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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Sermons

Putting on the new self

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—PR 13—Year C; Ecclesiastes 1:1-2,12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

It would appear that the Teacher in that passage from Ecclesiastes is not having a good day. The Teacher can’t get past the second verse of his book without using the word vanity five times. “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He sees all the deeds done under the sun, and all is vanity. He hates all his toil, and he’s aware that he has to entrust it to those who come after him, and they could be really foolish, yet it will be in their hands—and this is vanity. And so he gives himself up to despair because one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill has to leave it all to one who didn’t work for it—and this is vanity. And what do you get for all the toil and strain? Days that are full of pain and work that’s full of grief and anger born of frustration and minds that spin in the middle of the night—and this also is vanity.

Whoo-ee. That is one despairing soul. The hebrew word for vanity—it’s hard to translate. It’s a vapor, a breath, a puff, it’s fleeting; it’s the epitome of emptiness; the meaninglessness born of hopelessness. This is the “What does it matter?” question that comes when you can’t see the fruit of your labors or when you have labored hard only to see another come behind you and dismantle your work. What does it matter? None of it lasts anyway. Why try? Why try at all?

And at the end of this passage, the Reader stood at that lectern and said, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” and we all responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Goodness, what in the world is the Spirit trying to say to us through this passage, and how in the world can we give thanks for such a hopeless, despairing message?

Well, sometimes, the scriptures go dark, really, really dark, to mirror back to us those dark places that we, in our darkest moments, inhabit. If we’re honest, we’ve all had moments when we wonder “What’s it all for?” and answer that question with a big fat “Nothing.” We’ve all had moments of sheer frustration in having worked so hard to build something only to place it in someone else’s hands and watch it fall apart. We’ve all had moments of counting the cost of our work and lying awake in the middle of the night and wondering why on earth we care so much.

Cynicism, skepticism, despair—these are alive and well all around us right now, maybe even within us. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, “All is vanity.” Today, we’d just call it the spirit of nihilismnihilism, according to Webster’s, is“the belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs, etc. have no worth or value” and more specifically, “the belief that a society’s political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.” Oh, this just got uncomfortably close; this sounds like where so many in our country are living right now.

Maybe the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is just describing what the society is mirroring. Maybe the Spirit is just trying to show us the sea we’re swimming in. Maybe our thanks is about knowing the degree of despair and hopelessness that is all around us right now.

And in this environment, the temptation is to hunker down, take care of your own, get what you can, store it up, look after your own happiness, and cut everyone and everything else loose. Maybe that’s the stance of the person in the gospel today who wants Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus won’t get in that family triangle, but he tells a parable instead about the rich man whose land produces abundantly and who wants to tear down his barn and build bigger ones so he can store up his goods and grains and sit back, relax, eat and drink. And then his life is demanded of him. The moral of the story is delivered at the beginning when Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Life“zoe” is the word used in the greek—this is vital life, genuine life; life that is immeasurably real, this is the absolute fullness of life, both in its essence and in its alignment with its deepest values; this is the abundant life that Jesus promises us. You can’t find this life in what you accumulate, whether that accumulating is in tangible, real goods and possessions or in the intangibles of status and privilege or even in the success or lasting nature of our work.

Daggone it, one more death to our False Self. Transformation is really hard work.

As is always the case, the spiritual life is all about letting go. Letting go of old behaviors and old patterns. That’s really what Colossians is trying to spell out for us when it talks about putting to death whatever in us is earthly. Oh, it lists a bunch of things, but they’re all different ways of describing what happens when we live our lives out of alignment with our deepest values. Colossians calls us out on the ways we once followed when we were living life thinking that the trappings of the False Self are the goal—thinking the goal is about gaining power, being in control, making an idol out of safety and security, doing anything to gain esteem and affection. Colossians says, “These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things” and then it gets even more specific in saying that anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth, lying to one another—these all have to go, seeing as we have stripped off the old self with its practices.

Oh wow, we all might as well put tape over our mouths from now until the election just like old Zechariah who was struck mute for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

But the stripping off of the old self, the stripping away of the False Self, doesn’t leave us standing there naked. No, Colossians reminds us that we have been clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. And in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (who were the really, really barbarian people), there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer Republican and Democrat, enlightened and unenlightened, those who see what’s really going on (however you define that) and those who don’t have a clue (however you define that); but Christ is all and in all! All the ways that we have of dividing up the world, they have no place in the new self that knows it rests in Christ and knows that the image of its creator is indelibly imprinted on every human being.

Colossians reminds us that we who have been raised with Christ have to seek the things that are above. We’ve got to rise above the noise to where Christ is, to where God lives. We’ve got to see the world through those divine eyes that only have love and compassion for this broken, broken world. We’ve got to set our mind on those things, not on all the ways that the world has come up with to keep us apart from one another. We’ve got to die to this insatiable appetite for division. And we’ve got to understand that our life, our “zoe” life, our True Self, it is hidden with Christ in God.

In other words, there ain’t going to be no reward that will be tangible and visible by the world’s standards.

But when Christ shines through our life, then our truest most real self is revealed. When we move into the abundant life, full of essence, lived in alignment, we come to know experientially that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and glory is just another way to describe the beauty of this transformation.

We may have started this morning believing that “all is vanity,” but we can leave this morning filled with a crazy kind of hope. We are only bound to the old self if we choose to stay there, but remember, that old self was buried with Christ. We have been raised with him. We have been clothed with a new self. We don’t have to buy into the nihilism, the division, the definitions of success, the idols of the False Self; our life is hidden with Christ. We can rest there; we can anchor ourselves there; we can align our values there; we can live our life from there. The old ways are the way of death, for all of us and certainly for our society. Renewal will come in knowing that Christ is all and in all and that the image of the Creator is everywhere.

All is not vanity; there is a LIFE—vital, essential, aligned, infinitely full, infinitely alive—there is a LIFE so worth living. It’s a hidden treasure; hidden with Christ in God. It’s just waiting to be discovered, and it’s yearning to be revealed. The way to find it isn’t to build bigger barns; no, the way to find it is to die to the old self that thinks this LIFE will fit in any box that we construct. Strip off the old self and discover the treasure that rests underneath, your LIFE, hidden with Christ in God, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 31, 2016

Noncomplementary Behavior: the Way of Jesus

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 12—Year C; Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13. Video

Things aren’t looking too good in Sodom and Gommorah. A great outcry against them has come to God’s ears, and God is determined to see if they have done that which the outcry says they’ve done. Their sin is grave; the degree of separation in that society is profound, and remember, Sodom’s great sin, according to Ezekiel 16:49 was this: pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but doing nothing to aid the poor and needy. It was the land of “us” and “them.”

And God has just about had it; God is about ready to wipe the slate clean, start all over, burn the house down, so to speak. What else can you do when society is in complete disarray? So, God sends those men who’ve just received hospitality from Abraham and Sarah on to Sodom and Gommorah to check it out. Abraham can sense God’s outrage, but Abraham is a man who clings to hope, who believes that there is still something there to work with, something from which the process of redemption can begin.

