Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon; Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year A; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesian 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
I want to begin by recognizing and thanking our amazing staff.
Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg is all heart, and he takes that great big heart and icons for us what it means to open that heart to the hurts and needs of the world. Greg, thank you for being a wise councilor to me, and a great partner in ministry—all the way around—and I am always slightly disoriented on the Sundays you aren’t here.
Catherine King. Catherine keeps it all flowing—the office, the bulletins, coordinating use of the building, communications of all sorts, webpage and facebook updates, and the weekly e-mail blast. It’s a lot, and she introduces just the right humor at just the right moments. Catherine, you doing what you do frees me to do what I do. Thanks for the sense of ministry that you bring to your work.
Pat Kohles. Pat diligently keeps our finances straight and gives the Vestry the information we need so that we can make good financial decisions. She is a completely non-anxious presence, which is really important for anyone who works around money. Pat understands that behind all those numbers are people. Thanks for doing a great job caring about the numbers and for the people.
Ted Gulick. Ted is simply the best church musician I have ever worked with. He understands that music is in service to worship. He understands that our goal in our worship to open up a liminal space, a threshold space, where people can encounter the Holy. His skill is unmatched on the organ, and he is a pastor to his choral flock. And as we work on innovative liturgies, nothing is too weird to try out. Ted, whether it’s Sunday morning or Sunday evenings, I love dreaming about and creating liturgy with you. Thank you for the heart and soul and deep spirituality you bring to your work.
Sarah Miller. Of all our positions on staff, Sarah’s has changed the most—like, every year it looks different. Every year, the landscape of our children and youth and their families is slightly different. Sarah has rolled with all of this and has developed a keen ability to keep one ear to the ground and one ear tuned to the Spirit to see where we are being nudged to move next in our ever evolving Christian formation program. Sarah, thank you for your flexibility, your phenomenal capacity to think through approaches and program design, and your deep commitment to this work.
Charles Oaks continues to care for our buildings with such love and attention. He knows our space and loves it as if it were his own home. 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.
Mary Lyons, Andrew Cole, Elizabeth Fowler, Kate Akerman, Emily Wright. These are our Nursery Caregivers who provide peace-of-mind to parents and loving care to small children. They introduce our little ones to the holy things and holy stories of our worship so that our littlest ones also have a sense of the holy during worship time. For a lot of children, the first impressions of church start in the nursery. We are blessed with these competent, loving young women.
And I finally, I want to thank Jim and Julia. Jim, you do a lot of ministry in your own right—leading the Friday Book Study, spiritual direction, choir, videotaping and posting our sermons on youtube—but I am most grateful for your ministry as my husband, partner, and soul companion. I simply could not do what I do without your support. You hold me accountable—reminding me that sabbath is paramount and that priesthood, while a wondrous vocation, is but one part of who I am. Mostly, you draw me ever more deeply into the depths and mystery of God’s love and grace. Thank you for being my companion, always.
And Julia. It is not easy being a priest-kid. I know it, and you know it. You have to share me with a lot of people—thank you for letting me do my work. And thank you for opening my eyes to things I would never see without you. You are so wise, and I learn from you all the time. Thank you for grounding my humanity firmly in the earth, and for working that ground of forgiveness and grace with me, daily.
Okay, the first draft of this address was 10 1/2 pages single-spaced. Leah Moretz told me about a Kiwanis mantra: “The rear view mirror is small, the front windshield is really big—spend more time looking forward than looking backward.” So, about 30% of this address is in a handout for you to take with you—you can thank Leah later. What I will say here is this: “There are 60+ groups, classes, and ministries that go on in and through this place stretched out over 6 areas: Outreach and Social Justice, Parish Nurture, Christian Formation, Liturgy, Finance and Stewardship, and Building and Grounds.
