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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

St Luke's Episcopal Church
170 Councill St
Boone, NC 28607

The Transfiguration, Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A

Last Sunday after Epiphany—Year A; Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Someone asked me this week, “I thought the Feast of the Transfiguration was in August, so why do we get this story today?” It’s a good question.  Every year, on the last Sunday after Epiphany, on the Sunday before we march into Lent, we get this story, why? And I think there are several answers to that question.

Way back on January 6th, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany—a feast that is full of light, and the Sundays that follow are all about all the ways that Jesus is made known in the world, all the ways that he is made manifest. And so, now, as we close out this season after the Epiphany, we get this scene that is full of light and radiance—Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.

And, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we hear all about Jesus’ baptism, and we hear that incredible proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then today, we hear again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” So, today is kind of a bookend to what was proclaimed at the beginning of this season.

And finally, there is this sense of movement in the gospels. Up to this point, we have been climbing. It is still very much an ascent theology, almost a belief that Jesus is the ONE, and he’s going to lead us to these incredible heights, and it’s all going to be great. And today we reach the pinnacle—this is the quintessential experience, this is the epitome of “the mountaintop experience” literally. And yet, at the end of the passage, as they [are] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Uh oh, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” which means that the Son of Man is going to die, which means this is not going to go as we thought this was going to go. This is not going to be a perpetual ascent until we are all sitting on top of the mountain enjoying our panoramic view of life. No, the journey with Jesus is going to be about descent. He is going to drag us off this mountaintop all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to Good Friday, all the way to the cross. And so, it makes sense that we go to the mountaintop today before we start our Lenten journey to Jerusalem on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.

Just a couple of other things about this story, places where we might connect. First, treks up mountains aren’t easy—climbing up mountains can be a slog. It may be easier with Jesus leading the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy work. Sometimes, walking the journey is just plain hard.

Next, there is this element of surprise, of things not going quite like you had envisioned. Peter and James and John may have been excited at the prospect of getting some alone time with Jesus. I mean, after all, there were always those crowds wherever they went, and if not the crowds, there were always those other disciples—Peter, James, and John probably craved some time to have Jesus all to themselves, some time to hangout with Jesus with just a few buddies. And lo and behold, Moses and Elijah come and crash their party. No doubt they were shocked and stunned to see Moses and Elijah there, but they might also have felt a little jealous. One thing is to be sure, the journey with Jesus is always full of surprises and will rarely go how we think it will go in any given situation.

And what of Moses and Elijah? Why Moses and Elijah? Well, they are the premier icons for the law and the prophets. Because of all the passages that we have been hearing the last several weeks from the Sermon on the Mount about Jesus not coming to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, it seems even more important that it is Moses and Elijah who come to stand next to Jesus, one more way for us to see that Jesus stands in continuity with the law and the prophets, not apart from them. But just as the “but I say to you” passages in the Sermon on the Mount reinterpret the law and the prophets and take us beyond the “letter of the law,” so too what happens on that mountaintop takes us to a new place.

So, Peter, bless his heart, once he gets over his shock that his afternoon picnic with Jesus has just been crashed by Moses and Elijah, Peter sets out to do what he does best, give voice and action to our most human inclinations. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” So, Peter grabs ahold of the fact that the law and the prophets are right there with Jesus, and he wants to immortalize it, box it in, concretize it, fix it in a place. And what happens next is fascinating! Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

And now, the words from II Peter today start to make sense: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

We can’t fix the law and the prophets in one place; Jesus pushes them always further…“you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” And now, we get an even deeper interpretative lens—“the Son, the Beloved, listen to him!Everything we hear in scripture, all the law, all the prophets, it has to run through the Beloved One; it has to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus, his life, his love, his healing, his provoking, his dying, his rising. You can’t fix it in a place; you have to let it grow and evolve and move and breathe as he lives and moves in each situation we encounter. We have to listen continually for his voice in each situation. None of this is static; it is always evolving.

Finally, there’s the really odd command to tell no one. As [they’re] coming down the mountain, Jesus [orders] them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” As we noted earlier, a part of this is pointing us toward what’s coming, but there is another piece to this as well.  Sometimes, an experience is simply beyond words. Sometimes, you just have to sit with the experience without words, without trying to process it, without trying to talk it out. Sometimes, you just have to let the vision swirl around in your soul, resonate at deeper levels of your being. There will be a time to talk about it, but it will be later, for now, just be with the experience and let it continue to teach you from the inside.

So, today, we get to go to the mountaintop and see Jesus in a new light and wrestle with a different set of temptations—it’s good for us to know that temptations don’t always come in the dark, sometimes they come with the light. And as we face our desire to fix things in a certain place, as we hear that voice point us in a different direction, as we confront our fear, and as we understand that we have to leave this mountaintop and start our descent, Jesus [comes to us] and [touches us], “Get up and do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” Fixed dwellings here won’t help us on the way to Jerusalem, or anywhere else that life might take us—we have something so much better, and we hear Jesus say it in the very last sentence of Matthew’s gospel. This is after Jerusalem, after the cross, after the resurrection, Jesus says, “You have me. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We have the presence of our Lord, before us, beside us, within us, meeting us, moving with us, always, to the end of the age.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 2, 2014

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – 2/23/2014

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Okay, today we get to keep on rolling with the “You have heard it said…but I say to you” passages. This is more of Jesus unpacking how he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them and how our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Yippee!

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Okay, kids, what’s it called when someone hurts you and you hurt them back thinking that will make you feel better? That’s right, the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus continues, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;” Okay, you’ve got to know a couple of things for this to make sense. And here, and throughout this sermon, I will be drawing heavily on the teaching of Walter Wink in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. I commend his book to you.

Wink notes that this was a right-handed culture. So, if you make a fist with your right hand, where is the blow going to land? That’s correct, on the left cheek. To strike the right cheek, would require using your left fist, you’d have to use your left hand, but you aren’t permitted to use your left hand because in that society, the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. In fact, in the Qumran community, even to gesture with the left hand carried a penalty of exclusion and ten days’ penance. So, if your right fist can’t do it, and your left fist can’t do it, how do you land a blow on the right cheek? That’s right, you use your right hand, and you do a backhanded slap.

This is not a fistfight, a blow delivered between equals. Wink notes, “This is a slap meant to humiliate, meant to put someone in his or her “place”; back then, this was the normal way of admonishing inferiors—masters backhanded slaves, parents backhanded children, men backhanded women, Romans backhanded Jews….[This is] a set of unequal relations, [and in each situation] retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission”—to fight is suicidal which leaves only flight as the other alternative.

But Jesus offers a third way. At first it seems bizarre until you get what he’s doing. So, if you do as Jesus says and turn and offer your left cheek, you have just robbed your oppressor of his power. He can’t backhand your left cheek because your nose is in the way, and if he strikes you with his right fist, he’s just acknowledged that you are his equal. The oppressor has just been forced to recognize [the] subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his ability to dehumanize the other. Wink notes, “This act doesn’t admonish passivity and cowardice; this is an act of defiance.”


Next, Jesus says, “…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What’s going on here? Wink provides the context here as well. Really, really poor people often didn’t have collateral to offer up as a pledge for their loan, so they would offer their outer garment as collateral. But the law demanded [Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17] that the lender give the outer garment back at sunset so that the borrower would have it to sleep in. So you’ve got someone here who’s really poor and who’s gotten so far in debt that the lender, the creditor, is trying to haul them into court and seize their outer garment. Indebtedness was a huge issue in this society, so Jesus’ listeners are all ears. Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—indebtedness was a huge issue. So, what does Jesus counsel? Give your undergarments too!

The words in this passage for “coat” and “cloak” are two different words—one means an outer garment that you wear to protect yourself from the weather and the other is your undergarment. Jesus is saying if someone is trying to sue you for your coat, strip down right there in court and hand them your underwear too and walk out naked! What?! Wink writes, “You have said in effect, ‘You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”

Oh, it’s such an elegant response because, as Wink rightly points out, in Judaism nakedness was taboo, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness. [Genesis 9:20-27]. So, as you walk out into the street buck naked, you are calling attention to the whole crazy system that renders a whole social class landless and destitute; you’re calling attention to a system that relentlessly oppresses debtors. And maybe, because this is such an outrageous scene, the lender can see, maybe for the first time, how his practices impact the life of a real human being.

