Worship Schedule

DayTimeService
DayTimeService
Sunday8:00 amHoly Eucharist Rite I - Chapel
Sunday9:00 amChristian Formation
Sunday10:15 amGlad News/Sad News
Sunday10:30 amHoly Eucharist Rite II - Sanctuary w/Music
Monday6:00 pmCentering Prayer and Study
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St. Lukes Blog

St. Luke's

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

Rector’s Annual Address

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 28—Year B—Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon

I Samuel 1:4-20, I Samuel 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

Settle in. Get comfortable. Try as I might, I never am successful at being succinct on this day.

It is my joy to address you as your Priest and Rector. There is much to celebrate from this past year, and there is much to anticipate as we look toward the future. But before I speak one more word, I want to thank my colleagues—Charles and Brenda, Katrina, Emily, Katharine, Pat, Catherine, Sarah, Ted, Karen, and Greg—they are an amazing staff! Each of these individuals has such a sense of ministry about their work, and that only adds to the spirit of our community. This past year, we began having monthly staff meetings. We’ve been watching the Reggie McNeal Six Tough Questions for the Church video’s so that we, as a staff, can understand the shifts happening in our church and in the culture. We share what’s going on in our various areas, and we help one another think through challenges. Everyone brings wisdom to the table, and we laugh a lot. Now, more specifically…

Charles and Brenda Oaks continue to love our physical plant. They are family. When Brenda had to have her back surgery, it was one of the family having surgery. Charles has stepped into the lead role beautifully, and Brenda is determined to get back to full strength. Their work is so behind the scenes—if you ever are here when they clean, please thank them for their work.

Katrina Godsey, Emily Wright, and Katharine Houghton take care of our children week in and week out. The first formation a young child gets in our church often happens in our nursery. The fact that our children are cared for by caring, loving, nurturing, energetic women communicates much to our children about how our God cares for us. We are blessed to have this team of caregivers.

Pat Kohles continues to keep our numbers straight. Part of stewardship is being careful and trustworthy stewards of the monies you entrust to us. Pat keeps all the funds straight, keeps us in compliance with the government, and is there to answer your questions when something doesn’t add up. I would add that Pat has helped to shepherd us through the audit process, and we now are in complete compliance with our Diocesan requirements—yea! And Pat is one of those rare people who finds joy in double-entry accounting. I love that about you!

Catherine King keeps the office humming, the communication flowing, the bulletins rolling, the website updated, the Rector sane—and all with a pastoral sensitivity, great wisdom, and a keen wit. Catherine has a wonderful way of pulling the curtain back and naming what is. That kind of clarity ten feet away is immensely helpful to me. And we laugh a lot—sometimes at the insanity in the world, sometimes at this loveable and crazy thing we call “church.” Thanks Catherine, for being a great partner in ministry.

Sarah Miller continues to show amazing creativity and flexibility as our Director of Christian Formation. She has made me aware that, for the third year in a row, we have completely reworked Christian formation for our older elementary and middle school age kids. She is now used to me saying, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and what if we did…” She is a great dreamer and brain-stormer, and we are finding wonderful new ways to do Christian formation with children. She resources those of you who teach and is always there to think through your questions. Sarah, we are blessed to have your open spirit, as well as a lifetime of educational experience to make sure that our methods actually give witness to the gospel we are proclaiming. And thanks for rolling with my middle-of-the-night ideas.

Ted Gulick. We allowed him three months of leave this summer, and though he planned well for the supply organists, we all were keenly aware that none of them was Ted. It’s not just the fact that he is an enormously gifted musician; it’s the spirit Ted brings to his music making. It’s the fact that he is completely open to new expressions of praise, as well as the ancient ones. It’s the fact that Ted has a very intentional spiritual life that opens up this space for Spirit to move through his hands and his feet. Ted also understands his ministry to the Chancel Choir, and he pastors that flock well. I think they pastor him, too. In a nutshell, the liturgy just goes better when you are on the bench.

Karen Robertson. Oh, Karen. Karen is an amazingly talented, gifted, beautiful musician and person. She has continued to pursue creative avenues for music at the 9:00 service. When one thing isn’t working, she has sought to find another way forward. And always, she has sought ways for singers and other musicians to offer their gifts through the Family Choir, the cantor groups, and the instrumentalists. Karen, you have successfully taught us that we can clap and hold a rhythm, and that we can tap our feet, sway, and even dance. And now, you give us one gift more. A month ago, Karen came to me to tell me of her decision to step down as the Director of Music for the 9:00 service. Karen sensed that something needs to shift in that liturgy and that it wasn’t going to happen until a space opened up for it to do so. So, she is opening up that space, and over the months to come, we will discern where the Spirit is moving us. We will celebrate Karen’s ministry with a reception on December 30th, but for now I want to say, I will miss you like crazy. I will miss your music, your spirit, your creativity, your love of God, and the deep sense of ministry that you bring to it all.

And I want to thank Ted and Karen for the spirit in which they have long worked together with each other and with me. Trust me, I talk to clergy around the church, this is not always the case. We are blessed to have musicians of differing gifts and sensibilities that truly honor the breadth of styles that exist between them. Ted and Karen, you have done much to heal and move this community forward when it comes to the different styles of music that feed our souls, and we are all the better for it.

Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg has had some travel this fall, and boy, I’m really aware of how much I count on him when he is not here. It’s not just the bazillion of details that Greg attends to every Wednesday and Sunday, but it’s the way his spirit anchors this community, and especially me. You are all heart, and your open heart opens every heart you meet. You have a heart for people, and a heart for mission, and you remind us that those two always go together. You are my brother in every way, you are a wise councilor to me, and it is a joy to share this sacred ministry with you.

This is your staff. They are team players in every way, and they embody servant leadership. I would be sunk without them. As you cross paths with them, please thank them.

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Need to stretch?

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What a year this has been! Ministries are growing. Ministry is extending. Focus is growing sharper and shifting in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. A year ago, I couldn’t have told you who Reggie McNeal or Dwight Zschleile were, (they are leading thinkers in what is now being called missional church) and now, these ideas are woven into our conversations at St. Luke’s. Last winter, your Vestry started watching the Reggie McNeal videos—the very videos now being shown in our Sunday Adult Forums. Reggie McNeal makes us keenly aware that we can be really busy doing church; we can exhaust people with church busywork; we can do church excellently, but if we are answering the wrong questions, it’s not going to get us where God is calling us to go.

As Jim Banks’ paper indicates, the trend lines in the Episcopal Church, and even in our own Diocese, are dire. The Episcopal Church has lost 37% of its members since 1965. Does that strike fear in your heart? It certainly has in mine. And if I am honest, I have probably spent a good amount of time this past year in a pretty anxious and fearful place. I have been deeply aware that the church for which I was trained is changing, and that a good part of my thinking and training does not translate to the church we are becoming. Dwight Zschleile talks a lot about the church needing to adopt the position of disciples—we need to become learners as we encounter the world outside our doors; a benefactor mentality no longer holds. So, I am becoming a learner, right alongside all of you. I don’t particularly like change. I like to know what I am doing, but I am beginning to grow comfortable with the fact that this is something we are going to discover together.

I find the gospel for today more than ironic. As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Oh yay. And after we just completed the stonework on our building…really Jesus? Can’t we just enjoy our great buildings? Does the whole thing really have to topple down? Does it all have to be thrown down? And Jesus goes on to make clear that the period to come is going to be a tumultuous one indeed. I don’t think it’s Jesus, per se, who is going to throw down our structures, but if we don’t embrace the transformation Jesus is inviting us into, the structures are going to collapse of their own accord. Jesus didn’t come to establish the church; Jesus came to invite us to walk into the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is everywhere, if we have eyes to see. They say that we are in the midst of the biggest reformation since the one that Christ ushered in 2,000 years ago. Reggie McNeal is right—it is AD 30 all over again, and it’s exciting, and terrifying, but maybe that terror can become the mysterium tremendens—that awesome mysterious terror that always accompanies true encounters with the Holy.

In the midst of this change, there are daunting questions: How do we grow? As the economy struggles and as giving patterns change, how do we finance this church we love? How do we maintain our buildings and sustain our structures? Are we still relevant? Does this church matter? Why do we exist? These are sort of scary questions to ask; it would be easier to pretend that we if we just find the right programmatic fix, we can regain the glory days of the 50’s and 60’s, but I want you to know that your Vestry, your staff, and your Rector are not burying our heads into the sand. We have been, and are, asking these questions, and we want you to ask these questions with us.

But even more, we want to ask even deeper questions: How is God inviting us to move out into the world? How is Jesus calling us to follow him? Where is the Spirit nudging us, pushing us, pulling us? What are we being called to create, together? How can we set people free from church busywork, and set them free for the mission that God is calling them to in their workplaces, in their classrooms, in their homes, in their neighborhoods? What does a radical Jesus person look like, and how can we walk that path? How does our liturgy need to change, and what do we need to retain? Lots of voices are calling us to move this way and that, just like the gospel says this morning, how do we discern the path we are to walk? We are asking these questions, in Vestry, as a staff, and amongst the 20 or so people gathering in the weekly Friday morning study group.

As the Vestry has asked the hard questions about our purpose, we have come to see that we do have a purpose; we have an essential, vital, vibrant role to play in God’s kingdom. Reggie McNeal predicts that in the future, 1/3 of believers will continue to be connected to churches as we have traditionally known them, 1/3 will worship in some sort of house church, and 1/3 won’t worship in any church at all, but will just be about the work of God as they go about their lives in the world. These dynamics are already in play. I am deeply aware that the community of St. Luke’s extends far beyond those we see in weekly worship. There are many whose spiritual container is much bigger than the institutional church, and yet, they are connected to us. Why? From their standpoint, and from ours, why is that connection to St. Luke’s important?