I am going to talk about one of these areas, just to give you a taste of our vitality. Liturgy. We are now into our second year of combining our 9:00 and 11:15 services, and it seems as natural as breathing. Did we ever do it any other way? What have we gained? Energy, vitality, a wider breadth of music than we have ever enjoyed before, the joy of children, the grace of the generations, a greater sense of community; we have gained worship that feels deeply, joyously alive with lots of participation from lots of people. What have we lost? Our fear of trying something new and the belief that it just couldn’t be done. Most exciting to me is that we have come through this change intact as a community—no one got left behind. Our choir continues to stretch and explore in all kinds of ways, including the total gift of Behkani this fall to lead us into the rich tradition from South Africa. Thank you Behkani; you have brought such life to us! The other part of our liturgical life that has been so exciting is the innovative services we are creating on Sunday evenings. We created two new services for last year—the Service of Anointing and the Service of Lament—doing each one of them twice. Earlier this month, we launched our first Second Sunday service of this year—A Celtic Service of Thanksgiving with Holy Communion. We had 50 people there, some of whom I’d never seen before. Clearly these services are meeting a deep, deep hunger to mark our lives ritually in new ways. We are playing with words, ritual, and music, and it is a blast!
This is just one of the six areas, and we have this kind of energy and innovation going on in all six areas. Our Diocesan quarterly magazine, The Highland Episcopalian, featured St. Luke’s twice last year for the innovative things we are doing. The Bishop and the Diocese see us as a laboratory, a place of experimentation, as we try to bring the best of our Episcopal tradition into conversation with the needs and demands of our world today. We are alive. We are vital. In sad times and in glad times, we are doing the work of the Lord, and we are having a good time doing it. Where we have been is important, so please take time to read over this, but I want to focus on what I see as I look out the front, and that’s still a lot, so settle in; I’ll give you a stretch break in a bit.
The Vestry has been in a really creative conversation the last few months. It started with our leaders voicing that they were tired, which revealed that our Vestry liaisons were doing more leading than liaisoning, which led to a conversation about engagement, which led to a deeper conversation about what it means to be a community. We are trying to figure out how build out teams where we need them to do this wonderful work that God has given us to do. Jeremy Fowler will talk a little bit more about that in his Sr. Warden remarks at our meeting, and we’ll be talking more about the nuts-and-bolts of this in the months ahead. But suffice to say for now, with 60+ groups and ministries, there is a place just for you, a place where you are needed and wanted, a place where you can offer your gifts.
But I want to pull out and look at this from an even deeper place. As many of you know, I am deep into Brene Brown’s work, and in February, I will be doing a week-long training with her and 200 other Episcopal priests in, what she calls, The Daring Way. One of the concepts she talks about is accountability. Now, anyone who has ever worked with a not-for-profit knows how hard it is to hold volunteers accountable. But we’re not a not-for-profit, and you aren’t volunteers. We are the Body of Christ; we are the household of God; we are brothers and sisters, family; we are a Christian community. So, I want to press down to a deeper question—what does accountability look like in the Christian community? Or, maybe more simply, how do we show up for one another in all the ways that we say we want to? What does it mean to be all in, here? Now, being all in isn’t a free license to work someone to death, and it’s not a call to co-dependency; it’s more a stance, a way of being. We do this in our other relationships—when it comes to my marriage, I have to ask myself, “Am I all in?” or is there some part of myself that I am holding out, some place where I’m holding back? Am I all in with my friends? Am I all in with my children? My siblings? My parents? Are we all in, here, at St. Luke’s?
I know you all love this place. I have seen the Why I love St. Luke’s video. I see you respond to whatever need is out there, over and over again. I feel the energy in here, Sunday after Sunday. And yet, are there still places where we hold ourselves out, hold ourselves back, are afraid to commit? Example, when it comes time to cook at Hospitality House, we always have enough people show up to do the meal, but people won’t sign up on the sign-up sheet to say they are coming, which is crazymaking for the leader—what is that about? How do we show up for each other in the ways that, deep down, I believe we want to?
