“Easter Sunday” – an Easter Sunday message, Year B, April 1, 2018

“Easter Sunday”

Easter Sunday, Year B, April 1, 2018

Acts 10:34-43      Mark 16:1-8

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          The Gospel of Mark actually has three endings and we just read the original ending in which the women are told that the Jesus they are looking for in the tomb has been raised and will meet them all in Galilee.  The young man in a white robe commands them to go and tell the disciples and Peter, and yet the women go out and flee in terror and amazement and they say nothing to anyone!  They are afraid!  That’s the original ending of Mark’s Gospel!

After I read it, I sat down, and for a full minute refrained from preaching.  This awkward silence was a small attempt to introduce disorientation and dissatisfaction, to highlight Mark’s literary technique, mentioning the women are told to go and share, but instead they are caught in fear and say nothing.  The Gospel’s literary technique invites discomfort and an unsettling feeling that something isn’t right, something is missing  – you can’t end like that; something must change to fill in the gap.

That’s exactly what Mark is hoping; that the readers will be so disgusted that they will do just the opposite: they will go and proclaim that Christ is Risen!  They will face the fears and find ways to push through them.  Mark is putting hope in the readers that they will heed the message of the empty tomb.  But are we ready for that?  Are we worthy of that kind of hope placed on us?

Well folks, of the 91 Active Members on the church Roll, I have discovered that at least one lives their life Beyond Hope.  The other day I drove to visit this church member and out on the Hope Peninsula there is a sign that says you are entering “Beyond Hope, a Resort Community.”  I was also “Beyond Hope” at that point, but we had a great visit!

On the drive back to Sandpoint, I had the radio on, listening to a report that focused on the labor strikes of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee back in the 1960’s.  They were interviewing these older men, along with current garbage workers who still struggle with racism, poverty, and the lack of social justice.

Hearing the stories of how these people were considered less than human because they spent their day jumping on and off the back of garbage trucks, lifting heavy loads of trash as they dump the containers, oftentimes having that garbage spill onto their clothing and make them smell filthy.  Riding on the bus back to their homes at the end of a long day, people would sit far away from them and stare in disgust.

As they worked, if it rained, they had no shelter, so when two workers tried to escape a southern downpour by ducking into the back of a truck, yet the compactor was activated at the wrong time, it killed them both.  People finally said, “Enough!”, not only to the unfair and unjust working conditions, but also to the stigma of being considered less than a man, less than human, and to the social condition that broke America’s promise that if you worked hard you would be successful, because they worked hard and yet still could only get so far, suffering poverty and rejection.

Because the city of Memphis denied their requests for change, people began to march, including many clergy, calling for dignity, respect, and fair treatment for all God’s children.  They took to the streets in an organized labor strike that was part of the larger Civil Rights Movement.  These are some of the marches the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in.

One of the first marches was proceeding as planned until a group of young marchers peeled off the main group and started throwing bricks through storefront windows, and using sticks to smash things.  The police swarmed in, with tear gas and Billy clubs, hundreds of people arrested, and one 16 year old young man was killed.  The next day, armored tanks arrived with thousands of National Guard troops.  It was some time later that Dr. King returned to Memphis for another attempt at a peaceful protest, to show the power of non-violent resistance, and that is the visit in which he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.

Driving in from Beyond Hope back into Sandpoint, enjoying some of the most picturesque scenery in the world, I listened to these stories of men sharing their experiences of struggle, facing their fears, and coming together to bring about change.  It was a story based on actions from decades ago, in a whole different part of our country, yet closer than we may think.

As I came driving into Sandpoint’s city limits I had to stop at the first traffic light and as I listened to the last part of this report I noticed a large, white pick-up truck coming from the other direction.  It was jacked up with big tires and tinted windows; a pretty new, expensive looking, customized truck.  As they drove through town they had a full sized flag mounted in the bed of that truck, waving in the back.  It was a large flag of the Confederacy.

I was struck by the irony of that moment, and must confess that my initial, gut reaction involved anger, wanting to use hand gestures to express my disgust.  “Really?  A Confederate Flag?  Full size?  Are you serious?”     But I actually got scared from the thought of using hand gestures.  What if they remembered my truck and later on retaliated by breaking the windows or slashing my tires?  I wouldn’t want that, and my anger began mixing with fear.

My next response as I sat at that red light was to pull out my cell phone and take a picture to send my brother who lives back east.  He knows about that part of Idaho’s reputation.  I actually grabbed my phone and fumbled to get the camera open, but then the light changed, and the way the traffic flowed, I needed to put my cell phone down, so that didn’t work.  At the light, I turned onto that side road, the Confederate flag pick up truck headed out the highway, picking up speed, waving all the more.  Let that be a metaphor! “As I turned onto a side road to find my home, that pick-up truck and flag headed down the main road, gaining speed.”

