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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Remember God’s promises and come home. Bishop Taylor’s Diocesan Convention sermon.

+Porter Taylor

Convention Sermon 11/16/14

 

“Hope is the hardest love we carry.” That’s what the poet says—

And it’s been true since the beginning of time.

It’s true for us and it was true for Isaiah.

Today we hear the prophet Isaiah speaking at one of the great turning points of history

The Israelites have been in captivity in Babylon for seventy years.

Two generations have never seen Jerusalem.

They have no idea what the Temple looked like.

They have a confused sense of home.

The Israelites have been in exile so long, it no longer feels like exile.

Yet part of them knows that Babylon is a way station—

It’s like being in an airport for half your life.

Yes, you make it work

You find a place to sleep and a way to keep your body and mind strong

You adapt.

But it’s hard to find rest—it’s hard to find joy—and it’s hard to feel at home.

You find ways to distract the deep loneliness inside.

As humans, we are amazingly adaptive—which is a good thing.

When we are displaced, we make do.

We accommodate—we make our lives work.

 

But at some point, we are no longer tourists—we have gone native.

Our heads stop thinking about home and we adapt, but our hearts are always restless

And in our dreams we confront our loneliness.

But Isaiah is still a tourist. He has never stopped thinking of home.

He is calling for the Israelites to remember where they belong.

He is calling for them to prepare for their return.

He is jostling their memories.

He is trying to rewire their brains.

He is awakening their dreams of what it means to be where you belong.

Most of all, he is getting them to hope.

 

“Remember,” he says, “the Lord’s ways are not your ways

And the Lord’s thoughts are not your thoughts.”

Because the Israelites have gotten used to a slave economy where

You get what you pay for.

You don’t work, you don’t eat.

There’s never enough for everyone.

It’s an economy run by fear and scarcity.

It’s a world mapped by division—the Babylonians are the haves

And the Israelites are the have nots.

It’s a world afraid of newness and grace.

 

 

Some years ago I pulled my back.

I couldn’t stand up straight and I could not turn my shoulders.

I could be comfortable standing stooped over as if I were a downhill skier.

Instead of dealing with the pain—I tried to accommodate it.

This is fate of the Israelites in Babylon—they are living a half life

because they think that’s all they can do since God has abandoned them to exile.

 

Too often, it is the fate of our world as well.

Our world is changing so fast—our lives are so hectic—everything is so complex.

And the currencies of this contemporary exile are fear and despair.

If you are not home—it’s hard to relax and trust.

Instead of stretching out our hands—we clutch.

And instead of admitting our loss and pain, we stay distracted with our endless screens.

That is what Babylon feels like.

 

Today we are being commissioned as God’s prophets just as Isaiah was commissioned

to bring the Good News to a world gripped in fear and trapped in exile.

No doubt we are as afraid as the Israelites.

We too could say—“We are lost.”

“We are men and women of unclean lips and we live among people of unclean lips.”

But the Lord commissions us just as God commissioned Isaiah

 

to proclaim Good News to the captives:

Come HOME.

Come home to God—

Come home to God’s mercy—

Come home to a vision of God’s world for all God’s children.

Come home to trust that the world can change

and all God’s children can have what they need.

Come home to God’s economy.

If you are thirsty, there is water.

If you are hungry, there is food for your body, soul and mind.

And it’s not the economy of the empire—

This is not a world where you get what you pay for.

Because it’s not about what you have—it’s about who God is.

It’s a world where you get what you need simply by opening your hands.

It’s about trust; it’s about living with open hearts.

The truth is we learn how to make this journey out of exile over and over again.

 

When I was twelve years old, my family took a vacation to a ranch in Florida

About forty minutes from Gainesville.

It was a long drive from Asheville, and in 1962 it was mainly two lane roads.

My brother and sister and I were excited for one reason: the ranch had horses.

 

We got there in the middle of the day,

and we three kids threw our stuff on our bedroom floor and ran to the stable.

In short order, the farmhand had us on three horses riding in the hot Florida sun.