Another aspect of accountability is so vulnerable and feels so risky, but is so essential. This has to do with our willingness to name hurts and move through tough places together. We had an example of this recently that some of you know about because you participated in it, but the whole community needs to know about this. Our Friday Book Study group has gone so deep and shared so openly with one another. Over time, some hurts have been experienced. In October, that group sat down and had an intentional, scarily honest conversation. Tough things were said, and tough things were received. The group added some new norms to their list of norms for how they function. It was one of the most powerful experiences of working through conflict in real-time that I have ever had in the church—it was sacred, holy ground. What that group did was a gift to this whole community because it was real, and because there was a deep commitment to everyone in the group. It was clear that the goal was to move forward and not for anyone to leave the group. It felt like a big developmental leap for our church because, on the whole, I think that churches are horrible at this kind of conflict, but we can learn so much from this kind of engagement. I’m learning that the goal is not never to offend another person. That’s impossible because I never know how what I will say will land in another person’s heart. No, I will offend you—maybe not maliciously, or intentionally, but it will happen. Now, one way to go is to say, “I just won’t say what I really think, or say anything at all, because I am just going to offend someone, and I don’t want to hurt anybody because I love these people,” but there is another way, and that is to know that “No, much as I wish it weren’t so, I will offend and hurt people I care about, and I am going to trust my relationship with the person whom I’ve offended—I am going to trust that we can work this through.”
Does anybody other than me sometimes fret over how to respond to an email, looking for the perfect words, the perfect reply? Does anybody else spend hours, maybe days, trying to get it right? What if we stopped pouring our energy there, and trusted our capacity to work it through when something lands wrong? Does this make it a little messier sometimes? You bet, but silence is like walking on eggshells and perfectionism is a strait jacket. St. Benedict talked about Christian community as being the school of love—this is what he is talking about. This is the nitty, gritty, holy work of Christian community. This is where it gets really real, and really transformative.
Let’s drop down another level. You know, Episcopalians, we love sacraments; as the Prayer Book says, those “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” One of the outward and visible signs of this “being all in” has to do with claiming our belonging here. And I will be the first to admit that I have made a mess of trying to explain this over the years, but I have a newfound passion around this, and it has to do with this being all in stuff. So, messy as this will be, let me try.
First of all, from where I sit, YOU ARE A PART OF THIS COMMUNITY IF YOU SAY YOU ARE. There are no added benefits in God’s eyes, or in mine, if you formally affiliate with St. Luke’s, and there are no fewer if you don’t—our groups, classes, liturgies, and ministries are open to all, period. I have performed weddings, sat in hospital waiting rooms during surgeries, been at bedsides at death, and done funerals for plenty of people who are not formally affiliated—“members”—of St. Luke’s. And so when people have asked me, “Why do I need to join St. Luke’s because I already feel a part of the community?” I generally stumble around because my heart says, “Well, of course you are a part of this community.” And so membership feels like some sort of a denominational tribal need, some sort of denominational box to check or hoop to jump through. But here is where I have shifted. I think formally affiliating is important, not from where the denomination stands, but pastorally, it’s important from where you stand.
Formally affiliating with St. Luke’s is a way that you can claim, outwardly and visibly, “I belong here”; it is an outward and visible sign that, with these people, with this Christian community, “I’m all in.”
So, there are two ways to participate in this “outward and visible sign”. And again, I don’t think I have done a good job explaining this before. Anyone, no matter your denomination, can become a member of St. Luke’s. The church word is “communicant”—it means that you are “in communion with” this community of faith. You can be a Presbyterian, or member of any other denomination, and become a communicant, a member, of St. Luke’s. This is because the only criteria the Episcopal Church has for membership is baptism. So, if it is important to you to outwardly and visibly claim your belonging here, you can transfer and register your membership as a communicant of St. Luke’s. Talk with me; Catherine and I can help you do this.
If you are not baptized, talk with me—it is a powerful thing to lay claim to a commitment to Jesus and his way, publically, in a community that vows to support you as you try to live this life.
There is a second way to claim your belonging here, and I have really botched explaining this over the years, just ask any of my previous Confirmation classes, and they will confirm how I have stumbled over this one. But I think I get it now. You may want to claim your belonging by going through the sacrament of Confirmation, Reception, or Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. At their best, these sacraments give us a way to claim and recommit ourselves to walking in the way of Jesus in the particular, peculiar, and somewhat unique way that the Episcopal tradition provides for us.
I am guessing that a good many of you are here because you love St. Luke’s. You don’t think in terms of denomination; you just love St. Luke’s; you love this church, this community. But I have always known that many of the reasons that you love St. Luke’s are all tied up with the fact that we are an Episcopal Church.
