what it means to retain the sins of another? Talk about true solidarity with the suffering of the world!

And then, there is Thomas. Patron saint of all doubters. Hero to those of us who struggle to believe. He wasn’t with the rest that first evening. It’s my guess that, having heard the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive, he set out to go figure this out for himself. And so he wasn’t there when the Risen One busted through those locked doors. Oh, they told Thomas about the encounter, but Thomas was emphatic—he had to see it and touch it for himself. Thomas was not content, never had been, with anybody else’s explanation of these tender matters of the heart and soul. It had to make sense to him, it had to be coherent, the pieces had to fit together, or his integrity would not allow him to be a part of it. Thomas icons for us the light and shadow side of our need to understand the mysteries of our faith. Such a need to understand is a beautiful and human thing, but our minds can also hold back our hearts when they long to leap toward Love and Life.

But Jesus is so patient with our humanity. A week later, one week after that first day, that would be today, the disciples are again in that house. The doors are shut, not locked, but just shut—they are not quite as locked up as they were a week ago, they are willing to risk a little more. Jesus again came among them and greeted them as he had the week before, “Peace be with you.” And then, he turned to Thomas, “Thomas, put your finger here, see my hands, touch my side, don’t doubt, trust it. It’s true. You can be crucified, and you can live again. You can be wounded, as you have surely been, but the wounds are not your end, they have been held and loved and transformed into something that radiates life. This is what resurrection looks like. Not wounds that are ignored or dismissed, but wounds that have been redeemed. Trust it, Thomas. Trust it.”

Can we trust that whatever wounds you and I pick up along the way as we journey through this mortal life, can we trust that resurrection has robbed those wounds of their power to define us? We can stay locked up in our stories, we can cling to our wounds like grave clothes, or we can hear the proclamation of “Peace” as our emancipation proclamation. We have been set free. Oh, the scars will still be outward and visible, but our countenance will radiate the grace of redemption, the grace of wounds that have been redeemed, our countenance will radiate that grace from the inside out.

Our world is such a wounded place. And if we sit down and listen to one another’s stories, really listen, the wounds are there. As the 19th century Scottish preacher, John Watson, said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Can you think of anything that we long to hear more deeply than “You are more than the wounds you bear…you are made for life, fullness of life, abundant life…Resurrection isn’t just for Jesus, or even Thomas—it’s for you”—is there anything we long to hear more than that? We long to hear this good news; the world longs to hear this good news—can we receive it? Can we take it into our souls and make it our own? And then, can we bear witness to it as we move through this world?

Whether you are locked away or locked up or out searching, or have shut the door on the possibility that your life can be any different, it doesn’t matter—Jesus has risen, and he will find you, and he will meet you, and he will touch you, and he will invite you to touch him, until your mind quiets, and your doubts give way to hope, and your heart leaps, and you, too, can proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 7, 2013

He is risen!

Easter Day—Year B; Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Have you ever sat vigil with someone who was dying? It is an amazing, holy, sacred, luminous, painful experience, and it is exhausting. And once the death has occurred, a tiredness such as you have never felt before settles over you. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee had lived this very experience. They had been there every step of the way, all the way from Galilee, all the way to the cross. When others couldn’t stay, they remained. Even after he breathed his last, they stayed. They watched Joseph of Arimathea come and lovingly take their Lord’s body down from the cross. The watched him wrap it in a linen cloth. They followed as he carried it to rock-hewn tomb. They saw the tomb, and how his body was laid. And having learned the way to the tomb, they left to go and do what love demanded they do, prepare the spices and ointments to anoint the body of their beloved. And on the sabbath day, they rested. Read, “They fell into a hard, hard sleep.” Truth be told, they were spent. Their hearts had been through the wringer. Their bodies stretched to the breaking point. Their souls rent apart. They couldn’t go one step more; they had to rest.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, while the sun was just starting to peek through the mist, while the pavement was still wet with dew, they made their way back to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone, the stone, remember the stone? That huge stone that had been rolled in front of tomb to seal it, they hadn’t even thought about how they were going to move that stone. But you know how women can be when they put their minds to something. You think a stone would deter them from doing what love compelled them to do? Yeah, right. But their fierce determination would not have to be exercised, at least not yet. That stone had been rolled away. They went in, they had seen where his body had been laid, but they didn’t find the body. While they were perplexed about this…You think? Perplexed? I like the greek better—“they were entirely at a loss”—NOTHING had prepared them for this.

Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. Not in front, not behind, not above, not below, but beside them. The messengers came right alongside them in their perplexity. Their at-a-loss-ness turns to terror, they were “thrown into fear,” and they bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

 “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Where on earth else could they look? Death was all they knew. How do you turn a grieving heart on a dime? Love hopes all things, yes, but these women were realists. They had witnessed the death. They had pushed themselves to stay present to the dying when the others had fled. But now, Love was calling them to let the graveclothes lie and strike out to find the Risen One.

They ran, these women come from Galilee ran to the eleven and to all the rest. They told all this to the apostles. But, oh, are you ready for it, it hurts, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Why, would you not believe these women? Were the apostles’ hearts too broken to hope, were they too afraid to risk believing that what the women said was TRUE?

But Peter, brave, impulsive, cowardly, jump-in-first-ask-questions-later Peter—he got up and he ran to the tomb. He stooped down, and looked in, and he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. Again, the greek gets it better, “he marveled, he was full of wonder,” that great, great word from Godly Play that unlocks the soul of a child, and all of us, if we are open to it.

So, all week long, we have been walking in the shoes of all the characters who play a role in this drama, and now we come to today. Who are you today?

Are you one of the women come from Galilee? Are you grieving? Have you experienced some sort of death that has left you so tired that you don’t even know how to take the next step, but that next step keeps coming anyway? Have you come today expecting to continue your burial rituals, living out the rhythms of your loss, not daring to hope for it to be any different than when you felt it a day ago?

And when the holy messengers call to you and challenge you to lift your eyes, when they proclaim to you that your reality is not among the dead but is among the profoundly alive, can you allow your heart to leap because at some deep, deep level, your heart knows that what they speak is TRUE? Can you dare to see that your whole world has just been turned upside down but in a gloriously good way? Can you dare to see that your world has just been made completely new? Your life can change in an instant when resurrection calls your name.

And then, can you throw your reserve to the winds and run as fast as you can to tell others who are lost and afraid and grieving and locked away? Can you tell them, “We have to look in a new place, we have to look in a new way, we thought death was the final word, but death is never the final word, not where Jesus is concerned. He is alive. He has risen. And we are rising too!”

Or, will you stay where you are, locked away in your fear, entombed in your grief, safe in the certitude of death, and dismiss it all as an idle tale? Because if we can dismiss this as an idle tale, we can go on with business-as-usual. Oh, life will be painful, we have lost the One who made life make sense, but loss, we know how to do loss. But resurrection? Who knows what that looks like? Resurrection, life, there are no rules for how to do this. Resurrection is insanely unpredictable. Resurrection is risky. I don’t know that I can risk that much. No, it’s much easier to dismiss all of this as an idle tale, or a great myth, or a powerful story, but not really connected to reality.

Or, will you take the risk of your lives? If anyone had reason to be anxious, it was Peter. He had denied his Lord, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus knew Peter would blow it, and Peter didn’t disappoint him. “If what the women said was true, how would Jesus receive him? Would he tell Peter to go away, and maybe with stronger words than that?” Peter had lost Jesus through his denials, he had lost Jesus in death, could he bear to lose him again? But Peter was as good as dead as it was; his heart was that broken. No, Peter would risk it all to taste the resurrection. Will we?

This isn’t just a great story that happened 2,000 years ago, but this is the deepest reality of our lives today, this day. The men in dazzling clothes have come along beside us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Whatever losses, whatever deaths, whatever death dealing patterns have become our tombs, the stone has been rolled away. It is time to leave our graveclothes behind. It is time to dance our way into the life that God is raising in us.

