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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.”

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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

Be Egypt for Another and Find Egypt for Yourself

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas II—Year C; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23. Video. 

We’ve had all this momentum toward Christmas. All the preparation. Whether it was shopping, or getting ready to travel, or preparing food, or learning music, or decorating the sanctuary—a lot of energy getting ready for this birth and all the celebration that surrounds it. And now all this activity is winding down as we turn back toward the normal rhythms of our lives. We’ve had the huge event and are left to wonder, “What now? What next? Where do we go from here?”

The scriptures do not leave us hanging; they tell us in painful detail exactly what comes next. If we had any illusions about beatific scenes of mother and babe and adoring wise men being the happily-ever-after ending to this story, this morning, Matthew takes that script and says, “Not so fast. That’s not the world we live in.” The world into which Jesus was born looks a whole lot like the world we inhabit as the calendar turns to 2016. A world with its share of brutal dictators scared to death of losing their power, so scared that they will unleash unimaginable violence on the most vulnerable in their society—read the horror that got unleashed by Herod in the three short verses omitted in the reading from Matthew this morning.

In this season when so much of our news has revolved around the worldwide refugee crisis, especially those fleeing the war in Syria, can we just sit with this story from Matthew on the quite literal level? We no sooner say our goodbyes to the wise men who have come to celebrate the birth of this holy child, then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So Joseph got up, and took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until Herod died.

Before we consider any policies with regards to refugees, could we just sit with this passage for a good long while and contemplate our Lord’s first days, weeks, months, and years of his life? Jesus’ father, Joseph, gathered up his family and fled by night to another country to escape the violence of a brutal dictator who was terrified of losing power. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were absolutely dependent on the kindness of strangers in a foreign land, and Jesus doesn’t make it to his adult life and his amazing ministry without the hospitality of the Egyptians. And he and his family don’t just reside there for days, or weeks, but it’s years. As Christian people, this story has to be in the forefront of our imagination as we grapple with these complicated questions before us as a country. Sometimes, that first, plain meaning of the scripture really is that plain and provides the place where we need to wrestle. So, in the coming week, I invite you to sit with this story from Matthew 2, but add back in verses 16-18.

There is another level on which this story is operating, and it is deeply personal. Ten days ago, we marked that God had been born in our flesh. There is this divine spark that has been birthed in us and that divine life is starting to grow. It seems there are a lot of new grandparents in our midst as of late, and I heard one of them remark that in those first few days and weeks of life, the child changes so much every single day.

So, how is this divine life inside of you growing and changing every single day? Can you feel it? Can you see it? Can you sense it? This hope that has been implanted in your being, can you feel how it is taking shape? To see the dignity that resides in every human being because God has become flesh in us, to be a people of profound and deep hope who actually believe that the impossible is possible with God, this is a dangerous thing in a world that thrives on cynicism and fear. Are we conscious enough, awake enough, to pay attention to our dreams? Can we hear that angel of the Lord say to us, “Get up, take the child and everything that would nurture that child, and get thee to Egypt?”

In other words, do we understand that there are plenty of forces in this world that would like nothing better than to destroy the dignity and hope that has been born in us. God has taken all the love that birthed creation itself and poured it into our frail flesh. We are filled with a love that surpasses understanding and that much love will always be a threat to those in power because love that deep and broad can always outlast fear. But for that love to have a chance to grow into the full stature of peace and nonviolence and compassion, it has to have the space to stretch its wings and fully expand.

As this new year begins, I would ask you to think about the forces in this world that seek to destroy what has been born in you. How is an angel of the Lord trying to get your attention? Where is your Egypt, that safe space that God is calling you to go, so that you may protect and nurture this burgeoning divine life inside of you?

This isn’t about escaping the brutal forces of the world forever—that angel will come back to Joseph and tell him when it’s time to go back home. Yes, Herod will be gone, but Herod’s son is waiting to fill his shoes. Joseph, and we, aren’t called to escape to Egypt forever, but only for a time. This is about a season of strengthening the hope and divine life that is within us so that we can embody that hope in a world where brutal forces still hold sway.

St. Paul understood this rhythm—I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you Paul understood that wisdom and revelation are always a work in progress; it’s always a process of coming to know, and for Paul, that coming to know is intimate, it’s relational, it’s coming to know the Beloved. Paul understood that it’s always a process to have the eyes of our heart enlightened; and it’s always toward a purpose, toward the goal of knowing what is the hope to which he has called you.

If ever there was a time when the world needed us to be people of hope, it is NOW. But as any of you who have been around a baby know, growth and development take time and space and environments that will nurture something so tender. At this moment in the life of our world, what could be more tender than the divine hope that has been squeezed into our very human flesh?

What is the hope to which he has called you? If you are heeding the angels in your dreams, if you are keenly aware of those places and spaces that will nurture what is growing in you, over the coming year, you will discover the hope to which he has called you. And in the process of embracing and strengthening that spark, hope will move from a call to a way of life.

Welcome to 2016. Amidst the celebration, there are still the likes of Herod, and fear and a brutal taste for power are still far too present. Be Egypt for another. Find Egypt for yourself. HOPE has been born in you, and in me, and in every human heart that can make the space for it, and the world needs desperately for this HOPE to have a chance to grow. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 3, 2016

Breathe, Fast and Feed

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent 3—Year C; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 Video

Never has Advent seemed more important than it does this year. Last week, we were stunned by the shootings in San Bernardino. This week, we are stunned by rhetoric that would bar Muslims from entering our country and consider closing some mosques; some have floated the idea of registries. Leaders of all faiths, including a wide range of Christian voices, have condemned these proposals. Fear is rampant among us; we, as a people, have been triggered, and our brains are working really hard.

I was at a training with clergy a week and a half ago, and I got a quick lesson in some brain physiology. There is the thinking part of our brain that can reason and think and make choices. This includes our prefrontal cortex which controls our executive function (and, as any of you who have raised young people will know, this part of the brain is not fully developed until the late 20’s).

And then, there is this mid part of the brain, the limbic area, and in the limbic area is the amygdala, whose purpose it is to remember anything that has threatened us, scan the environment, and sound the alarm if it perceives danger.

When this alarm sounds, the survival brain swings into action—our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, and chemicals flood our brain to give us the energy to fight, flee, freeze, and some add a fourth response, appease.

When our survival brain is kicked in, our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain, goes offline.

Trauma triggers our survival brain, being a bystander to trauma can trigger our survival brain, and the perception of threat is enough to get us there. The brain organizes the world by story, by looking for patterns of meaning, and it doesn’t even matter if the story is true or real—all that matters to the brain is that there is a story to grab a hold of, and when it latches on to a recognizable pattern, a little chemical reward gets released.

Why am I digressing so far into brain stuff this morning? Because I think we are at a really tough juncture as a people right now. As a country, we are facing traumas faster than our brains can process on multiple levels. Mass shootings, of any kind, fill us with fear because they are so random. And the 24-hour news cycle, with its constant replay of images and sounds and sound bites, not to mention all the stuff on social media, places us in a constant role as a bystander. We are living, breathing, eating trauma right now as a country, and our brains are on overload. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed, hyped up and agitated, or if you are feeling completely fatigued and worn out, it’s partly because our brains just can’t keep up right now.

So, call me crazy, but right now, we are going to stop and breathe. No, I mean it, I am going to teach you about box breathing because breathing is the fastest way to calm our survival brain and bring our prefrontal cortex back online. You breathe in to a count of four, hold for four, exhale to a count of four, hold for four—so the whole cycle takes 16. Try it with me, and picture the little box. In-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4.

One more time, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, counting, and picture the box. In-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4.

Now, feel the energy in the room.

Dear people of God, your first job right now, is to breathe, calm your brain down, and ground yourself. We don’t have a chance at being discerning about anything until we do that.

The next thing we need to do is to be very discerning about the images, sights, sounds, and narratives that we are ingesting. In fact, some measure of fasting is called for right now. Yes, we need to be informed; I am not suggesting that we go into a bubble and wall ourselves off from the pain of the world, but I am suggesting that we don’t need to be glued to our TV sets, our computers, our smart phones, or our radios to stay informed. If you feel your body starting to ramp up, or if you feel your energy dropping through the floor, fast from the news coverage, fast from Facebook, and breathe—get grounded in the here and now, in this moment, in this space.

Next, as you are fasting on the news coverage, feed on the scriptures we have before us today.

Meditate on the collect and fix your eyes on a God who has a capacity to stir up divine power and to come among us when we are sorely hindered by our sins and divisions, fix your eyes on a God whose grace and mercy are bountiful, who longs to help and deliver us.