As we were walking back to the house, my Dad came out on the porch to wave at us.

Suddenly I could see him slap his neck.

Then he fell down. My mother came out and screamed for us to help.

My dad was highly allergic to bee stings.

He had been stung by a bee on the vein running down his neck

and had gone into shock.

My brother and I carried him to our station wagon and laid him in the back.

We sat beside him while my mother drove to the University of Florida hospital.

When we got there, my mother realized she didn’t have her wallet.

She had no identification.

She had no money, and no checks, and in 1962 we didn’t have credit cards.

My sister didn’t have any shoes on.

My brother and I were wearing David Millard Junior High football jerseys.

We three children kept asking our mother, “Is it going to be okay?”

She would say “yes, it will all be fine,” but then she’d start to cry,

and we knew that she didn’t know any more than we did.

In the hospital waiting room, we were in exile.

But what we discovered is the goodness of the Lord.

 

The nurse got us rooms at the Howard Johnson.

Our cousins brought us clothes.

After a very scary eight hours, the doctors said my dad would be okay.

As we waited for our father to recover, we three kids called room service and ordered all

of Howard Johnson’s twenty-eight flavors.

We sat on our beds and put quarters in to have Magic Fingers jiggle us

while we watched Jeopardy and The Price is Right.

 

At twelve I didn’t think about grace, but I do now.

Because I know we all lose our way.

We all end up in Babylon.

Sooner or later we are all in exile.

But those are the times we are called to discover the goodness of the Lord.

Those are the times when we must remember our calling

to proclaim to the world the great reversal and act upon it:

Instead of the thorn shall come the cypress

Instead of the brier shall come the myrtle

Instead of a slave economy—

you can buy wine and milk without money because your need is enough.

Instead of being stranded in a strange city,

you get all you need from people you don’t know.

 

Strangers turn out to be angels.

Because it’s not about our ways—it’s about God’s ways.

 

Like Isaiah we are called to pronounce the Great Reversal,

That means we must remember God’s vision for God’s children and proclaim it.

Instead of a Congress that will not even talk to each other—

We will have leaders who seek to legislate for the common good.

Instead of a worldwide system of human trafficking—

girls can go to school everywhere without fear.

Instead of whole countries like Mexico and Honduras that have been overtaken by the

drug cartels—

 

there will be safe streets to walk in for the young and the elderly.

We don’t have to understand it.

We don’t have to have a flow chart to see how it will work.

We just have to embrace it with our whole hearts.

We have to believe it and then proclaim it and then move our feet towards it.

Our task—our calling is to say to this world, trapped in exile, what Isaiah said to his,

If you are thirsty—if you are hungry—If you are lost,

Remember God’s promises and come home.

 

Money: The Currency of Love and Conduit of Commitment

Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 25—Year A; Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm; 1; Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

This month we’ve been lifting up stewardship in all kinds of ways—sharing our blessings, insert page reflections, the prayers of the people, the Why I love St. Luke’s video (which will be in your inbox when you get home), and last week Jacque preached about it. Just like Lent gives us a whole season to focus intentionally on our spiritual life and practice, so too this season gives us a chance to focus intentionally on stewardship, and especially on our relationship to and with money. It’s not that our life in God or stewardship or our money practice don’t receive attention the rest of the year—these are all daily practices that need daily attention—but these seasons invite us to go deep in our reflection and to be intentional about these practices, and that’s a good thing.

Money. Oh, most of us don’t like to talk about it. Many of us don’t really want to think about it. What are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company? (pause) Religion, politics, money. But what did Jesus spend a whole lot of time talking about—religion, politics (in the largest sense of how we structure ourselves as a society), and money. Jesus spends an enormous amount of time addressing issues around money—wealth, greed, riches, poverty—certainly more than he ever spent talking about issues of human sexuality. Still, it’s a daunting task.

