“Incarnation” a Message for Christmas Eve 2017

“Incarnation”

Christmas Eve 5:30 PM, Year B, December 24, 2017

Isaiah 9:2-7          Psalm 96    Titus 2:11-14       Luke 2:1-20

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          The Gospel of Mark begins in chapter one with the Baptism of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even mention the birth of Jesus in any form of the Christmas story.  John’s Gospel is similar, but it begins with the prologue, a sort of cosmic sounding poetry talking about creation coming to being through Christ, the Word of God, then we read about Jesus being Baptized, but again no birth narrative.  Matthew’s Gospel starts with a genealogy, then talks about Joseph on the verge of dismissing Mary, but an angel comes in a dream and tells him not to do this, but to name the child, Jesus, which he did.  Then it picks up in chapter two with the wise visitors from the east, their conversation with King Herod, another angel or two, this time with warnings, and the family flees to Egypt while the other families in Bethlehem don’t fare so well.     Luke’s Gospel is the most descriptive for what we might call a “classic Christmas story.”  The mention of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the angel, Gabriel greeting young Mary, and the birth stories of both the young Prophet, John, and the Lord, Jesus.  There are shepherds, angel armies, the manger, and then before you know it Jesus is eight days old getting presented in the Temple in Jerusalem and as chapter two finishes Jesus is twelve years old and continues to grow in wisdom and stature.  That’s about it.  No mention of wise men, no genealogy, no mention of Herod’s tirades.

For the early church the birth of Jesus was really no big deal.  Easter was the big deal, the resurrection and celebrating the Lord’s Day was the focus of worship.  It took about 1,000 years for Christmas to get noticed in Western Christianity.  Francis of Assisi through a small movement on the edge of the Roman Catholic Church was one of the first to put direct emphasis on why the birth of Jesus is so important for the world.  St. Francis, the one who made the first creche scenes or manger scenes, recognized that the church up to that point had focused mainly on a condemning God judging the world and sinners offered salvation through the cross.  But Francis had experienced war, and had been a tortured prisoner of war.  For him, a church also engaging in the Crusades and other wars, just didn’t match up with his transformative experience of God as love, and God’s saving presence as act of love, especially reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.  No wonder it’s in Luke, because that is who Luke’s Gospel tries to include through the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.

For St. Francis in the twelfth century, something was missing in the larger theology or teachings of Christianity.  The birth of the Prince of Peace, the Incarnation of God, Christ becoming flesh in creation, helps fill this void, and Francis declared a revolutionary message: that the birth of God in the flesh in Jesus is the point at which we as humans realize that God is on our side.  Salvation comes in the birth of Jesus just as much as we claim it comes through his death.  Christ in the flesh helps us declare that it’s good to be human, and we are blessed to experience life.  If human form is worthy of God’s Presence, then we are honored as those created in God’s image.  But this spiritual development took over 1,100 years, and actually it is still taking place as Christianity continues to Reform, Awaken, and Emerge.

God is so patient, and if anything echoes through the ages, it is the message of what a difference it makes when the Presence of the living God is recognized.  God is there all along, but to face God, to turn to God and awaken to this Presence; this is transformative.  For St. Francis it took a war and deep suffering to get his attention.  For Joseph, angels came in dreams.

What is it for you?  What is your spiritual discipline that helps enlighten your life?  How are you being called by God to make room for the birth of Christ?  What is God’s love doing in your heart?

Christmas is a special time of year.  Love and community, peace and joy, giving and receiving of gifts; all this tells us that something is happening that is worth paying attention to.  The stirring of our heart, the quieting of our mind, the yearning of our soul; these are part of the human experience as spiritual beings.  The light of God shines in all things, and all things are in God, and at Christmas we are reminded of daily miracles that so often get overlooked or ignored.

As we gather around word and song, and as the candles lights are passed, may the blessing of Christmas fill your heart.  The Incarnation of Christ, the unity of God’s holiness on earth, the gift of Jesus who shows us the way to live into this unity without fear; this is what we celebrate every time we say, Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas to you, and may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

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“Out of Our Minds,” a Message on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Out of Our Minds”

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 24, 2017

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16      Luke 1:46b-55     Luke 1:26-38

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          On the Sabbatical one of the places we visited was Innsbruck, Austria.  We spent an entire day exploring and this included a picnic lunch from the top of the Austrian Alps.  Using public transportation, we eventually got off a cable car at the summit of ski area overlooking the city and the entire valley.  You could see the ski jump miles away used in the Olympics.  Even the resort we were at claimed the steepest terrain in all of Europe; it’s ski slopes has 70 degree pitches.  Falling is not an option.  There was about an inch of snow that had fallen the night before, so we were above the snow line on that September day.  The sun came out, the melting started, and after hiking around the summit area we headed back down into the city.  Sometimes it’s nice to have that mountain top experience, to gain the big picture.  But we headed back down to the valley and into the streets.  No skiing for us that day, but standing at the top of a steep pitch gets you thinking about the glory days.

