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Bring your “Legion” to the table

The Rev Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42, 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

We’ve got wild language today. Demons and unclean spirits and pigs gone crazy throwing themselves off a cliff into a lake. Wild language that’s a little hard to connect to. Or from I Kings—we’ve got wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks and quaking earth and fire. Pretty calm here at old St. Luke’s in Boone on a beautiful summer day. How do we enter into these stories?

Let’s start with the gospel. Jesus and his disciples have come across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Garasenes. [set the scene around the Sea of Galilee] Who knows why they came to this land? Maybe they were wanting a little seaside holiday after all the teaching and healing and feeding that Jesus had been doing on the other side of the lake. No sooner does he step out on land, and a man of the city who had demons met him. He was naked, and he didn’t live in a house but in the tombs—he lived in the cemetery; he lived among the dead. He saw Jesus, and he went bezerk—he yelled at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” You see, Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes. What would you do? This crazy man is in front of you, full of darkness and brokenness and sheer wildness, what would you do? You know what Jesus did? He turned to the man and asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. [name some demons] Those demons begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss, back into that deepest, darkest, lowest, most innermost part of the earth that was where the dead and the demons lived. Funny that even the demons are scared of the dark. They spied a herd of swine—“let us enter these.” So Jesus gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. I just want to note here, I don’t like the fact that the pigs are driven to their deaths—they seem to be innocent by-standers here. We’ll come back to that in a minute.


On the one hand, this story seems far removed from us; on the other hand, this story is way too close for comfort.

“What is your name?” “My name is ‘Legion.’”

Last December, I started working with Chelsea Wakefield’s book Negotiating the Inner Peace Treaty. She’s the person who is coming to present here at St. Luke’s at the end of July. Her premise is that we all have an inner cast of characters, and that any time we are in conflict, it is because two or more of those characters are in conflict with one another. Her book walks you through the Main Players, the Supporting Cast, the Not So Supporting Cast, and so on. She has a list of possible characters in the back of her book as a way to help you start identifying your own characters. Some are easy to identify; others take some excavation work to unearth. Some are positive and full of light; some lurk deep in the shadows. Some have been silent for far too long; some won’t hand over the mic. Some need to retire, or even die. I was on retreat when I first started charting out my inner characters. At the end, I had 67 characters around my round table. “No wonder I’m tired!” I thought—“I have 67 voices in my head.” Another person I know has identified 123 characters, another 16. It varies from person to person. So, I totally get that the demon’s name is “Legion” and actually feel better, because that poor man that Jesus is dealing with has 6,826 voices in his head—67 is no big deal!

We all have voices, characters that live inside of us, characters that hold us captive. Even if you don’t buy into the inner characters framework, most of us can identify three voices that we live with: voices that can’t let go of the past, voices that rest in the present, and voices that worry about the future. The point is, if you have a multiplicity of voices conversing in your head—it’s hard to hear anyone else, it’s hard to hear your own inner wisdom, and most especially, it is hard to hear God. In Jesus’ time, they called them “demons;” in our time, we might call them “inner characters,” but either way, they can possess us. They can chain us; they can shackle us; they can bind us up in unbelievable ways. We guard them, we try to chain them, we try to shackle them, we try to keep them under raps, we try to silence them, and the more we do, the stronger they get. They drive us deeper into the wild until we eventually find ourselves completely cut off from the people around us and completely cut off from ourselves; they drive us deeper into the wild until we find ourselves living among the dead.

Elijah knew something about that. He ended up in a cave a forty days journey from Beer-sheba. That is a long way from anywhere. Why was he there? He was fleeing for his life from Queen Jezebel. Why did she want to kill him? Because in an act of retribution, he, Elijah, had slaughtered all of Baal’s prophets in the Wadi Kishon—this after he had humiliated them in a prophet’s duel about whose god was the real God (we heard that story a few weeks ago). Elijah had been taunting those prophets even then—mocking and berating them. Elijah won that duel hands-done, and then he had all the prophets of Baal gathered up, marched them out to the Wadi Kishon—a wadi is sort of a valley made by a dry riverbed—and killed them. Gruesome. What characters were driving Elijah, a great prophet, to commit such an atrocity? God didn’t tell Elijah to murder those prophets—what caused him to seek such revenge? He flees into the wilderness, and which is exactly where we land when our demons are running the show. Eventually, he ends up in a cave at the mount of God, mount Horeb. But—and if you have ever traveled this wilderness path, you know this—the psalmist is right, “there is nowhere we can go to flee God’s presence.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gave a well-prepared speech about how he has been very zealous for the Lord and how the Israelites have forsaken God’s covenant and thrown down God’s altars and killed God’s prophets with the sword and how he alone is left and how they are seeking his life to take it away. Did anybody catch Elijah’s omission? Yeah, he left out that little part about where he marched all of Baal’s prophets down to the wadi and executed them.

God told Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, a splitting-mountain, breaking-rocks-into- pieces kind of wind, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire, after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.

Have you ever heard sheer silence? Oh, it’s the most eerie kind of silence there is. I have heard it a couple of times in my life, once on that very same mountain in the Sinai desert where Elijah hid in that cave. Sheer silence will pierce your soul. It is so sharp and so deep that you can hear your own heart beat. And what I know about that silence is that all of your thoughts, all of your voices, all of your characters, even the ones you try to keep pushed way down deep—they are all laid bare, completely exposed—and that is a frightening thing. When Elijah heard that silence, he knew the game was up. He wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And the voice spoke again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He gave his same well-rehearsed speech a second time, exact same words, but deep, deep down, he knew the game was up. Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

We can run for a long time, but at some point, we will come to a place where the game is up. And it won’t be a great wind, or an earthquake, or a fire that gets us there, but it will be a sheer silence where it is all laid bare, and we know that we can’t run anymore. The difficult thing about our culture is that we are masters at distraction. We are so plugged-in that we can avoid the sheer silence for a really, really long time. But it will find us. Eventually, it will find us.

And whereas we either try to run from our demons/characters or banish them, Jesus neither runs from demons, nor banishes them. Jesus engages them. Jesus asks them their name, and when he does, they are more than willing to be known. They didn’t want to be sentenced to the abyss. They didn’t want to be sent into darkness to fester in the deep, deep places of the earth. Nor do our characters, even our shadow selves, nor do they want to be banished to the dark. They want to be known, and they want to live in some new way. The demons understood that they had to change, but they could only see two alternatives—the abyss or the pigs—they didn’t want the abyss, so the pigs looked good. Jesus was respectful enough that he granted their desire. Jesus told the demons they had to come out, but he didn’t tell them what they had to do once they showed their faces. I wonder what might have happened if the demons could have seen a third option—to be reconnected to the whole. Maybe they could not have tolerated giving up control; maybe they could not have tolerated being in relationship with all the other lifegiving characters in that man without running the show—in that instance, they clearly needed to go. But what if they could have allowed themselves to be brought back into right relationship with the other parts of that man, parts that had long been held hostage by their demonic demands. In my own experience, I have had some characters that have needed to retire, and at least one that has needed to die, but most of my characters, even my shadow characters, are eager to be transformed into new and lifegiving expressions of themselves.

Our demons are too big for us to confront alone. Most of us have been thrashed about by them for far too long. But that is the good news of today’s gospel. Whether we have 2 characters, or 3 charcters, or 16, or 67, or 123, or 6,826, Jesus is not frightened of any of them. We might be scared to death to let parts of ourselves see the light of day, but he is not. He wants to know their name. He will listen to their needs and concerns, even if we have spent a life time ignoring those voices and needs and concerns. He will listen and help them find a way out so that they can stop wreaking havoc in our lives. If we can show our demons the care and concern and respect that Jesus does, maybe most of them can be brought back into right relationship with all the characters we possess. And if there are some who need to plummet to their death, maybe we can allow them the freedom to die and honor them with a good burial. I still think we can find a better way to for them to die than to take a pig’s life with them, but even that is probably truer than we care to admit. Demons on the loose are destructive forces to be sure.