Resurrection life would be way too scary were it not for the fact that Jesus is one step ahead of us, and he is reaching back to pull us into this Life. All we can do, all we can do, is see our graveclothes lying in the dust. Your life is not to be found among the dead. You are rising. Be amazed. Be filled with wonder. Risk believing that resurrection isn’t just possible but is heartbeat of your life. The One who has risen before us, the One whom death could not contain, he has risen, and we can’t live among the dead any more. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 31, 2013

Rejoice and join the Risen ONE!

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Easter Vigil—Year C; Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22; Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

In the beginning was chaos, and out of the chaos God pulled creation.  And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, this time enslaved by oppressive forces, and God pulled us out of the waters to our freedom. And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, this time, with hearts grown hard, and God promised to do some open heart surgery, taking out our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh so that could love again. And it wasn’t long, until we had descended into chaos again, our spirits as dry and brittle as a valley of dry bones, and God promised that Divine Breath could make those bones live again. Are you getting the sense here that we human beings have a real hard time staying out of chaos? And over and over again, God dives into the depths to pull us toward life. If this past week has shown us anything, if this journey we have made from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him!” has shown us anything, it has shown us that, when it comes to chaos, God is all in.

But if tonight shows us anything, it is this—God can’t resist creating, and when we thought all was lost, that ancient song rings out, “Rejoice…this is the night, this is the night when darkness is vanquished, this is the night when the bonds of death and hell are broken, this is the night when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away…This is the night when earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God.”

We may have a homing device on chaos, but God has a homing device on us, and Jesus drank the dregs of that chaos, so that in his rising, we might find our way home. God dove into the madness and pressed it to the bottom, and just as God pitched a tent in our flesh in the incarnation of Jesus, in Jesus’s death, God pitched a tent in depths of hell, and camped out there, and filled that darkness full of Presence. Chaos has lost its grip; we are consigned to the madness no more. It’s a whole new day, unveiled in the glorious splendor of this night.

This night is “wonderful and beyond our knowing. And the waters of chaos that would overwhelm us have now become the waters of new birth. Christ is risen, and we are born anew! And our first waking cry in this newborn life can only be, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

On a night like tonight, the poets say it best. Elizabeth Rooney penned this poem called “Opening.”

Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity
For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.

Though chaos still swirls, and though we will probably find our way into it again, it will never have the power to destroy us because, this night, we are laid open to Infinity. Tonight, all creation is made new. Tonight, we cross on dry land and taste our freedom again. Tonight, our hearts of stone grow soft and tender. Tonight, our dry bones live. This is the resurrection of our Lord; we are laid open to Infinity; now nothing shelters us from God’s desire.

So, let us rejoice, and fall in love all over again; after all this time that we have spent in our respective graves, entombed in chaos, or our fear of it, it is time to join the Risen One and dance the night away. Amen.

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

I am thirsty.

Good Friday—Community Service; John 19:28-29

Hear this scripture from John’s gospel.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

“I am thirsty,”—once again, when Jesus’ pain was more than he could bear, the words that rise up within him are the words of the psalms. Once again, Jesus moves into solidarity with us. There are times when life brings us to our knees, when words sound only like platitudes, or when words fail us altogether, there are times when only the psalms can give voice to what we really feel—anger that borders on rage, paranoia that we would otherwise be ashamed to admit, sorrow deeper than we can imagine, joy that is unspeakable, hope that is unshakeable. The full range of humanity is in the psalms, and for Jesus, as he hangs there, the psalms are the only place he has left to stand.

And psalm 69 gives voice to the place Jesus now inhabits. “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. I have come into the waters, and the torrent washes over me. I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God. Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; my lying foes who would destroy me are mighty…Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me…They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.”

This psalm is no longer just a hymn out of the tradition, but the deepest expression of Jesus’ deepest reality, but Jesus doesn’t quote the whole psalm, all he says is, “I am thirsty.”

