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It’s too much, it’s too fast, it’s Holy Week

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

How did it all go so wrong? Just 30 minutes ago, we were waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna in the highest to our king!” and 5 minutes ago, we were shouting, “Crucify him!” How did it go so wrong so fast? I don’t know, but I do know that we hit moments like this in our life. A plan doesn’t work out, a diagnosis comes, a harsh word is said, a conflict spins out of control, world events erupt, and whatever delicate equilibrium we have cultivated gives way to chaos, and we look up to find ourselves in a place that we never intended to be.

Our vision becomes clouded, courage fails us, betrayal seems like a good plan. The thoughts begin—move to silence perceived threats, keep the peace at all costs, mock another for that temporary kick of feeling that you are just a little bit better than the poor soul in front of you, deride, run away, weep until you can weep no more, risk your neck to care for a body who was someone’s son. So many thoughts run through our heads, so many words spill from our mouths, so much happening all at once. It’s too much. It’s too fast. It’s Holy Week. It’s the fullness of our humanity on full display. Nothing is hidden this week. Nothing. And truth be told, that terrifies us.

If we dare to walk through this week, we will touch the darkest places in our souls, and who wants to do that? Why would we want to do that?

On Thursday, clergy from across the diocese gathered with lay leaders in our cathedral in Asheville to renew our vows. In his sermon, Bishop Taylor spoke of Moses, a murderer, who was called to return to Egypt, that place where his face was plastered on “WANTED” posters everywhere, and the Bishop spoke of Patrick who was called to return to Ireland which had been the place of his enslavement. He went on to talk about how Moses and Patrick both had to return to that place of their primal wound. Primal wound. I’m not sure I heard anything past that. Those words strike something deep inside.

Holy Week is the journey we take to touch our primal wound. We touch those places where we have betrayed another and where we have been betrayed. We touch those places we promised we would never deny and yet did and remember the times we were denied. We touch all those places where we have unleashed venom upon another—in word, in action, in the thoughts we dare not speak, and we relive those moments when those words have been spewed at us. We touch those places where expediency became more important than the people in front of us and we recall when we were a casualty of the well-oiled machine. We touch that place where we just couldn’t stay present and had to run away, and we touch those times when we were utterly, utterly abandoned—by everyone, by God.

These are our primal wounds. Maybe not all of them, but somewhere along the way this week, if you walk this journey faithfully, you will discover your primal wound. And in returning to that place, you will discover the truth that sets us free. For at the center of each of these places dwells Jesus—holding space, staying present, arms outstretched, embracing all of these primal wounds—filling them with his life, draining them of their power, redeeming them, transforming them, healing them.

We don’t touch our primal wound as some sort of spiritual masochism; we touch our primal wound to discover just how deep God’s love runs. If we are ready to walk this journey, if we are ready to look into every face this week, and see our own face looking back, if we are ready to touch that primal wound, then this week will be a place of revelation from start to finish.

And all the primal wounds that Jesus will absorb this week, they won’t disappear, but they become integrated into Jesus’ resurrection body. That’s the unimaginable possibility that awaits us too. Come one week from today, resurrected life will shine through our wounds, as well.

I wish you the holiest of Holy Weeks. Don’t miss this journey. There’s too much healing just waiting to be done, too many wounds to be absorbed and transformed, too much joy to hold when we discover that wounds don’t just bleed, but in fact, they are the spring from which resurrection flows. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 20, 2016

Lent: More questions than answers

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 5—Year C; Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8 Video

Oh, we are hurtling toward Holy Week at, what feels like, the speed of light. We are on this train speeding toward Palm Sunday, and all that follows, and there’s no stopping it. So, before we launch into these events that we know are coming, and that we know we have no control over, and we know we can’t stop—we get this one last chance to step back with Lenten spaciousness, and take stock of our lives, and see where we are. Because Lent is this stretch of time when we can slowly, methodically, take our lives out, and turn them around, and look at them from every conceivable angle. Once Holy Week begins next Sunday, we are on for the ride, and there’s no getting off until the Easter dawn breaks.

So, what are we given to contemplate today. A lot. The collect sets us up beautifully. Acknowledgement that God alone can align our unruly wills and disordered affections. Acknowledgement that love and desire are very much at the heart of the matter, and that it is only by grace that we are able to love what God commands and desire what God promises. There is the acknowledgement that life in this world is lived among varied and swift changes that can completely knock us off of our feet, and that amidst such flux, amidst the swirl of life that feels so out of control, amidst that, there is a longing in our hearts for our hearts to be fixed in that place where true joy may be found. We could just stop right here and meditate on this for the next 10 minutes, but there is more.

There is Isaiah and the LORD who proclaims that we are not enslaved by former things, by the things of our past, by the things of old; who proclaims that God is about to do a new thing, who whispers, “It’s on the cusp, it’s about to spring forth, do you not perceive it? Like the life that is about to burst through the soil all over these mountains, and the song of the birds that is growing stronger, and the light that is lingering later—small changes, are we paying attention? Are we aware? Are we awake? God is bent toward life and possibility. The God of Isaiah knows there is always a way through the wilderness, always a river to be found in the desert. Being perpetually lost is not our final resting place; there are waters that can quench our deepest thirst.

The psalmist reminds us that those who sow with tears do indeed reap with songs of joy, that those who go out weeping carrying the seed, do indeed come again shouldering their sheaves, bundles of harvest. And could it be that the two are inextricably bound up together? Could it be that the tears are good and necessary, and that it is our tears that water the earth where we sow the seeds that enable the new growth to come? Could it be that, as we shed those things that encumber us, that keep us from the fullness of life, could it be that we have to grieve the loss of those things, even as we sow the seeds of new life in God? But as with being lost, this grief is not our final resting placethe tears, like the liquid they are, are fluid. They flow, and they soften, and they transform our hearts; they prepare the soil of our heart for new life that will indeed be reaped with songs of joy.

And Paul, Paul takes us into deep, deep places today. Paul knows his False Self intimately. He’s the champion of soundbite credentials. I just love this: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. I am a zealous, persecuting, law-abiding, card-carrying Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, pure Pharisee.” My goodness, this man could run for office. He knows exactly which buttons to push with his audience. He can check all the boxes that prove his purity. By all measures of his society, and his party, he was a rousing success.

 

But Paul had had his dark night of the soul. Paul had been knocked off his horse. Paul knew what it was like to see nothing and to stumble around lost in the dark. Paul knew that all the trappings of the False Self mean nothing. Oh that everyone offering themselves for leadership would know what Paul knew. All this stuff, all these roles and accolades, all this puffing up and purity—they add up to nothing.