And so Abraham starts the bargaining—“Uh, God? Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if you find fifty righteous there? Will you sweep away the place and not forgive it if you find fifty righteous in it?” God ponders the question, and agrees that if fifty righteous are found, he will forgive the whole place for their sake. Abraham presses further“What if five of the fifty righteous are lacking?” That Abraham is sneaky—five lacking sounds so much better than forty-five. God considers this proposal and declares, “For forty-five, I won’t destroy it.” And Abraham continues this dance with God, back and forth they go—“Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?”each time God answering, “For the sake of forty, thirty, twenty, ten, I won’t destroy it.”

The principle here is simple and profound, a small number of righteous people can affect the whole in life altering ways. Of course, as the story unfolds for Sodom, we discover that they are, in fact, on a collision course with destruction. Is it possible that there just weren’t ten righteous people to be found? Frightening though it is, we can indeed run societies straight into the ground. We are fully capable of descending the world into chaos. Madness is well within the realm of possibility, and we are absolutely complicit in the madness.

Brothers and sisters, the stakes are high, so we better well get to understanding what a righteous person looks like and how we can move in that direction because where the whole goes from here is directly connected to how we move forward from here.

Let’s start by being clear that being righteous is not about being right. Webster’s defines righteous as “acting in accord with divine or moral law.” This is about acting in accordance with some ethical framework that is coherent, and for us, grounded in God and the way of Jesus. This is about coming into alignment with those values, rooting deep, and having the courage to act accordingly.

What does that look like? Not like most of what we’re seeing around us these days. It doesn’t look like stoking fear. It doesn’t look like scapegoating. It doesn’t look like blaming. It looks like the counsel we receive in Colossians 2. It looks like living our lives in Christ Jesus, being rooted and built up in him; it looks like abounding in thanksgiving, even in the face of madness and death.

According to Colossians 2, it looks like not being taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, or as we might say today, it’s not about buying into our lowest levels of consciousness that only knows how retaliate in kind.

It’s about dying with Christ and rising with Christ and forgiving when you have every right not to do so. It’s about nailing “the could’ve’s” and “should’ve’s” and “I’ve got the right to destroy you’s” to the cross and completely disarming the rulers and authorities in the process. It’s about holding fast to Christ as our head, literally putting on the mind of Christ, and acting from that place. The world will not understand this. The world will call us naïve, but it’s the only way out of the madness.

Living as a righteous one—it looks like praying for God’s kingdom to come, on earth, on earth, in the here and now, and not just in heaven in the future. It’s about daily bread, for everyone, and forgiveness, not just in the hurts and wounds that infect our hearts, but in real and tangible ways, as in forgiveness of the debt, dollars and cents debt, that enslaves so, so many people. I’ve got no idea how we put that into practice in our economy, but as people of faith, we’ve got to wrestle with the fact that our Lord places this practice at the center of the one prayer that he taught his followers. To live as a righteous one is not to be cavalier about walking through trials—we do not have a choice about this time of trial that has engulfed our world, but let’s be clear, this is not a time for bravado—this is a time for humility and understanding the monumental tasks ahead of us. The very life of the whole is depending on us.

Living as a righteous one is about relentless persistence and asking and searching and knocking until we can find a way forward out of the madness. It’s about choosing the cross and throwing your arms open when the only thing the world knows how to do is lash out and crucify that which it fears.

It’s about doing the surprising thing, and Jesus was the master of this! I heard a story on NPR this week and learned a new word for this kind of righteous living—noncomplementary behavior—it sounds like a bad thing, but it’s a good thing; it’s the act of departing from an established script when that script is likely to lead to conflict. Montrell Jackson was an African American police officer in Baton Rouge, and one of the three who was killed last Sunday. Montrell Jackson departed from the established script when he posted this on Facebook on July 8, and I’m going to read his full statement:

“I’m tired physically and emotionally. Disappointed in some family, friends, and officers for some reckless comments but hey what’s in your heart is in your heart. I still love you all because hate takes too much energy but I definitely won’t be looking at you the same. Thank you to everyone that has reached out to me or my wife it was needed and much appreciated. I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core. When people you know begin to question your integrity you realize they don’t really know you at all. Look at my actions they speak LOUD and CLEAR. Finally I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protestors, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.”

Talk about a third way! Montrell Jackson could name his exhaustion, his disappointment, his love. He could name his awareness that hate takes too much energy, have compassion for those who were being reckless in their comments, and yet, set a boundary for what he would let into his own soul. He could name the complexity of how the world was viewing him, as a policeman and as an African American male. He was fully aware that so much of what was coming toward him was sheer projection, and he refused to let it rob him of his deep integrity. He understood hate as something that could infect us and threw his arms open to protesters, officers, friends, family, strangers, whoever—“if you need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.” Montrell Jackson, he may have been one righteous man, but in my eyes, he counted as ten. In his witness, his action, he has changed the whole.

And his brother, Kendrick Pitts, joined him as a righteous one when he did the surprising thing. Where other voices would shout for retaliation, Kendrick simply said: “Let’s put an end to all this madness, and everybody come together.” He went on: “I just want to ask God to bless these killers. I continue to pray for those guys, too.” Kendrick Pitts would have every right to want to lash out and retaliate, but he didn’t follow the script. He responded with blessing and prayer and a plea to end the madness.

And another righteous man is added to the ranks, and the whole is changed.

And last Sunday, as Baton Rouge was coming to terms with the deaths of those three officers, the police department and local African American activists in Wichita, Kansas did a surprising thing. A protest was scheduled for that afternoon, but after a meeting between the chief of police and the local activists, they held a joint cookout with the local community instead. They didn’t follow the script. And many, many righteous were added to the ranks that day, and the whole is changed.

Noncomplementary behavior—departing from the established script. This is the way of the cross. What scripts are you running in your head right now? What scripts are being fed to you day and night by the world around us? What is one small thing you could do in your life, in your circle, in the wider community that could depart from the established script? How are you rooting yourself in Christ, so that you have the capacity to open your arms on the cross instead of reaching for the same old tired script that’s leading all of us deeper into the madness? What inner capacity do you need to build and what outer support do you need to sustain it, so that you can join the ranks of the righteous.

Sodom isn’t a far away place in a long ago time—Sodom is here and now. Our world is crying out, our sin is grave. Ten righteous can change the trajectory; ten righteous can change the whole.

Montrell Jackson, Kendrick Pitts, the Wichita Police, African American activists—they’ve all stepped up. What about you? What about me? Will we take our place next to them in the ranks of the righteous? Depart from the script and “let’s put an end to all this madness.” Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 24, 2016

Models of Hospitality

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; July 17, 2016; Bishop Gary Gloster.

