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You have heard that it was said…But I say…

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A           (video link)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Whew. Jesus gets downright personal today. We continue with the Sermon on the Mount and some of the most demanding ethical teaching anywhere. There’s a lot here, so let’s jump right in.

Jesus starts by laying out the ancient standard—the minimum demands of the law or what is allowed by the law—and then ups the ante—“You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…

For instance: ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

 Oh, the english just can’t quite get us to the heart of the greek. The greek is more piercing—if you’re angry with a brother or sister, you’re going to be under obligation, bound, subject to a crisis, a sundering, a divide, a split, a rending;  and then, if you call your brother or sister a rhaka, a derogatory term for a senseless empty-headed person, a term of utter vilification depicting someone as worthless, then you’re going to be subject to the council; and then, if you call anyone moros, foolish, empty, dull, stupid, as in moron, then you will be subject to the fiery geenna, Gehenna, that Jewish depiction of future punishment, otherwise known as the dump south of Jerusalem where the trash and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned.

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He’s taking one standard of law that applied to a few people, those who commit actual murder, and applies the standard to all of us in our relationships, and shows us how this escalates in us. Anger brings us to a crisis point, to a point where something is tearing in the fabric of the relationship.

At that point, we have a choice—we can reconcile, we can speak the truth in love, we can hold accountable—we can do many things that will pull us through the crisis point toward life and richer relationship.

Or, we can blow past that point and head for the gutter, hurling derogatory words at the focus of our anger and frustration, stripping them of their worth. That will land us before the council. A stiffer consequence than a crisis point, a place where we have to stand accountable before the assembly of our tradition and have held before our eyes that tragic gap between the values we profess and the reality of our words and deeds.

And, we can choose to blow past that point, and move beyond the singular brother or sister who is the target of our anger, and spray our venom out upon anyone who’s in the way—and in one broad sweep, they’re all stupid, foolish, completely empty, devoid of any forethought or wisdom whatsoever, morons, and that will land us in hell, a place full of the stink of dead, rotting, burning trash, surrounded by our own venom.

And that’s just where Jesus starts. It’s going to be a long morning.

He then goes for the heart of the matter, and it’s brutal. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Did you get that? It’s not if you remember that you’ve got a beef with your brother or sister; no, as we come to this altar today, Jesus wants us to do a heart scan on ourselves—can we think of anyone who’s got a conflict with us? Can we think of any relationship in our lives that’s experiencing a tear in the fabric? Yes? Okay, pause, if you’ve got a pen, write that name down on your bulletin. If you don’t have a pen, etch that name in your mind. Jesus wants us to leave our gift here, and go and be reconciled with that person. I’ve always had this fantasy of stopping church right now and letting everyone go out into the world to do just that. What would happen if we did that? But back to the text.

Reconciled—it actually means “change, to change the mind of anyone, to renew friendship”so change course with someone who’s in conflict with you, and then come back and offer your gift. So, what if you commit to doing one thing this week toward reconciling before coming back to this altar? It could be a phone call, a letter, a cup of coffee to talk it out; it could be a commitment to hear them out; it could be a commitment to pray for a softening of hearts, theirs and yours.

 Because here’s the deal, that accuser that Jesus tells us to come to terms quickly with on our way to court, that accuser is just another way to talk about our opponent, our adversary, our enemy. And, in the greek, Jesus doesn’t tell us to come to terms with that person, but rather, Jesus tells us to wish them well, to be of a peaceable spirit with them, literally, to be well in the mind toward them. And Jesus is so right, if we don’t, then it lands us in prison, we are locked in a cage, and it is so hard to get out of that place.

Then Jesus goes on to do a really graphic lesson on how we can’t really  compartmentalize our lives. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

 How we view something matters, and how we view things changes our hearts. We think we can do this thing over here quite in isolation, and not have it affect the rest of our being, but we are coherent, whole selves. What one piece of our body, spirit, mind, heart does impacts the whole of who we are. We can’t quarantine off parts of ourselves—the actions of our bodies, the vibrations of our spirits, the fixations and ruminations of our minds, the ripples of our hearts—these cannot be contained. We either move through this world as a coherent whole, or we leave parts of ourselves behind and cut ourselves off from the abundant life of which Jesus speaks.

Jesus moves from there to pull into our consciousness the difference between what the law allows, what is permissible, and what is moral. The law certainly allowed divorce at the whims of the husband, but that doesn’t make it right. The ease with which a man could divorce his wife left the woman exposed and economically vulnerable. Jesus is saying to us, “Yeah, I know the law allows it, but you don’t divorce on a whim. Do not treat this most intimate of relationships with an air of convenience. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral; there are grave consequences to this action—for everyone involved.” What’s motivating Jesus here is his concern for how men, who held the power, were trivializing marriage and putting women, who were property, in unbelievably vulnerable positions, and thinking that one could take those actions and go along one’s merry way. Anyone who’s been through the tragedy of divorce knows it doesn’t work that way.

And then, there’s  that whole sort of odd bit about how it was said in ancient times that people should not make false vows, but should fulfill their vows to the LORD, but how Jesus says, “No, don’t swear an oath at all, not by heaven, not by earth, not by Jerusalem, not by your head. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this full of anguish and hardship and labor.” Oh, so true. How hard it is to just say what you mean, and mean what you say, and set your boundaries, and say your “yes’s” and your “no’s” without hedging, apologizing, or explaining yourself ad nauseam. Keeping it to a simple “yes” or a clear “no” just feels so not southern, feels so wrong. Sometimes, we fear the distress that we think our clear “yes” or “no” might cause, and so we hem and haw, but oh my goodness, the tangled web of explanations we weave are a load of work. Jesus is counseling us that clarity is a gift. He had that clarity, and his clarity allowed the people around him to make the choices they needed to make. Honor your wisdom, and honor the discernment of the people around you. Let your “yes’s” and “no’s” simply be, and use all that freed up energy to move more deeply into the “yes’s” that God’s calling you to say.

Hard stuff, ehhh? Jesus is demanding an ethical consistency and coherence that few of us possess. It’s the narrow way he talks about, and yet, this is the way to life. And it has always been so. Moses reminds us today: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. We have to consciously choose this life, for this is where we will find life and blessings and the promised land of abundance and right relationships.

This is the solid food that Paul talks about that so few of us can stomach. We’d rather follow our human inclinations and cling to our jealousies and quarrels and divisions, but this isn’t the field that God’s growing, and it’s not the field that God is building.