I think that connection is important because we need a base camp. We need a place to come where we can be fed and nourished and formed and shaped, so that we can go out into the world and engage the mission, the adventure, that God has set before each one of us. We need a place to come where we can learn what it means to be Jesus people, to be people of the Way. We need a place to come where we can learn what it means to live as a community and to love our neighbor, even when, especially when our neighbor drives us crazy. We need a school of love, as St. Benedict called it, a place where we learn how to forgive and how to receive forgiveness. We need a place to learn how to extend mercy and receive grace. We need a place to come where we can talk the language of the True Self and identify the trappings of our false self, trappings that the world holds up as the goal. Where will we learn all these things if this community is not here? And even for those who don’t come but every so often, they know that base camp is here and someone is tending the home fires, and that makes a difference in their lives. So, yes, we have a mission, and our salvation, our wholeness, depends upon it.

It does change how we do things here, and some of that mindset has already shifted. We begin to see everything through the lens of formation. How do our classes shape us for this new day? How can we teach the core practices of the faith? How is our liturgy shaping us? How do we keep encouraging one another in our mission beyond this place? When things aren’t working, how do we adapt?

Sunday morning formation wasn’t working well for our elementary age and older youth, so the J2A group now meets once a month on Sunday afternoon. I teach the older elementary and middle school kids on Wednesday afternoons, and we changed what we do with them in our Sunday morning time. J2A doesn’t have critical mass, so we’re now inviting St. Mary’s and Holy Cross youth to join our group.

My adult class on Tuesday evenings had lost some steam over the years, so we dropped it, and a Friday morning book study has emerged where amazing conversations are happening.

The digital world has changed the way we all communicate, and our monthly newsletter seemed out of date before we had even printed it, so we invested energy in reworking our website, posting to our facebook page, and weekly emails with announcements, and we’re going to start experimenting with posting youtube videos, beginning with taping the sermons, so that we can reach out beyond our four walls into the wider world, all made possible by technology.

Why do three Episcopal churches exist in the same county and never talk—that makes no sense—so now we’re talking, and the Tri-Church Committee is looking for ways to deepen those bonds and increase the power of our common witness.

We don’t have property for a community garden, but our neighbors do, so we partner with them and ASU and the County Extension Office and the garden doubles in size and teaches us about God’s abundance. What’s amazing about this garden is that it draws workers and visitors who may never see the inside of a church. God is so present in this work and in these encounters, and what better place to encounter God than in a garden—the place of creation and resurrection. And then, the food goes to Hospitality House or to FARM Café where we cook and serve food for our neighbors.

The Junaluska work gets tough as we do the hard work of racial reconciliation, so we call in help from the Diocesan Commission to Dismantle Racism, and we stay at the relationships, finding that they grow in love in the process.

Both the Women’s and Men’s Group have reorganized this year and are finding their way forward.

Moveable Feasts for 20 and 30 somethings. Third Place for college-age adults. We are learning what it means to live our faith out in the world with courage and a sense of adventure.

The culture brought us a difficult issue this past year in Amendment One—we tackled it head-on with solid teaching, space for conversation, and we found an incredibly creative third way forward that honored the spaciousness of this community and allowed those who felt called to make a powerful, public witness. I am proud of the work we did in that season, and it was hard, hard work!

We also were faithful this past year in our call to take care of this sacred space that has been entrusted to us. Through your generosity, we put in air conditioning (I can’t tell you the difference that makes to me on Sunday morning and to the staff who work throughout the week—it is night and day), we finished the stonework, and our dishwasher will soon be installed—this is amazing! We have more projects ahead, and together, we will care for the physical aspects of our base camp.

We see the trends identified in Jim’s paper, and we wonder how we sustain base camp financially in years to come, so we continue to teach about stewardship in all its dimensions in the short-term, and we get an endowment structure in place and begin to talk about planned giving for the long-term.

And in and amongst all of these things, we care for one another. We minister to the sick, we care for the dying, we remember the saints, we pray for the world; we rejoice in our children, we look to the wisdom of our elders, and we play—remember that procession last Easter morning?

We are the Body of Christ. We share our joys, we share our burdens, we share this feast. We encourage one another. In a world that is full of mind numbing-distractions, in a world that leaves no space for the deepest stirrings of our soul, we help each other stay awake to God’s amazing presence.  We are teaching our children, as well as ourselves, to sit in silence—in every worship service, in every Sunday School class. Do we understand what a counter-cultural thing it is to teach ourselves how to be present to Presence?

God is everywhere, Jesus is alive, the Spirit is moving. I don’t know where it is all going, but I do know that this community of faith is up to the task, and we are on for the ride.

For me, the balance has tipped. It is a scary time for the institutional church, yes, but it is a great time to love and follow Jesus. We, together, can make this turn into the future.  It will be hard work. It will call forth the very best of our selves. We will risk more, which means we will fail more, which means we will need to forgive each other more, which means we will be more dependent than ever on grace—God’s and each other’s. We will change, but honestly, any adventure worth taking changes your life. As Jesus also says this morning, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Something new is being born.

It is truly a privilege to be your priest. Goodness knows, you know by now that I am infinitely human, and I have feet of clay—if you don’t, ask my staff, ask my family. After nine years, I know you, and you know me, and there is a real grace in that.

And I want to publically thank Jim and Julia. They have their own ministries, but I tell you, I could not do mine without their love and support and generous amounts of forgiveness. Julia has to share me a lot, not always an easy thing to do, but she understands that what I do matters to this community. She also reminds me, in gentle and not-so-gentle ways, that I need to lay my work down at the end of the day. And Jim, I could not ask for a better partner in life or in ministry. Even though, from time to time, we do have to declare “church-free zones” in our home, you are my soul-mate, and my journey is all the richer for doing it with you.

So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the fact remains that you are an amazing community of faith. When people across the Diocese ask, “Who is wrestling with this missional/emerging church stuff?”—St. Luke’s, Boone is one of the names that comes up. I don’t quite know where we are heading, but I know that we have ears to hear and eyes to see where God is inviting us to go.

Thank you for taking this journey, and thank you for your support.

It is an honor to serve you as your priest, and I love you more than you can possibly imagine.

Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 18, 2012

Finding God in the whirlwind

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 25—Year B—Stewardship – The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Today, we come to the end of our five-week run of Job. What a ride it has been! And today’s finale does not disappoint. Remember the story? God and Satan have a bet whether or not Job will remain a blameless and upright guy if God lets Satan do a little afflicting. Oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels—gone. Servants—killed by raiders. Ten children—killed by a great wind. Still, Job was a perfectly patient, upright, and blameless man. Satan gets another shot at Job and afflicts him with oozing, groce, painful sores. Now we’re talking. And after 7 days of sitting in an ash heap silently scraping his sores in the company of his three best friends (that’s a pretty desolate picture), Job opens his mouth and the sparks fly. For the next 28 chapters, Job goes round and round with his friends (who keep trying to pin the blame on Job or his children—he or they must have done something wrong), and Job rails at God. “Why? Why? Why?” Finally, he runs out of things to say, and in chapter 31 verse 40, the text tells us, in some of the most profound words ever, THE WORDS OF JOB ARE ENDED.

Then, after a little secondary material that we don’t really think was in the original story, the LORD answers Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And God proceeds to let Job know that God is God, and Job is not. Two chapters worth later, God says to Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job is a little sheepish, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” Basically, Job is saying, “I am a tiny speck in a very big universe; sorry God, now that you are here, I really don’t have anything to say.”  Think God is satisfied with that answer? C’mon, Job has been wanting to duke it out with God for 28 chapters. Think God is satisfied with that pitiful answer?

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” And God goes on for two more chapters. Then we come to today’s reading: Then Job answered the LORD: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ (Uh, that would be me LORD.) “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ (Uh, okay LORD, I’ll give it my best shot.) “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (I think, maybe, Job was a 4 on the enneagram.)

And then in a section that’s omitted today, the LORD turns on Job’s best buddy, Eliphaz the Temanite—“My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job wasn’t wrong in all those things he said about God. Then God tells them to make an offering and to ask Job to pray for them. They make the offering, and Job does indeed pray for them. Then we are told that, when Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD restored the fortunes of Job; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as before. More sheep, more camels, more oxen, more donkeys, and ten new kids. And there came to him his brothers and his sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him and showed him sympathy.

STOP! If you have lost ten of your children to death, how is this ending working for you? This is a lousy ending to the book. Oh, I was right there with this book, until this lousy, pointless, superfluous, totally unrealistic ending. Hollywood couldn’t sugarcoat an ending any more than this.  This is a horrible ending. We’ll come back to that.

So, what do we see? Well, first, God wasn’t content with Job’s sheepish non-answer. If you beg to talk with the Divine, then you need to engage with the Divine when the Divine shows up. But it’s interesting, when Job finally does talk, all he can say is “I had heard of you before, with my ears, but now I see you.” What do you make of that? Do you actually see a whirlwind? Well, I guess you see the debris that gets caught up in a whirlwind, but do you actually see the wind itself? You don’t see a whirlwind so much as you experience it. All that stuff that the friends and Job went round and round about, even all that stuff that Job shouted at God, it was all about worldviews and beliefs and hypotheticals—it was stuff that could be heard—but this, this is raw experience between Job and God. This is God up close and personal.