Orlando: Revealing Our Demons and Restoring Our Right Minds

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39; Video

Settle in. As they say, “God has laid some things on my heart,” and I just can’t say it in fewer words today. This sermon feels a little ragged to me, a little rough around the edges, a little raw. Orlando—49 people dead, 53 injured. Our thoughts swirl, our hearts break. We don’t know what to do, and so we do the only thing we know how to do, we come together, we come here, and we try to climb to a different place to get perspective. Goodness knows, words have been flying all week, some of them helpful, some of them not. It’s about guns, it’s about immigration, it’s about Muslims, it’s about LGBT people, it’s about hate, it’s about ideology, it’s about terrorism and mental health, it’s about security and rights and the 2nd Amendment and civil liberties and fear, and you know and I know that it’s about all of these things. But we have to get to a different place to find our way forward because as followers of Jesus a different place is where we’re called to stand.

Yes, there are actions to be taken, but before we move to action, we have to ground ourselves—we have to ground ourselves in Jesus, we have to steep ourselves in scripture, we have to double-down on our prayers and anything else that can help us quiet the cacophony of voices in our culture and in our heads—otherwise, we will not be acting with the mind of Christ, but we will be acting from our egos and our false self, and that self will never get us where our hearts long to go.

And so, we go to the text. Luke 8. The story of the Garasene demoniac it’s often called.

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. His was a living death. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Don’t you see, we are that Garasene demoniac; we are that man living among the tombs. We, as a people, as a country, we have an unclean spirit. We are tormented. We keep being seized, and we are bound up, chained, and shackled in so many ways. Our life is constrained, and we keep thinking these bindings will somehow keep us safe, but these forces at play are bigger than we are, and we keep getting driven deeper and deeper into the wilds.

 

essential true self that is buried deep inside and who longs to be called out. He asks the man, and us, “What is your name?” The man has lost sight of who he is in his core; he only knows the demons. He said, “Legion”, my name is “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. “Legion”—we think of this word as meaning “a very large number”, but it comes from the Roman army, and it consisted of 6,826 soldiers. This man is experiencing a war within himself with thousands engaged in the battle. Boy, it feels that way in our world.

But Jesus knows that there is power in naming the demons, and that we are utterly stuck until we do so. And naming these demons is spiritual work because how we see this as people of faith is different than any of the other allegiances, affiliations, or perspectives we hold. This is all so complicated because, as one commentator noted this week, the massacre in Orlando has brought together the perfect storm of issues that have gripped our country’s consciousness as of late—LGBT people, guns, and immigration.

We have to try to name the demons if Jesus is to help us get free.

  • We start with the demon of hate. Pure and simple hate that begins when we see our brothers and sisters, not as our neighbors, not as ourselves, but as “other”, and you can do awful things to the nameless, faceless “other”.
  • There’s the demon of religious ideology that sees LGBT brothers and sisters as evil and therefore expendable, and all the religious traditions bear some responsibility here. The witness of countless gay people who have had to fight their way to faith in God because their religious tradition told them they were an abomination bears witness to this destructive demon. And here I have speak pastorally to those among us who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender—you bear the burden of this massacre in a very deep and personal and particular way. I cannot know what it feels like to be in your skin right now, but I want you to know that you do not bear this burden alone. This community holds you in your particular pain. Nobody is expendable in God’s sight.
  • There’s the demon of simplistic and reductionistic projection. Taking an individual’s actions and projecting them across a whole population. This is always a temptation of majority culture, but when Dylan Roof opened fire in that church in Charleston a year ago, we did not attribute his actions to all Lutherans or to all southern white men. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we did not attribute his actions to all Roman Catholics. We cannot, and should not, attribute Omar Mateen’s actions to all Muslims. What Mateen espoused is no more a reflection of Islam than Roof or McVeigh’s ideology is a reflection of the way of Jesus.
  • There’s the demon that’s whispering in our collective ear that if we just have more guns, we’ll be safer. I have seen no evidence that this is so. And, in fact, more people carrying more guns makes me feel less safe. In the shooting that happened on a college campus last October in Oregon, there were students who were carrying guns but who were afraid to shoot for fear that the police would think they were the shooter and would shoot them instead. In a chaotic crisis situation, what if multiple people started responding and shooting, and then, how would anyone know who was shooting whom?

I can get my head around guns for the sake of hunting or the necessary uses that come if you farm or have livestock that you need to protect. I can get my head around the sport of target shooting—I have enjoyed shooting skeet myself. And I understand that the 2nd Amendment has been a fundamental right within our country, though I am not clear that how that right is being interpreted today is how the framers of the Bill of Rights conceived of that right in 1789, but I can get that there is much to be discussed with regards to that right.

But I can’t get my head around civilians possessing assault weapons whose only purpose is to extinguish as much life as possible as quickly as possible. I can’t understand why we can’t come to some consensus around sane gun laws. We seem to believe that if we just arm ourselves more that we will be more secure.

And here’s where being a follower of Jesus just pulls us up short. I can’t find a single place in the gospel where Jesus says to us, “Defend yourself.” In fact, what Jesus does say is “Turn the other cheek” and far from being a doormat response, Walter Wink has called this counsel Jesus’ Third Way of Nonviolent Resistance.

Some will call to mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” But in that context, Jesus is talking about the demands of “following him before all others and the call to take up our cross and how we have to lose our life for his sake to find it.” Jesus is talking about following in his way before we follow in the way of any other ideology or affiliation we hold. And Jesus’ way is the way of nonviolence. Period.

In John 18, when they come to arrest Jesus, it gets chaotic, and the disciples are afraid, and Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. The last thing Jesus tells Peter before they take Jesus into custody is this: “[Peter], put your sword back into its sheath…Peter, put your sword away. Jesus never counsels the way of the sword; Jesus counsels this (stretch out arms cruciform). To take up our cross is to open our arms and extend them. From the cross, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus understands that we just don’t know what we’re doing.

As followers of Jesus, we are never promised the security of the sword; we are promised the cross. Crucifixion is what we are promised. Forgiveness is what we are promised. The infinite security of being held in God’s love always is what we are promised. The security of resurrection and abundant life is what we are promised. I fear we have turned security into an idol, and it is killing us.

  • There is the demon that refuses to recognize our call to care for the immigrant. Of course we need sound and sane immigration policies, and we need the best minds and hearts working on it, but as people who follow Jesus and are steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, we dare not forget God’s command to care for the resident alien in our midst—Leviticus 19:34—“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

We dare not forget Jesus’ command in Matthew 25 to care for the stranger, the xenos, as in xenophobia, and that in caring for the stranger, we are caring for him. We dare not forget that caring for the stranger is one of the criteria by which Jesus will judge the nations.

  • And there is the demon of our righteousness. This is not the righteous anger that we see in the prophets, or even in Jesus. This is the righteousness that is born out of our false self that is absolutely convinced of the rightness of our own small perspective. This is the righteousness that is fueled by adrenalin. You know this demon is on your tail when you just can’t get enough of the news cycle, and you are arguing back with the TV or radio or the politicians, and you just can’t settle down. Sometime during this past week, we probably have all danced with this demon.

And demons never go quietly. These things that possess us, they don’t want to let go, they don’t want to back into the abyss. They will latch on anywhere they can—even onto our grief or our holy anger, if they think they can turn that to their use. C.S. Lewis knew that when he wrote The Screwtape Letters.

