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Let Wisdom show us what it means to be friends of God….

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

I am going to say upfront—this is not a sermon. I don’t even know what to call it. We’ll just call it me talking to you as your priest and pastor. This has been a hard week. Starting with this circle of St. Luke’s, there is a lot going on in our little community of faith right now. Sometimes, we go through seasons where we are fully aware of the pain around us—someone is ill, someone is dying; we can see that. Other times, we go through a season when there is a lot of pain, but it’s the kind of pain you can’t see, burdens known only to those who bear them. We are in one of those seasons where we actually have a whole lot of both. We, as a community, are holding a lot right now. Please, please be gentle with your brothers and sisters; there is much on many hearts.

And then, in the middle of the week, the world exploded. I must admit, I have been several days behind this news this week because my focus has been on our community, but slowly, I am catching up. I am still processing what has happened. I think we all are. I read through the events in TIME magazine yesterday. Friday night, I watched the 13-minute YouTube video of the movie trailer for Innocence of Muslims, the biopic (I had never even heard of that word—it’s a biographical movie), it was this biopic about Muhammad that sparked this violence. And somehow, Terry Jones, that pastor from Florida that promoted the burning of the Koran on the 9/11 anniversary in 2010, is back in the mix—a fan of this film. He created a video that put the prophet Mohammad on trial. Innocence of Muslims has been around a little while but didn’t make a splash until Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian picked it up and mass posted it on an Arabic-language blog leading up to this anniversary of September 11th.

As I watched it, I kept saying to Jim, “This has to be a hoax.” It was that bad. It was a really, really, really bad movie from a movie production standpoint, but it was also inflammatory and offensive at every turn. If you could think of all the things that would be unbelievably offensive to a faithful observant Muslim, this movie had all of them. I tried to imagine how I would feel if someone made a similar movie about Jesus. This movie trailer was a match to a fire.

Now hear me clearly, I absolutely condemn the violence that got unleashed. To react to this abhorrent film with violence is buying into this whole avenge-revenge-myth-of-redemptive-violence worldview that is perpetuating the hate and rage and violence that is killing us, all of us. The taking of the innocent lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues at the American Embassy is wrong, WRONG, and it is tragic beyond belief, especially since Ambassador Stevens had actually worked closely with the leaders of the uprising in Libya who were seeking a different way for their country. We have diplomats all over the world that really do believe in diplomacy; they put it on the line every day in often dangerous parts of the world. We are grateful for their service, and we grieve their deaths.

And I am especially grieved, I don’t even know if that is the right word, I am sickened by the fact that religious hatred is at the root of this. There are radical extremes in each religion, and they are fanning the flames of hatred all over the world. And we have to raise our voices and condemn the hate. There has to be room in this world for all of us, and this will not be so until we stand up and say, “No more.” Christians need to call Christians to account. Muslims need to call Muslims to account. Jews need to call Jews to account. These incendiary actions are not the true heart of Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism. But if we are not proclaiming what that true heart is, those who are perpetuating this hate will fill the vacuum, and this past week shows us what the carnage looks like.

We need the wisdom figure that we hear about today in Proverbs. Hear what Proverbs says, “She is crying out in the street; she is raising her voice in the squares. She is crying out at the busiest corner and at the entrance of the city gates.” The scoffers, the fools, they have always been there, and when their voices are the only ones heard, panic, calamity, distress, anguish—these are what ensue. We must seek her counsel. Wisdom of Solomon reminds us, “For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.” Could it be that wisdom lives in each of our traditions, secure in herself, renewing all things? Wisdom continues, “In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” No tradition has a lock on this—there is no triumphant doctrine here, only holy souls willing to receive her. “She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.” This is not the God of vengeance that seeks to destroy, a God whose face that, as Christians, we have to admit, is there in our tradition, but this is the God that has been there all along, a God whose face has been hidden, the feminine face of God who only seeks life for all of God’s creatures. We need this God now. Because James has it right—the tongue is a fire and it can set the world ablaze. We are seeing this all too clearly. Hear James, “But no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…,” so says James.

We must seek Wisdom, we must stand up to those who spew hate, and reach out in love to those who are its target, be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews, or people of no belief at all.

This really is about learning how to love the other, and honest to goodness, we don’t know how to do that in this world. I was privileged to spend all day yesterday in a workshop with several members of our community and several members of the Junaluska community. We have been at this work for two years now, and we just knew it was time to take a step back and look at our relationships with one another. Part of the day was spent in racial caucauses. White people talking with other white people about what had gone well, and where the rubs where; black people talking with our black people about what had gone well, and where the rubs were. Some of that feedback was painfully, painfully hard to hear. With the best of intentions, we still do things that hurt each other deeply. But we are committed to the long haul with one another, and we are committed to learning how to be with each other. We are committed to confessing what we don’t know, we gave each other permission to call us on the ways we blow it, and we are committed to giving and receiving one another’s forgiveness. This is hard work, but this is what we are called to do. This is the labor that gives birth to wisdom.

This week has been overwhelming, on every score. I don’t have it all worked out in my head. It’s too much, but I do know this. God is weeping, longing, yearning for us to reach out to one another. Jesus is hanging between heaven and earth holding all the pain of this week with us. He didn’t strike back with violence, but with forgiveness and with a life that death couldn’t defeat. I know it looks like evil is winning the day, but the scriptures promise us that evil will not ultimately prevail. Bring all the brokenness of this week and lay it on this altar. And when the bread, when Christ’s body, breaks, know that all this brokenness is somehow taken into his body—and there, he holds it. He doesn’t fix it, he doesn’t resolve this tension in favor of one over the other, he just holds it—and somehow, all this pain will be transformed—somehow the brokenness becomes the very bread of life.

And as we leave this table, full of the bread of life, let’s double down and search out Wisdom. Let’s let her show us what it means to be friends of God and friends of one another. Let’s join her and reach out mightily from one end of the earth to the other because we’re just not going to make it if we don’t. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 16, 2012

Choose the Third Way

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 17—Year B: The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Tis the season for VISION! We have just come through two weeks of political conventions. The Republicans put forth their vision and explained why the Democrats’ vision is a failed one. The Democrats put forth their vision and explained why the Republicans’ vision is a failed one. Different visions about the role of government and the role of the private sector. Different visions of the economy and what will make it grow. Different visions on all manner of things. Are you seeing double vision yet? Is your vision getting blurred? It’s a lot to make sense of.

Well, today, we hear from a third party, The People of the Way, as those early Jesus followers were called; today, they put forth their vision in the Letter of James. The belief part of the platform has not been finely wordsmithed; in fact, it’s a little suspect, but the action pieces, wow, they’re the foundational planks in this platform.

Acts of favoritism—did not make the platform—they are mutually exclusive with belief in our glorious Lord Jesus. If we are paying more attention to the person who comes into the assembly with gold rings and fine clothes, if we are pulling out a chair for them, while we are telling the poor person who’s wearing dirty clothes to stand over there or sit at our feet, then we are guilty of making distinctions among ourselves—we have become judges with evil thoughts.

God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith, to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him.

We have dishonored the poor; this platform is calling forth our better angels. There is no place for oppression by the rich—such oppression is blasphemy against Christ’s name. The People of the Way are circling back to that prophetic tradition of their forebears, as parties often do. Their recent ad proclaims, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause…” The Book of Proverbs approves this message.

But we, The People of the Way, are to fulfill the royal law, the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not as much as yourself, but as yourself. Your neighbor is not the object of your good will, but your neighbor is an extension of your very being. Your neighbor is you, which makes your neighbor not an object outside of you, but the subject reflecting you. You are inextricably bound together. If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors…What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


This is the platform of The People of the Way. No favoritism, no partiality, equality, mutuality, loving your neighbor as your very own self, walking the walk much more than talking the talk, faith must be worked, not just spoken. And this platform is addressed not just to individuals, but The People of the Way also, always, address communities.

Jesus adds a couple more planks to the platform of The People who follow his Way. Boy, in the backroom, that Syrophoenician woman really gave it to him. Jesus was headed a whole other direction—this Way was only going to be for the children of Israel, but she stood up to him and debated him, and won. No, the grace and healing and kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate, it had to be for everybody, even for a Gentile, even for a woman. That debate changed Jesus, transformed him.