In an online webinar this winter, James Finley talks about God’s love shown through the cross, and how even Jesus experiences feelings of being forsaken by God, and yet it is in this very poverty of spirit that faith displays its greatest strength, because in the cross there is nothing other than God’s love remaining.  He says, “The infinite poverty of God transforms the whole world endlessly to this day.  So what is the cross?  See, Jesus says, “Follow me.”  The cross is the crucifixion of our dreaded and cherished illusions that anything less or other than infinite love has the authority to name who we are.  That’s the cross.  And so we suffer as soon as we try and find a toe hold on something less than the infinity of that as the base of our operation.  And we do that over and over.  Life’s a learning curve.”

“The cross is the crucifixion of our dreaded and cherished illusions that anything less or other than infinite love has the authority to name who we are.”

What is Easter?  A day for chocolate and eggs and lilies?  Aphrodite is the name of an ancient Greek fertility god, which is where we get our word, “Aphrodisiac.”  Worshiping this god in ancient temples adorned with statues is the root of Easter eggs and spring fertility celebrations.  But since it’s not spring time all over the world, Easter must be something more than fertility.  What is Easter?  The Bible will tell us, yet every one of the Gospels has a different version of the Resurrection story. Who went to the tomb, how many, what happened when they got there, was it was light out or still dark, is there one person dressed in white or two, how did people response, who came back to look again, was Jesus himself present, or did he wait until later on to appear; all these details are different depending on which version you read.  Even Mark has three versions in one book, an original ending as we read today, and two other attempts which introduce doctrinal twists from people not settled on that first ending.  One common thread between all these versions of the Easter event is how they all, in their own way, point toward God’s infinite love as the only source of our true identity.  Amazing love, confronting our fears, leading us by faith, all reminding us that God’s infinite love changes everything, including our own hearts and minds, our own understandings, our illusions.  The Gospels call us to snap out of our typical patterns and assumptions, so we can live lives of awareness and anticipation, even as the Spirit leads us through that mix of fear and amazement through the many ways God continues to be revealed through the Living Christ.

Like Mark is hoping, may we go and proclaim that Christ is Risen!  May we face our fears and find ways to push through them.  May we claim the very hope that is put on us as people called to transform Good News from something we read about into who we are as we live lives called by God to embody hope, love, and peace.  This involves honest struggle, but because Christ is Risen, God is glorified, now, even as forever.  Amen!


“Love and Compassion” – A Message from Palm Sunday, Year B, March 25, 2018

“Love and Compassion”

Palm Sunday, Year B, March 25, 2018

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29    Mark 11:1-11       John 12:12-16

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          In a prayerful paraphrase of a portion of Psalm 119, Nan Merrill makes this interpretation beginning at verse 129, and I will begin and end this sermon with this quote: “When I meditate upon your Light, my heart opens with compassion for all life.  This is how the veil is lifted, how the soul is filled with truth and light.  Then we will not judge others, and we will radiate love and healing to the world.”  (Psalms for Praying, an Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007, pp. 249-250).

Notice the dynamic movement in this from meditation on God’s living Presence, to an opening of the heart, then the lifting of a veil as our soul is filled with truth and light, and this experiential mode of perception leads away from judging, and into an active, radiating love bringing healing to the world.  Living in this blessing replaces the world’s fear through God’s “enfolding Love, Wisdom, and Power.” (pg. 250).

This dynamic from contemplation that experiences God’s Presence, to action, is precisely what is at work on Palm Sunday.  However, although Jesus is living out love and compassion in his humble and prophetic entry into Jerusalem, it takes a little longer to sink in with those wanting this to be a triumphal entry.  Jesus enters on a colt, some say a donkey, not a war horse.  He enters as a humble servant and yet the people hail him as a king, and are ready and eager for him to lift the oppression of Roman occupation, to become a political king in the line of David, restoring Israel in prominence, power, and prestige.  They wave palm branches which were cut in the fields.  Those there for the Passover Festival had heard Jesus was coming and they were prepared to receive him.  But not on his terms!

Jesus does not play into the crowd’s ideas of what living as the King of Israel involves.  One of the best parts of this entire scene is that after all the excitement and action, as the parade builds moving closer into town, it culminates in Jesus going to the Temple, looking around at everything, and then leaving.  It was late, so he took the disciples out to Bethany, which he had just come through.  That’s the end of the dramatic entry.  No revolution, no political uprising, no rioting in the streets, no thunder from heaven.  He looks around and then leaves.  It isn’t the destination, but how he journeyed that is the core of this story.  It seems that waving palm branches with patriotic sentiment and hawkish ideologies is not what leads to lasting, life-giving change.  But riding on a donkey, self-humbling, does.


Last week during the invitation to communion, I made a comment about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus, as she mentions how we live in a time of spiritual ferment, and it seems that sometimes we are like a hospice worker and at other times a midwife as the church struggles and changes.  I thought I’d quote her directly, because the point I want to emphasize is actually the last part, and I’m not sure I quite captured that for communion.  In thanking her Episcopalian Bishop, the Right Rev. Robert J. O’Neill, she says, “In these times of spiritual ferment, when one hardly knows whether one is a midwife or a hospice worker to the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, Bishop O’Neill has led the way with clarity, compassion, and imagination.  He renews my faith that Christianity will emerge from this time of winnowing with a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of it’s risen Master.”  (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, Transforming the Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message, Shambala Publications, Boulder CO, 2008, acknowledgements pg. x).