I often get anxious when it comes to my turn to preach about this. I can talk about all the aspects of stewardship that involve how we spend our time and energy; I can talk passionately about how we engage our passions, but there is a part of me that wants to walk quickly and lightly over the money stuff. You’re just not supposed to talk about it. It’s nobody’s business; it’s a private matter; don’t go there. But I think I’m over that.

I just finished reading Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life. There are a lot of good books out there on money. Last spring, the Friday Study Group read Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most. It was really helpful, and really hard work. But The Soul of Money pushed me to a whole new place with this stuff. Twist is a global activist who has devoted her life to alleviating poverty and hunger and supporting social justice and environmental sustainability. She has worked across the globe in some of the most resource-poor places on the planet. So, she speaks with a voice that knows full well the deprivation that exists in some parts of the world, as well as the unbelievable excess that exists in other places.

Let me run through her analysis.

Twist unmasks what she calls the toxic myths of scarcity: myth #1—there’s not enough; myth #2—more is better; myth #3—that’s just the way it is. She goes on to say that when we believe there is not enough, when we believe that resources are scarce, then we accept that some will have what they need and some will not, and we rationalize that someone is destined to end up with the short end of the stick. Once we define our world as deficient, the total of our life energy, everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do—particularly with money—[then] becomes an effort to overcome this sense of lack and the fear of losing to others or being left out. There’s not enough generates a fear that drives us to make sure that we’re not the person, or our loved ones aren’t the people, who get crushed, marginalized, or left out. When we believe that more is better, and equate having more with being more—more smart or more able—then people on the short end of that resource stick are assumed to be less smart, less able, even less valuable, as human beings. We feel we have permission to discount them. When we believe that’s just the way things are, then we assume a posture of helplessness. We believe that a problem is unsolvable. We accept that in our human family neither the resource-rich members nor the resource-poor members have enough money, enough food, or enough intelligence or resourcefulness to generate lasting solutions.

 

She counters all of this with the truth of sufficiency, and to get there, she tells this story. She, and others from the Hunger Project, had been called to work with a tribal people deep in the Sahel desert in Senegal in West Africa. Their village was running out of water, and they needed to find a new source of water or a new place to live. Government services were not extended to these people, not even in times of crisis. They were illiterate people who were not counted in the census. They couldn’t vote, and they had no pull with the government, but they had tremendous resilience. Driving out to the village, Twist described the landscape as a desolate vastness, so bleak that it seemed unimaginable that any human being could live there.

 It was a Muslim village, and when the meeting began there was an inner circle of men, who did all the talking, and a second circle of women—the women could see and hear, but they did not speak. Twist says that she could feel the power of the women behind her, and she asked to meet only with the women. The mullah and the chief allowed it. The women drew in close, and several of the tribal women started to speak. They said that it was clear to them that there was an underground lake underneath the area—they could feel; they knew it was there; they had seen it in visions, but the men had not permitted them to dig. The men didn’t believe the women, and digging wells was not women’s work.

In this resource-poor area, these people had what they needed—Twist notes that they weren’t poor, they were eager to find a way through this challenge and they burned with possibility. They were a well of strength, a wealth of perseverance and ingenuity. What they needed from an outside source was a way through to pursue their clear instinct. After many conversations with both the women and the men, they made an agreement with the mullahs and the chief that the work would start with the women because the women had the vision. The women dug, singing, drumming, caring for one another’s children. Deeper and deeper they dug, never doubting the water was there. The men watched skeptically but allowed the work to continue. Down and down they went, digging, digging, and a year into their digging, they reached the underground lake of their visions. They built a pumping system and a water tower, and now, seventeen villages have water. Women’s leadership groups in all seventeen villages are the center of action. There is irrigation and chicken farming, literacy classes and batiking businesses. The whole region was transformed because they were able to reclaim the power of what was there.

Twists states:Sufficiency isn’t a quantity of anything. [It] isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough. Sufficiency resides inside each one of us, and we can call it forward. It is a consciousness, an attention, an intentional choosing of the way we think about our circumstances. In our relationship with money, it is using our money in a way that expresses our integrity; using it in a way that expresses value rather than determines value. Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources. Sufficiency is a context we bring forth from within that reminds us that if we look around us and within ourselves, we will find what we need. There is always enough.” Twist speaks of using money as “the currency of love and conduit of commitment.”In simpler words, as one of you told me last year—money is energy.

