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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Will you let Jesus change you?

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

If you are a child, has your parent ever tried to get you to do something that you did not want to do? Did you bow, and say, “Yes mother, yes father, I would love to do that?”—I know that’s how it goes in our house—or did you resist, just a bit. If you are a parent, have you ever tried to get your child to do something they did not want to do? Did you meet a willing and cooperative spirit, or did you hit a wall of resistance? Isn’t it nice to know that Jesus and his mother had their moments?

So, there was this wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his friends had also been invited to the wedding. Apparently, it was quite the event, and a good bit of food and drink were consumed. When the wine gave out, Jesus’ mom called him over, “Uh, Jesus, they have no wine.” That’s code for “get more wine.” He doesn’t want to, so he deflects, and with a bit of attitude, too, “Woman,” (How’s that going to go if you call your mother, ‘Woman’? Not so good in my house.) “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? Not my problem, mom; not yours either.” She ignores him, turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Oh man! Now it’s back on Jesus. What’s a son to do?

Well, there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, just standing there. Each one of those jars held 20-30 gallons of water, that’s like 120-180 gallons of water. So, Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim, maybe even squeezed an extra gallon into each of them. Then Jesus said, “Now draw some out and take it to the chief steward”—he was the guy in charge of the reception, so running out of wine was not a good thing for him. So the servants took the wine to the steward, and when he tasted it, oh my gosh. He called the bridegroom over and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then when the guests have drunk enough that they don’t know any better, they bring out the cheap stuff, but you have kept the good wine until now.”

So, what’s this story about? Is it about a wedding? We might think that was the primary purpose because this story is woven into the introduction of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer, so we reference this story every time we do a wedding.

Is it about performing a miracle? Is about proper etiquette and not getting by on the cheap with your guests? Is it about discerning palates who could even tell the difference between good wine and inferior wine? Is it about a mom showing off her son? Is it about a mother-son standoff which the mother wins—chalk one up for the parents?

Or is it about something else altogether?

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I got to thinking this week about those stone jars that hold the water. They don’t just hold any water. I mean these aren’t stone jars holding drinking water for the guests; they are there to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. Jesus could have chosen other vessels; he could have chosen troughs of water for the animals, surely some of those were around, but he chose these vessels. He chose vessels that weren’t used for anything other than the Jewish rites of purification. So if you had come to the wedding and were ritually impure, like you had come into contact with a dead body or certain types of dead animals, including insects and lizards, or had a certain skin condition, or any number of conditions that women might experience throughout the month or throughout their life, or if you had mildew on your clothes, or any number of other situations that seem a bit odd to us, then you would cleanse yourself with water from these jars to restore yourself to a ritually pure state. And this was so important because to be ritually impure was to be isolated and set apart from the community. These are the vessels that Jesus tells the servants to fill with water which he then changes into wine.

Jesus is signaling something important here that will become abundantly evident throughout the gospels. Jesus has no interest in maintaining codes of purity. Jesus has no interest in maintaining divisions and “this-person-is-more-in-the-community-than-that-person” attitudes. Jesus has no interest in perpetuating criteria for exclusion. Over and over, Jesus will upturn the purity code of his tradition, just like he will turn over the tables in the temple in the very next scene of John’s gospel. Jesus is taking the containers of the old vision, that also were about restoring people to community, but that restoration was made necessary because they had been cast out to begin with, Jesus is taking these containers of the old vision of distinctions, and filling them with new wine that will actually be a source of joy and feasting and bringing the community together. Instead of some having to make themselves pure again, everyone, no matter their state, can partake and enjoy the feast.

So, what if we are the containers? What are we holding? What are the codes that we are upholding? Are we holding distinctions that exclude and keep some out? Are we vessels of a system and a vision that once made sense but no longer does? Are we holding water than can only be used for one thing instead of allowing such water to be used to sustain life, or even better, allowing such water to be turned into a source of joy and delight? Have our containers become rigid? Are our souls in need of new wine?

It is easy to get in a groove in this life and not allow ourselves to see new possibilities. That’s what Isaiah was proclaiming to his people in the first lesson. His people had just gone through the exile. They were pretty down on themselves. It happens sometimes. Life throws us a series of curves, and we go into survival mode, and we forget what is possible with God. But today, Isaiah proclaims, “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” If you have felt forsaken, if you have felt desolate, if you have felt like a stone container holding water that promises to make you somehow clean and acceptable but you still feel separate, apart, maybe even dirty, well, you have a new name. You are a crown of beauty. You are a royal diadem. God’s delight is in you. Your life, your being is inextricably wed to God, and God is thrilled about it. You have gifts, abundant gifts to offer. I Corinthians names a ton of them, and as sure as God is God, you have one that is uniquely yours to offer for good of the world. Cool.

You may have been a stone jar, just holding water for a vision that is not your own, but today, Jesus commands that you be filled to the brim. Today, he is inviting you to be transformed into new wine that will keep the party going. There is so much feasting to be done in this world, so much in which to take delight, so much beauty to be shared and enjoyed. There is another way to be in relationship other than overcoming distinctions of our own creation—we can partake of one bread, we can drink of one cup, we can know that our lives are full of new wine, good wine, and such libation is always better shared.

All that is necessary is a willingness to allow Jesus to transform us in ways that defy our sense of possibility. What do we have to lose? Would we rather sit there in our stone cold jars, or be poured out as wine that can enliven the world? Choose to be the beautiful, radiant, delightful fine creation that God has made you to be. You are not inferior wine; you are good wine. Let yourself be changed, and then share that beautiful new creation generously because the party can’t go on if you don’t. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 20, 2013

Celebration of Life and Ministry of Maynard John Higby

Wisdom 3:1-5, 9, Psalm 121 (BCP 473), II Corinthians 4:16-5:9, Psalm 23 (BCP 476—King James Version), John 14:1-6

There is no way, in the time we have today, that we will be able to sound all the notes of this man. Maynard John Higby, born 76 years ago today in Utica, New York. He served in U.S. Army Intelligence—a season of his life of which he was extremely proud. Professor Emeritus of English at Appalachian State University where he served with distinction throughout his long tenure. A scholar of seventeenth and eighteenth-century British literature, with a special place in his heart for the Russians. John was an inspired teacher, and he was a lover of books, especially old ones. A few years ago, at the close of summer, John invited St. Luke’s parishioners up to the Rhinehart Rare Books and Special Collections Room on the 4th floor of the Belk Library. There was a special collection of prayer books and other 16th and 17th century British texts. He was like a kid in a candy shop, and I caught a glimpse of what his students must have experienced in his classroom. He made that text, and the history surrounding it, live, and it is the exceptional teacher who can bring a text to life like that.