And what is it that Job repents of? Some thinkers say that Job has to repent of his integrity, that Job has to give up his desire to be right. That’s probably a piece of it. Sometimes, in our house, when things get a little heated, we say, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” We can get so fixated on being right that we will even sacrifice our relationships just so we can be vindicated. Sometimes, our need to be right prevents us from actually experiencing the relationship, with God, or with other people.

I think Job also has to repent of his words. He is so busy talking, talking, talking, that he couldn’t experience God, or his friends, if his life depended on it. The words are important, yes. Job falls silent two times in this story—in the ash heap at the end of chapter 2 and again at the end of chapter 37 when THE WORDS OF JOB ARE ENDED. God did not come to Job in chapter 2, God comes after chapter 37. That tells us that the words are important. Being in relationship with God doesn’t mean you can’t get angry with God; it means you can. In all those angry words, Job lets God see into the heart of his pain and heartache. But at some point, we have to stop talking so that we can experience God and hear what God has to say. When Job finally stops talking, God has space to come, and Job has space to experience God.

The other thing that Job might have to repent of was his complacency. Remember, Job says that he had heard of God with his ears, but now he sees God, therefore he despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. Maybe Job realizes that up to this point in his life, it was enough to know God through other people’s words and ideas and beliefs. But now he  sees God for himself. Now he knows God for himself. It just won’t work anymore for Job to know God through the words of others, he has to give up the safety of other’s experience of God, he has to repent of coasting on other people’s experiences. No, once you’ve experienced God yourself, once you have seen God on God’s terms, then it just won’t do to go back to other people’s words about God. It only takes one experience to know that nothing else will satisfy you. Once you know, you simply know. Jesus asks the blind man one question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man gave one answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” Seeing, with our own eyes, this is what makes us well.

And what about that restoring of fortunes bit. Oh, I really do hate that part. It just doesn’t work that way in real life. If you experience profound loss, getting it all back doesn’t make it all okay, especially when that loss is a human one. I first encountered the Book of Job as a first year seminarian. It was spring of that year. My father had just died suddenly on Maundy Thursday of that spring. It was in that period that I understood why they call it heartache—my heart literally ached. I held God directly responsible for that death. I’m not saying that makes any rational sense, but it was how I felt. During that spring, I was either yelling at God, or we were not on speaking terms. I was taking Old Testament—Part II, and my professor was just convinced that I would find comfort as we studied the Book of Job. And I did, until this very last chapter when the author described the restoration of Job’s fortunes. I waited until everyone filed out of the classroom. My professor walked over to me with this look of great anticipation in his eyes, like, “Well?” And I responded, “This is bull.” Okay, my language may have been a little stronger than that. His face fell. He didn’t quite know where to go with me from there. And so, he invited me to write my final paper on the Book of Job—to wrestle with it, just like Jacob had to wrestle with God, until I could wrestle a blessing out of it. I took an incomplete in that class and spent the summer wrestling this text to the ground. I learned a lot, and actually, found my way back to God in the process.

In the restoration, we are told that Job’s fortunes are restored—double the stuff and ten new kids, but we are told nothing about those gruesome sores. If you go back to the beginning of the book, when Job lost all his stuff, and even his kids, he was still in relationship with God and with his family and friends; it was not until he got afflicted with those awful sores that everything went horribly wrong, and he found himself totally alone. At the end of the book, we don’t hear anything about those sores. I don’t think those painful, horrible sores were ever healed. The thing that had set Job completely apart was not healed. That painful, painful affliction was not healed, and yet Job found his way back into relationship with God, and he found his way back into relationship with his friends and family—his brothers and sisters and all those who had known him before came to him and ate with him and showed him sympathy and comforted him. In the end, his body didn’t get restored, but Job got restored to God and to his community.

Sometimes, in our suffering, the loss doesn’t get restored. Sometimes, we never get a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why did this bad thing happen to me?” Sometimes, our ears will never hear the words that will somehow make it make sense, or be okay. And yet, and yet, we still can see God. We may go through times when we break it off with God, but God never breaks it off with us. And when we have said all the angry or indifferent things we need to say to God, when our words fall silent, then it is possible to see God in a way we never have before—not as a magician who can prevent our suffering, but as a Presence who has been there since the beginning of creation and who will always be there until the end of time; we can see God as a Presence who comes to us, even in the whirlwind. Our wounds may still stand, but they don’t have to have the power to separate us—we can be restored to God and those around us who love us.

In the end, we, like Job, have a choice—do we stay in heap of ashes scraping our sores, do we keep fighting it out with our friends who are trying to reach out to us, misguided though they may be, do we keep railing at God out of our pain, or do we let go and fall into the silence and risk experiencing God on God’s terms? It is all a great mystery; it frankly defies my orderly, rational mind. But I do know that in that silence, it is possible to see God in the whirlwind, and that can change your life forever. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 28, 2012

All Jesus wants is ALL of you!

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – PR 24 – Year B ; Karl Doege
Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

You probably know that this is going to be about stewardship. That’s because I happen to be your Vestry’s Liaison for Stewardship. So, you can bet that I’m going to put in a plug for donations. But here’s how I’m going to do it.

I want you to be asking this question in the back of your mind – while you’re listening to what I have to say, “Is this an agenda I want to support?” If it is, then I hope you will be willing to devote your life to it. Just your life. That’s all. Well, maybe time, talent and money, too, but mostly it’s your life.

The Collect today mentions “Works of mercy.” That short expression serves to tie all of today’s lessons together.

In the reading from Job, we see a man, God’s servant, sitting on a pile of ashes, dogs licking his sores, harangued by his friends. Justifiably, he wonders, “Why? Why all this suffering?” God answers by giving Job a long list of his “works of mercy.” I think God is saying, “Count your blessings, Job. Count your blessings.” Of course, Job would rather not hear about his blessings. He’s like all of us. We’d rather complain than hear about how good God has been to us. The answer God gives Job is really a list of God’s works of mercy. I’ve usually read it as a reprimand. But maybe God is actually saying, “Look how I’ve blessed you.” In the end, Job admits that God is right.

The Psalmist ALSO lists works of mercy. We tend to think of them as “works of creation,” but let’s not forget that they ARE, very much, works of mercy.

The reading from Hebrews, opaque as it is, begins by telling us, that Jesus is the ultimate SERVANT. As Christians we’re not strangers to this idea because we know that Jesus DELIVERED works of mercy.

Finally, the Gospel tells us that, “Whoever will be greatest among you must be servant of all.”

As Christians, we assume that to be proper servants we must FOLLOW Jesus. Let me point out that that’s not what Jesus is telling us TODAY. Jesus only says that the greatest among you will be servants of all. Last week he said, to the Rich Man, “Followme.” Today Jesus simply says, “The greatest must first serve.”

We know what good works are. I think we do them. I think we’re good at it. You have been generous in giving to those places that DO good works, and you have selflessly volunteered your services – in house and off campus. I’ll pat St. Luke’s on the back, because I think we’re doing a great job – thanks your efforts..

Nevertheless, something seems to be missing. Statistics tell us that churches are failing. We are losing membership, shrinking at a rate that’s frightening. If we don’t change something, we won’t be around much longer. We’re DOING the good works. What needs to change?

Last Sunday Cyndi wondered aloud, “What is it that we must set aside so that we can best follow Jesus?” As profound as that question is, I would like to rephrase it. I KNOW that we will do good works if we follow Jesus. And I know that FOLLOWING Jesus requires us to set something aside. But, in the context of today’s lesson, I think we must ask instead, “What must we set aside in order to best serve?” Because, again, FOLLOWING Jesus is not the issue here. The issue is service and servanthood – what Jesus calls the path to greatness.

“What must we set aside to best serve?” Consider this: I’m sure you realize that we Christians do not have a corner on good works. Good works are done by people of every religious stripe – Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Animists.

Maybe our problem is an unwillingness to face the possibility that we don’t have all the answers. Maybe Jews or Muslims or Animists or Atheists have some answers, too. After all, THEY are doing good works. How come? Who or what principle do THEY follow? My fundamentalist background taught me that all their good works are like filthy rags, because they’re not done for Jesus. Could there be an underlying thought, unconscious and subliminal, telling us that the good works done by others are of no account because they’re not done with precisely the correct theological motivation? I hope not. I hope not.

Maybe we think that Jesus is the best way to find God. Well, maybe Jesus IS the best way to find God. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that other people of other faiths also have paths to find God. At least they may THINK they do. Or maybe they don’t think about God at all. Are they wrong?

To find out, we must go TO THEM – OUT THERE and find out what makes THEM tick. What path are THEY on? HOWCOME they can serve WITHOUT US, without JESUS? Would you support our efforts to go to them and find out?

It’s clear that we must do something differently. My own thinking is that we need a different approach. Instead of thinking WE can teach those people out there about Jesus, maybe we need to give up that notion and learn from others what they see as THEIR paths to God. Is Jesus the only way? Many Christians assert that he is. But placing our entire emphasis on teaching others about Jesus doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Apparently they have little interest in learning from us.

And I think we all know the reason why. People OUT THERE think that we’re all about dogma and doctrine. I think people need to understand that we’re all about service. In my view, dogma takes second place. But we can tell them that HERE. But they are OUT THERE. Will you support an effort to go to them and show them who we really are?

Maybe there are different paths to God. Maybe Jesus is one of them. But however many paths there might be to God, what I think we need to be doing is LEARNING from others about the paths that THEY travel. THEN we might be able to share the path that WE travel, so that together we can all find, maybe NOT GOD, but the PATH TO WHERE GOD IS. When we know WHERE GOD IS, we will find GOD. Will you support an effort to follow a path, with those others OUT THERE, to find where God is?