Jesus continues, “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Again, Wink helps us understand the context. A Roman legionnaire, or any of the auxiliary soldiers that were stationed in and around Judea at the time, could ask a civilian to carry their pack one mile, but no more. Mile markers were placed regularly along the roads. It was actually an enlightened practice serving both to keep the army efficiently on the move while at the same time limiting both the burden on and, more importantly, the anger of the occupied peoples. Under military law, violation of this rule carried severe penalties for the soldier. Wink notes, “Nevertheless, this [practice] was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.”

Wink notes that Jesus doesn’t counsel revolt—to revolt against Roman imperial might was futile, but, he asks, “Is this some kind of aiding and abetting the enemy?” Wink writes, “The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules, that is God’s, and Caesar has no power of that.”

So, you are asked to carry this 65-85 pound pack, and at the one mile marker, you keep going. What’s the soldier thinking? “What are you up to? Why are you doing this? What are the other soldiers going to think? Are they going to think that I’m weak? Am I going to get in trouble because you’re going the second mile? Are you going to file a complaint against me because you are going a second mile?” And you have just thrown the soldier completely off his game. Wink concludes, “You have just taken back the power of choice. If the soldier enjoyed feeling superior [over you], he won’t enjoy it today…Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, ‘Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!’ The humor would not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.”

Jesus continues with another “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is about not dividing the field, not even with your enemy. This is about refusing to cede away the ground of kinship. This is about refusing to dehumanize your enemy, even as they dehumanize you. It’s just impossible to dehumanize someone while you are sending love toward them and praying for them. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous—we are radically equal in God’s eyes. Love has to flow without constraint, out in all directions. Compassion, respect—these can know no boundaries. “Be perfect, be perfect as God is perfect”—who can live up to this? But the greek work for perfect here is “teleios”—it’s the kind of perfection that comes when something is brought to its end, finished, when it doesn’t need anything else to be complete. We are incomplete when we are cut off from others. The perfection that God longs for us to have, and that God already holds in the divine heart, is that we are all equal before God; we are all kin; indeed, we are one.

So, why is this passage from the Sermon on the Mount so important? Well, partly because, throughout the ages, the interpretation of this passage has been such a train wreck causing profound damage and leading people to be doormats because they thought Jesus told them to do so. This is one of the most misunderstood of all of Jesus’ teachings, and so it’s important that we see what Jesus actually meant.

There is some history here, and again, Walter Wink throws light where we desperately need it. When the King James’ translators translated the greek, they translated the word “antistenai” as “resist not evil”, and they translated nonviolent resistance into docility. But the word is a compound word coming from “anti” meaning “against” and “histemi” which in its noun form means “violent rebellion, armed revolt, or sharp dissension”—it’s used primarily for military encounters. Wink says that a proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would be, “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.” “Do not retaliate violence with violence.” Wink believes, and I agree, that Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than Roman resistance fighters, the difference is over the means he uses: how one should fight evil. The King, as in King James, had no interest in a nonviolent means that was active and engaged and would dare to fight evil. The crown did not want the subjects thinking they could challenge the crown, and we have been living with a lousy translation and interpretation ever since.

If our biological programming gives us fight (violent opposition) or flight (passivity) as the only responses to evil, Jesus gives us a third way which Wink calls militant nonviolence. Wink says, “Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.” And the three examples Jesus uses this morning point to the ways this gets worked out on the ground. One might wish that Jesus had given us about a 100 more examples to see what this looks like in the flesh, but that is what we will have to work out together when something comes at us, and we feel we are in that fight or flight position.

Wink does tell one modern story that I think is worth passing along, and maybe our kids will appreciate this more than the grown-ups. So, there was a kid who was the smallest kid in the class, and he suffered greatly with sinusitis, so he also had a lot of gunk coming out of his nose. There was this bully on his bus who terrorized all the kids. One day, the small kid with the active nose had had it with the bully. He blew his nose into his right hand and walked back to the bully and extended his hand and said, “I’ve always wanted to shake the hand of a real bully.” The bully backed up all the way to back of the bus until he meekly sat down. The bully never bothered anybody on that bus again. And, Wink notes, the really cool thing here is how the kid used a weakness as a strength to deal with the bully.

So, let’s be clear hear, Jesus isn’t counseling victims of domestic violence to keep getting beaten up, but what creative act can they do to gain back their power, to stop the cycle of humiliation, to reclaim their dignity and equal status? It may be something that gets the partner to see them as their equal, or it may be taking action to get out of the relationship. The action has to be worked out in each specific context. What Jesus is encouraging here is to move beyond fight or flight to a creative, empowering, liberating third way that’s not passive and that’s not violent retribution, but an action that has the capacity to birth something new into the situation. Such an act will not only have the capacity to transform the one who has been on the bottom for so long by restoring dignity and worth where none has been accorded, but such an act also has the capacity to transform the one who has held the power by pulling back the curtain on their act and putting them in a situation where they have to see the one whom they are oppressing in a new light. Wink notes, “There is…the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.” What a powerful statement!

So, whether it be at the structural levels of our society where we are confronting the Powers That Be, or whether it be in the more immediate realm of our personal relationships, there are times when we all feel that fight or flight reaction. Can we cultivate such a spiritual discipline that, in those moments, we can pause and access the Christ who lives deep within us and ask ourselves:

“How could I choose to respond right now that would neither retaliate nor flee nor do an impersonation of a doormat, but instead would lay claim to my dignity as a beloved son or daughter of God?

What could I do to enflesh my equality and proclaim my kinship to every other human being on this planet?

What could I do to unmask the injustice and unleash the love that knows no bounds?

What could I do that would step out onto a third way path, and do I trust, do I believe, that Jesus will walk that path with me?”

If today’s teaching from Matthew is any indication, Jesus can’t wait to see what we’ll do. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 23, 2014

 This sermon has drawn heavily on the teaching of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. Please read his book.

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – 2/9/14

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9;

Matthew 5:21-37

Remember last week how Jesus told us that he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them, and how he said that [our] righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, today, he starts working out exactly what that means, and each section starts with a familiar refrain, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” Oh, that “but I say to you…” that’s always the problem; that’s always where the rubber meets the road.

The law said, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,’ but Jesus extends this to how we strike down one another with our anger, our insults, and our slights.

When something is amiss in our relationships, and we’ve been wronged, it’s hard enough to make the first move toward the one who has offended us and seek reconciliation, but Jesus has us go a step or two or a hundred further; Jesus asks us to think about what our brother or sister may have against us? As we stand before this altar, preparing to make our offering, what wrong might our brother or sister perceive that we have done to them? We have to think about that; Jesus asks us to leave our gift right here before the altar and go to our brother and sister and work it out, be reconciled to them, then we are to come back and offer our gift. Wouldn’t it be something if some Sunday we just stopped church right at the offertory and went and made peace wherever we needed to and came back the next week and resumed our worship. Something to think about.

Jesus continues. If we’ve been accused of some wrong, Jesus wants us to sort it out with our accuser before we hit the courts. What if we embraced mediation as the norm in resolving our disputes?

Next, Jesus moves into the realm of the personal. The law says, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but Jesus says if you look at a woman, and let’s be equitable and add “or a man,” if you look at a woman or a man with lust in your heart, you’ve committed adultery already. Jesus teases out that we can keep to the letter of the law in our closest relationships, but still violate the sanctity of our commitments. It was also said, that ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but Jesus says divorce is no small thing; it is a very big thing. Even Jesus thought there were legitimate grounds for divorce, but the reality of divorce in that society was a socioeconomic disaster for the woman. This is addressed to men who held the power in that day, and it is hardness of heart here that Jesus is after. Breaking off a marriage for trivial reasons or because the grass looks greener somewhere else will ripple forward in all kinds of waves of brokenness. The law allowed it, but Jesus saw the profound ramifications of a casual attitude toward marriage.