Paul continues: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul knew what we all come to know sooner or later in our lives, the gains just don’t satisfy our souls, they just don’t. Knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, knowing that he has claimed me as his own, being found in him, knowing that I am beloved of God, knowing that God doesn’t love me because of what I do or don’t do, but knowing that God loves me because I breathe, because God looks in my eyes and sees God’s own eyes looking back, knowing that it’s all about trusting that I am loved with a love that will not let me go—this is the pearl of great price. And Paul speaks the longing that is in all of our hearts—I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. And Paul knows that you can’t get to resurrection if you don’t share in the sufferings, and you can’t get to new life without passing through death, and here we are again, back to grief and tears and praying for our hearts to be fixed as everything around us changes.

And finally, we come to John’s gospel, and this exquisitely beautiful scene of Mary pouring a pound of nard over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. Let me tell you, this was not the done thing. It’s extravagant and sensual and so not respectable. And a thousand things could have been done with the money that could have come from selling that nard—why it was a year’s worth of wages. Judas is the sensible voice of reason, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? That really could have helped the poor!” Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. She bought that nard for the day of his burial. That nard marks that death is coming. That nard is the fragrance of surrender that will open the gates of life. That nard is the sign and symbol and sacrament of a love that will transcend the realms. You can’t put a price on that. And Jesus then says something to Judas that should shake us all to the core. “Judas, you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. Judas, you want to give the money to the poor, but don’t you understand, you are always to have the poor with you. They are not people that you do things to, they and you are woven into a web of relationship, you are inextricably bound one to another. And when you fail to recognize an act borne of love, you don’t have me. Where love pours, there I will be, always. Judas, could you bind yourself in love to the poor the way that Mary has bound herself to me?” Now, that’s a haunting question for us to consider.

So much to think about today.

Where are our wills unruly and our affections disordered?

Where are we standing firm amidst all the varied changes swirling around us?

Where are we fixing our hopes, our hearts?

Where are we perceiving a new way forward?

What in our False Self are we needing to shed? How about our collective False Self that is running rampant in this election cycle? What do we need to suffer the loss of if we are to know Christ and the power of his resurrection?

Earlier this week, I was at our clergy retreat, and some of us were talking about the campaign around the supper table, and someone remarked that what we are witnessing in this campaign is only mirroring back to ourselves what our culture and our society has become—coarse and meanspirited. I have to agree. This is what happens when we do not do our work, and when we let the False Self have free rein.

This past Wednesday in our Healing Service, at the time of open intercessions, I prayed for Donald and Marco and Ted and John and Bernie and Hillary—beloved sons and daughter of God. I prayed that we might see the face of Christ in them—as in our baptismal vow: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”—and I prayed that they might see the face of Christ in each other, and that we might see the face of Christ in all their supporters—and I know that Bernie is Jewish, but Christ is bigger than Christian faith—Christ as that icon that reminds us that God is in the flesh in this person before us. Disagree with policies and absolutely call violent rhetoric that incites violence out-of-bounds—but never forget that God lives in all these people. My concern is this: Are these individuals offering themselves for leadership awake to their True Self or is their False Self running rampant? And as we engage this election process, are we awake to our True Self or is our False Self having a self-righteous field day?

Richard Rohr says that the person who is living out of the False Self will do evil and call it good, and that evil can take a lot of forms.

Our job as Christian people is to call all of us back to our True Self—that self that Paul came to know, that self that longs to know what it means to know you’re a beloved son or daughter of God, who longs to know what it means to live as that beloved son or daughter of God, and who knows that all the gains in the world mean nothing if we don’t know that True Self. But we will have to die to our False Self, if we are to know the power of resurrection that comes when we know our True Self is all we really have. I pray that all those offering themselves for leadership will come to know these truths that Paul knew.

And the final questions with which we must sit.

Where are we being called to pour out that jar of nard in an act of extravagant love?

Where are we pulling a Judas and dodging binding ourselves with one another in love through the most elegant, and responsible sounding, deflections?

How are embracing the poor as our kin, instead of as the recipients of our charity?

How are the poor with us?

As I have said before, it’s Lent. We don’t get answers, only questions that will help us fix our hearts where true joys are to be found. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

March 13, 2016

Transformation is the fruit of Love

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

Whew! We’ve got some rough stuff today. I Corinthians 10—now this is Paul speaking: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. They all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and, for Paul, that rock was Christ. Nevertheless…” “Nevertheless” is never a good sign; it’s like saying, “I love you unconditionally, but…”—it sort of negates whatever came before. Back to Paul, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”

It gets worse. Paul continues: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did. We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

And then Paul goes all encouraging: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

But tell me, when you’ve just heard about all the awful things that befell those who strayed, do you trust the encouragement that comes at the end? I’m not feeling the love here. Do any of us ever change because somebody puts the fear of God into us? Not in my experience. Oh, fear, shame—they’re effective for a short-term shift in behavior, but these never result in true transformation. Transformation always comes through wooing; transformation comes when something is calling to you that is so much more attractive than what you are living right now. Transformation is never born of fear and shame; transformation is the fruit of love.

I love Paul. I find tremendous amounts of truth in Paul, but I think Paul got this piece in I Corinthians 10 wrong.

By the way, he does a flip-flop in Romans 9-11 when he makes the case for how these same ancestors, these same children of Abraham, will absolutely be enveloped in God’s mercy and compassion because God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. In I Corinthians 10, I think, for a moment, Paul lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. Paul’s human; it happens to all of us.

Which brings us to Luke 13. A rather bizarre, really puzzling, difficult passage. Some were present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

First of all, we know nothing about either one of these two events. Second of all, it still sounds like judgment. Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” That verb for perish means to be destroyed, like fully destroyed. I’m not feeling the love here either.

Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

But the nuances in this passage flip it on its head. Jesus’ listeners are doing one of those awful theological twists that was common in those days, and unfortunately, still all too common in our day—if someone, or some group, really suffers an awful fate, they must have been awful sinners, horrible offenders. If Pilate mingled those Galileans blood with their sacrifices, they must have really been evil. If that tower fell on those eighteen, they must have done something to deserve God’s wrath. Remember Job? This is the theology of Job’s friends—look at all that Job suffered, he must have sinned.

Jesus calls them on their poor theology, and even goes a step farther. “Do you think they are worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! Do you think they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

I still don’t like the sound of that perishing part, but the root for perish also means lost. If we can’t repent from looking at the fate of others and judging them for it, we’ll be lost. Jesus does not judge those Galileans or the eighteen from Jerusalem who were killed as being any worse than the rest of humanity who lived around them, but if we try to blame them, or make it all about them, we will lose our way, and that will destroy us. And, if we understand perishing in this sense of being lost, we’ll see next week that Jesus is all about searching for the lostlost sheep, lost coins, lost people.