Service is the path to greatness. Is service the path to God? Maybe. In fact, I think it is. But I’m pretty certain that service is the path to where God will be found.

We all think of God differently. I’m not sure God can be understood. Job, God’s exemplary servant, didn’t underSTAND God. But, strangely, he KNEW God.

Even Jesus didn’t perfectly understand God. What he THOUGHT he understood was that his mission was to the Jews. But then some Canaanite woman challenged him to heal her tormented daughter. NOW he understood that God wanted him to perform good works for ALL people, of every gender and race. He LEARNED from a WOMAN WHO WORSHIPPED OTHER GODS. This was something NEW to him. Jesus was not being asked to worship her gods. But he was challenged by her, – probably a BAAL worshipper – and he was converted. In the same way, we need to be converted. Would you support an effort toward our own conversion?

Here’s something else to think about. We must not only be willing TO serve, we need to be willing to BE served – by others, by people who may never darken our church doors. They are not HERE. They are out THERE. We need to go OUT THERE to where they are. We can serve them. They can serve us. We can serve together. Is there any reason we cannot, together, travel the path to greatness? Would you support our efforts to figure out how we can do that?

Maybe this way of thinking is what lies behind the new spirituality that we are finding in the movement called the “Great Emergence.” Maybe this new spirituality is trying to teach us something, namely, that the way we’ve been doing things in the past is largely irrelevant these days – to many people, at any rate. We must understand that we’re not so different from all those OTHER people out there. We’re ALL trying to find God. We can help each other do that. We have no business thinking that we’re the only ones who know how to approach God. It’s true that we know one way, but we don’t know all the ways. My contention here is that SERVICE, service that leads to GREATNESS, is the one path that we can ALL follow. Service TO one another, and accepting service FROM one another, is the way to mutuality, conversation, relationship, the path to greatness and the route to conversion. We don’t have to apologize for being Christians. But I think we have been looking in the wrong direction. Would you support an effort to change direction in order to follow this path to greatness?

What of our church? What will happen to our church? Certainly things will change. They will change for the better. We will still need to gather as a community. We will need leaders who can teach us how to go out and be of service. We will need help of every sort. We will need to be prepared mentally. We will need different TYPES of leadership, new insights, new ideas. We will need Third Places and Moveable Feasts, places OUT THERE, where we can freely exchange ideas, learn, teach, serve. We will have church SERVICES OUT THERE. It will be new and it will be wonderful. St. Luke’s will have to assume the role of “Base Camp”- a place where we come to prepare for the challenges we will meet on this road to better servanthood. St. Luke’s will be where we get equipped to go out to serve. St.Luke’s Base Camp. Will you support it?

I think we will need FORMAL worship, too. I think we will still want and need LITURGY. I think we will want and need to be here where we can LEARN together, where we can celebrate our SACRED MEAL together. I think we need someplace where the SAINTS can come marching in – like they did last Easter Sunday. This is a sacred space. Maybe a new understanding of the sacredness of all creation and of all people, and of their paths, will help us to serve and be served better – help us to find where GOD is and recognize God – the giver of all works of mercy – and bow down in worship – HERE in THIS place. Will you support it?

So I think that it’s going to turn out that we will doing more of what we have been doing, and we will be finding new opportunities to move forward in new directions. We’re going to have new demands made on us. We’re going to have to share more of our time, talent and treasure. But we will grow in stature, and we will be doing more of what God wants to have done.

Will you support all of this? These are not just words. These are efforts that our leadership is taking very seriously. We count on your support. Will you support us as we travel, together, the path of servanthood – the path to greatness?

Karl Doege
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church,Boone,NC
October 21, 2012

Job and his “friends”

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 23—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Today is not the gospel of sweetness and light. It is rough from the get-go.

Job is smack dab in the middle of his complaint. Remember the story…Job is upright and blameless. Satan and God have a bet on how long he’ll stay upright and blameless if he starts to suffer. He goes through multiple calamities losing all of his material goods and even his 10 children. Still, he’s an unbelievably loyal, faithful subject to God. Then, Satan talks God into a little bodily affliction, those loathsome sores, and those sores send Job right over the edge. For the next 35 chapters, Job goes round and round with his friends, who are lousy friends indeed. They keep trying to pin all his suffering on him. He must have done something wrong because bad things just don’t happen to good people. Or, his kids must have done something wrong because bad things just don’t happen to good people. Bad enough that the innocent guy has to suffer, but he even gets blamed for it by his friends. Tragic.

job and friendsWell, today, Job turns his complaint toward the heavens. “Today also my complaint is bitter…Oh, that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”

Translation: “If I could just talk with God, if I could just get my case in front of him…I have a load of stuff I want to say! If I could just talk with God, if I could just ask him, ‘Why? Why? Why is all this happening?’ –then I’d know why I am having to go through all of this. God wouldn’t flatten me. God knows I am a good guy. No, God would be in this conversation with me. If I could just talk with God, I know I could reason with him. And he would declare my innocence. But I can’t find him. I want to talk to God so badly, but I can’t find him. No matter what direction I go, forward, backward, left, right, he’s not there. I can’t perceive him, I can’t find him, I can’t see him, I can’t even catch a glimpse of him walking away—nothing. No matter where I turn, God is not there, nada, nothing. I just wish that it would be so dark that I couldn’t see at all, at least then I wouldn’t have to see the fact that God is not there.”

I think this is what despair looks like. Ever been there? Ever had something happen to you that seemed totally unjust, so not fair, some suffering, some brokenness that was beyond your ability to understand or comprehend, something that you just couldn’t make sense of? Have you ever wanted to hold God accountable for your pain? Have you ever wanted to pin God’s ears back, to lay your case out before him because you need for him, and for the world, to know that you don’t deserve this, that nobody deserves this? Have you had a season when you desperately needed God, and yet you couldn’t find God anywhere? And what’s worse, if you have ever known intimacy with God, and then, God is just gone—you see, you know, what you don’t have. That’s despair. That’s dark, and in that place, vanishing seems like a pretty good option.

Most human beings, at some point in their life, maybe at more than one point in their life, they get to this place.

What do you do? What do you do when it has all gone horribly wrong, and you can’t find God anywhere? We want to do something, anything, to get the suffering to stop.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” said the man to Jesus. Jesus answered his question with a list of “to-do’s,” but those didn’t do the trick. You see, it’s not about doing anything.

“You lack one thing; go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, “It’s so hard. It’s so hard to enter the kingdom of God. It’s so hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then to give up that one thing that we’re attached to, and our attachment makes it impossible to enter the kingdom. You can’t open your hands or your heart to receive the gift when you’re still clinging.”

The disciples were astounded, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them with love and possibility, “For you, for mortals, for human beings, it’s impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter, blessed Peter, he jumped in, “Look, we have left everything and followed you, family, friends, jobs, everything.” Jesus said, “I know, I know, and for you, and those others who have left it all, you will know an abundance, a fullness, in this life, beyond your imagining, and in the age to come, eternal life—you will know eternal life because you will know union with God.”

+++

That rich man, he thought it was about doing something to receive the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what we have to do to experience union with God; it’s about what we have to give up. It’s not about doing something, it’s about giving up whatever’s in the way. For that man, it was his riches. Why? Because sometimes, when you have material resources, you can begin to believe that it is all up to you to make your way in this world, and from there, it’s not hard to leap to the thought, “And it’s up to me to make my way to God.” We can’t earn our way there. Not through our money, not through our adherence to the commandments, not through an upright and blameless life. Suffering will come, and that suffering doesn’t mean we’ve lost God any more than our successes mean that we have gained God’s favor. What saves us? Giving up. Surrendering. Throwing ourselves on the mercy of God. Giving up on our incessant need to understand and have answers and figure it all out. What saves us? Leaving it all behind. And the “it” is different for each one of us.

What is the “it” for you? In the words of Jesus, “What is the one thing that you lack?” What is the one thing that is standing between you and God? What is the one thing that is keeping you from experiencing union with this Divine Presence that yearns to have you “come away, my love,” as that lover of the Song of Solomon cries out. What is that stone that is keeping you from waking up and walking out of your tomb into light and life? What is keeping you from knowing what resurrection is in your heart and body and mind and soul? And what will it take for you to let that one thing go?

Ultimately, we can’t will God to reveal God’s face. There are times when it all goes dark. But just because we can’t see God, doesn’t mean that God is not there. The mystics of old named this way of knowing God the via negativa—it’s when we know God in what God is not. Yeah, I know, it’s a paradox and an obnoxiously obnoxious paradoxical paradox at that. But in those times of deepest darkness, in those times when we can’t see God, there is still a place we can turn.

And The Letter to the Hebrews show us where that place is.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” And who is that high priest? It’s the same one who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” Jesus knows what it means to hit the absolute depths of human despair—Jesus knows what it is to be Job.  And that “yet without sin” part—what does that mean? I think “sin” means “separation.” If we take the leap that Jesus bore full divinity in his being, that his humanity was fully infused with divinity, that divinity dwelled in him at a cellular level, then, he was without sin, he was without separation, in his being; he was one. I believe that Jesus drank the dregs of human anguish, absolutely, completely; when he cried that godforsaken cry, he had no hope—no hope of resurrection, no hope of light, no hope of joy, no hope of life—he wanted to vanish into the darkness…And yet, because of who he was in his being, because he bore divine life in his being, because of his oneness, that human anguish and despair was brought into total, absolute, communion with God never to be separated, never to be out of union with God again. That despair and anguish was brought into relationship with God in a way that can’t ever be undone. Ever. Sisters and brothers, that’s why The Letter to the Hebrews can say, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Grace, mercy, Presence, these are the treasures that await us when we give up that one thing, whatever that one thing is, that we’re clinging to. Maybe we hold onto it for dear life because we fear that if we let it go, the darkness will swallow us whole, but even the darkness is filled with the Presence of God. We can’t fall through the bottom because Jesus’ arms are stretched out even there waiting to catch us.