When Shawna and I were in college in northern Wisconsin, the winters there were harsh and long.  But we were members of the downhill ski racing team!  We traveled on weekends to various events throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota, and in that Midwest racing circuit, we came up against some of the most competitive athletes in the world.  Since I had started skiing in eighth grade, by college on my Fischer 205’s with bright red boots and day-glow yellow buckles, I could free ski just about anything.  But being on a racing course with set gates and icy ruts is an entirely different experience.

In most of these races I placed consistently in the pack, and week after week, out of over 90 racers, I was always third or fourth…to last.  Third or fourth to last:  I was a big loser!  Those guys are amazing skiers when you put them in the gates, and the more rutted and icy the course, the faster they go.  I decided I was more of a recreational racer, and rather than spandex, I sported a rag wool sweater.  I thought it was just great getting off campus every weekend, hanging out with my friends, having our meals, hotels and lift tickets paid for through the activity funds.  I got a new winter jacket.  People thought you were cool.  It was a great way to stay in shape.  Our training was really good and my skiing definitely improved, as long as I wasn’t on a race course.

Competition is the name of the game for downhill ski racing, especially in the Midwest where people get bored free skiing.  They want that adrenaline.  Setting goals, measurable results, learning to excel, playing the game to win, getting rewarded for your merit, sticking with successful and proven methods, and above all, working hard.  Individuals with ambition, material resources, and strategies to help them achieve do well when they have a drive and they strive for victory.  These are qualities of champions.

And these represent the orange level quite well.  The orange level, the Rational Self level of Spiral Dynamics, a system of explaining cultural evolution, how society has stages of development and what each level focuses on in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  All those qualities mentioned about the Orange level, the Rational Self level are at the core of what has brought about Capitalistic Democracies, the Free Market, a Global Economy, all of which depend on Scientific Rationalism.  Some of the weaknesses involve using people and the earth as a commodity to help you get what you want, so environmental degradation is a side effect.  Consumerism, materialism, workaholism, and denial of the spirit are also challenges for this level.

There are other levels, such as a lower one called the Power Self, the red level which focuses on aggression, might makes right as you do and be what you want regardless of anyone else.  The quest for heroic status, power, glory, rage and revenge drives people to align with power, seeking loyalty as you take what you need, have power over others, and use force to get what you want.  It’s a legitimate level, part of our story.  The downside is that this level also involves bullying and terrorism, and fear and phobias are driving factors which can lead to depression and anxiety.  Every level has strengths and weaknesses, and we know reality is usually a mixed bag.

Each of the levels in Spiral Dynamics represents years, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years of human development as a species.  For example, moving from the level of the Instinctive Self that sought daily survival for you and your family, to a more organized tribal level that puts the clan and known entities at the center in order to defend from outsiders and threats, to even more systemic or larger empires and feudal systems; this upward journey continues into levels that provide break-throughs along the way.  The Law and Order of the Rule Level brings relief to chaos and random attacks, and provides stability, direction and purpose for generations.  This Rule level still is very active in our own culture.  And it’s interesting to see higher levels in the spiral getting revealed from time to time, and we see this through things like the desire for human rights, an appreciation of diverse views, being open and affirming of all sorts of people.  Terms that describe these higher levels in the spiral include:  Holistic, compassionate, interactive, ecological, egalitarian, community, sensitive.  Yet even these have their weak points or pitfalls.  Rather than get confused about different levels, the main idea here is that culture is not static.  Human society and our place and role in the larger creation is dynamic, and God’s purposes, grounded in divine, loving Presence, are at the core of this cosmic-level creativity.

In our own lifetime we see people and situations that represent movements along the spiral, sometimes up and sometimes down.  World population includes people at every level, and our Western society reflects those levels where the majority of people in power tend to reside.  It gets tricky when problems created at lower levels need solutions that can’t be found there.  It seems revolutionary when breakthroughs to higher levels reveal the solutions in ways that become quite obvious.

The coach for my ski team had us use a book called, Skiing Out of Your Mind, and it’s basically about visualization.  You’ve likely seen Olympic athletes preparing for their big race with headphones in, eyes closed, body moving; they’re getting in the zone!  They are using their mind, picturing each part of the course, how they will navigate the turns, the changing landscape.  Imagery guiding their reality.