This morning is a call to oneness, an opportunity to regain our right mind. Maybe this is what Paul is actually talking about in Galatians. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I have always read that as a call to be in right relationship with one another across whatever divisions exist in our society, but maybe it is also a call to be in right relationship within ourselves, to bridge the divisions within ourselves, to know a singleness, a oneness, to know peace within. Jesus had that unity, that singleness, that union, that unitive consciousness within himself—that’s what the demons recognized in him, and that’s why they were terrified of him. They couldn’t stand the wholeness he embodied, and yet, even a piece of them longed for it, or they would have been quite content to be thrown back into the abyss.

If your name is “Legion,” don’t be afraid. Jesus wants to know your name. He wants to know all your names, every last 6,826 of them. He will show you which can be transformed, and which you need to let die to make space for others that have yet to live. It’s a terrifying prospect to be sure—how will you be received if their names become known? How will you be received if you let characters go? How will you be received if you, once again, are in your right mind? There are very real costs involved. But the alternative is to end up living among the dead. Christ made us for oneness—oneness with him, oneness with each other, oneness within ourselves. Bring your “Legion” to the table—they, too, are hungry; they, too, are longing for oneness; they, too, are longing for peace. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 23, 2013

Enter the Heart of God.

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Third Sunday after Pentecost—PR 5—Year C

I Kings 17:8-16 (17-24); Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

There were many experiences that cracked open my heart in India, many experiences, and one of them came flooding back to me this week. It was the Friday before we were to come home. We had learned the day before that we, the delegation from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, were to be the program for the Inauguration of The Old Age Feeding Program the next day. Yes, we were responsible for music, and as it turned out, exercise. There was something more than amusing about teaching our Indian elders the hokey-pokey, something oddly surreal about hearing teenage Indian girls sing Camp Henry songs that they had learned from previous WNC delegations, and something deeply profound as I watched a 90 year old man mirror my movements as I taught them Qi Gong. But the part of that morning that came flooding back this week had nothing to do with those of us from Western North Carolina. It had to do with the elders themselves who stood to tell their stories, particularly the women, particularly the widows. You see in India, the mother becomes the responsibility of the child, often the male child. One woman showed us her bruises where her son-in-law had beaten her, but she was trapped; she had nowhere else to go. Another woman told us how her son had abandoned her. Without her son, she had no one, no one to care for her. There is no social safety net there. For that woman, no son meant a life of destitution, a life of crushing poverty. Oh, those Indian elders had dignity, but to hear their stories…it made your heart hurt.

As it is for widows in India today, so it was for widows in Elijah’s time, so it was for widows in Jesus’ time. Women were completely dependent on their male children for their livelihood. No son meant a life of crushing poverty. As early as the wilderness days of Exodus [22:24], there is fierce concern for the widow and the orphan. In Deuteronomy, God makes clear that it is central to God’s identity and mission to execute justice for the orphan and the widow [10:18] and the resident alien [24:17]. The practice of leaving a part of the harvest, the gleanings, was built into the law as a way to provide food for the alien, the orphan, and the widow [24:19-21].

As the story moves on through the scriptures, there is a progression. Power begins to coalesce at the top. Those with position and status get richer; those who are vulnerable get poorer. Oh, all the institutions of the day rolled along just fine—great and solemn festivals and fasts and liturgies, but the poor were getting trampled. The society was getting sicker and sicker. It was making God sick, too. Pretty soon, God got ahold of the some willing, and somewhat crazy-looking, people to give voice to God’s care and concern for those whom society was trampling—(3rd-7th graders—think back to your last Wednesday class—who were these people?)—enter the prophets. The prophet’s job was twofold—first to bring comfort to the afflicted and to call out the people of God and to paint new possibilities for how it could be.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi—all of these address the plight of the widows specifically. While not mentioning the widows outright, Amos minces no words when it comes to the treatment of the needy and the poor. And Jesus picks up this mantle from the very beginning of his ministry.

Remember Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4? There he takes Isaiah as his text, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (which was the year of Jubilee when debts were forgiven and everyone was set free). After Jesus read that, he sat down and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people were amazed. We remember that part, but do you remember what came next? When Jesus dared to talk about how Elijah ministered to that widow in Zarephath—so not just a widow, but a foreign widow at that!—they wanted to throw him off the cliff.

When a prophet talks about a widow, sit up and take notice. When Jesus talks about a widow, sit up and take notice. When you see a widow in the scripture, you know that you have entered the heart of God’s heart; you have entered the heart of God’s care and concern and fiercest passion. And it quickly gets complicated, because every time the people of God get a good dressing down from God, via the prophets, about this, what is exposed is a torn social fabric, a society, a community, that has ceased to care for the most vulnerable among them, what is exposed is a people who have broken covenant with one another. When you see “widow” read “most vulnerable,” and you will begin to see what’s at stake.

So, a couple of things about these stories. First, even though the widow of Zarephath didn’t have anything, she was willing to risk that there was an abundance where she didn’t perceive any. All evidence pointed to a scarcity of resources, but Elijah saw a different reality, and that widow trusted him, and when she believed in the abundance, the abundance poured out everywhere. In the end, both of the widows in today’s story get their sons restored to them—Elijah raises the son from death in Zarephath and Jesus raises the son from death in Nain—which means those two women will not be sentenced to a life of crushing poverty.

So, what does this mean for us? I don’t know about you, but my powers to bring the dead back to life are pretty limited. What does this mean for us?

Hold that thought. And this is where this sermon might get me thrown off a cliff. Things are heating up in our society. Big time. Lately, there is not a week that goes by that I am not hearing about something being done at the local level or the state level that is hurting the most vulnerable in our community.

Mental health is being dismantled bit by bit. Ask Lynne Mason and those who work at Hospitality House or the Community Care Clinic or any mental health professional in our community what they are seeing these days in the increase of people who need help and can’t get it.

A shifting of resources away from our not-for-profits who care for the most vulnerable in our community.

A sweeping tax reform bill being discussed in our state legislature that will shift the tax burden from those with the most to those in the middle and those at the bottom, both in the tax rate structure and in the way the sales tax base is being broadened [HB 998], at a cost of $1 billion over the next 5 years—the math has to work so that means cuts will have to come somewhere, most likely governmental services, social services, and education.

A shift in resources in our educational system from public schools to private schools—$100 million over the next three school years [HB 944]—a shift which many fear will be the beginning of the unraveling of public education.

A refusal to accept Medicaid monies that would cover 500,000 people in our state who desperately need health care [HB 16/SB 4] and a dramatic cut in unemployment benefits [HB 4/SB 6] at a time when the unemployment rate in North Carolina stands at 8.9%, the fifth highest in the country. These measures taken at the same time that the estate tax has been repealed [HB 101SB 114]—a tax that only came into play on estates larger than $5.25 million for 2013 .

New Voter ID laws [HB 253/SB 235] when the problem of fraud hasn’t been proven. A bill that says a parent can no longer claim a dependent exemption for their child if that child registers to vote at an address other than the parent [SB 667]. Both of these bills make it more difficult for the poor, the elderly, and the young to exercise their voice through their vote.

Legislation that would make life harder for immigrants [HB 786], the resident aliens to use the Old Testament phrase, who live among us and are our neighbors.

And so, every Monday, since April 29th, people have been gathering outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh. The crowds are growing. Some are choosing to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience. The testimonies of those who are choosing to be arrested are beautiful testimonies of their faith that drives their care and concern for the most vulnerable in our society. These are not your normal political activists; they are ordinary folk from all walks of life and from all faith perspectives, including those who profess no faith at all—most have never been arrested in their lives. The NAACP in North Carolina, led by The Rev. Will Barber is spearheading this effort. The North Carolina Council of Churches is fully supportive, and they are calling for clergy from across the state to participate this coming Monday. The Bishops of North Carolina were there last week, along with several clergy from that Diocese. Clergy from our Diocese, with Bishop Taylor’s knowledge and blessing, will go tomorrow. For weeks now, some of you have been asking me what I will do.

