“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!

Advertisements

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.”

(http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/CD714989CE6B634E2540EF23F30FEDED/713021DC5DC21FE0C9C291422E3DE149)

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.

“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.

“Love Builds Up,” a Message/sermon from the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, January 28, 2018

“Love Builds Up”

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Psalm 111  1 Corinthians 8:1-13     Mark 1:21-28

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          Today I’m going to show lots of pictures from the Sabbatical during the potluck and after the Annual Meeting.  Shawna and I have over 2500 photos, and it was a lot of work, literally hours and hours, days and days, involved with organizing, filing, and thinning the picture selections to make a presentation that is exhaustive but not exhausting.  Finding photos that tell the story without overwhelming people with details is tough when there is so much behind each photo, so many stories to tell, and even more things that took place that never got a picture.

For example, I have some photos that show the Royal Mile in Scotland, which is an old part of Edinburgh, about a mile long stretch between the Queen’s Palace and the Castle on the hill.  Lots of shops, restaurants, churches; places that feature historic figures like John Knox from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s, to contemporary, popular people such as J.K Rowling and the café where she wrote many of the scenes for the Harry Potter series, taking names of characters off the tombstones in the church graveyard next door, a Presbyterian Church by the way.  But as impressive as the Royal Mile is, and as fun as our tour in Edinburgh with our friend, Ali, was, my pictures don’t show it all.

They fail to show, for example, the people sitting along the sidewalk with cups and cans held out for spare change.  It seems many of them are women, a few men, with darker colored skin, like they were not born in Scotland, and they are really struggling.  The pictures fail to show the man who was drunk or on drugs, relieving himself as he walked along, pretty much blitzed and he seemed very agitated.  They fail to show women carrying purses holding their bags strapped over their shoulders and clutched by their hands so they are not targeted by purse snatchers.  In London, we actually saw a robbery take place just ahead of us as two people on a motorcycle came up on the sidewalk, stole a woman’s parcel, then took off.

But those are Big City problems!  Glad we don’t have those kinds of problems here: theft, addictions, homelessness, refugees, poverty, despair, violence.  We are so blessed to be surrounded by beautiful nature, lovely homes, food on the table, grocery stores with stocked shelves, bank accounts, cars and trucks, families and friends.  We can be proud of the responsible lives we lead, of the success we’ve built around us.  Do we deserve it?  Probably not, but there’s nothing like comfort and security to help you feel great!

We spend a lot of energy being respectable, defending ourselves, of projecting the world’s woes towards other people, thinking it’s their fault things are so screwed up.  But what if our pride gets the best of us, and actually contributes to the pain, violence, and suffering in the world?  What if our way of life simply reinforces our resistance to enter into suffering?  What if we, ourselves, limit our experience of the fullness of life?

We’re pretty good at inoculating ourselves.  Since the only thing that can challenge our human pride is our own broken heart, it really takes a lot to get past our strong defenses, to get our attention, let alone bring about action or change.  In France, there was a woman outside the big Cathedral we visited and I put some money in her cup.  I have no idea what language she was speaking, but she was very thankful that I’d shared some coins.  I gave her a couple Euros, not just the little stuff, it was a healthy amount to give away.  Usually I don’t give cash because people tend to take it and buy drugs or alcohol, just feed their addictions.  Maybe that’s what she did, I have no idea.  I don’t who she is or what language she was speaking.  Maybe it was French, I couldn’t really tell.

For some reason I just looked like a soft target, pretty much the whole trip.  I had one guy come up to me, not to Shawna or our friends, but me, in a cross walk, speaking some language I didn’t know, asking for money, supposedly for food.  He was an older man, had a leg deformity and a limp, so he used a cane.  I gave him a couple Euros too.  None of that stuff is in the slide show.  Big City problems, out there, didn’t make the photo album.

Why do these people ask for money?  What happened in their life to get them to the point where they thought it was okay to target tourists for spare change?  Are they mentally ill?  Do they have addictions?  Is there someone extorting money from them, like a bad pimp ready to beat them up?  Is there no social safety net to help?  Are they just looking for extra income, or found a way to make a good living off suckers like me?  I have no idea!  I don’t know them, I will never see them again, and we don’t even speak the same language.  In some ways, I wish I could write them off.

Maybe I was a soft target because I would make eye contact, look at them, and wonder, “Who are they?  What’s their story?”  Sometimes, I think about them, and wonder if I didn’t give enough.  I should have paid them, given them more for ‘snapping me out’ of a tourist daze, for reminding me that reality is more complicated and layered than our typical binary mode of thinking and values of a leisure culture tend to encourage.  When I’m feeling more compassionate, as I think about these people with their struggles, in my mind I call them, “brother” or “sister.”  I hope their lives are improving and God is being revealed more and more.  I also hope that same thing for myself, not so much in a materialistic way, but in the depths of love, a love that builds up, that recognizes through the heart Christ in our midst, honoring God in all things.  But it’s an honest to goodness struggle.