And sandwiched in-between the counsel on adultery and the counsel on divorce, there is this truly bizarre teaching which is pretty graphic. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it’s better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” What are we to make of this? Is Jesus counseling amputation? For those in our community who have had to experience amputation for medical reasons, this seem outrageous to consider; that Jesus would simply tear out or chop off a part of the body that was working perfectly well medically is unthinkable. Okay, this is one of those places where we need to give Jesus a little credit for his rhetorical skills, for his highly skilled use of hyperbole. If we literalize Jesus here, we will totally miss the point. Jesus is saying, “There is no such thing as sin in isolation. There is no such thing is an ability to compartmentalize sin. There is no such thing as thinking we can contain sin to a little part of our life, to a small part of being and think it won’t affect the whole of our life and the whole of our being.” If there is some piece of us that thinks we can dabble in this or that which is contrary to the lifegiving way of God, we are kidding ourselves.

What Jesus is pushing for here, and throughout all of these “but I say to you” passages, is an integrity of life and being. So, if some piece of us is pulling us off center, pulling us off the path, we need to let it go so that we can be whole. The alternative is hell—a state of being where we are at war with ourselves, a state where we experience separation within our self, with God, and ultimately with our neighbor. If we are being dishonest in some part of our life, it ultimately will poison all of our relationships. Cultural examples to the contrary, we human beings just aren’t made to live dual-lives, and human beings that are even just a little awake will eventually buckle if they try to do so. Covering tracks, keeping a false story going, not ever being able to be fully honest with yourself or anyone else, that’s its own kind of hell. Jesus is using really strong language here, but what he is arguing for is an integrity of being and life that ultimately is lifegiving.

The law said, “You shall not swear falsely,” but Jesus says don’t swear at all. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than that comes from the evil one, the diabolical one, the one who seeks always to throw things apart. So many of us struggle to be clear in our “Yes’s” and “No’s”—it just is so hard for a southerner to be that straightforward—we’re so nice, so polite.

When I was a young intern at the Cathedral in Louisville, the organist from deep southern Alabama and I had to sit down one day with the Dean of the Cathedral, who was from Philadelphia (she was a Yankee). She couldn’t figure out why she kept landing in hot water with the things she’d say to people. We explained to her, that in the south, you take 15 minutes to say “No” and then the other person isn’t ever quite clear that you have said “No.” She thought that was ridiculous. Our counsel may have been sound diplomatic counsel, but it was dead wrong where Jesus is concerned.

Say “Yes,” say “No,” say it as lovingly as you can, but say it clearly, otherwise, everything gets all muddled, and no one can move forward when it’s all murky.

Not to mention the fact that baptismal life is always about saying “Yes” and saying “No.” We say “No” in our baptismal renunciations; we say “Yes” in our baptismal affirmations. Take a look at the baptismal vows, they are all about saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others.

In many, many ways, the law laid out a good ethic, and in so many ways, a such better ethic than what the people of ancient times had known, but Jesus sees how easy it is to slip into a legalistic keeping of the law that sacrifices the spirit of what it intended. Jesus sees how a righteous keeping of the law can actually hide horrific practices that hurt and destroy the creatures of God. Jesus is calling us to a deeper ethic of love that will push all of us out of comfort zones at every turn.

So, how are we doing with our anger?

What language are we using to describe those with whom we disagree?

Are we stopping to think about what others may have against us?

Are we eager to escalate conflict?

How are we doing in our most intimate relationships? Are we avoiding the hard work of intimacy opting instead for the infinite number of distractions our culture offers us on a daily basis?

Are we compartmentalizing our lives and declaring some areas off-limits to God?

How are we holding to our commitments?  Are we treating them as holy and sacred?

What about the integrity of our word? Are we able to say the “Yes’s” that we need to say, and just as importantly, are we able to say the “No’s” we need to say?

Our faith dares to proclaim that there are ways to live that are more lifegiving than others, and our faith has been proclaiming this since Moses stood up and addressed the people just as they were getting ready to cross over into the promised land—“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess…

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

There are ways that we can live that bring life and allow us to enjoy the land that God promises when our lives line up with an ethic of love, or we can hand our lives over to other gods and lose our capacity to be present to the life of wholeness that God longs for us to know. And it is always a choice; it is always a choice.

Today, Jesus is as clear as he can be, “You have heard it said…but I say to you, ‘Choose to live this way; choose life.’” Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 16, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/9/14; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Okay, this is one of those “don’t shoot the messenger” sermons.  I didn’t write these scriptures, and I didn’t assign them for today, but this is what we have, and this is what we have to wrestle with, and the “we” includes me, as well as you. 

So, hang on, and here we go.

Isaiah 58—Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

This is a convicting passage, hard to hear, brutal to receive.  This is chapter 58, and best I can tell, Isaiah has been railing about these issues since chapter 3.  There Isaiah says this: The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.  The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.  In chapter 10, Isaiah gets sharper: Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! 

God is not happy with the state of the house of Jacob, i.e. Israel.  God’s chosen people have forgotten why they were chosen—always for service, never for privilege.  God sees a situation where the elders and princes, the elites of the day, are getting rich on the backs of the poor.  God isn’t just addressing individuals here; God is addressing the nation.  God sees workers who are being oppressed, homeless poor who have nowhere to lay their head, and those who are naked, completely vulnerable.  God sees a society where the fabric is so torn that the people at the people at the top can’t bear to see the people at the bottom—“they hide from their own kin”—they have forgotten that the poor and oppressed are family to them.  God sees a world where those in power are writing ordinances that continue to fill their own coffers and statutes that continue to stack the decks against the poor and put justice for the needy out of reach.  And the most galling part of all of this is that it’s all being done under the guise of religious piety.  The elders and princes and priests are still keeping all the appointed fasts, and making all the appointed offerings, all done decently and in good order, and all the while the world outside their doors is absolutely falling apart.

This is painful to hear, painful because it is way too close to home.

You can’t turn on the news right now without hearing some story about income inequality and reduced social mobility.  Let me run down a couple of the statistics.  The Dodd-Frank rule that came out of the 2009 financial meltdown requires public companies to disclose the pay gap between CEO’s and their workers.  The Securites and Exchange Commission is still working to implement this rule.  The Washington Post reported this past June that the ratio of CEO pay to average, not lowest paid but average, worker pay is 273:1, 273 times more.  In 1965, that ratio was 20:1.  The average pay for CEOs of the top 350 firms was $14.1 million in 2012, up 37.4% from 2009.  The most egregious case is JC Penney.  That CEO made 1,795 times more than the average worker—that works out to $26,625/hr vs. the average worker whose rate was $14.27/hr, and by all accounts, he did a lousy job lasting just 17 months in the job.

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that 95% of income gains from 2009-2012 went to the wealthiest 1%.  During that period, the top 1% saw their incomes climb 31.4% while the bottom 99% saw growth of .4%.  Granted, the top 1% lost a ton of money (36.3%) when the financial markets tanked, but a whole lot of people at the bottom lost their retirements, their pensions, their wages, and their jobs (11.6% loss of income).  Those at the top have recouped those losses almost completely (31.4%), the bottom 99% have not (.4%).  Last year, the richest 10% received more than half of all income—50.5%, the largest share since such record-keeping began in 1917.  The bottom 90% share of income is below 50% for the first time ever. 

And closer to home, the US Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate in 2012 in Watauga County was 29.5%, almost 1 in 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  22% of our children, in our county, are living in poverty, 1 in 5.  And the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is $23,492.  See how far that annual income will take you in the High Country. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this isn’t ancient Israel; this is us.  This is us.

Can we hear the God who speaks in Isaiah addressing us?  Can we hear the cries of that God trying to shake us out of our complacency?  Something is dramatically, drastically wrong in our society when one person is making millions and millions a year, thousands and thousands an hour, and 1 out of every 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  Something is wrong.