When he came back into the Jewish territory, he headed straight to the Decapolis, a gentile region. He met a man with stopped up ears whose words made no sense—he commanded, “Be opened…I had to be opened, now you be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, and he could speak plainly.

Sometimes, our ears get stopped up and we can’t hear Jesus’ call.

Sometimes, our hearts get stopped, and we can’t feel compassion.

Sometimes, we are talking our heads off, but it’s not good news that’s coming out of our mouths, but gobbledygook from some other vision. Jesus adds this plank to the platform of The People of the Way, “Be opened,” so you can hear and love and show mercy and proclaim the good news that God longs to be proclaimed.

The people who saw Jesus heal that man couldn’t stop talking about it, even though Jesus told them not to. Jesus doesn’t want us to talk about it; like Nike, Jesus wants us to “just do it.”

The People of the Way have put forth quite a platform. If we will allow our ears to be opened, it will challenge every vision that is put forth around us, every vision. The only thing that remains to be seen, is if we, the local affiliate of The People of the Way, will adopt this platform as the central, defining VISION for our lives.

As with all party platforms, the devil is in the details. When I looked up that idiom, “The devil is in the details,” I found out that that phrase derives from an earlier phrase, “God is in the details,” and so it is. God is in the details, and it will be up to us to incarnate, to put flesh and blood on this vision.

As we move forward, let us embrace this platform in every aspect of our lives, in every relationship, in every decision, in every circle in which we move, in every encounter, in every minute of every day.

May this vision open us and shape us, and then propel us forward to fulfill our call—may we show no partiality, no favoritism.

May we be people of radical equality, radical mutuality, radical inclusion, radical commitment to the poor, radical engagement with our neighbor.

May we, The People of the Way, show mercy, extend compassion, and live the royal law of love. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 9, 2012

Let go of the things you need to release.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (9-2-2012)—Proper 17—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today, we have one of the most gorgeous passages ever in Song of Solomon.

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

It’s an old, old, old Israelite love poem between two people head over heels in love. Read the whole book—it’s steamy. One wonders how it ever got in the Bible, except for the fact that from the earliest of times, this was interpreted as God pining for God’s beloved people. Can we dare to imagine God leaping and bounding over mountains and hills, peeking through the lattice to catch a glimpse of us? Can we dare to imagine God calling us, “my love” and begging us to come away and dwell in this lush space overflowing with abundant life? This is God as pure passion yearning for us, throwing all decorum to the winds.

Contrast this with what we hear in Mark’s gospel. There we get the Pharisees and the scribes pinning Jesus’ ears back for the behavior of his disciples, who, apparently, also lacked decorum. It seems that the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate. Have you ever done that? Eaten without washing your hands??? Oh, the scandal! This wasn’t just a matter of hygiene for the Pharisees and scribes, this was a matter of tradition“of doing things decently and in order,” as St. Paul liked to say. I might note that Episcopalians have turned “doing things decently and in order” into an art form.

So, it seems that the Pharisees and scribes had this tradition of washing their hands before they ate, washing things from the market, and washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. Not sure about non-bronze kettles, but traditions aren’t always logical. In fact, traditions tap something deep, deep in our psyche, something deep in our hearts. Traditions tap into our deepest feelings; they make us feel secure. Change traditions, and people want to stone you. Just try to leave mashed potatoes and water for Santa Claus, instead of milk and cookies and see what happens.

Traditions are about our heritage; they’re about knowing who we are and where we come from. It is our tradition to gather each week and share bread and wine—and we do it by following a tradition that is 2,000 years old. Traditions aren’t necessarily bad. They help us locate our place, especially in a world that is changing at light speed. In many ways, I am a traditionalist—I don’t much like change, just ask my husband; I like “to do things decently and in order”—it’s how I find stillness in a world that is always moving. Traditions have helped me to shape my life in a holy way.

But here’s the rub. We can get so attached to the tradition, that we lose sight of the holy impulse that established the tradition in the first place. We can put so much weight on the tradition, that we crush people who just can’t follow it, who just can’t get with the program. For instance, we could berate people who don’t come to worship on Sunday, never making allowance for the fact that maybe they don’t come to worship because they have to work on Sunday, or it’s the only time all week long when they can rest. We can lose the forest for the trees. We can get so attached to our traditions that we feel good and secure, maybe even smug and righteous—we’re doing everything right, but, but our hearts have grown cool. In all of our keeping the traditions to perfection, we have lost that first-love feeling, that feeling of being passionately, head-over-heels-in-love with God. You see, the thing about passion is that it’s rarely containable. It spills over in all kinds of ways, and when it does, it is rarely “done decently and in order.”

We can so easily teach our human precepts as doctrines. We can so easily abandon the commandment of God—which is so simple—love God, love your neighbor as if your neighbor were a part of your very self—we can so easily abandon this great commandment and hold to our human tradition.

Why do we do that?

Maybe because love is a much harder road to follow than adherence to what is expected. Love will often beg the question, ask for an exception, push us into new and unchartered territory where tradition has not yet had the chance to be established. Oh, it’s so unsettling.

And there’s also a dark side to tradition. The masquerading tradition. The tradition that can mask the most unholy of motivations and behaviors—Jesus lists just a few: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Tradition can mask these darker aspects of our beings—it, and we, look oh so good on the outside, but on the inside, something is rotting.

And none of this would be all that important if it weren’t for the fact that this is the very conversation the Church, Church with a capital “C”, is in at this point in our history. This is the heart of the matter.

What traditions are good and holy that we must retain or we will lose the heart and soul of who we are?

What traditions can be modified so that they can once again orient us to the holy?

And what traditions have actually gotten in the way of our loving God and loving our neighbor and loving ourselves as passionately as God wants us to love?

This tradition stuff is important because it’s how we as human beings orient our life to that which is good and holy and lifegiving. Traditions, like most everything else, can cease to bring us life, and when they do, we need to give them a good burial and await the resurrection of some new way that will once again awaken our hearts.

But how will we know what needs to stay the same, what needs to change, and what needs to be thrown overboard?

We can tease out a few principles of discernment from our lessons today. First, from the Letter of James, if the tradition is only engaging our head—if we are “hearers of the word” only—and it’s not pushing us to action—if we’re not “doing the word”—then we’re off-track. If we are not engaged with others, especially “the orphans and widows” and all those who live at the margins, if we’re not engaged with these who mirror Christ to us, who remind us who we are in our core, then we’re going in the wrong direction. If our traditions are fitting too comfortably with the world, then they are probably not reflecting the radical ways of love lived out by our Lord. If we are numb to the passionate love that God has for us and for all the world, if we are numb to that Song of Solomon passion, we can be pretty sure that we have set our sights far too low, settling for human tradition alone and forsaking the greater love that God yearns to make flesh in our lives.

Please hear me, I am not saying that we need to ditch all of our traditions—my goodness, I would be lost, lost, without them! But I do believe that we are in a difficult time, a time when we need to rethink everything that we are doing, both in the church and across our lives, and hold it up to the standard of love of which Jesus speaks. Does this tradition help us grow in that love, or not? And then we have to be willing to modify, or even let go of, those traditions that hinder that love, and reach for, or even give birth to, those traditions that will draw us more deeply toward that love.

This is the best of times and the worst of times, and at the very least, an immensely unsettling time.

But what does Jesus always say to us in such times, “Do not be afraid…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

It’s a whole new day.

Jesus will give us the courage to let go of those things that we need to release.

Jesus will give us the wisdom to modify those things that need new life breathed into them.

Jesus will give us the vision walk in new ways, just as he has done all along, new paths that will let our hearts soar, even as our feet are firmly planted on the ground.

Wherever this whole thing is going, one thing is for sure, we follow one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he will orient us in the way we need to go. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 2, 2012

Let go of offense

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16—Year B
I Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Tough passage in the gospel today. I don’t think Jesus took the Dale Carnegie Course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Actually, he did his best to offend his listeners. So, he’s in the synagogue in Capernaum talking to a Jewish audience, and here is how he begins—“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”—yuck—and then, he goes on to refer to himself as “the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, i.e that “manna stuff,” and they died. But the one who eats this bread,” i.e. me, “will live forever.” It’s bad enough that Jesus leads with an image of cannibalism; that’s hard enough to swallow, but Jesus goes on to usurp, to appropriate to himself, one of the core, foundational images of the Jewish people. This is not how you win friends and influence people.