Take the first two lines from the First Song of Isaiah as your mantra—Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and he will be my Savior. Guns won’t save me. Building a stronghold won’t save me. Building my defenses three feet thick and ten feet tall won’t save me. God saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. I will not be afraid. I will not be afraid. The Lord is my stronghold, my sure defense, and he will be my way to wholeness.

Drink in Philippians. Hear it again: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. This will not be a peace that the world understands; in fact, the world will look at us and think we are crazy. It is a not the peace of uniformity, or unanimity, or absence of conflict, or papering over our differences—it is that deep peace that can stand still in the middle of the storm; it is that deep peace that is beyond our understanding and comprehension; it is that deep peace that holds our hearts and our minds even when chaos is swirling all around us; it is that peace that knows that death and destruction never have the final word, and that resurrection will not be denied.

And sit down with John the Baptist and let him speak some truth in your ear. Bear fruits worthy of repentance—in other words, do your work. Don’t be claiming Abraham as your ancestor—don’t be claiming your tribe as the best; don’t make the error that they made and think your tribe entitles you to some privilege and forget that God chose you for service to the world.

Have the humility to ask John what you should do. Maybe you need to give a coat to someone who needs one. Maybe you’ve got food you need to be sharing. Maybe you need to work on being content with “enough” and give the never-ending-race-to-acquire-more a rest. Have the humility to ask John what you should do.

And don’t be looking to him, or anyone else, to be the Messiah. His baptism was with water and was about repentance, but the One to come, he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire—power and heat and passion—his baptism moves us forward and burns away that which gets in our way of living in the wholeness that God longs for all creation to know. Jesus’ baptism isn’t just about repentance—that’s a step on the way, and a vital one—but Jesus’ baptism knits us into a Body where we are bound to him and to all flesh, knits us into a reality where our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of our neighbor, near and far, and even more radically, holds a place at the table even for our enemy.

Advent takes seriously that the world is coming apart at the seams. All of that end-of-the-world-apocalyptic imagery is woven throughout this season, and yet, and yet, the mother of God is pregnant. Somewhere deep and hidden, life is stirring, a new something is about to be born, a something that will join heaven and earth, a something that can show us how to stand between the realms and in so doing can teach us how to stand in every tragic gap in this world. A hope, a hope, that is stronger than all that would try to deny it, a relentless hope is burning—one candle, two candles, three candles, four—a light shining out in the darkness. Advent…a blessed quiet in the midst of voices raging.

So, give your poor brain a rest. Fast from the fear and insanity. Feed on the scriptures, feed on this ancient wisdom that has seen it all before. Feed on those things that will calm your heart and quiet your mind and strengthen your soul. As Paul said, “Let the mind of Christ be in you,” and bring that mind, that consciousness, to all that is before us.

Our survival brain is a blessed part of our humanity, but it won’t get us to the peaceable kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together.

For the rest of Advent, give your survival brain a much needed rest and create the space for the peace of God that surpasses understanding to take hold, in you and in the world. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 13, 2015

Dare to Hope

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent II—Year C; Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The headlines are rough right now. The Paris attacks. The shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last week. San Bernardino this week. 300+ mass shootings this year. A first degree murder charge for a police officer accused of shooting Laquan McDonald, a 17 year old African American male, in Chicago, the video of which set off protests in that city. A civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, resulting in a horrible refugee crisis. Have you lost hope yet? It’s tempting, isn’t it.

And it’s Advent—that season of preparation for Christmas. The culture does this in its own way, offering us all kinds of ways to get into the holiday cheer. You can eat your way there, or drink your way there, or spend your way there, shopping for loved ones like crazy. All of these offered to us as fast-track ways to joy. But you can’t fast-track joy, and the Advent that the church offers us knows that. No, if we are to know joy at Christmas, it will be because we do the hard work of Advent.

The collect reminds us that it’s the prophetic call to repentance that prepares the way for our salvation. It speaks of heeding warnings and forsaking sins, so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. This is about a prophetic call to hear the pain of the world, as opposed to cranking the holiday cheer up so loud that you can tune out the pain. This is about repenting of that which will get in our way of wholeness. This is about heeding the warnings so that we don’t go the way of cynicism or despair. This is about forsaking our separation from one another.

Malachi also talks of the messenger who prepares the way—one who is like a refiner’s fire, refining and purifying. That’s hot, hard work, both for the refiner and that which is refined. That’s about burning away the dross, and being melted, and molded, and shaped anew.

Philippians draws our attention to the heart, and speaks of how we can hold one another in our heart. Paul speaks of longing for the Philippians with the compassion of Christ Jesus; he speaks of love that may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us determine what is best. Can you imagine approaching all that is before us with longing for connection and compassion? Can you imagine bringing our best selves, full of love and knowledge and insight, earnestly seeking what is best in these incredibly complex times steeped in intractable problems?

And then, Luke locates all this preparation in time and space. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. The word comes to John in the wilderness at a specific moment, at a specific time, in a specific place, in a specific set of circumstances. God is not other than this world, far and distant. No, Luke locates God right here, right now, in our history, in our place, in our time, in our messes.

And that voice crying out in the wilderness tells us this, “It’s all going to have to get rearranged if all flesh, all flesh, is to see the wholeness of God. It won’t do for some of us to see it; no, this wholeness is for all flesh—God will be satisfied with nothing less.” And the landscape of our world, and our lives, and our hearts will have to get completely rearranged in the process.

Advent is this wondrous season, so counter to the culture. A season calling us to go inward and quiet, a season calling us to hard work, root work, deep work. A season calling us to take seriously where our world is right now, and calling us to repent, but the repentance to which we are called right now (and maybe the people of God have always had to exercise this repentance) is to repent of despair and cynicism and easy cheery answers.

As I listen to the news, it is easy to go the way of despair. It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to say none of this will ever change. It is easy to put our hands over ears and throw ourselves into the food and drink and shopping and cheer. Advent calls us to repent of all of these and to look to the east where a much harder thing is being birthed—HOPE. Advent calls us to hope, deep hope, steely hope. The kind of hope that knows this birth will happen in the middle of a tyrant’s reign. The kind of hope that knows this child, the Prince of Peace will die a violent death, and in the process, will show a stronger way—the way of love and forgiveness and empty tombs and life that can’t be contained. The kind of hope that refuses to believe that the way it is has to be the way it is.

Advent is our time to burn off the dross of cynicism and despair, so that we can put on the armor of light. Only a heart that can dare to hope will know how to greet with joy one such as Jesus Christ because he is going to turn our world upside down.

So, put your ear to the world, and hear its pain, but don’t go the way of despair, cynicism, and denial that so many will go. Instead, as you hear all the pain that is out their right now, hear the longing of God for this world; hear God’s compassion; let your hearts be filled with that love, let it overflow with knowledge and insight. Be the people of God that God longs for us to be so we can help the world determine what is best, and point the way forward to a landscape where all flesh can see the salvation, the wholeness, of God.

Let your preparation be that of one who can dare to hope, even if we are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. How will the world recognize the HOPE that has come if we don’t prepare the way? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 6, 2015

Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon (Video); Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year A; Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

I want to begin by recognizing and thanking my colleagues. My words won’t do justice to how I feel about this staff, but I will give it a shot.

Deacon Greg Erickson. Always ready to serve; always leading with his heart. Wise, calm, and absolutely willing to wade into tough situations. I am grateful for his counsel, for his wisdom, and for his sure and steady presence. It means everything to me to know that Greg shares this work with me. These last few weeks have reminded me, yet again, that I could not ask for a better partner in ministry.

Catherine King. My work is out of the office as much as it is in, and I can do that because Catherine anchors the office. She, in her calm and steady way, just keeps moving forward. Catherine is able to do the ordinary routine tasks—bulletins, weekly email blasts—even while holding compassionate space for the very real human ache in our community. It’s the little things, like posting pictures of Agnes to our Facebook page this week. Nobody asked her to do that, she just knew that’s what needed to happen. Catherine, I have learned a lot from you and from the work we do together. Thank you for your wisdom, your commitment, and your dedication to your work.

Pat Kohles. Pat is another wonderful anchor. She keeps our finances straight and provides the Vestry, and you, the information we need to be faithful stewards of all you have entrusted to us. But she does more than post contributions and write checks. Pat is wise; Pat has a longview of this community—she knows our history; Pat sees beyond the numbers to the people of our community. Pat, you are so supportive, and that brings so much to me and to our staff team. Thank you.