Emerge from this time of winnowing.  Winnowing.  Christianity is in a time of winnowing.  Winnowing is an agricultural term.  It involves a current of air blowing through grain in order to remove the chaff so all that remains is the nourishing grain, as it falls, it gives life beyond itself.  Winnowing is  usually done by filling up a scoop or basket, throwing the contents into the air on a breezy day.  The wind captures the chaff, the debris, the dirt, and the more substantial heads of grain drop into a pile on a clean, cleared floor.  But while it’s being thrown, with the wind whipping through, the action seems chaotic and confusing, and you might even need to close your eyes for while so the dust can clear.  But sure enough, winnowing gets you down to the grain, just as this time of spiritual ferment promises, with hope and optimistic trust, that the church will emerge with “a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of its risen Master.”

Those people waving palm branches are not interested in the path of the Master.  It isn’t long before their crying out, “Blessed is he who comes” changes to “Crucify him!”  They are looking for a political savior, and we can piously look back and say, “we know better.”  The church ever since has claimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But much like the crowds that day, it is easy to make assumptions that may not, necessarily, be true.  Jesus is the Savior, but on his terms, and in Christ’s Way, and in this time of Reformation and spiritual fervor, an ancient wisdom is emerging that gives insight into the path and purpose of our Risen Lord.

Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, sheds light on this wisdom by saying, “I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate.  As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”  (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1968, pg. 157, as quoted on Richard Rohr’s daily devotional email, http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/9A2A678A24A036922540EF23F30FEDED/713021DC5DC21FE0C9C291422E3DE149 , quotes from this follow in this sermon).

The Gospel of Matthew’s way of saying this is in 5:14,16, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works[,] and[,] give glory to your Father in heaven.”

As this winnowing, through humility, reveals deep love and compassion, Richard Rohr reflects on this, saying “A mystic—like Merton, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, John Duns Scotus, and many others—is one who recognizes God’s image and likeness in this human being, in this creature, in this moment, and from that encounter with the sacred comes to see God everywhere and always.  The mystic cannot help but love and have compassion for what is right in front of them.  God’s indwelling presence—in every created thing—is inherent and cannot be earned or destroyed.”

Friends, look at the windows.  They allow light to shine through them.  The beauty of the windows is brought out as the light shine through, but the light itself is outside the windows.  That’s one traditional way of seeing God in relation to the creation.  Also, look above at the light fixtures where there are electric bulbs.  The glass shroud of those lights are lit from within, because the source of light is internal, in the form of a bulb.  That’s another way of viewing God’s relationship with the creation.  One views God as separate and outside, and one views God as living within.  This is at the core of the larger Church’s struggle today.

Thomas Aquinas lived in the 1200’s and his philosophies helped shape the church into an institution that views God as being separate, outside, and shining light from outside, through the church, through Christians, into the world.  John Duns Scotus was a Christian mystic who lived at about the same time whose philosophies would be more like the lamps, saying that divine light lives within us and emanates from the inside out.  Not only are people carriers of the divine image, but every-thing, all parts of creation are manifestations of God’s glorious light burning within.  The philosophy of Aquinas has carried the church for hundreds of years, but winnowing is at work while that other wisdom is re-discovered as it emerges from its deep roots.

You see the parallel with Palm Sunday as the church is in a time of winnowing, as each of us is called to examine what we believe, how it is that we come to believe that, and that we are invited to “a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of [our] risen Master?” (Bourgeault).  We are right there with those people waving palm branches in response to a certain mindset and way of thinking.  But as Jesus enters, riding a colt, a donkey, a symbol of humility and peace, embodying God’s love and compassion, how long will we wave those branches?  When will we put down the branches so Jesus can be Lord on his terms, to change our “mindset” into an “open mind,” and expand our way of thinking into an entirely new way of perceiving reality?

The Living Christ is inviting the world to allow God’s light to shine, not from on high, not from outside, but from within, as placed there by our Creator, so we may live with love and compassion through transformed hearts.  We can take our place, along with everything else, as being “gifted by the loving Creator with a sanctity beyond our ability to understand.”  As the chaff blows away, and our vision clears, we can “. . .Once [again…] recognize the value of nature, of others, and of ourselves, [as] we are called to [follow Jesus and live out our lives…] as images of Christ who [embody…] divine love.”

We can be thankful that one tradition of the church thought it wise to take the palm branches from this festive day and burn them.  We let them dry, and next year as we participate in Ash Wednesday, the symbolism is reassigned.  These branches are given a new role in their transformed state.  Rather than looking for an outside savior to get the world just the way we want it, instead, in an elemental way, we take ashes to remind us of how fleeting life is, of our mortality, and yet because God’s divine Presence lives within us, we remember that in Christ, we are united with all things seen and unseen as the divine Trinity dances in love and relationship.  We remember we are star dust and to star dust we shall return.  You can’t wave ashes, but your can wear them as a marking and a reminder.