John was a published author, including The Adventures of Francelia Whitefoot and The Rhinehart Collection: An Annotated Bibliography. I spent some time with Francelia yesterday, and the back cover is simply priceless. “About the Book: Francelia’s story came to the author one day several summers ago as he was painting the trim on his house. Once he thought of Francelia and how to get Alfonso into the Sweetgrass Meadow, the rest came easy. The story was written to give amusement to children and the parents who would presumably do the reading. There are certain droll moments that young people will not get without explanation, but experience has shown that children are often amused by the amusement of their elders. There are no compromises with vocabulary or sentence structure in this story. Children become literate when they are given the opportunity to do so.” That is quintessential John.

John was an accomplished jazz pianist. Having heard the stories, I would have loved to have been around in the clubs when he played. I remember one Sunday when our organist Ted played a jazz piece he had composed for the postlude. He was accompanied by percussionist, Rob Falvo, and I was standing right over there. John was sitting right there in my line of sight. He had his eyes closed, and he was keeping the beat, completely transported to another realm. Great classical music could also do that to John, but nothing did it like jazz.

John had many other passions. He loved the woods; he was an avid fisherman and a keen birder. He loved fine things—good music, good company, good bourbon. John was a master storyteller—nothing delighted John more than to hold court and share a story. Devoted churchman, devoted friend, devoted father, devoted grandfather, devoted husband. John was a renaissance man. John was a man of a different time, a different era, who at times sat uncomfortably in this time, in this era. A gentleman’s gentleman. They just don’t make them like him anymore.

Renowned trombonist J.J. Johnson once said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will. Jazz is forever seeking and reaching out and exploring.” That was John. Like the music he loved, he was complex. On one level, he was a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, but he was our curmudgeon. He prized trust, and he was fiercely loyal, but you had to earn both. John valued excellence. He expected it of the people around him; he demanded it of himself. He had no qualms about telling me when my sermon had missed the mark, and on occasion, he would tell me when he thought I had hit it right on. Those sermons always possessed a quality in preaching that he deeply appreciated—brevity. John had come up through the academy and had witnessed the tumult of the 60’s and 70’s. Fiercely independent, he had lived long enough to see the shortcomings of strongly held positions. He valued people, and he saw how people sometimes got hurt at the hands of positions. John did not suffer fools gladly, and suffered foolish thinking even less. But he also lived long enough for his fierce independence to give way to a gracious, generous, open-hearted space, a space of genuine acceptance. Some people hit the last stage of their life and coast. That was not in John Higby’s nature. He did some of his best transformative soul work in the last years of his life, and it was a privilege to watch that unfold.

John would drop by my office every now and again. “Just a few minutes of your time,” he would say. An hour or so later we would emerge, always invigorated by the conversation. He didn’t come to do small talk, but to engage the big questions of life, most of which I had no answers for, and he appreciated my honest admission of that obvious truth. He would reminisce about his boyhood in Utica, New York, especially singing in the Men and Boy’s Choir of his parish church. That experience was absolutely foundational in his faith formation. He loved the Anglican Choral tradition, and he loved the discipline that choir demanded, though he was also fond of telling stories of mischief that he and his peers were prone to find. He loved the beauty and poetry and language of the Book of Common Prayer Book, especially the cadence of the Elizabethan english. Whenever John and I would share communion, we would always recite the formal Rite I prayers—I from my Prayer Book, John from his memory.

We would talk of family and friends. There wasn’t a time that went by that he would not speak of his gratitude for his friends, his friends here at St. Luke’s, his friends in the ASU Community, his friends in the wider community of Boone and Blowing Rock. And he loved his family. He loved being a grandfather—that was a source of particular joy for him. He loved being a father. He loved you, Suzannah. He loved you, Mark. And he loved being a husband. Connie, without fail, in every conversation I had with him, he would close by saying, “I have a good wife.” He loved you deeply, and never was that more apparent than in these last months of his life.

Seven months ago, John and Connie made the decision that it was time for Hospice Care. That was a huge decision of great courage. John had struggled with his lung disease for years, and the last year, he had cycled in and out of the hospital with greater frequency. He knew things were changing. Sometimes, people pull back in the final months of their life. And while John had many, many friends, he was also a very private and reserved man. I thought he might really limit the number of visitors, but John and Connie did quite the opposite; they threw open the doors and said, “Come.” And come you did. And what a gift John gave us in his willingness to let us walk this final journey with him! There was time, all the time in the world, to say all that needed to be said. Stories told and retold. Wishes made known. Feelings expressed. Simple presence enjoyed. In the yielding that was demanded of him, John found deep and abiding peace these last months, and deep, deep acceptance. He did his work, all the way to the end.

John was not afraid to die. He had worked his theology through to his satisfaction. He was not afraid to die, but he was worried about the journey getting there. He wanted to do that journey well. If John could have watched himself in his final hours, he would have been most pleased with how he left this world. Our reading from Wisdom speaks of the souls of the righteous who are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, in our eyes, they seem to have died, and their departure is painful. What John had to endure in his body seemed so hard, but Wisdom reminds us that they are at peace, that their hope is full of immortality, that though the dying process seems to be a hard discipline, it is but the prelude to something glorious.

