“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.

“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.

“Depth of Love,” a Message for Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018

“Depth of Love”

Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20          Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18    John 1:43-51

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

(Note to the reader of the blog: the quotes in blue were not read during the sermon teaching.  They are simply there for extra reflection.)

I hope you paid attention while we read those passages.  Not only listening in a cognitive sense, but inviting perception of the heart.  These three passages are some of the most important, foundational, life-changing passages of the entire Bible.  For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, these three passages from the Bible, with God’s help, can change your life.

They reveal a depth of love through the stories of Eli and Samuel, of Jesus and Nathaniel; a care expressed through the Psalmist’s celebration of God’s intentionality and purpose in creation; and a calling echoing through the ages to disciples following the Jesus Way into deeper relationship and unity with God, and with all others.

Sometimes, like with Samuel, it takes us a while to recognize God’s Presence, and to receive God on God’s terms.  Sometimes, like Eli, we become complicit with the injustice of the world, and need reminded that God wants more than just words and ritual, but actions that help grace become tangible.  As John writes the Gospel message, we’re reminded that love and relationship give shape to life and ministry.

Today is also part of Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend, and as the choral anthem helped express, God’s deep love is at the core of what energizes generations of people toward a larger vision of a just society based on equality, right relationship, fairness, and integrity, among other qualities.

I have a few quotes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which I found online and I’ll share a few.  I have pages of them here, but we’ll just take a sample, and then we’ll take a closer look at his last sermon preached April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.  Here are a few highlights from various speeches and sermons: (and I’ll quote directly, as it was presented in the 1960’s, so some of it is not gender-inclusive language)

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.

Martin Luther King Jr.‘Strength to Love,’ 1963

The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.

Martin Luther King Jr.‘Strength to Love,’ 1963

From A Christmas Sermon for Peace, preached on Dec 24, 1967

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

From a bit earlier, on December 11, 1964

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr.Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Martin Luther King Jr.Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963

Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

Martin Luther King Jr.Speech at Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963

I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

Martin Luther King Jr.Speech in Detroit, June 23, 1963

…And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Martin Luther King Jr.Speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, the day before King was assassinated

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963 

Now I am skipping over so many quotes, there’s just one after another of amazing sayings from him.  Here’s another one from The Christmas Sermon On Peace, Dec 24, 1967:

Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force… If we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has the right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.


Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Martin Luther King Jr.Why We Can’t Wait

A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.

Martin Luther King Jr.

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

Martin Luther King Jr.

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.

Martin Luther King Jr.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Martin Luther King Jr.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Segregation is the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Ten thousand fools proclaim themselves into obscurity, while one wise man forgets himself into immortality.

Martin Luther King Jr.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Martin Luther King Jr.

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.

Martin Luther King Jr.



In “Strength to Love” he says,

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.


That is likely at the core of Jesus calling Nathanael, recognizing a deep dedication and love of God, yet in peaceful, just, and non-deceitful actions.


One who condones evils is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values — that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)“Strength to Love”

Results from Poor Man’s College:

The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

Results from Contributed Quotations:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do not condemn the man that cannot think or act as fast as you can, because there was a time when you could not do things as well as you can today.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

We must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

These are some amazing quotes, and there are a lot more out there.  But I want to take a more focused look at the sermon he preached the night before he died.  I’m not going to preach it or read all of it, but some of it.  It’s titled, “I See The Promised Land,” and some have popularly titled it, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  He’s preaching in Memphis, Tennessee and he’s there in support of a labor strike by the city sanitation workers who have been treated unfairly by city policy.  Dr. King is encouraging the black community to come together and start a wider economic boycott, avoiding products created by industries with unfair labor practices.  As a collective, it’s hoped that this non-violent form of activism creates pressure so the leaders of these affected industries will pressure the city to change it’s policies and give the sanitation workers the justice they seek.

I See The Promised Land               popularly titled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968

Memphis, Tennessee

He starts out thanking people for the nice introduction.  Then he says, “I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning.  You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.  Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.

I’m going to abbreviate parts of his speech here:  …If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”– I would take my mental flight by Egypt[…]across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.  I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus.  […]

But I wouldn’t stop there.  I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire […], through various emperors and leaders.  But I wouldn’t stop there.

And he goes on to mention lots of different time periods, with their contributions toward human society, but how he wouldn’t stop until he reached the second half of the 20th century. 

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.”  Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land.  Confusion all around.  That’s a strange statement.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.  And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding–something is happening in our world.  The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled […] –the cry is always the same–“We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.  That is where we are today.