When many of his disciples heard [this], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. He knows that he has hit a raw nerve.

How about us? Does this offend us? If Jesus walked right into St. Luke’s this morning and said what he said in that synagogue in Capernaum, how would we react? Would our stomachs get queasy? Would the hair on the back of our necks stand up? Would our 21st century rationalism brush this aside as total bunk, just one more sensational, soundbite metaphor? Would we cry with the disciples, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ And would we hear Jesus say in return, “Does this offend you?”

Well, Jesus, in a word, “yes”—this is offensive. It assaults all our sensibilities. But let’s hit the pause button. Let’s sit with our offendedness, just for a while. What’s at the root of this offense? Why are we so offended? What’s the nerve that Jesus has just hit? I don’t think it’s the “cannibalism” nerve or even the “insult-to-our-ancestral-story” nerve. I think that’s all surface noise. No, there is something much deeper at work here. Any guesses?

I think it has to do with intimacy and our utter terror of being this intimate with Jesus. If you feed on Jesus, if you partake of Jesus, if you consume his being, you abide in him, you will be a part of him and he will be a part of you—not as a theoretical construct or an intellectual belief, but he will be intertwined so intimately with you that you and he can’t be pulled apart. Just as God took up residence in Jesus (John 1:14—“and the Word became flesh”)—Jesus will take up residence in you. Now that sounds all nice and flowery and poetic, except for one thing—if Jesus starts to live in us, then our life is no longer our own. And for us, as the rugged, independent, individualists that we are, that’s a hard pill to swallow, even harder than cannibalism. This is the part that’s offensive—because if he’s living in us, if his being and our being are one, then we’re going to live differently and talk differently and act differently.

Ephesians gives us a glimpse today of what this begins to look like. First of all, we learn that the real battle isn’t with flesh and blood people—it’s with spiritual forces. Think about all the spirits out there that are destructive—the spirit of greed, the spirit of divisiveness and dissension, the spirit of hatred, the spirit of cynicism, the spirit of seething resentment, the spirit of scarcity, the spirit of fear, the spirit of despair. Think of all the forces that get to swirling around these spirits. They can take on cosmic proportions and manifest in truly evil ways. And how would Ephesians have us combat these forces? With a whole lot of armor. But the armor of God won’t give us guns and bombs and weapons of mass destruction. The armor of God looks like this: standing firm, a belt of truth around our waist, a breastplate of righteousness, a breastplate of right relationship. For shoes—whatever makes us ready to proclaim what? The gospel of peace. A shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Did you catch that? These spirits that we encounter, they are throwing arrows at us—through Christ, we don’t fight them, we catch them with a faith that takes away their heat. We have a helmet of salvation, a helmet of wholeness. A sword not to kill, but of the Spirit, not a sword to destroy, but the word of God to pierce our own hardened hearts. A sword to slice through all the false choices so that a third way might be revealed—not the way of either/or, but rather, that creative both/and. We pray in the Spirit, we keep alert, we persevere, making known with boldness, the mystery of the gospel. Not the 100% certain no-questions-allowed truth, but the mystery of the gospel. The mystery of the good news of Jesus Christ whose love is big enough and broad enough and deep enough to contain all the forces of darkness in this world. He opened his arms to receive those flaming arrows, and he quenched their fire with his love. Unlike the armor we normally put on, the armor of defenses and preemptive shots across the bow, this armor is going to leave us pretty exposed.

That’s what we’re signing up for if we let his being become one with ours. Are you ready to sign on? It’s the kind of vision that we hear from Solomon this morning—even the foreigner’s prayers are heard by God. We can’t play the game our-God-is-better-than-your-God anymore. I think we find Jesus’ words offensive because we are flat out terrified of what it will mean if we really let him live through us, if we really let him speak through us, we are terrified of what it will mean if we really touch all that he dares to touch, if we really love all that he dares to love. It is going to completely and utterly change us and our lives.

And so we have a choice. The disciples had a choice. And some of them turned back and no longer went about with him. That had to be a sad moment for Jesus. He turned and looked at the twelve, he turns and looks at us, “Do you also wish to go away?” It was pretty quiet, each one contemplating their options. Simon Peter finally broke the silence, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

They didn’t know a lot, but they had been around Jesus long enough that they had come to believe and know, not that Jesus was the Jesus we meet in our credal confessions, but that Jesus was simply the Holy One of God. Those disciples just knew in their hearts and in their souls that Jesus was of God—they couldn’t spell that out in doctrine, but they knew it and believed it nonetheless. They knew that his words were life for them. They knew it. And they knew that they would be lost without him. He had gotten under their skin, which is what incarnation always does. He had taken up residence inside of them; they had nowhere else to go.

As anyone who has ever been in a deep relationship will tell you, you only discover the most exquisite gifts of intimacy when you plumb its depths, and that will cost you everything. At that point, your life is no longer solely your own.

Today, you and I, we’re invited to move through our offense, to risk losing our life as we are swallowed up in this Life, in his Life, which is so much bigger than our own. Today, we are invited to take Jesus into the heart of our being, so that we can begin to learn what it means to let his heart live through our being.

“Do you also wish to go away?”  

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the life for which we long.”


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 26, 2012

Be more than kind out in the world.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks –The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 14—Year B
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; Mark 6:35, 41-51

This morning’s story from II Samuel is nothing short of tragic. These are a lot of messed up, immensely human people adding brokenness upon brokenness upon brokenness.

Context is important.

Remember from last week, David stole Bathesheba from Uriah, and put Uriah in a position where Uriah would undoubtedly be killed, which he was. For this horrific chain of events, God promised that horrific brokenness would come upon David’s house, which it did. The child of David’s liaison with Bathesheba died. One of David’s sons, Amnon, committed a horrible sin against his sister, Tamar (again, for the R-rated version, read II Samuel chapter 13—it is chilling). Another of David’s sons, Absalom, was enraged by Amnon’s violation. Absalom waited, and in due course, with great premeditation, killed Amnon. Absalom then fled, afraid for his life.

So, King David has lost two children to death, has a third child who has suffered a horrible injustice, and a fourth child who now lives in exile. David’s heart is heavy indeed. Absalom eventually finds his way back into the presence of the king and then plots a revolt. In the ensuing battles, father and son’s armies are pitted one against the other. But David’s heart has been broken so many times; he wants his commander, Joab, to deal gently with the young man Absalom. In the battle that follows, Absalom is riding on his mule when the mule goes under the thick branches of a great oak tree. His head got caught in the branches and he was left hanging there, but he was still alive. One of Joab’s men saw this and reported it to Joab. When Joab heard that Absalom was still alive, Joab was furious; he went out with three spears and thrust them into Absalom’s heart. Joab’s ten armorbearers surrounded Absalom, struck, and killed him. When news came to David, his heart broke yet again. He was inconsolable. He wept. All he can do is grieve for his son, Absalom.

It is tragic. So much brokenness. Wrong compounds wrong compounds wrong, never adding up to a right. And while I in no way ascribe to the author of II Samuel’s theology of cause-and-effect, which basically says that our missteps and our misdeeds cause God to visit unbelievable suffering upon us, while I don’t believe that; I do believe that when we sow seeds of brokenness, we reap the fruits of brokenness.

There is so much in this story. Incredible family dysfunction. The myth of redemptive violence—if Absalom could just avenge what happened to his sister Tamar. If Joab could just avenge Absalom’s act of rebellion. And where does it all lead? Death and more death. Brokenness and more brokenness.