II Corinthians hones this even further, “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” These last seven months, John was living this transformation. You could see his countenance changing. You could see that curmudgeonliness softening. You could see his heart opening toward the glory that was moving to enfold him. That last couple of days was hard work for John. It always is. It is labor. He was struggling to be born into the next life, but bit by bit he let go. He relinquished his hold on this life. He yielded to the greater glory. His outer nature may have been wasting away, but make no mistake, his inner nature was being renewed, and the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure now is his. Just after John took his last breath, the sun illuminated the whole room. It went golden. It was bathed in golden light. That was no accident; that was a soul taking flight; John melted into the arms of his Creator. It was beautiful. All I could hear was Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

John is okay. John is better than okay. John’s mortal flesh has been swallowed up by life. It is we who struggle. We are left with a hole in our lives. We will miss that mortal flesh, and all that came with it. But there is a space that he occupies in each of our hearts, a place that he lives that not even death can touch, a presence that is ours to enjoy all the days of our lives. You will catch an echo of his voice, or that knowing look in his eye, when you relish a fine book, or enjoy a piece of jazz, or sight a beautiful bird, or tell a great story, or cherish a friend. So, do not lose heart.

They don’t make them like John anymore, but because he lives on in each one of you, the legacy he leaves is exquisitely timeless. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 30, 2012

Say YES! Tell the tale.

Epiphany—Year C, Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Today, is the culmination of an epic journey. We know the story of Matthew so well, but there is so much we don’t know. Like, just who are these wise men and where do they come from? There is an eighth century Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library called the Revelation of the Magi. Brent Landau, the scholar who translated it, thinks the original text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, which would date it less than one hundred years after the time Matthew’s story was written. It’s a first-person account from the perspective of the magi. So, let’s weave these stories together and see what we get.

We are in the time of King Herod. Jesus has just been born in Bethlehem of Judea. Now, at the time of Jesus’ birth, way over in the far East, not just the Persian East, but the far East, a brilliant star appeared. Some wise people of deep, deep prayer, monk-like mystics really, saw this sign. These wise people, magi some called them, were from the mythical land of Shir, possibly in the region of China. They may have been as few as twelve, or they have been many times that number. They were descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam, and they were the guardians of an ancient prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear heralding the birth of God in human form.

Now, when the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star isn’t simply sighted at its rising, like Matthew tells the story, but this star descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form [I knew we were right to have a human starbearer in our Christmas play—yes!]. This star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions.

Eventually, they come to Jerusalem, and they start asking around, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. King Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet.”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared, and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Ooooh, do you believe old King Herod?

Well, the magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This luminous star, now manifest as the luminous Christ child, commissions them to become witnesses of Christ in the lands of the east. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Once home, they tell this story, preach the faith some say, to everyone they knew. Eventually, Thomas, remember Thomas, doubting, committed, wise, wise Thomas, eventually, Thomas found his way east and baptized them. Thus, the wisdom revealed at the birth of Jesus joins the wisdom experienced in the life of Jesus joins the wisdom discovered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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So, is this how it really happened? Does this tell us who the magi really were? Landau, the scholar who translated the manuscript, doubts this was actually written by the historical wise men, but it does give a snapshot of some community in early Christianity whose practices looked a lot like these magi. But let’s leave behind our questions of historicity—those who, what, when, where, and why questions— because they rarely get us very far any way. Let’s work at this at the level of myth, and remember—and I’ll put this question to our kids, what do we know about myths? All myths are true, and some of them really happened.

First, these extra stories that fill in the gaps, like The Revelation of the Magi, are great because they allow us to insert ourselves into the story in new ways.

So, the star appears to people who understand contemplation, who are steeped in the practice of silence and meditation. We, here at St. Luke’s, are trying to grow in this practice. What luminous things are we beginning to notice? What synchronicities are beginning to show up in our lives because we are paying attention? Are we willing to take big, huge leaps of faith based upon a dream that may come to us, or an intuition, or a hunch? Are we willing to set out on journeys into unknown territories to follow a something that we can’t even explain to our friends. I mean, the magi follow a star-child, does that sound crazy or what? But if we heed the voices that are calling to us, would we sound any less crazy? Are we willing to risk looking a little bit crazy to the sensible world around us? Are we willing to trust that, if we step out on this journey in faith, we will indeed be given the provisions we need all along the way, that the obstacles that stand in our path will be cleared away?

And what about that scene in Jerusalem? Oh my. All I can think about is the fiasco we see over and over in Washington D.C. I won’t go so far as to name a Herod figure, but I did notice that, in the story, all of Jerusalem was frightened right along with him. Everybody in the center of power was scrambling to figure out just who this threat to their power was. Everybody was aware that they had something to lose. Everybody was afraid. Never mind the wholeness and healing that was possible through this child—if they were going to lose power, this child had to be found and silenced. Those in power had become attached to their power; you can’t worship a new possibility, even if it is full of God, if you have made an idol out of your comfort and power.

We may not be as dysfunctional as our nation’s capital right now, but where are we dug in? To what, in our orbit, in our life, to what have we become attached? What have we turned into an idol that is keeping us from seeing and bowing before a new possibility? Have we grown so independent and self-contained that we find it difficult to bend our knee before anything at all?

And they find the Christ child in a house, by some accounts, or in a cave, by other accounts. Both locations invite us to pay attention to where Christ is being born. Can we see our ordinary homes as the place where Christ is being born, as the place where Christ is being revealed? Or maybe we find ourselves in a cave these days, a dark space, somewhat isolated, not so comfortable—can we see that this dark space is also a place where Christ is being born, a place where Christ is being revealed?

And when this luminous child reveals himself to us, when we catch a glimpse of Christ in whatever way he manifests himself to us, can we allow our breath to be taken away? Can we allow wonder to catch our hearts off-guard? Can we let this luminous wonder ignite our generosity? Can we throw off our well-honed moderation, our well-cultivated self-restraint, can we cast these to the winds and lay our very best gifts, in whatever form they take, before our God, and let God do with them what God will?