Shane Watson. Shane is fearless. My gosh, what shoes to step into, and step into them he has. And Shane has had the presence and maturity not to try to replicate his predecessor, but he has owned and brought forth his own gifts for this work. Shane is a total team player; he is creative, and he has us so organized. In this interim period, thank you Shane for helping us to chart a new course and for helping us to keep expanding our musical horizon.

Suzi Mills. It is such a joy to have Suzi back with us in this interim season. She brings such gifts to choral direction. She brings out the very best in our choir, and they love the challenges she is bringing before them. And she comes to this work with such joy. Suzi is also a great team player and brings this confidence that has allowed all of us to take a deep breath and to know that our musical tradition at St. Luke’s will continue to be deep and broad and strong.

Suzi and Shane, thank you so much for continuing the tradition of having a blast while dreaming, creating, and crafting liturgy. You are blessing me in ways you’ll never know.

Sean Damrel. Sean is our new College Intern with Youth, and he has been a great addition to our team. Sean was formed in a wonderful youth program at his Episcopal church in Greensboro, and he found us his first weekend at ASU. He wants our youth to have that great youth experience like he had. He has a wonderful imagination and a grand sense of what’s possible. Our youth are enjoying him, and he has quickly won the confidence of our parents. Thanks, Sean, for the wonderful formation work you are doing with our youth.

Charles Oaks continues to care for our buildings with such love and attention. He does his work quietly when the rest of us aren’t around, but if you cross paths with Charles, please thank him for his ministry.

Elizabeth Fowler, Heather McGuinn, Victoria Fowler. These are our Nursery Caregivers who provide peace-of-mind to parents and loving care to small children. They introduce our little ones to the holy things and holy stories of our worship so that our littlest ones also have a sense of the holy during worship time. We are blessed with these competent, loving young women.

And I finally, I want to thank Jim and Julia. Jim, you do a lot of ministry in your own right, but I am most grateful for your ministry as my husband, partner, and soul companion. I am able to do what I do because of your support. And you hold me accountable—reminding me that sabbath is paramount and that priesthood, while a wondrous vocation, is but one part of who I am. Mostly, you draw me ever more deeply into the depths and mystery of God’s love and grace, and yes, forgiveness. Thank you for being my companion, always.

And Julia. It is not easy being a priest-kid. You know it; I know it. Thank you for being fiercely and authentically you. Thank you for the integrity of your journey with the big questions of life. I go deeper because of you. I see more because of you. I understand more because of you. Thank you for keeping my feet firmly planted on earth and for reminding me how love works in the daily rhythms of life together.

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Leah Moretz told me about a Kiwanis mantra: “The rear view mirror is small, the front windshield is really big—spend more time looking forward than looking backward.” So, I just want to file by title that there are 50+ groups, classes, and ministries that go on in and through this place stretched out over 6 areas: Outreach and Social Justice, Parish Nurture, Christian Formation, Liturgy, Finance and Stewardship, and Building and Grounds. We are alive and vital in so many ways.

I want to lift up a few things from this past year, partly because they are instructive.

Hosting the UniZulu Chorale in September. This began with a small “yes.” Could this Visiting Scholar at ASU named Bhekani be connected to our choir as a part of his experience? “Sure,” we said. And of course, we fell in love. So, when Bhekani asked if we could help host a part of his choir this fall, we said, “Sure” because Bhekani had become family. And so the St. Luke’s Choir, under the leadership of Pat Kohles and Suzi Mills, took on this project— wholeheartedly they took this project on, and for two weeks in September, our entire community was swept up into the lives of Bhekani and his beautiful students. Host families, meals, transportation, fellowship—you did it all. You gave those young people an experience that will change their lives forever, change how they understand the world, change how they understand our country. And at this current moment in the life of the world, that is a very, very, very big thing. Those young people were blessed, but we were immeasurably blessed, as well. And that is how blessing always works—in the act of blessing, you are blessed in return.

The Threshold Singers. This is one of those things that started with a spark and has taken off like wildfire. The idea was simple. A singing group that could sing people through those big, threshold moments in life—aging, illness, death. They meet on Wednesday mornings, and they go out and sing at Appalachian Brian Estates, Deerfield Ridge, Glenbridge. They go to the homes of our brothers and sisters when our brothers and sisters can’t come here. And let me tell you how powerful this is. I was feeling bad because I was at Diocesan Convention when Agnes Sayles died; I wasn’t there to do the prayers At the Time of Death. And then Mary Williams told me that the Threshold Singers had gone to Deerfield Ridge on that Thursday before, and they had sung to Agnes. Agnes did have the prayers At the Time of Death; they were sung to her. The community, this community, you sang her over the threshold.

You see this church doesn’t revolve around the priest or the priest’s pastoral ministry. You understand that you are fully empowered ministers of the gospel, and together, we do the work of the Lord. I can’t tell you what that means to me, and I can’t tell you how healthy that is for our church! And again, this ministry started because one of you had an idea, a dream, a passion that you wanted to birth. The best ministry happens when someone’s passion sparks another’s and the Spirit’s power is set loose.

Those are but two things that happened this year. There are many more examples:

  • the garden continues to be bountiful and to feed people in more ways than we can imagine
  • our outreach and justice ministries continue to grow and thrive
  • we continue to tend our interior life through food and fellowship, caring for one another in good times and bad
  • our worship continues to be vital on Sunday morning and our musical tradition just keeps growing and expanding as new gifts join up with old ones, and we continue to play and experiment in our Second Sunday services in the evening
  • our adults continue to have several avenues for their own formation—Sunday morning Adult Bible Study has taken off and is meeting a real need and our Friday morning book study continues to be a place of deep community as people explore faith and life
  • our Godly Play continues to shape our youngest members, and our youth have new opportunities for spiritual community
  • there are little elves who show up consistently and quietly to love and care for our building and grounds—painting doors, clearing out beds, cutting grass, tending graves, and doing all manner of little odds and ends
  • in fact, there are people all over this community doing what needs doing, tending what needs tending, quietly, behind the scenese, because they care about our common life

In all the ways that matter the most, we are vibrant and alive! We are known across the Diocese as a place of life who is not afraid to experiment. We are known for our creative approaches to formation and for our liturgy. We are known for our deep and abiding commitment to outreach and social justice. We are known for our capacity to face head-on really hard things and for our willingness to wade into the broken places of life. We are known for how we do life together. Bishop Taylor told me after his visit in October, “I think you all can’t get better in how you do community, and then you do.” St. Luke’s, you get it like no other Christian community I know.

We are living through another one of those really hard stretches pastorally. We’ve had stretches before of death upon death, but in 21 ½ years of ministry, I have never seen a stretch like this. Very complicated situations with profound brokenness, several of which have involved mental health issues. I am so deeply grateful for Mike Tanner’s vision and wisdom in starting the Support Group for Those Who Love People Who Struggle with Mental Health Issues. Trust me, God and I have been in deep conversation about all that is going on—Why so much? Why now? Why us? I think there is a call to us in this. The particular shape of this call is not clear yet, but there is something we, as the welcoming and fearless community that we are, there is something here for us. In 2016, I want us to keep our ear to the ground and see what that something is.

2016 will also be a time of dreaming for us as we consider the unbelievable possibility and potential of 3rd Place and our College Ministry. It is exciting to imagine what ministry could spring forth, not just to the ASU community, but also to people in the wider community who long for spiritual connection but are wary of the church.

And alongside this dreaming, we will continue to explore possibilities for our young children and our 6th-12th grade youth. Every church I know is wrestling with how best to meet the needs of their youth and their families amidst the demands of their lives. Sarah Miller always remarked that our youth program changed every year she was here. That’s just the speed of change in our culture. And our youth are worth it. They want to meet, they want to grow, they want to serve. And Agnes Sayles will haunt us from the communion of saints if we don’t do right by them.

This next year also holds the search for the permanent staff for our music program. We are learning much from Shane and Suzi about the qualities and combination that works best for our choir and congregation. We will be putting the word out far and near to see who God is calling to minister with us in this important part of our common life.

The shootings at a church in Charleston, SC in June stunned us, but out of that brokenness, local clergy have come together across several denominations to meet together on a monthly basis to support one another, to have the hard conversation around race and racism, and to talk about issues that matter in our wider community. This past week, that group hosted the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra here at St. Luke’s and we, and several lay leaders, trained together in faith-rooted organizing. We had a lunch with faith leaders and leaders of many of our nonprofits doing the frontline outreach work in our community. In the 11 ½ years I have been here, that has never happened. That group is going to continue to meet monthly to support one another. A mental health professional said to me recently, “The world is heating up, and you all are on the front lines.” We need each other, and there is this beautiful quiet movement happening in our community where we are coming together across lines and trying to do it differently. We are committed to civil civic discourse, and we are committed to acting with courage from our faith. We have no interest in partisan drama, but we care deeply about addressing structural issues. This is slow work, hard work, but good work. I look forward to seeing the fruit that will be borne of these relationships.

