The Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks–Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon video link
Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year C
What a year! This has been a time of transition—lots of goodbye’s and lots of hello’s. Just a little over a year ago, we said goodbye to Ted Gulick as our Organist and Director of Music. Then, we said hello to Suzi Mills and Shane Watson, both of whom did a fantastic job seeing us through the 9-month interim. Then, we said goodbye to Suzi and Shane and said hello to Mary Mozelle. Mary came to us through a nationwide search, and under her leadership, the choir is growing and stretching in new ways, congregational singing is hearty, the postludes are an absolute delight, and our music program continues to embody the breadth and depth and excellence that feeds our souls! Thank you, Mary and thank you, Choir.
After 10 years of faithful service, we said goodbye to Catherine King and celebrated her ministry, and we said hello (again) to Lynn McNeil. Lynn was in the role of Parish Administrator 10 years ago, and has stepped right back in without missing a beat, even though the job has changed quite a bit in the intervening decade. Catherine brought us through so many technological changes in how we communicate, so Lynn has been on a fast learning curve, but she rolls with everything with ease and a smile. The transition has been smooth, and Lynn, you are doing a great job. Thanks for all the gifts you bring to your work, and for your gracious presence.
And through this year, we have had our anchors.
Pat Kohles who keeps our finances straight and contributions accounted for and is always willing to do whatever is asked of her. Pat leads with a “sure, we can do that”—always. Thank you, Pat, for your steady, calm wisdom day in and day out.
Sean Damrel continues in his second year as our College Youth Intern. Between Sean and Leah over at St. Mary’s, we have a bona fide youth group! Our youth love coming to youth group, and they are passionate about Camp Henry and Diocesan Youth Weekends. Sean brings a passion for building spiritual community, and I am so grateful for his leadership.
Charles Oaks continues to care for our buildings with such love and attention. He does his work quietly when the rest of us aren’t around, but if you cross paths with Charles, please thank him for his ministry.
Heather McGuinn, Victoria Fowler, Celia McCall, Brianna Lockovich, and substitutes Julia Banks, Jessie King, and Carmen Cook-McKee. These are our Nursery Caregivers who provide peace-of-mind to parents and loving care to small children. We are blessed with these competent, loving young women.
And then, there is Greg Erickson. Full-on, wide-open heart Greg. A deacon’s deacon. Service embodied, showing us in how he lives what Jesus would do and how Jesus would act. Always a wise counsellor to me, a fabulous colleague, a true brother in Christ. I think we are both better in our roles for having one another’s back always. Thank you Greg for all you do, so much of which is never known, and thank you for the spirit with which you do what you do.
And finally, thank you Jim and Julia. I am able to do what I do because of the bonds that are between us as family. Jim, you walk every ounce of this journey with me, and when the institutional church disappoints or seems crazy, you remind me of what’s really important—Jesus, the True Self, doing our spiritual work, love, community, sitting on our deck swing, tasting joy, doing life—all of life—together. I am a better priest for being married to you.
And Julia, you teach me so much, every day. You see the world in your own way, and teach me to think, always, outside the box. Thanks for keeping my feet on the ground and for keeping me firmly grounded in my humanity. You are truly one of my gurus.
And then, there was the anticipated transition surrounding the election of the next bishop in our diocese—two months of limbo and anticipatory grief for St. Luke’s. Then, the June 25th election that left many of us with an array of feelings—relief, confusion, anger, and grief.
We, as a community, had to face that you and I might part ways as parish and priest. That generated a range of responses from “We’ve been here before; we can do this” to “If Cyndi goes, I’m leaving.” In time, those who thought their ties were to me came to understand that their ties weren’t really to me—their ties are to the community. St. Luke’s is bigger than me, and if we got the chance to realize that truth anew, well, that is a fantastic learning.
What you all did for me on June 26th, the infamous day after, will forever remain one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Painful, but beautiful. You were so compassionate, so kind, so loving, so respectful. Truly, you took my little body off of the cross, and as Jim said, “You anointed me with spices, and laid me in the tomb,” and gave me permission to rest there for however long it took. Then, you got to watch me do this uncomfortably public journey with grief. You prayed for me and cheered me on as I made my way through one heck of a dark night of the soul, and you have been that community with whom I could share the learnings that continue to be revealed to me as I make my way forward. I cannot thank you enough for the space you have given me this year, and for being all-in with me as I went all-in with this process of discernment, election, and loss. Please know how deeply I love you, and how deeply I feel your love in return.
And then, there was the transition of changing demographics that caught up with us early this year when our budget was short. In April, we came together in a congregational meeting to begin hard conversations around where we are financially. We stumbled a bit in that April conversation, and we learned better ways to have the conversation, but I am proud of us for even trying. We did not bury our heads in the sand—we brought the needs to you and you responded in a big way. Within three weeks, we had what we needed to make the 2016 budget work.