This is all pretty drastic and pretty graphic, but do we not participate in these dynamics in our own lives? Think about the most conflicted relationships in your life. Where have you sown seeds of brokenness? Where can you identify this never-ending cycle of hurt-revenge in your own relationships? Where have you been triangled into a conflict and found yourself taking sides, thereby participating in the hurt-avenge cycle? We may not kill, in fact, but we can kill with our words, with our stoney silences, we can kill by withdrawing our affection, our presence. And how do we participate in this myth of redemptive violence on the collective scale? Is this not the source of most war—hurt-revenge, hurt-avenge? Is not this myth at the root of the violent shootings we have seen recently—Aurora, Colorado, the Sihk Temple in Wisconsin? However twisted, do not the shooters somehow believe that this violent act will redeem something or avenge something?

But the beliefs that fuel this myth start so much earlier. Maybe that’s why Paul tells us in no uncertain terms, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…and live in love.”

The end of the road is a violent act, but the beginning of that road rests in bitterness and wrath and anger that becomes a habit and a way of life, that simmers into resentment, that moves into wrangling and slander and malice, and, in no time, becomes a runaway train. We cannot allow these seeds to take root in our souls, and when an injustice is perpetrated against us or against someone we care about, it is so tempting to go there. But just look at the way the Sikh’s have responded, with peace and love and prayer. Or remember the Amish response when Charles Robert shot ten of their little girls at that schoolhouse in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania? Within six hours of the shooting, members of that community expressed forgiveness and words of grace to the widow of Charles Roberts; later that day, they went to his parents and expressed words of forgiveness and support. Money poured in from around the world for the Amish—they decided to give a portion to the Mr. Robert’s widow and his children. The Sikh’s, the Amish, the very people that our society considers to be so “other”, they are showing us what it means to live in kindness, to have tender hearts, to live forgiveness, to live in love.

With so much hate around us, with so many calls to diminish one another, with so many examples from those who lash out in anger against anyone who looks different or holds a different belief or perspective, how are we walking in kindness and living forgiveness? How are we witnessing to the core values of our faith; how are we witnessing to our baptismal vows? How are we “seeking and serving Christ in all persons?” How are we “respecting the dignity of every human being?” How are we “persevering in resisting evil” and when we recognize that we have given into bitterness and wrath, when we recognize that our anger is bleeding through all of our words and actions, when we see that all we do is wrangle, bicker, argue, when we recognize that we are participating in slander and malice, how are we then “repenting of these behaviors and patterns and returning to the Lord?”

We may not be able to stop a crazed shooter, but we can stop these seeds from taking root in our own hearts, and we can call one another to our better selves, and we can stand with those who are targets of such hate. The cycle of violence can only be broken when we do not allow these first seeds to take root. This cycle will only be broken when we name the myth of redemptive violence for what it is, a myth that is a lie.

Our only hope is to feed on the One who broke this cycle on the cross. Jesus did not respond to the violence that nailed him to a cross with revenge, but he responded with forgiveness—“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He spread his arms wide-open and kept his heart tender and exposed, and he held all that rage and anger and jealousy and fear until its power drained away and all that was left to rise was love and life. That’s the bread we are invited to eat today. That’s the bread that will change our hearts. That’s the bread for which this world is starving.

So, our work is cut out for us. We’ve got to examine our lives and our relationships. We’ve taken vows in our baptism to live a certain way—how are we doing with those vows? We’ve got to look deep within our own hearts and deep into the heart of our society, and we’ve got to gaze on the cross and let Jesus show us a different way

Amidst so much brokenness, amidst so much death, feed on the bread of life. Take him into your body, into your mind, into your soul, into your heart—let his compassion look through your eyes, let his tender heart beat within yours, let his forgiveness manifest in your words and in your actions. He gave his life so that we could go a different way. Stop the cycle, now, here, today, in your own heart, in your own life. Feed on the bread of life, and then offer this life, now made flesh in you, as bread for the world. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 12, 2012

Thou shalt not covet.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks –The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 13—Year B
II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; Mark 6:24-35

I have a confession to make. I love Veggie Tales. For those of you who have not been around children in recent years, these are the Broadway Musicals of animated vegetables. And my all-time favorite Veggie Tale is King George and the Ducky. In the story, King George, who is a talking cucumber, has this obsession with cute, little, yellow rubber duckies. His country is embroiled in the Great Pie War and all he wants to do is lounge in his bath with his rubber ducky. His able assistant, Louis, keeps trying to get his attention. After all, if the kingdom is at war, shouldn’t the king be paying attention? Eventually, King George gets out of his bath, and while wondering around on his balcony, he spies a beautiful, gorgeous ducky floating in a bath on a rooftop in the lower part of town. King George wants that ducky—it’s beautiful, and he wants it. There is only one problem—it belongs to Thomas. The king’s assistant, Louis, is confused. “But you already have a duck.”

King George responds, “What are you saying? That I shouldn’t have it?”

Louis backs up to a huge cabinet, throws open the doors, revealing hundreds of duckies, and reminds the king, “You already have quite a few duckies.”

And in the line to end all lines, King George responds, “Those are yesterday’s duckies.”

Louis persuades King George that he just can’t go in there and take Thomas’ duck because then other people would think that the king would come and take their stuff, and well, you just can’t run a kingdom that way.

King George agrees, so he plots with his General, Cedric, to send Thomas to the front of the Great Pie War, and then he tells Cedric to have everyone else to step back. General Cedric responds, “But sire, he’ll get creamed,” which is exactly what King George wants.

While Thomas is off at the front, King George and Louis sneak off in the dead of night and swipe Thomas’ ducky. Just as King George is admiring this ducky (which Louis thinks looks like all the other duckies he has and which George vehemently denies), Cedric walks in with Thomas, now a war hero, who’s really woosey because he really did get creamed at the front of the Pie War. George conceals the ducky until Thomas is whisked away.

Just as King George is about to enjoy his bath, in walks Melvin, that slightly odd wise man who shows up every so often to tell the king things. Melvin has come to tell the King a story, flannel graph and all. And, in good Broadway fashion, Melvin breaks into song.

There once was a man, a very rich man, he had a lot of sheep, he had a lot of lamb,

He threw a lot of parties, he was dapper, he was tan, there once was a very rich man.

King George breaks in and thanks him for his story to which Melvin responds:

 Wait just a minute, my story isn’t done, it’s about two men and I’ve only mentioned one.

 There once was a man, a very poor man, he had next to nothing, just a little lamb.

But he loved it like a son and he fed it from his hand, yes there once was a very poor man.

 Then one day, there was a guest at the house of the rich man.

What did he do, have you guessed, to feed the guest of the rich man?

 King George reasons, “Well, let’s see, he had plenty of sheep so he could just share one of his sheep, not a problem.”

Melvin shakes his head, “He took the lamb of the poor man. He took the lamb of the poor man. The rich man took, to feed his guest, the very, very poor man’s lamb.”

 King George is incensed. He questions Melvin, “What? Is this a true story?”

 Melvin replies, “As surely as I stand before you today, my story is true.”

 King George rages, “Who is that man? Tell me. To take the lamb of the poor man when he had lots of sheep and the poor man only had one! Man, for his cruelty, he will spend the rest of his days locked in my dungeon! Who is he?”

 Melvin solemnly sings, “Oh King George, you are that man.”

Melvin then spells out the parallels to the whole ducky thing. As the reality sinks in to King George, he asks what he must do. Melvin tells George to ask God’s forgiveness, and to ask Thomas’ forgiveness, and then King George must make it right.

King George does just that, eventually drawing a royal bath for Thomas and restoring his rightful ducky to him.


It’s a brilliant retelling of the story we have today, except the stakes are a little higher in II Samuel. For King David, it was a matter of taking another man’s wife and sending her husband to the front of the war so that he would be killed so that David’s indiscretion would not be found out. I’ll leave you to read the explicit details in II Samuel chapters 11 and 12, but check it out sometime—court intrigue at its best. Showtime and HBO can’t top this.

When the prophet Nathan confronts the King with the very same story that Melvin tells, Nathan makes it clear that God gave David everything, rescued him from the hand of Saul, gave him Saul’s house and Saul’s wives, the houses (read kingdoms) of Israel and Judah, and if that had been too little, God would have given that much more. But noooo, David had to go and have Uriah killed so that he could take Uriah’s wife.

Just an aside, we need to have a whole other conversation one day about how the women are handled in these stories—traded, given, stolen, possessed—but that’s a conversation for another day. Just need to note it.