And, this past Thursday, the Vestry unanimously and heartily approved the Picnic Shelter Solar Project. I want to thank all of you for the feedback you gave to the Vestry in the process of discerning this project and thank you for your patience as we realized that we needed to back up in our discernment and really wrestle with the feedback we were hearing. Decisions are always better for the wrestling.

So, I want to share a few things that have come out of our Vestry discernment.

  • There is genuine excitement about this project, especially the creativity and the imagination of doing the witness to solar power in conjunction with a picnic shelter that can serve needs for fellowship.
  • The Vestry understands that there is a mission focus to this project. We have a huge number of 12-step meetings here every week. Members of these recovery groups often congregate outside before and after meetings. We imagine them making use of this space. We imagine students taking a break after classes. We imagine others who might want to come and enjoy a picnic in green space right in downtown Boone while their children play on the swings. We imagine all kinds of fellowship in our own community that strengthens our bonds of connection that give us the strength to go out and serve in world.
  • The Vestry believes in the witness to Creation Care that this project exemplifies. A witness as to how a nonprofit can move in the direction of renewable energy in a creative way.
  • There is also an evangelism opportunity here—a witness that speaks of good news! A grad student stopped me upon hearing about this project and told me how it spoke to her. Trust me, Millenials are paying attention—things like renewable energy and caring for the earth matter to them, and when the church is attending to such concerns, they take notice.
  • This project tapped into passion in a part of our community, and the Vestry believes that the money for this project will follow that passion. Just like when we redid our playground years ago, funding for this project will be beyond our annual giving that supports our normal operations, and we won’t build it until we have the money raised. A designated fund has already been established to receive gifts for this project, and $1,500 has already been given!
  • Some may still have some reservations about this project, but I want to remind us about a deeper value that we uncovered when we combined our worship services, and that is the value of allowing something to happen even if you don’t love it because you love a brother or sister for whom it is important. If this project is not your thing, I am inviting you to allow the space for those who do have passion for this to run with that passion trusting that at some point, they will allow similar space for something that makes your heart sing. If we expect unanimity, we are sunk in our capacity to adapt and change and move in new directions. No, it is the virtue of generosity of spirit that will serve us best.

I am also grateful for this process because it has allowed me to go much deeper in articulating a vision that is central to me as your leader, and that is this: all facets of our common life are intimately and integrally connected one to another. Our formation in the way of Jesus, nurture and fellowship, worship, outreach and social justice, caring for our sacred spaces, stewarding our gifts—all of these feed and shape one another. They all need to be strong if we, as the Body of Christ, are to be strong. Leave any out, and the Body just won’t work as it should. As St Paul reminds us, all of these parts of our life are to be treated with honor. Only when we tend to all of them will we have the strength we need to love as Jesus loves, and to live as he lives, pouring out his life for the sake of the world.

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So, a lot is ahead of us in 2016. Amidst all of these dreams and projects there will be new sparks that we have yet to imagine. Through it all, we will bury our saints and welcome births; we will share our joys and we will bear one another’s burdens; we will sing our praises and voice our laments; we will keep our ear to the ground, listening to our lives, to our wider community, to the heartache of the world, listening for the movement of the Spirit and praying for the courage to go where Jesus is calling us to go. And through it all, we will hold fast to Jesus and to one another because that’s what it means to do life together as those knit together in his Body.

Serving as your priest and pastor and leader—I don’t have words for what that’s like. I am awed by how you do what you do. I am awed by the way you come together and care for one another. I am awed by your passion and your commitment to live the way of Jesus here and in the world. I am awed by the sacred trust that you place in my hands every day.

I love you so very, very much—thank you for the absolute gift of living my priesthood among you. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

November 22, 2015

The Current and Currency of our Lives

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; All Saints—Year B; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44 — Video

We’ve got one of those wonderful, holy collisions today—as your Priest and Rector, it’s my turn to address Annual Giving and it’s All Saints Day—that’s some fun stuff to work with.

I want to start by thanking Lynne Getz for her powerful, powerful sermon a few weeks ago as the Vestry Liaison for Stewardship and Finance. Lynne posed a question, “What is the Church to you?” and then, she proceeded to answer that question from the depths of her being and told us what this church means to her. She gave a witness—yes, Episcopalians really can give a witness. And, as she spoke, I watched you, and you resonated with what she said—St. Luke’s embodies our best hopes about what the church can and should be. We come here and get fed in so many ways, so that we can go out there and be bread for the world. That’s what it means to be Christ’s body—together, for the sake of the world.

And I want to thank Lynne for her great interviewing and Jim Banks for his editing of this year’s “Why I Love St. Luke’s” video. A great range of people and ages all spoke to why they love this community. This is a place where we can stretch and share our gifts; this is a place where we can refine and discern and release our passion in a multitude of ways; what happens here is worth our time, and our energy, and our money.

But there is always a prior question to the why-give-to-St. Luke’s question, and that question is this, “Why give at all?” Lynne Twist is the thinker who continues to capture my imagination here. In her book The Soul of Money, she talks about money as currency, as current, as energy that flows. And she tells story after story about what happens when you align your use of money with your deepest core values; she describes how this sort of alignment unleashes all this energy. She notes that currency, like current, is meant to flow. It makes me think about how Richard Rohr talks about God and the Trinity as the flow of love and how sin is anything that blocks the flow of love. Love, life, energy, current, currency—they are all meant to flow.

Lynne Twist joins others in talking about the difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea—the Jordan River flows into both, but one is alive and one is dead. The Jordan River feeds the Sea of Galilee at the north end, and the Sea of Galilee is full of abundant life, and at the south end, the water flows out and continues south as the Jordan River. The Dead Sea receives the water from the Jordan at its northern end, but it holds everything; nothing flows out, the salt content is 33%, and nothing can thrive in that environment.

We are constantly being invited into this dance of giving and receiving—try to close your arms in and hold it all, and it all starts to shut down. Creativity shuts down, dreams and possibility shut down, sharp edges rise up, fear sets in, anxiety starts to hold sway, “there’s not enough” messages start encroaching on our imaginations, and we don’t step out as much, try as much, risk as much. There’s too much at stake; too much to lose.

These are the stories that we start to tell ourselves, but as people of faith, there is a deeper story that holds us. The saints remind us that we always stand in this stream, this flow that transcends time and space, that is bigger and more alive than we can imagine. We stand in the flow of the God who makes all things new, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. If God is holding the beginning and the end and everything in-between, then you and I are free to leap out and take risks knowing and trusting that God is always taking the offering of our lives and making them new.

We have to give—it is a matter of our salvation—not to get into heaven—that’s really bad theology, but it is a matter of our wholeness. We have to give to remember that all that we have and all that we are come from God, and our task is to receive all that is poured toward us—all the love, all the gifts we’ve been given, all our talents, all our material treasures—our task is to make sure that all that has flowed toward us keeps on flowing. We’re not meant to hold it; we’re meant to steward the flow.

Giving is spiritual practice—it enables us bless, not only with our lips but with the whole of our lives, and it’s how we learn to trust that we will indeed be given our daily bread. So, giving is one of those bedrock, foundational, spiritual practices that hits a lot of us where we live. Even when we get the spirituality of it, taking seriously our practice of giving will always drive us into a wilderness where we have to confront our deepest financial fears and anxieties. And, like all spiritual practices that the church sets before us, that’s a really good stretch for our souls.

Wrestling with our giving practice is also a way that we wrestle with our commitment to one another in this community; it’s a way to incarnate, to make tangible that this community matters to me. It’s one of the ways that we lay claim to the fact that St. Luke’s is my community; it’s the way I can say, “I’m all in, and I take responsibility for our common life here.” Committing to a group of people, some of whom think like I do and some of whom don’t—it’s big—it’s not the done thing in our culture—but there is wisdom and power in saying “to you, I belong, and to me, you belong,” and we will find our way forward together.

I don’t care what you pledge; what I care about is this—if you consider St. Luke’s to be your community, I care that you pledge, that you make some tangible commitment to this community as a way of owning that we share responsibility for our common life. And I care deeply that you wrestle with the amount because the wrestling is good. I care that your giving practice helps you examine, deeply, how and where your money is flowing, and helps you ask, “These places where my money is flowing, do they represent the values, the passions, the commitments that I hold most dear?”