And as we depart this encounter, can we heed the voices of warning—in a dream, in our thoughts, through a friend’s counsel—not to return the way we came? Can we understand that this encounter changes everything, and that we have to find our way home by another road? Can we see that once we meet this luminous child, we are free to go a new way? If the magi were skilled at keeping silence, then they had surely gone round and round with shadow voices, their own or others. It pays to be able to hear the shadow speak and to heed that voice. Their willingness to do so gave this new fragile life the chance it needed to survive.

These wise people were not meant to stay in Bethlehem and become the new Jesus groupies there. They were meant to carry this experience in their souls, and to carry it back home where they could radiate its light there. Where are you called to carry this radiance? Where is the place you are meant to share your experience? Can you risk that what you have encountered here may not be understood out there, and will you risk shining with this luminosity anyway?

I love that Thomas eventually meets up with this motley crew. Wisdom found in one place will always find its way to wisdom found some place else. We need not fear wisdom wherever it reveals itself. If the magi have come to tell us anything, they have come to tell us that. They did not fear the luminous star, they did not fear traveling to the West, they did not fear the luminous child, they did not fear a powerful king, they did not fear their folk back home—maybe cultivating the practice of silence had taught them not to fear at all and had freed them to journey forward in faith. Don’t we all long for that kind of freedom?

Quite a journey those magi made, but you and I have a journey that is no less epic, if we but say “yes” to the invitation to make it, and then, have the courage to tell our tale. The pen is now in your hand—how will you tell the story of God’s revelation to you? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 6, 2013

God meets us everywhere.

Christmas I—Year C, Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Do you ever get tired of hearing this soaring language at the beginning of the Gospel of John? If the Feast of the Nativity draws our gaze to the particularity of the flesh that Divinity wishes to inhabit, today draws our gaze to the particularity of the God who inhabits that fragile, human flesh. It’s a Word who has been looking for a way under our skin since the beginning of creation itself. The great New Testament scholar Ray Brown notes that this image of the Word and its association with the act of creation means that creation itself is an act of revelation. Everything, everything holds the ability to reveal God to us. God speaks, and creation is. God speaks, and we hear God’s voice. Our eucharistic prayer reminds us that this Word keeps tumbling through time—we hear it in the calling of Israel, we hear it in the prophet’s cry, and John reminds us that this same Word becomes flesh, not just to speak at us, but to live among us.

I mean honestly, who among us likes to be spoken at? Okay, I will put this question to our kids. Do you like it when your parents start talking at you? What do you hear? Do you hear the brilliance of their words? Do you hear the eloquence of their wisdom? Or, do you just hear the Charlie Brown teacher voice, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?” As mystically as God taught the people the Divine name “I AM,” they mostly didn’t get it. As brilliantly as God spoke through the law, the people experienced it like a disciplinarian. As powerfully as God spoke through the prophets, the people just tuned them out, or silenced them. The Word was hard to comprehend. It’s like God was speaking a different language, which maybe is sometimes how you kids experience your parents, or how you parents experience your kids.

But God is persistent. God was bent on revealing the fullness of God’s steadfast love to us. Up to this point, God had been a little reluctant to be seen in the fullness of grace. Remember when Moses asked to see God’s face? God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and let him catch a glimpse of his back as he passed by. Not much to go on, ehhh? But times change, relationships change, and sometimes, there comes a time, when a radical leap of faith is called for by one of the parties. It may be a radical leap of faith for us to leave our fields or kingdoms and journey to a stable in Bethlehem, but it’s a radical leap of faith for God to leave the safety of distant dimensions of time and space and journey into our human flesh. We may not be able to hear words, especially when they are heaped upon other words, but it’s hard to miss a gaze that locks your eyes and won’t let you go. It’s hard to miss a touch that breaks through your isolation. It’s hard to miss shared laughter or shared sorrow or the shared silence that says more than a thousand words ever could.

Kids, which speaks to your heart more, a lecture from your parents, or a hug? And grown-ups, are we really so different from our kids? All the abstract theories about God and the nature of God are wonderful and powerful and interesting, but sometimes, we just need a God with skin on, and the Word who had been trying to communicate with us from the beginning, finally understood that too. Words can capture our imaginations, but flesh can capture our hearts—that’s what Jesus did as he lived his life.

And there is one other aspect to how this Word now dwells in flesh that is important for us. You see it’s not that this Word made flesh threw out all that went before as if to say, “None of that mattered.” The greek tells us that in the fullness of time this Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us. Pitched a tent…that image taps a deep, deep well in the Jewish psyche; it goes to the very heart of the Jewish understanding of God’s presence. In the wilderness, Moses set up a tent where he would go to meet God and sit with God in the fullness of God’s presence. When he would come out of that tent, his face would be shining; it would be shining so brightly that he would have to veil his face, but when he would go into the tent, Moses would unveil his face. And this tent would go wherever the people went.

In Jesus, God pitches a tent, a place where we can go to meet the fullness of God. In Jesus, God commits to being a God on the move, to being with us on the human journey wherever that journey takes us. In Jesus, God inhabits a space where we can unveil our face and let God see us in the fullness of who we are and where God can unveil God’s face and let us gaze on God in the fullness of God’s love and mercy and grace. In Jesus, God commits to revealing God’s heart to humanity and gives us a space that is safe enough for us to reveal our heart to God. In Jesus, we have our tent of meeting. No doubt, it is not the only place where God deigns to meet us—after all, all creation came into being through the Word; God meets us everywhere. But Jesus is a particularly powerful tent of meeting because this is where presence gazes upon Presence radically unveiled.

So, on this First Sunday after Christmas, as we contemplate all these words about the Word, how might we drop the words and simply come into the tent of meeting? How might we remove our veil and allow God in Jesus to gaze into our heart and soul? How might we lift our eyes and look into Jesus’ gaze and allow ourselves to meet God’s heart and soul there? What if we shed all the words that try to capture and define Jesus and just experienced him as our tent of meeting?