The scriptures focus a lot on systems and structures, but today, Moses, Paul, Jesus, they get downright personal. There are choices before each one of us, every single day, in every single relationship. What will we choose? Will we let our anger escalate? Will we work to reconcile? Will we wish our adversary well and allow our mind and hearts to soften? Will we compartmentalize our lives? Will we hide behind what is allowable and forsake what is moral? Will we stand by our “yes’s” and our “no’s,” and know that, while not perfect, we are enough? Will we choose life, or death?            Blessings, or curses? Will we grow up into the full stature of Christ and feed on this solid food?

So many hard choices; it all seems a little overwhelming to tell you the truth.          But you are here, and that’s enough to begin. This table is set,       and in this food, we will find the strength we need to choose the way that leads to life. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 12, 2017


Go be the Salt of the Earth !

The Rev. Deacon Greg Erickson–Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A                  (video link)
Isaiah 58:1-9a,(9b-12)
Psalm 112
I Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God: Engaging the present moment

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A                  (video link)
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
I Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Oh, settle in. As they say, “The Lord has laid a lot on my heart today.”

The scriptures are not going to be kind to us for the next stretch of time. I looked ahead—we get Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew for the next four weeks. The Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7—is the heart of Christian ethical teaching, going all the way back to St. Augustine. Christian ethics—those moral principles that govern the behavior of one who professes to follow Jesus; that discipline that helps us know what is good and guides us to act in accordance with that knowledge. Christian ethics draws its juice from Jesus’ teaching, most especially the Sermon on the Mount, and the ripples from this teaching go out and out and out. It is said that Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 40 years to ground his ethical vision and practice.

And the prophets and Deuteronomy and Leviticus—they’re just going to hammer us over the next several weeks. So please, don’t shoot the messenger—I’m just holding the space where we have to wrestle with these things.

And I’m going to confess to you right now—I am struggling. I visited my mom up in Louisville earlier this week, and she loves to watch the news. We don’t have cable at our house, so this is a world I don’t really know—I was doing some serious channel surfing. We watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and then we watched Sean Hannity on Fox News, and frankly, at the end of an hour or so of this, I felt sick, physically sick, and really agitated. Both commentators were making leaps of logic that didn’t make sense to me, jumping from A to Z and skipping the 24 steps in-between, and interviewing people to shore up their perspective. I didn’t feel any more enlightened by the end, but my soul was definitely more troubled.

So, I want to circle back to what I said in my annual address in November when I was unpacking what it looks like to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, especially this side of the Presidential election. Here’s what I said back in November:

I don’t know what the future looks like under Mr. Trump’s leadership; that will be revealed over time through his actions and through the actions of his administration. I know people’s minds are racing forward into a thousand different scenarios, but worry about the future is rarely productive or life-giving. We hold people accountable for word and deed, not for our fears of the what if’s. I will say of Mr. Trump what I have said of every President, no matter their party, my baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being extends to them, even if I disagree with every policy position they take. This vow extends to the President’s followers. This vow extends to those who oppose the President. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being, while at the same time, calling out any and all words and actions that diminish the dignity of another human being. Living like Jesus is really hard.

 So, here’s the rub. This week, we started to see some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds through Executive Orders. There are several that come into direct conflict with what I know of the way of Jesus and the law and prophets that formed him. The ones that have grabbed my heart and won’t let go include the ones on Thursday relating to Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, which include: the deputizing of local law enforcement to act on behalf of Immigration (which many local law enforcement agencies don’t want); the building of more detention centers along the border (most of which are run by private contractors with a poor record of living conditions); the erasure of due process (you can be deported not just for a conviction or being charged with a criminal offense, but also for committing an act that constitutes a chargeable criminal offense); and the intent to strip federal funding from local communities that are sanctuary communities. And the Executive Order on Friday Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, which suspends entrance into our country from Nationals of Countries of Particular Concern for 90 days while a review of our visa process is undertaken. In addition, the entire U.S. Refugee Admission Program is suspended for 120 days. Entrance of Syrian refugees is suspended until such time as the President decides they are not a threat to national interest. In addition, there is a right to review in this Executive Order for those who are religious minorities facing religious persecution in their country of nationality—so Christians persecuted by ISIS in a majority Muslim country may come, but Muslims persecuted by ISIS may not come if that country is majority Muslim. And this Order was given on the same day that the President marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day and promised that “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

As your priest, as your pastor, as your teacher, as a preacher, I am in some serious conflict because I can’t not know what I know about the scriptures and the way of Jesus and what these demand of us. And I can’t let you not know these things either. I can’t not know Leviticus 19:34—The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Period. I can’t not know that Jesus himself was a Jew who had to flee a brutal dictator, every bit as brutal as the leader of Syria who dropped chemical weapons on his own people, Jesus and his parents were refugees who had to flee to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their back. By the standards of these Executive Orders, Jesus himself, as a Jew from a majority Jewish nation, would not be prioritized for coming into our country.

I know I am talking politics from the pulpit here, but I’m not talking to you as a Republican, because I am not one, and I am not talking to you as a Democrat, because I’m not one, but I am talking to you as one who has given my life to Jesus and his way and that way doesn’t just stop at these doors, but that way seeks to reconcile the whole world. So, I don’t have the luxury of not wading into this stuff. Jesus didn’t compartmentalize his world, nor can I, nor can you. Our faith and our world are in a world of conflict right now—as Eucharistic Prayer C says: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.

But I also need to say that how we engage these ethical issues from the place of our faith matters; it matters a lot. It is always up to each of us to discern what actions we are called to take in this world, and that demands of us discipline and spiritual practice. So, I am starting back up the Social Justice Training Group. If you are feeling called to take action, I am calling on you to ground yourself and form yourself deep in the way of Jesus, so that you can, as St. Paul said, put on the mind of Christ and discern clearly the actions you are called to take; so that the way you take those actions doesn’t replicate this cycle of violence in word or deed. First meeting—next Saturday.

I would also encourage you strongly to do some fasting from Facebook and cable news. I don’t think these swirling, adrenalin-fueled exchanges are going to increase our wisdom. I encourage you to search out and read primary sources. If you want to know what the President is doing, go out to whitehouse.gov and read the texts of the actual Executive Orders. Watch hearings on c-span. Don’t take commentators views for your own, and don’t depend on summaries. God has shaped you and formed you, and you have put on the mind of Christ—you have a unique perspective to bring and a unique way of understanding what you read and hear—do not cede that authority away.

And in this time, we have got to double-down on our efforts to be in conversation with people who hold different perspectives than we ourselves might hold. We’ve got to listen to their perspectives, and even more, learn their stories and what shaped them to see the world as they do. There are legitimate policy differences between conservative and liberal perspectives on all of these issues, and all the ideas out there deserve to be heard with respect. We are dealing with huge, complex problems—we can’t afford to curtail any creative possibilities. And as we listen to ideas that might strike us as absurd, let us not reduce the person speaking them to a caricature. They are made in the image of God no less that we.