So, when is enough, enough? How many duckies does one need? How many wives does one need? What is it about somebody else having something that sparks an obsession in us to have what they have? Why do we covet what we do not possess and are restless with what we do have? Why are we not content? And what is it about taking from the one who has so little that is so immensely attractive?

I ran across a story recently that still has me scratching my head.

In 2007, the six Walmart heirs had wealth equal to the wealth of the bottom 30% of Americans combined. By 2010, the combined wealth of these same six heirs was more than the bottom 42% of Americans combined. At a time when the Great Recession sent many Americans into a negative wealth position (13 million Americans now fit that description), at a time when the wealth of the average American declined from $126,000 to $77,000, the six richest Walton’s collective wealth rose from $73 billion to $90 billion. One more image to complete this picture—in 1983, you would have to combine the median wealth of 61,992 families to equal the Walton family wealth. In 2010, it took 1,157,827 families to do the same.

This story from II Samuel is as pertinent today, as it was almost 3,000 years ago. And if we have ears to hear, the scriptures will pin our ears back good about the income inequality that exists among us in this country and across the world.

But it’s easy to point fingers at the Walton’s and miss the log in our own eyes. I think the most haunting line in this whole passage is when Nathan turns to David and says, “You are the man!”

What if we stand where David stands? What if Nathan is telling us this story? What if we recognize the blatant injustice of this story, and what if Nathan then turns to us and says, “You are the man! You are the woman!”

Where have we taken from the one who has so little? Where have we coveted what did not belong to us and plotted to possess it, all the while not being content with what we have? Where do we continue to rob the poor man? How are we complicit?

A huge piece of this is economic—yes, the Bible mentions wealth, poverty, and the poor 1,900 times—but it is not only economic. We covet in many ways. St. Paul lays out a list of gifts that Christ gives to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. How often do we spy a gift in someone else and want that gift for ourselves, never noticing the gift that God has given to us, never developing that gift in ourselves, never being content with the gift we, in fact, already possess, never even acknowledging that we have been given a gift to use for the sake of the world?

These are all hard, soul-piercing questions, and I can’t resolve their answers in this sermon. Sometimes the call is simply to sit with the questions and let them pierce our hearts, and then our tender and open hearts can move us to change. St. Paul reminds his listeners that “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness and deceitfulness scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It all flows from Christ; he holds it all together, and when each part is working properly, the whole body thrives.

So, the call today is first to identify those places and those ways where we “are the man, the woman” of whom Nathan speaks, to see what it is that we covet and who we are robbing in the process, to look at all those ways we deny what God has given us because what we see in another looks better. The call today is to acknowledge that we can no longer dodge our responsibility to work to build up the whole body, we can no longer dodge our responsibility, like children often do, but it’s time to grow up into the likeness of Christ, and it’s time to speak the truth in love to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.

Pretty tall order—this will take a lot of discernment and no small amount of courage. But remember, Christ is the head of this Body and the Holy Spirit dwells in us richly; if we consent to this hard work, God will supply what we need to turn our lives and the life of the world around.

It’s the very first step that is the hardest to take, the one we are called to today, and that’s to confess that “we are that woman; we are that man.” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 5, 2012

Embrace the abundance of life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 10—Year B, July 15, 2012

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

So, you know how fairy tales have that happily-ever-after ending. And, then there are the real fairy tales. The fairy tales as written down by the Brothers Grimm. And those fairy tales are pretty dark and pretty gruesome. Well, today, we’ve got the Brothers Grimm version of the gospel.

And the fact that we are celebrating Harper’s baptism today—oh, gosh, that’s the icing on the cake.

I don’t even know where to go with this story. It is gruesome. It is deadly. And it is oh, so human, like the fairy tales so often are.

Let’s remember where we are in the story. Jesus has just sent the disciples out in two’s to cast out demons, anoint the sick, and cure them. They have had great success, and word of their success has reached King Herod. Now, this is a different King Herod than the one around at the time of Jesus’ birth—this is that King Herod’s son who had charge over the region of Galilee. So, people are trying to figure out who this Jesus is? Who is this man who can cast out demons and cure the sick and can even empower his disciples to do the same? Some thought John the baptizer had been raised from the dead. Others thought Elijah. And when news of it came to King Herod’s ears, oh, he just knew that John had been raised, the same John whose death he had ordered.

Then King Herod spirals into a really bad flashback where he relives what led to John’s death.

You see, King Herod himself had John arrested and thrown in prison. Why? Well, John had confronted the king, told him that it wasn’t lawful for him to have married Herodias, who happened to be wife of King Herod’s brother Philip. And according to Leviticus 18:16, 20-21, John was right. It was pretty forbidden by their law. So, this did not endear John to Herod, and it especially did not endear him to Herodias who has a big time grudge against John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t because Herod feared John. Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and King Herod protected him. The text tells us, “When the king heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet, he liked to listen to him.” Isn’t that an interesting description? Perplexed but he still just had to listen to him.

But one fateful day, King Herod gave a banquet to celebrate his own birthday. Everybody who was anybody was there—courtiers, officers, all the leaders of Galilee. And his daughter, also named Herodias, came in and danced, and her dance was beautiful, and it greatly pleased the King and his guests. In a fit of joy and gratitude, King Herod said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And then he upped the ante, “I solemnly swear, whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

If you were Herodias, what would you ask for? A job, debts paid off, some savings? A cellphone, an ipad, a Nintendo DS, a bike?

Well, she didn’t know what to ask for, so she ran out to her mother and asked her, “What should I ask for?” And without batting an eye, her mother replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

Immediately, the daughter rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” That “on the platter” part was her own twist on the request.

The king was deeply grieved; yet an oath is an oath, and out of regard for that oath and for the guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. The king sent a soldier with orders to bring John’s head. The soldier did as he was asked and brought the head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.

When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

So many dimensions to this story! Resentment and grudges can take us to incredibly destructive places, a la Herodias the mother. Ceding our desires and wishes over to another, a la Herodias the daughter. The desire to save face and the ability to violate your own sense of integrity to save that face, a la King Herod. The prophet’s courage to call a leader to account and to speak truth to power, a la John the Baptist.

Can you see yourself in these characters? Can you walk in Herodias the mother’s shoes a bit? Can you identify resentments and grudges that you carry deep in your soul, and can you see how they will eventually bring you to a disastrous result? Can you walk in Herodias the daughter’s shoes and identify those places where you don’t claim your own deepest desires, but instead give them over to somebody else to determine for you? Can you see how that, too, comes to a disastrous result? Can you see those places in yourself where you have sacrificed your integrity on the altar of being liked or keeping others happy? Can you see how conflict avoidance run amok can, again, bring about a disastrous result? These are our dark shadows. The worst of our projections played out in the lives of the people around us.

But can you also see your bright shadow? Those good and noble qualities that we project onto others that we shy away from claiming for ourselves. The courage of John the Baptist to speak the truth to the powers-that-be. Can you identify times when you, too, have borne that courage, or do you think that only the prophets of old have that kind of guts. Can you identify what it has cost you to speak such truth? You and I, we have that ability to see and speak, no less than they. And can you see the disastrous results that come when we refuse to speak that truth. Such was the failure of most of the Christian Church in Germany in World War II—we know how that turned out.

And then there is the evangelist himself, Mark, who forces his listeners, both then and now, to hear this gruesome and tragic tale. Why? Why does Mark tell this story, and why do we need to hear it?

If the gospel is trying to say one thing to us today, maybe it is this—being a disciple is going to cost you, a lot. You might get crosswise with people who will hold the power to kill you, quite literally kill you, but even if they don’t kill you physically, they can do you damage in a thousand different ways.

Oh, Harper, I wish I could promise you that life from this moment forward will be happily-ever-after. You are so beautiful and innocent, of course that is what we wish for you. But we know that that is not how life goes in this world. This life holds its share of tragedy and brutality and injustice and death.

But here’s the deal. It also holds its share of life and vitality and love and beauty and resurrection. King Herod has this flashback because he senses that, though he could kill John the Baptist, he couldn’t kill his witness, his life, his vitality. That spirit could not be quenched, and John has come back to life, and the king knows that he has to reckon with the consequences of his actions. Who knows, maybe King Herod himself experienced transformation in the process of reliving this horrible memory.