And then there’s the parable that Jesus tells. The man is so frustrated by the behavior of that fig tree that he wants to just chop it down. Kind of a scorched earth approach. Ever been so frustrated that you want to lash out and destroy that thing, or person, in front of you that just won’t do as you want it to do?

But the gardener sees the potential that’s in that fig tree if it just gets a little nurture, which by the way involves getting your hands in the manure and working that manure into the soil and letting that mixture of good soil and manure soak into the roots trusting that growth can come from manure, if you work it right. And brothers and sisters , we’ve all got some manure in our lives that we need to work. I love it when Jesus gets earthy.

And, the gardener gives the man an out—if it doesn’t produce in a year, then you can cut it down, but the gardener well knows that that tree is going to be just fine. It’s the man who needs the space to let his heart soften; it’s the man who needs the space to be transformed.

Yes, there’s judgment in these passages today, but it’s not the weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-burn-in-hell kind of judgment; it’s much harder than that—it’s the kind of judgment that happens when we hear the voice of Jesus, or he catches our eye, and we know that all that blame and anger we are casting over there about those people really says more about our own hard hearts than it says about theirs.

Jesus pierces us, cuts to the quick of our souls, but that wound to our heart can be the means to helping us rejoin the human race knowing that all of us are in need of the mercy of God, and we are utterly lost without it.

But oh, if we can stave off that desire to lash out, if we can repent of our judgment, if we can let Jesus help us work the manure and soil of our lives and be patient with ourselves and others, trusting in the fruits of compassion always born of mercy, there won’t be a need to cut ourselves, or that ever-present other, down. Amidst all the judgment, and blame, and shame in our culture right now, this is fruit that that we’re all hungry for. Amen.

 

The Rev Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 28, 2016

Transforming the Heart of Power

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 2—Year C; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35. Video.

We have some interesting lessons today. Full of motion and movement. Full of courage and grit. Full of a crazy kind of hope. One story from the gospels, and one story from Genesis, back at the beginning.

For all of the conflict that Jesus has with Pharisees in other gospels, here, they are trying to help him. “Get away from here, for Herod (that’s the Herod Antipas in Galilee who imprisoned and killed John), for Herod wants to kill you. Jesus, it’s just not safe for you. You sound too much like John. You’re rattling too many cages. Herod, he holds a lot of power. Herod, he’s an establishment kind of guy, and the establishment, they don’t like the things you’re saying; they don’t like the things you’re doing. Jesus, this might be a good time to take a seaside holiday over in Tyre or Sidon, or maybe go on another wilderness retreat.”

Jesus said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

 “Listen, Pharisees, I appreciate your concern, I really do, but ain’t gonna happen. Not gonna stop casting out demons and taking on those forces that keep stoking the False Self and keep ripping us apart from our True Self and from one another. Not gonna stop performing cures and bringing health and wholeness to those who long for it. Not gonna stop this work because this work isn’t done. Not gonna stop moving toward Jerusalem and all it represents—the heartbeat of the establishment that is perfectly content for people to keep on suffering physically and economically and spiritually, that center that is perfectly content for all the power and wealth to accrue to an elite few while those on the bottom have no voice, no power.

 “I’ve got to get to Jerusalem because that’s where the prophets always end up—speaking truth to the heart of power. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

When Jesus talks about “gathering your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” whom do you picture? (pause)

I’ve always pictured the people of the land, the anawim in hebrew—the poor and oppressed and downtrodden. But looking at it in context, I think he’s talking to all these powerful forces that are hurting people and pulling people’s lives apart. I think he’s talking to the heart of the establishment and appealing to that hardened heart and calling it to soften. I think Jesus wants to gather all these powerbrokers and elites—religious, political, economic—I think Jesus wants to gather this brood under his wings so that he can show them a different way to thrive. But he knows, as we know, you can’t make people do a dern thing they don’t want to do, so if they’re not willing to be gathered, then all that is left for Jesus to do is to claim his prophet’s voice, and trust that his giving voice to God’s deepest desires will, somehow, be a part of ushering in the LIGHT and LIFE and WHOLENESS that is God’s vision for all of creation.

And why on earth would Jesus have such cause for hope? Well, because that’s always God’s way with God’s people. Case in point, Abram. He doesn’t have an heir, and as far as he can tell, he’s got no hope of one. And yet, God gave him a vision. Told him not to be afraid. Promised him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven. And Abram believed God. And just as a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon Abram, God sealed the covenant with him by having a smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass between pieces of animal. Kind of a weird ritual to our eyes, but one that apparently made a lot of sense to Abram. The point is—Abram trusted God’s promise, and God sealed his promise in a covenant with Abram. And on the other side of that promise was yet one more promise, the promise of land.

 (And just as an aside, the verse just after this passage indicates that this promised land would always be shared with a whole host of other peoples—Genesis 15:19. It’s important that we get that whole context.)

Trusting in God’s promise enabled Abram to keep putting one foot in front of the other toward that great unseen mystery that he could not fathom—descendants as numerous as the stars and land. Where does one get the capacity to trust on the front-end like that, without evidence, without proof?

It seems to me that trusting is the essence of faith. In fact, the original words for “believe” always lead back to “trust” at their root.

And once you leap into that kind of unknown, once you trust that God has sealed a covenant with you, why you are free to do all kinds of things. You are free to keep responding to the nudges of the Spirit. You are free to trust that there is an abundance in you that has yet to be born. You are free to speak the truth God gives you to speak. You are free to take on demons and be agents of healing. You are free to have a heart-to-heart with the powers-that-be; you are free to speak the yearnings of God’s heart, make known the ache of God’s heart, proclaim the hope in God’s heart…you are able to proclaim the concerns of THIS heart to the heart of power that has grown hard, knowing that the only thing that heart of stone may be able to do in return is to throw stones at you.

And still, in the midst of all that comes at us, we, just like Jesus, cling to hope, cling to the hope that surpasses human understanding knowing that big, immovable stones eventually get rolled away by LOVE and LIFE and a POWER that the powers-of-this-world cannot fathom nor understand. It’s the power that comes when you are not afraid to die because you trust in the promise and reality of resurrection.

That’s where we land on this Second Sunday in Lent. Having to confront a whole lot of things, personally, communally, societally that are diminishing the life and dignity of the most vulnerable among us; having to lean into trust; having to find our courage to know and claim and speak our prophetic voice in arenas that could do us great harm; having to trust that there is work for us to do, and that we will move forward, even when the Herods are on our tail.

There is just too much at stake. Jerusalems are everywhere, power-centers that needs to be redeemed, and people, anawim, that long for the fullness of life. You see, the elites may hold power, but they don’t hold life, because if you’re clinging to power and running from your kinship to your brothers and sisters, you have no capacity to throw your arms open wide and run headlong into the abundant life that God promises. Jesus knew that. That’s why he wants to gather them under his wing, and that’s why his heart grieves that they’re not willing to come.