And, for us in this room, all of this work has to be run through the lens of Jesus and our sacred tradition. So, as is always the case, we turn to the scriptures given us today.

First, Micah. And sneak preview, next week, Jesus will remind us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—not being scholars knowing every aspect of the law and the prophets doesn’t get us off the hook.

So, Micah, what do you have for us?

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

Uh oh, the LORD has a controversy with his people, and the LORD is going to contend with the whole nation. And what is that controversy? Well, the LORD gets really specific about it verse 12—your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.

The LORD continues:  “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…

Micah continues: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

So, it won’t be our worship and our offerings, even our most precious offerings, that will fix this. No, God has told us what is good and what the LORD requires—and these are always the two central questions of ethicswhat is good and what behavior is required to get theredo justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.

Justice matters, and it is clear throughout the law and the prophets that God is keenly invested in how the poor and the oppressed, the widowed and the orphans, and a whole multitude of others in society are getting along. And God gets downright incensed when they are getting crushed, especially when this happens at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful.

To love kindness—and it’s even stronger than that—the hebrew talks about loving hesed, which means loving steadfast love. Steadfast love is the kind of love that God loves us with—it is a fierce love. God is calling us not just to act with steadfast love, but to love acting with steadfast love. This is the love that refuses to let go, ever, which means that we can’t just write off our enemies—they, too, are made in the image of God.

And we have to walk humbly with God. And there’s two parts to that. We have to walk. We have to walk where God walks. And in this passage, God is going to march us straight into doing justice. But we must also walk humbly, with humility. Walk we must, but we don’t walk with arrogance or, that great enemy of faith, absolute certitude. We must always be open to critique. None of us is infallible when it comes to discerning the mind of God. Paul reminds us, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do”—that’s the human condition.  I once heard an Anglican theologian call us to act with a bold humility or a humble boldness—either perspective will get us to the right place. We have to act, but always with the knowledge that this side of the kingdom, we don’t really know the full picture.

These are the teachings which formed Jesus. If we don’t ingest and internalize them, we won’t understand him.

And then there’s Jesus’ own teaching today. The beatitudes. They are beautiful. They are poetic. And they can fly right by us with how hard they are because we are so accustomed to their beauty.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The greek for poor here actually points to those who are destitute of a wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford. This could be huge swaths of people across rural America and the rust belt and Appalachia and inner cities. And this poverty infects the spirit—spirits who have been crushed through neglect and lack of opportunity.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And the mourning aren’t just those who are grieving, but also those who are lamenting.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Oh the meek—these are those who possess a gentleness of spirit.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who hold integrity ever before our eyes, who hunger for it and thirst for it; those who won’t let us forget that our words and our deeds have to match up; they have to be in alignment; they have to embody right relationship with God and each other and with all that God has made.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Mercy, oh my goodness is this in such short supply. Blessed are those who know they have power and authority and rights to do all kinds of things, but who can yield for the sake of hesed, who can yield for the sake of that steadfast love which never lets go.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Cynthia Bourgeault would remind us that only those who can drop their minds down into their hearts can see God clearly. The mind and the heart have to be talking; they have to be connected if we are to see God and to see as God sees.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. We are back to the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus will make clear that this isn’t roll-over-and-play-dead-peace-at-any-costs peacemaking. But it is to say that we don’t get to opt out of seeking peace wherever division infects our hearts and the hearts of our society.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And here, Jesus turns from those amorphous 3rd person groups, to the people right in front of himhis disciples, the crowds, and that would be you and me—and Jesus gets real: “You seek to make real these right relationships, you seek to speak and act and hold out before the world a life lived in alignment with God’s vision—oh, you’ve just signed up to be persecuted and reviled and to have all kinds of evil things uttered against you falsely on my account. But rejoice, be glad, because you have just entered into that great communion of saints with all the prophets who have gone before you—it got pretty rough for them, too, but community and solidarity go a long, long way.”

All of these ways of being are so hard, and yet, it is in these beatitude places, some of which are contemplative stances, some of which are ways of being, and some of which are ways of acting and doing—it is in these places and spaces that we find blessing that the world cannot fathom.

Micah tells us what the LORD requires of us and Jesus gives us a whole frame for where we are to engage and, more importantly, how we are to engage. And I know that what they are asking of us is just plain hard, but this is the life to which we’ve been called. It isn’t going to make us popular, but it is profoundly full of blessing.

The details of how exactly we engage all that is before us will be as different as the people in this room. Let us not judge one another, but let St. Luke’s be the generous community that we have always been and accord one another the best of motivations and intentions. Let us support one another, even if we totally disagree with the action another is called to take, knowing and trusting that we are all trying to find our way as we seek to follow our Lord. That same Eucharistic Prayer C that I quoted earlier, it goes on to say: Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

I will continue to do my best to bring forth the clearest teaching I can, even when it rattles our cages. Living and moving among all these places of conflict, all these places of division, all these places so filled with paradox, all these places so full of pain—this is the way of the cross, but let us never forget that this is also the way that leads to life, abundant life Jesus promised.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, welcome to the hardest spiritual work you’ve ever had to do. Together, let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God and discover the blessings that will surely come as we walk in this way.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 29, 2017

Reaching Beyond the Divisions

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A     (video link)
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Well aren’t these interesting lessons for today? From Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

That’s a great thing to hear after an election cycle that revealed our deepest divisions and on a weekend that has held both Inaugural celebrations and Inaugural protests.

Paul continues: For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” We might add, “I belong to Donald,” or “I belong to Hillary,” or “I belong to Bernie,” or “I belong to fill in the blank.”

Paul continues: Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.

 Okay, that’s getting a little personal, seeing as I am about to baptize Leo here. And God love Paul, He just can’t help himself. Here he is trying to make clear that the baptism isn’t really about him, and his ego just sneaks up there and has to say, “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, well, except Crispus and Gaius, oh, and (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)” Our little false self just can’t stay quiet, can it? It lives within us, ever ready to leap up and take some credit, claim some ownership.

But, Paul continues: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Oh, now we get down to the heart of the matter. Parochial Report statistics aside, it’s not about how many people we baptize under the age of 16 and over the age of 16 (honest to goodness, our denominational report asks us that), and it’s not about who does the baptizing (though I am quite thrilled that I get to participate in Leo’s baptism this morning); it’s not about adding members to the Jesus team, but it’s about proclaiming the gospel; it’s about announcing glad tidings, like that angel did to the shepherds on the hillside; it’s about proclaiming good news. And our proclamation isn’t filled with fancy words, and it isn’t accomplished with eloquent wisdom, or as the greek says, “cleverness of speech” because that “cleverness of speech,” that “turning of the word” might grab our attention and distract us and then, the cross of Christ might be emptied of its power. No, proclamation of this good news cuts through all of that.

