Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon; Last Sunday after Pentecost—Year C; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16: The Song of Zechariah; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Settle in, get comfortable, brevity is not my strong suit when it comes to this annual address. Before I say another word, I want to thank my colleagues with whom I share ministry. They root us so well in our work, day in and day out. I am immensely blessed to work with an amazing roup of people.
Charles Oaks continues to care for our physical plant. Complications from Brenda’s back surgery have not allowed her to work, and though we miss Brenda, Charles has stepped into the lead role beautifully and cares for this house as if it were his own. His work is behind the scenes, and so it’s easy to take for granted—if you ever are here when he cleans, please thank him for his work.
Mary Lyons, Teague Arnott, and Grace Neely take care of our children in the Nursery. The first formation a child gets in our church often happens in our Nursery. The fact that our children are cared for by caring, loving, nurturing, energetic young adults communicates much to our children about how God cares for us. We are blessed to have this team of caregivers.
Pat Kohles is that rare person who delights in numbers. Part of stewardship is being careful and trustworthy stewards of the monies you entrust to us. Pat keeps all the funds straight, of which there are several, keeps us in compliance with the government, shepherds our annual audit process, and is there to answer your questions when something doesn’t make sense. Beyond all that, Pat is always a source of wisdom as our staff comes together to help one another think through a challenge. Thank you Pat, for keeping the financial part of our life in good order and for doing it with a can-do spirit and a generous heart.
Catherine King makes the office go. Communications, bulletins, website, scheduling the bijillion of groups and individuals who use our buildings on a weekly basis—you name it, she makes it happen, and she brings peace and calm when the chaos descends. She does all of this with pastoral sensitivity, great wisdom, and just the right amount of humor to keep us all sane. When I am puzzling through something, Catherine can cut through to the heart of the matter and name what is. That kind of clarity ten feet away is immensely helpful to me. It is great to work with someone who can take it all in stride and keep focused on the big picture. Thanks Catherine, for being a great partner in ministry.
Sarah Miller continues to show amazing creativity and flexibility as our Director of Christian Formation. Now, for the fourth year in a row, we continue to create new curriculum for our older elementary and middle school age kids. She has a wonderful sense of children and the educational process; she has vision and is a great brain-stormer. It is Sarah who helped us grab a hold of the fact that formation happens in worship just as much as it happens in a Sunday School class. We continue to find wonderful new ways to do Christian formation with children. She resources those of you who teach and is always there to think through your questions. Sarah, we are blessed to have your open spirit, your deep grounding in the faith, and your lifetime of educational experience. You help ensure that the way we form our children actually coheres with the gospel we proclaim. Thank you for rolling with our ever evolving way of doing Christian formation.
Ted Gulick. Ted has been equally flexible this year exploring all kinds of new territory. Not only is Ted the most talented organist I have ever worked with, he’s also the most game to try just about anything. We have searched out new musical resources and have expanded our musical breadth as a community. He continues to shape the choir and set free their gifts so that they can open up that thin mystical place for all of us as we worship. And this year, something has been set free in Ted as well. We receive such blessing from his willingness to continually grow and stretch as a musician. I am deeply grateful for his liturgical sensibility as we craft liturgy. Thank you for being the best musical colleague a priest could ask for.
Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg has been on sabbatical this fall, and boy, have I missed him. It’s not just the multitude of details that Greg attends to every Wednesday and Sunday, but it’s the way his spirit anchors this community, and anchors me. Greg is all heart, and his open heart has a way of opening the hearts around him. He is a hands-on kind of guy immersing himself in the needs of the world and inviting us to do the same. He is an incredible partner in ministry, a wise counselor, and my brother in Christ, and I can’t wait for him to return, which will be next Sunday.
This is your staff. They do what they do because the love this place. Please, let’s give them a hand in thanksgiving, and please, take a moment to thank them personally as you see them.
From time to time, I get asked that question, “What’s your vision for St. Luke’s?” The only answer I have ever really been able to come up with is quite simple… “We do life together. Life will bring us what we need to work on.” That just seems to be how it works for us. It’s not fancy, but I think it’s true.
And so, this time last year, we were scratching our heads wondering what we were going to do with Karen Robertson leaving as our 9:00 Music Director. I was busily resisting invitations to consider combining the 9:00 and 11:15 services, until the Holy Spirit invited me to reconsider via those of you who kept asking the question. And so, last spring, we set out to have conversations, lots of conversations. And we busted all kinds of myths along the way. We learned some amazing things about ourselves. Older people do like children, and children do like the organ, and our musical tastes are much more varied than we thought. We weighed what we might gain; we considered what we might lose; we trusted one another, and in the process, we have gone deeper into the essence of what liturgy is all about. We are moving beyond personal preferences into a willingness to love something that may not be our cup of tea simply because we know that our brother or sister at the other end of the pew loves it. We are stepping beyond family-friendly worship into a truly intergenerational experience, and we are learning all along the way. We decided we could take a risk, run an experiment, and just see what we could create if we put the 9:00 and 11:15 communities together. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all of you for your willingness to give this a go. We will do more formal evaluation later in the spring, but the comments around the edges have been so positive. It feels so alive, and my heart melts as I watch the interactions between the generations—something feels awfully right about what we are doing. But we couldn’t have attempted this without your wholehearted willingness to trust one another, and to trust Ted and me. I am as proud about how we have come through this change intact as a community, as I am about the worship experience we have been able to create.