Again, here is that Psalm for praying:  “When I meditate upon your Light, my heart opens with compassion for all life.  This is how the veil is lifted, how the soul is filled with truth and light.  Then we will not judge others, and we will radiate love and healing to the world.”

May we continue to discover an inner light as a gift from God, shining our way on the path of self-emptying as we journey with our Risen Master, and may God be glorified now, even as forever.  Amen.

Thunder’s Glory, a Message from the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 18, 2018

“Thunder’s Glory”

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.

“Plan A” – a Message from the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 11, 2018

“Plan A”

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.

“Becoming a Follower,” a Message from the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 25, 2018

“Becoming a Follower”

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 25, 2018

Romans 4:13-25  Mark 8:31-38

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          When Shawna teaches skiing on Schweitzer, many times she is assigned to groups of kids or a collection of children from the Kinder-Camp program.  She’s even taught two and three year old’s in private lessons.  Little kids on the mountain eventually have to ride up the chairlift, and they need an adult to ride with them.  Sometimes, when the chair is slow, or stops a lot, or the kids are in a bad mood, Shawna tries to find ways to keep them distracted, to change the mood by focusing on something fun.  Sometimes she sings, or has the kid sing; other times she pulls out a stuffed animal from her pocket.  One of the more effective ways happens when she pulls out the bubbles.

Blowing bubbles from the chairlift catches kids by surprise, and those people skiing under the chair get in on it too.  Bubbles become a community event, and are usually pretty fun.  Sometimes people like to make big ones, or blow a whole bunch of little ones.  If it’s windy, you just hold out the wand and the bubbles come by themselves as they launch into a flight of temporary life.  Seeing how long a bubbles can drift is pretty cool, but much of the time, rather than let these amazing spheres of soapy rainbows linger through the air, people try and pop them.  Chasing and poking the bubbles is also fun, and a natural response, part of human nature; but it destroys the bubbles in the process.

Bubbles are things.  You can point to them, describe them, and make them.  But bubbles at their best are in action: moving, floating, held in tension, interacting with their context, allowing the wind to move them.  The surface of a bubble is in constant motion as the soapy film adjusts and gravity has an effect.  But while they are in existence, bubbles catch peoples’ attention and very often elicit a response.  People may smile, or they might pop the bubble.

You’ve heard that saying, “I hate to burst your bubble,” when someone challenges a typical way of thinking or understanding the world.  Living in a bubble is how we describe living in such a way that we don’t let outside thought or influences or realities to pierce our own conceptions.  Inside a bubble life is protected, sheltered, a certain way, and yet vulnerable.

This morning’s scripture readings talk about the promise of God, and whether it’s Abram’s faith and trust giving God the glory, or in Jesus challenging the disciples’ understanding of what it means to embody God in this world, at the core of these readings is nothing less than love.  The love of God.  The love God has for the world.  The love we share with others.

Blowing bubbles in the mountains is a metaphor for love.  No two bubbles are alike, each is a different size, lasts a different length of time, floats on its trajectory, and contains a different batch of air.  Like love, bubbles are less of a thing and more of an action: they exist as bubbles by doing what bubbles do.  Even Jesus doesn’t describe love, but commands it, as an action.  Love is actually not describable, and words just do not capture it’s fullness or essence; only by sharing in relational ways does love find expression.  This is a mix of beauty, strength, and vulnerability.

Jesus shares these effects of deep love.  Jesus is describing the extent of suffering love will undergo as he predicts his own death at the hands of society’s violence.  As his disciples hear this they are disturbed, and Peter takes him aside and rebukes him.  Notice this action, as Peter separates Jesus from the others, isolates Jesus on his own, and how this echoes the temptation in the wilderness where Jesus is tempted by Satan to do anything but what love commands.  Jesus calls the others to gather around through the power of love, which unites, connects, claims relationship, and intends people to live in community with one another and not in isolation.  No one lives in isolation.  But again, just like people chase down bubbles only to pop them, so too people deny the very living core of love that unites us with all things and reminds us that we are never isolated.

In the winter edition newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we read an article that reminds us that “To talk about love is to talk about what Plato calls ‘holy madness.’” Love cannot be captured by psychological definitions.  And yet, Jesus commands us to love, that we “must love, [we] you absolutely must enter into this unnamable mystery if [we] you are to know God and know [ourselves] yourself!”  (https://cac.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/theMendicant_Vol8No1.pdf, Richard Rohr).

The article goes on to talk about a mirror and a mask.  Love is like a mirror in that it has no ego agenda.  Love simply reflects things as they are, and because a mirror in itself is empty, it is always ready to receive the other with “no preconditions for entry or acceptance.  It receives and reflects back what is there, nothing more and nothing less. The mirror is the perfect lover and the perfect contemplative.  It does not evaluate, judge, or [pretend].”  But here’s how love as mirror does that; here’s what needs to happen for that to take place.  “If we are to be a continuation of God’s way of seeing, […] we must be liberated from ourselves.  We need to be saved from the tyranny of our own judgments, opinions, and feelings about everything […].  In God, our self is no longer its own center.  There is a death of the self-centered and self-sufficient ego.  In its place is awakened a new and liberated self which loves and acts in the Spirit.”