So, what promise is God making to you that you cannot yet see and yet still must trust?

In your deepest and most terrifying darkness, what tangible signs might God be passing right before your eyes to indicate that God has indeed made covenant with you?

Where are you risking with the powers-that-be? Who is the Herod on your tail?

What demons are you being called to cast out? What healing are you being called to bring?

What prophetic voice is God calling you to claim? Where is the Jerusalem that you are called both to confront and to gather under your wing? How are you letting your heart ache when you encounter hearts of stone?

How are you trusting in resurrection knowing that a lot has to die to get there?

It’s Lent. No answers. Just a lot of questions. And courage, and grit, and a fierce, fierce hope that will pull us through, if we’ll but trust it. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 21, 2016

Temptations and the False Self

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 1—Year C; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13. Video.

Happy Valentine’s Day! So, what do you think we’re going to talk about today? Love? No. We’re going to talk about temptation! But to understand the nature of temptation, we have to get a few things out of the way first.

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So, how do you most want to be perceived? How do you most want people to think about you? Or, what do you most long for? Give me some adjectives. Good (E&A). Strong (P&C). To be safe (SSS). To be rich (All of the above). Kind (E&A). Smart (P&C). Fast (P&C, SSS). Winner (P&C). To be popular (E&A). To have our basic needs met—enough food, enough money, shelter (SSS). On this Valentine’s Day, to be loved (E&A). Etc.

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These ways that we want to be perceived, these ways that we want people to think about us, these things that we long for—they fall into three categories, into three realms—the longing for safety, security, and survival, the longing for power and control, the longing for esteem and affection. Cynthia Bourgeault has rightly identified these as the three power centers of the False Self. These are the drives that literally drive us—they drive our motivations, our actions, our behavior, our choices. These are the brakes, the gas pedal, and the steering wheel when the False Self has the keys to the car.

So, Jesus has just been baptized; he is full of the Spirit, he’s just returned from the Jordan River, and the Spirit (Did you catch that? The Spirit!), the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness for a little period of integration. Any time you have a profound spiritual experience, you then enter a period of time when you have to make sense of what it all means and often that period of time feels like a wilderness where even familiar things look strange. When things in your soul get completely reoriented, everything changes. So, when Jesus got baptized and those heavens opened and he heard God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased,” Jesus touched his True Self—he understood who he really was, and it utterly and completely changed him. But it’s not all roses and rainbows from there. The Spirit understood that for him to understand the depth of his True Self, he, Jesus, would have to confront the power centers of the False Self.

So, off into the wilderness he goes to be tempted by the devil—διάβολοςthe one who throws things apart, the one who would test Jesus to see if he really was grounded in the True Self, the one who would try to separate him from the True Self.

Now then, Jesus hasn’t eaten for 40 days so he’s at a distinct disadvantage. I know when I run a few hours past a meal and my blood sugar is dropping that I can get rather grumpy. I don’t think clearly, and I am certainly not at my best. I can’t imagine 40 days. So, he is running on fumes. The text tells us, “He was famished.” Ya think? At any rate, Jesus is not at his strongest, and if we think about our lives, there are plenty of things that can throw our equilibrium off, that can knock us off our game.

+++

So, the devil comes to Jesus and says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

And, we are in the heart of False Self power center number 1—the longing for safety, security, and survival. “You’re starving Jesus? If you’re the Son of God, just command this stone to become a loaf of bread, and you’ll never, ever have to be hungry again. Your basic need to survive will be secure. And just think of all those starving the world over. Just think, Jesus, of how you could secure the survival of all of those people.” You see, the False Self doesn’t just tempt us with bad stuff, but often, temptation comes in the form of doing great good.

But Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ Oh devil, my sense of safety and security and survival rests somewhere else.”

+++

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

And, we have entered False Self power center number 2—the longing for power and control. “All the kingdoms of the world. I can give you all these, all their glory, all this authority. Just think what you could do, Jesus, if you controlled all the kingdoms of the world? World peace at your fingertips.”

Man, the devil is crafty.

But Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ Devil, my power doesn’t come from control, from power over, my authority springs from a different place.”

+++

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple—the highest point in Jerusalem—saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

And, hello False Self power center number 3—the longing for esteem and affection. This one could also be safety, security, and survival, but there is a subtlety to this temptation that is different that the stones to bread temptation. Here, the devil is challenging Jesus’ sense of importance. “Jesus, if you are really all that important, if you’re really the Son of God, then God will send all the angels to protect you and bear you up so that you won’t even stub your toe. If God really loves you, then you can jump and you’ll be just fine. If God really loves you, nothing bad will happen to you.”

Oh, the devil goes to the heart of our deepest fears. Are we really loved? Does God really love us? Shouldn’t we test that love so that we know it’s true?

But Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Oh devil, I know I am a Beloved, and I don’t need to make God prove it because a love that deep can’t be proved in any way that will make rational sense; a love that deep can only experienced and embraced.”

+++

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. And Jesus emerged from that wilderness full of the Spirit.

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He had faced the three power centers of the False Self—the longing for safety, security, and survival; the longing for power and control; and the longing for esteem and affection—and in each instance, he opted for a deeper power, the unshakeable power that comes when you rest in the True Self who knows it is beloved of God, period, no matter what. The True Self who knows it is always and forever connected to God, who knows it’s impossible to be thrown out of God’s Presence because it lives in union with Presence. It’s like the True Self is the life inside the womb of God—God’s life flowing seamlessly into the True Self which is our DNA. We may forget that we live in that union; we may be asleep to that union; we may lose sight of that union, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. The bond established in baptism is indissoluable—INDISSOLUBLE! It can’t be undone.

So, on this first Sunday of Lent, we need to get crystal clear about who and what are trying to throw us out of Presence. We need to get crystal clear about how these power centers of the False Self—safety, security, and survival; power and control; esteem and affection—we need to get crystal clear about how these show up in our lives, and about how they are tempting us. None of these will bring us what they promise. Our true security, our true power, our true esteem come from one unshakeable source—“You are my Son, you are my Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

Tune you ears, sharpen your eyes, awaken your senses to spot those temptations that would whisper, “You’re on shaky ground, you’re weak, you’re not really loved, you’re not good enough, who you do you think you are?” These are the lies of the devil, the one who would try to separate us from our True Self.

And when you go to reject those false claims for the lies that they are, know that Jesus stands right there with you, giving you the strength to stand in the FULLNESS of who you are, giving you the strength to know that your status as a Beloved is not for sale to the highest bidder. You are God’s Beloved; this is your True Self, and it is absolutely secure, always and forever.