Mind over matter, skiing out of their mind in a focused way, and not from their fears or distractions or anxieties; using that Rational Level self to help them excel.  I suppose it works for those who are into that kind of thing.  What we tell ourselves mentally, the thoughts we entertain and empower, can be very influential.  But even this has it’s limits.  Our mind eventually hits it’s own horizons and there are things in life that are beyond our understanding through that mind space.  Common sense and rationalization, even the scientific method do not necessarily lead to enlightenment.

These scriptures we read this morning on this fourth Sunday of Advent take us on a journey through the spiraling creativity of God and the beauty of humanity’s invitation to dance in love with the Trinity of God.  They are encouragements which bring healing and wholeness as mind, body, soul, and spirit come together, integrating our larger, True Self with the gift of the living Christ.

The spiral dynamics shine through the words of the Psalmist: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.”  We see the limitations and reversals in the story of David and the Prophet, Nathan.  The King was settled and wanted to build God a Temple.  The Prophet tells David, “Go, do all you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”  But the word of the LORD comes to Nathan that very night and shows the limitations of this royal ego trip, reminding them both that its God who decides what actions help express God’s purposes, and this shows the limitations of the mind, even the mind of a king, and a chosen king at that!

The passages from Luke share the story of Mary and her faithfulness, thankfulness, and holy participation in what God is doing in creation, in the birthing of Christ through Jesus.  The details are counter-cultural to say the least, involving a young girl who is not yet fully married, and the town of Nazareth of all places.  She is perplexed and fearful when the angel greets her, yet we read that typical, angelic phrase, “Do not be afraid” along with a reminder that God is with us.

It’s quite an image to picture all of history, all of creation both seen and unseen, heaven and earth and all the cosmos pivoting around this holy moment in which angels wait on baited breath to hear Mary say, “Yes.”  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  This is very different than Nathan’s and David’s approach.  This is very different than many of the ways our world typically works.  Yet her YES in that moment echoes throughout eternity in ways that are as connected, imminent, and current as the breath of God itself.  Like a catalyst in a solution, her YES very quickly changes everything!

We participate in Mary’s YES.  We participate in God’s purposes as co-creators.  And we are invited to remember that we are servants of the LORD, that it is the word of the Lord that takes us out of the limitations of our minds and into our hearts where we find unity with the bigger picture.  It’s from that unified field, the heart-mind-spirit connection in a balanced way that Mary says with integrity and humility, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  She claims her full humanity as one involved in the Incarnation.

Preparing our hearts for Christmas, to receive the Prince of Peace, humbly quieting our minds and disarming our fears, the God of love comes to us with promise and blessing.  As we take our place, united with Mary’s YES, connected throughout history and the echoes of time, God’s eternal now invites us to take deep breaths infused with grace, justice, and love.  May we discover the gift of our full humanity as we live and share the image of God.  The world is blessed.  Christmas joy is upon us.  Do not be afraid!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

“In Christ,” a Message on the Third Sunday of Advent

“In Christ”

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 17, 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28          1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          How many of you looked in a mirror as you got ready to come to worship today?  When we look in the mirror, we’re checking to see that we look alright: how our hair is, what our outfit looks like, and rarely a day goes by when we don’t glance at least once into a mirror.  But our reflection is only surface level and it only shows a physical appearance.

One of the last things we would possibly think about as we look at our reflection is that we participate in evil.  But looking a bit deeper, it’s entirely true.

I wanted to work on my sermon last Thursday, so I went out to my Hermitage room, turned on my computer, was sitting at my desk getting ready to prepare this sermon.  My Hermitage is a room at my house, off the side of the garage, so it’s part of the house, only totally separate.  You have to go outside from the house to enter the door that goes into The Hermitage.  It’s a nice space, set up for Spiritual Direction, a couple nice chairs, a book shelf, and a big table next to a desk so there’s plenty of workspace for projects.

One of the things I have in there are two Slovenian A-Z Beehives, without bees.  Just the boxes are there because they’re pretty new, purchased through funding from the Sabbatical grant.  These are the first two Slovenian beehive boxes for my some-day bee house.  I’ll use these for workshops and sharing about Slovenian beekeeping.  But I also had a Langstroth hive, the white box, just a beehive box, without bees, with old frames of wax and pollen, just a bit of honey.  It was in there for storage until my bees need it this spring.

Sitting at my desk, waiting for my computer to boot up, I was actually just about to go sit in one of those nice chairs for a time of Centering Prayer.  But I reached down next to me to move an empty cardboard box that was sitting on top of my Langstroth, American style bee box, only it was stuck.  I figured there must have been some honey or propolis, sticky residue that bonded over the weeks, so I wiggled it more.  It was really stuck so I pulled on it, lifted it up, and it came loose.  I pulled out the box and flipped it over to inspect the bottom, to see what was so sticky.  It was covered in a thick, white web, like a spider web nest, only there were no spiders.  What I found, instead, looked like dozens and dozens of maggots, about an inch long.