“I am thirsty.” Thirst. It is everywhere. The people of God thirsted for water in the wilderness. The psalmist thirsts for the living God. In Isaiah, the land itself is thirsty. In Amos, God thirsts for justice; God thirsts for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. In Matthew, Jesus thirsts for righteousness and commands us to give something to drink to the least of these. In John, it is the Samaritan woman who thirsts for the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Make no mistake. We thirst. God thirsts. Jesus thirsts. For justice, for righteousness, to know the Living God, to drink of the waters that will quench our parched souls, to taste of the wellspring of life. We long to thirst no more. We, like Jesus, are thirsty. And like Jesus, so much of what is given to us to satisfy our deepest thirst is sour wine, vinegar. It doesn’t satisfy our thirst. There is only one thing that can satisfy our thirst—the Living God, the One who has already taken up residence in our flesh, the Wellspring whose waters never fail.

The waters cut both ways—the torrent of waters can overwhelm us, threaten to drown us in the deep, but if we can open up to the deep, deep thirst in our souls, we can just as easily see that torrent of waters as a waterfall of God’s love pouring down upon us. We could just as easily see those waters rising as a spring of God’s life gushing up within us. These waters could just as easily be our very salvation. Can we, on this Good Friday, admit just how thirsty we are and allow God to fill us with the waters that never fail? Amen.

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

Why did Jesus have to die?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Good Friday—Year B; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

This past Wednesday, our children made the way of the cross in the Great Hall. At the end, we gathered and talked. One of them asked me, “Why do they call it Good Friday?” Ah, that is the question. That is always the question. I told them of a woman, years ago, who came knocking on my office door about 10:30 on Maundy Thursday night. She had been keeping vigil in this space, and she had one question for me, “Why did Jesus have to die? Why did Jesus have to die?”

All week long, we have been stepping into the shoes of different characters. Judas, Peter, the sleeping disciples, the chief priests, Pilate, the mockers and taunters and teasers, but by now, on this Good Friday, Judas is long gone with his silver, Peter has heard the cock crow, the disciples have long since fled, the chief priests have won, Pilate has washed his hands, and the rest have rolled their dice and tired of the game. There are only three characters left today—God, Jesus, and us.

 “Why did Jesus have to die?” Did Jesus have to die? Could it have gone some other way? Could it have played out any other way? I suppose it could, and probably does—God has a good many religious and spiritual traditions through which to touch the human heart. But would it have been enough? If it had played out some other way, would it have been enough? Not the enough needed to placate an angry God, but would it have been enough for us?

How else would we see all the faces of the false self unmasked than through the One who begs God to “forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”?

How else would we ever be pushed to ask that hardest of questions, “What is truth?”

How else would we ever learn what it means to yield, to truly yield?

How else would we ever see the utter insanity of the myth of redemptive violence than in the One who hangs there refusing to do violence in return? In some earlier time, in some earlier part of the drama, God might have rained down fire upon this crazed, broken humanity à la Sodom and Gommorah, but not on this day. On this day, God receives this violence, and holds it, and in that receiving and holding drains it of its life and power. As violent as we human beings are, how else would we see that Love calls us a different way?

How else would we know, know without a doubt, that there is nowhere in our human existence, nowhere in our earthly life, nowhere in the hells we inhabit, nowhere that we can go that God has not gone before us, how else would we know that than through the One who has drunk the dregs of human suffering, drained that cup completely, drained it until “it [was] finished”?

How else would we ever know God’s complete, utter, total solidarity with us in the depths of our humanity than through the One who has felt our anguish, experienced our loneliness, known our fear, tasted our abandonment, borne our despair?

How else would we ever trust that when we feel forsaken, we are not forsaken. The One who cried that awful, piercing cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”that One filled even that godforsaken place with God. How else would we know that no place, no place in our human journey is godforsaken, no place is forsaken by God, how else would we know that were it not for this day?

Why did Jesus have to die? Why do we call this Friday Good?