With that in mind, hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  If you want to cling to your self-centered and self-sufficient ego, then you cannot hold a cross.  Taking up a cross invites that death.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of good news, will save it.”  Through Christ, we find our center in God’s Spirit and we are awakened to new life which loves and allows the Spirit to fill and blow and send.  (like a bubble)

Along with a mirror that article mentions a mask.  Back in the days of Jesus, actors sometimes wore masks.  They did not have microphones, so the masks were designed in a way that helped project their voice.  We are God’s masks, used to project God’s voice, to share God’s image and likeness.  “My personhood is therefore in direct continuity with the Divine Personhood.  I am created in the “image” of God (see Genesis 1:26–27).  My “I am” is a further breathing forth of the eternal and perfect “I Am Who I Am” (see Exodus 3:14) of the Creator.  All love is a living out of that being, a being that precedes and perfects all doing.  […] Love is, quite simply, Who-We-Are-In-Christ.  Love is our objective identity as sons and daughters of God.  […]We are just a mask, a fragment, an unbelievably blessed part of the Whole.  From that true identity, Love can happen.

You see the dynamic, and how it’s echoed in these scriptures?  Losing your life and finding it takes place through love!  We are like a mirror, in that we are nothing.  That’s the death of our false self.  We are like a mask, in that we are everything, because “love is our objective identity as” children of God.  In losing our life we find life.  That’s why Jesus calls Peter, Satan, and tells him to get behind him, while we also know that Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he would build the Church.  Peter, like us, is learning love’s command to be mirror and a mask.

How far do you take this?  Can we just keep the image of blowing bubbles with kids on the chairlift as a light and family-friendly metaphor for letting God love the world through us?  I wish the death of the ego was that tame.  But even on Schweitzer, sometimes the storms rage, even to the point where the lifts shut down and you have to seek shelter inside.

Life involves struggle, and discomfort, and pain.  Carrying a cross is not an easy challenge.  Learning the art of letting go can be agonizing, and yet there really is no substitute for this passage, this movement, this deepening in faith as love grows and God’s righteousness develops.  Inviting and allowing God’s loving Presence to fill your heart implies that your life will change, your politics will change, your understanding of religious devotion will change as your grip loosens and your awareness widens.  The way you perceive reality changes.

But change is something also implied when we are invited by Jesus to become followers.  ‘Following’ means there is motion involved, discovery and learning, mission and a quality of attention directed toward the One whom we follow.  Following Christ, we are invited on the Way into the heart of relationship itself as we reflect and project God’s love in this world that is blessed beyond belief.

As Christ rebukes and calls, may we too look beyond dualism and conflicts to claim wholeness and grace.  May love grow in us, helping us trust the Jesus Way.  And may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

“The Time is Fulfilled” a Message on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B, February 18, 2018

“The Time is Fulfilled”

First Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17     1 Peter 3:18-22    Mark 1:9-15

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          I was on Study Leave last weekend, so Bill Love was here preaching.  This congregation makes it sort of hard for me to be gone in terms of preaching.  It would be easier for me to come back into the swing of preaching if the pulpit supply had done a sketchy job and people were just relieved I was back.  But from what I hear, those who fill the pulpit here do an amazing job as they allow God to speak through them.  Ministry does not lack even though I may be gone, and so coming home I really take it to heart that the bar has been raised.  Thank you, Bill, for preaching last week, and for everyone who supports this ministry as we proclaim the goodness and grace of God through Christ Jesus, who invites us to follow.

It takes a lot of work to put together a sermon.  Maybe not so much in the writing or editing, but in the wrestling, in the listening that leads up to the writing.  Preparing a sermon is a creative process that seems to heighten awareness during the week in experiential ways as the texts are internalized, mulled over, prayed through, and then reported back to the people gathered hopefully in a way that includes the same kinds of questions and struggles of the people in the pews.  I am not up here preaching the Word of God from on high, sending a message down to you.  Rather, we come together before God and learn through scripture story aspects of our faith and calling that we may not have noticed without intentionally allowing time and space for worship that includes the word read and proclaimed.  The preacher’s wrestling with the text from week to week in done in service to Christ, on behalf of the people, so we all are strengthened in the journey of faith.  But remember, strength is only given through adversity, so it’s no surprise that preaching is a challenging calling, just as Christian faith itself does not exempt us from trials and temptations and struggles.  The more intense the suffering, the more God is glorified as we fall into grace, choosing love and peace over and over again.

