Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34 John 12:20-33
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
“Father, glorify your name.” “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.”
When I was in high school I spent a weekend with a youth group camping out on an island on Priest Lake. It was a water ski retreat, and a few of the parents brought ski boats, while most of us used canoes to paddle out from the main shoreline. It was an amazing weekend, from the inspiration of the students, the speaker, the beauty of the area, to the weather which gave us everything from sunshine and flat water to windy waves and rain.
American Christianity back then really emphasized revivals and being born again as proof of being saved. Testimonies shared about life changing moments seemed to capture peoples attention, the more dramatic conversion, the better. But at the time, I felt uneasy because I had never had an emotional, dramatic, swoon by the Spirit kind of experience, and the pressure laced with a bit of judgment made me feel uneasy, almost guilty that I hadn’t had a specific day and time in my life that I could point to as the time my heart was given to the Lord. Growing up Presbyterian, what I call being a “cradle-Christian” I never felt as if my heart wasn’t with the Lord. But I still had a desire for some sort of sign, or some way of confirming God’s active Presence in my life.
Following one of the campfire talks in which the speaker shared his vision of heaven and how great it’s going to be, he asked us to pair off and have a one-on-one time of prayer with our peers. I picked my friend, Ken Underwood. He and I got together there on the beach in that awkward teen age way and I shared with him the kind of thing I just told you. So as we talked on the beach sitting on some drift wood, I decided that rather than demand proof, or want some sort of sign, like the born again Christian kind of drama, that rather, I would simply lean further into trust. My prayer that day, shared with Ken, was that from that time onward, in my life, I would never doubt God’s Presence with me, and that even when it didn’t feel like God was there, that I would just assume that the living Christ was with me.
From that same weekend, I have two other experiences that stick in my mind. One involves watching another student get up on two skis and have a great run on water skis, even though the water was a bit choppy, and his legs from the knee down were prosthetics. They were fake legs, and feet, and yet he was all thumbs up as they roared out into the lake. Faster, faster, faster, wave to the adoring fans on shore! Another image is of our group huddled under the tarp as we squished together on the picnic table to get out of the rain. We used a big stick to hold the tarp up in the middle so the torrential downpour wouldn’t puddle up. We sheltered out in the middle of the lake on this island, gathered under a tarp in a storm that featured lightning that flashed and the thunder was instantaneous. That storm was on us in all it’s fury and power. Impressive, most impressive.
Three takeaways have influenced my life ever since that weekend, or at least that’s when I started to notice. One involves having confidence in God on God’s terms, a confidence we might call awareness of faith, with a deep joy that is unwavering even though life has its ebbs and flows. Another take away is that God includes the marginalized, those our society would rather sideline or think, somehow, they are not included in the fullness, when they really are. Everyone benefits by the lessons learned through a larger, more inclusive diversity. And a third take away is that the natural world is included in a participatory way in anything related to God, which is everything, and we are part of that natural world in fragile yet powerfully meaningful ways. My prayer on the beach was shared by the island itself, the lake, the trees, and that storm in which thunder and lightning expressed the voice of God saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” Thunder’s glory on that weekend reflects a confirmation of God’s glory, and the glory of human life fully realized and lived.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the “Early Church Fathers of the 2nd century AD, […] was bishop of Lyons, in Southern France, though he appears to have grown up in Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. There Irenaeus had personal contact with St. Polycarp, one of the Apostolic Fathers who in turn knew the Apostle John, son of Zebedee.” St. Irenaeus became a martyr around the year 200. (https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/author/irenaeus/) One of the most famous quotes attributed to Irenaeus is this, (and I’m keeping it original rather than switching it for inclusive language, because it’s a little too cumbersome to do that with this quote). He says, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” He says, “The glory of God gives life; those who see God receive life. For this reason God, who cannot be grasped, comprehended or seen, allows himself to be seen, comprehended and grasped by men, that he may give life to those who see and receive him. It is impossible to live without life, and the actualization of life comes from participation in God, while participation in God is to see God and enjoy his goodness.”
(https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/man-fully-alive-is-the-glory-of-god-st-irenaeus/) That monastery in New York that I went to for a Centering Prayer retreat last month had his quote framed and hung on a wall, translated, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Living the awareness of deep faith, trusting that living Presence of God which is beyond comprehension yet revealed in all things, we are invited to much more than being born again out of some fear for where we’ll end up for all eternity; we are invited to an entirely new way of living and perceiving life itself. Jeremiah picks up on this in talking about the new covenant, as the LORD says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
God is with us all the time, and all the time, God’s goodness pervades with droplets of grace that drench us in waters of new life. The New Covenant, which shapes God’s love through Christ within us, invites us to a new way of perceiving reality and awakening to Unity. By consenting to God’s Presence, in desiring God’s will, we affirm what has been true all along; that in Christ, right relationship is hardwired into our human experience, and for the many ways we deny that reality intentionally or not, we are forgiven, cleansed, and called back to wholeness and blessing. (Now, depending on how you perceive reality, this next example may or may not make sense).