And so, I have been praying, hard, and not sleeping very well. I have been reading legislation until late in the night trying to understand what is actually going on. Reminds me of the days when I used to sit and read the Internal Revenue Code (and some of you thought I was normal). Sometimes, the reporting on this legislation hasn’t been quite accurate, and so I have tried to dig to find out what is happening.

I also have a deep, deep concern that stems from the inherently dualistic nature of protests, which can also diminish the complexity of issues and people. Now, hear me clearly—I refuse to demonize those who are putting this legislation forward. As a baptized person, I have taken a vow to strive for justice and peace, yes, but there is a second part of that vow—I have also vowed to respect the dignity of every human being, and that includes those putting forward policies that I believe are hurting the most vulnerable among us. I refuse to see the policymakers and those supporting them as anything other than my brothers and my sisters. They have an inherent dignity that I am bound to respect. But being a part of the beloved community also means that I must be willing to call to account my brothers and sisters who have power when those without power are being hurt. God’s concern for the least of these among us [Mt 25] simply cannot be denied.

I do not have the power to raise the dead like Elijah or Jesus, but maybe that’s only because my vision is too narrow.

Maybe raising the dead, in this instance, is calling the broken and brittle structures of our society to live again as vessels of grace creating the environment where all God’s people can thrive—maybe these are the dry bones that the prophet Ezekiel calls to live again.

Maybe raising the dead is calling us, all of us, once again, to live as a covenant people—as a community across our society that is bound one to another. We choose life together, or we choose death—Moses knew that long ago [Deut 30:19].

Maybe raising the dead is believing that we can talk respectfully with those with whom we disagree knowing that both of us will be transformed along the way. Most of our world believes that such charity in our public discourse is dead—I refuse to believe that. Jesus calls us to go deeper, always deeper—Jesus calls us to love across the great divide.

Maybe raising the dead is trusting in jars of meal that won’t run out and jars of oil that won’t run dry and a willingness to share our last crumb and to know that that will feed us in ways that our fear of scarcity never can.

Maybe, brothers and sisters, we are called now, today, to raise the dead, and in the process, our widows and children, our poor and dispossessed, our resident aliens, our rich and powerful and politicians, you and me—maybe in the process, all of us will find life, and not just life, but abundant life. Maybe this is the kingdom of God that Jesus told us about.

So, I am still praying. If I go to Raleigh tomorrow, I go as a follower of Jesus, I go as one who lives under the vows of my baptism, I go as a priest of the Church, I go as a citizen of this great state—I do not go as the Rector of St. Luke’s. If I go, I go as one who believes deeply in the dignity of those with whom I disagree. If I go, it will be because I just can’t get these widows out of my head. If I go, it will be because I have come to believe that raising the dead isn’t just the work of Elijah or the work of Jesus, but is also the work that God has given me to do.

I don’t know how God will speak to you about such matters, but I would be negligent as a priest of Christ’s church if I did not call you to wrestle with the world in which we live, the whole world, even the political parts of it because God created this world, and God loves this world deeplyfor God so loved the world...[John 3:16].

So, who are the widows in your line of sight? What are you called to raise so that they may live? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 9, 2013

Encounter God encountering you, and be set free

The Rev Cynthia K.R. Banks; The Second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 4—Year C: I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

How many of you are familiar with the term “people-pleaser”? I googled it this week, and here are some of the things that immediately popped up: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser: 8 Steps; Are You a People-Pleaser?; 21 Tips to Stop Being a People-Pleaser; there’s a TED conversation that explores People-Pleasing—it’s pros and cons—TED being that non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading; Personal Growth Programs to move through the People Pleasing Pattern; 52 Traits of a Chronic People Pleaser, also known as the 52 Characteristics of a Niceaholic; one site delineates People-Pleasing as a type of co-dependency; there are recovery programs for People Pleasing Addicts; and my personal favorite, a cartoon with a tombstone that says, “RIP Niamh Scott” and below her name is this quote, “I apologize if my death saddens or inconveniences you” and off to the side are these two people, one of whom says to the other, “They say she was a chronic people pleaser.”

I first heard the term in the 1980’s when co-dependency first came into our societal lexicon. It’s described in many ways, but generally means an inability to say “no” and a sense that you’ve got to make everyone around you happy, and, once they’re happy, you will do whatever it takes to keep them happy, even to your own detriment. Most of us know someone who fits this bill, or the shoe just might fit our own foot, to mix my metaphors. Popular literature would cause one to believe that this is an epidemic particular to our day and time, but tis not so.

Today, in Galatians, we hear Paul say this, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” We really can’t come up with anything new, can we? The problems we confront in our humanity are the same problems human beings have been trying to figure out for thousands of years. Sometimes, it’s helpful to see the bigger frame and to know that we’re just not that different from human beings throughout the ages.

Obviously, Paul sees the challenge, sees the choice, sees the dilemma. There are times when what God asks of us, times when what Christ calls us to do will not be popular with the people around us, times when the gospel will unmask the False Self we have spent a lifetime constructing. Like the call to love the enemy that our society loves to hate or the invitation to hang out with the wrong people in the wrong places or the challenge to our attachment to mammon, to wealth or the command to make right loving primary and the dressing down of religious constructs that dare to make anything else numero uno.

Paul makes a distinction between the gospel he received through his direct experience of Jesus Christ and other gospels, different gospels that vie for our attention. What gospels vie for your attention? What gospels are operative in your life that may have nothing to do at all with the good news of God in Christ?

Are you living by the gospel according to people-pleasing? Do you have your radar up, ever sensing how others are experiencing you, and adjusting your self accordingly? How can you ever rest in your belovedness if you have to keep shifting who you are?

Are you living by the gospel according to security? If so, how can you hear Jesus’ call to “lose your life”?

Are you living by the gospel according to happiness? It’s awfully hard to embrace the Holy Weeks of your life if happiness is your gospel—who wants to be crucified and wait to rise? Who of us ever wants to let go of a happy life, even if it means we could then find a resurrected one?

Paul is right, there are many gospels of human origin, many gospels from human sources, many gospels that we are taught. But the only one that counts, according to Paul, and, I would say, according to Jesus, is the one we experience, up close and personal, as we open ourselves to the Holy. It’s that moment when you encounter God encountering you, and you are set free. And in that moment, you know gospel; you know good news—it’s not something you are taught; it’s something you are given, it’s something you receive, it’s supremely something you know, and it is True with a capital “T”. And when that gospel comes into your heart, no other gospel will do. You will risk everything for that Truth, for that Way, for that Life, for that reality. Human approval pales in comparison. People-pleasing, it’s just not necessary because your tank is full, your well is overflowing. Security, it’s irrelevant because you are anchored in the True Self which is the only place where we are ever really secure. Happiness becomes a poor substitution for the abundant life that Jesus promises. When the gospel, when the good news of Jesus takes up residence in your soul, when you accept your belovedness with the same passion with which God has already declared it, then you are truly free.

There are two kinds of people who seem to be more able to accept such grace—those on the bottom who have nothing to lose, and those on the top who have hit a wall they can’t get around—an illness, a death, a loss of some sort. The poor and oppressed, they never resisted the good news that Jesus offered them; they knew how hungry they were, and they got it immediately. They understood exactly what Jesus was offering them, and accepted the gift—that’s why they were blessed. At the other end, are people like the centurion of today’s story—he was at the top of his game—status, position, power—but he hit a wall he couldn’t get around when someone he loved got sick; he got the good news, too. It’s those of us in the middle, those of us who still have the illusion that we are doing just fine under our own steam, those of us who say that we believe in grace, but who live as though we still have to earn our way into God’ favor—it is we who struggle mightily to accept how beloved we are; it is we who struggle to see that we are the apple of God’s eye. What will get us to relinquish our little gospels? What will it take for us to let go? What will get us to say “uncle” and fall into arms of Grace?

