The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon (Video); Last Sunday after Pentecost—PR 29—Year A; Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
I want to begin by recognizing and thanking my colleagues. My words won’t do justice to how I feel about this staff, but I will give it a shot.
Deacon Greg Erickson. Always ready to serve; always leading with his heart. Wise, calm, and absolutely willing to wade into tough situations. I am grateful for his counsel, for his wisdom, and for his sure and steady presence. It means everything to me to know that Greg shares this work with me. These last few weeks have reminded me, yet again, that I could not ask for a better partner in ministry.
Catherine King. My work is out of the office as much as it is in, and I can do that because Catherine anchors the office. She, in her calm and steady way, just keeps moving forward. Catherine is able to do the ordinary routine tasks—bulletins, weekly email blasts—even while holding compassionate space for the very real human ache in our community. It’s the little things, like posting pictures of Agnes to our Facebook page this week. Nobody asked her to do that, she just knew that’s what needed to happen. Catherine, I have learned a lot from you and from the work we do together. Thank you for your wisdom, your commitment, and your dedication to your work.
Pat Kohles. Pat is another wonderful anchor. She keeps our finances straight and provides the Vestry, and you, the information we need to be faithful stewards of all you have entrusted to us. But she does more than post contributions and write checks. Pat is wise; Pat has a longview of this community—she knows our history; Pat sees beyond the numbers to the people of our community. Pat, you are so supportive, and that brings so much to me and to our staff team. Thank you.
Shane Watson. Shane is fearless. My gosh, what shoes to step into, and step into them he has. And Shane has had the presence and maturity not to try to replicate his predecessor, but he has owned and brought forth his own gifts for this work. Shane is a total team player; he is creative, and he has us so organized. In this interim period, thank you Shane for helping us to chart a new course and for helping us to keep expanding our musical horizon.
Suzi Mills. It is such a joy to have Suzi back with us in this interim season. She brings such gifts to choral direction. She brings out the very best in our choir, and they love the challenges she is bringing before them. And she comes to this work with such joy. Suzi is also a great team player and brings this confidence that has allowed all of us to take a deep breath and to know that our musical tradition at St. Luke’s will continue to be deep and broad and strong.
Suzi and Shane, thank you so much for continuing the tradition of having a blast while dreaming, creating, and crafting liturgy. You are blessing me in ways you’ll never know.
Sean Damrel. Sean is our new College Intern with Youth, and he has been a great addition to our team. Sean was formed in a wonderful youth program at his Episcopal church in Greensboro, and he found us his first weekend at ASU. He wants our youth to have that great youth experience like he had. He has a wonderful imagination and a grand sense of what’s possible. Our youth are enjoying him, and he has quickly won the confidence of our parents. Thanks, Sean, for the wonderful formation work you are doing with our youth.
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.
Elizabeth Fowler, Heather McGuinn, Victoria Fowler. 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. 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, but I am most grateful for your ministry as my husband, partner, and soul companion. I am able to do what I do because of your support. And 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, and yes, forgiveness. Thank you for being my companion, always.
And Julia. It is not easy being a priest-kid. You know it; I know it. Thank you for being fiercely and authentically you. Thank you for the integrity of your journey with the big questions of life. I go deeper because of you. I see more because of you. I understand more because of you. Thank you for keeping my feet firmly planted on earth and for reminding me how love works in the daily rhythms of life together.
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, I just want to file by title that there are 50+ 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. We are alive and vital in so many ways.
I want to lift up a few things from this past year, partly because they are instructive.
Hosting the UniZulu Chorale in September. This began with a small “yes.” Could this Visiting Scholar at ASU named Bhekani be connected to our choir as a part of his experience? “Sure,” we said. And of course, we fell in love. So, when Bhekani asked if we could help host a part of his choir this fall, we said, “Sure” because Bhekani had become family. And so the St. Luke’s Choir, under the leadership of Pat Kohles and Suzi Mills, took on this project— wholeheartedly they took this project on, and for two weeks in September, our entire community was swept up into the lives of Bhekani and his beautiful students. Host families, meals, transportation, fellowship—you did it all. You gave those young people an experience that will change their lives forever, change how they understand the world, change how they understand our country. And at this current moment in the life of the world, that is a very, very, very big thing. Those young people were blessed, but we were immeasurably blessed, as well. And that is how blessing always works—in the act of blessing, you are blessed in return.