Paul reminds us: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But the NRSV translation misses something here. The word it translates as “message” is the same greek word that popped up in that “eloquent wisdom,” that “cleverness of speech, turning of the word” that Paul warns us about in the verse before. This “message” about the cross is also λόγος“the word”as in, “In the beginning was the λόγος and the λόγος was with God and the λόγος was God…and this λόγος was made fleshand the word was made flesh and lived among us.”

This isn’t about a message; this isn’t about a doctrine; this is about a witness—this is about the word made flesh who lived among us and who stretched out his arms upon the cross to touch and hold and embrace all the extremes, all the divisions, all the places that are flying apart; this is about the word made flesh who stretched out his arms on the cross to transcend all the enmities and animosities that drive us all to violence, who stretched out his arms to gather all the us’s and them’s into one body, into his body, to take down the dividing wall that keeps us apart, and to gently reconnect us to the whole and to one another.

Paul knows this word is foolishness to those who have lost their way—and we’re not talking about those who are perishing for eternity here. No, it’s much, much closer in proximity than that. Context is so important. This word made flesh on the cross is foolishness to those who have lost their way in the adrenalin of division.  It’s foolishness to those who would rather stake their claim on whom they belong to—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, even Christinstead of understanding that being baptized into Christ’s body means you belong to everyone.

To those who can receive the wholeness this baptism offers, well then, you’ve just tapped into the deepest, most intimate, most creative power of God.

Oh Leo, you have come into this world at such an interesting time, and you are being baptized at such a crossroads moment.

Division is all around us. And yet, and yet, here we gather at these waters to bury you with Christ in his death and to raise you with him in his resurrection.

Today, we will mark you with the sign of the cross and seal you with the Holy Spirit and mark you as Christ’s own forever. Today, we proclaim the good news that you belong to him, and when you belong to him, you belong to all of humanity.

Today, we imprint into your being the capacity to reach beyond all the divisions that will swirl around you and to hold a space with Christ where those divisions may be healed.

Today, water will flow over you reminding you that you are held in the flow of love always, no matter what, without exception.

Today, we invite you into this utter foolishness that we call the way of Jesus, and we watch in awe as this portal of power opens before you that will allow you to know and be that light that shines out in the deep darkness.

You, of course, don’t understand a single word I’m saying right now, and that’s okay, Paul’s already reminded us that it’s not about eloquence, but about simply announcing glad tidings, and that gets quite, quite simple when it’s all said and done.

Leo, you are God’s beloved son, and in you, God is well pleased. Always has been, always will be, no matter what. And no matter how divided this world gets, no matter how much division you will witness in your life time, there is a deeper truth that holds you—you are knit into the body of Christ, woven into a wholeness that surpasses all our human understanding, and from this place, you can move with strength and power.

It will look like foolishness to all those who would rather stake their claim on the rush of division, but truly, this wholeness is salvation.

You will spend the rest of your days figuring out how to live from this place of this wholeness, and as your light grows, that darkness out there won’t be near as dark.

In a land of where everyone wants to belong to someone and “their someone” is the best, welcome to the revolution, Leo. You belong to the body of Christ whose love knows no bounds. Help us reach across all these places of division and knit back together this broken body one glad tiding of wholeness at a time. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 22, 2017

It’s Time to Wrestle with Call

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A       video link
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
I Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Christmas is over. A new year has begun. And, Jesus has been baptized, which anchors our core identity as God’s beloveds firmly in our being. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Now it’s time to wrestle with call, but before we wrestle with specifics here, we have to understand the nature of callperiod.

Take Isaiah. He understands that he was called by the LORD before he was even born, claimed and named while he was still in his mother’s womb. Isaiah understands that he was shaped and formed by God for a specific task—to bring Jacob (the southern kingdom) back to God and to gather Israel (the northern kingdom) to God. Isaiah is not feeling too good about his execution of this call. He says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”

Ever felt that way? Ever sensed what you were supposed to be doing and set out upon that very task only to come up really, really short? Now, at that point, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair, and the voices can come at you with a vengeance.  We could go to the shame place—I didn’t hear the call well enough, I didn’t discern what I was supposed to do well enough, I didn’t have the gifts or skills to execute well enough, OR we could go to the blame place—well, the people of Israel and Jacob, they’re just lousy God-followers, OR we could follow Isaiah to a whole different place, a creative third-way approach. We could skip shame and blame by letting go of the outcome and placing our trust in that great old spiritual virtue known as faithfulness.

Right after Isaiah makes his despairing statement about laboring in vain and spending his strength for nothing, right after he realizes that all his hard work is just a pffff, in the very next breath, he says, “yet surely my cause is with the LORD.” Isaiah goes on to remember that he was formed in the womb to be God’s servant, so he anchors back in his core identity, and he doubles down on trusting that God is his strength. It’s not about succeeding; it’s about understanding who we are made to be in the womb as God’s beloved, as servants of God, and then trusting that we draw our strength from that divine power that resides in us always.

And when we ground there, then we are ready to hear the bigger call that’s coming. In the midst of our failed mission, God comes and whispers, “Oh, this call to Israel and Jacob, this call to these tribes, it’s too light a thing, Isaiah. This may be where we started, but the call is so much bigger than that because the need is so much greater. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Isaiah, it’s not that Israel and Jacob don’t matter, they do, a lot—and we always learn how to live in right relationship by practicing in the relationships closest to us—but they are just the beginning. The whole world is in need of healing. You, you have been formed in the womb to shine a light into the darkness, to bind up the brokenhearted, to manifest healing and wholeness, to call the nations to this vision. Got it Isaiah? Your failure is the fertile ground for growth that enables you to be an even more powerful agent of salvation, a more powerful catalyst for wholeness.

And what is true for Isaiah is true for you and true for me. Whatever smaller calls we have heard in our lives, all those places where we might have come up short and failed, none of those failures can separate us from the truth that the LORD GOD claimed us and named us in the womb; none of those failures can erase the essential truth that we have been shaped for work in this world. Everything in our lives has seeded our growth and shaped us for the work that now is ours—God is giving us as a light to the nations that God’s wholeness may reach to the end of the earth. And you thought you were just coming to sing and pray and share bread and wine today, right?

And if you are ready to bolt out the door just about now, with a chorus of voices in your head saying, “Who me? I can’t be a light to the nations? I live in Boone, NC for goodness sakes. I don’t know enough. I don’t have enough power. I’m just one voice, and I have no idea what to say to the kings and princes.”