In Mark’s Gospel the very first thing Jesus does when his ministry begins, as his disciples follow, involves casting out demons.  In the synagogue, a man with an “unclean spirit” has convulsions and screams as the demon comes out.  In the dialogue, the demon uses plural language, wondering, “What have you to do with us, Jesus?”  The passage, with all it’s drama, shows us what Christ continues to do: reveal the fullness of God’s love and how it creates an abundant life rather than a diminished life, a stronger community, rather than a troubled world.  Love builds up.  When this man is healed he is restored to society, so this has to do with social justice.  When this man is healed, his family is delivered from shame, so this has to do with healed relationships.  When this man is healed, the people are amazed and Jesus establishes authority as a religious leader who doesn’t just talk about God like the prideful and powerful scribes, but lives to reveal God through compassionate action, so this has to do with the power of the living Christ revealed.  In other words, there are layers of what this passage reveals, and it has to do with lots of things.

Notice the demon, for example, the unclean spirit, whatever it is that has this man captured, doesn’t come out easily.  The man goes through convulsions, the man screams and shouts.  I imagine it got pretty ugly, kind of scary, certainly unnerving, and yet leads to healing and wholeness.  Jesus heals the man, and silences whatever it is that is resisting this.  It is removed.

We can link that demon in Mark with all sorts of things in our world.  Addictions, greed, violence, whatever the title for the vice may be, most of the time we think those demons don’t live in us!  (And they are plural)!

Yet, if we think the demons only belong to others, and we are somehow except from this type of spiritual struggle, this wrestling of our inner natures, then we are setting ourselves up for the very pride mentioned earlier.  Paul uses the word “knowledge” in 1 Corinthians.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  Knowledge, without humility, is very dangerous, toxic to our own soul and to those around, very hazardous.

It’s through the eyes and ears of the heart, especially a broken heart, where we are encouraged as we wrestle and convulse and scream out in struggle for the pain of life’s suffering to stop.

One man shared on a radio show the other day about his adult daughter having complications during pregnancy, and she delivered twins a few months early and eventually one of the babies died.  His pain as a grandfather ran so deep that his thoughts turned suicidal.  It surprised him because he doesn’t usually think like that.  He was ready to jump from a tall building, ready to crash his car into trees or poles.  One thought after another kept invading his mind.  He didn’t act on any of these impulses, and he said he did not want to die.  He just wanted the pain to come to an end, a pain and suffering that ran deeper than he could control.  He was ‘out of his mind,’ and in uncharted waters.  Being a very stoic white, middle class, older man, it wasn’t until about a week later when he finally talked with his wife about this, and she said she had the similar feelings, the same struggles, just to stay alive in the face of deep pain, finding strength to go on somehow.

Friends, we can domesticate Jesus and the Gospel story.  Or, as Christians, we can recognize the Living Christ in our midst going about the gut wrenching, heart shaping work of God in our own lives.  Through our own struggles and pain, tearing down our prideful arrogance, we can let those demons go.  But they only go kicking and screaming.

Through life’s struggle, the authority of Jesus, the Christ, is building our world on the foundation and solid rock of God’s love.  God’s work is wonderful, full of honor and majesty, reminding us that there are no beggars, only brothers and sisters in Christ worthy of redemption.  There is no “them,” only “us,” created beings united and bound together in our humanity by the infinite and intimate love of God.  God is with us, appealing to our better natures, calling us to make a difference in this world.  As love builds up, may we too be amazed at what God is doing in our midst, and let God heal us and our world by breaking our hearts wide open, and filling that space with love, peace, justice, and compassion, so we may show who this Jesus is whom we follow.

God be glorified, now & forever.  Amen.

“The Kingdom of God has Come Near,” a Message from the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018

“The Kingdom of God has Come Near”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10    1 Corinthians 7:29-31   Mark 1:14-20

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          In Assisi Italy one of the people we learned more about is Clare.  Saint Clare.  As a young woman, the daughter of aristocracy, one night it was arranged that she would sneak out of the house and meet with St. Francis, and they cut her hair and she joined the movement as Sister Clare.  Today, in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, there is a piece of art from the 13th century that portrays eight stories or scenes of her life.  Looking at this movement, one gets a sense of the power and energy that must have been present in her life, in her context, that would so capture her as to have her turn her back on wealth, prestige, material security, and comfort, and instead embrace a movement that focused on poverty, peace, and prayer.  It seems that the only explanation for this transformation points us to none other than the infinite love of God.  God’s love is at the core of her conversion experience, and the source of her joy which shaped her ministry for the rest of her life.

Here is a prayer from a booklet I picked up in Assisi, attributed to Clare, and called, To Love the Lord.  She says, “Oh Lord my joy, before you I place my eyes, my soul, my heart.  You who gave everything for love of me, transform me into You, and give me the gift to taste the hidden sweetness that until now you have reserved for your friends, so that I can love You with all my heart.”