Why was Jesus amazed at the centurion? I think Jesus was amazed because he saw that the centurion was the real deal. The centurion had hit the wall and was way beyond the worthiness game, a game that religious folk play only too well. There is something about hitting that wall that reveals everything else for the illusion that it is. I wish it weren’t so, but for those of us who live in some degree of comfort, it seems to be that it’s only when we hit the wall that we are truly willing to yield, to let go, and in letting go, we find that which is real and solid and true; it is then that we find the only life that is really worth living. That doesn’t mean that everyone we love who is sick will get cured, but it does mean that even if they don’t, we will know, as Julian of Norwich knew, that in some way beyond our comprehension, “all will be well.”

There are so many gospels out there. Which one would you die for? Even more, which one will you live for? And even more than that, which one will you allow to live through you? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 2, 2013

Belief matters….

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks: Trinity Sunday—Year C; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Oh, it’s Trinity Sunday. What pops in your mind when I say, “trinity”? C’mon, word association. Give it to me. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. One in three and three in one—kind of a three musketeers of divinity. Impossible, nonsensical math. Abstract theology. Nicea. Doctrine. THE CREED. Belief writ large.

Yes, discussion of the trinity usually leads us right into a discussion about belief and the creed. So, it’s time for a little congregational exercise. Some of you in the Friday class have done this, but even if you have done it before, you may find yourself in a different place this time. So, please stand. Here’s how this works. I am going to recite the Nicene Creed slowly, very slowly. Stand if you believe what is being said and sit if you don’t. You may go half way in between if you are not quite sure. You may go up and down as much as you wish. So, here we go.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

So, what do learn from this? Well, there were very few times when everyone was standing, and there were no times when no one was standing. We learn that the community, as community, can proclaim this. And if we have done this before, or if we were to do this 6 months from now, we would probably learn that these beliefs are fluid. The what of what we believe changes over time; the that we believe does not. We also learn that we can be playful with articulating our faith, and the sky won’t fall—indeed, nobody was struck by lightning as they sat down.

Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion has an excellent chapter on believing. She walks us through how we get way hung up on what we believe, when the much more important question is how we believe. The important question, Butler Bass says, is How would believing this make my life different?” or “How would this change the world?” She says, How is the interrogator of direction, of doing, of curiosity, of process, of learning, of living. When we ask how, we are not asking for a fact, conclusion, or opinion. Rather, we are seeking a hands-on deeper knowledge of the thing.” Butler Bass continues, “From what to how is a shift from information about to experience of. What is a conventional religious question, one of dogma and doctrine; how is an emerging spiritual question, one of experience and connection.”

So, here’s the deal—when we come to the creed, are we bringing a what perspective, or a how perspective? Are we arguing with its precepts because the what doesn’t make sense, or are we plumbing its depths as a source of meaning?

Belief has come on hard times lately. With all this talk about the collapse of Christendom, with the proclamation by Harvey Cox that the Age of Belief has ended and the Age of the Spirit begun, as we have begun to talk again of Christianity as the Way we are to live and the practices that make up our life as followers of Jesus, instead of Christianity as a set of beliefs to which we must adhere, with all of these shifts, it has become quite fashionable to bash belief.

But belief matters. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we have to be in lock-step about the particulars of Christian belief. I’m not saying that we can’t challenge beliefs. I am certainly not saying that we can’t question our beliefs—I have questioned my beliefs throughout my whole adult life. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make a stab at giving a fresh articulation of our beliefs. What I am saying is that belief matters. What we believe matters because what we believe drives our action.

Take God. If you believe that God is a judgmental Father, then fear is going to be a huge part of how you view God and the world. If you believe that God is the Father who looks toward the west, who waits and yearns for the prodigal to return, then you are going to have a deep sense of being beloved, and an even deeper freedom to take risks. If you believe that God is a nagging Mother, then either you will constantly be looking over your shoulder having internalized that critical voice, or you will be in open rebellion constantly asserting your independence. If you believe that God is the Mother who, as Hosea says, just can’t give up on that wayward child Ephraim (which was another name for the people of Israel) because she had nursed him as a child and taught him to walk, then you will have a deep sense of security that you are loved even when, especially when, you really mess up.

The question is not whether we have beliefs. Every human being has beliefs that drive his or her actions. The Boston bombers had beliefs that drove their actions. People that have stores of guns in the hopes of being secure are operating out of beliefs that are driving their actions. Beliefs about superiority based on the color of skin or gender or class or sexual orientation have historically kept, and still have to power to keep, peoples apart. So, beliefs matter; they matter a lot.

So, back to the creed and the trinity. Does the creed matter? Does the trinity matter? Yes, to both. Again, do we have to cling to the formulation written in Nicea in 325 and refined over the next 100 years? No—to say that that is the only articulation of faith for all time would make that vision of God into an idol. That cheapens the creed making something into a litmus test that was always meant to be an icon holding layers of beauty and truth. But understanding the need for fresh articulations doesn’t let us off the hook. In fact, it puts us squarely on the hook. We need to come to grips with how we understand this God who creates and this God revealed so vividly in the person and way of Jesus and this God who sustains us still because how we understand these things will drive how we treat creation and how we practice the way of Jesus and how we understand God’s relentless love that pulses through the world still.

As Butler Bass notes, the creed is a profession of love—believe—credo in Latin—I set my heart upon; it is a profession of trust and loyalty. In the original languages, it was never meant to assert an intellectual opinion; to believe was to belove.

Trinity as belief is an icon; it is to stake our life on the sense that God’s nature, in the core of God’s being, is relational—always giving, always receiving; always receiving, always passing it on. If you believe that the foundational matter of the universe is relationship governed by love, then you can’t barricade yourself from your neighbor, then you can’t hoard resources, then you can’t hoard love, then you can’t withhold forgiveness. If your security rests in this web of relationships, then you don’t need stores of guns. If your security rests in this web of relationships, then you can’t set off bombs in the midst of innocents because those human beings are an extension of your being.

So, in the end, I am not quite where Diana Butler Bass and other cutting edge thinkers, are. I still believe that belief matters because from that space, from that world view, from that frame is where our actions are born. To what, to whom, will you give your trust? To what, to whom will you give your loyalty? To what, to whom will you give your energy? Upon what, upon whom do you set your heart? What, who do you belove? Answer these questions, and the actions of your life will follow. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 26, 2013

You are already a child of God!

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Pentecost—Year C; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

Three baptisms on Pentecost! Oh, it doesn’t get any better than this! So, Asher, Dillion, and Kerrick, we better figure out what we’re doing here. So, let’s see how our baptismal theology has been progressing. Are we making Asher, Dillion, and Kerrick children of God today? No! Even if the passage from Romans might make us think that’s what we’re doing—after all, it does use the language of adoption—but Paul also says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” and it doesn’t get any broader than that. Remember, it was the Spirit of God that moved over the waters of chaos in the beginning and birthed creation. Remember, it was the Spirit of God that breathed life into the dust and birthed humanity. Every child is a child of God because every child contains the breath of God. So, we’re not making Asher, Dillion, and Kerrick children of God today; they are already that—that is their birthright; that is their inheritance.

And to give Paul his due—the contrast in this part of Romans isn’t between adopted children and biological children; it’s between children and slaves. What Paul is saying is, “You are a child of God, and God has not filled you with divine life so that you can respond to life as a slave of fear. You bear the Spirit of God; it lives inside of you. You know how intimate Jesus was with God; that is your inheritance—you and God are that close, but discovering that intimacy is going to cost you.”

Okay, Asher, Dillion, and Kerrick, here’s the fine print, sorry about this, but there is no way to that intimacy without intimate knowledge of the way of suffering. That’s why we mark you with the sign of the cross. Today, we imprint upon your being the paschal mystery, the dance of death and resurrection; today, we weave into you the paradox of suffering and new life, and we proclaim that this is the frame that will help you make meaning of your life.

Today, we weave you into a story, a sacred story that goes all the back to the very beginning, and we proclaim that this story is big enough to hold your story. This is the story where mistakes get redeemed, where losers become vessels of grace, where up is brought low and low is raised up; this is the story of grace beyond measure and of communities that find their way to the promised land together.  This is the story of visions and dreams and old people and young people and men and women all claiming their prophetic voice to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way, but maybe our world could look like this.”