We have to talk about money, we have to think about money, we have to reflect intentionally on our relationship with money because it is an energy, a force, a current in our life and Twists notes—it is meant to flow. When we are buying into the myths of scarcity, we are tempted to scramble for it, be anxious about, hoard it, and when we do that, it stops flowing, and it loses its capacity to carry our deepest aspirations and ideals; it loses its capacity to be a conduit of our commitments, to make manifest the power of our love. So this isn’t a small thing. In fact, to become intentional about our relationship with money is a very, very big thing. And over and over, Twist makes the case that this doesn’t matter if you are dollaraire or billionaire, if you are resource-poor or resource-rich (I love this way of describing it!). People at both ends of the spectrum can be consumed by the toxic myths of scarcity, or can live from a place of deep sufficiency, a place of deep enoughness.

All of us move in this world of money. How we get it matters. How we spend it matters. How we invest it matters. Where we allow it to flow matters. Where we withhold it matters. When we align our interactions with money with our deepest values, then immeasurable amounts of energy are freed up and unleashed toward those values and ideals. When we are unconscious about money, when it’s not flowing freely, when it isn’t lining up with our deepest values and aspirations, then our energy gets blocked, stagnant, and we can’t see the lifegiving possibilities that are swirling around us all the time.

As I read her book, I could sense the power of her stories, her witness; I could sense the energy of her approach; I could taste the freedom she describes, the passion unlocked and unleashed and set free. Isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what we want for our families and our communities? God created this world overflowingly sufficient, rich with everything we need. There is enough, and when we start from that place, then we start from a place of immense hope and possibility. And Twist has the experience from the most impoverished places in the world to back up this truth. It is worth it to read her book just to hear her tell these stories. The “there’s not enough, more is better, and that’s just the way it is” perspective crumbles in the face of these stories. And if it can be true in the deserts of Senegal and the rural most parts of India and the poorest parts of our cities, then it can be true in your life and in my life and in Boone, North Carolina.

So, yes, I want you to think about money. I want you to break all the rules and talk about money. I want you to explore to the depths your relationship with money. I want all of us to ask if our relationship with money is aligned with our deepest values because I want all of us to be in a place where money is flowing, where money is a currency of our love and a conduit of our commitments. I want our passion and energy to be walking in concert with the flow of resources in and through our lives.

This is so much bigger than where we give our charitable giving; this is about how all of our money flows. In this sense, the questions around money are just one more expression of how we steward all that God has blessed us with. It’s not more important because it’s dollars and cents; it’s so important because it is such a vastly unexamined part of our lives, and one which swallows a ton of our energy, and one in which the cultural forces are hugely stacked against our being intentional in our choices. I love the show Mad Men, but the advertising industry does not want us to be intentional in our choices.

Which brings me to the church. What other place will push you to reflect on this part of your life? And what other place will support you as you swim against the cultural super consumer stream? Where else can we gain support to show our kids a different way to value their worth—a worth based solely on their status as a beloved daughter or son of God and not on what they own or possess or the level of their debt? What other place gives you the opportunity to express your deepest aspirations as you seek to respect the dignity of every human being?

Think about the power of the money that flows through this place. Think about the beauty that inspires us through the music we hear in this space. Think about the peace of this place when it is filled with more than a hundred people holding silence together.

Think about the formation that happens with our children and youth who grow up into the kind of adults that serve women seeking a second chance in New Orleans, or mentally challenged people in Durham, or serve in the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps or Americorps or the Peace Corps, or who take a deeply formed compassionate ethical worldview into all the places of their work in the world.

Think about the nurture and love that is unleashed as we bless an elder as she makes her rite of passage to assisted living or bless a thirteen year old making their rite of passage into their teenage years. Think about the joy and hope that springs in our hearts as we watched our youngest kids take up the offering or the courage we draw from our brothers and sisters who have allowed us to walk with them as they show us how to die well.