Jesus asks us, “What is your name?” It’s time we answer, “Legion”, for so many demons have possessed us.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

You know, the swineherds weren’t happy about Jesus’ actions—they go and whip up a crowd who asks Jesus to leave. The price for getting free of the demons that had possessed the man was the loss of their herd. They had to let go of something significant for the man to be made whole. What might we need to relinquish, as a country, if we, as a country, are to be restored to our right mind?

In the end, the man was sitting at the feet of Jesus, the demons gone, clothed and in his right mind. “Right mind”—when you peel back this phrase in greek, you land with two words—“sozo” and “phren”; “sozo”—it means “to heal” and “make whole”, it’s the root word that gives us “salvation” and “phren”—it means “mind”, those “faculties that can perceive and judge”, but it also points to “the parts of the heart”. To be in one’s right mind is to be made whole, to have our heart and mind perceiving and judging rightly.

What would it look like, right now, for Jesus to grant our demons permission to leave us, individually and collectively, and to let him restore us to our right mind, for him to make us whole again, as individuals and as a people? What would it look like for him to get our hearts and minds working as his heart and mind?

The man so wants to go with Jesus because the people in his hometown are frankly afraid of him. It’s odd, but there seems to be nothing more frightening that wholeness, nothing more unsettling that someone who is calm and in their right mind. And if we truly walk in Jesus’ way, a whole lot of people are going to be afraid of us too. To keep our arms open, to embrace the way of the cross, to double-down on our commitment to nonviolence, to welcome the stranger, to put away our swords, to see our oneness across the great divides in our culture as Galatians lifts up this morning—this won’t make sense to most of the people around us. But this is the place we are called to stand, and Jesus calls us to stay and do this work in the communities in which we live.

 

I don’t know all the actions we can and should take. Surely there are actions to be taken, but until we let Jesus cast out these demons and put us back in our right mind, we are sunk. I named 6 demons in this sermon—that leaves 6,820 to go, and they will manifest differently in each one of us. So, search your soul, name your demons, let Jesus clear them out of your being. Do this work individually; engage in this work collectively.

And then, as Bishop Taylor reminded us this week in his weekly reflection, maybe we can find our way to that field to which the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi points—“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

If we can meet each other in that field, then surely, clothed and once again in our right mind, we can find our way out of the abyss and into the abundant life that God has promised. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 19, 2016

The Whoosh of the Spirit and Our Rites of Passage

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Pentecost—Year C; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27). Video

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Pentecost than our Rite of Passage for 13-year olds and their parents! Each of these events has a dance to it, and the dances mirror each other.

Pentecostthat wild rush of the Spirit whooshing down upon those unwitting disciples who were just hanging out together, just minding their own business. And this isn’t just a little, gentle, whisper of a breeze. No, this is a rush of a violent wind. Think back to your teenage years. Did it ever feel like a violent wind was rushing through your life, and your relationships, and your body??? And then, on that first Pentecost, divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

So, Kate, Julia, Jessie, and Carmena tongue of fire has touched you; you are filled with the Spirit, and in so many ways, you speak a different language than the rest of us. The Spirit has given you the ability to communicate in ways that many, including your parents, will never understand. And it will be up to you to sort out that unique, special ability that the Spirit has given to you, that unique good news that is yours to speak into the world.

Now, it wasn’t a polished powerpoint presentation when the disciples started speaking from this place of newfound power. In fact, it was pretty chaotic. All these people from all these places—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome—both Jew and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, teenagers—each of these heard the disciples speaking to them, in their own native language, about God’s deeds of power. It didn’t make sense. All were amazed and perplexed. They wondered, “What does this mean?” So, as you speak in this strange tongue that goes with the teenage years, some will give you a hearing and will try to understand what it is that you are speaking into the world; they will honestly try to understand, “What does all this mean?” And others will be more skeptical. They will dismiss your voice; they will sneer and simply chalk it all up to being filled with new wine, i.e. raging hormones.

But speak you must.

You must raise your voice along with Peter’s and proclaim, “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’”

It falls to you to remind us that the Spirit that falls on you, and falls on us, has been poured out upon all flesh. It is up to you to remind us that it is your God-given task to claim your prophet’s voice. It is up to you to remind us that sometimes the vision comes from the young, and it is up to you to remind us that we need to heed our elder’s dreams. And frankly, it is often the case that your vision and energy do their best work when you can do an end run on your parents and make common cause with your elders. This is one of the chief reasons that we hold fast to the community of this church. It is one of the last places in our society where the visions of the young can be fused with the dreams of the old and give birth to all kinds of possibilities that just don’t get birthed when we are isolated by age.

 

And while we are zeroing in on you today, your moving through this Rite of Passage icons for all of us the journey of transition that we all experience throughout our lives—the movement of releasing one stage of life to enter another. Again, this is why we do this ritual in community.

At some point, in every Easter season, we need to circle back Ronald Rolheiser’s understanding of the paschal cycle because this cycle explains so clearly the rhythm of Christian life. He marks five places in the cycle.

  1. Good Friday is about real death. This is about all the losses, and endings, and deaths we experience.
  2. Easter is about resurrection. The new life and new beginnings that always await us on the other side of death.
  3. That 40 days after the resurrection but before the ascension is this period of transition where we are letting go of the old life and adjusting to the new life.
  4. Then on Ascension, it’s time to let the old life ascend.
  5. And on Pentecost, we receive a new Spirit to match the new life that we are, in fact, already living.

Sometimes, we can already be living a new life, but our Spirit, our psyche, our soul, our perspective, haven’t quite caught up to the new life that we’re living out. The disciples were already living in a new way, but on Pentecost, they received the Spirit that could give voice to it. You four 13, or almost 13, year olds have probably been leaning into your teenage years for some time now, but today, we mark that you get a new Spirit that matches this new stage of life. And parents, we have also been in this period of profound adjustment as we have had to let go of our children and come to see that they are growing, budding young adults with their own ideas and vision. Today, we, too, get a new Spirit to match our new life as parents of teenagers.

And for the rest of our community, what new life have you been living? And what Spirit might you be receiving on this Pentecost to match this new life of yours? What is your unique good news to speak into this world at this moment of time? What message might be so crazy to proclaim that others might dismiss you as being drunk with new wine? And yet, just like our teenagers, speak it you must.

There is one other piece we need to bring in as we embark on this journey, and that is to hold fast to the truth that Paul proclaims today in Romans—“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we might be glorified with him.”

In your young lives, each of you have already suffered. Kate, Julia, Carmen, and Jessie—each of you has already suffered in your young years, and be assured, there is more suffering to come—that’s just part of being human. But a mighty Spirit lives inside each of you that will sustain your spirit when your spirit feels lonely and unsure. That Spirit has wrapped you in God’s love and whispers to your soul in sighs too deep for words “You are my beloved daughter. In you, I am well-pleased.” That Spirit reminds your soul of its majesty and reminds you from the inside out that you are made for glory. And what is true for you four young women is true for your parents and is true for each one of us. We have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we are children of God, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ, made for glory.