And turning to Jesus isn’t going to make today any easier.  He tells us clearly, “You are the salt of the earth; but if you’ve lost your capacity to get in there and season the food—what good are you? You are the light of the world. You can’t hide your light; you need to throw your light everywhere, especially into the dark places where no one wants to look.”  And then, in the lines that are going to spin us right back to Isaiah (there’s just no escaping Isaiah today, sorry),   Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Ouch. 

Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.  What did the law say about such matters as we have been discussing?  Well, there’s the manna principle from Exodus 16: “Gather as much as each of you needs, according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents…those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed”—and if you tried to hoard it, it rotted.  There is the year of Jubilee put forth in Leviticus 25 which was all about debt forgiveness and redistribution of land which prevented an accumulation of wealth because the land belonged to God anyway.  There was the law not to glean to the edges of your field in Leviticus 19, so that the poor would have food to eat. 

Jesus didn’t come to say Isaiah was irrelevant, but he came to embody that teaching at every turn.  Remember, it is Isaiah that Jesus will use to preach his first sermon in Nazareth when he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him, then he said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook.  No, he’s going to place us more firmly on it—our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  The concerns of the prophet must be our concern as followers of Jesus.

Is there hope?  God offers us a way forward in Isaiah.  It’s a hard one, but there is a way forward.  We are to loose the bonds of injustice, we are to undo the thong of the yoke, we are to work to free those who are oppressed, we are to break the yoke that treats people as a beast of burden, a means to an end.  We are to deal squarely with the food insecurity that exists in our county, 24.2% of our kids are food insecure, 1 in 4, we are to deal squarely with this, and share our food to alleviate it.  The homeless poor are our responsibility.   Those who are vulnerable and exposed are our responsibilityThe poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed—these are our kin; these are our family

And this can’t just be us as individuals doing individual good works.  We must do that; that is a given as a follower of Jesus, but it can’t be only that.  The prophets address the nation.  So does Jesus in the well-known Matthew 25 passage “as you did these things to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did them to be”—when the Son of Man says that, he says it before the nations. The prophets address squarely, and to their own detriment, the power structure that is crushing the poor, and so must we.  We might disagree on precisely how to address these powers and structures; we might disagree on policy approaches, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to call out the powers-that-be when the policies, the ordinances and statutes (to use Isaiah’s words), that are the works of their hands are afflicting so many.  These are not partisan issues; these are foundational moral issues for people of faith.

God has a dream that all of God’s children not just survive, but thrive.  You see, Jesus, and the God whom he enfleshes, they are never about scarcity; they are not even about enoughness; they are about abundance.  A quote from Sr. Joan Chittister came across my email this week, and it stopped me cold.  She says this, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.”  Let me say that again, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.  The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind that sings of the lavish love of God, the kind that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind that reminds us that God is with us always.”  God has a dream that all of God’s children thrive, and as we join God in this dream, Isaiah tells us exactly what will happen: “Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Isaiah says it better than I can.  Today, he gets the last word.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 9, 2014

The Feast of the Presentation

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/2/14; The Feast of the Presentation—Year A; Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 84; Luke 2:22-40

Today is part sermon and part history lesson.

The Feast of the Presentation. It doesn’t often happen that this feast, which takes place on February 2nd, actually lands on a Sunday and gets to take precedence over our normally assigned lessons for today. These are the kinds of things that make a priest’s heart leap for joy—like how to calculate the date of Easter in any given year by finding the Golden Number and the Sunday Letter—yes, it’s true, and if you ever get really bored with a sermon go to page 880 in the Book of Common Prayer, and it tells you all about these magical calculations, but don’t do it today.

But back to The Feast of the Presentation. In the 1549 Prayer Book, the very first prayer book in our tradition, and in the all the prayer books since—1552, 1559, 1662, 1789, 1892, all the way up to the 1928 Prayer Book, there was a little service called The Order for the Purification of Women, a.k.a. The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth commonly called The Churching of Women. It’s been transformed in our prayer book into A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. You can find it on page 439 sandwiched in between the Marriage service and the service for The Reconciliation of a Penitent, and it is a lovely, powerful service to do.

Now, the hearts of those who penned the prayer books, their hearts were in the right place. The Order for the Purification of Women was a service for the woman to give thanks for having survived the pain and perils of childbirth. By the 1928 prayer book, an instruction was added that the Woman needed to come decently apparelled and a blessing for the child was added that the child of this thy servant may daily increase in wisdom and stature, and grow in thy love and service. The rubric that then followed that prayer (a rubric is like a little instruction or stage direction), said the following: The Woman, that cometh to give her Thanks, must offer accustomed offerings, which shall be applied by the Minister and the Church-wardens (heads-up Sr. and Jr. Warden) to the relief of distressed women in child-bed; and if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the Holy Communion—because of course, the woman wasn’t in church prior to this service and would not have been receiving communion.

It all seems a bit antiquated now, but in those days when many women did not survive childbirth, well, you can see why giving thanks for having survived was a big deal. And the offerings were kind of a way for the women to pay it forward and care for other women who were struggling with their pregnancy—kind of a community commitment to the pre-natal care of all women—that’s cool.

The roots of this ritual go all way back to Leviticus 12:1-8. Here, the woman was ceremonially unclean after childbirth7 days for a male child and 14 days for a female child, and her time of blood purification was 33 days for a male child and 66 days for a female child. When the days of her purification were completed, whether for a son or a daughter, she was to bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. The priest would then offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she would be clean from her flow of blood. If she couldn’t afford a sheep, then she was to take two turtledoves or two pigeons, the priest would make the offering, and she would be made clean.


Okay, would all the women in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

These rituals have fallen out of use, but we have to understand that gender bias is deep, deep, deep in our tradition, we have to understand that women have always had this added weight of being called “unclean” simply because of the natural rhythms of their bodies, and that from the beginning, boys were valued more highly than girls. And if we think we are not still dealing with the damaging shockwaves of these beliefs, we are kidding ourselves. Hold that thought.

So, this is what Mary, mother of Jesus, has come to do this morning in our passage from Luke. She and, to his enormous credit, her husband Joseph have come to offer the appointed sacrifice, and since they offered the pair of birds, we know that they were on the lower end of the economic spectrum. They have the added impetus of coming to offer the appointed sacrifice for their firstborn son in accordance with the law. According to Exodus 13:11-16, one was to offer every firstborn male, whether animal or human, except you got to substitute an animal for the human so you weren’t actually practicing child sacrifice. One might ask, “What is all this about? Why do this?” And the law anticipates these questions. It says, “When in the future your child asks, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but the firstborn of my sons, I redeem.’ It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

So, firstborn male animals had to be sacrificed and firstborn male humans had to be redeemed, which meant they were offered but not killed—the animal took the son’s place in the actual act of sacrifice. Now, all of this harkened back to a liberating event—the Exodus—but that liberation was wrought at such a huge, unbelievable cost—the death of so many firstborn sons of the land of Egypt. And so it has been ever since—we sacrifice our sons on the altar of war, we sacrifice our sons on the altar of a version of manhood that says “boys don’t cry” or “man-up,” we sacrifice our sons when we don’t allow them the full range of human feelings because some of those feelings don’t seem very manly or, at the other end, when we tell them that some of their feelings are way too powerful for our comfort—the now infamous Richard Sherman football interview of two weeks ago being a case in point. We have been sacrificing our men for a long, long time.

Okay, would all the men in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

And then there is the whole animal sacrifice thing where animals are completely expendable. The sacrificial system of the temple was violent and bloody and severed the connection between humanity and their kin in the animal kingdom, all of whom God created and all of whom God called “good.”

Would all the animal lovers in the room take a deep breath and scream now?

There is a way in which we all have been harmed by these rituals that are in the marrow of our tradition. Women have been harmed. Men have been harmed. Animals have been harmed. We need to see this harm for what it is, name it, and resist it whenever and wherever it rears its head in today’s world. Take a moment. Look across our culture. Look across the world.

Where is violence against women still raging? Where are women still valued less than men? What ways of being a woman are offered to our daughters?