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that he’s allowed me to be in Memphis.

Then he goes on about specifics regarding the strike and the dynamics of the sanitation worker’s struggle with the city.  It’s an example of a local situation having echoes or ripples to a larger struggle that humanity as a species is dealing with.  Then he goes on to talk about not what they’re against, but what they’re for, saying…

And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody.  We are saying that we are determined to be men.  We are determined to be people.  We are saying that we are God’s children.  And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history?  It means that we’ve got to stay together.  We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.





I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane.  And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully.  And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.  And I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.



(long PAUSE for silence)


The deep love of God sets you free, free to live in great unity of heart-filled Presence.  God actively comes to us, calling us forward to greater faithfulness, deeper trust, and humble service.  As Jesus shows us the Way, through non-violent, active healing of the world, the only thing that truly defines us is God’s infinite love.  May we receive the gift, heed the calling, and give God glory both now and forever.  Amen.

“Regenerative Love” A message from Sunday, January 7, 2018

“Regenerative Love”

Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year B, January 7, 2018

Genesis 1:1-5       Mark 1:4-11

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          Well how are those New Year Resolutions coming along so far?  Did you make any?  Resolutions are one way we try and promise ourselves that we’ll make a concerted effort to live better during the year.  From the typical, “I will lose weight and exercise more,” to the more serious, “I’ll try not to drink as much, or yell at my kids so often,” resolutions have quite a spectrum of intensity and effect.  From self-help to larger, systemic issues, resolutions mostly have good intentions behind them, but very often somewhere along the calendar’s way, the resolutions are broken.  Resolutions frequently don’t have staying power, and people find themselves right back in the struggle or difficulties they were in before, only now with an added sense of defeat.

Usually, when we make resolutions they have something to do with part of our life experience that is already going on, rather than something totally new, seemingly out of nowhere.  Wanting to lose weight, for example, implies that we have materials to work with that we bring into the situation.  We take something we’re already dealing with and try and make it better.

As we read Genesis chapter 1 verse one and two, there are two main possibilities for interpretation as we read about God’s work “In the beginning.”   The way the Hebrew is written, some scholars say, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” in verse one.  In verse two, then, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  This is the way our NRSV pew Bible has it written because the committee that put it together leaned toward this understanding.

Another alternative has other scholars saying the Hebrew is also translated in verse one as, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” and then verse two, as a subordinate clause, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”

This may sound subtle, but the wording, which is probably intentionally chosen by the Hebrew editors long ago to leave room for both interpretations, offers two possible conceptions of the nature of God.  Does God create out of nothing, which is called, ex nihilo, or is it that God creates from what is there?

Are the formless earth and waters pre-existing materials which God uses to shape the world, or does God first create them out of nothing?  If God’s first creative act is to make the earth and water, then creation involves making, bringing something out of nothing.  If the materials are pre-existent and God shapes them, then creation involves ordering, changing chaos by bringing structure and shape.  Perhaps both interpretations are intended at the same time?  Big questions that probe the depths of foundational assumptions!  Big questions that point to our larger explorations of the nature of God, God’s relationship with creation, and with humanity in particular, and our relating with creation, God, and other people.  Big questions that get echoed through the centuries as our physical experience as created beings mingles with the spiritual source of power, restraining chaos, and grounding our relationships.

You’ve heard other big questions, such as, “What is the meaning of life?”  Or, “What is the purpose of a human life?”  Or, “Where is the fullness of life to be found?”  These are questions that we not only ask with our mouth, or our intellect, but with intensity of soul, especially as we experience the chaos, the struggles, or even the intensity of great love.  As Thomas Keating from Contemplative Outreach puts it, “All the great questions of life can be approached, explored and experienced by embarking on the spiritual journey.  However,” he says, “‘first one must become aware that there is even such a thing as a spiritual journey, something beyond beliefs and doctrines’ — an awareness that has been “monumentally” absent in Christianity in the last few centuries.

Many Christians in the last few centuries put faith only in terms of what you believe, and how you come to believe it, and most of this is controlled by the intellect.  Faith becomes a mind game, and as long as you rationally ascent to correct ideas, then you are saved, you’re in the church, and your faith is legitimate.  Doctrines and dogmas become the external rules that need to be followed and obeyed in order to stay faithful and in good standing with the church.  Church tradition has only encouraged this, and you see, for example, the Ten Commandments listed on sculptures in church yards, usually with a bench nearby so one can sit and work on memorizing them.  Rules and doctrines, behaviors and beliefs, these take the focus, while transformative relationship and unconditional inclusion is often kept at arm’s length.  Our brains keep our hearts under lock and key.