Well, the psalmist breaks it down for us—what we are to proclaim is righteousness, right relationship. The psalmist notes: “In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: ‘I love to do your will, O my God; your law is deep in my heart.’ I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I did not restrain my lips…Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation. You are the Lord; do not withhold your compassion from me; let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever…” 

Our task, our mission, is first and foremost one of proclamation—to be that voice that talks about righteousness. That keeps holding up before the nations, “This is what right relationship looks like. This is what it looks like to live lives that are in right alignment with God and with one another—with friend and foe, with those who look like us and sound like us and act like us and with those who are complete strangers to us in every way; this is what it looks like to live lives that are in right alignment within ourselves.” And our task is to know that living in alignment always begins in the heart and emanates forth by trusting in God’s love and compassion and faithfulness to us.

And if you still have your doubts about your worthiness for the work God has placed before us today, well, that little Christian community in Corinth that we hear about this morning had the same doubts. And Paul wrote to them to encourage them, and he reminds them, and us, of some essential truths, beginning with his thanksgiving for them:

  • I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,
  • for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—
  • so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…
  • He will also strengthen you to the end…
  • God is faithful;
  • by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

There’s a lot here. We’ve been given grace. We’ve been enriched in Jesus. It’s his words, his essence that enlivens us and enlightens us, and as we tell the story of his action in our lives, we grow stronger. We may feel like we don’t have enough and aren’t enough to do this work, but Paul is crystal clear, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Everything we need is in this room. We can count on God to strengthen us all the way to the end. We can count on God’s faithfulness to us. And we have been called, not just into the fellowship of Jesus himself, but we have been called into fellowship with one another. We don’t have to do anything alone.

And if we think we have to have all this nailed down clearly and concretely to engage with Jesus and this mission of bringing wholeness to the end of the earth, if we think we have to have our vision statement and mission statement and goals and objectives all laid out before we can begin, well, we need to think again. The first two disciples follow Jesus because John points to Jesus and says, “Here’s the Lamb of God!” That’s a pretty weird statement and an even weirder reason to follow someone—who even knows what that means? I seriously doubt that those two disciples had thought this whole thing through when they left John and followed Jesus. They just knew that there was something about him, and they needed to be with him. Jesus turns and sees them following, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” They respond, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” That’s it.

“What are you looking for?”
“Where are you staying?”
“Come and see.”

For all of our doubts about our capacity to do the work that God calls us to do, for all of our doubts about what we lack, what we don’t have enough of, today, it is enough just to be looking for something and to sense that that something we are looking for has something to do with Jesus.

When Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?”it is enough, at least for Jesus, to say, “I have no idea, but where are you staying because I just have this sense that what I’m looking for has something to do with you.”

Dave Matthews Band has a song that I love called “Where are you going.” The last verse goes like this:
I am no superman,
I have no answers for you.
I am no hero,
And that’s for sure.
But I know one thing,
That’s where you are, is where I belong.
I do know
Where you go,
Is where I want to be.

Sisters and brothers, at this moment in the life of our nation, in the life of our world, God is asking big things of us. We aren’t superman, we don’t have answers, we aren’t heroes, that’s for sure.

But we do know one thingwhere Jesus is, is where we belong, and wherever he goes, is where we want to be.

And with that, Jesus looks at us and says, “Ah, come and see, and together, we’ll find the way.” Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 15, 2017

Consent and Let Your Baptism Unfold

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks   First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A   video link
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

The Feast of the Baptism of Christ. It sort of makes sense. We’ve just witnessed the birth. Jesus is a cute little baby. And since we Episcopalians often baptize infants, of course this is the next event in the sequence. Except for the fact that Jesus is now 30 years old and very much a grown man with agency. He has come from Galilee and sought out his cousin John who’s gone a bit to the wild side. John has become a radical. He’s out in the wilderness along the Jordan River, and he’s not mincing words. John’s talking about repentance, about turning around and going in a different direction from the way you’ve been traveling; he’s talking about getting a whole new mind, a larger mind, metanoia. He’s talking about confessing your sins, getting real clear about all those things that are blocking the flow of love in you and through you. John’s not interested in us gathering around to witness baptisms and ooooh and ahhhh; he’s interested in what’s going to change our lives.

But even John wasn’t prepared when his cousin Jesus came to him to be baptized. John had known Jesus since they were both in the womb. John knew, even then, that Jesus was different. John pushes back; he wants to prevent this—John needs to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. But at some level, maybe beyond Jesus’ conscious understanding, Jesus knows he needs this. And so John consents. This word for consent in greek, it’s a complex word. It means to yield, to allow, to permit, but it also has this deep sense of letting go, of giving something up, of not hindering, of keeping no longer, of forgiving, of suffering, of letting something be. Consenting is hard.

Consenting is letting go of my expectation, letting go of my vision of how something ought to go, and allowing what is to unfold as it should. When we consent, we relinquish control, and there is always a certain amount of suffering in that. But, that consent, that letting be, also holds the seeds of the creative power that gives birth to something new. Cynthia Bourgeault notes that “In the beginning, God said, ‘Let there be,’ and creation was born. So, John’s consent allows baptism to unfold in a new way.

Let’s pause right there. On this 8th day of the new year, to what might Jesus be asking you to consent? What letting go is being asked of you? Where do you need to relinquish control? What are you being asked to keep no longer? What is that something that you need to let be so that some new creation can come into being? Maybe our repentance is first and foremost to be in this realm as we wrestle with these kinds of questions. Maybe our sins, those places where we are blocking the flow, are attached to those places where we are struggling to let go.

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

John’s letting go and letting be and not hindering this unfolding allowed Jesus to see and hear something new in his baptism that forever changed him, and all of us who have been baptized into his body, the Spirit of God alighting and a voice proclaiming “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

From that moment on, we can’t see baptism in the same way. It’s not about groveling; it’s not about repenting and confessing so that we are in touch with how unworthy we are—it’s about repenting and confessing so that we can let go of all those things that keep us from seeing the Spirit of God alight on us, so that we can let go of all those voices in our heads that keep us from hearing that voice from heaven proclaim us as God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters, as those with whom God is well pleased. We, like John, have to consent for this baptism to unfold in a new way in us and in each other. For Jesus to hear this good news of who he is at the deepest level, John has to consent. For the people around us to hear this good news of who they are at the deepest level, we have to consent. Nothing happens in God’s world without our cooperation and collusion.

Jesus will have an amazing life and do and teach and be amazing things. He will embody justice in a way that will upend all of our thinking. He will heal in ways that seem impossible. He will defy violence and power and death itself by showing that life and love are always stronger. He will find third ways where others have only seen one or two.