How are we locking our sons away? It what ways are we pushing or constraining them? What ways of being a man are being offered to our sons?

And how do we understand our care of our animal kin? I never used to think much about this until I had two experiences this past year. The first was seeing the absolute and blatant abuse of animals in India which felt so wrong and somehow seemed related to the unrelenting conditions of poverty that were everywhere—when people feel expendable, everything feels expendable. The second experience has been a weekly occurrence in our Wednesday Healing Service. Every week, faithfully, one person has felt called to stand in for all the abused animals and for those who care for them. Praying healing prayers every week for this has reminded me that we are made to be in relationship with the animals with whom we share this Godgiven creation.

So, what does The Feast of the Presentation say about any of this? It says a lot. Mary and Joseph participate in the traditions of their faith, yes; they are faithful to the law, but as they enter this tradition, and as Jesus embodies this tradition in his flesh, he upends it completely. Those great elders, Simeon and Anna, witness this and immediately see the power of what is happening before their eyes. Simeon praises God saying, “Master, Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon then turns to Mary and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The prophet Anna can’t stop praising God, and she heads out to speak about this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When Simeon speaks of being dismissed, the greek carries the sense of “a slave being set free.” In Jesus, Simeon sees the salvation that God intends—we are set free from all these things that have enslaved us, and set free for wholeness, for healing, for the binding up of wounds, for the reconciling of what has been rent apart. And this healing, this wholeness is for all people—it’s for women, it’s for men, it’s for Gentiles, it’s for Jews, it’s for all of creation. And you can see this as Jesus moves through the gospels in his adult ministry—he’s lifting up women, he’s speaking to the heart of men, he’s crossing every ethnic and racial boundary imaginable, and he has a profound love of lost sheep and things of the earth, which show up rather prominently in his storytelling.

But Jesus’ way of being in the world is not the way the world works. His sheer presence pulls back the curtain on all the ways the world diminishes women and men and all the other ways we divide up and exploit creation—humans, animals, the ground under our feet, the water we drink. His presence will be a sign always revealing how far short we have fallen of the wholeness that God intends for the world. Jesus’ presence will be a sign that will draw opposition from those voices, those powers-that-be, who benefit from, in the words of our baptismal renunciation, “corrupting and destroying the creatures of God.” And we have to be honest, sometimes, those voices live deep inside of us; we have internalized these voices by virtue of the fact that our tradition has perpetuated these distinctions for thousands of years; it is the air we have breathed.

But this morning, Jesus, in his infant flesh, is lifted up, and his presence declares, “No more. In me, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in me. All of creation has dignity and worth. All are beloved in God’s sight. All are declared, at the moment of their creation, ‘tov’, ‘good’.”

So, our work is cut out for us today.

We’ve got to come face-to-face with the dark side of our tradition; we have to come clean about how women have been devalued, how men have been sacrificed, and how animals have been treated as expendable means to an end.

We need to lay claim to the wholeness embodied in Jesus and understand than nothing less than salvation for all of creation is at stake—the prophet Anna is right—the redemption of our world is to be found in this child who makes whole all that is not.

We need to renounce any powers, out there (in the world) or in here (in our heart) that corrupt, destroy, or diminish the creatures of God, and we need to speak and enact Jesus’ vision of oneness, equality, healing and wholeness in all of our words, in all of our deeds. We need to embody the wholeness that Jesus embodies—giving our hearts to that which increases it, withdrawing our energy from that which diminishes it.

And, we need to know that if we go down this path, our own soul, just like Mary’s, will be pierced, but that is how a heart and soul grow tender—such piercing always births a deeper compassion.

Name, claim, proclaim, with all your heart and mind and body and spirit, the good news that is all tied up in the flesh of this child lifted up before God this day. Join Simeon in blessing. Join Anna in sharing the good news. This Feast of the Presentation isn’t just an outdated, archaic, antiquated ritual, but it is hope for the salvation of our daughters and our sons, it is healing for women and men, it is reconciliation for our divisions across the world, it is a weaving back together of the torn fabric of our creation. It is all of this, if we will hear its deeper call and heed it. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 2, 2014

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/19/14; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

There’s a lot cooking in today’s scriptures! Isaiah wrestling with his calling and failure and despair and hope. The psalmist wrestling with despair and finding his footing. Paul reassuring the church in Corinth that they already have everything they need for the work that Christ has given them to do. And John telling us the story of how those first few disciples said “yes” to Jesus. That’s a lot!

Let’s take them in turn and see where we land.

Isaiah is clear that the LORD called him before he was born, called him in the womb. Isaiah knows that God had definitely given him a word to speak to the people of Israel, but Isaiah’s track record has been abysmal. No matter what he said, the people moved farther and farther away from God. God is still convinced that Isaiah is the right vessel to bring God’s people back to a lifegiving path; Isaiah, Isaiah is not so convinced; Isaiah is in despair. “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But on the heels of that despairing voice, another voice rises up. Isaiah continues, “Yet surely my cause is with the LORD…” Then, Isaiah’s little mission explodes like the big bang that gave birth to the universe into this huge, crazy big mission. Isaiah knows that the LORD has called him to something much, much bigger—“[The LORD says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Wow! God isn’t content just to bring back Israel; God wants healing and wholeness and life to reach to the ends of the earth, and Isaiah is to be the light that shines on that hope; Isaiah is to illuminate that vision, point to that path.

First, do you understand that God has called you, specifically you, given you a word to speak into this world, a word of hope and healing and reconciliation? Can you grasp that this word started taking shape while you were taking shape in the womb and that this word continues to grow and take shape as you continue to grow? Whatever call you may have sorted out is yours at this point in your life, could you consider how God might be asking you to expand it in directions beyond the boundaries of what you can see? Isaiah could only see his call to the people of Israel; God asked him to think bigger. How is God asking you to think bigger for the sake of the world which God loves?

The psalmist has been in the desolate pit, mired down in the mire and clay. I didn’t know until this passage that “mired,” which means “to hamper or hold back, to entangle” comes from “mire,” which is “wet spongy earth, heavy often deep mud or slush.” So, the psalmist is in the pit and stuck. Gosh, any of you ever feel like that??? Do you ever feel like you are spinning your wheels and sinking fast? But the psalmist also has this experience of finding his feet again, of God lifting him out of that space and setting his feet upon a high cliff and making his footing sure. Now then, the psalmist is not out of danger. I am afraid of heights, so I frankly am not too sure whether I would rather be in the desolate pit or up on a high cliff? What I can grab ahold of, though, is that if I’ve got to be on that high cliff, God is there to ground me and make my footing solid and sure. The other thing that is intriguing is that the psalmist is experiencing a new song. Whatever song he’s been singing, whatever story he’s been living out, it’s time for a new one, and that new song has come to the psalmist as gift. The psalmist also knows that there are all kinds of ways to fall off the path. He is choosing to trust in God, but there are plenty of false gods out there, and there are plenty of folks resorting to evil spirits, destructive spirits, destructive ways to move forward. Finally, the psalmist is having to rethink what it is that God really does desire from God’s people—it is burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, animal sacrifices, or is God requiring something else of me? The psalmist finally understands that God isn’t desiring or requiring those externals; what God wants is him. What God wants is you. What God wants is me. And so, the psalmist says, “Behold, I come.” Can we say the same?

Paul is at the very beginning of a very long letter to the church in Corinth, and he will say plenty to challenge them along the way, but right at the beginning, he does two things: he gives thanks for them and he reassures them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift as they wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, thank you for being the body of Christ, for coming together as a community, for bearing one another’s burdens and for celebrating one another’s joys, for helping one another to die, and for giving witness to what it means to truly live. This morning, hear Paul speaking to you, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Got that? You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Everything you need to meet every challenge before you, you already have. It lives inside of you, that’s called the Holy Spirit, and it lives among you and between you as you live as a community as the body of Christ. It is sometimes a matter of unwrapping the gift you have, making use of it, exercising it, sharing it. You have everything you need. That is indeed worth meditating upon.