Well, friends, these are not maggots, they are larvae.  Beekeeping is a constant struggle against parasites, and bee colonies struggle to survive because parasites invade their hives.  This stored hive box was infested with a larval hatch of wax moth.  Wax moth!  These moths lay their eggs in the wax of old frames, and the larvae chew their way around through the comb, totally destroying it.  Then they spin silky web so they can change form into the adult moth.  I interrupted this process and spent several hours combing through all my stored equipment, inch by inch finding larvae.

If you don’t find the larvae, they will destroy from the inside out and entire bee hive, including burrowing through the wood box and into the wooden frames.  They are very destructive.  I wanted to salvage some of the frames so I put them in my freezer, because extended freezing kills the eggs, larvae, adults, any stage of growth for the wax moth.  Freezing is a form of treatment.  Unfortunately, the most infested frames I added to my burn pile and that afternoon they went up in thick, choking smoke.  Actively destroyed.

I was getting very frustrated during that day, becoming angry that my sermon prep day was getting sucked away by needing to deal with this wax moth situation.  But I needed to face it.  If I left them alone, then this army of grubs would only lead to bigger problems.  I was also frustrated that my day was derailed.  I didn’t take the time for contemplative prayer, my clothing smelled like smoke, some of my bee equipment was destroyed, and I didn’t get my sermon written!  What a lousy day! (almost).

“Almost,” because I realized, I had been writing my sermon the entire time, experientially.  The mystical words of the Apostle Paul were ringing truer than I knew.  “Rejoice always… pray without ceasing… give thanks in all circumstances;… for this is the will of God… in Christ… Jesus for you.

We are not giving thanks for all circumstances, God’s will is not that we suffer or are led into temptation or have to deal with the very real effects of evil.  But God’s will is that we continually live in thanks, claiming prayerful unity, and deep joy.  This third Sunday of Advent, focusing on joy, is so important because in life we face circumstances that are challenging, not only externally, but internally things get stirred that we’d rather ignore or forget.

Paul likes the phrase, “In Christ.”  It is “in Christ” where prayer happens without ceasing and joy finds its eternal source.  Advent and Christmas teach us to live “in Christ,” as Christ becomes incarnate, revealed through creature, not only in Jesus, but again and again and again.  We are “in Christ.”

As Christ lives in and through us, this is anything but passive.  Paul’s words to the Thessalonians remind us of choices we make each day.  Think about the backside of what he says in this passage.  As he says to pray without ceasing, we have the option of ceasing.  We don’t have to give thanks.  We can despise the words of the prophets, letting what’s good slip away as we dive into the depths of evil itself.  But wait, Paul is saying don’t do that, because in Christ we can put the words and experiences of the prophets to the test, and hold fast to the good.  Paul says, abstain from every form of evil.

That’s the part that I worked on all day, killing wax moth larvae as a metaphor about every form of evil in our lives, and our participation.

That word, “abstain” is an active word.  To abstain means you are choosing not to participate, you are removing yourself from consideration in what otherwise takes place.  If you do not abstain from evil, by default, you participate in it.  Evil happens, and to abstain involves action.  But this is where the mirrors and the bee hives teach us their lessons.

When I walked into the hermitage, my bee equipment looked fine.  It was sitting there just like it had sat there for months.  It wasn’t until I moved that box to reveal what was going on inside the hive, in amongst the frames, down deep in the comb, underneath and protected from the light, that’s when things were discovered and I took action.

When we look into a mirror, we see our reflection.  We see the surface image of our body.  But our life also has layers, and we participate in every layer whether we consciously recognize it or not.  “Abstain from every form of evil” seems easy when we stay on the surface, when we proudly remind ourselves that we are not really social deviants, we’re not out robbing banks or running people over.  We can pat ourselves on the back that we abstain from evil in our daily life.

But we’re fooling ourselves.  Like those wax moths destroying a bee hive box that looks perfectly fine from the outside, other forms of evil are wreaking havoc on us, and often we don’t even recognize it, and worse, if we do, we actually may not be interested in abstaining.  Now, let’s come alongside John the Baptizer challenging the powers of the day, and do some meddling based on the themes Paul presents.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ.  The Prince of Peace is born!  The Prince of Peace, yet our world profits from war.  The American economy and the budget of the Federal Government leads the world in creating weapons of destruction so we can sell them to the highest bidder, who in turn use them to oppress people, killing men, women, and children, and devastating communities.  We support their efforts by tactical and logistical operations, and even our local economy (think Fairchild Airforce Base) profits from refueling missions that enable this slaughter to continue.  Ironic that we don’t rob banks or run people over and think that’s enough when it comes to abstaining from evil.  But evil, like violence, depends on layer upon layer, and you can’t just deal with one layer for active abstention.  But we’re pretty good at compartmentalizing, especially when our way of life is questioned or critiqued.