- You love the freedom to think and explore questions. You like that you can engage your mind.
- Choral music and singing to the organ move your soul, and so does gospel music and spirituals and Southern Harmony.
- You love the intentionality of our worship and the way we engage scripture and the deep sense of ritual. During my sabbatical, I visited a couple of non-denominational churches with a really different way of worshiping with a really different style of music. They were powerful, but I missed the ritual and came away knowing in my bones, “I am an Episcopalian.”
- You love the Mystery; that mystical sense.
- You understand that living by the five baptismal vows is a radical way to follow Jesus and live your life.
- You love the commitment to inclusion, and the care of Matthew 25’s least of these, and you care about the big picture and matters of justice.
- You appreciate in your bones the both/and approach to the thorniest issues that confront our world. You are third way thinkers and seekers.
- You believe that coming together at this table is more important than our differences.
All of these things that you love are the particular wells that Episcopalians drink from as we try, faithfully, to follow Jesus. Yes, St. Luke’s is incredibly special, but we are not unique. You love these things about St. Luke’s, but St. Luke’s is able to be these things because we are an Episcopal Church.
So, it may be that you want to claim anew your sense of belonging to this particular way of following Jesus. You may want to join in this year’s Claiming Jesus and His Way class that will begin meeting monthly on December 7th.
Or, it may be that you have been integrated into this community for 15 or 20 years, but have just never gone through the preparation for the sacrament, and now, something in you is saying, “Yes, I want to claim my belonging here, outwardly and visibly; I’m all in.” There are fair number of you in this boat. I know this because every time the Vestry goes to search for people to serve on next year’s Vestry, there are a number of you who would be great that can’t be asked because the canons say that you have to be “a confirmed communicant (member) of the church” to serve in leadership. And rather than saying that that’s just a dumb denominational rule (which, by the way, our Bishop is trying to change at the national level), let’s view this as making sense—you want your leaders in a community to be those who are all in. So, if you are one of those St. Luker’s who has been around forever, but you’ve never actually taken this step, and you would like to take this step—talk with me. I would like to create something that would prepare you for the sacrament that would also honor that you have soaked up this peculiar Episcopal way of following Jesus by osmosis over the years. And notice how I phrased that—if you never take this step, you are still a St. Luker—this community is strong enough, big enough, generous enough to encompass and hold whomever calls it home, formally affiliated or not.
So, why has this become so important, other than the painstaking process of trying to get people to serve on Vestry? It is so important because it is so counter-cultural. Our culture is chock full of distractions; we need this school of love if we are to stay awake and hold fast to what is true and real and alive. Our culture is terrified to commit. Our culture lives to keep our options open. Our culture has a very hard time signing on the dotted line and being all in. But following Jesus is an all-in proposition. “You’ve got to lose your life to save it.” This isn’t just about losing our life at death and falling into that bigger life; this is about losing our life all along the way, every day; this is about yielding, handing our lives over to something bigger, not holding back, not withholding, this is about being all in. And if we can do that with each other, here, in this place, if we can do that in this school of love, maybe we have a shot at doing it out there.
Maybe this deep commitment to one another will enable us to be just as deeply committed to our neighbor down the street, even if their politics is the polar opposite of ours. Maybe learning how to speak honestly with one another here and seeing that our relationships can emerge intact will give us the courage to speak honestly out there about what we know, and just as courageously, to hear another speak to us of what they know and to trust that we can still be in relationship. I am telling you, our world needs us to do this work. Can you imagine how our government might work if all who serve were all in with each other? Maybe we can show them.
I am passionate about this bridge-crossing, bridge-building work. During my sabbatical, I discerned two areas in the wider community where I want to put some energy in the years ahead. The first is in the realm of civic discourse—dialogue across the spectrum, be that across the political spectrum or the religious spectrum. Think of the church most unlike St. Luke’s in our community, I want to grow to the point where I can invite that pastor to coffee and talk about things that matter from a place of deep listening and deep respect, and I want to do this with liberals and conservatives and tea partiers and libertarians.