Sisters and brothers, remove your veil, come into this tent of meeting, and risk the fact that you will not emerge the same; risk the possibility that you will come out “shining like the sun.”1 Amen.

1 This phrase comes from Thomas Merton’s conversion experience on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, KY on March 18, 1958: “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 30, 2012

When we and God become one.

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

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word spoke and creation burst forth from the chaos.

In the middle was the Word, and the Word became flesh in the covenant, in the sacred words of the law that were the way of life.

And as time went on, the people struggled, and in the struggle was the Word, as the prophets called the people to remember what it meant to be a treasured possession of the Divine.

And there came a time, in the fullness of time, when the Word became tangled in words, and it ceased to move hearts. That happens sometimes. You talk and you talk and you talk and you listen and then listen some more, and the more words that are spoken, the less understanding that is achieved. The more words that are spoken, the greater the distance grows. The more words that are spoken, the more the other seems an absolute mystery to us.

Sometimes, there can come a time, when the words simply fall short, and in the fullness of that time, the Word made a different choice…the Word became flesh. The Word became something you could see and touch and hear and feel and smell and taste. The Word became the eyes that could pierce our defenses, the hand that could heal us, the ear that could hear our yearnings, the Word became the feet that we could bathe with our oil and tears alike, the nose that was not afraid of the stench of death, the Body and Blood that was sweet to our lips.

The Word became flesh and that which we could not understand became One whom we could simply love, and what had been a monologue of God speaking to creation became an intimate, intimate conversation, life engaging with life, love embracing love. This Word made flesh would speak so very much without ever having to say a word. This Word’s life would say all that needed to be said. This Word’s life would draw us into itself in a way that words never could.

And it wasn’t just a colossal misunderstanding that God was trying to clear up in this leap into flesh, but it was a divine yearning for intimacy that propelled God to take this insane risk. Why else would God commit Godself to such utterly insane vulnerability? Why else would God throw in the Divine lot with our frail, broken, finite human condition? Why else would the Infinite agree to such constriction? God’s fingerprints are already all over creation in the act of creation itself; the Word spoke and creation was, so why go this next step? Because God isn’t just the Divine Artist in Residence content to admire the works of the Divine hands, but God is a lover, and a lover is never content until it becomes one with its beloved. I am not sure that God understood the fullness of the challenge that such love would entail; lovers who take such flying leaps rarely do, but the moment the Word became flesh, God was all-in.

Never again would distance be possible with humanity. The window had been thrown open, God would know the fullness of our humanity, and we finally would embody the fullness of the divinity that has always been our birthright. It’s one thing to know you have such an inheritance; it is quite another to see and touch and hear and feel and smell and taste it in the flesh.

When the Word became flesh, the Word became a conversation, a give and take between divinity and humanity where both are changed by the other. Our humanity is filled with the glory of God, and God’s divinity is radiant with vulnerability, a vulnerability that can only be known when you enter fully into the other’s condition. When the Word became flesh, it wasn’t just flesh that was changed, but the Word was changed, too. We only need look at Jesus in his living and loving to see how flesh changes the Word.

There is no avoiding the truth of this day; our flesh is forever joined with God. God lives in you, and you live in God. God loves in you, and you love in God. God has infused your humanity with divinity, and your humanity somehow gives shape and form to divinity—it moves divinity from an abstract premise to a lived reality which is the only place love can really occur.

This is about the nature of who we are, and the nature of who God is. Can you dare to believe that these two natures are now one, not just in Jesus, but in your own flesh and blood? Because the mystery of His incarnation, is also the mystery of our own. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 25, 2012

A birth that changes everything

Christmas Eve—Year C, Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“The people who walked in great darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” so says the prophet Isaiah. So often we focus on the darkness, the deep darkness, and its juxtaposition to the light. And certainly this year, we have no shortage of darkness, and we yearn for the light to shine. But there is something else here also calling to us, “The people who walked…” The people who walked—everyone makes a journey to come to this night. Many are the reasons we come out late on a cold, dark night at the end of December.

We might come for the music that transports us to another time, another place, another realm. We might come for the smell of incense that awakens our mystical senses. We might come because it’s what our families have always done; that’s frankly what landed Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem in the first place. They simply had to go and be with their people. Maybe it’s nostalgia for Christmases past, maybe it is hope for some new start, maybe it is a yearning so deep we don’t even have words for it, maybe we just can’t stay away from a newborn baby. Many are the reasons we come, and honestly, it doesn’t much matter why we have made this journey; all that matters is that we are here. A birth is happening, and once that process begins, all bets are off. However you thought this might unfold is desperately out of your hands now. Something new is coming to birth, and your life will never be the same.

So, set aside all your expectations and open yourself to the vast possibility of this night. Our rational, well-conceived, tightly controlled, orderly sensibilities will not serve us now. Maybe in the light of day that approach would work, but not in the dark of night. Labor has begun, and there is no turning back. Birth takes us to the threshold, and words usually fail us there. Tonight belongs to the mystics and the poets. Theirs is the language that can help us wrap our hearts around this night.

In the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross penned a poem called “If you want”:

If you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God,
each of us.

Yes there, under the dome of your being
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help,
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.

If you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with Light and sing…

We may have thought we were coming to gaze upon this birth, maybe as a distant uncle or aunt might, deeply interested but not intimately involved; come to “oooh and aaaah,” come to adore, but not much more. But the poet makes clear, The Virgin is walking down the road, pregnant and needing shelter, knocking on the door of our heart—is there space, is there room? We cannot stay as an observer of this event; we are asked to participate, fully, wholly, in the flesh. But if we can grant her entrance, her and the Holy One she bears, if we grant them entrance under the roof of our soul, we will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth within us. She grasps our hand for help; we are privileged to midwife God, each one of us. We are drawn into the orbit of this birth; we are brought into the intimate circle, into the blood and sweat and struggle and wonder of it all. God needs our help to make God’s way into this world.