Think about the feeding that happens when we come together at this table. And think about the feeding that happens when we gather in the Mary Boyer Garden, or at FARM Café, or at Hospitality House. Our love is made flesh in the money that flows through our Hunger Basket to WeCan and Hospitality House and the Hunger Coalition and the Community Care Clinic.

The church—this is the place where we wrestle with aligning our values in concert with a God who loves us and a Lord who shows us what it means to live as a human being infused with divinity—this is the place where we can go deep and work out what all this means together—in the Friday Morning Book Study, in the Social Justice Training Group, in the Women’s Group, in the conversations that happen over coffee and around the edges all the time.

St. Luke’s uses the money you give as a currency of love and as a conduit of our deepest shared commitments. Does the church need money to do what we do? Yes. $322,000 worth a year. But I believe, no I know, that we collectively have everything we need to live out the vision of love and commitment that are the heartbeat of this faith community. Some of us are resource-rich and some of us are resource-poor, but we all are wealthy and have something of deep value to contribute to this church and to the world.

Between now and November 9th when we do our ingathering, I want you to engage your relationship with money—go deep with it. Think about how money is flowing through your life. Where is the flow moving freely, where is it stuck and stagnant? Where has the toxic myth of scarcity and plain old fear grabbed you? How is money expressing your highest aspirations and ideals? How is it a currency of love in your life and a conduit of your deepest commitments? Lift all of this up to God; turn it around like a multi-faceted crystal and let God’s light shine through it from every conceivable angle. Think about those places where your money is flowing and ask if those places are aligned with your values and ideals. If they are, support them with joy and passion, knowing that when it’s flowing and aligned money is a powerful expression of your soul. If the places where your money is flowing aren’t aligned with your values, then start that process of redirecting the flow to places that are, knowing and trusting that the energy that will unleash in you can breathe life back into your soul.

On November 9th, you will have the opportunity to make manifest your love and commitment to this place, to this community. And if you can only commit with one dollar, do it, because that is an alignment of your money with your values and that will make a huge difference to you and this community. The culture has told us that we don’t have enough, but this morning, we have pulled back the curtain, and now we know—that’s a lie. Inside each of you are immeasurable resources that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents, underground lakes that are the heartbeat of this community. As you make your commitment on November 9th, bring those forth as well. God will bless it all that all of this may flow as a blessing upon the world.

So, I am glad to talk about money because in this exploration lies the seeds of transformation at the deepest levels of our being. Come on into the waters. In that baptismal spirit that is at the heart of our life, let the myth of scarcity die, and let Jesus pull you into the life that springs from that deep, deep place of gloriously enough. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; October 26, 2014

A Cornerstone of Forgiveness

Rev. Cyndi Banks; Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 22—Year A; Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Vineyards. Vineyards. We just can’t seem to get out of the vineyard. Two weeks ago, we had the story about the early-morning/all-day laborers in the vineyard who got paid the same as the slacker-one-hour laborers. Last week, we had the parable about the two sons—the one who said he wouldn’t go work in the vineyard but did and the one who said he would go work but didn’t. And this week, we are back in the vineyard again. This time, Jesus tells a story about a landlord who planted a vineyard. [He] put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

Context here is important. Jesus is in the temple. It’s the last week of his life. The day before this one, he had turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He is in a heated debate with the chief priests and Pharisees over authority. And this image of the vineyard would have immediately called to mind the passage from Isaiah 5 that we also heard this morning.

In that story, it is the Lord God who has tenderly planted the vineyard, dug it, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines, built a watchtower in the midst of it, hewed out a wine vat in it, and he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And if we’re not catching it, the Isaiah passage spells it out pretty clearly for us—the house of Israel, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judahthey weren’t living in the ways of justice or right relationshipthey are the wild grapes.