Is creation a make and break, where God creates and then disappears into the background to watch people fall, eventually sending Jesus to help sort things out?  Does God use materials at hand, addressing chaos by bringing order, so well that life flourishes and things are called, “good?”  Or, does God begin to create, and that process of creation continues even today?  Not only that, but we are called as co-creators, especially going the Jesus Way to help shape the world into a loving, just, community?  Is the presence and authority of God external to us, something we can step back from and observe or try and mimic?  Or does God live within us, and to find God, we need to go inside?  If that’s the case, are we aware that the only way in is through a crack?  The crack of our heart, a heart wide open?!

This morning we read about the nature of God.  And we’re in a season of Epiphany, where we celebrate God with us, God coming to us, and God bringing order out of chaos, light in the midst of darkness, by entering into creation itself.  We read about Jesus and John as a baptism takes place and all righteousness is fulfilled.  This is a very dynamic scene with motion and dialogue and consequential action, and all these point to something more than static doctrine or intellectual belief.  They point to nothing less than the mystery of the depths of love, as God plunges into the formless void of death itself and rises to life empowered by grace and peace and unity.

Thomas Keating goes on to say, “Christian religion [is] a life to be lived, a relationship with God to be developed and enjoyed.  The most important fruit of … training should be a thorough knowledge, understanding and experience of the spiritual journey in the Christian tradition so … [we] can transmit the Christian life as experience.” (1012 Monastery Road).  (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/2018-spiritual-journey-online-program?utm_source=CO+Constituents&utm_campaign=83d11c6552-Advent+2017+2&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b11e0b2045-83d11c6552-309612761&mc_cid=83d11c6552&mc_eid=4ab9e291c2)

“First one must become aware that there is even such a thing as a spiritual journey, something beyond beliefs and doctrines.”  The commands of beliefs and doctrines just don’t have the life changing staying power that love commands.  Becoming aware of a spiritual journey invites openness to what God is creating next.

So as we journey into 2018, may God help us all to become more aware, and more open.  Even when this feels chaotic or destabilizing or uncomfortable, which it often does, may our trust of God’s Holy Spirit working over, in, and through the deep voids of chaos, grow all the more, day by day, until we discover, through relationship, a resolve that doesn’t waver or get defeated because it’s grounded in the very essence of God’s loving Presence.  Commissioned by regenerative love, marked as Christ’s own, baptized into dynamic, divine relationship, may our awareness discover the heavens torn open as love pours out to change the world.  And may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

“Living Christmas All Year Long,” a Message on the First Sunday After Christmas

“Living Christmas All Year Long”

First Sunday After Christmas, Year B, December 31, 2017

Galatians 4:4-7    Luke 2:22-40

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          Today involves several things at once.  It’s Sunday, which is the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day of Resurrection, specifically the First Sunday after Christmas; it’s the last Sunday in 2017, and it’s even New Year’s Eve itself.  Lots of themes overlap when you have these types of dynamics.  The Christmas message of Jesus born, the story we read of the Temple as the little boy, Jesus, is presented, along with calendar things like highlights of 2017 and resolutions looking forward to 2018:  time, and the fullness of time is the overarching theme that seems to encompass all of this.  Paul mentions in Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”  When the fullness of time had come…born to redeem, born to adopt.

Simeon, a righteous and devout man with the Holy Spirit resting on him, Luke says he was guided by the Spirit to visit the Temple at the very time Jesus was present.  When he sees Jesus, he praises God and says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.”  Talking about Simeon, Paul Gordon-Chandler describes Simeon’s song, and as he writes about this, he’s helping us focus on that reality of redemption, saying “The entire song [the Nunc dimittis, Lk 2:29-32] is sung with the language of freedom.  In the original Greek text, it has the connotation of releasing a slave.  Simeon is describing his own experience as one of being released.  In the song the word “now” is of utmost importance, emphasizing that an experience of profound liberation happened to him at that moment in time upon seeing the Christ Child.  Simeon’s song is his way of describing how he was finally “released” truly to live.  (Meditation One, Suzanne Guthrie’s Edge of Enclosure http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html quoting Paul-Gordon Chandler, Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ’s Birth quoted from Vicki Black’s Speaking to the Soul: Daily Readings for the Christian Year).