But the journey doesn’t stop there; the journey continues. Yes there, under the dome of your being does creation come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—through your womb—the sacred womb in your soul…You aren’t just the shelter; you are the very womb…as God grasps our arms for help…God cannot do this without our flesh. Incarnation. God is born this night in Jesus, yes, but his incarnation is also ours; God made flesh in us. If incarnation means anything, it means that God has shed the heavenly observer status to pitch the divine tent in our human flesh. God has traded in the comforts of the heavenly places for the trials and tribulations of the human journey.

We are not the only ones who journey this night; God journeys, too. God filled us with God’s image at creation, and now God fully commits to that image in the lived experience of our all too human lives.

God cannot do this without your flesh—the wonder of God’s creation come into existence eternally through you. Can you wrap your heart around that—not your head, but your heart? Your head can’t grasp this; it is impossible, but your heart can leap where your head cannot go. You aren’t just a member of the team bringing this birth to pass; you are absolutely, intimately central to it. You thought you were coming to gaze on a child in a manger, but this night is about the birth God is longing to bring to pass inside of you. Can you give yourself over to it? Can you let this unfold in your heart and mind and soul and flesh?

We come tonight because something in us yearns to be born anew. Something in us yearns to have God swallow up our flesh. Something in us yearns to “Sing the new song,” of which the psalmist sings. We journey here tonight because our hearts long to know God in the flesh, and tonight God meets our desire full on and pours every last drop of Divine divinity into our frail human flesh and sets the night ablaze with glory. A glory that filled the skies and bid the shepherds come. A glory that lit even the darkness of Isaiah’s land. A glory that is beyond our imagining. A glory full of grace and truth. A glory meant for you, and for me.

If you want, the
Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with Light and sing…

Dear sisters and brothers, you are radiant, and all creation is singing with you, even “the woods shout with joy.”

Don’t stay in the waiting room waiting for this birth to be announced. Let your whole being proclaim the good news that God has come into the world, and neither you nor creation will ever be the same.

This birth changes everything, if you want.

Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 24, 2012

Don’t rush the countdown.

Advent 4—Year C, Micah 5:2-5a, Canticle 15, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

How many days until Christmas? How many hours? Minutes—can anybody do that calculation? Oh, it’s sooooo close. We can almost reach out and touch it. We are leaning hard into it. We’ve lit our fourth candle. Even the flowers are whispering, “It’s almost here.” It’s so hard to hold this Fourth Sunday of Advent space, but we get four Sundays of Advent for a reason. While the whole world is tipping toward Christmas, there is this Advent counterbalance that says, “Not yet. Not quite yet.” Today, it’s all Advent, all day long. We need more time. We need more time to get ready. Goodness, Christmas Eve is tomorrow, and there is still so much to do.

But before you count your lucky stars that you still have a day and a half, 40 hours, 2400 minutes, to scurry around and do that last minute shopping, cooking, wrapping, cleaning, the Collect for today would have us direct our attention to a different kind of preparation. “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself…” Yes, we still have some errands to do before the big event, but it’s the interior cleaning to which we most need to attend. Amidst all the busyness flying around us, we are called to be still. In the midst of the noise, we are called to be quiet. In the midst of holiday cheer and “ho, ho, ho,” we are called to stand in the refiner’s fire and let ourselves be purified. You see, it’s not just we who are preparing for this birth, but God is preparing for this birth also. God is visiting us, even today, working to carve out this space in our hearts, a beautiful spacious mansion, that will house God’s very self.

So, as God visits your heart today, as God visits your soul, what does God find? Is there a lot of clutter lying around? Does it look like the storage room in my basement—is there so much stuff, that it’s hard even to find a pathway through? Has your heart become a storage room stuffed full of regrets about the past or worries about the future? Instead of that chorus of Christmas carols like you hear in the stores, do you have a chorus of conversations ringing in your head, conversations with people with whom you are in conflict? Are you wrapping up past hurts and tying them with a bow of resentment that you will gladly unwrap and replay at some future time? Are you running through all the people in your life busy making your own list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? What are those things, inside of you, that are so crowding your soul that might cause you to hang a sign on your heart, “No room in the inn?” Mary and Joseph are about to come knocking on your door; they are yearning for a space to give birth to the One who will change the world, will they find a “No Vacancy” sign, or will they find a mansion prepared for God’s very own self?

It’s not too late. It’s never too late to get ready to receive this child.

So, take some time today. Thank God for the gift of this time. Thank God that we have one more day to get ready. Thank God for the refiner’s fire that will purify us and ready us for this gift beyond all imagining. Do a scan of your heart and soul. If you’re like me, when company is on the way and the time is short, you grab a cardboard box or a garbage sack and you stuff all the clutter into it and tuck it in a closet somewhere.

Don’t do that with your heart.

No, expose all the clutter in your heart and mind and soul to the radiance of God’s love. Let God throw God’s heat and light on it. Let God’s love completely dissolve all that stuff that is in the way. Let God prepare the mansion that is spacious enough to hold this precious Divinity. You don’t need to stuff any of this clutter in some dark closet; the point is, you don’t need this clutter at all.

Whatever else you may still have to do between now and tomorrow night, do not neglect this interior work. Allow God to prepare this space in your heart. As the clutter dissolves and as this spacious, expansive mansion opens up inside of you, you may find that this spaciousness is indeed the greatest Christmas gift you could ever receive. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 23, 2012

We weep and wail for the loss of the innocents…. then work for God’s peaceable kingdom.

Advent 3—Year C, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

It wasn’t until 6:00 on Friday evening that I saw the news. Normally, my sermon is written by then; this week it wasn’t, which is a good thing, because I would have had to throw it out. I, like you, am still trying to make sense of it, and the reality is, there is no sense to be made of the unspeakable tragedy that happened Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. This one takes our breath away. Newtown is a fairly affluent small town about an hour and a half from New York City. It was known to be a boring place, and people liked it that way. It is a place like Boone. The school could have been Hardin Park or Parkway or Two Rivers or Green Valley or Cove Creek or Blowing Rock or Valle Crucis or Mabel or Bethel. These kids could have been our kids; these teachers, our friends, and that stops us in our tracks. It is senseless. It just doesn’t make sense. Twenty-six familes changed forever, including the family of the gunman. And countless more changed forever because their innocence has been shattered.