Because nothing else would have been enough to show us the unfathomable depths of God’s love for us.

 “Do you know how much I love you?” This is the only question God cares about. And today, this is how God answers, “Let me show you. Let me show you. Nothing else will be enough. I must show you with my flesh, with my arms stretched out, with my heart exposed. Then you will know. Then you will know. Then, it will be enough.”Amen.

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

What do you need to put aside on the way to your True self?

The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks: Palm Sunday—Year C; Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Are we ever ready for this day? Are we ever ready for the rollercoaster ride that takes us to the height of joy atop the Mount of Olives, a place where we can see forever and see clearly who Jesus is as the King of kings and Lord of lords, are we ever ready to go from there to the depths of despair in the Place of the Skull where Jesus meets his death, and all the twists and turns and points of decision in-between? Are we ever ready for this journey? I’m not; I doubt you are either. It always takes my breath away. It always stops me cold. And why? Because if we’re honest, we see ourselves in every last character who plays a role in this drama.

It is useless to fix blame in one place or another—was it the chief priests and leaders who killed Jesus, or Pilate, or Herod, or the soldiers who drove in the nails? That’s too easy an answer. That’s a scapegoat answer that lets the rest of us off the hook far too easily.

And let us not get derailed by chasing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement down the rabbit hole. Substitutionary atonement says that humanity was so awful that God needed a worthy sacrifice, i.e. his Son, as payment for our utter and total sinfulness. I categorically reject this doctrine, this way of understanding the cross. Let me say that again, I categorically reject the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It makes no sense to me that the God who proclaimed all of creation, us included, good and very good could ever look at us with such despise and disdain, nor can I wrap my head around how a loving Father could ever demand the sacrifice of his most beloved Son to balance some sort of equation. This doctrine came out of the feudal understanding in the Middle Ages, and it has messed us up ever since—it has messed up our understanding of God, it has messed up our understanding of Jesus, it has messed up our understanding of ourselves, and it has really messed up our understanding of this day. We can fight battles with this Middle Ages doctrine, but we are fighting straw men, and this, too, is just one more scapegoat that enables us to avoid looking at our complicity in this day. The battle with this doctrine is a deflection, and the false self likes nothing better than deflection on this day. I beg you not to get bogged down there.

No, our focus must not be deflected. We must sit with ourselves. If we are ever to understand the depth of God’s love for us, then we must understand the depths of our humanity. Who killed Jesus? All of us. Every last one of us. The collective false self of humanity is responsible for the death of this innocent man whose only crime was to love us unconditionally.

Every one of the characters shows us one more aspect of the false self.

Judas whose heart is broken because the man he had up on a pedestal, his guru, his teacher, his leader sorely disappointed him, and when the false self gets disappointed, it can lash out with a vengeance!

Peter who wants to hold fast, who wants to be brave, but who ultimately cannot bear the risk of association. Have you ever not stood by a friend when the tide turned? Have you ever denied your deepest truths to save face? The false self hates to be exposed, and it will deny “ever knowing the man” to keep safe, to stay secure.

The Chief Priests and Scribes and Leaders—oh, they are not bad people; they are “caught” people. They have spent their lifetimes working out the rules by which to live a holy and honorable life. As Cynthia Bourgeault points out, they have figured out the roadmaps for themselves and for their people; they took their bearings from received tradition, using the past to interpret the present. The only problem is that Jesus didn’t conform to their roadmaps—and given that choice, they chose their roadmaps over their hearts. They would rather Jesus die than change their roadmaps. Oh, the false self loves to know the way, loves to have a roadmap, because roadmaps equal control and predictability. The false self will do anything, anything to keep those roadmaps from becoming obsolete; the false self simply cannot relinquish control and the predictability that comes with it.

Pilate. Pilate is a tragic figure. He is a mid-level manager. He’s got to keep the powers-that-be above him happy, and he’s got to keep the crowds below him happy. And he will sacrifice his own integrity, his own wisdom, his own truth rather than upset the apple cart. The false self cannot afford to disappoint anyone. The false self will do anything to keep the peace. Better for one man to die than to spiral into the chaos of the disappointed expectations of others.