And when you are rooted in that identity, the False Self holds no appeal, and the devil doesn’t stand a chance. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 14, 2016

Live an Unveiled Life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Last Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a. Video.

It’s all about glory today, glory and power.

We start with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. He’s hauling down the two tablets of the covenant, and he didn’t know that the skin of his face was shining because he’d been talking with God. Now, everyone else—Aaron and all the Israelites—they saw his face, they could see that it was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

Why? When someone comes into a space who is full of glory, radiant full of glory, like you can just see this radiant, powerful energy coming off of them, why are people afraid to get close to that? Is it because it feels out of control or unpredictable? Is it because they fear it might be contagious? Is it because they wonder what might be asked of them if they, too, held that much glory and power?

Well, Moses senses the people backing away, so he calls out to them, to reassure them that it’s still him, a changed him, but him all the same, well, not quite the same, but he reassures them that it’s him. And his reaching out to them makes all the difference. Aaron and the leaders, they returned to him, and afterward, all the Israelites came near to Moses, and he charged them with all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, when he charged them with what the LORD had spoken, the Israelites would see his face, and that the skin of his face was shining again—that glory, that radiant power, that energy, it was written all over his face—and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the LORD.

I noticed something this week I have never noticed before—I always thought that Moses would put the veil back on his face when he would he leave the tent of meeting with the LORD, but he doesn’t put the veil back on until after he has shared with the people all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to the people. The people are not spared the full power and glory of what God is trying to say through Moses, but they do get space to take it in and integrate it and appropriate it in smaller doses. It’s hard to take in all the glory of God at once, especially when that glory is going to transform us and change our lives and charge us to live our lives in the world differently for having encountered that glory.

The people of God are not off the hook. They see this glory, and hear this glory, and they are changed by this glory. And that is an awesome thing. Mysterium tremendum—that wild combination of fear and awe that accompany encountering God in the fullness of God’s glory; the overwhelming mystery that both draws us in and makes us want to run away—often a mark of encounter with the Holy.

Well, Paul takes up this idea in II Corinthians. I don’t like how he starts with it— he ties Moses veiling his face to an assumption that the minds of the Israelites were hardened and that a veil lies over their minds. I think that’s selling Moses and the Israelites and the God who made covenant with them short, and frankly, if their minds are hardened, then so are ours because we still wrestle with being in close proximity to glory and the power that pours from it. But that detour aside, Paul gets a lot right in this passage. Jesus takes Moses one step more. Jesus lives an unveiled life 24×7. In all his words, in all his actions, he lets the glory of God shine through, fully, radiantly, powerfully; Jesus shows us what it looks like when the glory of God is pouring through our human flesh—and in him and through him, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. In his Spirit, there is freedom—the freedom to live with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the LORD everywhere—Jesus looking out through our eyes into the face of the other, Jesus gazing back at us through the eyes of the other. When we live with unveiled faces, we are mirrors of the glory of God, reflecting that glory everywhere. Can you begin to feel how powerful all this is?

And then we come to that experience up on the mountain where Jesus took Peter and James and John to pray. This is about 8 days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God. A good, theologically correct, rather abstract declaration on Peter’s part—but what he had professed, he was about to see up close and personal. And it’s in that experience of praying, of communing with God, that Jesus’ face is changed—echoes of Moses all over again—and his clothes become dazzling white—and he is surrounded by Moses and Elijah from that great communion of saints. They, too, are shrouded in glory, and they are talking with Jesus about the journey that lies ahead for Jesus and his great crossing over that was about to be accomplished. Interesting, even Jesus needed guides to make his journey of dying.

Peter and James and John, they almost miss this encounter with glory because they were weighed down with sleep. Let’s just stop right there. Think of all the ways in our world that we are weighed down with sleep, that we are numb to what is happening around us, that our hearts and minds and spirits and bodies are dulled; in so many ways, the culture conspires to keep us sleepwalking through our lives—we, like Peter, James, and John, are weighed down with sleep. But they fought to stay awake, and so must we.

And since they stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the saints that stood with him. And in the face of all that glory, what does Peter want to do? Capture it, contain it, build a place where it can dwell where he could find it always. But there was one problem with his plan…any guesses? Peter located the glory in Jesus and Moses and Elijah, and he wanted to contain the glory out there, instead of allowing that glory to sweep over him and transfigure and transform him. He didn’t know any better, but God would not let Peter off the hook. God was going to rip off the veil of Peter’s good, theologically, abstract ideas about all of this and leave him standing naked before the glory of God—God would encounter them directly in that cloud that dimmed their normal sight and opened their eyes to see and their ears to hear the Holy Onenot mediated through Moses, or Elijah, or even Jesus, but purely, directly, beautifully, mysteriously spoken straight from the heart of God. Peter, James, John—“listen to this One, he’s my Son, see his glory, see his radiance, see his power—all that I AM rests in his being; listen to him.”

An encounter with glory like that changes you, forever. And it took time, but slowly, slowly, Peter and James and John, and all the others, and you and me, we get it. All the glory that God has poured into Jesus’ being has also been poured into ours, but we struggle to know what to do with all that glory and power—we may mask the negative qualities that we don’t want others to see in us, but we also mask the most powerful aspects of ourselves. It’s Jesus who shows us how to live our lives unveiled and how to make manifest that glory and radiance and power in every moment of every day in every encounter with every person and every thing. Jesus shows us how to let glory shine through us and how to see glory shining before us.

It’s a scary proposition to be sure because once you feel that glory in your bones and taste the sweetness of the power of God moving through your being, you can’t ever play small again, and that means you’re going to risk a lot. That means you’re going to be exposed. That means you are going to dare to speak to those who are afraid of glory, you are going to dare to speak to them of the things that God has laid on your heart. You will act with courage and charge this world with the things that God commands so that all creation may sing of the glory of God. At times, this will make you immensely unpopular. People may shrink back from you; the powers-that-be will certainly try to get you to put your veil back on; they may suggest building a booth to keep this glory thing neat and tidy and locatable. But the Spirit blows where she will, and Jesus is never content to stay in a box on a mountaintop. No, not even a day will pass before he’ll be back at it wrestling with the demons that would rob us of our wholeness, calling us to task for not trusting in the power given us.

Living as mirrors of God’s glory, living as conduits of God’s power—this turns moments of mysterium tremendum into mysterium tremendum as a way of life—a life lived as a living, breathing expression of overwhelming mystery—awesome and terrifying all at the same time.

In his weekly reflection this past Wednesday, Bishop Taylor quoted Marianne Williamson. I’ve seen this quote many times, and it is often wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela—you can certainly picture Mandela saying it, but it comes from Ms. Williamson—and no matter how many times I hear it, it never fails to catch some place deep in my soul that knows that what she speaks of is true. Hear her words:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 

How are you actively taking the veil off of your face so that the glory of God can shine through? How are you living an unveiled life? How are you making manifest the glory of God that is within you? How are you giving others permission to do the same? Many are frightened of the dark right now, but the only way out of the darkness is for us relinquish our fear of the light.