The amount that will draw us into this creative wrestling will be different for each one of us. I have always believed in leading by example, and be assured, our family wrestles with this. For us, 11% of our gross income is that sweet spot that invites us to wrestle deeply with these questions—10% of that flows to St. Luke’s because this is the place that embodies our deepest core values, and the rest goes to places in the local community and across the world that are doing work aligned with our passions. Your tithe includes all the places you bless with support, not just the church.

If the flow of your money and your values are in alignment, there’s going to be energy and life. If your money and your values are out of alignment, or if they’re out of balance, you’ll feel a drain, a drag. If that’s the case, then what is one step you could take, right now, to start to align that flow differently? If you haven’t pledged before, a pledge of $1 in alignment with your values can shift the flow.

Annual Giving Season is an invitation to all of us, as a spiritual community, to wrestle with our relationship to this thing that holds so many of us captive.

And this wrestling can also be such a source of blessing, and a means of dreaming. I am really struck by the story from John’s gospel today. Lazarus has been dead for four days—stinky dead—and yet, Jesus calls Lazarus to come out of that tomb of death, and when Lazarus comes out, he is all bound up, his hands, his feet, his face—bound with strips and layers of cloth. And Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

How are we all bound up with money, with our fears, with our anxieties, with our dreams, with our hopes? What are those layers that we need to peel away and shed? What needs to be unbound in us, as individuals, as a community, so that we may be set free?

On this All Saints Day, I am mindful of all of our St. Luke’s saints—some in this room and some in that great and glorious communion of saints that lives beyond us—and how they dared to dream big dreams, big scary dreams with big scary financial implications. They dreamed of a church that would remain downtown and bought a piece of land and built this beautiful, holy, sacred space, and it was such a financial stretch. I think of all the saints who gave of their money, and their skill, and their sweat, and how a community came together to accomplish something that seemed far beyond them. I think of the saints who made provision for this church in their wills that enabled us to pay off our mortgage just before the financial crash which enabled us to weather a difficult financial season that hit many of our families hard. Those who have gone before us dared to dream big dreams, and they trusted that there would be a way to get there.

And year after year, the faithful of this community, we find a way to get the Lord’s work done—together. What does that look like in numbers? $327,000 flowing through this community—72% of it coming from pledges, 8% from the collection plate, 5% from the Hunger Basket, 12% from other income sources, and 3% from pure faith (as opposed to the financially-sound-reasonable-assumptions-and-expectations kind of faith).

And where does that money flow? Some of it flows through us very quickly and right back out into the world blessing Hospitality House, the Community Care Clinic, the Hunger Coalition, and WeCan. Some of it flows to our Diocese helping to support creative ministry all across the Diocese, and in wonderful Trinitarian fashion, even flowing back to us through Diocesan Support of the Campus Ministry at ASU. It flows into care of our building, and resources for ministry, and care of our staff who provide leadership and the support that enables this community to be the church that we are.

And let me flesh this out a little more—there is only ONE MISSIONto be in the flow of God’s love—to receive it and to give it—in our lives, in this community, in the world. Sometimes, we make these distinctions between monies that go for outreach and monies that take care of the building or pay our utilities or compensate the staff, and we often weight that money for outreach more heavily. But it’s all ONE MISSION.

We are able to do great outreach in the world because we build up the body of Christ here—with fellowship and community and formation and worship. We are empowered to do incredible ministry in our community outside those doors because of what goes on in this community inside of these doors. Music and preaching and bread and wine and prayers and praise feed us every week. Fellowship enables us to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys and emboldens us to risk great things for the sake of the gospel. We grow in the faith together—asking questions together, challenging each other, helping one another to discover and claim and live the way of Jesus 24×7.

Yes, it takes a lot of energy and resources to sustain St. Luke’s, but we’re not sustaining an institutionwe’re feeding and clothing and caring for the body of Christ that is alive in this place, a body that pours its life out into the world.

Some of our dreams for 2016 are in that realm of good, sound, regular care of the body:

  • supporting the work of our staff who lead us, and create the container for music and worship, and who support those often unseen structures that keep our body sound
  • caring well for this physical space—our building and our grounds—and setting money aside for future maintenance needs that we know are coming
  • and, in good early church fashion, binding ourselves to other Christian communities across western North Carolina through our support of the Diocese.

Some of our dreams are in that realm of allowing money to flow through us and toward those in deepest need in our community through our support of WeCan, Hospitality House, the Hunger Coalition, and the Community Care Clinic.

And some of our dreams for 2016 are in that realm of great big scary wonderful dreams. On December 31st, the Rev. Beth Turner is stepping down as the ASU Campus Minister to go ¾ time at St. Thomas, Burnsville. This is a really good move for Beth and for St. Thomas. Any time you have a change like this, it opens up the space to completely rethink a ministry. And Bishop Taylor is asking us, here at St. Luke’s, to do just that. He wants to invite us into dreaming about this ministry at ASU, and to wonder if and how it might be linked to us here at St. Luke’s, and what else might be possible.

The Diocese supports a ½ time position at ASU. What if we joined the Diocese as a partner and added a ¼ time Youth Missioner position here at St. Luke’s to work with 6th-12th graders? And then, what if we went for a Mission Enterprise Block Grant from the National Church to fund creative ministry based at 3rd Place that would reach out to young adults and others in Boone who just can’t walk through the doors of a church for a whole host of reasons, but who can get through the door of 3rd Place located just off of King Street?

What if we dared to dream big dreams for our community and imagined how St. Luke’s could reach out further into the community through being a strong base camp dedicated to new models of being church outside of this building? This spring, we will be engaged in this sort of dreaming, and it will take several months to discern the specific shape of what this could be, but we need to make financial provision now—about $18,000—to support whatever dream might emerge.

And the Vestry is also still discerning whether or not to go forward with the Picnic Shelter Solar Project.

Is it crazy to be considering all of these things? Maybe, but probably no more crazy than buying a piece of land in this location probably seemed all those years ago. These moments don’t come along very often, and there is something in being willing to leap when they do.

We don’t know what capacity exists among us until we reach for a dream. And when passion gets married to a dream, who knows what financial capacity exists among us that has just been yearning to be unleashed. Maybe there is pent up financial current that has just been waiting to be invited to flow. And it’s my guess that that current can flow in multiple directions at once, and in fact, maybe we’re more alive when it does because it means life and passion are flowing freely.

So, next Sunday, we will gather to pledge ourselves to this community, and to make tangible our commitments to one another through the sacrament of our money. This week, you will receive a letter and an email with links to Lynne’s sermon, and this sermon, and the “Why I Love St. Luke’s” video—please sit with these reflections.

Take this week and ask yourself the hard questions about your relationship to money—is the flow of money through your life aligned with your deepest values?

Take this week to think about what St. Luke’s means to you and how you want the current and currency of your lives to reflect all that you value here.

And then, come and live into the dream that God is inviting us to build—together. Amen.

 

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

November 1, 2015

We go together even when we part

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21—Year B; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50. Video.

Have you ever embarked upon some new journey, and you start off all excited—maybe what you are leaving behind was really bad, or maybe it was just time for a change, but you summon the courage to step out on a new path? Your energy is high, your step is light, the air is different, the smell of adventure is in the air. And then, you hit your first snag, your first barrier, and it gets a little scary. You start to second guess yourself and your decision. You throw a glance over your shoulder toward that place you left, but then, lo and behold, God gives you a sign that you are on the right track. That thing you needed, that way forward, it becomes clear, and it’s all good, and forward you go.

Then you get a little deeper into your new adventure, a little deeper into this unchartered territory, a little deeper into this wilderness. You are now in the stage of the journey where it’s a slog. You can no longer see that land you left, and the promised land is not anywhere close to being in view. You are just out in the middle of nowhere. And without the adrenalin of your leaving and without the excitement of your destination—in that uncomfortable in-between space—that’s when your deepest desires and longings can rise up, and that’s when nostalgia can swoop in and take over your mind, your heart, and your spirit.

And that’s where God’s people are today in Numbers. The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” The rabble and the Israelites—this motley crew is a mixed multitude—about 600,000 in all—all sorts and conditions of people, scraped together, a ragtag group of people who had attached themselves to this band of Israelites making their way to the promised land. So this rabble had a strong craving—and we’re back to this desire thing again—deep, deep desire and longing, and the rabble isn’t the whole group—it’s just a part of the group.