If you can’t find God, fear not. Your human condition is still in perfect union with the Divine, whether you can feel that union or not. All that is left for you to do is fall into the arms of the Living God. Give up. Surrender. Leave behind whatever is standing in your way from taking that leap, then approach the throne of grace with boldness. The life you’ve been waiting for, the life you’ve been yearning for, the life that Jesus is inviting you to, that life begins when you leave your “it,” whatever “it” is, behind and leap into the darkness knowing, trusting, that somehow, some way, you will be caught by the Presence that lives even there. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 14, 2012

Say YES!

Year B, Proper 21; Mark 9.38-50; The Rev. Beth Turner.

From the beginning of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have struggled to be generous in acknowledging the good that others do and not to be concerned when they “do not follow us.” In today’s gospel, John, who, with Peter and James, constitutes Jesus’ inner circle basically tattles on an outsider—someone “not following us”—who is doing ministry in Jesus’ name. No way can this happen, says John. I mean, we can’t just stand around willy-nilly letting people change the world for the better when they have not been authorized by you to do so? Seriously, who do these people think they are?

I wonder: How many times will Jesus have to tell us human beings to mind our own business?

Jesus: John, it’s not your place to call dibs on doling out God’s healing power, or to check papers to ensure the people who offer it are registered members of the Jesus Club. Oh, no, says Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us.

Surprise. It appears that something important is going on here, and it’s bigger than the church. A welcoming spirit, attentiveness, generosity, and healing come from God and are not ours to manage and ration.

These teachings reveal a broad definition of a follower of Jesus—that being a follower is determined by what a person does and why she or he does it. It seems that Jesus is saying that people can follow him without necessarily belonging to the community of his disciples.

Us: John…boy did he tell you! I guess that does it for Jesus’ sermon on power grabbing is a no-no. Well, no…maybe not.

It’s pretty clear that John’s worry is indicative of his previously displayed need for power and prestige. Remember that audacious request to sit beside Jesus in Eternity? If that weren’t over the top, now he is asking, “Jesus, what would happen if everybody started doing things in your name?”

Us: And the problem is?

If John had truly been concerned about maintaining the integrity of the Jesus movement, we might not blame him for his question. But John’s concern was preserving his own power. The conversation Jesus wants to have is about the transforming potential of life in community. Preserving the power of his inner circle? Not a priority. If others are doing good deeds, their actions should to be affirmed.

But hold on a minute. We all know that community is a place of identity, a place where people have a sense of belonging because they are known and recognized. Communities shape values and provide cultural norms.

It’s a fair question: How do communities practice intimate fellowship with others without losing their defining distinctiveness?

A strong community is a good thing. It enhances the lives of its members. Communities provide protection and support. But there are risks in a strong community. A strong community may become so focused on itself that it loses the capacity to relate to those outside.

As an Episcopalian, I can be pretty smug about how self-aware, how PC, I imagine myself to be. I’m pretty darned sure I don’t participate in the kind of inwardly focused communities that knowingly or unknowingly exclude others. Our church has struggled mightily and with great intention and intelligence in order to become the remarkably inclusive body we now are. After all, we meet regularly at grand national conventions and pass elegantly worded resolutions. We have appropriate pride about our habits of welcome and inclusion.

Yet the church community is bound together not just by common interest or mutual enjoyment but by convictions about the fundamental issues of human existence: what we believe most deeply, what gives value and meaning to our existence, under what obligations we live, how we define and achieve the good life, who we are. Take for example, our Baptismal Covenant in which we affirm our commitments to peace, justice, and the dignity of every human being.

I have this theory about the church. As long as our primary gathering place is here (in a building) we are protected from some of the more nuanced tensions between being inclusive and being exclusive. Think of it. What would it mean to “take it to the streets,” actively affirming the journeys of people outside the walls of an institutional church as they, like us, seek God and a deeper knowledge of God? What would happen if we began to gather in 3rd Places, at least as often as we gather here?

Sociologists tell us we need three anchor points for our lives, the first being home and the second being work. The equally important third place is a public place of diverse community. When gathered in a “third place,” people of all walks of life are brought to the same level. If there is any hierarchy, it is based on quality of conversation and insight, not social position.

 

Most of you know about the opening of our new campus ministry setting. It’s called 3rd Place. It’s proving to be both a blessing and a challenge. Somewhat to our surprise, we’re grappling with questions like “What is essential? What is, who is, the body of Christ, really?”

We might ask whether we are tuning in to the spirit of Jesus in the world? And when we see it, hear it, taste it, smell it—do we actively join that spirit? Do we know deep, deep down that fully embracing others is gaining rather than losing the integrity of our own traditions? Do we know we all lose when we do not stretch to open our arms wide?

After pulling John up short for his unwillingness to welcome the outsider, Jesus has some harsh warnings for his more established followers who set up checkpoints for those seeking to find their way toward faith. In vivid language he warns that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Some scholars dismiss Jesus’ warnings as hyperbole and go so far as to tell us to lighten up and stop worrying about his dramatic, even frightening, admonitions against being a roadblock to the seekers in our world.

I do not think this is mere rhetorical emphasis. Not at all. I don’t think we can overstate Jesus’ urging us, pushing us to run the risk of vulnerability when relating to those who are not officially part of our community. There are very real consequences both for the community and for the person doing a good deed in God’s name. When we don’t trust and “Just do it!” the fact is everyone loses.

I remember the first week we opened the doors of 3rd Place.

A student walked in and rather bombastically announced that he was a business major and had connections to some pretty good bands. “I’m not really a Christian he said, but I can get them to play here, and we could give all the money from a cover charge to charity.”

A young woman, an artist, enters and boldly joins a planning meeting in our sitting area. We’d never seen her before. She tells us she is a metal worker, and that she could make us some candleholders, adding, “I like the idea of something I create having a special purpose.”

A group of friends (banjo, fiddle, guitar players) sing and hold a “worship jam” on Tuesday evenings, late after our regular program. We feel stretched by creating a space for a more traditional language of faith but welcome their voices anyway.

Once we opened the doors, we felt a whirlwind of energy and passion from so many. We felt “love,” really. And we’ve been practicing saying YES.

Yes, you may meditate here on Monday evenings. You and your drums are welcome here. Yes, please put your art supplies on these shelves; you are welcome to tape your pictures on this wall. Yes, we’ll have a Bible study on radical hospitality. Yes, we’ll reflect on the meaning of this song, your song, any song. Yes, we’ll travel as a group to the upcoming poverty simulation. Yes, a business class on the spirit of creativity and innovation may meet here on Wednesday. Yes, we’ll share bread and wine and remember Jesus each week. Yes, you may hang your peace flags here. Yes.

It continues to be a little overwhelming but we’re practicing saying yes—YES—to all that we recognize so clearly as the spirit of Jesus.

It feels as though we are on holy ground. There is even the sense that describing this to you is a bit disrespectful. The people I’ve mentioned are our friends, and we are experiencing these new friendships as inseparable from our own growth and transformation. We need each other. These connections are happening on mutual holy ground.

As 21st c. followers of Jesus, we are being called to a vocation of relationship. We often call this the vocation of servanthood. But I think Jesus would push us even further toward the more mutual vocations of relationship and, above all, of friendship.

Jesus neither needs nor wants bouncers guarding the door of our traditions and institutions. Rather, he invites us to notice, and to join in, what he’s about in the third places, in the whole wide world. The early followers of Jesus didn’t have a creed or a codified set of prayers. They did not all worship in the same way. They had some form of baptism and some forms of prayers over bread and wine, and that was about it. They didn’t have many of the religious traditions that today we call “Christianity.” Truth is, they were following Jesus by the seat of their pants. In some ways, so are we. Yes, we’re in uncharted territory. But, thankfully, Jesus is not.

You know, the days we feel most vulnerable may be the days we are doing something right.

Let’s say our prayers. Let us pray that we listen to Jesus, that we hear his urging to say YES.

Say YES. Jump right in. Come and see. Embrace every seeker as your own friend and a friend of God. Don’t worry about who gets credit for doing good. Don’t idolize your religion. Have mercy…

…for God’s sake.

…for your own sake.

…for the sake of the whole world.

Amen.

THE POEM

About that plucking out the eye thing

One of them came in wet with a millstone and a rope
knotted around his throat gasping for air having dragged
the damn thing up from the bottom of the river
where he once was baptized a while back
because he had cursed at a child for high pitched screaming

Another came in with her right hand
hacked off—she was left-handed—
and she dripped crimson drops all the way
down the hall to Jesus’ living room
admitting she had used the missing appendage
to flip someone off in traffic for cutting in

One more limped in with a lopped off foot
in his hand and he dropped to the floor sobbing
because he had tripped someone in line
in front of him to get a better seat
at Bonnaroo this year to see [Mumford and Sons]

Then there was the disciple who had an eye patch
and fumbled her way through the door
having glared at her next door neighbor with
a bitchy stare because she looked so freaking good
in that new dress and those shoes with red soles
and wished she would trip and tear her ACL

They gathered around Jesus, each face
with a seriousness that puzzled the good Lord
except for the one with the plucked out eye—
it was hard to look puzzled with the patch and all.
He looked at them and said,
holding back an uncharacteristic chuckle:

For God’s sake, stop damaging yourselves.
You know I was kidding, right?
Have you heard of hyperbole, people?
Just don’t do those mean things anymore
and if you do, say you’re sorry, make amends, and move on.
Lift up the lowly and respect the helpless.
It’s just not that hard.
Come on, folks!  Get over yourselves!
You’re not that bad, and you’re not that good.