Jesus promised that he would give his followers an Advocate to be with us forever. And here’s the beautiful, beautiful thing—this Advocate is the Spirit of truth…Jesus says, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you…This Spirit will teach you everything, and will remind you of all that I have said to you.” And for the second time this Easter season, we hear Jesus say this, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I can’t think of words we need to hear right now more than these.

Kate, Julia, Carmen, Jessie, fellow parents, St. Luke’s community, the Spirit of truth lives inside of you. A peace has been given to you. Not a peace that the world can give, or even understand. Your heart need not be troubled. You don’t have to be afraid. You are not alone, ever, ever.

In all the changes and chances and transitions that come to us throughout our lives, we can rest secure in these promises.

The Spirit has come. The Spirit lives inside of us. The Spirit is not content with the world as it is and yearns to speak good news into it in fresh ways. And, as we join this movement of the Spirit whooshing through our world,             as we allow these tongues of fire to ignite our souls and shape our passions, we will find the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 15, 2016

Finding our way home

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 6—Year C; Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29. Video

Can we just start by admitting that the Revelation to John is just weird? However, it’s been a really weird week in our house, a week that started with witnessing a tragic crash and ended with the death of our beloved dog, Luke. Ever had a week like that? Where you are aware of the fragility and preciousness of life, where our utter vulnerability as human beings is absolutely inescapable? Throw into that mix this year’s political process that feels completely chaotic, and often disheartening in its lack of civility. And the crush of world events that feel so completely out of control and intractable. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and it’s disorienting when that happens. So, from this weird space, this passage from Revelation feels oddly comforting.

A vision is given, and from the get-go, for one who was used to seeing God “in a certain way” and “in a certain place,” the vision itself disorients, “I saw no temple in the city…” What? The city is Jerusalem. Everything in Jerusalem was built around the temple. That would be like saying, “I saw no White House, no Capitol, no Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.” Some things just go together. Jerusalem was the holy city, and holiness was most especially located in the holy of holies, which was located in the heart of the temple. The presence of God was to be found most intensely there.

But not any more.

 “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. No need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

Holiness was not to be contained in the temple, only to be viewed by the elite of the elite, but holiness, glory, would radiate throughout everything. God’s presence will fill all places of the city—the political places, the economic places, the religious places, the despised and broken places, the vulnerable places, the forgotten places, the back alleys and places that never see the light of day—God’s glory shines there. Nations are caught up in this light. This glory even pulls glory out of kings. It calls forth the best from the peoplepeople bringing the honor of the nations—the honor of the nations, can you imagine? Seriously, take that in. Imagine it.

The last line of that section sounds so exclusive—only those will enter it who are written in the Lamb’s book of life—but I don’t think exclusion is at the heart of it. Let’s pull out and view this from that high mountain where that angel has carried John to see all of this. And remember—visions are like dreams, they are not linear, but circular; not left-brained, but right-brained.

Nothing unclean will enter. The greek for unclean simply means common. Nothing common here. All is holy, all is deserving of respect and honor and dignity. And the practice of abomination—that’s the practice of idolatry. Oh my goodness, idols. What are the idols holding power over our religious, political and economic common life?

 (pause) Power, control, success, greed, security, prestige, status, etc. Can you imagine the heartbeat of our religious, political, and economic life being free of these idols? Practicing these idolatries has no place in this “city” filled with the glory of the Lord.

And those practicing falsehooddeceit, lies, duplicitous words and deedsnot here.

The only people who can live in this “city” are those who are committed to the abundant life. It’s not that the Lamb wants to exclude others; it’s just anything short of the abundant life—life in its fullest, most whole form—anything short of that isn’t worthy of the vision. Not worthy as in deserving, but worthy as in “this is what God in the fullness of God’s presence and light and glory longs for us to have and know and live.”

And the vision gets richer.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.

The water of life flowing as a river. Trees producing a rich variety of fruit, all year long. Creation lavishly flourishing. And the trees, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And oh, how the nations, all the nations, long for healing. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. Back in Genesis, back at the very beginning of the story, the tree of life was out of reach, but now, it is the source of healing. Whatever curses we were under before hold no sway now.

Have you ever felt like some event or experience or some unfulfilled dream defined you? How would you live differently if that story, that narrative thread, was no longer your chief plotline? How would you live differently if you could see in the very thing you perceived as curse, the source of your healing? And what would this look like if we extrapolated this out to our nations? What if we saw all the things that feel like curses among the nations, what if we saw all of those things as vessels of healing? How might interactions between nations change?

It is so clear in this passage from Revelation that God is not interested only in individual salvation, individual wholeness, but God desires salvation, wholeness, for the whole world. God desires that our nations experience wholeness. God desires this wholeness for our leaders and for the peoples of the nations of the world. God will not rest until everything is transformed and healed and made new. God will not rest until everyone is participating in this glory and walking in this light.

Is this a pipe dream? Well, of course it is, but dreams and visions have a way of reorienting us. And I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling disoriented, a vision gives me some place to fix hope, and hope has a way of helping us find our way home.

A vision helps us see what is possible, helps us claim our deepest longings, helps us connect to God’s deepest yearnings. We need that thing out there to aim for.

And we need something in here to ground us. And that’s what Jesus promises us today. He knows the time is coming when he won’t be physically present to his disciples, but they won’t be abandoned. As he is gathered around the table with them on that last night before his death, he tells his disciples this: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Jesus is saying, “The God who creates all that is, the God who has lived in me, the God who blows as the Spirit—this God makes a divine home in you.” Jesus gives us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit continues to teach us. That Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus has said to us. That Spirit reminds us that a peace lives within us, Jesus’ peace, and this peace is the peace that surpasses all understanding. This peace is not the peace of unanimity or agreement or the peace that comes when we don’t make too many waves—this peace is the peace that allowed Jesus to stand still in the swirl, to hold fast to Love while at the same time extending his arms wide-open to embrace the whole world, this is the peace that can hold space when everything else wants that space collapsed, this is the peace that can live in the tension of paradox and know that Love is the only ground that is firm beneath our feet. And when we stand in that place, our hearts are not troubled, nor are they afraid.

No matter how weird and disorienting our lives get, no matter how out of control the world feels—we have a place to stand. We have an Advocate to guide us. We have a Spirit to sustain us. We have a peace that fills us, and a Love that grounds us. We have a vision to move towards, and the inner provisions to make the journey.

We might yearn for more; we might long for a 10-point plan, but I don’t know, from that high mountain, alongside John, from that seat across the supper table from our Lord, this week— a weird vision, the promise of an Advocate,  the indwelling Spirit, an unshakeable peace, a Love that holds fast—I think these are enough. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 1, 2016

A journey in discernment

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

Well, it’s been quite a week. So, I don’t know how to do this other than to head straight for the elephant in the room. So, this will be part sermon, part testimony, and part me talking to you as your priest.

Monday, the Standing Committee announced that I would be among the slate of four candidates who will stand for election as the seventh bishop of our diocese. I shared this news by email on Monday, but I need to be able to tell you the story of this last year.

One of the hardest pieces of this for me has been not being able to talk with you about this, but now I can, and I want to, because this is a story about discernment, and this is work that all of us are to be about all of the time. So, I’m going to share some of my process with you this morning, but I want you to be thinking about how and what the Spirit might be stirring in your life as I do so.