By the way, sometimes when we think Christian faith is for the individual, and our struggles involve our personal lives, it’s refreshing to be reminded by passages such as Genesis chapter nine that God’s covenant is established with us, all future generations, and this even includes “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  God is in relationship with the entirety of the earth as created matter carrying the divine promise.  While it may be comforting to know on the one hand that Christ Jesus is with us on a personal level, it is also amazing to be reminded that we are not alone.  As First Peter chapter three reminds us, “Christ suffered for sins once for all…”  And that author comments about God’s transformative power and intimate relationship affecting everything from the cosmos to our conscience, and there is nothing that surpasses the creative power of God’s eternal presence and divine purposes.

As we see Mark writing in his Gospel to share this very thing expressed in the baptism, temptation, and proclamation of Jesus, we discover “the time is fulfilled” and the Christian message is nothing less than good news involving love, relationship, divine approval and acceptance, connection with the larger creation seen and unseen, and an invitation to direct our attention and focus to God.

In between the lines, we can read into the context some intensity shared by Mark regarding Christ’s ministry.  He doesn’t sugar coat things or give lots of details in stories regarding Jesus being baptized or his time in the desert wilderness facing temptation.  It’s short and to the point.

David Lose explores this intensity between the lines, for example, by inviting us to, “Consider that in Mark, the Spirit did not lead Jesus into the wilderness, but drove him there.  Mark employs a verb that has a more violent sense than we might imagine and certainly more so than the one Matthew and Luke employ to characterize the Spirit’s guidance.  Of course, perhaps we should not be surprised that the Spirit whose entrance rends the heavens to tatters now drives forth – even ‘kicks out’ – Jesus into the wilderness.  This is a sober and, I think, helpful reminder that Christian faith is not a panacea, it’s not an answer to all of our questions and problems, and it’s certainly not an invitation to the easy life.  Baptism into the Spirit of Christ is to be called to, indeed driven into, an adventure that will include testing, challenge, and temptation.”  (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/02/lent-1-b-lenten-courage/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29)

On the Sabbatical one of the places Shawna and I stayed was the Hermitage at Glendalough.  South of Dublin, Ireland, in the Wicklow Mountains, Saint Kevin became a hermit around the year 600.  He was living on the edge of the Empire in a time Christianity was becoming more established within the power structures of the world.  Yet he was an acetic, of the tradition more in tune with the desert fathers and mothers who left society’s mainstream between 300 and 600 because they could see where Christianity was heading as it became more institutionalized and formalized, losing its relational, intimate nature of connectedness with God’s presence in all things.  Kevin lived in a cave on the shadow side of a lake, and as an acetic he took on physical hardship to come alongside Christ’s sufferings for the world.

At Glendalough, which is now the Wicklow Mountains National Park, you can tour the remains of the monastery that sprung up around Kevin and his teaching in the Celtic tradition of the Christian way.  One of the myth-stories involves Kevin standing waste deep in the cold waters of the lake, holding his hands open in prayer.  He does this so long that a bird makes a nest in his hand, lays eggs, hatches chicks, and rears her young while the saint patiently waits for this life to unfold without interruption.  Celtic spirituality is rather earthy as it recognizes the sacredness of creation, and how the elements carry aspects of the divine presence through their unique qualities, such as wind or fire or earth.  Saint Kevin lived in an intense way this edgy trust in God’s living Presence, purging himself of all distractions and sin in order to focus more clearly on Christ.  This attracted pilgrims fleeing violence in other parts of Europe and England, and Ireland’s Wicklow Way brought people seeking the peace of Christ through the wilderness journey.

Maybe this story in Mark, short and sweet, helps us realize that following Jesus promises the goodness of God, but includes the same dynamics that Jesus himself faces.  His ministry begins, for example, only after John the Baptizer is arrested.  Like Saint Kevin heading to a cave in the Wicklow Mountains, as the central places of authority increase their violent attempts to control, Jesus moves to the margin, going to Galilee after John’s arrest, and there begins to proclaim what is called Good News.  He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  This is a call to trust, a celebration of God’s original blessing, an invitation to awareness as we turn to God who is always present; and it’s already happened and the effects of God’s reign are now experienced.

As we journey into this Lenten season with the image of coming alongside Jesus in his temptation and suffering, we can learn from those who have come before us even as we claim the present as where we experience God.  We can learn from stories like the intense ones in Mark, that even sin and temptation have their place in the journey of faith.  As Meister Eckart of the Thirteenth century reminds us, “You must know that when vices attack us, this is never for the just man without great profit and utility.  […] Indeed, if a man thought rightly, and if he had the power to choose, he would not want to choose that his inclination to sin should die in him, because without it he would lack decision in everything and in all that he did he would be without care in these matters, and too, he would lose the honor of the battle and of the victory and of the reward; for it is the assault and the force of vice that bring virtue and the reward for striving.  It is this inclination that makes a man ever more zealous to exercise himself valiantly in virtue and impels him mightily toward virtue, and it is a stern whip driving a man on to caution and virtue.  For the weaker a man finds himself, the more should he protect himself with strength and victory.  For virtue and vice, too, are a question of the will.” (Meister Eckhart, Selections from His Essential Writings, Harper Collins Spiritual Classics, Edited by Emilie Griffin, originally in 1957, then 1981, this one 2005 in English, Harper One Publishing, pp. 15 & 16).