One of the side benefits of combining services was freed up energy to really explore the nature of ritual and liturgy. And so, this fall, we launched our experimental services on Sunday evenings. We have done two so far. The Service of Anointing where we explored what it means to be anointed as God’s beloved sons and daughters and The Service of Lament which gave voice to and transformed the individual and communal cries of our hearts—both services closing with sharing Holy Communion gathered around the altar. All the prayers have been homegrown, as well as the rituals themselves. We have been able to take our spiritual learnings and offer them to the wider community in some new forms with new words. We have explored how improvisational music can carry heavy hearts and to a new place. And we are seeing folks at these services whom we have never seen before. Folks in their 20’s on very intentional spiritual paths are finding something in these forms. These services aren’t just feeding people within our own community who have been yearning for this kind of experimentation, but they are feeding people who are hungry for God. They are unapologetically Christian, but the Jesus they find in these services may not be a Jesus they have met before.
It is true, as we let things go, other things can be born. It letting go of the Sunday-morning three service structure, these new liturgies had the space to be born.
And then, long about June, the legislative session in Raleigh made its way to Boone. Moral Mondays were no longer a handful of people raising their concerns, but thousands, and some of you felt drawn to participate. This led to some challenges for us. Announcements got interesting, which pushed me to think through a theology of announcements so that we could find a way to live together in the midst of different passions and different ideas about public policy. In August, Raleigh seemed to spill over into local politics and all of the sudden Watauga County was making the national news.
About this time, 20+ of us went to the Wild Goose Festival. Some pieces came together for me, sort of like tectonic plates lining up. I heard James Allison talk about the cross and Jesus as the forgiving victim who ends the cycle of violence when he refuses to retaliate. I heard civil rights elder Vincent Harding talk about his love of the constitution and how important it is not to demonize the other. I experienced a workshop in nonviolence. I heard William Barber preach on the prophets. I heard John Dear tell of how Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 40 years and how he meditated an hour every morning and an hour every night because the deeper he went into the work of nonviolence the more he understood that he had to confront the violence in his own heart. I sat in a roundtable of Christian educators who wondered how to go about teaching the stories of our scriptures to our children in ways that we don’t have to undo as they get to be teenagers and adults and they start asking really hard questions of the scriptures. And I realized that, here at St. Luke’s, we’ve figured some things out about that in a really life-giving way.
I came back with all of this buzzing around my head and knowing that the Moral Monday energy was in the room whether I wanted it to be there or not. I also had become increasingly concerned with the tone of public discourse. It has gotten toxic and angry and mean. It flunks our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human” on a regular basis. And, at times, it has spilled over into our beloved St. Luke’s community. We can’t talk one way when we are present together in this sacred space, and another way on social media. It hurts brothers and sisters here when we lash out there. The legislator is an “other” whom we are bound to respect no less than an unemployed or poor person impacted by their policy is an “other” whom we are bound to respect. And when things heated up locally, it felt like we were at a tipping point of really going over the edge. And as I talk to priests around the diocese, this Moral Monday energy is in all of our churches. So, the energy is here, the only question for me was whether to engage it directly or indirectly, and since it was spilling out all over the place, I chose to go the direct route. Just like life brought us Amendment 1 last year, life brought us this energy, and I figured it was our job to steward it somehow.
And so, the Social Justice Training Group was born in late August. I have become convinced that if people are going to engage in social justice work, then they have to train for it, just like the civil rights workers did in the 50’s and 60’s. And it takes a lot more discipline than we have generally had as of late. The vision that God gave me for this is six-fold: go deep in the Christian scriptures; think in terms of Christian ethical frameworks; study the legislation itself, primary sources and not hearsay; learn the history of North Carolina; practice nonviolence, particularly nonviolent communication; and ground all of this work in practices of prayer and meditation, because it is so easy to get swept away in a sea of emotions, and prayer and meditation is the precondition for finding a third way. It’s a daunting vision—it demands a lot of hard work and discipline, but many of you have said “yes” wholeheartedly to this process. Thus farm, we have had 60+ people participate from 7 or so congregations across 6 or so denominations.
For my part, it has been some of the funnest teaching I have done in 20 years. I will also tell you it has been some of the most conservative and orthodox teaching I have done in 20 years. I thank God every day for The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Breidenthal who taught me two courses in Christian ethics in seminary and worked our little fannies off in the process. I have discovered two things the deeper I go in my walk with Jesus. One, I am more progressive than I ever thought I would be, and two, I am more conservative than I ever thought I would be. I don’t fit neatly with anything that is going on politically, and that’s because as Christians, every position we hold has to start from our faith, and the scriptures, and the tradition, and then find its expression in the public arena. The deeper I go with Jesus, the more I accept that he is Lord over every area of life, and so I can’t keep these different realms separate anymore.