And then they ate supper and he taught them
many more things that they misunderstood.

– Michael Coffey

Let Wisdom show us what it means to be friends of God….

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

I am going to say upfront—this is not a sermon. I don’t even know what to call it. We’ll just call it me talking to you as your priest and pastor. This has been a hard week. Starting with this circle of St. Luke’s, there is a lot going on in our little community of faith right now. Sometimes, we go through seasons where we are fully aware of the pain around us—someone is ill, someone is dying; we can see that. Other times, we go through a season when there is a lot of pain, but it’s the kind of pain you can’t see, burdens known only to those who bear them. We are in one of those seasons where we actually have a whole lot of both. We, as a community, are holding a lot right now. Please, please be gentle with your brothers and sisters; there is much on many hearts.

And then, in the middle of the week, the world exploded. I must admit, I have been several days behind this news this week because my focus has been on our community, but slowly, I am catching up. I am still processing what has happened. I think we all are. I read through the events in TIME magazine yesterday. Friday night, I watched the 13-minute YouTube video of the movie trailer for Innocence of Muslims, the biopic (I had never even heard of that word—it’s a biographical movie), it was this biopic about Muhammad that sparked this violence. And somehow, Terry Jones, that pastor from Florida that promoted the burning of the Koran on the 9/11 anniversary in 2010, is back in the mix—a fan of this film. He created a video that put the prophet Mohammad on trial. Innocence of Muslims has been around a little while but didn’t make a splash until Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian picked it up and mass posted it on an Arabic-language blog leading up to this anniversary of September 11th.

As I watched it, I kept saying to Jim, “This has to be a hoax.” It was that bad. It was a really, really, really bad movie from a movie production standpoint, but it was also inflammatory and offensive at every turn. If you could think of all the things that would be unbelievably offensive to a faithful observant Muslim, this movie had all of them. I tried to imagine how I would feel if someone made a similar movie about Jesus. This movie trailer was a match to a fire.

Now hear me clearly, I absolutely condemn the violence that got unleashed. To react to this abhorrent film with violence is buying into this whole avenge-revenge-myth-of-redemptive-violence worldview that is perpetuating the hate and rage and violence that is killing us, all of us. The taking of the innocent lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues at the American Embassy is wrong, WRONG, and it is tragic beyond belief, especially since Ambassador Stevens had actually worked closely with the leaders of the uprising in Libya who were seeking a different way for their country. We have diplomats all over the world that really do believe in diplomacy; they put it on the line every day in often dangerous parts of the world. We are grateful for their service, and we grieve their deaths.

And I am especially grieved, I don’t even know if that is the right word, I am sickened by the fact that religious hatred is at the root of this. There are radical extremes in each religion, and they are fanning the flames of hatred all over the world. And we have to raise our voices and condemn the hate. There has to be room in this world for all of us, and this will not be so until we stand up and say, “No more.” Christians need to call Christians to account. Muslims need to call Muslims to account. Jews need to call Jews to account. These incendiary actions are not the true heart of Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism. But if we are not proclaiming what that true heart is, those who are perpetuating this hate will fill the vacuum, and this past week shows us what the carnage looks like.

We need the wisdom figure that we hear about today in Proverbs. Hear what Proverbs says, “She is crying out in the street; she is raising her voice in the squares. She is crying out at the busiest corner and at the entrance of the city gates.” The scoffers, the fools, they have always been there, and when their voices are the only ones heard, panic, calamity, distress, anguish—these are what ensue. We must seek her counsel. Wisdom of Solomon reminds us, “For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.” Could it be that wisdom lives in each of our traditions, secure in herself, renewing all things? Wisdom continues, “In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” No tradition has a lock on this—there is no triumphant doctrine here, only holy souls willing to receive her. “She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.” This is not the God of vengeance that seeks to destroy, a God whose face that, as Christians, we have to admit, is there in our tradition, but this is the God that has been there all along, a God whose face has been hidden, the feminine face of God who only seeks life for all of God’s creatures. We need this God now. Because James has it right—the tongue is a fire and it can set the world ablaze. We are seeing this all too clearly. Hear James, “But no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…,” so says James.

We must seek Wisdom, we must stand up to those who spew hate, and reach out in love to those who are its target, be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews, or people of no belief at all.

This really is about learning how to love the other, and honest to goodness, we don’t know how to do that in this world. I was privileged to spend all day yesterday in a workshop with several members of our community and several members of the Junaluska community. We have been at this work for two years now, and we just knew it was time to take a step back and look at our relationships with one another. Part of the day was spent in racial caucauses. White people talking with other white people about what had gone well, and where the rubs where; black people talking with our black people about what had gone well, and where the rubs were. Some of that feedback was painfully, painfully hard to hear. With the best of intentions, we still do things that hurt each other deeply. But we are committed to the long haul with one another, and we are committed to learning how to be with each other. We are committed to confessing what we don’t know, we gave each other permission to call us on the ways we blow it, and we are committed to giving and receiving one another’s forgiveness. This is hard work, but this is what we are called to do. This is the labor that gives birth to wisdom.

This week has been overwhelming, on every score. I don’t have it all worked out in my head. It’s too much, but I do know this. God is weeping, longing, yearning for us to reach out to one another. Jesus is hanging between heaven and earth holding all the pain of this week with us. He didn’t strike back with violence, but with forgiveness and with a life that death couldn’t defeat. I know it looks like evil is winning the day, but the scriptures promise us that evil will not ultimately prevail. Bring all the brokenness of this week and lay it on this altar. And when the bread, when Christ’s body, breaks, know that all this brokenness is somehow taken into his body—and there, he holds it. He doesn’t fix it, he doesn’t resolve this tension in favor of one over the other, he just holds it—and somehow, all this pain will be transformed—somehow the brokenness becomes the very bread of life.

And as we leave this table, full of the bread of life, let’s double down and search out Wisdom. Let’s let her show us what it means to be friends of God and friends of one another. Let’s join her and reach out mightily from one end of the earth to the other because we’re just not going to make it if we don’t. Amen.

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

Choose the Third Way

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 17—Year B: The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Tis the season for VISION! We have just come through two weeks of political conventions. The Republicans put forth their vision and explained why the Democrats’ vision is a failed one. The Democrats put forth their vision and explained why the Republicans’ vision is a failed one. Different visions about the role of government and the role of the private sector. Different visions of the economy and what will make it grow. Different visions on all manner of things. Are you seeing double vision yet? Is your vision getting blurred? It’s a lot to make sense of.

Well, today, we hear from a third party, The People of the Way, as those early Jesus followers were called; today, they put forth their vision in the Letter of James. The belief part of the platform has not been finely wordsmithed; in fact, it’s a little suspect, but the action pieces, wow, they’re the foundational planks in this platform.

Acts of favoritism—did not make the platform—they are mutually exclusive with belief in our glorious Lord Jesus. If we are paying more attention to the person who comes into the assembly with gold rings and fine clothes, if we are pulling out a chair for them, while we are telling the poor person who’s wearing dirty clothes to stand over there or sit at our feet, then we are guilty of making distinctions among ourselves—we have become judges with evil thoughts.

God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith, to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him.

We have dishonored the poor; this platform is calling forth our better angels. There is no place for oppression by the rich—such oppression is blasphemy against Christ’s name. The People of the Way are circling back to that prophetic tradition of their forebears, as parties often do. Their recent ad proclaims, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause…” The Book of Proverbs approves this message.

But we, The People of the Way, are to fulfill the royal law, the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not as much as yourself, but as yourself. Your neighbor is not the object of your good will, but your neighbor is an extension of your very being. Your neighbor is you, which makes your neighbor not an object outside of you, but the subject reflecting you. You are inextricably bound together. If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors…What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

+++

This is the platform of The People of the Way. No favoritism, no partiality, equality, mutuality, loving your neighbor as your very own self, walking the walk much more than talking the talk, faith must be worked, not just spoken. And this platform is addressed not just to individuals, but The People of the Way also, always, address communities.

Jesus adds a couple more planks to the platform of The People who follow his Way. Boy, in the backroom, that Syrophoenician woman really gave it to him. Jesus was headed a whole other direction—this Way was only going to be for the children of Israel, but she stood up to him and debated him, and won. No, the grace and healing and kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate, it had to be for everybody, even for a Gentile, even for a woman. That debate changed Jesus, transformed him.

When he came back into the Jewish territory, he headed straight to the Decapolis, a gentile region. He met a man with stopped up ears whose words made no sense—he commanded, “Be opened…I had to be opened, now you be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, and he could speak plainly.

Sometimes, our ears get stopped up and we can’t hear Jesus’ call.

Sometimes, our hearts get stopped, and we can’t feel compassion.

Sometimes, we are talking our heads off, but it’s not good news that’s coming out of our mouths, but gobbledygook from some other vision. Jesus adds this plank to the platform of The People of the Way, “Be opened,” so you can hear and love and show mercy and proclaim the good news that God longs to be proclaimed.