But all that can only unfold because of this moment in the Jordan at the hands of his cousin John; all of this can only unfold because Jesus knows who he is in his corehe possesses the Spirit of God; he is Beloved of God; he is a Son; in him, God is well pleased.

Jesus will not live his life with a reflected sense of self, sticking his finger up to the wind to see how others perceive him, to sense if they affirm his decisions or not, to shore up a shaky sense of self. No, there is a solidity to Jesus. When you know who you are in your core, you are free to move in all kinds of directions; you are free to live a life of courage and to take risks and to love in ridiculous ways with abandon.

But this beautiful sense of one’s True Self is never meant just to be enjoyed by the individual. There is always a communal aspect to our core identity because love is always meant to flow. As Isaiah reminds us this morning, when God puts God’s spirit upon us, it changes us from the inside out. The servant of whom Isaiah speaks, the chosen one, the one in whom God’s soul delights—he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Oh, this is big. We aren’t just pebbles in a small puddle whose ripples go out a few feet, but our ripples will spread out to the nations. Our ripples will flow out in unexpected ways—

  • this servant doesn’t cry, or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street;
  • this servant will get bruised along the way, but won’t break;
  • this servant’s light may be like a dimly burning wick, just a little bit of light, but that light won’t go out;
  • faithfulness will be the hallmark of this servant, and that faithfulness will bring forth justice;
  • this servant isn’t going to grow faint and won’t be crushed and won’t give up until this justice extends to the ends of the earth and everyone is leaning in, eagerly waiting to hear the teaching this servant will offer;
  • this servant with the spirit of God has been given as a covenant to the people,
  • as a light to the nations,
  • to open the eyes that are blind,
  • to bring out the prisoners from the dungeons,
  • to bring out from prison those who sit in darkness.


Uh oh, being given the Spirit of God, hearing that we are God’s Beloved, those in whom God is well pleased, it comes with strings. God gives us this solid identity so that we will have the capacity to move the world by the power of our presence, not with the force of our voice; so that we will have the capacity to know how to bow and bend and not break; so that we will know that our little light can’t be quenched; so that we may know that, though tired, we won’t faint, so that we may know that we won’t be crushed.

God gives us this solid identity so that we, so that you and I, might be a covenant, a sign and symbol and embodiment of the relationship that God wants to have with all people.

God gives us this solid identity so that we understand that we are to be a light to the nations, that we are to be about opening eyes that are blind to injustice and blind to the worth and dignity that resides in every human being whom God has created and proclaimed Beloved.

God has given us this solid identity so that we will have the capacity to descend into the darkest places, the dungeons of this world that are forgotten, so that we can bring those who’ve been in prison and sat in such darkness, so that we can bring them out into the light where they can hear again that they are God’s Beloved and remember what it means to live as beloveds in community with one another. And sometimes, those in the strongest prisons are those who have the most by this world’s standards—those who have the most money and power and prestige and status—sometimes, these eyes are the hardest to open; sometimes, these prisons have the hardest bars to bend.

This baptism stuff is hard. It’s hard to hear how incredibly Beloved we are; it’s hard to hear just how well pleased God is with us; it’s hard to see that the Spirit of God is, indeed, alighting on us; and it’s hard to know that being given the gift of this identity, consenting to its unfolding in us, is going to demand so very much of us as we move forward in our life from this defining baptismal moment.

You do have a choice. You can withhold your consent, and none of this will go down. But the fact that you come here week after week tells me that you don’t really want to do that.

You come here with the expectation that you will be challenged and encouraged, changed and transformed. You come here expecting to be fed and nourished and sent out into that world to change it. You come here to be dusted off when you’ve fallen flat on your face and to get your wounds bound up, so that you can move out into that world as a servant of God, a light to the nations all over again.

Brothers and sisters, you know as well as I do that people outside those doors are in sore need of hearing that they are Beloved; you know as well as I do that blindness and darkness abounds; you know as well as I do that people have ceased to believe in things like covenants; you know as well as I do that people are longing for light; and you know as well as I do that nations are a mess and that our work has to be at the societal level as well as the individual.

Today, give your consent for this baptism to unfold in a new way—for Jesus, for yourself, for everyone you meet, and from that unshakeable solidity in your core be a servant of God shining light into the darkness wherever you go.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 8, 2017

Ponder with Mary

Ms. Anna Shine preaches the Feast of the Holy Name– Jan 1, 2017.    video link

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

Divinity in Our Hands

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

What is it about this night? What is it that compels us to come out of our homes at 10:00 in the middle of December in a place like Boone? You could be home before a fire, sipping a warm beverage, awaiting Santa’s arrival, but you are here. Why? What draws you here?

Is it the music that pulls you into the realm of the angels, that draws you into glory and makes you fall to your knees?

Is it the incense that surrounds you with mystery and reminds you that you live and move and have your being amidst a reality that is so much bigger than you?

Is it the beauty of greenery and flowers and the awe that someone can arrange these things of natural beauty in such a stunning way?

Is it the simplicity of the crèche and knowing that just hours ago children filled this space with their eager anticipation and once again pulled off a glorious no-rehearsal Christmas play?

Or, is it the pull of a story that has echoed down through the centuries, a story that draws us like a magnet whose magnetism we can’t resist?

Is it the darkness itself, punctuated by candlelight, that reminds us that a small flame can ignite our heart?

Or, is it longing, plain and simple yearning for the possibility that this night always holds?

Or is it the swirl of all these things? Maybe, in the final analysis, our heads can’t sort out all the reasons we come out on a cold winter’s night, but our hearts know it is good and right to be here; our souls know we have to attend this birth.

We can’t not be here; there is too much at stake, for us, for our world.

We live in such a complex moment. Politics divided. Wars raging. Refugees fleeing. Change. Transition. And so it was long ago on a winter’s night. Rome was in charge, but there was a governor in Syria, and Herod the Great, king of the Jews, was on the throne in Judea. Political forces were duking it out. Religious factions were at each other. Some people were living the high life; many were struggling mightily. Nobody’s fate was in their own hands. An Emperor thousands of miles away could decide that everybody had to be registered, and off you went by foot to your ancestral home, and it didn’t matter that your soon-to-be wife was 9 months pregnant.

So, God comes to this night, then and now, amidst the swirl of forces, big forces, that feel arbitrary and very out of control. And God, God could have come with greater force, greater power—we are talking about the God who created the heavens and the earth, after all. But God, God chose to bind God’s fate to a young woman, an unmarried teenager for goodness sake, who had no power in this world, except the power of her “Yes, here I am; let it be with me according to your word.”

On this night, God chose to bind God’s fate to a newborn, completely and utterly helpless, completely dependent upon his parents, and before the week is out, they’ll be fleeing for their lives from Herod’s reign of terror, refugees on the run.