So, make your way to the tent of meeting with the LORD; spend time communing in prayer; let God fill you with glory; listen to the life of Jesus and learn how to live an unveiled life, and then, let that light pour from you, fully, radiantly, gloriously, powerfully.

And know that as you surrender to that glory, and to a great measure, surrender your right to control, know that, in that moment of transfiguration, in that moment of both awe and terror, you will know why glory was never meant to be contained in a booth. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 7, 2016

Be Kind to One Another

The Rev Deacon Greg Erickson; The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany;

 

Biology 101

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21; Video

Today, we get to join the Corinthians and go to Biology 101. We will be covering the body as a system. This class will be taught by the esteemed Professor Paul, whose last name we don’t really know.

The body is made up of individual members—one body, many members. For example, feet, hands, ears, eyes, nose, head, and parts of the body that we might consider weaker, less honorable, less respectable (Paul leaves these to his student’s imagination). Now then, if the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” does that make it any less a part of the body? No. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, how could you smell? The body works as a system, and all these members are arranged to help the body live well. If all were a single member, where would the body be? And like any good professor, Paul repeats his theme—many members, one body.

So, the eye can’t say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” In fact, those members of the body that seem to be weaker—they are indispensable. Those members that we think less honorable—we clothe them with greater honor. And our less respectable members—we treat them with greater respect.

But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

And then, like any good professor, Paul makes the connection from this body system to the real arena of applicationthe community. Now then, YOU are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. And then he goes on to lay out all these functions within the community: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of deeds, healers, helpers, leaders, Spirit-mediatorsso many members, so many gifts, all of them a part of the body, all of them needed for the body to live well. No gift better than another, all matter to the body; no gift worth less than another, all matter to the body.

And in his introduction to this lecture, Professor Paul indicated that he was taking this up another notch. It’s not just about the community of faith, but it’s about something so much biggerit’s about Christ and the Spirit and breaking down barriers. Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. There were societal barriers between Jews and Greeksnot so with the Spirit, not so with Christ, not so with his body. There were societal barriers between slaves and those who weren’t enslaved—not so with the Spirit, not so with Christ, not so with his body. No one group gets to look down upon another, and those who have been at the bottom—those who are weaker, those who have had less honor, those who have had less respect, they are lifted up in this body—they are indispensable to this body; they are clothed with greater honor, more respect.

Look around our community, our society—dear body of Christ incarnated at St. Luke’s, how are we doing at breaking down the barriers? How are we calling out those who would say to another, “I have no need of you,” starting with a piercing self-examination of that voice within ourselves who thinks that about another? How are we making known to those who have little power in our society that they are indispensable? How are we lifting up those who lack honor and respect and treating them with the respect and dignity that is their Godgiven birthright? How are we having the same care for one another? How are we suffering together? How are we rejoicing together? Where are those spaces where we even experience being together in the one body? Or are we just trying to go it alone being a progressive foot or a conservative hand or a libertarian eye, or a black shoulder or a white knee, or a male hip or a female elbow, or an Episcopal ear or an Anglican head?

And lest we think Paul has an agenda (and frankly, what teacher doesn’t), don’t blame him—he got it from Jesus.

Luke 4. Jesus’ inaugural sermon. His first chance to lay out his vision, his mission, before the hometown crowd. Nazareth is his Iowa. He has been filled with the Spirit and field-tested his vision with Satan in the wilderness, and he is pumped up! The synagogue in Nazareth is packed—they haven’t seen a crowd like this in a long time. All ears are leaning in to catch his 10-point plan. And like any good leader trying to establish his vision, he lays out a good and solid foundation—Isaiah 61. Good choice. A favorite of his listeners.

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And like any good leader, he has tweaked his source ever so slightly to put his own stamp on the vision—Jesus explicitly lifts up the poor, in addition to Isaiah’s oppressed, and he is going to help those who are blind recover their sightJesus is about restoring the vision to all those who have lost it. And he won’t let go of that radical, radical vision of jubileethe year of the Lord’s favor—a vision to forgive all debts and give those who have had to economically sell their soul a chance to start all over again—clean slate, fresh start, and a place to call home.

And Jesus rolled up the scroll, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him; they were on pins and needles waiting to see what would come next. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

When you hear people say, “God has a bias for the poor and oppressed,” this is where they get that. The God of Isaiah proclaims it, the God of Jesus proclaims it, the Spirit of the Lord proclaims it—the weaker, disrespected, dishonored members of society, the Spirit of the Lord has come down through Jesus to bring them out of the shadows and lift them up, so that they, too, know they are indispensable to him and to his body. We, and they, are members of the body and members of one another. We aren’t whole if we aren’t suffering with these members of the body, and we aren’t whole if we aren’t rejoicing in their gifts, and if we think we have no need of them, well, they’ll be enjoying jubilee while we, like that elder brother of Luke 15, stand outside and miss the party. We, and they, are members of one another, so in very real terms, we can no longer speak of “we” and “they,” but only of how we are one.

Take a look around, any more, there are precious few in this world who understand what it means to live as the body—the body is not well—on almost any level we can think of, the body is not well. Paul, Jesus, they are all trying to show us the way to wholeness, the way forward that will lead the body back to health.

Take your place in the body, and let’s be the hands that reach out until everyone knows they belong. Only then will we find the wholeness that we’re all looking for. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 24, 2016

Walking in the Way of Love: A Response to the Primates Meeting

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11; Video

Well, we made NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, and CNN on Friday, so here goes a lesson in our polity, a lesson in the way we are structured in the Anglican Communion. And you need to know this so that you can make some sense out of the news that has hit the papers and airwaves. So settle in, this is going to take me a while to explain, and you are going to have to work to understand it.

Let’s start with this: The Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion—repeat—we have not been kicked out of the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Primates are comprised of the senior bishops of the 38 Anglican Provinces. The Episcopal Church is a Province; The Church of England is a Province; The Church of North India is a Province; The Church of Nigeria is a Province, and so on. So, the Primates have been meeting this past week in Canterbury, England at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A piece of their work addressed what consequences might follow for The Episcopal Church in relation to the Anglican Communion following our recent changes concerning marriage. Let me read you the recommendations of paragraphs 7 and 8 of their statement:

“7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

“8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognizing the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.”

These recommendations were adopted by a majority of the Primates present.

Please don’t focus only on the sanction part and miss the call to “maintain- conversation-with-the intention-of restoring-relationship” part.

In the full statement, the Primates also said the following, “The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.”