Oh, this is a lesson in group dynamics. So, a small group starts getting all worked up, and pretty soon, the Israelites are all upset, weeping again! Oh, if only we had meat to eat…remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt (nostalgia), the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up (woe is me), and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. Hello, the manna that God provided for them when they hit that first snag out in the wilderness, the manna that had sustained them daily ever since, the manna that was quite, quite substantial, that you could boil and make into cakes, and it would taste like a cake baked in olive oil? That manna?

It seems to be a human maxim that when we are moving forward and things get really hard, or the journey is just taking a whole lot longer than we would like, it seems to be a human maxim that we will long for Egypt. All those ways that we were held captive look better than this immeasurably uncomfortable unknown that we are slogging through. That daily manna that has been sustaining us, that gift from God that reminds us that we’re on the right track, all of the sudden, it doesn’t seem like it’s near enough. Food tasted better in that old life, never mind that the life that came with it constrained us and left our souls hungry.

And if you’re a leader—and let’s think broad here…this can be leadership you exercise in the classroom or at work, or leading a team in some aspect of ministry here at church or out in the community, or the ways we lead in our families or among our friends—if you’re a leader leading a group on this journey from what was to what will be, well, there is a special place of misery reserved for you. You have the duel role of hearing the weeping and longing and doubts of the people while at the same time processing your own grief and doubt. Oh joy. That can be a recipe for a down moment every now and again, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader; it means you’re a human one.

So, it’s really helpful to see Moses have his dark night of the soul—here’s how his conversation goes with God: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

Yep, sometimes, leaders just want to crawl into their cave and not come out again. I love Moses, and I especially love Moses when he is raw and unfiltered, and he just lets it fly with God. The text describes Moses as displeased, but the hebrew word also means broken. The beginning of humility is to know that you can’t carry what you are holding in your heart and soul. And once we know that, and once we make that known to God, then God has some space to work with.

And here’s God’s answer: “Uh, Moses, you don’t have to carry this all on your own. Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. Moses, you’ve got to share the leadership. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

This is exactly what Jesus has done to us in baptism. That spirit that rested upon him, he has given it to us, fully and completely. We don’t do this work alone; none of us does this work alone; we have been given different gifts, but we are all gifted and empowered. Moses had to admit his need to God, but it was God who supplied the way forward—that divine spirit that animated him was shared and given around the circle so that the whole community could move forward toward the promised land.

And you get the sense that this whole sharing-of-power freaked the elders out a little bit. When that spirit rested upon them, they were speaking with courage in ways that they had never spoken before. It spooked them to feel that power and to speak that power out into the world. And they shut it down, at least for the moment. When this incredible power that we’ve been given hits us, it takes some time to figure out how to live in this new empowered normal; it takes time to appropriate this power and figure out how best to move with it and deploy it in God’s service.

And what happens next is so, so classic. No sooner do they feel the power than they start developing the right and wrong way to exercise it. Poor ol’ Eldad and Medad. They remained in the camp; they were registered, their credentials were in order, but for some reason, they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And true to form, someone tattled on them. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Moses assistant, Joshua son of Nun, he went straight up to Moses and appealed to Moses to stop them!

It’s that anxiety that gets going when we really empower people and tell them that they have the power and authority to act. When we decentralize in that way, it means some people are going to act in ways that aren’t going to be under central control. And some odd stuff might happen, even some great big crash-and-burns, but can we trust the greater vision of what’s at work? Can we accord people the best of motives? Can we exercise the virtues of grace and forgiveness with one another? Can we circle back and talk it through and figure out where to go from here?

And just as Moses was the exemplary leader in laying his weariness and misery before God, so he remains the exemplary leader now. Moses didn’t get flapped by Eldad and Medad. Moses understood the power of giving up control and letting that power go where God willed it to go. Moses saw what was possible if everyone claimed their share of the spirit and spoke that power out into the world in word and deed. Moses called Joshua on his narrow vision, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Moses could see what’s possible when all the LORD’s people exercise the power that God has placed upon them. We, in this community, have just had a glorious example of what happens when power is shared and the spirit flows. Pat Kohles and Suzi Mills graciously empowered a whole lot of folks in this community and in the university community to be about the ministry of hospitality, and it involved a whole lot of letting go and trusting on their part. Pat could have managed the St. Luke’s side of the equation down to the ingredients in recipes, but she didn’t; she trusted all of you. And look what happened! A glorious, glorious experience of blessing unfolded for a whole multitude of people. Power was shared which freed power to flow, and we, the UniZulu Chorale, the ASU community, and the wider community of Boone and Watauga and Ashe Counties were all blessed in the process. It would have been too much to bear for any one person, and not near as much fun.

And Ted, you have been a glorious and gracious icon for us of sharing power. Musically and creatively, you have brought out the very best in all of us. It has never been about ego with you, but only and always about opening up mystical space; it has always been about opening up that space where people can encounter the spirit of the LORD. As we now part ways, I pray that you may continue to manifest God’s spirit and prophesy in the beautiful way that is uniquely yours. I pray that we may graciously release you for this journey trusting that it’s all good. I pray that when you, or we, hit those moments of longing for what has been, I pray that we both will trust that God will continue to provide us the manna we need—daily and in abundance. And even from afar, I pray that we, you and we, all remember that we are bound together in spirit and love and gifted for the journeys to which we now are called and which are now ours to travel apart.

It takes a community who is empowered to get to the promised land. We do the journey together, and when Egypt starts to look good, we help each other remember where we’re going and why. We’ll be doing that for one another here. Ted, trust the community that is waiting to embrace you and let them help you remember where you’re going and why.

Thank you for 12 ½ years of letting the spirit pour through you, and through your fingers and your fabulous feet; thank you for 12 ½ years of Sunday mornings and baptisms and weddings and funerals. Thank you for glorious experiments and pushing the boundaries and grounding us in the very best of the tradition.

Ted, thank you for more moments than we can name            where you lifted our hearts and ignited our souls and gave us a glimpse of the promised land.

Words fall short; we love you more than we can say. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 27, 2015

Let a child lead them

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 20—Year B; Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

James just keeps coming at us. First, he lays out some criteria for being wise and understanding. It’s not enough for James just to live a good life—the works that make up that good life have to be done with gentleness born of wisdom. Oh man. James notes that bitter envy and selfish ambition can lead to being boastful and false to the truth—not good things in his book. And if people claim these things under the rubric of wisdom, well, for James, it isn’t a wisdom that’s coming from God.

James then goes on to teach us the physics of magnetism—envy and selfish ambition, these attract disorder and wickedness of every kind. The wisdom from above—it’s going to put out a clean energy; it’s going to put out an energy that is peaceable and gentle; it’s going to have a capacity to yield; it’s going to be full of mercy and good fruits with no traces of partiality or hypocrisy; and it’s going to spin off a harvest of righteousness, an abundance of right relationships.

Envy and selfish ambition—these will invariably attract conflicts and disputes. James asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

Okay, our translation isn’t doing justice to the greek in this passage. Let’s unpack some words. The word translated as envy is actually jealousy, and it means “zeal…the kind of zeal where you will defend anything;” this jealousy is “the fierceness of indignation, punitive zeal,” and it comes from the root “to boil with heat, to be hot,” as in “zeal with a good dose of boiling hot anger.” Got the picture?

And selfish ambition. Oh, you’re going to like this one; I promise that I’m not making this up. The greek means “electioneering, intriguing for office, partisanship, fractiousness.” Thank you, James.

When James drills down into the source of the conflicts and disputes among us, our translation says that James points to the cravings that are at war within us. I like the word cravings; I think it captures that insatiable appetite that we have, but that’s not quite what the greek word means. The greek word is hedone“pleasure, the desire for pleasure”—think hedonist. For James, it is all these desires that are often at war within us that are the source of the conflicts and disputes that can engulf us. Now, desire in and of itself isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s a very good thing; it’s the source of passion and energy and new life. However, desire only focused on pleasure divorced from the wisdom from above and mercy and peace and gentleness and right relationship, that’s a problem. Think desire run amok, and maybe we are getting closer to the sense in which James is using hedone.

Then the translation has James saying, “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Okay, it’s a little stronger than that; this wanting is again rooted in desire and longing. It’s not just a little wanting; it’s a whole lot of wanting; it’s wanting enough that you’ll murder for it—and use your imagination, you can kill someone in a whole lot of ways, starting with destroying their character. And the translation talks about coveting, but the greek is back to that good old fierce, zealous, defensive, indignant, burning hot anger, jealous stew; whatever it is that we’re after, we can’t get it, and so we engage in all manner of disputes and conflicts.