Harper, today we baptize you into the whole story—the bad, the tragic, the unjust, the ugly, and the true, the alive, the beautiful, the courageous, the compassionate, the merciful. Today, you are baptized into the flow of Love that will never let you go, a flow that will always bring you to resurrection’s door, most especially at those times in your life that feel the darkest.

Today, the Spirit fills you with the prophet’s courage, and we promise to help you grow into the full stature of Christ—that Living Icon of God whom death and sin and injustice could not keep down. Today, we promise to help shape you, so that when you are faced with the choices of Herodias the daughter, you will know how to claim your heart’s desire to love God, your neighbor, and yourself. We promise to help shape you, so that you will know how to forgive instead of allowing your resentments and grudges to eat you alive and destroy those in your path. We promise to help shape you, so that you will know how to honor your inner God-given sense of integrity, instead of violating what you know to be good and true and holy.

We promise that you will dance, but it won’t be the dance to gain the king’s favor; it will be the dance of joy that comes from living in the presence of God—the dance that David danced before the Lord. Pure delight and gratitude.

So, Harper, sorry about the gruesome story, but just like with the fairy tales of old, the real fairy tales of old, these stories help us embrace the fullness of life—the dark and the light, the sorrow and the joy, death and the abundance of life. And here’s a promise you can stake your life on, wherever your story takes you, however your story unfolds, know that this Body of Christ will hold you all the way to the end. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 15, 2012

Go with the Living God, but travel light.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 9—Year B,
II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Today, we get Paul at his most confused, egotistic, humble, split personality, mystical, visionary, ecstatic self. Just listen. Now, I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know; God knows. And I know that such a person (wink, wink)—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mere mortal is permitted to repeat. Now, speaking on behalf of that one (wink, wink) I will boast, but on my own behalf, I won’t boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wanted to boast, I wouldn’t be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I’ll refrain from it, so that no one will think better of me than what you see or hear from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.

So, Paul has had this ecstatic experience. It is textbook for mystical experience. Paul has had a taste of union with the Divine, and fourteen years later, he still doesn’t have the words for the experience. And, he still doesn’t know what to do with it, what to make of it. I love this side of Paul! We have these mystical experiences too, and it can take us years, or a lifetime, to make sense of them. And, Paul has enough self-awareness to know that his ego could easily run wild with this thing. This experience knocked his socks off, and beyond that, he can’t say much else.

The leap he takes next is an unfortunate one. At the very same time he lives with the knowledge of this ecstatic experience, he also lives with the knowledge of what he calls “the thorn in his flesh.” If you know yourself to be beloved by God, in union with the Divine, what do you make of your trials and tribulations? So, here’s how Paul works it out.

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of that oppositional force, Satan, to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, three times I had a heart to heart with God, that it would leave me, but the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Then, Paul catapults right back into his ego, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” 

So, Paul has this incredible experience of divine union and this incredible experience divine abandonment at the same time. He knows what it is to be caught up in God, literally, and he knows what it is to hit a wall that you can’t get over and you can’t get around. But I think Paul makes a false step when he says that the one caused the other, that because God knew Paul’s ability to get puffed up in his ego, then God saw fit to take Paul down a notch or two or three. I don’t think God visits suffering on us to bring us down to size. I just don’t.

But even so, Paul’s insight into that suffering and weakness still stands. When we are in pain, when we hit the wall, when our own abilities and resources and power and insights just can’t get us out of the ditch that we find ourselves in, all we have to fall back on is grace. The power doesn’t shine through our strength; it is made perfect when we are at our weakest. It is the great paradox of Christian life. Richard Rohr says that success has nothing to teach us after the age of 30, but it is through our failures that we grow because it is in our failures that we discover the kind of grace, the kind of power that Paul discovered through his thorn in the flesh. And this grace and power gets revealed not through denying the thorn, but in the very process of how we come to live with the thorn; this grace and power comes as we integrate the thorn into our life; it comes as we fling ourselves more and more on the mercy and grace and power of God. I can’t make you believe this to be true; this is one of those central truths that can only be experienced, and once you experience it, you will know the truth of it. And when you experience, you, like Paul, will only be able to talk about it in the language of paradox. And in the midst of your divine abandonment, you may also come to know an intense experience of divine union. Maybe in the body, maybe out of the body, I don’t know, but I know that this experience of divine union in the depths is real.

And aside from the fact that this is the place where Paul articulates most clearly and beautifully the power of the cross in the nitty, gritty of our lives, the fact that he shares this at all is equally important. Paul is sharing his most intimate inner experience of God. Risky indeed. The authority he bears doesn’t come from the fact that he wrote a letter which we’re reading today; honestly, he was just writing a letter, not holy scripture. But his authority derives from the experience he has of God and Jesus. The very same place that Jesus’ authority comes from, and that the disciples’ authority comes from, and that your authority and my authority come from.

See, that’s the whole problem that Jesus has with the hometown crowd. They ask, “How can he have this wisdom? How can he do these deeds of power? He’s a carpenter. He’s Mary’s boy. We know his brothers. We remember when he threw mudpies at the camels going by. We know his sisters. What’s his source of authority?”

Jesus gets that they don’t get it. They never got the prophets either. The more people know you, the harder it is to get out of the box they put you in. The more we crave the security of tried and true sources of authority, the harder it is to spot the movement of the Spirit who refuses to be nailed down. The only deed of power he could do there was to cure some sick people who were wide open to being touched and who were way beyond arguing about sources of authority. Need will often lift the veil that blinds us to the possibilities before us.

Jesus has only one place to fall when those who were supposed to love and honor and support him take offense instead; he falls back into the arms of God, resting in his experience of union with God. He didn’t go the route of arguing his credentials; he just laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. He couldn’t give what those hometown people were unwilling to receive, but he didn’t stop the flow either. That’s one definition of sin that I’ve heard that makes sense to me, stopping the flow, stopping the flow of love and grace. In fact, not only did Jesus not stop the flow, Jesus expanded the channels through which this love and grace could flow. He gathered up the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and he gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

He even told them how to pack for the journey.

Now, how do we pack? Well, I am going to pull out my expandable suitcase. And I might need a jacket for the cool nights, and a tank top for the hot days. And long pants for the bugs, and shorts to stay cool. And I might need a swim suit, you never know. I need my tennis shoes, which need a certain kind of socks, and my hiking shoes, which need another kind of socks. And Jesus did mention sandals, but my Keens or Birkenstocks? And a hat. I need my hat. Well, actually, I need my sun hat and my golf hat. Oh, and a book or two or three—let’s see, Freedom of Simplicity, Simpler Living Compassionate Life, oh and Living with Contradiction—that should do it. And maybe a stuffed animal, a toy? Is this about how you pack??? Please tell me I am not alone here.

But Jesus told them to take nothing for their journey, no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; wear sandals, one pair, not even a second tunic; take nothing, except a staff, a walking stick, that’s all you got. That’s what the text records, but I imagine Jesus said a little bit more. Something like this: “You are going to have to depend upon the hospitality of those you meet. And don’t hop around too much. Sink some roots into a place. Sometimes, they will be able to receive what you have to offer, and sometimes they won’t. And if they can’t receive it, don’t sweat it, just shake the dust off your feet and move on. You have no authority but the authority I have given you, and that authority comes from one source and one source only, a living relationship with the Living God. That’s all you got. That’s all I’ve got; and it’s everything. All that I have been given, I have given to you.” (sounds like the seventeenth chapter of John) “So, go out and confront the demons, name them and cast them out. Touch the sick, anoint them, and watch them be made whole. The world will ask for your credentials; offer them the authority of your experience instead. You will have your walking stick. I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is there to steady you and give you a little support when the going gets rough, just enough for you to find your equilibrium, your steadiness; mostly that stick is there to call you back to your center so that you can ground yourself in the authority that rests within you, an authority that comes from that place deep, deep inside of you that is absolutely united with, bound to, connected to, at one with God. A place inside of you where God lives and speaks in sighs too deep for words.” I think Jesus said something like that.traveler with walking stick

If the emerging church thinkers are right, people of faith are waking up in a big way. After centuries of looking to outer authorities to tell us what we should believe about God, we are coming back to the immediacy of our own experience of God and Jesus. It certainly means we are traveling a whole lot lighter. That’s often confusing to the world around us, but as we open to our experience of God, as we share that experience with courage, like Paul, as we risk looking like a babbling fool, like Paul, as we put ourselves out there with our friends and family, with our neighbors and our co-workers, even with our enemies, as we claim our inner God-given authority, we free others to claim the divine authority that is also theirs. And then we can begin to see grace and power in places we used to call godforsaken. Then, we can see grace and power made perfect in places of utter weakness. Far from blocking the flow, we begin to facilitate it, participate in it, share it, expand it, just like Jesus did. Resistance just becomes one more place for God’s glory to shine.