Today, we weave you into a community that knows how to bear your burdens and celebrate your joys, and, sometimes, just sit with you in silence when words fail altogether. It is an amazing thing to live and grow in a community that is not afraid of dying—it means you can lean really hard into living. Stay with us, and we will show you how to lose your life, not once, but over and over again, so that you will be able to find the only life that is truly worth living.

The baptismal covenant gives you a starting place. It won’t be your ending place, but it is an awfully good place to begin.  The first part sounds like a bunch of belief stuff, but, at its heart, it says that you are woven into a Trinity of Love. Today, you are brought into a dance that is always moving between the God who creates, the God who redeems, and the God who just can’t let this world be and who blows the Divine Spirit through us all the time. You are in the flow—always have been, always will be. You won’t always be aware of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are in it, all the time. Your task will be to be conscious of it and to move with it.

Then we have the five promises that stake out the practices that help us live into the abundant life that is our inheritance as children of God. Looking to our mothers and fathers in the faith to gain strength for our journey; participating in the community that can support us, sustain us, and at times, push to go deeper; admitting how hungry we are for the bread of life and partaking of it every chance we can; and giving ourselves the gift of drinking from the spring of life through prayer in the 8,000 different forms that can take.

Not giving our energy to that which blocks the flow of love in this world, and when we do block it, returning to Jesus who can show us how to let go and let that love flow again.

Letting the good news of God in Christ live so fully in us that every word we speak and every action we take becomes a manifestation of that good news.

Seeking, really seeking, and serving Christ in every person we meet (oooooh, that’s hard sometimes!), and seeing that, through Christ, our neighbor is an extension of our very being.

And striving for justice and peace always, respecting the dignity of every human being, every human being; daring to believe that the kingdom of God that the prophets dreamed about and Jesus preached isn’t just some future picture postcard, but it is the ground beneath our feet; it’s the soil we are to work and tend and cultivate.

These promises are the practices that you will cultivate throughout your life. These are the practices that will help you, in the words of Richard Rohr, become that which you already are, a wondrous, beautiful, blessed child of God filled with light and life and power.

So, be forewarned, this is no small thing that we are doing today—this changes your life, forever, and you will spend the rest of your life figuring out what just what this change means. And, by the way, you can’t ever undo what we do today. As the prayer book says, “The bond established in baptism is indissoluble,” and what a grand and glorious thing that is? In a world where nothing lasts, nothing is permanent, in a disposable world that thrives on planned obsolescence; this won’t change.

You are a child of God. You belong to Christ, and he to you. You belong to us, and we to you.

So, dear Asher, Dillion, and Kerrick, welcome to this household of God; when your crucifixions come, be not afraid, grace will be found even there and Easter will come; proclaim with us the audacious truth of resurrection; and share with us in in the healing of the world. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 19, 2013

What keeps YOU imprisoned?

Cynthia KR Banks — Easter 7—Year C; Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 21-22; John 17:20-26

Prisons, jails, innermost cells. Earthquakes that shake the foundations. “That they may become completely one.” Protests. Burials. Lots of images swirling around this week.

Let’s start with the story from Acts.

Paul and Silas are still wandering around Philippi in Macedonia, and as they were going to the place of prayer, they met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. Now, one gift of divination is to be able to see into the future, but another gift is the gift of insight, you know, that scary kind of spot-on intuition. Well, this girl made her owners a whole lot of money by fortune-telling. So, while she followed Paul and Silas and the others, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She did this over and over and over for many days. So, Paul moves from being bemused to irritated to annoyed to very much annoyed. Eventually, he wheeled around and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And, lo and behold, it did!

So, if you are slave’s owner, how are you feeling about this? Not good. Their money-making well has just dried up, their source of income—gone. So they seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace before the authorities, the magistrates. And the owners told those magistrates, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (They left out that little part about them being Roman citizens and, therefore, entitled to certain rights.) Well, crowd mentality took over, and the crowd piled on joining in the attacks. The magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After that, the magistrates threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. The jailer, he was a J’s J, a total 6 on the enneagram; he was a rule-follower of the highest order, so he took Paul and Silas to the innermost cell and fastened their feet in stocks.

Well, about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly, there was an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison itself were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. Now, if you are a prisoner and the doors have been thrown open and your chains are unlocked, what are you going to do? [Run for it!] When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he thought that exact same thing, and he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he figured that all the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Stop! Don’t do it! Don’t hurt yourself, for we are all here!” The jailer ran in and fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved, healed, made whole?” The Message translation says, “really live,” “what must I do to really live?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” and they told the story of Jesus and his way to him and to all who were in his home.

And that jailer took Paul and Silas and washed their wounds. He and his whole family were baptized right then and there, and he brought Paul and Silas up into his house and spread a feast before them, and that jailer and his household celebrated, in the immortal words of Prince, “like it was 1999.” Okay, for those of you who don’t remember Prince, or his music, that means they celebrated like there was no tomorrow; they had a party to remember.”


There is so much in this story! Very real prisons, locked away places, innermost cells. What prisons do we see around us? Tangible and external ones and internal ones? How are we locked away, or who have we locked away? Are we the imprisoned ones? Are we the magistrates locking others away with our judgments? Are we the jailer guarding the door making sure no one gets out of line, ensuring that no one escapes the box we have put them in? What chains are fastened around our feet that keep us from experiencing wholeness, healing, that keep us from “really living”, as Eugene Peterson says in The Message?

And can we see that no locked away place is beyond the reach of the God? Can we trust that God can penetrate even our thickest walls and most impenetrable prisons? Sometimes, it will be a violent earthquake that shakes our foundations and sets us free, something that flings open the doors and throws off our shackles through no exercise of our will—that’s the very definition of grace. And here’s the amazing thing, when that happens, you don’t have to run away; no, you actually receive the grace to stand still, to stay put, because whatever has kept you locked away no longer holds any power over you. Wow! That’s amazing!

And when something like that happens to you, the ripple effect is astounding. That jailer was blown away that Paul and Silas were free and yet did not run away. Paul and Silas had a deeper kind of freedom—that jailer didn’t understand it, but he wanted it for his life and for the lives of everyone whom he loved. Prison no longer made sense to that jailer—all he could do was bind up wounds and bring them into his home and break bread and celebrate—no longer jailer and prisoner, but now, only brothers. He and his family belonged to Paul and Silas, and they to them. “That they may become completely one”—that was Jesus’ prayer the night before he died—this is what it looks like on the ground, in the flesh. It is radical, radical stuff.

How radical? As radical as Martha Mullen, a 48 year old woman in Virginia who was on her way to Starbucks this week when she heard on NPR that no Massachusetts cemetery would bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body. People protested the funeral home in Massachusetts that was holding his body. Comments made like, “He shouldn’t have rest. I hope his soul is in eternal damnation.” “… I think …they should have cremated him and put him in the Boston municipal dump with the rest of the trash.”

What is becoming of us? What are we becoming?

Yes, what this man did is horrific. Somewhere along the way, Tamerlan forgot that we are one, that we always belong to one another. Somewhere along the way, the flow of love in which we all live and move and have our being got blocked. Who knows how it got blocked, or why it got blocked, or what part his own will played in that blocking—I cannot presume to know such things, but the point is, the flow of love got blocked, and when that happens, we human beings are capable of horrific, evil acts, like setting off bombs at a marathon of innocents. However, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is still a child of God. He is still a human being in whom God has breathed the breath of life, and as such, he has an inherent dignity.

I am so struck by the contrast between the protest at that funeral home in Massachusetts and the calls for this man to be eternally damned, and the witness of the Amish in 2006 at the funeral of Charles Roberts, the man who had shot ten of their children, five of whom died. The day of that shooting, the grandfather of one of those little girls said, “We must not think evil of this man.” Amish neighbors comforted Charles’ family that same afternoon and extended forgiveness to them. The Amish outnumbered the non-Amish when they attended Charles Roberts’ funeral. Somewhere, the flow of love had gotten blocked in Charles Roberts, maybe it was connected to the premature death of his baby girl nine years before. But the Amish live in that flow of love and could gratuitously extend it, even to the murderer of their children.