Jesus shows us how to wrestle with our sin and the temptations of life’s struggles.  Jesus shows us the deep need we have to submit our will to God, for in our weakness God is strong, and it’s fighting temptation itself that develops our virtue and gives God the glory.  Thanks be to God that in Christ we are accompanied on this journey of faith even into the most difficult challenges of life and death.  Thanks be to God that Good News and blessedness help us through sins struggles as our faith is nurtured and strengthened in Christ, who shows us the Way to life abundantly in God’s Presence.  Sometimes it takes a wilderness, life on the edge, to teach us the most and help us let go of our fear, anger, and sin.  But this cleansing creates virtue that welcomes us into the fulness of time as all things are fulfilled through Christ Jesus are Lord.

For the Lenten journey and beyond, may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

Majestic Ordinariness – a message from Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, February 4, 2018

“Majestic Ordinariness”

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, February 4, 2018

Isaiah 40:21-31    Psalm 147:1-11, 20c     Mark 1:29-39

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          Has your ax struck honey lately?  Has your ax struck honey?  In Slovenia, to recognize a streak of luck, you say, “Your ax has struck honey!”  This is a cultural expression that has roots in the bee keeping tradition of that country.  Honey, throughout history, was a valuable commodity.  Finding a load of honey while chopping into a tree was like striking gold, liquid gold.  For some reason, this old saying has stuck (maybe because it has to do with honey).  This saying expresses good fortune, good luck.  But telling someone you hope their ax strikes honey has nothing to do with axes or honey, anymore, but the truth expressed, the sentiment shared, the good will behind words, still gets expressed through this image.

As we read scriptures this morning, they are filled with images that seek to express God’s truth.  We are not the original, historic audience who heard these words in Hebrew, or read these words in Greek.  Many of the metaphors and stories used to express God’s relationship with us don’t make sense to us like they would have with those first generations steeped in the near east, Semitic culture.  But we can still learn larger truths shared in these scriptures as the Holy Spirit reveals layer upon layer as our faith grows and deepens.

What is happening in this text from Mark?  What is the storyline?  They leave the synagogue after Jesus heals someone there and the people are astounded that he teaches as one with authority and not as the scribes.  So here, they have just left the synagogue and they go to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother in law is in bed with a fever.  Like our Slovenian phrase reminds us, this text in Mark has lots of cultural, historical aspects that North American Christians may not catch or be able to relate to.  Here’s Simon, for example, and presumably his wife, living with her parents, and, Simon’s brother, Andrew.  Those are just the ones we know about!  Most Americans do not live in multi-generation households.  Most American families seem spread out even living in other parts of the country.  This is just one example to show that we don’t have a grasp of all the cultural norms, of things like the society of honor and shame that Simon and Andrew lived in.  Which means, as social violations take place right and left in this passage, we may or may not notice them.

But the plot goes on as Simon’s mother-in-law, who goes unnamed, is unable to serve them because she is ill.  Jesus enters her room and takes her by the hand, which violates purity laws, gender restrictions, and other layers of societal norms.  Yet he lifts her up and her fever leaves.  Her getting up and serving them has less to do with submissive behavior and more to do with being restored to community.  Her humble service is an expression, a symbol, of what we’re all called to embody as disciples.  Receiving God’s grace and responding in joyful service.  Oh, and Jesus heals her on the Sabbath.  Another violation of human interpretation of the law.

As the story continues, all the people wait until the sun goes down and the Sabbath is over, then they come to the house seeking healing.  All who were sick come, the whole town shows up at the door.  Jesus heals many, and there are many demons cast out, not permitted to speak because they know Jesus.  That is a very powerful image, if you really explore this as a metaphor.  There are things in our lives that we can release to Christ, and when we truly give them over, they are removed, gone, not because we don’t remember them, but because God’s power and presence becomes the new focus.

This story has lots of drama, action all around, much of it outside the church.  They left the synagogue, they were acting outside the bounds of the law.  Yet God is working and lives are transformed, more so outside the church and it’s structure than inside, because Jesus, God with us, shares the presence of God.  That Presence is where people resonate toward, as they gather not only around the door of the house, but the whole town is coming to Jesus.  It was probably pretty exciting!  The disciples were on the ground floor of this popular opportunity!  This town could become famous as a global center for healing!  People could make a fortune!  Their luck was running high with Jesus coming to them!

But a busy storyline with healing the crowds is not the only action taking place.  “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  On this verse, the entire story shifts.  This prayerful action becomes pivotal.

Later today I head to Spokane because early Monday morning I catch an airplane for New York State.  On the west shore of the Hudson River there’s an Episcopal Retreat Center called Holy Cross Monastery and the community there is hosting a Centering Prayer Retreat put together by Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach organization.  I’ve never been to a retreat like this.  A few years ago, when someone would tell me they were travelling to go on a Centering Prayer retreat, I would wonder, “Why on earth would you fly on an airplane and go so far away just to sit in silence, especially with people you don’t know?  I just didn’t get it.”