Do you ever get fixated on something you desire, something you don’t have, something you want, and you hit a barrier—you can’t obtain it, you can’t get it, you can’t make it happen, and this red hot lava-ish fierce, defensive, burning, indignant anger starts to rise in you, and all the sudden you are in a fight with your partner or your child or your teacher or your boss or your sibling or your friend? Selfish ambitions, partisanship, fractiousness—these spawn disorder and wickedness of every kind. James is so amazingly contemporary.

Conflicts and disputes, they’re just a waiting for us when our desires are not in conversation with the wisdom from above that also resides deep within if we can quiet ourselves long enough to listen to what’s beneath all our desires.

And it is so, so easy to get there. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You do not ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” Quite simply, we don’t ask for what we need or want, or we ask in sideway ways, fearing that what we have asked will be rejected, and we’ll be rebuffed if we just ask for it clearly and directly. But part of the problem with asking clearly and directly is being clear about our need or want in the first place. For James, this discernment begins first and foremost with God—“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, the one who throws things apart, who sets things up in perpetual opposition, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Are we willing to submit to God, to place ourselves under that wisdom from above? In our culture, we struggle to submit to anything. And to hear that wisdom, to touch that wisdom, to receive that wisdom, are we willing to take the time and energy necessary to draw near to God? Are we willing to resist the forces that drive us apart from each other, that would throw us apart from God, that throw our insides apart and get us at war with ourselves? All of this conflict, it’s not of God—God’s deepest desire, huge big whopping desire, God’s deepest longing and wanting (okay, did you catch that desire is not de facto “bad”)—God’s deepest longing and wanting is for us to be at union with God and one another and our own self. But it will take some resistance on our part against the forces that seek to throw us apart, and it takes some yielding on our part to submit to God, and frankly, it takes some plain old sweat equity to spend the time necessary drawing near to God—the church-word for that is “prayer.”

The other thing that gets us off in the weeds of conflicts and disputes is striving to be first borne of anxiety. So the disciples are getting a good dose of reality from Jesus as he teaches that his path follows the way of death and resurrection. The disciples like the rising part—resurrection is way cool—the dying part, not so much. All they know is dying sounds like, well, dying, and most of us don’t want to die—whether that is a physical death or a metaphorical one. Loss is loss is loss. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, and like a lot of us in school, they are afraid to ask the teacher.

So, when we are anxious and fearful, we compare ourselves to others; we strive for the top, thinking that death and loss won’t hurt so much from there.

But Jesus gets what’s going on, and he calls them on it. He asks what they’re arguing about, and they go silent. Are you going to fess up to the guy who has just told you that he’s going to die in service to this mission, are you going to tell that guy that you were just pulling a Muhammed Ali arguing over who’s the greatest?

Jesus sits the twelve down. Time for a little object lesson. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Why the child? What is it about the child? What does this child do to us? (pause)

The child slows us down. The child draws us in. The child brings out our curiosity, our sense of wonder. Older children may know what that comparative-striving-borne-of-anxiety is all about, but a child that you can pick up in your arms—they’re not striving; they’re present; they’re in the flow of love—receiving it, igniting it in others’ hearts. The child stops business as usual. Republicans and Democrats can equally melt and be putty in the presence of a child. The child doesn’t have a sense of my precious agenda, my holy and not so holy desires. There’s no ambition here, no ego. All the child wants is to be held in the arms of the one who is holding him or her.

 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Could it be that Jesus longs to be in our arms, curious, full of wonder, giving and receiving love in that way that makes us melt? Could it be that Jesus longs for us to be in his arms in the same way? If we are bent on being the best, there is no room, no space, no time to lay back and float in the arms of the Lord.

When my daughter was a tiny baby and she would lay on my chest, I called it “Baby Valium”—it was the most exquisite, peaceful, all-is-right-with-the-world feeling I had ever known. That’s what union is like.

That’s what Jesus is getting at. This is the wisdom that is from above, gentle, peaceful, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy—just resting with one another totally AT ONE.

When you taste that sweetness, then it doesn’t matter—      whether you are dying or whether you are rising—you are AT ONE with God, and no status, no achievement, no position can compare with that. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 20, 2015

The tounge is a fire

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 19—Year B; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 – Video

Well, the Letter of James takes us into the belly of the beast this morning. Strap in, this is going to get personal and uncomfortable.

James starts off well, well maybe not for a lot of us at St. Luke’s so closely tied as many of us are to education. Here’s how he begins: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.Sorry all you teachers.

But then it gets better—For all of us make many mistakes. That’s good. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Okay, that’s not going to be most of us, but we’re not trying to achieve perfection anyway, right? But then James takes this bridle metaphor and goes a little crazy with it.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

And by member, James means part of the body. But James doesn’t stop there; oh no, he’s just getting cranked up.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

It’s like James’ brain is doing this rapid-fire word association thing—you can just see all the neurons firing—and he’s making all these connections.

The tongue is a small member…small fires lead to forest fires…the tongue is a fire…the tongue is a member placed among all of our members as a world of iniquity—it stains the whole body…one member affects the whole…one spark can start a fire that grows into a big fire, affects the whole forest…back to fire, fire, oh, it sets on fire the cycle of nature…oh, and it’s set on fire by hell, hell is hot and fiery…cycle of nature, oh, every species of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, they can all be tamed and have been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue!tame takes us back to bridle, and we’ve closed the metaphorical loop; we made it!

And then James gets downright philosophical, almost existential.

With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

James is pondering one of the more confusing and painful aspects of human existence—with the tongue we bless and with the tongue we curse, from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. How can this be? James laments, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…If the source is good, how can both of these things come out of the mouth?”

Has James gone over the top here? I don’t think so. In fact, for about three weeks now I have been feeling that urge to give my election-cycle pastoral counsel, mostly prompted by how venomous the rhetoric is out there right now. We have to understand how this works if we are to maintain humanity in the midst of this season because James is right—the tongue is a small member, but it can start a fire, and that fire can consume everything in its path.

And it starts so small. A joke here about this political candidate, a joke there about that political candidate—just blowing off a little steam, just relieving a little frustration, a little pent-up political pressure. Right now, if I say the name Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or the names of any of the other 16+ candidates, words or images will come to your mind, and some of those words will be about personal attributes, and some of those words won’t be kind, some may even be derogatory. And then you hear a joke in your circle of like-minded friends or co-workers, or on late-night TV, or a joke gets posted on Facebook, and you do that thumbs-up thing—you “Like” it—and then you repost it. And never mind the awful things the candidates are saying about one another, we’ve just started our own little fire in our part of the world.What starts as just one little joke, in the words of James, curses someone who is made in the likeness of God, and that energy spreads like wildfire.

And as we know from wildfires raging out of control, these fires consume everything in their path; they are devastating; and they hurt. And these fires started by the tongue, these wildfires hurt because we can’t ever talk about a member of our body, as in the tongue, without also remembering that “body” is the image for our corporate existence.

We are members of the Body of Christ—we are members of one another. What starts with one member affects the whole—what starts with me affects you, what starts with you affects me.

And when we participate in these fires, we are all diminished. We diminish the candidates, we diminish the process, we diminish whole swaths of brothers and sisters we don’t even know, and we diminish our brother or sister sharing the pew we are sitting on who may have a different perspective, AND we diminish ourselves because we have violated our solemn baptismal vow—foundational to the way we follow Jesus—“to respect the dignity of every human being.”

When we strike a spark to start one of these fires, or when we fan its flames, or when we pour gas on it, we have to look deep into our own heart and ask ourselves why? We all make many mistakes, James says as much, but I also think James is right—this stuff doesn’t spew from a good source. So, when we participate in this stuff, we have to look deep in our own heart and see what is not right. What in us wants to diminish that other person who is made in the likeness of God, beloved of God no less than I? Our culture tears people down for sport, but that is not the way of Jesus.

Oh, he’ll tackle hard issues with the leaders of his day, and he’ll use strong language, but he was also willing to set down and dine with his opponents. It’s an election season, we’ve got to participate. We’ve got to dig deep down into our values informed by our faith and let them inform how we approach every issue of policy. And we’ve got to have that order right-side up—faith is the spring that issues forth into policy; policies don’t dictate faith. Now, faith can certainly issue forth in different policy approaches—a spring can end up flowing into different streams—I’m just pushing us to consider what’s informing what.