What is God trying to tell us on this night? What is God, in this tiny little bundle of flesh, trying to show us on this night? Is it that the whispered promise of Isaiah has broken into this world? That amidst all the great darkness that surrounds us, a light has sparked in the most surprising of places; that amidst all the violence that threatens to swamp us all, a child has indeed been born, and his name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?

We don’t accord such things to a newborn baby, but there it is. God refuses to overpower us. God refuses to overpower our enemies. No, God has broken the yoke of our burden, the bar across our shoulders, the rod of the oppressor in a completely counter-intuitive way. God has taken off the armor and chosen instead to place the fullness of divine life into our hands and to woo us into dance of love. This night, God makes a choice to do an end-run on our defenses and head straight for our vulnerable hearts in this bundle of vulnerable flesh because it is in the meeting of that baby’s vulnerability and our own that we taste and see and smell and hear and touch the depths of divine love.

Tonight, as we gaze upon this child, divinity locks its gaze upon us. And no power in heaven, nor on this earth, can break the hold when those two loves meet.

So, the world will continue to swirl. Politics will still be divided tomorrow, wars will still rage, religious factions will still be at each other, refugees will still be fleeing, change will still be coming way too fast, some will still have too much, and far too many will still have far too little—nothing much will have changed, and yet, everything has changed.

We are putty in God’s hands. We have gazed upon this babe, and we have fallen in love and fallen hard. The transformation of our entire being has already begun, and, just like a chemical reaction, there is no stopping that process once it has been ignited. There is no turning back.

You may have thought you could come here tonight and observe from a safe distance. You may have thought you could enjoy all the magic of this night and, tomorrow morning, return to your life, business-as-usual, but you can’t.

In this birth, we have been born anew.

The only question we will have to answer tomorrow is this: What will we do with this divinity that has been placed in our hands?  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

December 24, 2016

Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 4—Year A    video link
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Seven more days until Christmas…are you excited? I’m excited. There is this pressure mounting; this momentum building. It’s that excitement that always attends that last few days before a birth; that beloved wonderment that fills us when the new is just about to be revealed, but still hidden just out of sight.

But birthing new life is always risky business. It doesn’t always go as planned. So, before we go all gooey-eyed at that swaddled babe in the manger that we will meet in Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve, Matthew comes crashing in today on this fourth Sunday of Advent to say, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

You see, Joseph and Mary weren’t yet married when all this went down. They were deeply committed, engaged to be married, but they had not yet taken those most intimate steps of marriage. So, it was a bit of a surprise when Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s do be fair to Joseph, that would be a bit much for any fiancé to wrap their mind around, let alone their heart. Joseph was known to be a righteous man; he had an impeccable reputation in the community. People looked up to him, and there was a certain amount of pride that Joseph took in being perceived that way.

It is such a short step from living in accord with God’s way to getting hooked by the affirmations that come when people look to you as an example. Oh, the false self is a hungry self, demanding to be fed, and it doesn’t really matter to that self where the food is coming from; it just knows it wants more—and it’s not too long until you start to worry more about what people will think of you than you do trying to move with the curve ball that God has just thrown you.

God’s funny that way. Just when we think we’ve got our life figured out, and we’re at the top of our game, God comes along and says, “Hmmm, not so fast. Remember, who you are in me has nothing to do with what that amorphous “they” think of you.” But Joseph was bitten with the righteous bug, and he resolved to do what society expected him to do, divorce his beloved betrothed who was with child.

This sense of righteousness was Joseph’s core value; it was the orienting principle of his life, and while it made him susceptible to other’s opinions, it also made him want to do the right thing by way of the woman he loved. So, he resolved to dismiss her quietly because he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. A painful decision for Joseph, but also an honorable one.

But God wasn’t much interested in Joseph’s honor. God wanted to take Joseph deeper than Joseph had ever gone before. I don’t think Joseph took his decision lightly; I think it tore him up, and that turmoil did something to him. Joseph was so armored up by his sense of righteous duty and by his inner turmoil, that God had to wait until Joseph went asleep and his defenses were down to be able to get to him.

In that disarming, open state that comes to us when we sleep, God sent an angel of the Lord to visit him. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins, he will set them free from all those things that are sorely hindering them.”

Translated, that angel of the Lord might well have sounded like this: Joseph, you’re going to have to lay your sense of righteousness aside; you are going to have to let that piece of your false self go, you are going to have to lean into vulnerability harder than you have ever had to lean before, you are going to have to trust without verification, trust without certainty, trust without any social support, trust that what I am telling you is true.”

Vulnerability—defined by Brené Brown as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. It’s the birthplace of so many things that we run away from—like thinking that vulnerability equals weakness and powerlessnessand it’s the birthplace of all that we long for—creativity, possibility, love, new life. But you cannot get to the new life without passing through the fires of vulnerability, and sometimes, they burn, like Malachi said, “like a refiner’s fire.” I wish it were otherwise, but it ain’t so.

Joseph had to lay down the armor of his reputation and his sense of righteousness to embrace the vulnerability of relying only on the movement of God, and a dream, and the Holy Spirit.

As we prepare for this birth, what armor do we have to lay aside? What are we protecting in ourselves that is actually keeping us from receiving the new life that God wants to birth in us? What spaces in our being, in our psyche, in our heart, in our mind, in our bodies, in our souls need to be opened up and aired out if we are truly to be that mansion prepared for God’s very own self that the opening collect talks about this morning?

All this work we are called to do, by the prophets, by the angel of the Lord, it’s all to fulfill what God has always promised—that God would come to that which we think couldn’t or shouldn’t bear life and fill it with divine presence and dismantle our armor, so that we can know in the depths of our being Emmanuel—God with us.

But we are asleep to this most amazing promise; we are asleep to this most amazing possibility. We cling to our defenses, and our armor, and our reputations and call it living. But in the words of the angel, “Fear not!” God will not be deterred. God will search for that opening; God will come to us in the middle of our sleep state and send an angel crashing into our dreams to invite us and woo us into that place of vulnerability that we do not wish to go and whisper in our ear that if we just go there it will be okay.

And when we wake up, we know something has shifted; a decision has been made from which there is no going back. We have heard the angel’s call, and our hearts can’t resist the life that is yearning to be born in us. We know we have to follow this invitation; we experience it as a command from God; we can’t not follow.