Finally, the calling of the first disciples. Actually, in John’s gospel it’s not so much a call story—there’s no leaving behind nets in this story. Cynthia Bourgeault has rightly called this “a recognition event.” Something in these disciples recognizes who Jesus really is. It starts with John. Boy, it’s really clear from this passage that he doesn’t understand it at all. He says, “I myself did not know him…I myself did not know him…I myself did not know…but I saw the Spirit descend…I myself have seen…” John didn’t know a lot, but something in him saw Jesus, and seeing, he recognized that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Okay, take off all the filters that immediately fly onto our brains when we hear language like Lamb of God and takes away the sin of the world. Lamb of God is tied to Passover imagery which was ultimately about preserving life and setting a people free. And taking away the sin of the world—could we just think about Jesus closing all the chasms that we open up? If sin is about separation, could we consider that, in Jesus, all the divisions and separations and oppositions of the world are held and loved and reconnected and reconciled, and that this is at least part of what it means to take away the sin of the world?

The main point here is that John recognized something in Jesus that drew him straight to the heart of God, so much so that he tells his disciples about it the next time Jesus walks by, and they off and follow Jesus. Whatever John saw, they saw it, too. Jesus gets the sense that they are following him. Jesus turns around, and he sees them, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” All they can say is, “Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” And they do, and they remained with him that day, and they never left, except to go tell others, “Come and see; we’ve found him. He’s the one. I can’t quite explain it, I can’t articulate it, but there is just something about him. When I saw him, I knew. I don’t know what knew, but something in me knew; I had to follow him, and I had to remain.”

Bourgeault makes the point that the very first disciples didn’t follow Jesus because he had been raised from the dead—that hasn’t happened yet. They didn’t follow Jesus because they learned about Jesus in the creeds—the creeds would come three hundred years later. They follow Jesus because when they looked at him, something in them simply knew, “This is it. This is what I have been looking for. This is my heart’s desire. I have to follow him; I have to stay with him.” Everything else, for them, started there and flows from that point. The way of life they would ultimate live out comes from a moment when they looked at Jesus and saw Jesus and let their heart leap where their heart longed to go.

I might add, that for John, pointing his disciples toward Jesus ultimately would mean the diminishment of his own following—that took some ego strength on John’s part to release his followers to the path that their hearts had to follow. Are we, in the church, prepared for that possibility? If we really truly point people to Jesus, it may mean that their path takes a whole different direction from the one we have been on. Can we trust that this is as it should be? It’s not about St. Luke’s pointing to itself; it’s about St. Luke’s pointing to Jesus. It’s about this community pointing out, “There he is. He is life. Follow him. Remain with him. Let him pull you out of the mire and the muck and the pit. Let him change your name. Let him work with your tender heart. Let him set you on a sure footing. Let him make you steadfast, solid, like a rock. Let your heart leap at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the most ordinary of times and do something crazy like follow Jesus on a journey that you can’t possible control or dictate. He will show you how to die, a thousand times if you let him. And he will show you how to rise again, a thousand times if you let him.”

This is so beyond our heads. This is a recognition event at the deepest levels of our hearts. Jesus isn’t asking you to do anything, except “Come and see.” Do that, and you will never be the same. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 19, 2014

First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 1/12/14; First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

 When last we met Jesus, he was just a little guy, a tiny baby, in great danger. His parents had swooped him away to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. Enough time passed, and so did ol’ King Herod, that it was safe to come back to his homeland. His parents weren’t too keen on going anywhere close to Herod’s son in Jerusalem, so they made their home in Nazareth. Time passes, like about 30 years, and Jesus makes his way out of Galilee to the Jordan River where his cousin John was in the habit of baptizing people.

 In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t know a thing about Jesus from the time he was that little baby being whisked here and there all the way until now. But one might guess that Jesus and John kept crossing paths throughout those years, after all, they were second cousins, and their mamas were awfully close. Remember, Elizabeth and Mary had shared that wonderful moment in their pregnancies when John and Jesus recognized one another in the womb. The paths of these two men were destined from the beginning to keep crossing. No doubt, there’d been plenty of family reunions over the years where the boys played and dreamed about what their futures might hold. Can’t you just hear Jesus asking John, “John, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And John replying, “Oh, I don’t know—I think I want to eat locusts and wild honey and be a voice crying in the wilderness preaching repentance, repentance, repentance, and telling all the religious bigwigs that they’re a brood of vipers—yeah, that sounds like fun!” No doubt, Jesus looked up to his older cousin, and probably respected the heck out of him. John might have gotten a little weird, but of one thing you could be sure, he was one dedicated guy; he was dedicated to a demanding and committed spiritual path. The spiritual life for him wasn’t something to be played at; it was for keeps. And there is something awfully compelling about that—there was something about the fragrance of John’s life that Jesus wanted for himself.

 At this point in Jesus’ journey, we don’t really know what his path will entail. In fact, it would seem that Jesus doesn’t even know what this path will entail; he only knows that at age 30, it’s time to get serious about it. It’s time to do something in a really tangible way to signal that whatever else his life might be about, it starts here and it starts now and it starts with baptism. The start of Jesus’ active ministry starts with surrendering himself into John’s hands. Even Jesus couldn’t baptize himself.

 And so he comes to John, but John has always had a sense that it was Jesus who was destined for great things. Jesus coming to him seems backwards to him. John doesn’t feel worthy to do this for Jesus, and he tries to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus has come to do. But Jesus knows this is essential for him, not essential for John, essential for him. He may not know why, but he knows he’s got to go down into those mysterious waters. And to John’s credit, he consents. He “lets this be” because all creative acts in the spiritual life start with surrender. Jesus surrendering to John; John surrendering to Jesus.

 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 And in that moment, Jesus understood why he had to start here. At the beginning of this journey, even Jesus needed to hear and know without a doubt that he was God’s beloved Son and that with him God was well pleased. This is the only place that Jesus can start, and it’s the only place that we can start. Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done anything. He has performed no miracles, no healings. He has taught nothing spectacular. He hasn’t done anything. This proclamation deals only with his being, not his doing. This proclamation is about his essence, his core identity, the fundamental truth of who he is made to be—a beloved Son of God, one in whom God delights. Things will get rocky from here on out, but Jesus will always have this moment to come back to; he will always have this ground on which to stand, this firm foundation from which he can move out again into the work God gives him to do.

 You can’t claim this identity until you surrender to it. God can’t seem to do much of anything with us unless we consent to it. That’s how much God respects our free will. Our world isn’t so hip on surrender, but it really is where new life is born.

 [Later] Today, we [will] bring Bennett Glenn to the waters. Today, we [will] invite him to surrender to these waters. He’s not quite old enough to understand all this, but his parents and godparents understand it, and though they love him with all their might, they know that Bennett needs this moment. Bennett needs to hear that he is God’s beloved son, and that in his little being, God is so well pleased. Bennett has done nothing to earn this beloved status, and he can’t do anything to lose it—the bond established in baptism is indissoluble—it can’t be undone. Today, we [will] proclaim, loud and clear, that before Bennett is anything else, he is a beloved son of God. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God’s own divine reflection, just like when a human father or mother looks into their child’s eyes and sees their own reflected back—I remember that moment when I looked into Julia’s eyes as a baby and I saw my own eyes, and I thought, “This is what God sees when God looks at us.” This is what it means to be the apple of someone’s eye. When God looks at Bennett, God sees God, and nothing pleases God more than that. Today, we mark Bennett all over, with water, with the cross, with sweet smelling holy oil, and that’s just on the outside. On the inside, the Holy Spirit is marking this identity into his heart and soul and body and mind, just like a homing beacon, so that no matter where his life goes from here on out, he will always know the way back home.

 The baptism in the Jordan River doesn’t make Jesus a Son of God; he was already that, and so was Bennett, but the public proclamation of this identity puts it out there for all to see, it puts it out there for Jesus and Bennett to see, so that Jesus and Bennett can move forward fully conscious, fully aware and awake to who they really are.

