“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!

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

“Out of Our Minds”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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