Everybody deserves to be buried. Every body, as the sacred vessel of God’s breath, deserves to be treated reverently and with honor, even when that sacred vessel is broken.

What is becoming of us that we can’t see that???

Martha Mullen wondered the same thing. When she heard that story on the news, she first thought, “Jesus says love your enemies not hate them after they’re dead.” Her second thought went like this, “We can bury Adam Lanza, or the guy who shot up [Virginia] Tech, and this guy for some reason is different. And the only difference that I can tell is that people think that he’s a terrorist or he’s a foreigner or he’s Muslim.” Then she thought, “Maybe I could do something.” And she did. She emailed faith leaders throughout Richmond, Virginia, and an interfaith coalition came together—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian—and Tamerlan has now been laid to rest in a small Islamic cemetery in Virginia.

To know our oneness, even with a person who has committed horrific evil, that is faith pressed down to the depths, faith pressed down to the outer limit of what our small human minds can fathom. Jesus himself was killed outside the city limits—he was considered cursed because he hung on a tree, so the religious law itself proclaimed. And our tradition proclaims that when Jesus descends into hell, he simply holds all the brokenness and sin that lies there, holds it in Love’s embrace until even that brokenness is reconnected to the whole.

This is grown-up faith.

This is the faith that doesn’t run from prison but stands there until the one who put you there is also reconnected to the whole. This is the faith that can’t hold another in chains because that other is brother, that other is sister. This is the faith that says, “Tamerlan deserves to be buried, and maybe I can do something about that.” I heard that same NPR story, and I, too, was deeply troubled. It was one of those stories that got under my skin. I got as far as asking, “What are we becoming?” but I didn’t get to the “maybe I can do something.” Martha Mullen is no famous person; she was on her way to Starbucks—I frequently make that trip myself—but an earthquake happened in her soul, and she was compelled to act. It was a little something that changed everything. The ripples from her action will be huge. Maybe next time, I’ll take the next step. Maybe next time, I will realize that I can do something, and that little something will be everything.

We never know when the earthquakes will come, but come they will. And when they come, doors open and chains fall off, and we can see with a clarity that we didn’t have before. The good news, and hard news, of Jesus is that we are one. Are we going to step into the flow of love that binds us to one another, or are we going to block it? What are we becoming? The answer to that will be revealed in the choices we make each and every day, in the midst of still waters, in the midst of small tremors, in the midst of earthquakes. We can choose to flee the prison, or we can choose to stay and engage the jailer and trust that his salvation and ours are inextricably bound together.

I may not know much, but I do know this, I want the freedom of the Amish to forgive, I want the courage of Martha Mullen to act, I want to know the love of Jesus that can reach out even to the enemy, I want to know that Love that can descend into hell and sit there until even that brokenness is reconnected to the whole. I want these things because my heart senses and my soul knows that this is what salvation looks like; this is what it means to really live.

May the earthquakes come, may the doors fly open, may the chains fall off, so that we may know that we are completely one. Then, let the celebration commence. You can do no other when you are that alive. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 12, 2013

What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus?

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 5—Year C; Acts 11:1-8; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus? I mean, there were certain things I had to do as a kid to be a girl scout. There were certain things my father had to do to be a Shriner and a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason. There are certain things you have to do to be a part of a sports team or a club or a civic organization. So, what do you have to do to be a disciple of Jesus?


Well, we get some clues from our lessons today—let’s see what they have to say.

Take the passage from Acts. Peter is in hot water with the circumcised believers. The Judean folks had heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God, but uh-oh—Gentiles do what? Eat all that meat expressly forbidden by the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. And Peter, hmmmm, he ate that forbidden meat with them. That violated the rules, that went against the customs.

Peter explained it to his Judean brothers and sisters this way. “I was in the city of Joppa, just praying and minding my own business, and I went into this trance and I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, and it was being lowered by its four corners; and it came real close to me. As I looked at it real closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. And I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I replied, because you know I follow the customs of our people, I told that voice, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice spoke a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, then everything was pulled up again to heaven. Then three men came to me from Caesarea, came right to the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. Six of my brothers here, they came with me. We entered a man’s house, and he told us how he had seen an angel standing right in the middle of his house and that angel was telling him, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; and he will give you a message that will change your life and the lives of everyone in your household, it will make you whole.’ So, I began to speak, and the Holy Spirit fell upon them just like it did us at the beginning…I ask you this, ‘If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.’”

Well, when his critics heard that, they got real quiet, like total silence quiet, like they were speechless. Then, they praised God saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”


What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus?

If you’re a Gentile, it takes a willingness to admit the possibility that someone who knows Jesus just might know something, be able to say something, that will change your life, that will make whole something in you that has long been broken.

If you are already a believer, being a disciple of Jesus means cultivating a capacity to rethink, constantly, what we think we know about where God’s boundaries rest.

To be a disciple of Jesus means we have one ear open, always, for the Voice that will call us to go beyond where we think we can or should go.

To be a disciple means we have our eyes open to a vision that doesn’t make sense to us, but sure feels of God.

To be a disciple means we commit to being in a conversation with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit, with whomever and however the Holy manifests itself to us. Notice that Peter doesn’t just take the Voice’s commands on the first round, but that Voice came round three times before Peter agreed. When the Voice keeps knocking on our door, either in a voice, or in a dream, or in a nagging thought that we just can’t shake, then it’s time to tune in.

To be a disciple is to throw our distinctions to the windsGod will do what God will do—we don’t get to decide who is in the club. As the psalmist makes clear, from God’s perspective, everything belongs, even the sea-monsters, even the deep, even the hail, the fire, and the tempestuous wind; old, young; princes, paupers; everything, everyone belongs.

The Revelation to St. John tells us some other qualities we’ve got to have to be a disciple of Jesus. We’ve got to be willing to be made new. We’ve got to be willing to toss aside this notion that God is some far away distant being, either easily angered or mostly indifferent or just plain impotent. According to the Revelation, God is madly in love with us, bridal chamber kind of love. And that love can make us new.

Oh, and there is one other thing that we need to be a disciple of Jesus according to the Revelation. We’ve got to be thirsty for the water. If you want the water from the spring of the water of life, you’ve got to admit how thirsty you are for it. Maybe we don’t think we’re thirsty because we’re pouring all kinds of stuff into our souls, but really, is any of it touching that deep soul thirst we have for the Living God? Does any of the stuff that promises to jumpstart our life compare to the water that comes from the spring of the water of life? You taste that water, and you will never be satisfied with anything else.

So, humility, openness, a willingness to listen and to see, a commitment to be engaged in the conversation with the Holy, a willingness to be intimate with the Holy and to acknowledge our thirst, these are the qualities we have to cultivate to be a disciple of Jesus, but there is one thing more, and it is revealed in the Gospel of John. What else do we have to do to be a disciple of Jesus?

Love. We have to love. This is the new commandment that Jesus gives his followers the night before he has to enter the darkness of Good Friday. In fact, this is the only commandment that Jesus gives his followers. “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When I was a girl, you knew a girl scout by her uniform and the infamous cookies. You know a Shriner by the funny hat he wears, the good works he does, and an insatiable appetite for fun. You know a disciple of Jesus by their love. It is not by our creed or our customs, it is not by our denominational affiliation or where we go to church, people will know we follow Jesus when we love like Jesus. It really is that simple.

So, what do you have to do to be a disciple of Jesus? Not much, just love the world, all the world, even your enemies, love the world as much as Jesus did. By the way, loving that way will kill you, but that is never the end of the story. Sometimes the old has to pass away if we are to dance among the living in a world where God cannot be hindered, and everyone gets the gift, and God is making all things new. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 28, 2013

Engage in ongoing conversion

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 3—Year C; Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

So, instead of preaching today, I’d like to have each of you stand up, individually, and share your conversion story. That’s right, you get to share your conversion experience, but before we start, I just want to check-in, how are you feeling right now?