The second realm is living more deeply into racial reconciliation and continuing to build relationships. A few weeks after Ferguson, Missouri happened, I called Reggie Hunt to have coffee. Reggie is the pastor over at Cornerstone Summit. I told him that I never wanted a Ferguson to happen here, and that should something happen, we needed to know each other well enough that we could pick up the cellphone and call each other. In that conversation, we discovered that we both are jazzed about Brene Brown’s work. Michael Mathes, the new pastor at Boone Mennonite Brethren Church, and I have discovered that we both have a passion for golf—good things happen on a golf course together. We need relationships to build the beloved community that God envisions for all of us. I am excited by this work and the possibilities for transformation that lie within it, my own included.
I want to close with some reflections from my sabbatical. First, thank you so very much for the gift of this time away and the resources that helped us do some of the things we did. Thank you to Steve Miller and Toby Summerour, our priests who took services, and thank you to the staff and leadership for tending to everything that needed tending to. It was a great summer for me, and for our family.
In August, I had the opportunity to make a retreat at the Sisters of Loretto in Nerinx, KY. I was deeply connected to these sisters when I served in that part of Kentucky 15 years ago. I got to meet with the sister who was my spiritual director in that season of my life, Sr. Elaine Prevallet—she’s now 81 years old and still sharp as a tack. In preparing to meet with her, I was aware of all of these milestones—I am 20 years ordained; 10+ years at St. Luke’s; in February, Jim and I will be married 15 years; and in March, I will turn 50. I asked myself the question, “What am I feeling?” And the answer that came was, “contentment.” I am feeling contentment. And then I was aware that that was a completely unfamiliar feeling for me. It feels pretty close to joy. It’s a complete absence of striving energy—there is no place that I have to get to. It’s not that everything is perfect; it’s deeper than that. It’s the peace that passes all understanding. I talked with Elaine about it. I said, “There’s a lot of bad stuff in the world, like, do I get to feel this contentment?” She said, “Absolutely,” and that she was leery of those who work for justice who can only move from a place of urgency and anxiety. She said she didn’t hear complacency, and I wasn’t feeling any, but it’s always good to ask that question. No, it’s more a deep, deep freedom. If there is no place that I have to get to, then I am completely free to choose what I want to do and where I want to put my energy.
One of the things I did this summer was go completely off of email and facebook. I’m not on facebook much, so that wasn’t too hard. Email was hard, but after my first week of total freakout, it was one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I got really slowed down; my brain got really slowed down. My first day back in the office, it took me until 4:00 to turn on my computer—I was scared. And sure enough, there were an insane number of emails waiting for me. I put my head down and felt depressed; I could feel my energy draining away. I thought, “Pay attention to this and make a different choice.” So, I don’t have my email screen up all the time; I don’t have email come straight to my homescreen on my phone. I check email a couple of times a day; I don’t check it at night; I rarely check it on weekends; and never on my sabbath. It is still a great tool for sharing information, but for me, it is a poor tool for nurturing relationships. I would rather spend my energy in face-to-face (or at least, voice to voice), incarnational conversations. So, if you need to reach me, don’t assume that I am going to see an email—call me.
I also talked with Elaine about the fact that I have a decade left in my active ministry. I wondered out loud with her, “What shall I do with this last 10 years?” I told her that I didn’t much want to make a plan. She said, “Oh, don’t make a plan. God will bring you what you need to do.” And that has always been my way. I have never been good at laying out goals and objectives and strategic plans. With the pace of change today, those are outdated before the ink has dried on the paper anyway. What I have always believed in is being awake and attentive to the world and to our lives so that we can hear and feel God’s tug to respond here, move there, or do the really radical thing of standing still anchored deep in God’s presence.
I don’t know what God has in store for me or my ministry or for St. Luke’s. I used to think I knew, but I don’t. What I can say is this, there is no place that I am trying to get to, and today, there is no place else that I want to be. You are an amazing community of lovers of Jesus. You live this life with intentionality, vitality, authenticity, struggle, and joy. You are quirky, slightly eccentric, and passionate. Sometimes, you pull in a multitude of different directions, all at once. You are deeply alive, and working as priest among you feeds my soul. I love you. Gosh, I love you, and almost 11 years in, it still feels like we are good together. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but today, I can say, unequivocally, without reservation, “St. Luke’s, I’m all in.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 23, 2014