When Bishop Taylor announced his retirement a year ago, some colleagues encouraged me to think about this. Up to this point, I had never thought this was something I wanted do—I think it’s a really hard job, and I have watched it age people I love. I began to pray about it, and the first thing that came back was “I want you listen to this.” I couldn’t say “no” to the clarity of that voice; it would have felt unfaithful to say, “No thanks; that’s not in my plan.” That call to listen combined with my rule of three—when three people ask you to consider something, you need to pay attention (remember, that’s how our discernment to combine worship services began, except I was really hard-headed on that one so it took four people)—so, when the third person spoke to me last spring, I knew I had to pay attention. It’s interesting, but in today’s passage from Acts, Peter recalls this vision where a sheet comes down from heaven with all these “unclean” animals along with God’s instructions not to call profane what God has declared clean, and Peter recalls how all this happened three times. This vision completely reoriented Peter’s understanding of the mission before them. When you are hearing things more than once, when you are experiencing a pattern, you need to pay attention.

And so, I started to pray and talk with people who knew me well, and I started to battle those internal voices. I started living all the Brené Brown training I’ve done up close and personal. Whenever we enter the arena, there are certain voices waiting for us. The first voice that came was “there is not enough of me to do that job.” Brown calls this the voice of scarcity, all those “not enough” messages. God answered that one right away, “Yep, you’re right, there’s not enough of you to do that job. There’s not enough of anyone to do that job. If you are called to do this work, I will supply what you need.” Oh, I realized that this was going to be about faith. Man.

When Spirit is nudging you, what “not enough” messages rise up that keep you from following where Spirit is leading?

Well, if you can knock the not enough messages back, the next one that’s waiting right behind it is “who do you think you are?”—the voice of comparison, the voice that tries to keep us playing small. That voice and I have been BFFs throughout this past year. I tend to want to banish that voice, but my spiritual guide gave me wise counsel. He said: “Don’t send that voice away. Turn into it and speak back to it. ‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, and that’s what I’m trying to find out.’” That response robs that the who-do-you-think-you-are voice of its power.

So, when you are about to take some risk or act with courage and the “who-do-you-think-you-are” voice whispers in your ear, what do you do? Do you heed it? Do you wrestle with it? Do you look at it, smile, and say, “I hear you, but you don’t get the keys to the car?”

Early on, I realized that I thought I had willing energy for the work of bishop, but I wasn’t sure I had wanting energy. And from the beginning, I decided that I would not do this unless I could sense wanting energy and could sense where there would be joy in the work. So, I have listened with my all my heart and mind and spirit. I have had wonderful companions who have helped me unearth the gifts and skills I possess for this work. I have listened deeply to the intuition of my body. I have had the incredible gift of having to wrestle with my shadow and those places in my being that still needed to be healed and transformed.

I have reflected and reflected and reflected on the gifts I’ve been given and the skills I have cultivated, and this, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is where you come in. You see, you have shaped me into the leader I have become. You have pulled me forward into uncharted waters. You have pressed me to wrestle with our prophetic call as followers of Jesus and our pastoral responsibility. Together, we have learned the value of experimenting and the power of creativity. Together, we have learned what it means truly to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. Together, we have learned how to turn fearlessly into this moment in which we live—in the world, in our culture, in the institutional church; together, we keep turning straight into this moment and proclaiming that we will not live from a place of fear. Together, we have learned how to be present to what is dying knowing and trusting that liminal space where something is being born, even in the midst of the dying. You have shaped me into a leader who can move with courage, even when she’s really afraid; who understands the gifts that come with vulnerability; who understands the value of encouragement; who knows that we only lead from within our humanity; who is not afraid to fail, which means you can try anything. Quite simply, you have taught me what happens when we set our eyes on Jesus and love one another as he has loved us, and that’s exactly the commandment that Jesus gives his disciples today in John’s gospel.

And so, over the last year, I’ve claimed these gifts and skills that God has given me and that you have shaped. And as I have looked out over the landscape of our culture and church, I have wondered if these are indeed the gifts and skills needed to help followers of Jesus throughout the Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina make the turn we need to make. Beloved sisters and brothers, we have shared something so good, so vital, so alive—I want to encourage other communities of faith as they discover, claim, and celebrate that same vitality in their own context. I have shared this kind of vision with the Search and Nominating Committee. They have listened to me dream, and they have discerned in me the capacities that they feel could serve our diocese well. They have also discerned this about three other very gifted candidates, so let’s be very clear, there is still much discernment to be done—the Spirit is still very much at work sorting all of this out.

Last week was the retreat with the candidates out of which the Search and Nominating Committee made their final recommendations. Five intentional holy conversations over the course of four days, interspersed with worship, silence, prayer, and many informal conversations. It was hard, and beautiful, and holy throughout. Last Friday, I got the call that it was the Search Committee’s desire to recommend me. I had 48 hours to pray and give them my decision. Several really important conversations happened for me last Friday with wise counsellors, colleagues, and my spiritual guide. About midday, I could feel myself leaning into a “yes,” and my body got lighter. I had been holding such tension for weeks. I didn’t know it was humanly possible to have that many butterflies living in your stomach. And, I was really hungry. My appetite had come back with a vengeance.

Earlier that morning, I had awakened remembering what my spiritual director back in Kentucky told me when I was discerning whether or not to marry Jim. That wise nun told me this: “Cyndi, this man has been given to you to work out your salvation with in fear and trembling.” Truer words were never spoken. And last Friday, it came to me again, “Cyndi, this work is being given to you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Some of the deepest work I have had to do in recent years has been as a result of being in this discernment process. I have the deep sense that this work as bishop would cause me to continue to do my deep work, that it would grow me, not just as a priest, or a bishop, or a leader, but as a human being. For me, there is a certain obedience that comes into play when God is stirring your soul at this kind of level.

So, where might Spirit be calling you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? And I mean salvation in the sense of wholeness. What might Spirit be calling you into that will press you to do your deep work, that will be for your greater wholeness?

And so, I called the Search Committee Chair last Saturday morning and told him that it was “with excitement and joy that I say a hearty “yes” to their desire to recommend me for the slate.” And when I let myself lean into that “yes” I could sense the joy that lay underneath it. I know what it is to love a community and to be loved by that community, and I sense that I have this capacity to love communities of faith across this diocese as we have loved one another. We have embodied gospel love for one another, but it is hard to hold that love still—and neither you nor I can stop where that love may yearn to flow. Joy is always found when we let love flow.

I discovered one other piece over the weekend that feels important. I finally acknowledged and claimed that wanting energy. I think it’s been there for a while, but in that deep “yes,” I finally claimed that I want to do this. It is tempting to hedge a bit, not to let my heart leap too much, because of course, if not elected, the disappointment will be profound. But this has been part of my journey the last few years—not to give in to foreboding joy, that place where we don’t let ourselves expect too much so we don’t have to feel disappointment. I am making a conscious decision not to hold back, but to lean in fully. And so, I’m all in. I’m letting my heart leap, and I will risk the grief and loss and disappointment that will surely come should I not be elected.