Paul sees this deception as he calls us to be active, and reminds us that we are not alone.  We can’t do this work by ourselves; it’s far beyond any self-help or pop psychology.  “Abstain from every form of evil.  May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;”  The God of Peace, sanctifying us entirely.  This also is a huge process that goes more than skin deep.

Why do you think I talk about Contemplative Prayer so much?  Why do you think people like Richard Rohr, Pope Francis, James Findley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and others like them get quoted so much in my sermons, or explored in book study on Tuesdays?

It’s because the Holy Spirit is at work, and we’re trying not to quench it.  It’s because contemplative prayer opens up disciplines that help us pray without ceasing.  It’s because holding fast to what is good is only possible through the strength of God given as a gift, and you can only hold fast to something if you’re unencumbered by trying to hold everything else.

Preparing to encounter God, cultivating deep joy in our lives requires an active, open engagement with evil at every level.  The personal level, in our own hearts, souls, and minds; the relational level of our family of origin and current family structures, dealing with the dynamics of those systems and how they affect our attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.  Interpersonal levels as we come together as communities and social groups large and small.  Societal levels of towns, cities, counties, states, and nation.  Cultural levels as our Western, Capitalistic systems interact with other systems and world views.  Historical levels, as culture evolves and we take the larger view of history not as a linear step by step process, but as a living organism developing from one stage to another.  These are just a few of the layers involved as the God of Peace sanctifies us entirely.

Evil happens by default if we do nothing to abstain from it; and what is good slips away if we don’t actively hold fast to it; this is our struggle.  God doesn’t promise to take the struggle away!  Jesus enters the struggle, and shows us the way to journey through it, birthing the Living Christ.  Through this struggle, as creation groans with birthpangs, we are promised joy, relationship and connection, thankfulness, prophetic courage, authenticity, strength, divine Presence, holy peace, faith, calling, and Christ incarnate; these are all shared in these short verses and their power echoes through the ages.  Paul the mystic encourages us, in Christ.

Thanks be to God, the God of Peace, now and forever.  Amen.

Merry Christmas Is A Declaration Of Peace

Submission to the Bonner County Daily Bee Newspaper, by Pastor Andy Kennaly

for THE PASTOR’S CORNER…

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Christmas Holiday is upon us, and one thing I hear people talk about this time of year involves how busy we get.  Lots of great opportunities to connect with friends and family; the parties, shopping, and hosting are usually really fun, but they do take time and energy.  Expectations or financial strain can also be high, and when things don’t match up or get out of balance (which is often the case) there can be a let-down, or depression, that follows.  Plus, it’s really dark this time of year as the sun is low on the horizon or enshrouded by clouds, and this adds to the dynamic.  For many, the holidays can be a challenging struggle.

The first Christmas was similar between struggle and amazement.  As the story tells, Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem and she gives birth to Jesus.  As Luke’s Gospel shares, an angel appears to shepherds to proclaim the good news of this birth.  Then an entire angel army appears, whose mission is to praise God.  The shepherds head into Bethlehem, find the scene just as they were told, and convey all this news and activity to Mary and Joseph, and apparently others, because “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”  Then comes the clincher, because in the midst of all this action, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

The gift of Christmas is for the heart.  It’s ironic that this season has evolved into a busy time of hustle and bustle, when, as Mary shows us, the heart involves pondering, stillness, and reflection.  God gives the world the gift of Jesus, who is non-violent, lives simply, identifies with the marginalized and ostracized of society, and embodies love and justice even through suffering tremendous injustice.  It’s ironic that the Church has taken the gift of Jesus, who is “good news of great joy for all the people” and reduced it, invariably excluding many.  Church history and social structures prove that people often prefer to stay in the mind space, rather than the heart space.  But the gift of Christmas is for the heart.

The gift of heart space is rooted in the peace of Christ.  In celebrating Christmas, we claim gifts of love, peace, joy, and contentment.  Through a variety of ways, we are invited by God train our hearts to not only receive, but to emanate divine Presence.  That Mary “treasured all these words,” shows us the importance of this mission.

On January 6, from 8:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., a partnership between Cedar Hills Church and First Presbyterian Church presents an introduction to Contemplative Prayer.  This half-day retreat explores spiritual practices which help train our hearts to encounter God.  Call 208-290-3119 or registration@fpcsandpoint.org for registration information.

Because “Merry Christmas” is a declaration of Peace, open your heart to receive the Living Christ.