And there are the others all along the way. Bystanders, soldiers, nameless faces in the crowd who jump on the groupthink train—mocking, teasing, insulting, taunting, ultimately calling for this man to die. The false self loves the energy of a crowd; the false self loves the adrenalin of anger and rage. The false self loves a good scapegoat because if something else dies, its life is preserved.

There are those who love Jesus but just can’t stay to the end. The false self just doesn’t have staying power. At least not when it matters.

But even on this day, even on this awful day, the True Self will not be denied presence. The True Self keeps peeking through the darkness. Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross, the Daughters of Jerusalem who beat their breasts in grief, the Centurion who could see beyond his role to the truth, Joseph of Arimathea who will ensure honor to the end, the women, the Women from Galilee, who just won’t leave and keep vigil with spices and ointments. The false self lives inside of us, but so does the True Self who can carry burdens beyond our imaginings, who can risk the exposure of honest grief, who refuses to cede dignity away, who simply can sit vigil in the most painful of circumstances, and who one week from now, will know how to rise.

So, today is about confronting the depths of our humanity and our great capacity for brokenness, for evil, and for untold good. Today is about coming to terms with the totality of our self—our false self and the parts of us that are forever anchored in the True Self. When Jesus stretches out his arms, he holds it all—he holds every last aspect of our humanity, and holds it, and holds it, and he forgives it, and he loves it. He loves the false self until it is secure enough that it is willing to die, so that we can be born anew.

Make no mistake, this journey is painful, unbelievably painful, but such is the price of admission to resurrected life. Don’t miss this journey. It will be worth it—I promise you that. Amen.

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

Beyond the Wilderness

Cynthia K.R. Banks. Lent 3—Year C; Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

I love Lent. There is something in this season that appeals immensely to my reflective soul. I love to look deep within, I love the notion of stripping away layers, I love the image of the wilderness because it fits where life sometimes takes us—times when you’re in unfamiliar territory, seasons when things are baffling, places that feel desolate, dynamics that you have to sort out for yourself. The wilderness. I love the wilderness stories, whether it’s the one we hear today, or the Israelites who keep going around in circles unable to find their way out of it, or the one where Jesus wrestles with the voices of the False Self—the wilderness and the people of God just seem to go together.

But today’s story takes us beyond the wilderness. Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt yourself to be beyond the wilderness? That sounds a little scarier to me. That’s a place where even the familiar outlines of the unfamiliar wilderness give way to something else. This is truly unchartered territory. There are no landmarks here. No signs by which to chart your progress. This is a place of total nothingness. You are flying blind. Moses led his flock to this place. Most of us don’t go so willingly. Like the tornado that dumps you into Oz or the Island of Avalon that is only found through the mists or the land of Narnia that is only entered by falling through the wardrobe. Most of us don’t intentionally set out to go beyond the wilderness—it is a place where we land; it is a place we tumble into.

And strange things happen when you are out beyond the wilderness. Already in a state of disorientation, you can start to see things, strange things. For Moses, an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and that bush was blazing, yet it wasn’t consumed. Now, don’t go and try to figure out the scientific laws around this—you are beyond the wilderness and the normal laws of this world just don’t apply. It completely captivated Moses. He didn’t know anything else, but he knew he had to turn aside and look at this great sight. And yes, the why of it gave him pause—“Why isn’t this bush burned up???” And the pause was all God needed. As soon as Moses paused, the angel of the LORD becomes God Godself. When God saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Three little words that have been the response of people to God throughout our sacred history. Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Mary. They all uttered these same three words…“Here I am.” Sometimes we think that answering God’s call is about saying an unequivocal “yes,” but before it is about saying “yes” it is about being here, being fully present, acknowledging that an encounter, that a relationship is in the making, right here, right now. God calls your name, and all you can say is “Here I am.” That’s where it all begins, and that changes everything. When you acknowledge the voice that has called you, and you agree to stay put in the presence of that voice, then the ground shifts beneath your feet; it becomes holy ground. In fact, God told Moses, “Come no closer, take off your shoes, you are standing on holy ground.”