The Threshold Singers. This is one of those things that started with a spark and has taken off like wildfire. The idea was simple. A singing group that could sing people through those big, threshold moments in life—aging, illness, death. They meet on Wednesday mornings, and they go out and sing at Appalachian Brian Estates, Deerfield Ridge, Glenbridge. They go to the homes of our brothers and sisters when our brothers and sisters can’t come here. And let me tell you how powerful this is. I was feeling bad because I was at Diocesan Convention when Agnes Sayles died; I wasn’t there to do the prayers At the Time of Death. And then Mary Williams told me that the Threshold Singers had gone to Deerfield Ridge on that Thursday before, and they had sung to Agnes. Agnes did have the prayers At the Time of Death; they were sung to her. The community, this community, you sang her over the threshold.
You see this church doesn’t revolve around the priest or the priest’s pastoral ministry. You understand that you are fully empowered ministers of the gospel, and together, we do the work of the Lord. I can’t tell you what that means to me, and I can’t tell you how healthy that is for our church! And again, this ministry started because one of you had an idea, a dream, a passion that you wanted to birth. The best ministry happens when someone’s passion sparks another’s and the Spirit’s power is set loose.
Those are but two things that happened this year. There are many more examples:
- the garden continues to be bountiful and to feed people in more ways than we can imagine
- our outreach and justice ministries continue to grow and thrive
- we continue to tend our interior life through food and fellowship, caring for one another in good times and bad
- our worship continues to be vital on Sunday morning and our musical tradition just keeps growing and expanding as new gifts join up with old ones, and we continue to play and experiment in our Second Sunday services in the evening
- our adults continue to have several avenues for their own formation—Sunday morning Adult Bible Study has taken off and is meeting a real need and our Friday morning book study continues to be a place of deep community as people explore faith and life
- our Godly Play continues to shape our youngest members, and our youth have new opportunities for spiritual community
- there are little elves who show up consistently and quietly to love and care for our building and grounds—painting doors, clearing out beds, cutting grass, tending graves, and doing all manner of little odds and ends
- in fact, there are people all over this community doing what needs doing, tending what needs tending, quietly, behind the scenese, because they care about our common life
In all the ways that matter the most, we are vibrant and alive! We are known across the Diocese as a place of life who is not afraid to experiment. We are known for our creative approaches to formation and for our liturgy. We are known for our deep and abiding commitment to outreach and social justice. We are known for our capacity to face head-on really hard things and for our willingness to wade into the broken places of life. We are known for how we do life together. Bishop Taylor told me after his visit in October, “I think you all can’t get better in how you do community, and then you do.” St. Luke’s, you get it like no other Christian community I know.
We are living through another one of those really hard stretches pastorally. We’ve had stretches before of death upon death, but in 21 ½ years of ministry, I have never seen a stretch like this. Very complicated situations with profound brokenness, several of which have involved mental health issues. I am so deeply grateful for Mike Tanner’s vision and wisdom in starting the Support Group for Those Who Love People Who Struggle with Mental Health Issues. Trust me, God and I have been in deep conversation about all that is going on—Why so much? Why now? Why us? I think there is a call to us in this. The particular shape of this call is not clear yet, but there is something we, as the welcoming and fearless community that we are, there is something here for us. In 2016, I want us to keep our ear to the ground and see what that something is.
2016 will also be a time of dreaming for us as we consider the unbelievable possibility and potential of 3rd Place and our College Ministry. It is exciting to imagine what ministry could spring forth, not just to the ASU community, but also to people in the wider community who long for spiritual connection but are wary of the church.
And alongside this dreaming, we will continue to explore possibilities for our young children and our 6th-12th grade youth. Every church I know is wrestling with how best to meet the needs of their youth and their families amidst the demands of their lives. Sarah Miller always remarked that our youth program changed every year she was here. That’s just the speed of change in our culture. And our youth are worth it. They want to meet, they want to grow, they want to serve. And Agnes Sayles will haunt us from the communion of saints if we don’t do right by them.
This next year also holds the search for the permanent staff for our music program. We are learning much from Shane and Suzi about the qualities and combination that works best for our choir and congregation. We will be putting the word out far and near to see who God is calling to minister with us in this important part of our common life.