Centering Prayer does involve sitting in silence, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  In some ways, it seems like you’re not doing anything, just sitting there.  But by slowing your body down so it’s still, that’s when you notice that your mind doesn’t slow down.  We are constantly thinking, and these thoughts are often ego based as we try and make sense in our minds of the world around us, constantly judging as to whether things are good or bad.  Centering Prayer is a spiritual discipline, that since ancient times, helps people to become aware of their thinking, not only recognize we have thoughts, but learning to release them, to not necessarily let those thoughts define you.

Centering Prayer teaches the art of letting go.  It sounds simple, sitting there in silence.  But it is much harder to learn than one would expect, and often the struggle involved sends people running the other way.  But finding a quiet place, not only in our surroundings, but in our inner life, is at the very heart of the Gospel and as our biblical witness shows us this morning, this is a core teaching and practice of the ministry of Jesus.

The Art of Letting Go is something that most people resist.  Looking at others, even across cultures, such as St. Francis of Assisi, or people close to the land such as Native Americans, and Jesus himself as he tells the disciples that they can’t stay but must also travel to the other villages, we see that by holding nothing, you are connected to the whole.  By letting go of the small, you are included in that which is larger.  That’s why, for example, for indigenous cultures, private property makes little sense.  They share all the land, and it’s God who owns it anyway.

Today as we ordain and install church officers, ruling elders and deacons, it strikes me that as we ask the Constitutional Questions from the Presbyterian Book of Order, we are lifting up the doctrinal history of our denomination.  Questions like, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”  Questions like this along with the other ordination questions have their place.

But they use words to try and express our trust and faith in Christ, our experience of the power of God in our lives, and our desire to humbly serve in response to God’s goodness and grace.  Yet words are limited, and simply by being words they cannot express the Majesty of God or miracles we often overlook in ordinary life.  Ordaining and installing church officers to the structure of institutional religion tries to give shape and order to something that has no walls, no boundaries, the very mystery of God.  Indeed, trying to put into words that which is beyond words, to limit by our thoughts that which is beyond thought, to explain through doctrine that which is beyond explanation; this leads us back to very model Jesus gives us here.  Silence.  Prayer.  A deserted place helping us become aware of our connection to Presence.

But this is hard work.  We much prefer our doctrines, our measurable lists, our questions, and we go out of our way to maintain institutions and the structures and facilities around us.  Yet Jesus is outside the synagogue, not held captive by interpretations of legal codes or cultural contexts that are historically conditioned, and not boxed in by the mixed motives of people who would use him, ultimately, for their own purposes, security, or advancement.

A while back, Dave Sturgis shared a quote with me, a guiding principle that I’ve kept on a piece of paper on my desk in the church office ever since.  The quote says, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”

Jesus could have set up shop.  His ministry could have made them all very wealthy.  He would not have needed to travel around because people would come to him, just like they wrapped around that house in the evening after Sabbath was over.  Word was getting out, his popularity was increasing, yet at the very beginning of his ministry here, Jesus recognizes that “creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”

Jesus, the Christ, embodies the contemplative stance: spending time in prayer, simply being in God’s Presence, quieting that monkey mind which swings from thought to thought as our ego scrambles for control and grasps for predictability.  In Christ, our heart and mind join together as a new creation.  Our ego is invited to wholeness and health, becoming translucent so the light of love can shine through it, and not be limited by it.  Letting go of all things is so important that Jesus gets up while its still dark to make sure this prayer happens.

As Jesus lives in a contemplative stance, as he prays experientially with the Presence of God; he lives to courageously let go of certainties.  This shows us the other side of prayer.  Jesus takes action.  Jesus engages in living his life in the world, in sharing God’s kingdom with others.  But he does this by grounding himself in silent prayer.  This scene is pivotal because it is rooted in that deserted place, in that time of connection with God that is uninterrupted.  From that quiet prayer, that still foundation, where all other voices are silenced, Christ takes action and builds a ministry of humble service.  By letting go, Jesus brings wholeness.  Through giving up what seemed certain and secure, a vision of success, Jesus gives God consent to take action, and God shapes the activity of his life in creative ways that could not be contained.

What’s your struggle?  What demons are you wrestling with in your life?  What would have you lining up at the door along with the entire village?  Curiosity?  Casual interest?  Social obligation?  Entertainment?  Tradition?  Everyone showed up, and many, not all, were healed.  What healing do you seek?  Are you interested?  What is the door between you and your experience of the living Christ?  Are you willing to enter the darkness?  Are you willing to let go, even of the illusion of certainty?

Authentic transformation links contemplation with action.  This is how Christ changes the world.  Humble service expresses and shares our trust, expands the light, and puts love into action so that others may also enter the darkness of a deserted place to become fully awake and aware of their connection to a larger whole.

May God bless our deacons and elders as they lead the way, and may God help all of us in this journey of transformation, sharing the majesty and glory of God through our ordinary, daily living and humble service.  Pray without ceasing, preach the gospel (if necessary, use words), and may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.