And so, I turn this back to you—as you discern where Spirit is calling you, where are you letting your heart say “yes” and leap, and where are you holding back to avoid potential future disappointment?

For today, now this might change tomorrow, but for today, I am deeply at peace. All year long, my arena has been to show up in this process as fully and authentically me as possible. I have done that, so to my mind, I’ve already succeeded. There have been so many surprising discoveries and gifts along the way, and so no matter what happens, this has been a journey well worth taking.

And, dear brothers and sisters, there is so much we will learn in this in-between time. It’s the chance to remember that the church doesn’t revolve around the priest anyway. You know that. You are the body of Christ; you are fully empowered baptized followers of Jesus. You have a great Vestry and great leadership across this congregation. God has you well in hand—God is the Alpha and Omega—your beginning and your end. All you have to remember is the commandment that Jesus has given you—three times in three sentences in that passage from John—“love one another…just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” You know how to do that better than any community I know. In that love, you are absolutely secure, and that love will see you and me, together or apart, through the days and weeks and months to come.

I don’t know any more than you do how this will all unfold, but Julian’s words ring so very true right now—“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.”

Fear not St. Luke’s, Spirit is moving, in your life and in my life. Listen to her voice, and trust that all really will be well. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 24, 2016

Who is the Good Shepherd?

Follow the Love

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

If we think witnessing the empty tomb turned us upside down, that’s nothing compared to what happens when we have to engage with the reality of resurrection life. It’s one thing to know that love has come again; it is quite another to reckon with it in the nitty gritty of your life.

So let’s jump in. Saul, who will become Paul, is on a mission. He’s obsessed. He doesn’t just dislike the disciples of the Lord, he wants to destroy them. He breathes threats and murder—really, that’s what it says—he breathes threats and murder against them like he breathes air. He goes to the powers-that-be and asks for letters to the synagogues in Damascus so that if he finds any who belong to the Way, men or women, he could haul them back to Jerusalem. His thirst for the blood of these perceived enemies can’t be assuaged in Jerusalem alone, he has to expand the reach of that hate wider.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

 “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Jesus has bound himself to those undergoing persecution, and when we persecute anyone, we are persecuting him. That’s a daunting thought.

But Jesus doesn’t consign Saul to the outer reaches of darkness; no, Jesus tells Saul to get up and enter the city, where he will be told what to do. And this was no privatized religious experience. The men traveling with Saul heard the voice, too. This was a confrontation with witnesses. That makes it a little harder for Saul to turn back.

Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Saul can’t see—he can’t see physically; he can’t even see with his mind’s eye—he is completely, totally, absolutely disoriented. Every way that he had of seeing had to be dismantled so that his heart could be awakened again and have a chance to source his sight from a different place than hate. And Saul, big, bad, independent, murderousthreatbreathing-renegade Saul, will have to depend upon others to help him find his way. If his confrontation had a communal dimension, so too will his healing.

Now enter Ananias. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

Now, Ananias had heard about Saul. Everyone had heard about Saul. Ananias knows how much evil he has unleashed on brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. And Ananias knows that he has authority from the powers-that-be to bind all who invoke Jesus’ name. So, step into Ananias’ shoes. How are you feeling about taking up this particular call? What are you thinking? (pause) I know what I’d be thinking, “Uh, no way Lord. That’s just not smart. That’s way too risky.”

But when has true transformation ever been a cakewalk? Saul had to leap in the dark. Ananias has to leap with full knowledge of what could be done unto him by this man who’s been breathing threat and murder. Both have to leap. And Jesus won’t be deterred anyway. He’s knows that this meeting, this relationship, will be for the transformation of both Saul and Ananias.

So Jesus hears him out, and I imagine as with the rich young man, looked at him and loved him and said, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” And this “suffering” is “pascho” in the greek—it’s tied to the kind of suffering that Jesus is always talking about, the suffering that his disciples never could understand, the suffering that is tied to the paschal mystery, the suffering entailed in dying, the suffering entailed in rising, the suffering entailed in being stripped of our illusions and prejudice and blindness and everything we think we see and understand, the suffering entailed in letting go and being made completely new. Saul is getting a new heart, but Ananias needs a new heart too if he is to let Saul out of the box that he’s got Saul in.

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then [Saul] got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Now, this confounded those who previously believed as Saul believed, those who believed that those who belonged to the Way of Jesus deserved to die, and in short order, they were plotting to kill Saul.

This is always the way. When we surrender and align ourselves with those being persecuted, we will become targets ourselves, but when Jesus confronts you, and convicts your heart, and throws you into that swirling, confusing darkness where everything you thought you knew becomes sand slipping through your fingers, when Jesus sends that messenger who awakens your conscience and consciousness, you can’t ever return to that state of not knowing again. When your heart expands and your mind is made new and you experience Christ-consciousness, then you don’t have the option of opting out because harm done to a brother or a sister or an enemy is harm done to your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.

And trust me, this will confound everyone around you because your heart yearns for the transformation of the enemy as much as it does for those who are walking the Way with you.

Living in the power of this love will give you everything and cost you everything. The power of this love restored Peter lifting him out of the shame of his denial, commissioning him for the tending, feeding, loving work that was his to do. And to make sure he got the message in his bones, Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to profess his love for him—the same number of times Peter denied that love as Jesus made his way to the cross. Just as with Saul, Jesus didn’t consign Peter to the outer reaches of darkness; he pulled him back into life.

 

If you have ever really messed up and been on the receiving end of that kind of forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration, then you know how powerful this exchange between Jesus and Peter is. Peter is a different person for having blown it in such a colossal way, and he is a different person for having come to terms with it. Jesus loved Peter too much to sweep it all under the rug under the “it’s-ok-it’s-no-big-deal” rubric. By dealing with it honestly, truly, Jesus did not retain Peter’s sin.

But you can’t experience that kind of transformation and dodge what comes next. “Very truly, I tell you, Peter, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” After this Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

When Jesus throws us to ground with the stark truth of all the ways we persecute others; when he blinds us so that we can see a different truth, a deeper truth; when he convinces another heart that ours is worth saving, and when he restores our sight and restores us to relationship, then our life is no longer just our own. We have been swept up into love’s wide embrace, and that gift of transformation is never just for our individual edification alone, but through the crucible of grace, we are forged into instruments of peace and love and reconciliation for the salvation of the world.

When we were younger, we went wherever we wished, but our life is no longer our own. It wasn’t for Saul, it wasn’t for Peter, it isn’t for you, it’s not for me. All Saul could do was follow. All Ananias could do was follow. All Peter could do was follow. All we can do is follow. Follow the love that brings us back to life again. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 10, 2016

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them: Bob Ebeling and House Bill 2

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

We are a week out from that day, but we have to go back to that day because that day changes everything for us. There had been the news from Mary Magdalene, and Peter and the beloved disciple had confirmed her astounding news—the Lord was risen. Resurrection. A reality that blew their minds—it was real. You would think the disciples would be dancing in the streets, but they weren’t.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…The disciples had locked themselves away in fear; they were afraid of the leaders who had crucified Jesus, and if they let their support of him be known, well, who knows what might happen to them. But locked doors can’t keep Jesus out.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side; he showed them his wounds. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Brothers and sisters, this is the Pentecost event in John’s gospel. This is the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it comes with peace, and it comes with power. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is it. This is our call. This is our work. And do not underestimate the power involved in all of this.