In a recent online devotional Joanna Macy explored the Kinship with All Life, where she “reconnects our seemingly separate selves with nature, both present and past: the greening of the self [is what she calls it]. It involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is . . . ‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .”
She says, “. . . Unless you have some roots in a spiritual practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, facing the enormous challenges ahead becomes nearly impossible. . . .
“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of the Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time. It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime. The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception. Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first splitting and spinning of the stars.”
“[…] the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and our own story as life on Earth. We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey, wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layer of our neocortex and what we learned in school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”
Friends, recall how started this Lenten journey. Burning Palm branches, mixing ash with olive oil, marking a sign of mortality on our foreheads, even while we trust, in Christ, our eternity as those interconnected with all time and space. “Remember you are star dust, and to star dust you shall return.”
May God continue to teach us what it means to have love and grace and peace, the living Presence of Christ, and our interconnectedness with all things written on our hearts. May we pray for confidence to trust deeply in the glory of God as we seek to live fully as human beings rooted and growing in Christ. May God use us to help share the fullness of life abundant, so we may share through the power of great gladness the joy of faith. And may God be glorified now, even as forever. Amen.
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 11, 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 John 3:14-21 Ephesians 2:1-10
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
Well this has been a busy weekend, busy as a bee. The bee keeping workshop Saturday, another one coming up Wednesday, my mind is all the buzz regarding hives, frames, tools, and getting ready for spring flowers and nectar flows and, hopefully, a bit of honey if the bees make enough to share. I have ordered two new packages of bees, which means I’ll get two boxes, each containing about three pounds of bees, which is about 5,000 bees in each box. There is one bee in each box that stands out, and it’s contained in a separate cage. You know what that bee is called? (Queen). If you’re American, that bee is called the Queen. But if you’re Slovenian, that bee is called the Mother.
In Slovenia, a country with a very close tie to the heritage of beekeeping, language referring to bees is elevated above common words used for other creatures. If you have a pet or some type of animal dies, the Slovenians say it dies, but if a bee dies, it perishes, which is what they would say as if a human person perishes. Those packages of bees will establish what we Americans refer to as a Colony, with a Queen. But Slovenians tell us the Mother bee is head of the Family. Rather than Colony, it is a Family, again a human reference point. Bee species may vary, such as the Carniolan, Italian, Buckfast, or Black bees, and we call them species, but in Slovenia they use another human, social term by referring to these lines as races. Certainly, bee keeping is an important part of Slovenian culture, and even the terminology used in their language claims the centrality of this identity and heritage, and perhaps more accurately indicates what a bee really is. Bees are more than an agricultural component or a feature of a commercial industry, but they are living beings in relationship, with an order to their society, and their rhythms and patterns go well beyond the wooden box, linking each family to a larger creation and the miracle of life.
Friends, this morning’s scriptures have a similar dynamic as what I just talked about in regards to how Slovenians view bees compared to how Americans generally do. In many ways, as we read about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross, and people sick in their troubles calling out for God’s help, even as God’s grace saves us in Christ, many of the terms and images and identities that come to mind have a particular slant to them already. As we read these words, our mind as it’s been trained filters our understanding and shapes our assumptions. But, my friends, this is not exactly helpful. Some of these verses may even sound familiar, like John 3:16, probably the most famous verse of the entire Bible in our world today. But the flipside of this familiarity, is that we overlook something even more profound. Worse yet, the church tends to overlook the true source of transformation, and it has failed in its calling to embody Good News, all the while thinking through spiritual pride that it has succeeded.
If you look at the four lectionary passages through a lens of faith development, Numbers 21:4-9 is the Old Testament story of the people in the wilderness dying from snake bites until God has Moses make a brass serpent on a stick, and this represents one level or stage of spiritual development. The Psalmist picks up on this and takes it a bit further. John’s Gospel mention’s that story from Moses and sets the stage for a new interpretation of God’s saving power in Jesus. Then Paul, who experiences on the road to Damascus the Risen Christ, shares in Ephesians a framework that brings it all home as we see interpretations, experiences, and the depths of faith growing.