Peace and All Good,

Pastor Andy Kennaly

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint

 

“All People Shall See,” Message from Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

“All People Shall See”

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11     Mark 1:1-8

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

One of the features Shawna and I would visit during the Sabbatical were castles.  Whether in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, or any of the other places, castles are an established part of the landscape, in terms of geography, history, and culture.  Prominent rulers made use of castles and entire techniques of warfare were developed around castles.  Back in the day when some form of rocks or sharp sticks were the weapons, either through catapults, spears, or arrows, castles were mainly places of defense with motes, stores of food and water to survive long sieges, and high walls with gates that could be lifted up or closed and locked.  Fortresses!

One castle we visited in Slovenia, the Predjama Castle, is built into a cave along a major cliff, with a stream flowing out.  The occupant was a crook who kept robbing the treasury of the Austrian Emperor.  Soldiers kept the castle under siege, but couldn’t figure out how the occupants could throw fresh fruit at them months into it.  A secret entrance high up on the hill; they smuggled in food.  But eventually he got killed and the castle was taken.

History is filled with stories about those times and places, when and where, powers collide.  That old saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” seems to echo through the ages, and violence is often the result of human obsessions.  Our scene in Mark is no different, and “John the Baptizer” is one who recognizes this, his life shaped as a prophet calling people to turn to God, to trust in God’s redemption.

John is the son of religious authority, and can trace his roots back to Aaron.  His mother, Elizabeth, is likely related to Mary, mother of Jesus.  His father, Zechariah, is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, although tradition has it that when King Herod slaughtered the innocent children under two years old in Bethlehem, Zechariah would not divulge the location of his son, John, so Herod’s soldiers killed him in the Temple.  This would mean John grew up away from centralized power of the Temple system, and many think he was part of the Essene community, a very strict sect of Jews who lived in the Qumran area, where more recently the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

There is so much history when it comes to the prophet John!  By the time this scene takes place he is wearing clothing made from camel’s hair and he eats off the land a simple diet of insects and wild honey.  In other words, he is an ascetic, practicing severe forms of self-discipline and abstaining from any indulgence.  He seems to be leading a solitary life, like a hermit, because everyone has to go out to him, in the wilderness.

Can you believe “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins?”  Out in the wilderness…, in other words NOT in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were baptized by him…, in other words, NOT the official, ordained priest of the Temple, but by this prophet working on the margins.  NOT through a ritual cleansing in the official wash basins, but in a small river that doesn’t have any prestige, some historians even say he was using a tributary and not the Jordan at all.  Confessing their sins…, NOT having the priest make sacrifices on the altar, but turning to God on their own.

All the people of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside; John has celebrity status, yet he is humble.  The High Priest dressed in fine robes in Jerusalem had quite a regiment of ritual cleansings before he would even be presentable in the Temple, let alone make sacrifices at the altar.  He had a separate sky-walk to get from his expensive home to the Temple, so he could avoid touching anybody on the street, especially the ritually unclean.  Yet here is John clothed in itchy camel hair on purpose, standing in a river, fully accessible by everyone.

Christianity has taken many forms over the last 2,000 years, mostly defaulting to the Temple, Sacrifice, Clergy model, very similar to our liturgical traditions involving an order of worship, usually a church building, a facility, and professional clergy.

But this story from Mark about John the Baptizer reminds us of other models, such as the one from the years 300 to 600 as we remember those often called, “The Desert Mothers and Fathers.”  These, also like John, were mainly hermits, people in the wilderness who sought to live a more faithful life than they thought possible through the mainstream of social structures and Empire religion.  Pilgrims, spiritual explorers, seekers, would go out into the desert to visit, to learn from the wisdom gained through spiritual disciplines and solitude.

In an article called, “Blurring the Boundaries: Paradox in the Spirituality of the Desert Mothers and Fathers,” Richard Bonacci explores this mystical side of Christian faith.  He says “the movement into the desert…is also a transformation of spiritual and psychological significance.  It is where we encounter in humility our true selves, where we talk to God, and our demons talk to us.  Our journey into the desert is not one of escape but of encounter with the fullness of our humanity and with the awesomeness of God, the ground of our being.” (Presence magazine, An International Journal of Spiritual Directors, Vol. 23 No. 4, December 2017, pg. 32).

Let’s make sure we recognize that we’re not just talking about sand and rocks of an arid environment.  Desert is not only a physical place, but can be experienced in our lives at any time.  Desert means wilderness, somewhere we are away from the familiar or what’s considered normal.  Maybe it’s an addiction we face, or some form of challenge to the way we thought life was supposed to be.  Deserts blur the vision of the horizons we thought we could see, and living on the margins can be both very disorienting and illuminating.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers “understood the destructive nature of the material world,” especially when it came to attachment, and the regrets and longings that go with that attachment.  Bonacci says, “the real threat for seekers [is bringing] their emotional baggage into their spiritual desert.  The abbas and ammas spoke often of what we call the deadly or capital sins.  Of particular concern for them were envy, pride, and an unhealthy need for recognition.”  Quite the luggage, huh?