It is important to note that the actions of the Primates in no way change the actions that the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has taken that have moved us toward full sacramental inclusion for all people when it comes to marriage and ordination.

In Anglicanism, each Province is autonomous and free to make their own decisions with regards to matters within their Province.

It is also important to note that the Primates Meeting is but one of four Instruments of Communion for the Anglican Communion—the other three being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference made up of all the bishops across the Communion, and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)—which is the only Instrument of Communion that has the involvement of lay people, priests, deacons, and religious, in addition to bishops. The ACC is the most representative body amongst the Instruments of Communion, and it is this body which facilitates the cooperative work of the churches across the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church has three representatives to the ACC. The Primates have no authority over the ACC. In fact, as a body, the Primates have no constitutional authority to enforce their decisions at all; the ACC is the only constitutional entity of the Anglican Communion, and how they choose to act on this statement will be up to them. More than you ever wanted to know about Anglican polity, right?

Even so, what the Primates have done hurts.

It especially hurts our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters for whom these actions feel like a kick in the gut.

It hurts those of us who understand that the actions our Episcopal Church has been led to take have indeed been actions guided by the Holy Spirit undertaken through a 40-year period of deep and thoughtful study of scripture and theology, as well as listening deeply to the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Episcopal Christians, not to mention soaking our discernment in prayer. This week, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, summarized this so beautifully when he told his fellow Primates this: “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

What the Primates have done hurts those of us who are deeply committed to relationships that span the world. A good part of my heart resides in the Diocese of Durgapur in West Bengal, India, and truth be told, no statement of the Primates is going to stop us from companioning with our brothers and sisters in Durgapur, and what is true of us is true of hundreds of dioceses and thousands of congregations across the Anglican Communion. Let us not think that the Anglican Communion is the Primates; the Anglican Communion is a complex web of relationships that span the world. But what the Primates have done still hurts.

And when you’re hurt, it’s hard to see where those inflicting the hurt are coming from, but I think we also have to stretch to understand more fully the context in which many in the Global South minister. A context that places some of them next door to a version of radical Islam that sees in the actions of The Episcopal Church one more sign of the encroachment of a decadent Western culture.

But what do we make of all this on a Sunday when all the lessons are dealing with abundance and generosity and MARRIAGE? What a delightful set of scriptures to sit with as we ponder all of this.

Let’s not give ourselves over to “the-Anglican-sky-is-falling.” Instead, let’s buckle down and do what we do best—meditate on scripture, and given the actions of the Primates at the Primates Meeting this week, the irony of these passages assigned for today is just too much.

Isaiah, what you got?

 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

Okay, so maybe we take some comfort that God won’t keep silent and God won’t rest until the way of love is vindicated and the wholeness of all the people of God—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and those who think none of those manifestations of human sexuality is compatible with scripture—God won’t rest until the way of love and the wholeness of all the people of God is lighting our way.

And maybe, in the midst of all this, God is trying to call us by a new name. But understand brothers and sisters, we in The Episcopal Church are not termed Forsaken, nor are we termed Desolate. We are a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD and a royal diadem in the hand of God.

Here is what God has called us, get a load of this name, My Delight Is in Her and our land shall be called Married. Married—isn’t that beautiful. The LORD delights in us and our land shall be called Married and God is rejoicing over us. Thank you, Isaiah.

And then there’s the psalmist.

Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds…Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep…you give them drink from the river of your delights…For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light. Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.

Love, love, love…all the way to the heavens. And God understands actions taken to set right what has been wrong, actions taken as a matter of justice. And hard though it may be, the river from which God has given us to drink is full of delight; the well of life is deep, and as long as we keep looking to God’s light, we will continue to see light. As long as our hearts are true, and we continue to seek to know God, we will continue to be enveloped in loving-kindness.

And then we come to I Corinthians 12 and Paul’s teaching concerning spiritual gifts.

Paul doesn’t want us to be uninformed. He warns us about how we can be enticed and led astray by idols—like say, the idol of the rightness of our cause, or the idol of thinking our brothers and sisters are just unenlightened. If we are claiming to speak by the Spirit of God, we better well understand that there is no room for cursing Jesus and that includes brothers and sisters who’ve also been marked as Christ’s own forever who hold different understandings of human sexuality. There is room for critique of some of the ways that Western culture practices sexual expression—for instance, promiscuous behavior is not okay; objectifying the other is not okay; and an approach to relationships that keeps all your options open and always has an exit strategy misses the grace that comes in a committed relationship shaped by steadfast love that has weathered its share of Good Fridays and come through to Easter.

Paul goes on to explain how there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and varieties of services, but the same Lord; and varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. He explains how to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

What would happen if our brothers and sisters across the Communion could come to see that the Spirit has given us in The Episcopal Church a particular gift to offer as we seek to serve the common good?

What would happen if we could come to see that the Spirit has given our brothers and sisters across the Communion a particular gift that is theirs to offer as they seek to serve the common good?

We have learned so much from our brothers and sisters in Durgapur about faithfulness and manifesting abundance in circumstances of devastating poverty, and they have learned so much from us.

What if we in The Episcopal Church could honor the particularity of the gifts we have been given, trusting that the same Spirit is activating all of these gifts in everyone, and that it’s the Spirit’s choosing as to which gifts are given to whom, not ours?

And then we come to the gospel. Jesus has the last word. The wine at the wedding feast has run out. Jesus doesn’t want to solve this problem; he just wants to enjoy the party for goodness sake. Even so, his mother pushes him to get involved. I am guessing that Jesus is looking down upon this holy mess in our blessed Anglican Communion and saying, “I don’t want to solve this,” and I am praying fervently for Mary to push him to get involved and stay involved. He doesn’t turn to the containers of wine; he turns to these big, huge water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification, and he orders them filled with water, and he changes that water used for one ritual purpose into the wine that allows the marriage feast to continue.

It is in our Anglican DNA for our ritual containers to grow and expand and hold new wine. The fact that I, as a woman, stand before you at this altar as a priest is evidence of that. We have not thrown out the doctrine of marriage. We have come to understand how that solid, traditional, ritual container can indeed hold the new wine of deep and committed love between people of the same gender.

And Jesus won’t just change this water into wine once, but again and again, until all of us are gathered at the wedding feast. We might need to drink the wine of charity toward those who’ve hurt us. We might need to drink the wine of understanding. We might need to drink the wine of courage to stand fast in what the Spirit has led us to do. We might need to drink the wine of reconciliation. We might need to drink the wine of agreeing to disagree, and yet, agreeing to join in the feast together anyway. Who knows what wine we will be needing to drink, but whatever it is, you can bet that Jesus is going to take what we have known the best, that which has been most familiar to us, and transform that into something new, right before our eyes.