The people who saw Jesus heal that man couldn’t stop talking about it, even though Jesus told them not to. Jesus doesn’t want us to talk about it; like Nike, Jesus wants us to “just do it.”

The People of the Way have put forth quite a platform. If we will allow our ears to be opened, it will challenge every vision that is put forth around us, every vision. The only thing that remains to be seen, is if we, the local affiliate of The People of the Way, will adopt this platform as the central, defining VISION for our lives.

As with all party platforms, the devil is in the details. When I looked up that idiom, “The devil is in the details,” I found out that that phrase derives from an earlier phrase, “God is in the details,” and so it is. God is in the details, and it will be up to us to incarnate, to put flesh and blood on this vision.

As we move forward, let us embrace this platform in every aspect of our lives, in every relationship, in every decision, in every circle in which we move, in every encounter, in every minute of every day.

May this vision open us and shape us, and then propel us forward to fulfill our call—may we show no partiality, no favoritism.

May we be people of radical equality, radical mutuality, radical inclusion, radical commitment to the poor, radical engagement with our neighbor.

May we, The People of the Way, show mercy, extend compassion, and live the royal law of love. Amen.

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

Let go of the things you need to release.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (9-2-2012)—Proper 17—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today, we have one of the most gorgeous passages ever in Song of Solomon.

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

It’s an old, old, old Israelite love poem between two people head over heels in love. Read the whole book—it’s steamy. One wonders how it ever got in the Bible, except for the fact that from the earliest of times, this was interpreted as God pining for God’s beloved people. Can we dare to imagine God leaping and bounding over mountains and hills, peeking through the lattice to catch a glimpse of us? Can we dare to imagine God calling us, “my love” and begging us to come away and dwell in this lush space overflowing with abundant life? This is God as pure passion yearning for us, throwing all decorum to the winds.

Contrast this with what we hear in Mark’s gospel. There we get the Pharisees and the scribes pinning Jesus’ ears back for the behavior of his disciples, who, apparently, also lacked decorum. It seems that the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate. Have you ever done that? Eaten without washing your hands??? Oh, the scandal! This wasn’t just a matter of hygiene for the Pharisees and scribes, this was a matter of tradition“of doing things decently and in order,” as St. Paul liked to say. I might note that Episcopalians have turned “doing things decently and in order” into an art form.

So, it seems that the Pharisees and scribes had this tradition of washing their hands before they ate, washing things from the market, and washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. Not sure about non-bronze kettles, but traditions aren’t always logical. In fact, traditions tap something deep, deep in our psyche, something deep in our hearts. Traditions tap into our deepest feelings; they make us feel secure. Change traditions, and people want to stone you. Just try to leave mashed potatoes and water for Santa Claus, instead of milk and cookies and see what happens.

Traditions are about our heritage; they’re about knowing who we are and where we come from. It is our tradition to gather each week and share bread and wine—and we do it by following a tradition that is 2,000 years old. Traditions aren’t necessarily bad. They help us locate our place, especially in a world that is changing at light speed. In many ways, I am a traditionalist—I don’t much like change, just ask my husband; I like “to do things decently and in order”—it’s how I find stillness in a world that is always moving. Traditions have helped me to shape my life in a holy way.

But here’s the rub. We can get so attached to the tradition, that we lose sight of the holy impulse that established the tradition in the first place. We can put so much weight on the tradition, that we crush people who just can’t follow it, who just can’t get with the program. For instance, we could berate people who don’t come to worship on Sunday, never making allowance for the fact that maybe they don’t come to worship because they have to work on Sunday, or it’s the only time all week long when they can rest. We can lose the forest for the trees. We can get so attached to our traditions that we feel good and secure, maybe even smug and righteous—we’re doing everything right, but, but our hearts have grown cool. In all of our keeping the traditions to perfection, we have lost that first-love feeling, that feeling of being passionately, head-over-heels-in-love with God. You see, the thing about passion is that it’s rarely containable. It spills over in all kinds of ways, and when it does, it is rarely “done decently and in order.”

We can so easily teach our human precepts as doctrines. We can so easily abandon the commandment of God—which is so simple—love God, love your neighbor as if your neighbor were a part of your very self—we can so easily abandon this great commandment and hold to our human tradition.

Why do we do that?

Maybe because love is a much harder road to follow than adherence to what is expected. Love will often beg the question, ask for an exception, push us into new and unchartered territory where tradition has not yet had the chance to be established. Oh, it’s so unsettling.

And there’s also a dark side to tradition. The masquerading tradition. The tradition that can mask the most unholy of motivations and behaviors—Jesus lists just a few: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Tradition can mask these darker aspects of our beings—it, and we, look oh so good on the outside, but on the inside, something is rotting.

And none of this would be all that important if it weren’t for the fact that this is the very conversation the Church, Church with a capital “C”, is in at this point in our history. This is the heart of the matter.

What traditions are good and holy that we must retain or we will lose the heart and soul of who we are?

What traditions can be modified so that they can once again orient us to the holy?

And what traditions have actually gotten in the way of our loving God and loving our neighbor and loving ourselves as passionately as God wants us to love?

This tradition stuff is important because it’s how we as human beings orient our life to that which is good and holy and lifegiving. Traditions, like most everything else, can cease to bring us life, and when they do, we need to give them a good burial and await the resurrection of some new way that will once again awaken our hearts.

But how will we know what needs to stay the same, what needs to change, and what needs to be thrown overboard?

We can tease out a few principles of discernment from our lessons today. First, from the Letter of James, if the tradition is only engaging our head—if we are “hearers of the word” only—and it’s not pushing us to action—if we’re not “doing the word”—then we’re off-track. If we are not engaged with others, especially “the orphans and widows” and all those who live at the margins, if we’re not engaged with these who mirror Christ to us, who remind us who we are in our core, then we’re going in the wrong direction. If our traditions are fitting too comfortably with the world, then they are probably not reflecting the radical ways of love lived out by our Lord. If we are numb to the passionate love that God has for us and for all the world, if we are numb to that Song of Solomon passion, we can be pretty sure that we have set our sights far too low, settling for human tradition alone and forsaking the greater love that God yearns to make flesh in our lives.

Please hear me, I am not saying that we need to ditch all of our traditions—my goodness, I would be lost, lost, without them! But I do believe that we are in a difficult time, a time when we need to rethink everything that we are doing, both in the church and across our lives, and hold it up to the standard of love of which Jesus speaks. Does this tradition help us grow in that love, or not? And then we have to be willing to modify, or even let go of, those traditions that hinder that love, and reach for, or even give birth to, those traditions that will draw us more deeply toward that love.

This is the best of times and the worst of times, and at the very least, an immensely unsettling time.

But what does Jesus always say to us in such times, “Do not be afraid…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

It’s a whole new day.

Jesus will give us the courage to let go of those things that we need to release.

Jesus will give us the wisdom to modify those things that need new life breathed into them.

Jesus will give us the vision walk in new ways, just as he has done all along, new paths that will let our hearts soar, even as our feet are firmly planted on the ground.

Wherever this whole thing is going, one thing is for sure, we follow one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he will orient us in the way we need to go. Amen.

 

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

Let go of offense

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16—Year B
I Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Tough passage in the gospel today. I don’t think Jesus took the Dale Carnegie Course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Actually, he did his best to offend his listeners. So, he’s in the synagogue in Capernaum talking to a Jewish audience, and here is how he begins—“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”—yuck—and then, he goes on to refer to himself as “the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, i.e that “manna stuff,” and they died. But the one who eats this bread,” i.e. me, “will live forever.” It’s bad enough that Jesus leads with an image of cannibalism; that’s hard enough to swallow, but Jesus goes on to usurp, to appropriate to himself, one of the core, foundational images of the Jewish people. This is not how you win friends and influence people.

When many of his disciples heard [this], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. He knows that he has hit a raw nerve.

How about us? Does this offend us? If Jesus walked right into St. Luke’s this morning and said what he said in that synagogue in Capernaum, how would we react? Would our stomachs get queasy? Would the hair on the back of our necks stand up? Would our 21st century rationalism brush this aside as total bunk, just one more sensational, soundbite metaphor? Would we cry with the disciples, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ And would we hear Jesus say in return, “Does this offend you?”

Well, Jesus, in a word, “yes”—this is offensive. It assaults all our sensibilities. But let’s hit the pause button. Let’s sit with our offendedness, just for a while. What’s at the root of this offense? Why are we so offended? What’s the nerve that Jesus has just hit? I don’t think it’s the “cannibalism” nerve or even the “insult-to-our-ancestral-story” nerve. I think that’s all surface noise. No, there is something much deeper at work here. Any guesses?

I think it has to do with intimacy and our utter terror of being this intimate with Jesus. If you feed on Jesus, if you partake of Jesus, if you consume his being, you abide in him, you will be a part of him and he will be a part of you—not as a theoretical construct or an intellectual belief, but he will be intertwined so intimately with you that you and he can’t be pulled apart. Just as God took up residence in Jesus (John 1:14—“and the Word became flesh”)—Jesus will take up residence in you. Now that sounds all nice and flowery and poetic, except for one thing—if Jesus starts to live in us, then our life is no longer our own. And for us, as the rugged, independent, individualists that we are, that’s a hard pill to swallow, even harder than cannibalism. This is the part that’s offensive—because if he’s living in us, if his being and our being are one, then we’re going to live differently and talk differently and act differently.