As John calls people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he is calling people away from envy, pride, and the unhealthy patterns.  “Envy is destructive” because when we continually compare ourselves with our neighbors, and we judge them, this makes it very hard to be compassionate.  Compassion involves going with people “to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken,” and with envy we are not likely to have this desire for compassion.

Pride involves an idealized sense of ourselves.  In fact, we become so focused on our self-image that we really can’t handle reality.  Bonacci puts it, “When we fail to look to God for the source of our virtue and compassion, we are on shaky ground.  The only antidote for pride is our being one in the pain and suffering of all humanity.” (pg. 33-34).  Again, how many people want to willingly enter the pain and suffering of all humanity?

That third deadly threat, an “exaggerated need for approval,” makes us too “dependent on the respect and affection of others.”  The desire for recognition can become destructive.  When all you’re after are approval ratings, you can lose any sense of your true self.  “The desert elders considered it their task to disillusion those who came to the desert to be applauded for their efforts or to find a quick spirituality.”  They probably said things like, “Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but…”  They would rather be called foolish that be promoted and acclaimed as holy and saintly.  They did not like drawing attention to themselves.

The greatest lesson involves humility.  “Without humility, we are in danger of mistaking our own thoughts and desires for the will of God.” (pg. 36).  “To acknowledge your pain, weakness, and failings is positive, and repentance and healing are essential.”  Holding on to past sins and regrets is counterproductive to “gratitude for God’s loving mercy and kindness.”  (pg. 37).

John the Baptizer and the Desert Mothers and Fathers approached ascetic disciplines as a measure, a tool to gauge sincerity in the spiritual journey.  Most people don’t want an encounter with God, they don’t; it would seem too frightening because encounters with God can be disturbing as well as comforting.  That’s what most people want: spiritual comfort.  The prophets are calling out the Word of God: “Comfort, comfort, my people.”  But we are also called to the wilderness so we can sort out what voice it is that we hear.  Spiritual disciplines do not give us a deeper relationship with God, but they do prepare us to have willingness to encounter God.

Do you want to encounter God, even if it’s a mix of comfort and disruption?  Are you willing to repent, to turn to God and away from some false understanding of yourself, especially envy, pride, and the need for recognition?  What desert is on your threshold?  What wilderness is ready to test your spiritual intentions?  Are you interested in spiritual disciplines that help prepare us to encounter God?  Are you willing to go into the wilderness, humbly receiving simple sustenance, or do you prefer the security of the castle, trying to survive the siege with what stores you have saved up for yourself?

Castle warfare came to an end.  Culture evolved and what once worked stopped working.  May we, on this Advent journey be willing to explore the margins, where faith honestly recognizes that what once worked, may not work anymore, and each day is a new day calling us forward in a new way.  Wild honey is amazingly sweet, but you gotta get stung a few times, yet this discomfort helps us appreciate this golden gift of nourishment.  As we follow the Jesus way, may we more and more prepare for encounter with God, for discovery of our True Self in Christ, and be open to the grace and workings of the Holy Spirit.  And, may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

“Awakening to Now,” Message from First Sunday of Advent, Year B

“Awakening to Now”

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9     1 Corinthians 1:3-9     Mark 13:24-37

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

One of the very noticeable aspects of travelling last summer on the Sabbatical, spending three months on the road, is how important it is to not just be a tourist, but to get to know people.  Having friends along the way makes a huge difference.  For example, Jason and Julia Powell loaned us, “The Old Lady.”  That’s what we called the motor home we borrowed.  It’s slow, outdated compared to newer models, but it’s what Shawna and I used to travel to Italy.  We did a big loop, from Germany, through Switzerland, into Italy, down to Assisi, and then up through Austria and back to Germany.  Ten days of adventure with a mix from traffic jams and crazy drivers to quiet solitude and reflection.  It was an amazingly good trip.

One of the highlights was visiting Dani and Ramona and their daughter, Laura.  They live in Switzerland, a small town named Glarus about an hour up into the mountains from Zurich.  We first met Dani and Ramona three summers ago up in Nelson, B.C., while on Selkirk Loop bicycle tours.  They said if we were ever in Switzerland, to let them know; so we did.

At the time, they were living upstairs from the snowboard shop that they own, and downtown is rather busy with noisy street traffic.  They like to get away from that commotion, so they rent a campsite for the whole summer along the shore of an alpine lake up one of the valleys from town.  They had us follow along in the motorhome and we parked right next to their spot.  We had a cookout in the evening, then they joined us for breakfast the next morning because it was raining, and it was nice to have that space out of the weather.  But as the rained slowed down a bit, we went on a day hike.  Leaving the motorhome parked at the lake, we rode with them, back through town, further up another valley, then up a narrow, mountain road to the parking lot of a cable car.  We took this gondola up the steep mountain into the clouds, and spent the day hiking back down, through the mist, catching glimpses of the mountains, and having a great time.