But the Vestry and I knew that the fix for this year doesn’t answer the ongoing questions around sustainability, and so, we held Cottage Meetings this fall. Six different meetings across six different demographic groups in our congregation. I want to thank all those who hosted these conversations in their homes, and to all of you who participated. The conversations were rich and honest and surfaced some beautiful themes.
Why do you love St. Luke’s? Why do you keep coming back? What is essential for you at St. Luke’s? What at St. Luke’s shapes you to live the way of Jesus in the world? What do you need from St. Luke’s?
- Over and over, people spoke about community, relationships, and a place of belonging.
- Over and over, people talked about the importance of worship and music and the liturgy.
- Over and over, people talked about service and social justice and forming our social consciousness.
- Values like acceptance, inclusion, and love
- A willingness to be shaped by scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the Book Study Group and the opportunities to minister in the wider community and the liturgy itself—all of these work to shape us in the way of Jesus.
- And there was one learning that is so cool. It’s been there all along, but these meetings allowed us to name something that is foundational to who we are and why we exist. What do you think emerged as the chief way that we get shaped to live the way of Jesus in the world? (pause) It’s watching one another. It’s seeing one another’s example. It’s hearing the stories of how each one of us tries to follow Jesus as we live our lives. We learn by watching each other live the life lifted up by our baptismal vows. We watch each other stumble, and we watch each other get back up. We step into it with each other, and we circle back and make it right. St. Luke’s is indeed the school of love that St. Benedict spoke about. We learn how to live like Jesus by living like Jesus here. And then, we try to live that way out in the world, and we come back here and share our successes and our failures, and we get our wounds bound up, and we get out tank filled, and we head back out into the world. Sharing our lives with one another is our chief way of doing Christian formation, and it has always been so. That’s how Jesus did it with his first disciples. That’s how the early church did it. That’s how followers of Jesus have always done it—together, in community.
So, all of this transition, it has stirred the waters. And when the waters get stirred, new opportunities open up to shift and adjust and see things anew.
And, right now, I see an internal dimension to our work ahead, and an external dimension. First, our internal work.
Facing financial realities opened up a conversation about new models of ministry. It goes by a lot of names—Total Ministry, Shared Ministry, Mutual Ministry. Our diocese is at the very beginning stages of talking about this, and lots of folks are trying to figure it out. It really isn’t about how we get the work of the church done. It is much more about how we be church together. It is about reclaiming what has been there all along—the power given us in baptism to live the way of Jesus. It’s realizing that we have everything we need among us; everything we need to do the work that God calls us to do resides in this room. Let me say that again, everything we need to do the work that God calls us to do resides in this room.
I don’t quite know what this looks like, but this past spring, I had the deep sense that if I was not elected bishop, that my call might be to help St. Luke’s get ready for a whole new model. It could be that St. Luke’s will always be able to afford a full-time seminary-trained priest, or it could be that at some future point, St. Luke’s will have to look at a part-time priest, or a bi-vocational priest, I don’t know. But I do know that any work we do to move toward a new way of being will be good and healthy for this community.
It’s tricky because the Episcopal Church is sort of a hierarchical tradition. We have orders of ministry, and for all our talk about how equal they are, we tend to think of them vertically—lay people, deacons, priests, bishops. I was talking with a friend of mine, and she noted that, in the 1979 Prayer Book, we made Eucharist the central act of worship of Sunday, and when we did that, we inadvertently set something in place that tells our people every Sunday that you can’t be real church without me because you can’t have Eucharist without a priest. I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind. And please, don’t get me wrong, I love the Eucharist—it is central to my capacity to live the way of Jesus—and I do think there is value in having a ritual leader who has the charism and training to lead ritual and preach well, and your responses at the Cottage Meetings indicated how important this is to you, too. But I do think my friend is on to something, and her observation points out how deeply embedded clergy-centered systems are in our tradition. So what we are talking about is a huge culture shift, and culture shift is hard work that takes a long time to accomplish.
But whether it’s financial stress that is pushing us, or because we want to live more fully the theology of community that we profess, it is good to begin exploring how we move in a new way. I think this is exciting because what we are talking about is really an empowering of your ministry.
And a place to begin is discerning our gifts and passions as individuals, and then brainstorming what gifts we see in one another as we look across our St. Luke’s community. I was thrilled to find out that some of this same conversation has been bubbling up in the Women’s Group—the Spirit is egging us on.
You know, St. Paul had his list of gifts of the spirit that were needed to be church in his time; what would our list be?
- Who are our leaders and initiators and organizers and finishers?
- Who are our pastors and teachers and prophets?
- Who are our historians and storytellers, those who help us tell the story of St. Luke’s?
- Who are our sources of wisdom and contemplatives that keep us grounded?
- Who are our doer’s that just like doing the work, often quietly and behind the scenes?
- Who are those folks that can match resources with vision?
- What other gifts are among us that are needed to live into our mission as Christ’s body in the world?