Paul isn’t just doing a teaching on mystical experience; he’s inviting us to own our own. Paul isn’t just espousing his theology of the cross; he’s inviting us to claim our experience of the cross and to speak of how we found God there. Jesus isn’t just revealing the weirdness of small town dynamics in the town you grew up in; he’s inviting us to understand the true source of our authority. And the mission of the twelve isn’t just an evangelism strategy for first century Palestine, but a call to all of us to trust the authority Jesus has given us and to be bold in inviting the world around us to get a whole new mind.

You have so much power. You have so much experience. You have so much wisdom. You have authority. How are you claiming these? How are you stewarding these? How are you sharing these?

So, leave your baggage behind, and trust that the walking stick and what you carry in your heart and in your soul will be enough. Witness to the love of God that knows no bounds. Speak of the grace that is always sufficient. Show the kind of power that is made perfect in weakness. Invite the world to learn the language of paradox. You won’t be able to do a deed of power everywhere, but it’s time we started trying to do the deeds of power where we can.

If you sound goofy, don’t worry, you won’t be the first, Paul already has that t-shirt. But don’t be surprised at the deeds of power you will do as you claim this authority. The disciples cast out many demons and cured the sick. Who knows what deeds of power you will do on the journey that is now yours to make. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 8, 2012

Release your fear, embrace the change.

June 24th, 2012, Rev. Cyndi Banks
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 7—Year B
I Samuel; Psalm; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Mark 4. Jesus calms the storm. This was my favorite bible story as a child. My family had a Good News Bible—anybody else remember the Good News Bible from the 70’s? It had these really cool little pencil drawings, and those drawings absolutely fascinated me, and I absolutely loved the pictures that went with this story. I think I also loved this story because I grew up on the Ohio River, and I know what it’s like to be caught out in a storm, and I can remember my awe of my father as he would pilot our boat to safety.


So the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. It’s not a very big body of water; you can see all the way across it, and it’s surrounded by these glorious steep hills. It can be so peaceful out there, but fierce storms can blow up like that. So a great windstorm arose [I need some wind] and waves beat into the boat and the disciples pulled hard on the oars and didn’t make any progress and the boat was being swamped and the disciples were terrified. [freeze]

Have you ever felt like you are rowing as hard as you can and not making a bit of progress? Have you ever felt like you are just being swamped? Have you ever felt like the winds are swirling around you, and you are being tossed about by forces beyond your control?

We live in a time of windstorms and waves and tumult and chaos and it feels like we are being swamped.

Close your eyes. Think in terms of your life, think in terms of our community, of our nation, of the world, of the earth, think in terms of our institutions—call out the storms that are raging…

Conflict. War.

Economies that don’t work for the poor, for the middle class, or even for those at the top.

Governments that don’t work.

Kids that go to bed hungry in India and Africa and Watauga County.

People that can’t pay for medical care.

Broken families. Broken relationships. Kids and young adults who felt absolutely lost.

Institutions that are broken.

Working harder, rowing harder, only to see yourself losing ground.

And where is Jesus in all of this?

We look around, and he feels irrelevant, in the background, in the stern, asleep on the cushion. We cry out with the disciples, “Wake up, Jesus! Wake up and smell the coffee! Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?” And Jesus woke up, and he rebuked the wind, and he said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Then he turned to the disciples, and he said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”


The disciples thought Jesus was the one who was asleep, but here’s the deal—in our anxiety, in our fear, in our despair, in our lack of faith, we are the ones who are asleep. We are the ones who aren’t awake to the possibilities. It’s not that Jesus is asleep; it’s that he’s not anxious, and when you stop pulling so hard against the wind, when you stop trying so hard to make progress, when you realize that God is in the boat with you—peace descends upon you, stillness descends upon you, the waves don’t overwhelm you, but the dead calm holds you in its Presence.

And out of that stillness, out of that calm, out of that peace that passes all understanding, out of that space, new amazing possibilities emerge.

I have spent the last 3 days at the Wild Goose Festival, the Wild Goose being the celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit. This event is outdoors in tents on a farm in the center part of the state where it has been well in the 90’s with hundreds of people from every walk of life. There are white people and black people and brown people and Native American people from all over our country and from across the world. Catholics and mainline Protestants and Orthodox and Evangelicals and people who are “spiritual but not religious” and people of no faith at all. Wise, wise elders and kids and more young adults than I have ever seen at a conference having to do with God. People who love the church and people whom the church has wounded and people who are cynical about the institution but who are passionate about Jesus. People who care deeply about the gospel and justice and compassion and “the other” and are seeking new ways forward in these tumultuous times. There are speakers and artists and musicians and activitists and lots and lots of lovers of Jesus committed to his Way.

Yes, the storms are raging all around us, and these people are eyes-wide-open about these storms, but they are not paralyzed with fear. Jesus does care that we are perishing, but he’s not the one who needs to wake up—we are!

We’ve got to release our anxiety and our fear. We’ve got to let go of our obsession with progress and reaching the perpetual other side. We’ve got to be still and practice peace and get real comfortable with that eerie dead calm because that’s the space where new life is born, that’s the space where new dreams are dreamed, that’s the space where the impossible becomes the imperative. These storms raging around us can be places of transformation, but only when we give over our fear and sit in the dead calm.

So here are some of the transformative possibilities that caught my ears and my heart as I listened the last 3 days.

I heard about the soul of the new economy where a triple bottom line drives business—an economic bottom line and an environmental bottom line and a social bottom line. An approach where success is measured by how well all three of these bottom lines do, and not just the dollars and cents because, and here’s the take-away line, “what gets measured is what gets done.” “Regenerative economy” they call it, and really big corporations are beginning to catch the vision.

I heard young adults, “the Jon Stewart generation” one called himself, and some older adults who are cynical about the church, and yet, who yearn to become post-cynical Christians.

I heard challenges to the values that are driving us and killing us and destroying the earth, and I heard afresh the ways the gospel can set us free for the abundant life that Jesus promises us.

I saw a way of dialoguing where people engaged one another, challenged one another, speakers and listeners alike, but all done in a spirit of building up and not tearing down.

I heard speaker after speaker invite us to live with big, compassionate, clear-eyed, openheartedness and to extend that embrace to “the other”—like Jesus does.

The more we wake up, the more we will be able to see as Jesus sees, and then the more we will be able to live as Jesus lives and to die as Jesus dies and to discover resurrection as a lived reality, not a proposition of doctrine. The storms will still rage, but they will lose their power to frighten us—we’ll know how to rest while the winds blow and the waves beat because we’ll know that a deeper peace, a deeper calm, a deeper stillness dwells in our midst.

Tumultuous times don’t just rock our boat; they open up new spaces to see new possibilities because, frankly, the old ways just aren’t working anymore.

As you think about the storms that are raging, in your own life, in the world, how is Jesus calling you to wake up? What do you see as your eyes open? If you are still, what possibilities rise up?

The Teacher has stilled the waves. Sit with him in the boat in the midst of the dead calm that he has created. Sit there, just sit there. Be present to his Presence. Wake up and smell the life that is in your midst, and then do whatever you can to spread that life, that calm, that stillness, that peace across this storm-tossed world. The last 3 days have taught me, Jesus does care that we are perishing, and I know this because the people who make up his Body care. The storms are still raging, but we don’t have to be afraid—we have every reason to have a crazy amount of faith and an insane amount of hope. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 24, 2012

Expand your vision of the Kingdom.