 We are all sons and daughters of God, all of us; and in each and every one of us, God is well pleased, but if we never let these words wash over us, if we never surrender to these words, if we never lay claim to them, we will continue to live in the illusion that we have to work to earn God’s love, and work even harder to keep it. You are a beloved son, you are a beloved daughter, in you, God is well pleased. This is who you were made to be; this is who you are. Whatever else you may be, whoever else you may be, this is who you are, first, last, and always. Live from this unshakeable place, and you will have all the courage you need for the journey ahead, no matter where that journey takes you, even unto death. Even more, from this unshakeable place, you will discover what it means to be truly alive which means you will know what it is to truly live. Welcome, Bennett, beloved son of God, to an adventure beyond your wildest dreams. Amen.

 The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 12, 2014                   

God is always with us

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Christmas II—Year A; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-5, 19-23

The lectionary gives us a wild array of choices this morning. We could go with the first half of the 2nd chapter of Matthew and follow the magi’s trek from the East to Bethlehem. We could go with the latter part of Luke 2 and experience Jesus as a 12-year old ditching his parents in Jerusalem so he could go hang out with the elders, or we could go to a much darker place in the second half of Matthew 2 and watch what happens when a tyrant learns that he has been tricked. The first two options are perfectly acceptable, and beautiful, stories, but I don’t think we are being true to the bigger story if we don’t deal with Herod in this Christmas season because it is there that Christianity becomes really real.

Let’s remember the story. Herod heard that the magi were looking for this child born king of the Jews and secretly summons them. He asks them to search diligently for the child, and to bring him back news of where to find him, so that he could go and pay him homage too. Do you believe ol’ King Herod? Nooooo. Oh, he wanted to find Jesus alright, but only so he could remove him as a threat to his power. The magi indeed locate the Christ-child, and they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but magi were great discerners. They knew how to listen to intuition, how to read energy, how to make sense of the stars, and how to pay attention to dreams. So, when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they hightailed it back to the East by another road.

In the meantime, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and having already seen how that previous dream in chapter 1 had worked out for him, he was all ears. That angel told Joseph, “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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

And here’s where it gets so dark and tragic that even the lectionary can’t go there—our lectionary omits verses 16-18—but go there we must. These three omitted verses speak the unspeakable. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from magi. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

These omitted verses pass, and so does time. The lectionary picks back up with Herod’s death. When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod (and Archelaus was just as much a tyrant as his father), he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.


As far as I can tell, there are three entry points into this story. We will start with the easiest and work our way to the hardest.

First, we can identify with the flight into Egypt. We can meditate on the lengths to which God will go to protect this spark of divine life. This little child, whose humanity was so infused with divine promise and hope, represented a threat to everything that Herod stood for—power, privilege, prestige, wealth, and position—all to be protected at all costs. And God will go to the ends of the earth to protect the vision and hope that love really does reign supreme, that all God’s creatures have inherent dignity, and in this marvelously blessed and abundant world, that all are meant to thrive. Innocence, dreams, vision, hope—these are precious and are worthy of our best efforts to protect them.

So, as 2014 begins, what divine spark has God placed in your heart? What nascent hope, what fledgling dream, what budding vision has God given you, and what do you need to do to give it a chance to live? What do you need to do to nurture it, to protect it, to give it space to grow until it is ready to take flight? How do you need to tune your ears and align your heart so that you can read the signs and know when it is time to hold this dream safely close and when it is time to let this vision take full flight? Mary and Joseph and Jesus aren’t the only ones who need to flee to Egypt to escape forces that would snuff out this holy light, sometimes, we need to flee such forces too. But note well, our escape isn’t final and complete; it is only until we can gather the strength and courage to come back and face those forces with even greater power as God’s presence and power grow deeper and broader within us. Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled, but they also came back.

Our second entry point is harder. We can identify with Herod. Think about the last time you were betrayed or tricked, can you touch your rage? Can you touch that place of deep hurt? Granted, Herod had anger issues writ large; he splayed his rage murderously and innocents fell. We can’t get inside his head and heart to know what made him tick, and ultimately, what made him crack. This is so often the case. Whether it is the mass-shootings that are all too frequent, or the individual acts of violence that plague our cities and rural communities daily that don’t make the news, whether it is a bombing of a school in Pakistan or a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, or a suicide bomber in Iraq, or those who turned planes into bombs on 9/11, a threat to one’s identity, one’s power, one’s core beliefs can turn the best of human beings into the worst.

We don’t even make it out of the 4th chapter of Genesis before we start unleashing violence on one another. We all have the capacity for unspeakable things. Somewhere, deep inside of us, there lives a Herod waiting to be converted to love. Can you touch that part of your shadow? None of us wants to, but if we cast him into the outer darkness, it is there that he will do the most harm, lashing out at innocents as far away as some unnamed distant “other” or as close as those we love the most. No, it is better to bring him into the light, to explore what drives his thirst for power and privilege, to understand why he clings to his position, to understand his fear and terror, and to help him find a different place to stand. Maybe we would never commit such atrocities, but if you were to ask the parents of the young people who have committed these horrific acts of violence, many of them could never imagine their child doing such things either. Can we befriend the Herod that lives in us? Can we imagine that he is not beyond redemption? Could we dare to hope that God’s transforming love can melt a heart even as murderous and hard as Herod’s? I hope there’s hope for Herod because I would like to think there is hope for the Herod that lives in me.

The 3rd point of entry is perhaps the hardest. I read a reflection on this passage this week by Mike Stavlund that posed a question that still has me reeling, Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” There is an unmistakable tragedy in today’s passage, Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee into Egypt and all is well there; Immanuel, which means “God is with us” is safely tucked away while terror strikes Bethlehem.

But what about all those children in and around Bethlehem? What about all those parents who didn’t get warned in a dream, who had no means to escape? What about that voice that was heard in Ramah, wailing, lamenting, weeping, refusing to be consoled because her children are no more? If God has gone to Egypt, where is God with them? This is the question of the ages when tragedy strikes. For all the ways we usually sugarcoat it, there is no sugarcoating it today, God has left the building, so to speak.

What are we to make of it? What are we to make of this? First, can we just allow ourselves to enter into solidarity with the unspeakable grief of these innocents lost and their parents whose hearts have been torn in two? Can we take a moment of silence for all the innocents who have died the world over, who had no chance to flee, those who have died from illness they could not overcome, those who have died at the hands of violence, those who have died from natural disasters, those who have died from crushing poverty and civil neglect? Can we just take a moment to let our hearts break with all those who have ever had to watch a beloved die, then and now? Silence may be our first and best condolence. Let us observe a moment of silence for all innocents everywhere.

Observe a prolonged silence.

But we are still left with the question,Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” Well, God isn’t just made flesh only in Jesus’ flesh, but God was made flesh in human flesh; God was made flesh in our flesh. So, to the extent that we don’t flee this unspeakable grief and tragedy, to the extent that we can stay present, God is present too.

But I think we can go one step more. God may have fled to Egypt at this point in the story, but the Holy Family returns to the land of Israel. And by the end of the story, the kings, still scared, still threatened, still entrenched, still drunk on power and privilege, wealth and prestige and position, they, with the help of good religious folk, will seek Jesus’ life again. This time, he will stay. This time, he will plant himself right at ground zero of the most horrific of violence. This time, he will stretch out his arms and hold that violence until its power dies with his last breath, and the Lord of Love proclaims, “It is finished.” And all that will be left after that is for Love to rise and show us what truly constitutes the love and peace that passes all human understanding.

Jesus may have fled from Bethlehem, but he doesn’t flee the cross, and from that moment forward, we know that whenever and wherever unspeakable tragedy strikes, God is there, and there, God will remain, until life finds us again.