And in the theme of Epiphany, of celebrating God with us, here is another one called, Rejoice in the Lord.  She prays, “May I always rejoice in You, oh Lord and never allow a cloud of bitterness to surround me!  Teach me to keep my eyes on You, Who are the mirror of eternity – that which does not change and remains for ever; may my soul rest in the splendor of your glory, and may my heart remain in You, because to see You is to see the Father.  You who made yourself like me, make me like you and may my life be open to the joy of loving and being loved.”

These two prayers parallel our readings this morning as we Jonah and Paul and those first disciples realizing, recognizing, experiencing, and living the fact that God is before them and they are called to claim and share this love.  Jonah is angry about this, and annoyed that God is so loving because it violates his learned hatred and bitterness towards the Assyrians, especially those living in the capital city of Nineveh.  Paul the Apostle is giving a teaching to a conflicted church in Corinth and supposedly he has the assumption that Jesus is coming back immediately, that life as we know it will not last because at any moment the fullness of God’s kingdom will overturn everything we take as normal.  As Jesus calls those first disciples in Mark, Simon and Andrew, James and John all leave their fishing, their families, their obligations, and their identities as fishermen to follow Jesus and share with people a message of hope and joy.

Through the stories, even the imperfections, the cultural shocks, and unbelievable outcomes; these stories are intended to communicate something deeper than their own plots or storylines.  They point to something existential, they try and describe with words something indescribable, but something that can only be lived and experienced and shared obliquely like Clare praying her joy in living God’s unbounded love.

Jonah is defined as a Prophet who does his duty, even though he is reluctant and not inspired to follow God’s directions.  Remember, this is the literary narrative that has him getting swallowed by a great fish and three days later getting spat out on the shore.  Someone once described this crazy book of Jonah by saying that the part of story where Jonah gets swallowed by a giant fish was actually the most believable part.  The rest of the story is hilarious in how absurd things turn out, like the entire city of Nineveh, including it’s king, repenting from their evil ways.  Unbelievable, and anything but literal.  Yet very powerful as it points to existential reality that the power of God’s love is beyond human limitations, political boundaries, hatreds, ethnic conflicts, and entrenched histories of violence.  God’s love renews, restores, redeems, and it doesn’t take much in the way of cooperation for this power to work like a catalyst, changing the entire mix of life on earth.

The Apostle Paul with his assumptions of the imminent return of Christ teaches something even though his understanding of timing has its limitations.  What he is showing is how our roles, our identities, everything that we have come to know or understand about who we are in relation to everything else; these all fall away.  No title, no role, no position, nothing is able to capture the fullness of who we are as created beings claimed by the intimate and eternal love of God.  As he says, “For the present form of this world is passing away,” Paul is glimpsing the truth that the finite fades, and most aspects of our experience involves the finite, the limited, the temporary, that which is not capable of lasting beyond it’s own context.  Nothing has any eternity to it, except the existential reality of God’s infinite, intimate love.  Paul the mystic is dealing with a conflicted church that just doesn’t get it.  They are arguing over things that really are not ultimate, and he has seen and experienced the Risen Christ, putting everything else in a sort of perspective that can only highlight the unitive power of God’s love.

In Mark’s Gospel, Zebedee probably wondered what in the world had come over his sons.  He may have been shocked, saddened, and insulted that his own boys had left their trained livelihood, their social obligations for family, only to follow a rabbi into an uncertain future.  Perhaps he was proud they were getting into religious life, but we really don’t know about his response.  What we do know is the message Jesus shares says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  The verbs involved, for “fulfilled” and “come near” are in the Greek perfect tense, which means they have already happened and we are living in the effect of this action.  Because of what God has done, of what God has already competed in our sense of time, the result can be repentance.

The other day as Shawna was studying about techniques for teaching skiing she came across something that sounds obvious but isn’t always so clear in practice.  As a ski instructor, this lesson suggests, you don’t want to necessarily teach someone a totally new skill, to have them do something in an entirely new way.  Rather, you want to focus on what it is they are already doing, and help shape that practice into something even more refined and helpful.  You want to build on their strengths, even while you’re sharing practices that help them blossom into a whole new level of ability.

This is the idea behind Mark’s version of repenting.  The typical understanding we’re likely most familiar with is the Hebrew notion of repent as ‘turn around.’  Christianity tends to link this turning with moralism, so not only is repentance a turning, but it involves our concepts of ethics, even guilt.  In verse 15, however, the Greek word involves less a turning, and more of an adjustment to perception.  In Greek, repent means ‘change your way of thinking.’  Jesus is inviting them to wrap their minds around a new reality.  We too, are invited to wrap our minds around a new reality that is good news.  God’s Presence, which is already here, can change our whole reality.  We are invited to see, to experience, to claim this existential reality, and to trust this new way of being, both conceptually and in practice.

Claiming God’s love, trusting God’s invitation to live with a new way of thinking, one that perceives reality through the unity of mind and heart, disciples are called to follow the Risen Christ into the depths and breadth of God’s expansive, inclusive, unbounded love.  May we heed the call, trusting the goodness of this news, so our lives and our world are transformed through God with us, as we are loving and being loved.  Glory be to God!  Amen.