We live in Advent. We live in a collision of time. The Redeemer who is coming, the Redeemer who has come, the Redeemer who will come again. We live in the time when God has broken into our world, but our world is still a broken, broken place. And this week, that brokenness is more than our hearts can bear.

You’ve heard the phrase, Christmas has come early. Well, there is another feast that we mark just after Christmas on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This year, it has come early. That occasion marks King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem because the King was afraid of the Christ child. He felt his power was threatened, so his solution was to kill all the children under the age of two. In Matthew 2:18, the scripture quotes 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.”

So, the first thing we do is we weep. We lament. These children are no more. Our hearts need to break because when we allow our hearts to touch this kind of tenderness and pain, then we are standing in solidarity, not just with the families of those killed, but we are also standing in solidarity with a Lord, with God, who has planted himself right in the middle of violence and suffering and pain, and, arms stretched out, God just holds it. We stand in solidarity with his mother Mary who stands at the foot of that cross and who knows what it is to lose a son to violence. We stand in solidarity with Mary Magdalene who can only wait and weep at the grave of her friend. And if we can stand there, if we stay present, if we keep our vigil with this pain, then maybe our eyes will be open to also catch the first glimpses of resurrection. Jesus will live again, but his risen life always bears the marks of the nails.

And if we can wail and weep for the innocents of Newtown, Connecticut, maybe we can weep and wail for the innocent children who die in gun violence in our cities and rural communities everyday, who suffer neglect because their parents are caught in the grip of drugs, who live in terror of domestic violence, who go hungry at night, both here and across the world. Maybe can weep and wail for the innocents who die at the hands of IED’s and bombs and drone strikes. Maybe we can weep and wail for all the innocents who cannot get the mental help they need because our mental health system has completely broken down in this country. Maybe we can weep and wail for a culture whose conflict resolution so easily and quickly turns to guns and for all the ways we have become desensitized to violence.

Maybe this hits so hard because the victims are so innocent, but maybe it hits something so much deeper that we just don’t keep in our consciousness because it is just too big—there are innocents everywhere; there are innocents all over the world.  We are killing each other and robbing our innocents of their innocence in a thousand different ways. If our weeping and wailing for these innocents of Newtown opens our hearts to weep and wail for all innocents, and if this weeping and wailing can soften our hardened hearts, then God already has the seeds from which to grow a different world.

The Collect is right, “we are sorely hindered by our sins,” but the Collect says more, we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily deliver us.” We won’t stop the slaughter of innocents alone, but God is stirring up God’s power. Weeping and wailing is the first step we need to take, but it cannot be the last. The prophet Hosea describes God as a mother bear robbed of her cubs; this is the fierce energy of love that refuses to accept that the slaughter of innocents is inevitable.

How can we also tap into that energy on behalf of all the innocents of the world?

What one concrete action might we take to bring about the peaceable kingdom in our homes, in our schools, in our community, in our nation, in our world?

How might we stand in solidarity with the innocents of the world and let God’s power stir us up with great might to stand against all the powers of darkness and violence in this world?

How might we honor the innocents by choosing actions and responses that promote life?

A horror like Friday always raises questions to which we will never get answers, but Advent is an apocalyptic time when chaos collides in the darkness and something new is born. A little innocent child, who holds no power, is coming into the world, and that innocent turned the world upside down. It may seem that there is nothing that we can do, that we have no power to change things, but who thought that a baby born of a young woman in a stable would do much either. In the midst of senseless slaughter there is also the cry of new life that calls us to a different way.

So, brothers and sisters, weep and wail for the innocents, let your heart break, but then let God work with you a good long while while your heart is still tender. Let God infuse you with God’s mama bear energy. Let God set you on fire with a passion for all innocents everywhere, and then join God, in whatever way God gives you—it might be in a great big way or in the tiniest of actions—just join God, in whatever way God gives you, to bring about the peaceable kingdom that has always been God’s dream for all the world. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 16, 2012

Advent… a time for recalibration.

Advent II—Year C, Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

I love our mountains. I love the high mountains, the beautiful deep valleys, the crooked roads, and the rough terrain. I love all of it. So why would God want to make the mountains low and fill up the valleys—why would God want to straighten out the crooked roads and smooth out those rough places?

+++

A little aerobic action here. Okay, you are the mountains and the hills. You are down in the valleys. You are on a crooked road over here. And you are a rough place and you are behind that rough place. Okay, you in the valley, can you see that person over in the far corner? You tall mountain in the back, can you see so-and-so in the valley? How about you on the crooked road, can you see around that bend to see so-and-so up here? And you behind the rough place, can you see back in that corner?

Okay, mountains, sit down. Valley people stand up. Crooked road, come round here straight. And rough place, smooth out. How can you see now?

+++

I remember the first, and only time, I drove out west. I was 21 and made a cross-country trip with my parents in a Ford Mustang. That is a very small car, and Kentucky to California is a very long way. It was a trip for the books. And I remember getting to about Kansas. Now, I grew up in the Ohio Valley; I had never seen that kind of flat. In fact, in doing my background work for this sermon, I found an article that stated that Kansas is actually flatter than a pancake. Honestly, researchers from Texas State University and Arizona State University gathered data from US Geological Survey for the state of Kansas and gathered pancakes from the International House of Pancakes and headed into the lab. The data proved it; when the data was extrapolated, Kansas was actually flatter than the variations on the top of an IHOP pancake. But I digress.

The thing that struck me about all that flatness was that you could see. You could see forever in every direction. You could turn in a circle and see the horizon everywhere you looked. You could see there; you could see things I couldn’t see in the Ohio Valley; you could see things that we can’t see here in our beloved mountains.

