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When we and God become one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A birth that changes everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This birth changes everything, if you want.


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

Don’t rush the countdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t do that with your heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve heard the phrase, Christmas has come early. Well, there is another feast that we mark just after Christmas on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This year, it has come early. That occasion marks King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem because the King was afraid of the Christ child. He felt his power was threatened, so his solution was to kill all the children under the age of two. In Matthew 2:18, the scripture quotes the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent… a time for recalibration.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let go of distractions. A challenge for Advent.

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

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

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

And this is where the gospel is infinitely good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Need to stretch?


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.


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