God’s heart is broken. God has tended his beloved people so carefully, poured so much of his divine being into them, and they’ve gone all wild on him. And broken hearts oftentimes take us in two directions—we either lash out, or we disengage. In some ways, God does both in the Isaiah story—and now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

The chief priests and Pharisees knew this story from Isaiah and the vengeance rained down upon those wild grapes, at least, that’s the story they told themselves about the Isaiah story. But as Jesus tells this story, the harvest isn’t wild grapes; it’s a really good harvest of really good grapes.

Okay, so pretend you’re the chief priests and Pharisees, and you’re the jury at this trial, and you are about to hear this testimony after which you will be asked to render a judgment. Here it goes.

When the harvest time had come, [this landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Jesus pauses. He has those listening in the palm of his hand. Remember chief priests and Pharisees, context, you know your scriptures and Isaiah is in your head. The wild grapes got destroyed. These tenants have been good farmers, but horrible at relationship with the landowner. Are these tenants good or bad? (pause) See how fast we can go there? Now, in fairness to the tenants, maybe the landowner had been giving them a raw deal for decades, and they were fed up with the hard work and low wages for their labor. However, seizing, beating, killing, stoning representatives of the landowner—slave and son alike—not an okay response.

Jesus then asks the chief priests and Pharisees to render their judgment—“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Okay, chief priests and Pharisees—what will the owner do? Well? Think of the wild grapes; what will the owner do? (pause)

[The chief priests and Pharisees] said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Oh, those tenants are lower than wild grapes; they’ve gone straight to wretches put to a miserable death, the vineyard ripped out of their hands and given to another. Oh, the delight of vengeance, the taste of retribution; it is sweeter than honey in the mouth. It’s that part deep inside of us that lights up when someone gets their just deserts, and even though thatdeserts” is spelled differently, it just sounds delicious.

But Jesus is telling a parable, and parables always flip us on our head.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

“Uh, yeah Jesus, we’ve heard that scripture, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

“Uh, yeah Jesus, still no idea. But I’ve got the feeling you are talking about us. I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but I know I don’t like it. You are way messing with my frame, and the only thing I want to right now is lock you up, get you back in some sort of box, because I don’t want to think as radically big as I think you are asking me to think. I want to arrest you in the worst way, but the crowds, they love you, but if it’s between your vision, and mine, you’ve got to go.”

Sound familiar? Your world view is challenging mine, so I have to destroy you. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is the air we breathe; this is in every myth that informs our action at every level of society; this is played out on playgrounds and lunch rooms and board rooms and halls of government. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is played out between nations and within nations and among rivals of every conceivable stripe; this is played out on our streets and on the byways of social media; but know this—this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is the stone that the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone? (pause) Let’s think about this in a new way. Over and over in Matthew, Jesus speaks of it. The cornerstone? It is forgiveness. It is mercy. “How often should I forgive, Lord, seven times? Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” When asked how to pray, Jesus taught, “Forgive us, as we have forgiven others.” Forgiveness is the only stone strong enough to secure the foundation upon which the building rests. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes. There is this very human part of us that wants vengeance, that wants to get even, that wants you to get yours when you’ve hurt me. Jesus gets that part of us. My goodness, if anyone had reason to get even, it was him, but he responds with his life. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is hard to will. In fact, I’m not sure you can will it. When it comes, it always comes as gift, a something that is at work inside of us that comes from way beyond us. And when it comes, it is amazing!

And here, we need to take a little detour because there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not amnesia. And, forgiveness does not erase the need for accountability in our relationships. In fact, accountability is an essential component in the process of forgiveness, and forgiveness is an essential component of accountability. We can’t pull these two apart because in the process of forgiving, we take several profoundly vulnerable and courageous steps—we acknowledge that an action of another has hurt our heart, we step out and make that hurt known, and we signal our willingness to move through and beyond the hurt toward a promised land of healing that may seem quite beyond our imagining in the midst of the hurt. Accountability begins with this gut-wrenching, vulnerable, exposed place of honesty. Accountability begins with a willingness to risk telling the truth of our experience. Forgiveness and accountability—these two go hand-in-hand. They don’t always lead to reconciliation—that takes a commitment on both parties part, but reconciliation is impossible without both forgiveness and accountability. We have a lot more to learn about how these two go hand-in-hand, and Jesus will show us the way if we signal our willingness to step out into this territory. Okay, detour ended; back to the main road—we’ve still got a bit more to travel.