Now, I’d imagine that a few of you could actually get excited about this exercise, but I am guessing that most of you are thinking, “She’s lost her mind.” “There’s no way.” “Episcopalians don’t talk that way.” Nothing can strike more fear in an Episcopalian’s heart than being pressed to speak of their conversion.

OK. Breathe. I’m not really going to ask you to share your conversion story this morning, but why do a lot of us freak out at the prospect of doing just that?

Well, some of it has to do with how we understand conversion. Some of us get nervous because we can’t point to a specific moment, a specific experience where everything changed. I think it was William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience that first introduced me to the concept of “ongoing conversion,” that conversion isn’t a one-time event but is a lifelong process. When I learned that, it was an “ah ha” moment for me—that made sense to me because, at that point, I hadn’t had a sudden experience that changed me, but it had been a slow steady process of transformation—the kind of thing where you can look back and realize that you were once here and now you are here. That’s how conversion happens for a lot of us.

This is one way of broadening our understanding of conversion, but there are some other ways we need to rethink it too, and three characters from our scriptures this morning are our guides.

First, Saul. Saul of Tarsus. Persecutor of those early followers of Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to round up some more people of the Way when boom, flash of light, Saul falls to the ground, struck blind. He has a profound conversation with the Risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Lord, who are you?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Pretty dramatic stuff. I think a lot of us can’t articulate our conversion experiences because this is what we think conversion is—sudden, dramatic, flash of light, struck blind, total life change.

Saul goes on to Damascus where he waits for three days until he is visited by Ananias who restores his sight and baptizes him. His conversion was so profound, his name even changes to Paul, and the rest of the story is history.

But let’s go a little deeper. It wasn’t just a conversion to Christ for Saul; it was a conversion to “the other. He was persecuting people. Saul saw those followers of Jesus as a threatening “other,” not as brothers and sisters. And any time we see another as completely “other, we can do profoundly awful things to them. Saul’s conversion was to see how deeply related he was to these very people he hated. And when Jesus made known that kinship, Saul couldn’t persecute them anymore. Saul’s conversion enabled him to get reconnected to the whole.

Have you ever persecuted another? Maybe not as dramatically as Saul, but have you ever dismissed another because you have somehow framed them as “other” in your mind? And have you ever had a conversion experience that gave you pause, that helped the scales fall from your eyes and see that “other” as a brother or sister? If you are open to it, this can be a profound experience of conversion.

Or Peter. Wow. Peter. Now Peter is a follower of Jesus, so his conversion isn’t about his belief in Jesus. His conversion is about his belief in himself. He was deeply converted to Jesus through having followed him for three years. But, as we well know after Holy Week, he denied what he knew three times. Can you imagine how truly awful he must have felt? And he’d encountered Jesus a few times since that first day of the week, but he was still all bound up—guilt and shame, they do horrible things a person. He goes back to the one place where he understood how everything worked—fishing—he knew how to do that, and when nothing else makes sense, that’s usually what we do. But it wasn’t the same. He’d lost the touch. That is, until the Abundant One called him back to life. And with incredible elegance, Jesus gave Peter three chances to profess the love he had three times denied. Jesus’ overflowing love and forgiveness made the scales fall from Peter’s eyes. Peter’s conversion was about getting reconnected to himself—shedding his guilt and shame and touching once again his first love.

Have you ever blown it in a tragic way, in a relationship, in a violation of your own integrity, in a forgetting of your first and deepest love? And have you ever had the grace of a profound experience of reconciliation or forgiveness or a finding again of that love or passion that you had lost? This, too, is conversion of a most profound nature.

And then there is Ananias. He, too, is already a follower of Jesus, so his conversion is also not about belief. His challenge is resistance. The Risen Lord wants him to go visit Saul. What?! Ananias knew Saul oversaw the stoning of people like him. And Jesus wants him to go to Saul and heal him? Ananias had Saul in a box, had him figured out, defined and labeled and with good evidence to back up his assessment of this man. He’s actually not too much different than Saul—he saw Saul as totally “other”—Jesus helped him see that Saul was brother. Isn’t it interesting how it doesn’t seem to matter what side we stand on—we can still box in the other, and Jesus is always reconnecting us to each other, showing us our kinship when all we can see are our sharp edges and differences, labels and definitions, that box us in.

Ananias’ conversion is about overcoming his resistance and releasing his certainty about who Saul was. Ananias has to allow for the possibility that even a man like Saul can change.

Have you ever defined someone right into a box, imprisoned another by your assessment of who you thought they were? And then, have you grabbed an opportunity, maybe not of your own choosing, to encounter them in a whole new way? Again, Ananias got reconnected to the whole when he found room to heal his enemy. The scales didn’t just fall from Saul’s eyes that day, but they also fell from Ananias’.

If today is any indication, conversion is much more about how we get reconnected when we have been rent asunder, from ourselves, from each other, from God, than it is about professing our belief. It’s not that belief is unimportant; it’s just that it is the fruit of transformation, not its source.

Our deepest conversion happens when we get reconnected to the whole. This is the conversion that Jesus lives for, this is the conversion that Jesus died for. This is the conversion that Jesus rose for, this is the conversion that changes our lives, this is the conversion that makes us, and the world, whole. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 14, 2013

Jesus has risen, and he will find you

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Easter 2—Year C; Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…I love the lectionary. Here we are one week out from Easter, and the Church brings us back to that day, that very first day, as if to say, “The resurrection is way too big to get it all at once. Maybe your tomb opened last Sunday, but maybe it didn’t, and if it didn’t, that’s okay. Today, you get to go back to that day. In fact, we’re going to give you 50 days for this new reality to soak into your soul.” Thank you, Church for that! And honestly, with all the time we have spent in intractible ruts, with all the time we have circled round and round in deadening patterns, with all the time we have spent being so stuck, how could we possibly turn on a dime and embrace the astounding news that we have been set free for life? How could we possibly wrap our hearts and minds and souls around the reality that what we thought was dead, is not? What do we do with such freedom and possibility when we have only known sealed tombs? It takes time to adjust to resurrection reality, and today we acknowledge that we have all the time we need.

The temptation is to stay locked up. It’s our default reaction; it’s familiar territory. The disciples were locked away for fear of the Jews, but why do we stay locked up? What are we afraid of? But even if we lock ourselves away from this new life, this new life will find us. And when it does, it has only one thing to say to us, “Peace. Peace be with you. Peace.” And we look up, and we see the wounds, and we know that, whatever this Peace is that stands before us, it understands, it knows to the core, this darkest reality we have just lived through, and that makes it safe enough to trust this incarnation of resurrection.

But it comes with a cost. If you have died, and if you have risen, you have to share it. We are not given the gift of resurrection to stay locked up in ourselves, we must give it away to a world that is starved for it.

And then there’s the breath. The breath. Jesus breathes on us. And the breath that breathed life into creation in the very beginning, now breathes life into us. And we are given an even greater abundance of gifts. The Holy Spirit. Power. Forgiveness. The ability and responsibility to unbind one another, to set each other free. And the burden of retaining. I have always thought of Jesus’ words, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” as his way of speaking about how we hold grudges—that if we retain the sins of another, neither they or we are ever set free.


But what if he is actually asking us to do something much more audacious than that? What if he is asking us to risk bearing the brokenness, the separation caused by another’s sins, what if he is asking us to hold that broken space, and in the holding of that brokenness, be a part of reconnecting it to the whole, just like Jesus held all of sin and separation and brokenness of the world when he stretched out his arms on the cross? What if that is what it means to retain the sins of another? Talk about true solidarity with the suffering of the world!