June 17th, 2012, Rev. Cyndi Banks

The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6—Year B
I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; II Corinthians 5:6-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Well, last week we saw Samuel bow to the people’s wishes and make Saul king over Israel. Remember, “We want a king! We want a king! Just like the other nations, we want a king!” But things don’t go well for Saul. From my impartial view, not all of this was Saul’s fault. God had some pretty strange demands that Saul didn’t follow to a “T”, and Samuel didn’t show up when he said he would which made Saul anxious which made Saul force himself to offer the burnt offering to get the LORD’s favor, and somehow, all of this made Saul fall out of favor with God who never really was keen on this whole king thing to begin with. It’s all pretty complicated. Anyway, God has pulled his support of Saul; Saul has lost the support of his super PAC, and when that happens, you are dead in the water. Samuel’s pretty torn up about it too.

So, today, the LORD says to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I’ve rejected him from being king over Israel; it’s time to move on; I’ve got my eye on someone to take over.” Off Samuel goes to Jesse the Bethlehemite. Jesse and his sons and the elders of the city of Bethlehem and Samuel all gather at the place where Samuel was going to make a sacrifice to the LORD. Samuel is convinced that the LORD’s appointed is before them. There’s Jesse’s first son, Eliab—he’s really tall and looks like a king. Nope. We’re told, “The LORD doesn’t see as mortals see; we human beings are all caught up on outward appearance, but the LORD, the LORD looks on the heart.” Abinadab? He looks kingly. Nope. Shammah. Un uh. Nethanel. No. Raddai—he looks regal. Nope. Ozem. Un uh. Oh, and we don’t have a record of the seventh son’s name, but he’s not the one either. Samuel is perplexed, “Jesse, are these all your sons?” “Oh no, there’s the youngest; he’s still out keeping the sheep.” “Well go get him. We’re not starting without him.” And they brought in the boy. He was ruddy, had a good, healthy complexion, and he had beautiful eyes, and he was handsome. He was the artsy one in the family, not your typical warrior type, more drawn to the lyre, that harp-like instrument, to be honest. But the LORD said, “This is the one; anoint him.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in his brothers’ presence, and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.

David, the young, artsy kid is kingly material—this is not what we expect. But this seems to be God’s preferred mode of operation. What we think should be used by God isn’t, and what we think is not a good candidate for God’s work is. And we can extrapolate this to a bigger field. The kingdom of God is often where we least expect to find it.

And that brings us to the gospel. Jesus is trying to describe what the kingdom of God is like. You can almost see him scratching his head—“What words can I use? What images and metaphors will help them to see it? What story could I use? What parable? I’ve got to turn their heads inside out so that they will see it.”

Allow me a detour. Have you ever noticed Jesus’ love of images, of parables, of the blessed metaphor? Why? Why use this language instead of concrete, literal examples, the stuff of the real world? Because the concrete, literal stuff stops at one level of reality, and one level of our brain—our rational minds. When we go concrete and literal, we get trapped in the measuring, observing, judging part of our brains, and more often than not, we will find whatever is being measured, observed, or judged to be wanting; it just doesn’t cut muster in our logical, rational brain, and so we can dismiss it. And note here, good scientific enlightened liberal thinkers are just as prone to this as are conservative the-bible-says-what-it-says-period literalist type of thinkers.

But if we can give ourselves over to images and parables and metaphors, we are invited into this territory, into this playground to play with the reality being described. With cold hard facts, we can stay at a cool objective distance, but images and metaphors and parables invite us to engage our imagination; they invite us to participate. They pull us into their creative tension and won’t let us go until we emerge a changed person. No wonder that Jesus uses this kind of language! It’s not that what he is describing isn’t real; it’s that what he is describing is infinitely real, and he doesn’t want us to stay in our “observer of reality” role—he wants us to walk into this world he’s describing with him; he wants our full-bodied, full-hearted, full-person—mind, body, heart, spirit—participation.

So, what is this kingdom like into which he is inviting us? Well, it’s as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, like Bill Marr did earlier this spring out in our garden, and then would go to sleep and get up, night after night, day after day, and that seed would sprout and grow. Bill, can you tell us how that happens? No, he doesn’t know how that happens. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. It is a total mystery. Oh, I am sure that there are botanists that could tell us a lot about the science of it, but could they really unpack the mystery of life? I sort of doubt it.

The kingdom of God is a mystery, but it is absolutely bent toward life, something that comes out of the dark, from the tiniest of beginnings, and can grow into something amazing. But there is more to the story…Jesus goes on, “But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest
has come.”
Jesus is upping the ante. Are we just going to gaze at the mystery and wonder of life, stand in awe of the Great Mystery, or are we going to harvest the growth, and make use of it in our lives and show others how to make use of it in their lives? Are we going to look at the kingdom of God from the sidelines as an observer, or we going to engage it in its fullness and claim this fullness for our lives and live out of this prodigal, extravagant, immensely abundant fullness?

And some people got it, and some still didn’t, so Jesus tries again. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? Oh, I know, let’s try this. Anybody know what this is? Can anybody see what this is? It’s a mustard seed. It’s teeny, tiny. It’s minuscule. And when it’s sown upon the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on earth;” (okay, the concrete literalists will get completely lost disputing that fact and say that no, a particular type of orchid seed is the smallest seed and totally miss the point—go with what Jesus is saying; it’s a parable, it’s a story)—“yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

So, the mustard seed, a tiny, tiny seed that grows and grows. How big does it grow? Well, 6 feet, 9 feet, some even say 12 feet tall, and it usually grows about as wide as it does tall. Now, here’s something to think about. Jesus is telling this as a parable, a story, and parables usually have this element of tension that’s there to turn our worldview upside down and pull us through to a different understanding. Where is the tension in this story? Well, there’s the whole dynamic of how something really little grows into something pretty big. Ergo, God can fan our small, little mustard seed kind of faith into a great big witness of God’s power and grace and love. There’s that.

But I think there is a deeper tension here.

Why did Jesus choose the mustard seed? Wouldn’t any kind of tree start from a humble beginning? The oak tree from a little bitty acorn? Or cedar trees from small yellow seeds? In fact, the oak tree was a favorite image of strength in the Old Testament, and the cedars of Lebanon, likewise, a symbol of strength and power and stability. And Jesus chooses a shrub, a mustard seed bush. Why?

I think Jesus is inviting us to expand our field of vision. Oaks are great, cedars are great—height and strength and stability and deep, deep roots are all aspects of life in God, but so is breadth and being low to the ground so that everyone, even the lowlife, can have access to this kingdom. Birds, yes, nesting places for them, but I bet some other surprising creatures inhabit the mustard seed shrub because it’s easy to reach.

For Jesus, the kingdom of God is as broad as it is deep; it’s as low as it is high. Mostly it’s accessible for all who have need of it.

So, what does it matter what the kingdom of God is like? Well, it matters because Jesus is setting the boundaries of how unbounded he wants our hearts to be. I Samuel talks about the heart factor, Paul talks about the heart factor. In fact, Paul goes further today, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In this kingdom, it’s a whole new day. Whatever we were like before, we are not bound to be that now. We are a new creation! The old way is to guard our hearts, to protect them, to defend them—the old way is to stand tall and move out of our strength alone; the new way is to practice the art of the mustard seed shrub, keeping ourselves close to the ground, our hearts open and accessible to God, to each other, to those we meet out in the world.

Some odd creatures may find their way to us, so in need of the comfort we can provide. We’ll miss it if we hold ourselves above it all. Maybe it’s time we risk getting down close to the ground—as individuals, as a community. Maybe it’s time we let our hearts expand this way < > to include all that God includes in this world, as well as sinking our roots deep in God’s soil.

It’s all a matter of perspective, and today, Jesus is asking us to widen the lens. There is so much more to see of the kingdom of God than what we have been trained to see. So much more to love than we have allowed ourselves to love. So much more room for our souls to play. Let the mustard seed kingdom unfold before your eyes; let this smallest of images that Jesus has given us take root in your soul. God’s work, God’s kingdom, it pops up in the most surprising people in the most surprising places. Let the mustard seed grow inside of you and see what happens to your heart and to your life along the way. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 17, 2012