 

There is this little matter of breaking and shattering. The false self, that part of us that refuses to let go of our rightness, that part of us that clings to our sense of offendedness like life support, this stone of forgiveness and mercy will break our false self to pieces. To release our right to vengeance, to let go of seeking retribution, to release our desire to see people get what they deserve, it shatters us. But then, amidst all the rubble, we touch a new place, a beautiful place, an amazing place, a place of freedom and peace. It is here that we touch the cornerstone, the True Self, the Christ who lives in us and fills us with a capacity to love and forgive that is quite simply beyond us.

But here’s the deal—you can’t get to that place, except through the shattering. The chief priests and Pharisees, they couldn’t go there. They refused to die to be born anew, and believe me, it will feel like dying, and it is labor to be born anew.

God doesn’t want vengeance, not anymore; in fact, I don’t think God ever did. Even in Isaiah where it sounds like that’s exactly what God wanted—I don’t think so. I think there, God was saying, “You want to grow wild, you have that right. You want to have a go at it without hedges and walls and limits and examination and pruning away, you want to have a go at living without doing your work—go ahead, you have that freedom, but your life will be out of control, and that will be a waste.” That’s not vengeance; that’s natural consequences. And God loves us enough to grant us the freedom to experience them, if that’s what we choose.

God doesn’t seek vengeance—Jesus, his death and his resurrection, is living proof that God seeks life, new life, forgiven life, life filled with mercy, life pulled from the ashes.

Stumble on this stone. Let forgiveness break you to pieces—that forgiveness which you need to receive, that forgiveness which you need to bestow—let it break you to pieces. Let it shatter you, and then let it be the first stone in building a new life. This is our call—together, let us start from this stone at this corner. It’s time to build up a new world from the foundation of forgiveness and mercy, and never have we needed it more. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; October 5, 2014

A cornerstone of forgiveness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21—Year A; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Let’s begin today with a fill in the blank exercise. We have a crisis of …….(pause). Okay, drop down a bit. Think about the gospel story today. Okay, we have a crisis of ……. We have a crisis of authority. We hear a lot about this in today’s world. I googled the words “crisis of authority” just to see what would come up. In .19 seconds, there were 150,000,000 results, one hundred fifty million. And, among the first page of results were these: a book about “The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an article about “A Crisis of Authority” in the Wall Street Journal, a reflection on “The Crisis of Authority” in response to the Lambeth meeting of Anglican bishops, an article on “The Crisis of Authority” in the political and economic realm, an article on “The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity,” and on and on and on. Phyllis Tickle refers to it as she describes this great shift underway in Christianity known as the Great Emergence—she says that one of the main things that is always up for grabs whenever the church goes through one of these great reforming upheavals is authority. It seems to be that we see this playing out at all levels of all denominations of all faiths, and indeed, at all levels of society, and it feels especially intense in our day and time, but maybe this battle over authority has always been so.

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” When someone asks you about your authority to do something and asks you who gave you that authority, what does that feel like? (pause) It feels like a challenge. It feels like a way to dismiss you.  It could feel like accountability. It mostly feels like deflection. It feels like a huge game of “gotcha.” It feels like they are trying to strip you of power.

Jesus knew this was all smoke and mirrors, and he responds in a way that will pull back the curtain on this ruse. Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Jesus knew all along that the question of authority isn’t the central question. So, what is the central question? What is at the heart of the matter? Power. Power beyond our imagining. Power that is uncomfortable. Power that is undeniable. Amazing power that can be used for good and healing and wholeness, and power that can absolutely destroy. It is much easier to pick at authority than it is to look at the dynamics of power and our relationship to power. Several of us spent most of yesterday in a Dismantling Racism workshop looking at power as it relates to racism—good work, important work, tough work—power is a tough thing to explore, a tough thing to come to terms with.