God went on to tell Moses a little about Godself—namely that God had been around for a long, long time and had been in relationship with God’s people for a long, long time. Moses realized that this was like God—like the God he had been hearing about in the stories of his ancestors, like God. And from what he had heard, you didn’t much try to look at that God. But God looked past all of that.

God had far too much to communicate to get hung up on Moses’ projections about the nature of God. God had Moses’ attention, and that’s all God needed.

Now, God had some real specific things that God wanted Moses to do, namely go to Pharaoh and get Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God had observed their misery, had heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, God knew their sufferings, and God was determined not to keep distance from all that pain. “I have come down to deliver them from oppression and to bring them up to a good land. Oh, and Moses, you are the flesh that I am going to embody to do it.” Incarnation didn’t just start with Jesus—God has been taking on flesh in God’s people since the beginning of time.

Moses, of course, resists—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I’ll be with you.”

“Well, what if I say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they like say, ‘What is his name?’ what am I supposed to tell them? Hmmm?” You can almost hear a little bit of attitude in Moses—oh, resistance puts on such a brave face.

But Moses’ question gave God pause…you can almost see God thinking, “What is my name? Hmmm, how do I want to be known? Ah, presence. Sheer presence. Total mystery. Not to be contained in a box. Not to be defined in a human definition. A name that represents that which can only be experienced—Got it! I AM Who I AM. That’s it. Tell them ‘I AM has sent me to you’…This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. My name is ‘I AM,’ now, spend the rest of your life figuring out what that means.”

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So, how does call work for you? The Bible is full of call stories. And the people whom God calls are not special people. They are from all walks of life, they are infinitely human, they have feet of total clay, there is nothing special about them, some of them are way out beyond the wilderness. The only requirement is to be willing to pause at an unusual sight. The only requirement is to be open to a voice that calls your name—it may be an external voice; it may be an internal voice. The only requirement is to stay put and engage the voice, to say, “Here I am.”

And that voice may call you to do something way beyond your capacity to imagine—like free the Israelites or reform the church, take on environmental degradation, end hunger, stop violence against women and girls. That voice may call you to go into the heart of some oppression that is the last place you want to go (think about it, did Moses really want to go back to Egypt where he was wanted for murder?), that voice may send you to an immensely uncomfortable place, that voice may send you to work to bring someone or something that is enslaved into a place of freedom, to bring them into a good land.

Or, that voice may call you to reach out to someone who sits across from you at your kitchen table, or who lives across the street, or who sits in the next cubicle, or at the other end of the pew. The suffering can be big and societal and global, or the suffering can be intimate and personal and close. Are we willing to allow our eye to be caught by a look spoken between the lines or a story on the news? Are we willing to pause long enough for the voice to have a chance to speak to our hearts? Are we willing to say, “Here I am,” or do we just want to keep moving on?

But there’s also good news, if we are willing to say “Here I am,” and then move from “Here I am” to “I will go”—God promises to be with us.

And just to be clear, full disclosure here, if you say the “yes” that comes after “here I am,” you will never be able to explain that voice to anybody. Try to explain I AM Who I AM to somebody. All you will be able to do is to invite people to experience it—to experience the power of its love, its compassion, its mercy, and its fierce desire to liberate those who are suffering. There is a lot of mama bear energy in this God. Are we willing to allow the possibility that God just might be calling us and longing to infuse us with that energy for the sake of the world?

I AM Who I AM isn’t just a name—it is an invitation to be in a relationship with the Holy Mystery who is woven into every aspect of existence and who longs for all of creation to thrive. That God is here. I AM is here. I AM is calling. It doesn’t matter if you are out beyond the wilderness, if you can turn aside and look, if you can pause long enough to listen, you just might find that that place beyond the wilderness has become holy ground. Amen.

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