I titled this sermon today, “Living Christmas All Year Long” to capture both that phrase, “the fullness of time” and to challenge the reality that Christmas comes and goes, we celebrate the Prince of Peace and then the rest of the year is steeped in violence, things like that.  Once the decorations are down life goes on as usual.  And this is normal, and even Mary and Joseph got on with life as the movement in this story shows.  They didn’t stay in that manger scene, didn’t reside in Bethlehem, but when they presented Jesus the child at the Temple, they returned to Nazareth where they lived.  The biblical story has movement, and time is one element that God operates in.

Interesting that Simeon is glad he can now die in peace, and the prophet, Anna was also of great age.  These older people spent their lives in prayer and fasting and connect to God through the Holy Spirit.  Here it is and Jesus is a boy, Pentecost hasn’t even taken place, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts, minds, and actions of people.

The Christmas miracle is not only for December 25.  Opening our hearts to the living Presence of God, consenting to the action and activity of God in our lives; this is a calling that helps us live Christmas all year long, year after year as we put our hope in God.

Another aspect these two people share is their reaction involves praise.  They both immediately begin to praise God, giving thanks, sharing their joy, sensing release and relief as redemption becomes tangible to their experience.  Two old people with a message to share.  They want people to know what Jesus means and what his life will bring about in the world.  And this is good for us to hear.

David Lose picks up on this as they describe Jesus and what their eyes have seen, and how this message echoing through the ages connects with us.  He says, “Glory and anguish, beauty and sorrow, gladness and opposition.  All these and more will be contained in this child…and indeed in each of our own lives, also.  And that’s just why we need Christmas to last longer than 24 or 48 hours, why we need it not simply to persist into the new year, but to keep us strong throughout the year.  Because this life is wonderful…and difficult.  And God came in Jesus to be with us and for us through all of it: the ups and down, hopes and fears, successes and disappointments, accomplishments to savor and mistakes to regret; all of it.  God is with us and for us…not just some of the time, but all of the time, even when we don’t act as we want, [even when we don’t] live into the identity God has given us, or [even when we don’t] make it to church on a regular basis.”  (http://www.davidlose.net/2017/12/christmas-1-b-christmas-courage/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29)

In 2017 there were over 18 Sundays that I did not preach here.  That is a lot of Sundays.  The Renewal Group and the Worship Committee coordinated for those Sabbatical Sundays and Vacation days, and they did a good job of making sure someone was here to preach every week.  I want to thank them, and assure them that I’ve got it covered for the rest of this year.

That time of Sabbatical was like a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime experiences stuffed together over a span of weeks.  Living through those adventures, the interactions, the learning, and visiting different places and people are now not only memories, but they are embedded or implanted or woven into or integrated into our lives.  This is not only a mental exercise of recalling in our minds thoughts or ideas about times and places.  This also involves finding meaning and allowing the experiences to speak to our hearts and rest in our souls, to find resonance with the action and activity of God and God’s living Presence within us.  The Sabbatical isn’t just a one time thing, but shapes identity in on-going ways.  What has been done cannot be undone, and because God holds it all, even as finite life slips away, eternal qualities remain.  God’s eternal now holds all things together.

I would suggest that as 2018 enters the picture and as Christmas day and the Christmas season begin to slip out of conscious thoughts just like the radio stations have stopped playing songs of the season, perhaps we need to come alongside Simeon and Anna and their life-long practice of waiting on God.

Perhaps we can learn disciplines which help us open our hearts, so we can perceive the world in transformed ways that other people just don’t see.  Joseph and Mary likely walked past hundred of people as they took Jesus the child to the Temple that day, yet Luke only shares the response of two, because they had the heart space and the discipline that trained them to perceive the work of the Spirit, and they lived in the flow of what God is doing as God actively redeems the world.  Living Christmas all year long is a calling.

May God help us heed the call, and through prayer and fasting and other spiritual disciplines, may we receive a heart to perceive the grace, love, and peace of God as a gift that redeems us from the tyranny of slavery to ourselves and all that seeks to hold us down.  As children of God, with the Spirit of God in our hearts, united with God as heirs of the covenant, claimed in the fullness of time, may we praise God that Jesus grew, became strong, filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was upon him.  As God’s beloved, blessed and sent to share the news, may we too seek wisdom as we grow our hearts, making room for the newborn Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace.  And may God be glorified now and forever.  Amen.