If we would summarize quickly what the basic, core dynamic at work in this progression involves, it would be this: While God is at first perceived as a judge condemning the unrighteous, this shifts to relating with God in a loving way because God only intends healing and wholeness. But it’s even more than that, even more special and cosmic, which Paul alludes to as he says, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This is like Richard Rohr, that Franciscan Priest in New Mexico talks about when he says that God does not send Jesus because people messed up creation, as a type of Plan B because things just didn’t go right the first time. Rather, Plan A has always included everything created in and through Christ, and in Christ everything drawing back into the Godhead. Plan A is Incarnation and Presence, Peace and all Good. As Paul says, “by grace you have been saved,…and raised up with him” it’s his way of saying that it is through Christ that we participate in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that John calls Jesus God’s only Son is another way of sharing encouragement that we don’t have to look any further. There isn’t something or someone else that we’re missing or waiting on. In the Jesus Way, Christ is fully realized, and through Christ we gracefull participate in the divine dance of love. That’s why Christians were first called, “People of the Way.”
Our world struggles with stages of faith. One of the reasons there is such diversity in the Christian Church is because people are just at different places in their understandings and experiences of God. Human culture itself is evolving, and changes don’t come easy. But one change is especially critical: making the switch from seeing God as a condemning judge to experiencing God as love itself. If people don’t make that switch, then all of this won’t make any sense.
Another change is related, and might be even harder for 21st Century Western thinkers. It involves the switch from seeing Jesus as the only embodiment of God’s divinity on earth to experiencing God in all things and all things in God. If people don’t make that switch, then new life in Christ loses the fullness of it’s effect.
But something has to take place for these changes to occur. It involves finding our center, In CHRIST. That’s the term Paul uses so much, In Christ.
Plan A for God has always included creating us in goodness and for good. We wrestle with sin, we face anger, we struggle with violence and greed and a whole list of vices, but nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ. We can’t be separated from ourselves, and we are found in Christ. It’s like having a rainy day fund, or an emergency fund. You don’t put it in your regular checking, not even at the local bank. You park it somewhere else, someplace that is outside the everyday billing or the temptation of splurges. That way, the funds are protected and when an emergency does come, you have a clean source, a safe back-up; not to help bail you out because things are screwed up, but to reflect your intentionality and good planning that was there all along. Basically, centered in Christ, we are saved by grace through faith, trusting that our life essence is protected, sheltered, loved, and nurtured, connected to its source of life itself.
In addition to finding our center in Christ, we also need a change of perception. Like putting on a different prescription when our eyes change over time, perceiving reality through our mind, filtered by our ego, only gets us so far and ultimately works against us. Opening our hearts, trusting through faith in God’s larger, healing Presence; this perception of the heart helps us see what God reveals through Christ in ways that we couldn’t pick up before. That’s the judgement talked about in John. God is revealing the light in Jesus. Jesus the Christ is not condemning, like a sentence being passed, but is decisive in uncovering and disclosing what we have preferred to hold in darkness. Jesus reveals our need for God, our desire for grace and forgiveness, and helps us in claiming our true identity as creatures blessed by God, carrying the divine image.
Much like Americans may have a hard time calling an insect a Mother and with terms of endearment call a colony of bees a family, so too, Christians in the Western Church have traded a biblical understanding of who we are in Christ. Under the social and cultural molds of Neo-Platonism, rationalism, and the Industrial Revolution that favors Industry and extreme forms of individualism, viewing life in terms of commodity while seeking profit, we have not been trained to claim our identity as divine beings created in unity with all things seen and unseen. Even though, for example, our liturgy sends us forth from communion, this sacrament claiming Christ’s body given to us as we re-member Christ in the world (re-member), as we give form to the Spirit’s work, as we live out the incarnation of Jesus in our time; we have been trained by a church that is only sharing part of the story. The sin/redemption model pushes judgment and sin in a condemning way. We hold ourselves down, and are encouraged to do so. We sit in darkness, and are afraid to turn on the light. You don’t have to live into your identity if you deny that identity to begin with. Like John says, “those who do not believe are condemned already.”
One of the things about bee keeping that I most enjoy is realizing that I am a visitor. Looking in on a family of bees going about their life in the hive, catching a glimpse of the mother doing her thing, I am coming alongside a system of life that is ancient and elemental, and has built within it, creation creating itself through the power of God. I am the guest when I visit the bees, and my role is to help the bees, as if they need my help. In management, my ulterior motive is to get honey and other benefits from this ancient system – my intentions are not pure, but party selfish – hopefully in ways that don’t harm the bees. And yet the bees give me far more than honey. They help me pray. They broaden my perception. They remind me to raise my awareness that all life at its core is centered in Christ, who holds all things together.
This Lent, maybe you can decide on a hobby that takes you outside of yourself. More than that, maybe we can all pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us, renew us, and send us forth to serve one another in Christ, but first of all to remind us of who we are, in Christ. You are a divine being, a spiritual being having a human experience. Let that light shine, for that is the power of the Good News and the source of the healing and wholeness God lifts up through the cross of Christ Jesus our Lord. May God transform us from the inside, and renew Christ’s Church as we emerge with a message to share from our identity held in the care of love and grace. May God be glorified now and forever. Amen.