I am also curious about what needs to shift in my leadership to make the space for yours. I have tried to be attentive to this as I have grown with you over the years, but there is always more for me to learn. I was trained in a certain way, and neither my colleagues, nor I, were trained for the cultural and institutional growing pains that now face all of us.
Somebody asked me at one of the Cottage Meetings, “Cyndi, what do you need from us?” It was a great question and one that caught me by surprise. I paused, and then I said, “I need you to not be afraid of this conversation.”
Let’s ride a wave of curiosity and excitement and exploration and see what we can figure out and learn together. If we can figure this out here, then we have something so valuable to share with our brothers and sisters—namely, how to face into the winds that are blowing with courage.
Transition has also stirred the waters that are calling us to do our work externally. Long ago, Bill Marr coined a phrase that describes St. Luke’s perfectly, “We do life together.” And I have long thought that life brings us what we need to work on. The invitation to consider becoming bishop in this diocese brought me a lot of work in discernment. Not being elected brought me a lot of work in grief. And in a bizarre twist, that grief work prepared me well for the reactions and emotions that came pouring out of so many people in response to the Presidential election.
So, life brings us what we need to work on, and November 8th revealed to us the breadth and depth of divisions that criss-cross our country. For many people, they cannot conceive of how people voted for the other candidate. Open up your Prayer Book to page 855 (by the way, this is a great document to read devotionally sometime).
What is the ministry of the laity? To represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. This is our call; this is our work—now more than ever. We’re going to have to listen deeper than we have ever listened before if we are to heal our communities across this nation. And this is going to involve moving in multiple directions at once.
- We’ve got to reach out with humility, listen, and truly endeavor to understand our rural neighbors—their values, their wisdom, their hurts, their hopes.
- We’ve got to hear and understand the very real fear now afoot amongst so many communities—people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, the LGBTQ community.
- We’ve got to listen with respect and understand the deep desire for change that this election revealed.
- And we could begin by fasting from brushing everyone who voted differently with the same stroke and a simplistic label. I get the temptation, believe me I do, but I had to learn after June 25th that people vote as they do for a thousand different reasons, and as much as I wanted to lock down onto one narrative, it’s much, much more complicated than that—there are always multiple narratives.
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.
As I continue to reflect, I am deeply concerned about what Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in this campaign has legitimized (and please remember, I called out Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric, too—I am an equal opportunity caller-outer). Words matter, and we saw some of the actions those words made possible in the days following the election.
- And the most heartbreaking place I saw those actions unleashed was in schools amongst our children and youth— kids telling Latino kids, “well, I guess you’ll be leaving soon;” a dodgeball game in PE where kids built a human wall and chanted, “build a wall” to keep the Latino kids out—and that happened here, in Watauga County, in our community.
- An Episcopal church in Maryland came to worship last Sunday to see “Trump Nation Whites Only” painted on the back of their Spanish-language mass sign and on the wall of their memorial garden, and an Episcopal Church in Indiana found “Heil Trump,” a swastika, and an anti-gay slur painted on the brick wall of their church.
- “Make America White Again” has popped up, along with swastikas.
- The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported 700 cases of intimidation and harassment since the election.
- And there are also reports of Trump supporters being beaten up for voting as they did.
It’s gotten ugly out there. To his credit, Mr. Trump has said, “Stop it.”
We have taken vows to persevere in resisting evil, to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. I want to say as clearly as I can, it is our duty as followers of Jesus to stand firm and say “NO” to any and all speech and actions that target children of God in this way and stand with those who are being targeted. And as we do so, we must not replicate and perpetuate this cycle of violence. The Episcopal church in Maryland made a sign in response, “Love wins.”
There is an enormous call before us right now, and that’s for the church to be the church!
- To embrace our call to reconciliation;
- to hold a space in our hearts and in our words and in our actions for all people;
- to get out of our like-minded echo chambers and really try to see the world through another’s eyes (and by the way, our children and youth can teach us a thing or two here, because they are living in more diverse environments in their schools right now than most of us adults);
- to embody the cross in our words and deeds—to ground deep and stand firm and keep our arms open to this broken world;
- to be fierce in our solidarity with the least of these in this world;
- and to be fierce in our refusal to diminish the dignity of any human being made in the image of God;
- to double-down on our commitment to pray for our leaders, all of our leaders;
- to breathe deep, really deep;
- and to do a lot more praying and mediating and acting from a place of wisdom, than binging on social media and feeding our addiction to adrenalin.
The work before us is immense, but the world, now more than ever, needs us to live the life we profess as followers of Jesus.
So, transition has stirred the waters, both within St. Luke’s and in the world outside our doors. Life has brought us what we need to work on, and as I look out at you, I don’t see a hundred plus individuals, I see a community full of love, I see a community that I believe in, I see the Body of Christ, strong and whole and vital, and absolutely up to the task ahead of us. We do life together, and together, in the Spirit, Presence, and Power of Jesus, we will find our way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 20, 2016