So, how do you relate to power? Do you shy away from it? Do you claim it? Do you claim it and wield it like a weapon? Are you comfortable with its energy? Do you harness it? Does it scare you?  Can you spot it in the systems of which you are a part? Or, is it one of those things that moves in the shadows or under the surface just out of our awareness?

Jesus knows the pitfalls of the trick question on authority. It’s a no-win scenario. So, after revealing the authority question for the straw man that it is, Jesus turns the tables, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Here, we see the power of action that speaks louder than words. It is not hard to get the words right, but it can be awfully hard to actually live as we speak (Parents, can I get an “Amen?”). We can speak of the importance of compassion and forgiveness and patience and kindness and steadfast love, but are we actually practicing these in the flesh and blood stuff of our lives?

Jesus continually shows us how God’s power moves as it will, where it will, through whom it will; it is wild and unpredictable and uncontrollable. The authority argument keeps a tight lid on where and when and how that power moves. Some have it, and some don’t; it is tightly controlled, very predictable, locked down, and mediated in very precise measurable quantities in very defined patterns.

That’s all well and good for those on top of the structure, but Jesus never was much interested in the top-down approach. Philippians—“though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” The big fancy greek word for this dynamic is “kenosis.” Jesus is superabundantly filled with light and life and power and love and pours it out lavishly, abundantly, recklessly. The love that pours out of him is way out of control.

The tax collectors and prostitutes could sense this kind of power—it flowed into the parched places of their lives, and when they drank of it, they touched the kingdom of God.

But as long as the chief priests and elders are having this debate about authority, they don’t have to deal with this wondrous, crazy, out-of-control power that will most certainly upend their lives and their structures. Their argument over authority is the armor that protects them from feeling the vulnerability that inevitably comes when you open yourself to this power that is flowing straight from the heart of God. That authority armor will protect you from feeling so vulnerable, but it also keeps you from touching the kingdom of God where all is grace.

Paul closes that part of his letter to the Philippians by saying, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Wow! Have you ever considered that salvation is not the reward of the next life, but the very work of this life? That our work is to work toward our wholeness with God and each other and our very selves, here, now, today, in the very detailed, intimate context of your life and your relationships? Have we ever considered that central to this working out of our salvation is coming to grips with our relationship to power?

If Paul is right, and it is God who is at work in us, then we have a load of power stirring in our hearts and souls and minds and bodies that we have to acknowledge and accept and come to terms with and steward. We have enormous power—how are we deploying that power throughout our lives? Are we aligning that power with God toward wholeness, ours and the world’s? Are we in touch with its awesomeness, that’s the fear and trembling part, or are we in denial that it even exists within us?

Back to the crisis of authority question. We may be in a crisis of authority, but crisis, by its very definition, is a turning point, a crucial time in which a decisive change is impending. The roots of this word eventually wind their way back to the cross. And on the cross, power got upended, turned upside down, and resurrected in a whole new way.

Maybe, as those who try to walk in the way of Jesus, this crisis of authority is an invitation to take off the authority armor and put on the power of God. Maybe, it’s an opportunity to examine our comfort and discomfort with this power that lives inside of us. Maybe our coming to terms with this power is what the world is waiting for because it sure doesn’t seem to know how to steward it well at all, and power that is not stewarded toward wholeness is dangerous and destructive.

Salvation is the work of this life.

Will we say “yes” to this power, or will we let this sleeping giant lie? Amen.

 

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; September 28, 2014

What is your relationship to power?

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

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

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

Let Jesus rewrite your story–Easter 3, Year A

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

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

Recognize Resurrected Life – Easter Day- Year A

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 20, 2014

This is the night! Easter Vigil – Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What better news could there possibly be on this night

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 18, 2014

Palm Sunday – Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is it that we denied our best friend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is it that our hearts turned so cruel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

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