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.