And then, there is Thomas. Patron saint of all doubters. Hero to those of us who struggle to believe. He wasn’t with the rest that first evening. It’s my guess that, having heard the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive, he set out to go figure this out for himself. And so he wasn’t there when the Risen One busted through those locked doors. Oh, they told Thomas about the encounter, but Thomas was emphatic—he had to see it and touch it for himself. Thomas was not content, never had been, with anybody else’s explanation of these tender matters of the heart and soul. It had to make sense to him, it had to be coherent, the pieces had to fit together, or his integrity would not allow him to be a part of it. Thomas icons for us the light and shadow side of our need to understand the mysteries of our faith. Such a need to understand is a beautiful and human thing, but our minds can also hold back our hearts when they long to leap toward Love and Life.

But Jesus is so patient with our humanity. A week later, one week after that first day, that would be today, the disciples are again in that house. The doors are shut, not locked, but just shut—they are not quite as locked up as they were a week ago, they are willing to risk a little more. Jesus again came among them and greeted them as he had the week before, “Peace be with you.” And then, he turned to Thomas, “Thomas, put your finger here, see my hands, touch my side, don’t doubt, trust it. It’s true. You can be crucified, and you can live again. You can be wounded, as you have surely been, but the wounds are not your end, they have been held and loved and transformed into something that radiates life. This is what resurrection looks like. Not wounds that are ignored or dismissed, but wounds that have been redeemed. Trust it, Thomas. Trust it.”

Can we trust that whatever wounds you and I pick up along the way as we journey through this mortal life, can we trust that resurrection has robbed those wounds of their power to define us? We can stay locked up in our stories, we can cling to our wounds like grave clothes, or we can hear the proclamation of “Peace” as our emancipation proclamation. We have been set free. Oh, the scars will still be outward and visible, but our countenance will radiate the grace of redemption, the grace of wounds that have been redeemed, our countenance will radiate that grace from the inside out.

Our world is such a wounded place. And if we sit down and listen to one another’s stories, really listen, the wounds are there. As the 19th century Scottish preacher, John Watson, said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Can you think of anything that we long to hear more deeply than “You are more than the wounds you bear…you are made for life, fullness of life, abundant life…Resurrection isn’t just for Jesus, or even Thomas—it’s for you”—is there anything we long to hear more than that? We long to hear this good news; the world longs to hear this good news—can we receive it? Can we take it into our souls and make it our own? And then, can we bear witness to it as we move through this world?

Whether you are locked away or locked up or out searching, or have shut the door on the possibility that your life can be any different, it doesn’t matter—Jesus has risen, and he will find you, and he will meet you, and he will touch you, and he will invite you to touch him, until your mind quiets, and your doubts give way to hope, and your heart leaps, and you, too, can proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 7, 2013

He is risen!

Easter Day—Year B; Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Have you ever sat vigil with someone who was dying? It is an amazing, holy, sacred, luminous, painful experience, and it is exhausting. And once the death has occurred, a tiredness such as you have never felt before settles over you. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee had lived this very experience. They had been there every step of the way, all the way from Galilee, all the way to the cross. When others couldn’t stay, they remained. Even after he breathed his last, they stayed. They watched Joseph of Arimathea come and lovingly take their Lord’s body down from the cross. The watched him wrap it in a linen cloth. They followed as he carried it to rock-hewn tomb. They saw the tomb, and how his body was laid. And having learned the way to the tomb, they left to go and do what love demanded they do, prepare the spices and ointments to anoint the body of their beloved. And on the sabbath day, they rested. Read, “They fell into a hard, hard sleep.” Truth be told, they were spent. Their hearts had been through the wringer. Their bodies stretched to the breaking point. Their souls rent apart. They couldn’t go one step more; they had to rest.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, while the sun was just starting to peek through the mist, while the pavement was still wet with dew, they made their way back to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone, the stone, remember the stone? That huge stone that had been rolled in front of tomb to seal it, they hadn’t even thought about how they were going to move that stone. But you know how women can be when they put their minds to something. You think a stone would deter them from doing what love compelled them to do? Yeah, right. But their fierce determination would not have to be exercised, at least not yet. That stone had been rolled away. They went in, they had seen where his body had been laid, but they didn’t find the body. While they were perplexed about this…You think? Perplexed? I like the greek better—“they were entirely at a loss”—NOTHING had prepared them for this.

Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. Not in front, not behind, not above, not below, but beside them. The messengers came right alongside them in their perplexity. Their at-a-loss-ness turns to terror, they were “thrown into fear,” and they bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

 “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Where on earth else could they look? Death was all they knew. How do you turn a grieving heart on a dime? Love hopes all things, yes, but these women were realists. They had witnessed the death. They had pushed themselves to stay present to the dying when the others had fled. But now, Love was calling them to let the graveclothes lie and strike out to find the Risen One.

They ran, these women come from Galilee ran to the eleven and to all the rest. They told all this to the apostles. But, oh, are you ready for it, it hurts, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Why, would you not believe these women? Were the apostles’ hearts too broken to hope, were they too afraid to risk believing that what the women said was TRUE?

But Peter, brave, impulsive, cowardly, jump-in-first-ask-questions-later Peter—he got up and he ran to the tomb. He stooped down, and looked in, and he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. Again, the greek gets it better, “he marveled, he was full of wonder,” that great, great word from Godly Play that unlocks the soul of a child, and all of us, if we are open to it.

So, all week long, we have been walking in the shoes of all the characters who play a role in this drama, and now we come to today. Who are you today?

Are you one of the women come from Galilee? Are you grieving? Have you experienced some sort of death that has left you so tired that you don’t even know how to take the next step, but that next step keeps coming anyway? Have you come today expecting to continue your burial rituals, living out the rhythms of your loss, not daring to hope for it to be any different than when you felt it a day ago?

And when the holy messengers call to you and challenge you to lift your eyes, when they proclaim to you that your reality is not among the dead but is among the profoundly alive, can you allow your heart to leap because at some deep, deep level, your heart knows that what they speak is TRUE? Can you dare to see that your whole world has just been turned upside down but in a gloriously good way? Can you dare to see that your world has just been made completely new? Your life can change in an instant when resurrection calls your name.

And then, can you throw your reserve to the winds and run as fast as you can to tell others who are lost and afraid and grieving and locked away? Can you tell them, “We have to look in a new place, we have to look in a new way, we thought death was the final word, but death is never the final word, not where Jesus is concerned. He is alive. He has risen. And we are rising too!”

Or, will you stay where you are, locked away in your fear, entombed in your grief, safe in the certitude of death, and dismiss it all as an idle tale? Because if we can dismiss this as an idle tale, we can go on with business-as-usual. Oh, life will be painful, we have lost the One who made life make sense, but loss, we know how to do loss. But resurrection? Who knows what that looks like? Resurrection, life, there are no rules for how to do this. Resurrection is insanely unpredictable. Resurrection is risky. I don’t know that I can risk that much. No, it’s much easier to dismiss all of this as an idle tale, or a great myth, or a powerful story, but not really connected to reality.

Or, will you take the risk of your lives? If anyone had reason to be anxious, it was Peter. He had denied his Lord, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus knew Peter would blow it, and Peter didn’t disappoint him. “If what the women said was true, how would Jesus receive him? Would he tell Peter to go away, and maybe with stronger words than that?” Peter had lost Jesus through his denials, he had lost Jesus in death, could he bear to lose him again? But Peter was as good as dead as it was; his heart was that broken. No, Peter would risk it all to taste the resurrection. Will we?

This isn’t just a great story that happened 2,000 years ago, but this is the deepest reality of our lives today, this day. The men in dazzling clothes have come along beside us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Whatever losses, whatever deaths, whatever death dealing patterns have become our tombs, the stone has been rolled away. It is time to leave our graveclothes behind. It is time to dance our way into the life that God is raising in us.

Resurrection life would be way too scary were it not for the fact that Jesus is one step ahead of us, and he is reaching back to pull us into this Life. All we can do, all we can do, is see our graveclothes lying in the dust. Your life is not to be found among the dead. You are rising. Be amazed. Be filled with wonder. Risk believing that resurrection isn’t just possible but is heartbeat of your life. The One who has risen before us, the One whom death could not contain, he has risen, and we can’t live among the dead any more. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 31, 2013