The reasons for all this leveling, raising, straightening, and smoothing work are twofold this morning. In the Collect, it’s to prepare the way for our salvation. In Baruch, it’s so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. In Luke, it’s so all flesh shall see the salvation of our God. This is two-directional. This is about our salvation, and this is about seeing the salvation of God. In English, salvation goes back to the latin word for save which goes back to the latin word for safe which is related to the greek for to save or to keep safe which means to make whole, to make well, to heal, to restore to health.

What on earth does the salvation of God mean? Well, maybe it has something to do with God’s wholeness, with the fullness of God. And our salvation? Maybe that has to do with our wholeness, our healing, our fullness, our restoration.

What the wide-open horizon does is give us, and everybody else in the world, all flesh, the ability to see this wholeness of God, the fullness of the Divine. And it gives a space for God to see the fullness of us because there is simply no place to hide. If we think of those mountains as those parts of ourselves that we want the world to see, kind of the face we show the world, then the valleys are those parts of ourselves we want to keep tucked away out of plain view. And the crooked places in our lives, or the rough places, well, none of us wants those to be known.

But when it all gets leveled and raised and straightened and smoothed, well that’s a way of saying, in the words of Richard Rohr, “Eveything belongs.” It all belongs. And in that spacious place where it is all out in the open, we give God complete access to all of who we are, as if God didn’t already know, but sometimes, we live as if we think we can keep that stuff from God. God may know, but it is so important for us to live in the glorious knowledge that God does know all those parts of our being, and God’s verdict still stands, we are God’s beloved.

And out in that wide-open space, maybe we can see the fullness of God in a way we have not seen God before. Maybe parts of God that, up to this point in our lives, have been hidden from us, maybe those parts of God now come into full view and allow us to relate to God in whole new ways.

If our prayers and lessons are right this morning, nothing less than salvation is at stake, ours and God’s. But this isn’t a salvation saving us from the eternal fires of hell. This is a salvation taking us into a deeper wholeness, a greater fullness, a more profound joy; this is deeply restorative.

So, Advent is a time to find the wide-open spaces where we can see God anew, and where we, with God’s help, can recalibrate our lives. What needs to be brought low, things that have gotten out of proportion in our lives? What mountains of distraction in our lives need to be leveled? What needs to be lifted up, parts of our lives or our selves that we have been neglecting? What paths need straightening because the crooked ones are draining us of our energy and taking us from our deepest loves? What places in our lives and relationships have just been rough and are in desperate need of some smoothing?

God knows the fullness of who we are, but we need a season like Advent so that we can rediscover the fullness of that person that God made and longs for us to be.

Keep awake, watch, look—these are the watchwords of Advent. Today we add one more invitation, one more spiritual practice—in this season of Advent, may we lift our eyes to the horizon in every direction, so that we can see salvation with fresh eyes and find our feet walking on a new path where all things are possible, for God, for us, and for all of creation. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 9, 2012

Let go of distractions. A challenge for Advent.

Advent 1—Year C, Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Advent 1. The first Sunday of Advent. The beginning of a whole new year in the church. Don’t you think we could have a little bit of a celebratory atmosphere? Can’t we at least make this as big a deal as we do New Year’s Eve? Maybe some party favors and balloons? But noooo. Jesus gives us apocalyptic doom. Jesus gives us weird things going on in the sun and moon and stars. Jesus gives us roaring seas and huge waves, the stuff of hurricanes. Jesus gives us nations in distress. Jesus doesn’t give us a party. Jesus gives us absolute, total, utter chaos. Happy New Year.

But take a look around the world. Storms are wreaking havoc. Wars and rumors of war. Nations in distress across the globe. There may be a pause on December 31st to have a party, but chaos really is the order of the day.

And this is where the gospel is infinitely good news.

Because in the midst of all this chaos, Jesus gives us another image—that of the fig tree and all the trees. “When you see them sprout their leaves, you know that summer is near…So too, when you see the chaos, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Now, Jesus could have just as easily said, “When you see the fig tree drop her leaves, you know that winter is settling in,” but Jesus didn’t say that; he pointed to an image of new life and growth, not death. Chaos has always been the stuff out of which God creates new life. In the beginning, God moved over the chaos and the wind of God swept over the waters and creation was born. In and amongst all the chaos that surrounds us, in the world, in our lives, leaves are sprouting, new life is coming into being, the kingdom of God is near. Can you see it? Can you hear? Can you smell it? Can you feel it?

Jesus goes on to warn us, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly…” It is so easy for our hearts to get weighed down. It is so tempting to want to drown out our fears with dissipation and drunkenness. I actually had to look up dissipation to see what that meant. It means “a wasteful expenditure, intemperate living, an act of self-indulgence, amusement.” This is just a fancy way of saying “all the things we do in this life to distract ourselves from experiencing that which is real or difficult.” Drunkeness can stand in for all the things we do to numb ourselves to life. And the worries of this life speak for themselves. How often do these worries rob us of the present moment because we are living our lives a week from now or a year from now or ten years from now? Jesus is calling out to us today, “Don’t be distracted! Pay attention! Stay awake because the kingdom of God is so near; it’s all around you, but it’s as subtle as the leaves starting to sprout. If you’re eyes aren’t open, you will miss it.”

Far from being a wet blanket on our New Year’s celebration, Jesus is infinitely hopeful. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near. Your birth into a new creation is in the midst of all this chaos.

The task before us in this season of Advent is to let go of the distractions that keep our hearts weighed down, so that our hearts can perceive the way that God is breaking into our world all around us. A new thing is about to be born—the Son of Man in glory, the babe in Bethlehem, God made flesh in us. Take notice of the chaos, but don’t fear it. Be on guard that the distractions that are everywhere not weigh down your heart. It takes a subtle eye to catch those first buds, but they are sprouting everywhere.

Stand up, raise your heads, it’s not just a new year we’re celebrating, but the promise of a new creation for those whose hearts are light enough to perceive it. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 2, 2012