So, there is no escaping this hard tale. Whether we flee, whether we find Herod in our shadow, whether we are the innocents and their parents in Bethlehem, today invites us into the hard realities of this world. Christian faith doesn’t dodge the hard edges of life in this world; Christian faith stares straight into them and helps us find God in the ashes. Today, we are about as far away from that sweet stable in Bethlehem as you can get, but Jesus travels us with us—to Egypt, to Jerusalem, to the cross, to resurrection life—and that ensures that every road we travel, whether it be filled with joy or filled with sorrow, we will always travel with God. Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 5, 2014

We are one—with God

Christmas Day—Year C; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Last night was full of activity—angels swooping at 4:00 o’clock and confident little shepherds making their way to Bethlehem, incense rising as the thurible swung late in the night, choir and organ alike lifting their voices to heaven. It’s the kind of swirl that always surrounds a birth. This room was all abuzz, giddy in our joy. And now, the morning light brings us to the morning after, and we try to make sense of it all. Today, is the first day in this new life, and the mystery of it all only deepens.

Last night, Luke told the story of this amazing birth, but today, John takes over the story, and in his magnificent Prologue, begins to unpack the mystery beyond mysteries.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Word

—that great shorthand for God’s immeasurable desire to communicate God’s Self. First, in the very act of creation itself. This beautiful, glorious, wondrous, imperfect, finite, constricted world has divine fingerprints all over it. God spoke, and creation was born. Divinity wasn’t content to stay self-contained; divinity had to seek a bigger canvass on which to cast color and texture and life and play. Life and light, always dancing, always flowing from the creative Word. The Word would try all manner of ways to speak. The Law would speak of right relationship, the Word incarnate in covenant full of light and life and possibility. The prophets would speak in the darker times, speak the Word that would pierce our soul and reveal how we had fallen short, and with the fierceness of a hurt lover, the Word would call us back to the image of God that had been imprinted on our being. But sometimes, speaking can only get you so far. You’ve been there. Some exchange when the words only seem to take you farther from the one to whom you yearn to draw close; words that land you in tangle. Sometimes, words simply fail.

And into that moment, into that moment when God and humanity seemed to have a failure to communicate, into that moment, God took a flying leap of faith…

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word became flesh, “pitched the divine tent in our very flesh”

says the greek, an all-in commitment to live among us, to journey wherever we would journey, to suffer whatever we would suffer, to delight in our deepest joys, to drink the dregs of our human existence, every last drop, even unto our death, even unto our rising to life again, communicating God’s self to us every step of the way. In this all-in commitment to live among us, that tragic gap that exists in all communication is forever closed because God knows our lives from the inside-out. And in this Word-made-flesh, God consecrates our humanity, forever marks it as holy. Truth be told, it was always so—when God pulled us up from the dust and breathed divine life into our being, we were marked as holy, but sometimes, we need an outward and visible sign to remind us of an inward and spiritual grace. This Word-made-flesh is that outward sign that reminds us of the grace and truth and beauty that exists in each and every exquisite human being. This Word-made-flesh reminds us that God has communicated God’s self to us without restraint, fully, intimately, body-to-body, flesh-to-flesh, two-become-one, divinity and humanity, forever intertwined and bound to one another, the union for which our souls have yearned accomplished in this gracious leap of faith.

And in this act, we now become communicators of God’s very self. Our flesh, our blood, now speak of God’s life and God’s love. And God now has a million, zillion different ways to express it. How beautiful is that?! No longer are we limited by the limitations of our words. Our lives, our actions, our deeds, our silence, our presence, our being can communicate what our words cannot. We are one—with God, with one another, with all of creation, with ourselves. The Word present at the beginning runs through existence all the way to eternity. We are one. We always have been. We always will be. This is our birthright. This is our inheritance. This is our beginning and our end. This is our Alpha and Omega. This is the glory that shines out in the morning after the swirl of last night. This is the glory that can only be revealed in the quiet of this morning. Simple words can’t convey something so full of grace and truth; it takes the Word-made-flesh to do that. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 25, 2013

God has found you. God is born in you. You are home.

The Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks; Christmas Eve—Year C; Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Tonight we gather in the candlelight—darkness wraps around us holding this space in mystery, much like a womb holds its sacred life within. The air is thick with incense; the music rings in our ears; all the makings of a holy night.

Tonight, we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord; tomorrow, we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, but we cannot keep them apart. Incarnation dares to proclaim God is made flesh, but Nativity tells us something so very important about just how this God chose to be made flesh. God could have chosen any point in history, and any human being, in which to reveal the fullness of divine nature, but God chose this particular point in history, and God didn’t choose a hero to elevate; God chose to enter our flesh the way every human being must, nine months of waiting in the darkness of the womb and then blood and sweat and pain and gasping for air. God chose to enter our human flesh with absolute vulnerability, completely dependent on humanity to nurture this little incarnation of divinity, completely dependent on others to help fan this divine spark into the flame that would ignite the souls of all who would touch his Presence. It says something about God that God chose this particular path—not the way of power, not the way of strength, not the way of status or station, but the way of weakness, ordinariness, smallness, vulnerability.

No matter how many times we hear this story, it always takes our breath away. Nostalgia is a piece of the puzzle. This night, so steeped in tradition and memories of Christmases past, always pulls at our hearts, but it’s not just nostalgia for days gone by. Webster’s reminds us that nostalgia in its deepest and truest sense is the state of being homesick. That is why we come back year after year to hear this old, old story. Because, over the course of the year, and over the course of our lives, we lose our way, we forget where home is, and our hearts yearn to touch home again—we are homesick in the deepest sense of the word. Our heads may try to distract us with all kinds of questions about this night, but all that is just surface chatter—our hearts have locked onto this story like a homing beacon, and our heart knows this story is true, deeply, deeply true. Our hearts know that this story will help us touch that place inside of us that knows it’s home, that knows that it has always been home, that knows it will always be home, that knows it is inconceivable to lose its way, that it is impossible to become separated from the One who made home in our flesh.

The challenge of this story doesn’t come in figuring out if this story is real and true; our hearts already know that it is real and true. But the challenge comes in remembering that this story is real and true for us, tonight. And it doesn’t matter what shape our heart is in as we come to this night.

It doesn’t matter if you are here at someone else’s behest. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem at the behest of the Emperor Augustus and his desire to count heads across the empire. The miracle of birth will still occur.

It doesn’t matter if you’re heart has been way too full of concerns, and there’s just been no room for God—Joseph and Mary fared no better in Bethlehem. The miracle of birth will still occur.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve exiled parts of yourself, cast them out into the cold, relegated them to the place where animals feed. The miracle of birth will still occur.

It doesn’t matter if you think of yourself as unimportant and forgotten—the shepherds felt the same. The miracle of birth will still occur.

It doesn’t matter if you are completely unorthodox in the eyes of the tradition, much more spiritual than religious—the magi from the East certainly were. And the miracle of birth will still occur.

It doesn’t matter what brought us here tonight, and what shape our hearts are in now that we are here. The miracle of birth will still occur.

God has found you. God is born in you. You are home. This has always been true, ever since God first breathed divine life into our flesh, and we came alive, but we human beings have an amazing capacity to forget who we are.

So tonight is about remembering. Tonight is about being awake to the miracle of who and what we are. Tonight, God cries out in the cry of an infant and reminds us that we have all witnessed the miracle of birth. Not just as observers who are head-over-heels-in-love with this baby, but we are witnessing the miracle of birth from the inside out. God is born in your flesh and in my flesh—we’ve come home yet again to the mysterious, unfathomable truth of who we are—sons and daughters chock-full of divinity, radiant with light.

This is the truth of this night that shatters any illusions we might have that we are somehow beyond the reach of such love. Meister Eckart grasped this when he penned the poem BUT HE WANTED ME sometime in the 14th century. He writes:

I could not bear to touch God with my own hand
when He came within my reach,
but He wanted me
to hold Him.
How God solved my blessed agony,
who can understand?
He turned my body

God wants us to hold God, always, forever.

“God has turned my body into His.”

Even if we knew before who and what we are, tonight we are all born anew. And in the cries of the Christ Child, may you sense tears of joy in your own heart. You are home. Your soul can rest. God is made flesh, and your flesh is now one more revelation of God’s beauty and magnificence. It’s a crazy gamble on God’s part; it’s a crazy gamble on ours. But isn’t that always the case when two become one? Tonight, the miracle of birth has indeed occurred. God’s, Christ’s, and yours. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 24, 2013