Ephesians gives us a glimpse today of what this begins to look like. First of all, we learn that the real battle isn’t with flesh and blood people—it’s with spiritual forces. Think about all the spirits out there that are destructive—the spirit of greed, the spirit of divisiveness and dissension, the spirit of hatred, the spirit of cynicism, the spirit of seething resentment, the spirit of scarcity, the spirit of fear, the spirit of despair. Think of all the forces that get to swirling around these spirits. They can take on cosmic proportions and manifest in truly evil ways. And how would Ephesians have us combat these forces? With a whole lot of armor. But the armor of God won’t give us guns and bombs and weapons of mass destruction. The armor of God looks like this: standing firm, a belt of truth around our waist, a breastplate of righteousness, a breastplate of right relationship. For shoes—whatever makes us ready to proclaim what? The gospel of peace. A shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Did you catch that? These spirits that we encounter, they are throwing arrows at us—through Christ, we don’t fight them, we catch them with a faith that takes away their heat. We have a helmet of salvation, a helmet of wholeness. A sword not to kill, but of the Spirit, not a sword to destroy, but the word of God to pierce our own hardened hearts. A sword to slice through all the false choices so that a third way might be revealed—not the way of either/or, but rather, that creative both/and. We pray in the Spirit, we keep alert, we persevere, making known with boldness, the mystery of the gospel. Not the 100% certain no-questions-allowed truth, but the mystery of the gospel. The mystery of the good news of Jesus Christ whose love is big enough and broad enough and deep enough to contain all the forces of darkness in this world. He opened his arms to receive those flaming arrows, and he quenched their fire with his love. Unlike the armor we normally put on, the armor of defenses and preemptive shots across the bow, this armor is going to leave us pretty exposed.

That’s what we’re signing up for if we let his being become one with ours. Are you ready to sign on? It’s the kind of vision that we hear from Solomon this morning—even the foreigner’s prayers are heard by God. We can’t play the game our-God-is-better-than-your-God anymore. I think we find Jesus’ words offensive because we are flat out terrified of what it will mean if we really let him live through us, if we really let him speak through us, we are terrified of what it will mean if we really touch all that he dares to touch, if we really love all that he dares to love. It is going to completely and utterly change us and our lives.

And so we have a choice. The disciples had a choice. And some of them turned back and no longer went about with him. That had to be a sad moment for Jesus. He turned and looked at the twelve, he turns and looks at us, “Do you also wish to go away?” It was pretty quiet, each one contemplating their options. Simon Peter finally broke the silence, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

They didn’t know a lot, but they had been around Jesus long enough that they had come to believe and know, not that Jesus was the Jesus we meet in our credal confessions, but that Jesus was simply the Holy One of God. Those disciples just knew in their hearts and in their souls that Jesus was of God—they couldn’t spell that out in doctrine, but they knew it and believed it nonetheless. They knew that his words were life for them. They knew it. And they knew that they would be lost without him. He had gotten under their skin, which is what incarnation always does. He had taken up residence inside of them; they had nowhere else to go.

As anyone who has ever been in a deep relationship will tell you, you only discover the most exquisite gifts of intimacy when you plumb its depths, and that will cost you everything. At that point, your life is no longer solely your own.

Today, you and I, we’re invited to move through our offense, to risk losing our life as we are swallowed up in this Life, in his Life, which is so much bigger than our own. Today, we are invited to take Jesus into the heart of our being, so that we can begin to learn what it means to let his heart live through our being.

“Do you also wish to go away?”  

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the life for which we long.”

 Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 26, 2012

Be more than kind out in the world.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks –The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 14—Year B
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; Mark 6:35, 41-51

This morning’s story from II Samuel is nothing short of tragic. These are a lot of messed up, immensely human people adding brokenness upon brokenness upon brokenness.

Context is important.

Remember from last week, David stole Bathesheba from Uriah, and put Uriah in a position where Uriah would undoubtedly be killed, which he was. For this horrific chain of events, God promised that horrific brokenness would come upon David’s house, which it did. The child of David’s liaison with Bathesheba died. One of David’s sons, Amnon, committed a horrible sin against his sister, Tamar (again, for the R-rated version, read II Samuel chapter 13—it is chilling). Another of David’s sons, Absalom, was enraged by Amnon’s violation. Absalom waited, and in due course, with great premeditation, killed Amnon. Absalom then fled, afraid for his life.

So, King David has lost two children to death, has a third child who has suffered a horrible injustice, and a fourth child who now lives in exile. David’s heart is heavy indeed. Absalom eventually finds his way back into the presence of the king and then plots a revolt. In the ensuing battles, father and son’s armies are pitted one against the other. But David’s heart has been broken so many times; he wants his commander, Joab, to deal gently with the young man Absalom. In the battle that follows, Absalom is riding on his mule when the mule goes under the thick branches of a great oak tree. His head got caught in the branches and he was left hanging there, but he was still alive. One of Joab’s men saw this and reported it to Joab. When Joab heard that Absalom was still alive, Joab was furious; he went out with three spears and thrust them into Absalom’s heart. Joab’s ten armorbearers surrounded Absalom, struck, and killed him. When news came to David, his heart broke yet again. He was inconsolable. He wept. All he can do is grieve for his son, Absalom.

It is tragic. So much brokenness. Wrong compounds wrong compounds wrong, never adding up to a right. And while I in no way ascribe to the author of II Samuel’s theology of cause-and-effect, which basically says that our missteps and our misdeeds cause God to visit unbelievable suffering upon us, while I don’t believe that; I do believe that when we sow seeds of brokenness, we reap the fruits of brokenness.

There is so much in this story. Incredible family dysfunction. The myth of redemptive violence—if Absalom could just avenge what happened to his sister Tamar. If Joab could just avenge Absalom’s act of rebellion. And where does it all lead? Death and more death. Brokenness and more brokenness.

This is all pretty drastic and pretty graphic, but do we not participate in these dynamics in our own lives? Think about the most conflicted relationships in your life. Where have you sown seeds of brokenness? Where can you identify this never-ending cycle of hurt-revenge in your own relationships? Where have you been triangled into a conflict and found yourself taking sides, thereby participating in the hurt-avenge cycle? We may not kill, in fact, but we can kill with our words, with our stoney silences, we can kill by withdrawing our affection, our presence. And how do we participate in this myth of redemptive violence on the collective scale? Is this not the source of most war—hurt-revenge, hurt-avenge? Is not this myth at the root of the violent shootings we have seen recently—Aurora, Colorado, the Sihk Temple in Wisconsin? However twisted, do not the shooters somehow believe that this violent act will redeem something or avenge something?

But the beliefs that fuel this myth start so much earlier. Maybe that’s why Paul tells us in no uncertain terms, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…and live in love.”

The end of the road is a violent act, but the beginning of that road rests in bitterness and wrath and anger that becomes a habit and a way of life, that simmers into resentment, that moves into wrangling and slander and malice, and, in no time, becomes a runaway train. We cannot allow these seeds to take root in our souls, and when an injustice is perpetrated against us or against someone we care about, it is so tempting to go there. But just look at the way the Sikh’s have responded, with peace and love and prayer. Or remember the Amish response when Charles Robert shot ten of their little girls at that schoolhouse in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania? Within six hours of the shooting, members of that community expressed forgiveness and words of grace to the widow of Charles Roberts; later that day, they went to his parents and expressed words of forgiveness and support. Money poured in from around the world for the Amish—they decided to give a portion to the Mr. Robert’s widow and his children. The Sikh’s, the Amish, the very people that our society considers to be so “other”, they are showing us what it means to live in kindness, to have tender hearts, to live forgiveness, to live in love.

With so much hate around us, with so many calls to diminish one another, with so many examples from those who lash out in anger against anyone who looks different or holds a different belief or perspective, how are we walking in kindness and living forgiveness? How are we witnessing to the core values of our faith; how are we witnessing to our baptismal vows? How are we “seeking and serving Christ in all persons?” How are we “respecting the dignity of every human being?” How are we “persevering in resisting evil” and when we recognize that we have given into bitterness and wrath, when we recognize that our anger is bleeding through all of our words and actions, when we see that all we do is wrangle, bicker, argue, when we recognize that we are participating in slander and malice, how are we then “repenting of these behaviors and patterns and returning to the Lord?”

We may not be able to stop a crazed shooter, but we can stop these seeds from taking root in our own hearts, and we can call one another to our better selves, and we can stand with those who are targets of such hate. The cycle of violence can only be broken when we do not allow these first seeds to take root. This cycle will only be broken when we name the myth of redemptive violence for what it is, a myth that is a lie.

Our only hope is to feed on the One who broke this cycle on the cross. Jesus did not respond to the violence that nailed him to a cross with revenge, but he responded with forgiveness—“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He spread his arms wide-open and kept his heart tender and exposed, and he held all that rage and anger and jealousy and fear until its power drained away and all that was left to rise was love and life. That’s the bread we are invited to eat today. That’s the bread that will change our hearts. That’s the bread for which this world is starving.

So, our work is cut out for us. We’ve got to examine our lives and our relationships. We’ve taken vows in our baptism to live a certain way—how are we doing with those vows? We’ve got to look deep within our own hearts and deep into the heart of our society, and we’ve got to gaze on the cross and let Jesus show us a different way

Amidst so much brokenness, amidst so much death, feed on the bread of life. Take him into your body, into your mind, into your soul, into your heart—let his compassion look through your eyes, let his tender heart beat within yours, let his forgiveness manifest in your words and in your actions. He gave his life so that we could go a different way. Stop the cycle, now, here, today, in your own heart, in your own life. Feed on the bread of life, and then offer this life, now made flesh in you, as bread for the world. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 12, 2012