So it was for Josephwhen Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

So it was for Joseph, and so it is for us. This fourth Sunday of Advent calls us to release whatever is keeping us from participating in this birth that is to come one week from today. Let God help you lay your armor down; trust that your heart is safe in God’s hands. Hear the angel’s voice, maybe in that sweet voice of Bob Marley, “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright…Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Let that song carry you forward through your fear, and then, wake up and risk everything so that this child may be born in you, and in your neighbor, and in the world. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 18, 2016

Advent’s Invitation to Do Our Work

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 3—Year A    video link
Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15 (The Song of Mary)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

We are making the turn toward Christmas, which means that we are deep into the season of preparation. Trees are going up; decorations are coming out of boxes; cards are being mailed; letters to Santa and wish lists are being dreamed about, formulated, written, edited, rewritten, edited, and offered in hope; Christmas cookie and gingerbread house smells are filling kitchens; folks are perusing stores, both real and virtual ones, to find gifts for loved ones; carols are being practiced to be shared—lots of preparation.

The church is preparing us too, but it’s a very different sort of preparation. The preparation we hear about here is about doing our work, as individuals and as a people; it’s about clearing away and carving out space in our being, so that something new can be born. This preparation is hard, and we need really skilled guides to help us. Today is all about those guides and the work they call us to.

The collect tips us off that this ain’t gonna be easy. 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 help and deliver us…We’ve got some stuff in the way. The church calls this stuff “sins,” but sins are just the patterns we live out that get in our way of loving God and our neighbor and even ourselves. It’s the stories and perspectives and patterned actions that hinder our capacity to love as God loves and live into the abundant life that God longs for every creature to know. And because we are sorely hindered (what a great phrase!), we need the Lord to stir up divine power and come among us in a big way; we need to be showered with bountiful grace and a ton of mercy; we need help; and we need God to show us the way forward.

And that’s just the opening collect.

That section from James reminds us that we’re going to need a ton of patience, with ourselves and with one another. James reminds us that precious crops need time to come into the fullness of their being, that you’ve got to be willing to receive the early rain and the late rain—there is no rushing a process; this is as organic as growing human beings. It’s going to take a strong heart, and grumbling against one another is not going to help us get where God wants us to go, nor is judgment. And engaging this soul work goes hand-in-hand with suffering. And if you want to know how much suffering and patience are going to be involved, James says, just take the prophets as your example.

Enter Isaiah, enter John the Baptist, enter Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah is speaking to God’s people at an unbelievably tumultuous time. He’s already watched the northern kingdom fall to Assyria, and Judah isn’t doing so hot. The elites of Jerusalem are living the high life, and the poor are being crushed. Isaiah knows that nothing is for certain and that Jerusalem could well fall to Babylon. He’s painting a picture of what is possible and what needs to shift if they are going to come into alignment with the Holy Way of God, as he calls it. You see, the prophets task is always twofold: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

So, the first thing Isaiah does is offer hope. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

“Strengthen weak hands, firm up feeble knees, oh fearful heart, take courage and fear not. God is here.” That all sounds good and comforting. But God coming with vengeance and terrible recompense? That sounds scary, and honestly, a bit dualistic. I’ve always heard this passage as God getting Israel’s enemies, but let’s remember, Isaiah is speaking to God’s people, too. And, frankly, Isaiah probably is a little dualistic. It’s the casualty of having a really sharp eye for good and evil, and then delineating really clearly where the boundaries are between what is good and holy and lifegiving and what is not. At times, Jesus talks that way, too, you know, that sheep and goats stuff, and when Jesus talks this way, it’s usually in relationship to how the least of these are being treated.

But let’s come back to this vengeance and recompense stuff. The hebrew word for vengeance does have that connotation of revenge, but it can also have connotation of quarreling. And the root word for vengeance also holds this idea of breathing forcibly. That’s fascinating. That almost sounds like God has a quarrel with us, like God is exasperated with us, but let’s remember that breath, for God, is first and foremost about creation. When our sins are sorely hindering us, when we are not living out as a people that peaceable kingdom that God envisions, maybe God does have a quarrel with us and wants to forcibly breathe us into a new creation.

And recompense is just a fancy way of talking about making amends to someone for loss or harm suffered. Why is it terrible? Because looking at how we’ve harmed others and how they’ve harmed us and making amends is just plain hard.

But when we’ve wrestled with the quarrel God that has with us, when we’ve looked at how our sins are sorely hindering us, when we’ve engaged the hard work of amends-making, both individually and collectively as a people and society, then amazing things will happen.

Then, the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.

 Then, we can see clearly God’s vision, then we can hear clearly God’s call.

Then, we can discern and identify clearly the Holy Way.

Then, we are ready to let that which is unclean, and I don’t mean people who are unclean—Isaiah, in his dualism might have meant that, but Jesus in his wisdom did not—I mean that which we perceive to be unclean in ourselves or unclean in others, the untouchable part of ourselves and others, let’s leave that sense of uncleanness and unworthiness behind because on this Holy Way, God is clear, the beasts—both the external ones and the ones that live deep inside of us—they can’t consume us here; you can’t get lost on this Holy Way, not even fools can go astray. And then the promise that makes our heart leap comes—joy and gladness shall be upon our heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah sets before us an example of what is being asked of us.

John the Baptist stands in this prophetic tradition, as does Jesus. John is in prison, and he’s sent word through his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 As they go away, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

 John the Baptist challenged the Jerusalem elites of his day, just as Isaiah had done in his day. No soft robes here, and certainly, no soft words. John is not wishy washy; he is piercingly clear about what is of God and what is not. And John is not afraid of the winnowing process that is necessary if we are to come into the fullness of life on the Holy Way. And Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the vision proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah—what was hoped for is happening! The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and restored, the deaf hear, the dead live, the poor have good news brought to them (not earned but brought to them), and blessed is anyone who doesn’t take offense at the one who embodies and enacts all these things.

For Jesus, no one born of women has arisen greater than John the Baptist, and he says so, but then he says a curious thing, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Puzzling thing to say, ehhh? But Jesus is doing something very important here. The prophet’s job isn’t to get us hooked on the prophet; the prophet’s job is to get our eyes oriented from the perspective of heaven; it’s about getting us to look at this world as God looks at this word, look from God’s eyes with God’s vision. Prophets can and do have blind spots—we see that in Isaiah and even John’s dualistic language—and when you have piercing clarity about what is right and what is not, you sometimes can’t see what God sees, what Jesus sees, and that’s that ultimately everything belongs.

 Jesus is reminding us that we’ve got to strive to see from the perspective of heaven; we’ve got to strive to see with the eyes of God; we’ve got to heed the prophets and transcend the dualisms to move to a larger field of vision where everything is woven together in the Love that knows no bounds.

So, big, big work ahead of us, as individuals, as a community, as a society, as a people. Amidst all of your Christmas preparations, do not neglect this work that the prophets are calling us to do. Christmas doesn’t matter a bit if we aren’t doing the work of preparation that will clear the way for us to be born anew. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 11, 2016