I’ve shared this before—like every Presidential election cycle to be precise—but it bears repeating. The moment where this all changed for me was when my seminary Christian ethics professor looked me dead in the eye and said, “Cyndi, I don’t care what you say as a Democrat, what do you say as a Christian?” And I realized in that moment that I had to rethink every single policy position that I had starting from the place of my faith. And that work has occupied me ever since, and it’s made things a whole lot more complicated. It’s a bear when you have to be ethically consistent and coherent within your positions and ethically consistent and coherent withthe life and teaching of Jesus. All those people and concerns that occupied Jesus, these have to be in our hearts and in our minds as we engage the political process. We can’t separate out our faith and politics because in Jesus everything holds together. He didn’t divide out sacred and secular, political and religious, ordinary and holy. Everything for Jesus was holy and consecrated. His whole drive was toward wholeness for everything and everyone—that’s what salvation means, and anything that was a barrier to that, he took on.

Policy matters, and as people of faith, we should be in the rough and tumble of policy debates, but may we use our tongues in Isaiah-fashion, like the tongue of a teacher and, as James suggests, know that as we do, we will be judged with a greater strictness. May we use our tongues like Isaiah and sustain the weary with a word. May we use our tongues as the psalmist did and call upon the LORD. May we use our tongues tolift up our supplications, for ourselves, for our town, for our county, for our state, for our nation, for the world. May we use our tongues to bless those who are near and those who are far. May we use our tongues to sing and praise and raise up hearts that are bowed down. And, oh my gosh, UniZulu Chorale, you have taught us what a tongue set free can do.

You have taught us how a tongue trained to praise can spark a joy in another’s heart so deep that we didn’t even know that much joy was possible. You have taught us how a tongue trained to cry for freedom can bring that freedom about, not just in a pie-in-the-sky way, but at the most foundational, structural levels of society. You have taught us how the tongue can kindle a fire that can sweep across a whole community and make them one. We saw it here Friday night when 350+ people were singing and clapping and moving, sometimes not together, but moving nonetheless, as ONE.

We cannot thank you enough for showing us what the tongue can do. You have shown us the goodness of your hearts and reminded us of the goodness in ours. We are one body in Christ, and what you have done has affected us all.

Brothers and sisters, in this election season that will be with us for the next 15 months, may we drink from THISgood and pure source. May we call on the Lord GOD to bridle our tongues. May we exercise every bit of restraint that it will surely take not to participate in the restless evil and deadly poison that so many tongues are unleashing. May we be ever mindful and not strike that first spark, may we not fan flames, may we not pour gas on fires already raging. May we resist the urge to curse [any of] those made in the likeness of God, which is everyone.

Instead, may we remember this last week that we have had with our friends, now family, from South Africa, and may we use our tongues only to bless. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 13, 2015

Jesus skips the shame cycle

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18—Year B; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 — Video

We definitely get a sense of God’s passion today. Isaiah 35the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

The psalmist picks up this refrain: Happy are they whose hope is in the LORD their God; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

So, God is about caring for the oppressed and opening up the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf and setting the tongue free to sing for joy! And certainly, that’s what Jesus is about in that passage we just heard from Mark.

They have brought a deaf man to Jesus who had an impediment in his speech. So, he takes this man aside in private, away from the crowd, and he puts his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touches his tongue. Then he looks up to heaven, he sighs, and he says to the man, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

And Jesus orders the people to tell no one, and the more he tells them not to talk, the more zealously they proclaim it. The text tells us, “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

Jesus is totally about God’s passion for the poor and oppressed, for the blind and the deaf and the mute; Jesus is totally about God’s passion for those who are bowed down, for the widow and the orphan and the stranger and the hungry. See Luke 4 where Jesus reads the Isaiah text that talks about these concerns and says to those gathered, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” See Matthew 25 where Jesus proclaims unequivocally that in caring for the least of these, we care for him.

Jesus has a Godly perspective; he’s got the right vision; he gets what God is all about in this world; he embodies it in his every action, in his every encounter. He has done everything well. Right?

I love this story from Mark 7. It is one of my most favorite stories about Jesus because this is one of the times, recorded in the sacred text, when Jesus absolutely blows it. He gets it totally wrong. Let’s walk through this story again.

Jesus has just finished arguing with the Pharisees and scribes about how they make a mockery of the commandments by clinging to their human tradition. He has gone off to the region of Tyre. Tyre is a lovely little town over on the coast. You almost get the sense that Jesus wanted a little downtime, a little seaside holiday. He enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. He wants to be left alone.

But he’s Jesus. Word about him has spread. The chances of him going unnoticed are zero to none. A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately hears about him, and she comes and bows down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Read an outsider to outsiders. She was a woman and a Gentile—culturally, that’s two strikes against her.

She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. And listen to how he responds. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Really Jesus? Honestly, did you just call a woman whose daughter is suffering, a woman who has come to you for help, did you just call her a dog? Did you really just tell her that she and her daughter are not worthy of healing because she is not an Israelite, because she doesn’t belong to the right tribe? Did you just deny her care and concern because she is a “them” and not an “us.” Uh, Jesus, can you like remember how you just chewed out the Pharisees and scribes for letting their human tradition get in the way of showing care and compassion for a fellow human being? What gives? Not your finest hour.

On this occasion, Jesus flunks pastoral sensitivity. And not only does he not extend care, but in the process, he shames the woman; he equates her to a dog. Wow.

And she, she calls him on it. She stands her sacred ground, and she calls him on it.

But the woman answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

This stops him cold; she completely turns the tables on him, and then HIS eyes were opened, and HIS ears were unstopped, and he saw, in a way he never had before, just how big God’s vision really is.

Then Jesus said to the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

It is so important for us to know that the Lord we worship, the Lord we follow, absolutely had the capacity to blow it, just like you and just like me. And this woman, where did she get the strength, the moxie, to stand up to Jesus and call him on his narrow and myopic vision? How was it that she trusted her own intuitive wisdom that she and her daughter were indeed worthy of Jesus’ care and concern? How was it that, in the face of his authority, she could call Jesus to lay down his armor, and call forth the best of Jesus’ heart, and call him to move beyond the limits and boundaries he had placed on his compassion? I’d love to know more about what had shaped her and forged her strength.

There’s something else about this exchange that is important. When Jesus is confronted with the magnitude of his empathetic miss, he immediately circles back and makes it right. That’s the very definition of accountability—admit the mistake, figure out how to make it right, and make amends, and he circled back immediately and without shame. When we mess up with someone, and they call us on it, we can easily get sucked into the shame vortex. If I were Jesus, I would be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m the Son of God, how did I mess that up so badly? Worst Son of God ever,” and I would be paralyzed.

When we go into the shame pit, we either move to blame or the could-I-just-please-disappear-now place or that icky how-can-I-win-you-back place, and in that state, we are actually less likely to own our mistake and set it right.

Jesus didn’t go to the shame place. When the tradition talks about Jesus being as we are in every way, yet without sin, I think this is what it’s talking about. Sin literally means “missing the mark,” not shame; but even more, sin is about separation.

Jesus missed the mark, just like we do, but Jesus didn’t allow anything to throw him out of God’s Presence—not even his big, colossal, messy mistakes.

Jesus didn’t allow his mistake to separate him from God. Jesus had an unshakeable sense of his own worthiness; he didn’t allow his mistake to trigger his shame; he didn’t turn on the woman and blame her, nor did he disappear on the woman, nor did he try to win her back—he simply stayed connected; he circled back; he gave her the care and concern and compassion she deserved, and he healed her daughter, and in so doing, HIS vision was healed so that he could SEE and HEAR in expanded ways.

And when he left her, he went to the Decapolis—he went to Gentile territory and opened ears that were blocked and set tongues free so that they could sing for joy.

Thank God this story is preserved in our tradition. The Lord we follow—he made mistakes, and so will we, every day.

Can we step into those uncomfortable moments when it all goes off the rails? Can we be as brave as that Syrophoenician woman and call one another on those misses when they happen? Can we be as brave as Jesus and stand still while a brother or a sister brings to our awareness             the narrowness of our vision and those places where we are lacking in concern and compassion? Can we take a cue from Jesus and know in the depths of our being             that our mistakes don’t have to throw us out of God’s Presence? Can we skip the whole shame cycle,      can we skip the whole blame-disappear-grovel thing—it is such wasted energy! Can we commit to the practice of circling back and know that as we do, our eyes will be opened and our ears will get unstopped and our vision will expand to match the expansion in our hearts          and something in us will get healed and made whole? And then, can we rejoice    because in that moment, all of our tongues will be set free to sing for joy. Amen.

 

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 6, 2015