Life has brought us this moment, and as followers of Jesus, I think there is work for all of us to do—we have got to get serious about understanding what our ethical framework is and where it comes from. Ethics is about a coherent moral vision as you look out on the world. What is sourcing our ethics? Is it a political perspective, a market perspective, a common good perspective, a bottom line perspective, a pragmatic perspective? Is it the prophets? Is it Jesus? Is it St. Paul? Is it the law that sustained the people of God in the wilderness and during the exile? What sources your ethical framework? This is the question that I have been asking everyone I meet, and most of the time, I get a blank look back—most of us just haven’t thought about where our positions come from. And if we’re followers of Jesus, most of us don’t have a clear sense of what a coherent ethic arising from Christian faith looks like. We may have a vague sense that our values connect to our faith, but it doesn’t feel coherent to us. So, this is a huge piece of work ahead of us. What I’m really talking about is this: How does our faith find expression in how we view and behave in the world?
I want to add that, as your priest and pastor, I want to be talking with you about this, in groups and in private conversations. I want to talk to liberals; I want to talk to conservatives; I want to talk to all those for whom those labels just don’t work anymore. I want to understand more about your moral vision and help you make connections to the treasures we have in our scriptures and tradition. I am finding these conversations to be so rich, but it takes an immense amount of trust to talk with one another this way. I and fellow clergy in Boone across the spectrum are beginning these conversations with one another. I am talking with pastors from Crosspoint and Alliance Bible Fellowship and First Presbyterian and a variety of Methodists. As clergy, we understand that if we can’t talk about these things that matter in civil ways, then our people are sunk and our wider community is sunk. We understand that Boone is a small place, and that we can do better as a community, and we are excited about the possibilities that are coming out of reaching across to people we haven’t talked with before.
As we do this work, we must begin with an absolute commitment to be nonviolent in our speech, across the board. David LaMotte said something in his Third Way Workshop when he was here in October that really struck me. He said, “I think that we think we are having lots of conversations, but I don’t think we are. We are having imaginary conversations with imaginary people. We are talking back to the radio or the news on the tv, but we aren’t talking to real people, and real people are much more complicated (and I would add multi-faceted) than imaginary ones.” I think he’s absolutely right. No real person fits in the boxes we put our imaginary opponents into. So, let us be about real conversations about things that really matter with real people. Let us begin here, with one another. If we can’t do it here with people we love, how will we ever learn to do it out there in the world? Our world is aching for us to do this work.
I think this is work that God is calling us to in this moment into which God has placed us. No matter where you sit on the spectrum, there is spiritual work to be done, plenty.
We do life together. Life will bring us what we need to work on. Life brought us this; we can find our way together.
But life doesn’t bring us only this. Life brings us so much in this community. Life brings us the Mary Boyer Garden and FARM Café and Third Place. Life brings us the Bread of Life and Community Care Clinic and the Hunger Coalition and Hospitality House. Life brings us Wednesday Quidditch and Bible, J2A, Godly Play, and Adopt a Grandparent/Adopt a Grandchild. Life brings us Choir and Altar Guild and Flower Guild. Life brings illness and Meal Train and Community of Hope. Life brings us Friday Morning Book Study and Centering Prayer. Life brings us death and burying our brothers and sisters and hosting receptions so that we can grieve together and potlucks and pancake suppers. Life brings us birth and babies and young children who take up offerings. Life brings us fellowship with Women and workdays with Men. Life brings us work outside of these walls in the literally hundreds of places that you go out and give witness to your faith throughout the week in the work that God has blessed your hands to do. Life brings us friends and families and sabbath time to just sit and breathe and rest in one another’s company. Life brings us burdens to help one another bear and joys that must be celebrated together.
In February, I will celebrate my 10th year as your Rector. I am not the same priest that came to you 10 years ago. God continues to shake me up and make me new, as a follower of Jesus and as a priest. I am blessed with a wonderful partner in life and faith in Jim, a terrific daughter in Julia, a wonderful son in Jimmy—Jim and Julia, thank you both for walking this journey with me. You see my rougher edges and keep my feet firmly planted on earth, but you also open my heart toward heaven. St. Benedict understood that Christian community was a school of love. I thank my family for being that first and most intimate school of love. I am not perfect—not as a wife, not as a mother, not as a priest, not by a long shot. Our family trades in the currency of grace and forgiveness—we have to. I think the same is true of all Christian communities.
I don’t know where this journey is going, but I do know that the Spirit is blowing strong. I have never felt this community more alive. I thank you for the immense amount of trust that you bestow upon me as your priest. That trust is sacred to me. I thank you for your willingness to let God continue to work with me and shape me as a priest, which means I can’t predict where God might lead me next and where that might lead me to lead you next. And actually, since we do life together, your passions and questions and dreams are often leading me as much as I am leading you. So, the only guarantee is that we are in for a ride, and I can’t think of a community with whom I would rather take this ride than with you. I love you for who you are and for your willingness to fall ever deeper in love with Jesus and his Way.
I get to look out over the church from time to time, and you need to know, you are special. There aren’t many communities out there like you; there just aren’t.
I am so blessed to serve here with you. Thank you for letting me be your priest and your pastor. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 24, 2013