The shootings at a church in Charleston, SC in June stunned us, but out of that brokenness, local clergy have come together across several denominations to meet together on a monthly basis to support one another, to have the hard conversation around race and racism, and to talk about issues that matter in our wider community. This past week, that group hosted the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra here at St. Luke’s and we, and several lay leaders, trained together in faith-rooted organizing. We had a lunch with faith leaders and leaders of many of our nonprofits doing the frontline outreach work in our community. In the 11 ½ years I have been here, that has never happened. That group is going to continue to meet monthly to support one another. A mental health professional said to me recently, “The world is heating up, and you all are on the front lines.” We need each other, and there is this beautiful quiet movement happening in our community where we are coming together across lines and trying to do it differently. We are committed to civil civic discourse, and we are committed to acting with courage from our faith. We have no interest in partisan drama, but we care deeply about addressing structural issues. This is slow work, hard work, but good work. I look forward to seeing the fruit that will be borne of these relationships.
And, this past Thursday, the Vestry unanimously and heartily approved the Picnic Shelter Solar Project. I want to thank all of you for the feedback you gave to the Vestry in the process of discerning this project and thank you for your patience as we realized that we needed to back up in our discernment and really wrestle with the feedback we were hearing. Decisions are always better for the wrestling.
So, I want to share a few things that have come out of our Vestry discernment.
- There is genuine excitement about this project, especially the creativity and the imagination of doing the witness to solar power in conjunction with a picnic shelter that can serve needs for fellowship.
- The Vestry understands that there is a mission focus to this project. We have a huge number of 12-step meetings here every week. Members of these recovery groups often congregate outside before and after meetings. We imagine them making use of this space. We imagine students taking a break after classes. We imagine others who might want to come and enjoy a picnic in green space right in downtown Boone while their children play on the swings. We imagine all kinds of fellowship in our own community that strengthens our bonds of connection that give us the strength to go out and serve in world.
- The Vestry believes in the witness to Creation Care that this project exemplifies. A witness as to how a nonprofit can move in the direction of renewable energy in a creative way.
- There is also an evangelism opportunity here—a witness that speaks of good news! A grad student stopped me upon hearing about this project and told me how it spoke to her. Trust me, Millenials are paying attention—things like renewable energy and caring for the earth matter to them, and when the church is attending to such concerns, they take notice.
- This project tapped into passion in a part of our community, and the Vestry believes that the money for this project will follow that passion. Just like when we redid our playground years ago, funding for this project will be beyond our annual giving that supports our normal operations, and we won’t build it until we have the money raised. A designated fund has already been established to receive gifts for this project, and $1,500 has already been given!
- Some may still have some reservations about this project, but I want to remind us about a deeper value that we uncovered when we combined our worship services, and that is the value of allowing something to happen even if you don’t love it because you love a brother or sister for whom it is important. If this project is not your thing, I am inviting you to allow the space for those who do have passion for this to run with that passion trusting that at some point, they will allow similar space for something that makes your heart sing. If we expect unanimity, we are sunk in our capacity to adapt and change and move in new directions. No, it is the virtue of generosity of spirit that will serve us best.
I am also grateful for this process because it has allowed me to go much deeper in articulating a vision that is central to me as your leader, and that is this: all facets of our common life are intimately and integrally connected one to another. Our formation in the way of Jesus, nurture and fellowship, worship, outreach and social justice, caring for our sacred spaces, stewarding our gifts—all of these feed and shape one another. They all need to be strong if we, as the Body of Christ, are to be strong. Leave any out, and the Body just won’t work as it should. As St Paul reminds us, all of these parts of our life are to be treated with honor. Only when we tend to all of them will we have the strength we need to love as Jesus loves, and to live as he lives, pouring out his life for the sake of the world.
So, a lot is ahead of us in 2016. Amidst all of these dreams and projects there will be new sparks that we have yet to imagine. Through it all, we will bury our saints and welcome births; we will share our joys and we will bear one another’s burdens; we will sing our praises and voice our laments; we will keep our ear to the ground, listening to our lives, to our wider community, to the heartache of the world, listening for the movement of the Spirit and praying for the courage to go where Jesus is calling us to go. And through it all, we will hold fast to Jesus and to one another because that’s what it means to do life together as those knit together in his Body.
Serving as your priest and pastor and leader—I don’t have words for what that’s like. I am awed by how you do what you do. I am awed by the way you come together and care for one another. I am awed by your passion and your commitment to live the way of Jesus here and in the world. I am awed by the sacred trust that you place in my hands every day.
I love you so very, very much—thank you for the absolute gift of living my priesthood among you. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 22, 2015