There is a story that has unfolded over the last two months that has grabbed my soul. The story first aired two months ago on January 28th as part of the coverage marking 30 years since the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. For many of us of a certain age, we can remember where we were when that explosion happened. Bob Ebeling was an engineer for Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor, who saw the potential problem with the temperature and the rubber O-rings. He and four other engineers tried with all their might and persuasive power to stop the launch. They presented data upon data trying to convince their managers at Thiokol and the powers-that-be at NASA to postpone the launch, but the decision-makers were determined to move forward. He told his wife that night, “It’s going to blow up” and watched in horror the next morning as it did just that. Three weeks later, he and a fellow engineer spoke anonymously to Howard Berkes, an NPR reporter and told the truth about what they knew.

In January of this year, Howard Berkes returned to speak with Bob Ebeling, now 89 years old, who this time allowed himself to be identified. Shortly after the explosion, Bob Ebeling retired from NASA. For 30 years, he had struggled with depression and been racked with guilt, feeling responsible for the explosion and loss of life. He concluded he was inadequate and didn’t argue the data well enough. He is a religious man, and for the last 30 years, he has prayed about this. He told Berkes: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for that job. I don’t know. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”

In February of this year, Howard Berkes returned to Bob Ebeling’s home. You see, hundreds of people responded to that story in January. Listeners who wrote, “You presented the correct data and blew the whistle. You are not a loser; you are a challenger.” Engineers who spoke of how this was a case study in engineering school around ethical decision-making. Ebeling’s eyesight had gotten so bad that his daughter Kathy read him all these letters. It helped, but he was still all bound up.

 

You see, when Jesus talks about forgiving, we need to understand that the root of that word is deep—“afeame”—it means “to let go, to give up, to send away, to keep no longer.” And when Jesus talks about retaining, it’s root is equally deep—“krateo”—it means “to hold fast, not to let go, to continue to hold;” it’s the deathgrip—it literally means “of death continuing to hold”—it’s the death that won’t let go, and there is a powerful shadow side to this retaining“krateo” also means “to have power, to be powerful, to become master of, to lay hands on one in order to get him into one’s power.”

For 30 years, Ebeling had never heard from the people in power—no one from Thiokol, no one from NASA. True or not, he still felt his sins were retained. The NPR reporter got busy tracking down those decision-makers. Robert Lund was vice-president of engineering at Thiokol at that time. He wouldn’t agree to a recorded interview, and he didn’t want to relive it. At the time, Lund had been reassigned by Thiokol and was so shamed by the neighbors that his family was forced to move. But he called Ebeling and said, “You did all that you could.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

George Hardy, a former NASA official involved in the launch, also didn’t want to go back over this event, but he wrote to Ebeling and said, “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.” He closed by writing, “God bless you.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Then word came from the spokeswoman for Charlie Bolden, an astronaut who had flown the mission before Challenger and the current NASA Administrator—“We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant. And to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.” When Ebeling heard that, he clapped long and hard and shouted, “Bravo!” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Two weeks ago, on the Monday of Holy Week, Bob Ebeling died. He had been suffering with cancer. His daughter Leslie said, “It was if he got permission from the world. He was able to let that part of his life go.” For the last three weeks of his life, he was light and at peace. In his thank you to listeners, he said, “You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Brothers and sisters, we can help one another to let go, or we can hold power over and aid in death continuing to have its hold. And here’s what Bob Ebeling teaches us, we can’t do this work of forgiveness alone. We need each other to proclaim these truths to us, to help us tease apart what is our sin and what is not our sin; we need each other to proclaim the peace of Jesus that knows no fear; we need each other to stand up to those who hold their power over others and proclaim to them that, when they just won’t let go, they are in death’s grip, too; and we need each other to throw open our locked doors and move in the power of the Spirit to all those places where Jesus would send us, confronting the powers-that-be, just as Peter and the apostles did before the council and the high priest when they proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Which brings me to House Bill 2—AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR SINGLE-SEX MULTIPLE OCCUPANCY BATHROOM AND CHANGING FACILITIES IN SCHOOLS AND PUBLIC AGENCIES AND TO CREATE STATEWIDE CONSISTENCY IN REGULATION OF EMPLOYMENT AND PUBLIC ACCOMMODATIONS filed, read, debated, voted upon, and signed into law over the course of one day. This is not the time or place to walk through this in bill in detail, but

  • as a follower of Jesus who comes to the disciples huddling in fear behind their locked doors,
  • as a follower of Jesus who proclaims “peace,”
  • as a follower of Jesus who sends us to all the places that the Father sent him—to the lepers and prostitutes, to the tax collectors and the women, to the vulnerable and the powerless and the poor, to the stranger and all those considered “other,” to all those considered taboo,
  • as a follower of Jesus who sent Philip to proclaim the good news of the gospel and to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch, the non-normative sexual identity of that time,
  • and as a follower of Jesus who breathes the Holy Spirit upon us granting us the awesome power to forgive, to set one another free, and who reminds us that we, indeed, have the power to keep one another bound up in guilt and fear and a living death
  • as a follower of this Jesus, I must stand against this statute and the discrimination it enshrines.

John’s gospel goes on today. It’s the Thomas story. He wasn’t there that first evening. He won’t believe until he sees the wounds in Jesus’ hand and touches the marks of the nails and puts his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.

A week later, Jesus returns and says to Thomas,Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

Brothers and sisters, what if we are Thomas, and what if Jesus is asking us to touch the wounds of our transgender and gay and lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters? What if Jesus is asking us to come to deeper belief by seeing in the marks of their nails the marks of his nails and to know that when we touch their wounds, we’re touching his? What if Jesus is inviting us more deeply into what resurrection life is really about by seeing the new life that radiates through the journeys these brothers and sisters have had to make from death back into life?

 

 

I beg of our legislators to touch these wounds. I beg of our legislators to do as I did yesterday morning and read the record of violence against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual brothers and sisters that has taken place over the last 45 years—read their stories, learn their names.

 

I beg of us to do whatever we have to do to proclaim “peace” to those who are longing to hear it and who now have a high likelihood of being subjected to violence for using a bathroom.

 

I beg of us to throw open our locked doors, as Peter and the apostles did, and, in the power of the Spirit, forgive, set free, let go, and, in the power of that same Spirit, challenge any power who wishes to hold that power over another.

 

And as we do this work, may we seek the transformation of those who just won’t let go, because salvation won’t be salvation until all of us are made whole, until all of us are reconciled, until all of us know the depth of peace that our Lord has proclaimed.

 

Receive the Holy Spirit. Proclaim peace. Forgive. Let go. Touch wounds. Believe. And then go out into the world to all the places that Jesus sends you. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 3, 2016