One of the areas the trail passed through was a summer pasture, a farm with many dairy cows filling the valley with the sound of bells.  The cows had those big, Swiss cow bells around their necks.  Dani and his family had been through there before, and they knew which building to approach at the farm, walking past the barking dog along the way.  He knocked, shouted around, and then someone answered.  The woman of the farm invited us in, and this building was where she processes the milk into cheese.  She gave us a tour, and then we sat at a couple tables, she sliced up some cheese, gave us something to drink, and it was great.  We bought some cheese at an absurdly low price, thanked her very much, and continued on our way.  After spending the day hiking back down to the car, we drove back to town, and Dani and Ramona pulled out all the stops for a traditional Swiss dinner of Fondue.  After supper, Dani brought Shawna and I back up to the lake where the Old Lady was sinking into the grass because of all the rain.  We had to get pushed out the next morning, but then we were off to Italy.

Had we been on our own, as tourists with minimal knowledge and experience of that area, we would not have even known about that lake and local campground.  It was beautiful up there, surrounded by rocky peaks of the Swiss Alps, a perfect place to park that motorhome, save the mud of course.  Had we been on our own, we wouldn’t have known about that day hike, or what trails to take, and for sure wouldn’t have even made it past the barking dog.  We would have thought we were trespassing and must have taken a wrong turn, but instead we were more than welcome.

Had we been on our own, we would have missed experiencing the life of a young family with their daughter crawling around the floor getting into things while mom and dad get a special meal put together for company.

But we were not on our own.  We didn’t just see Switzerland, we experienced Switzerland.  We had a local connection, friends excited to share their lives, their culture, the things they find important and enjoyable, and our Sabbatical experience was far deeper and meaningful because of this care they shared with us.  We are not mere tourists trying to enjoy the scenery, taking selfies at arm’s length.  We are family friends, where relationship is more than transactional, but involves an engaged, interested connection taking the wellbeing of the other into account.  Relationship is grounded in love, and this is expressed through hospitality, trust, a sharing of resources, and reciprocity based not on duty or obligation but thankfulness and genuine concern.

So here’s the deal: as we come into the First Sunday of Advent, opening ourselves more and more to Christ and preparing to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, we come not as tourists.  This morning we approach Isaiah, and the Apostle Paul, and Mark as those greeting us like companions on the journey of faith.  They are the local connection sharing an experience of love.

Typically, Advent begins the Christian year with a look at the end.  The Apocalypse, the end times, the coming of judgement; aspects that many promote as Advent themes.  This morning’s scriptures have some elements of this, but they are filled even more with simple, welcoming invitations from friends.  We are invited to awaken to the nearness of God, even now.

David Lose recognizes this in his commentary on this morning’s readings, especially Mark’s Gospel.  He says, “Because while many read this passage and others like it as Jesus’ predictions of the end, I think it can instead drive us back into the present with renewed energy to see the people and situations around us as gifts of God that we are called to love and care for.

Notice, for starters, that there is no mention in here of the end of the world, no indication of final judgment, no call to flee the day-to-day realities and […] responsibilities of life, only the promise that “he (the Son of Man) is near” (29). Indeed, if we recognize that the key temporal markers of the parable that concludes this passage – evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn – as identical to the temporal markers of the passion story about to commence […] then we realize that much if not all of what comes before – darkening of the sun, the powers being shaken, etc. – also correspond with key elements of the passion narrative (Mark 15:33, 38, etc.). Mark, in other words, isn’t pointing us to a future apocalypse (“revealing”) but rather a present one, as Christ’s death and resurrection change absolutely everything. For once Jesus suffers all that the world and empire and death have to throw at him…and is raised to new life!…then nothing will ever be the same again. Including our present lives and situations.”  (http://www.davidlose.net/2017/11/advent-1-b-a-present-tense-advent/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29).

Mark is our friend on the inside.  To project these passages into some future revelation is to miss the local connection of the here and now.  To keep awake, to be alert, to live a life of expectancy that the Risen Christ is in each moment as God comes to us as we are, being awakened to now changes everything.  “Heaven and earth will pass away;” this is an image of how transformative the nearness of God’s grace in Christ really is.

From Mark’s call to stay awake, to Isaiah’s reminder that we are they clay and God is the potter, lovingly shaping the work of God’s hand, to Paul’s reminder that God is faithful and we are called through grace and peace into relationship in Christ.  This is Advent!  This is now!  Claimed in God’s love, live in divine Presence.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.