I have been in this conversation around human sexuality my whole ordained ministry. I have prayed it through, studied it through, held it up to the light of scripture, and listened to the hearts of many, many people. The Spirit has led The Episcopal Church as a whole, and St. Luke’s in particular, to this new wine. And on that day in October when we blessed the marriage of two women, love indeed reached all the way to the heavens. I have never known such Delight in the land called Married.

But I also know that we need our brothers and sisters across the Communion and the particular gifts that the Spirit has given them. I pray that our hearts may be open to receive all that the Spirit has given them to offer for the common good.

May we never forget that we all drink from the well of life; we are all gazing into God’s light, praying for that light to guide our way; we are all seeking to know God and be true of heart.

Institutional chess aside—let us be about the way of Jesus seeking to walk ever more deeply in his Love. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 17, 2016

With you I am well pleased

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Baptism of Our Lord—First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Video.

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Have you ever stopped to consider that this sacramental rite that is so much a part of our community is something that Jesus himself underwent? Maybe if we understand what’s going on for God and Jesus in his baptism, we might just understand something about what’s going on for us in ours.

It’s the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and Herod is ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip is ruling over the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis (in modern-day Syria), and Lysanias is the ruler of Abilene (also in modern-day Syria); it’s the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. This is the canvass upon which these events will play out—a complex political situation, with imperial power located in Rome and puppet rulers in Israel interfacing with religious power centered in the Temple. These are not good times for ordinary folk. They are longing for things to be different, but they have no idea how to make them different.

And John took to heart this wilderness that had engulfed the world around him, and instead of fighting it, or trying to distract himself from it, or numbing himself to it, he gave himself over to it and went more deeply into it. The wilderness was where John made his home. It was into this moment that the word of God came to John. Don’t blame John for his fiery prophetic talk—he’s only speaking the word that God gave him. Granted, he’s a little hard to follow, or maybe he’s pretty easy to follow, and we just don’t like what he says. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s a mouthful. He quotes the prophet Isaiah and talks of preparing the way of the Lord and making straight his paths and filling what’s low and bringing down what’s up and making crooked things straight and rough things smooth. John reminds people of that grand vision of Isaiah where all flesh, all flesh, shall see the salvation of God.

Now then, people are flocking out to hear John and to be baptized by him. He is definitely not your warm and fuzzy spiritual director. He calls them a brood of vipers. He wonders who told them to flee from the wrath to come. He exhorts them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. He warns them of the dangers of tribal identity and thinking your tribe earns you anything. His words are fiery and leave no room for business as usual. Some listening get the urgency of the moment. They ask what they should do. “Share your coats, share your food, be content with what you have,” was what he said in reply.

These are the waters stirring in that wilderness place in that wilderness time; these are waters into which Jesus himself will be baptized. The people were filled with expectation and they are wondering about John. What he says touches something in their hearts. It speaks to that piece of them that knows things are not as they should be. Is this the leader they’ve been looking for? Is he the One? “No,” John says with piercing clarity. John may lack tact, but he does not lack clarity. He knows who he is, and he knows who he isn’t. John understands the limits of his role. John baptizes with water, but the One coming, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This One coming, he will do his share of shaking us up, too, what with that all that stuff about threshing floor, winnowing fork, wheat and chaff—but his approach is going to look a little different than John’s approach.

And somehow, all these exhortations that John keeps throwing out, the people, they hear them as good news. Sometimes, our way out of the wilderness begins when we can admit how far we are from the peace and wholeness and abundance and joy that God longs for us and the world to know.

So the people, they are ready to repent. They long to be forgiven of all the ways they have missed the mark. They go down into those waters to be cleansed of all that has stood in the way of realizing the dream of God for all creation.

 

And then, there he was. Jesus. He was among those who had gone out into the wilderness. He was among those who knew things were not as they should be. He was among those who longed for things to be different. He, too, wanted to repent. He, too, wanted to be forgiven of ways that he had missed the mark. He, too, wanted to be cleansed, and to set about realizing the dream of God.

But as he came up out of the waters, something unfolded in a different way. Jesus’ first action when he broke the water was to pray, was to open himself up fully and completely to God. And, in that moment, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

+++

Sometimes, people repent because they are afraid of what is to come. Sometimes, people repent because they want the future to be different. But Jesus shows us a whole other level to repentance. Sometimes, you repent to open yourself up completely to God, so that you can remember who you are at the most basic, fundamental level—“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, with you, I am well pleased.”

Whatever else building the dream of God will entail, it all begins here, in this moment, grounded in being God’s sons and daughters, grounded in being absolutely, fully, and completely loved by God, grounded in a deep, deep understanding that we are enough, right here, right now, and that in us, God is so well pleased. As children, isn’t that what we longed to hear from our parents and teachers—that they were pleased in us? As adults, isn’t that still what we long to hear—that the people who are important to us, that they are pleased with us? We may or may not have heard that when we were little; even now, as grown-ups, we may struggle to hear that from others still, and yet, all of us, young, old and in-between, in our baptism, this is exactly what is proclaimed by God who knows all the ways we miss the markYou are my precious child, I love you with a love that you cannot imagine, and with you, I am so well pleased.

In the wilderness that is our lives and is our world right now, this is finally the solid ground upon which we can stand. And how solid is it? It is Isaiah again who helps us catch the grand vision—Thus says the Lord, who created you, who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

This core identity is not an avoid-all-pain-and-struggle proposition. No, that’s not the promise. The waters will come, the rivers will rise, the fires will rage, we will lose our way, as will our children, as will those we love with all our might.

The promise is that the LORD who created us and formed us has called us by name, and claimed us, and redeemed us.

The promise is that God has promised to be with us through it all.

The promise is that we don’t have to be afraid.

The promise is that God is relentless when it comes to searching out the lost and bringing them home. However far we, or those whom we love, lose our way, God’s love extends out farther and will catch us up and carry us home. The shepherd searches always.

 

Today, Jesus goes down into those waters, and so do we.

Today, he repents of any story he has been telling himself about his own unworthiness in his person or for the task at hand, and we need to do the same.

Today, he discovers what happens on the other side of repentance when you open yourself fully and completely to God, and we are invited to open ourselves as well.

Today, he hears who he has always been, and we are called to remember what God has declared about us.

Being God’s Beloved won’t spare us pain and struggle—one quick look at Jesus’ life will disavow us of that notion—but being God’s Beloved is what will give us the grace and strength and courage to keep making our way in the wilderness, hearts open, love flowing, embodying the very peace and wholeness and abundance and joy that is the dream of God.

The One we’ve been waiting for has come. The waters that poured over him have poured over us. He lives in us. No matter what comes, never forget today; never forget how Beloved you are. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 10, 2016