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

“Love and Compassion”

Palm Sunday, Year B, March 25, 2018

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Time is Fulfilled”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“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.

“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.

“In Christ,” a Message on the Third Sunday of Advent

“In Christ”

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 17, 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28          1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          How many of you looked in a mirror as you got ready to come to worship today?  When we look in the mirror, we’re checking to see that we look alright: how our hair is, what our outfit looks like, and rarely a day goes by when we don’t glance at least once into a mirror.  But our reflection is only surface level and it only shows a physical appearance.

One of the last things we would possibly think about as we look at our reflection is that we participate in evil.  But looking a bit deeper, it’s entirely true.

I wanted to work on my sermon last Thursday, so I went out to my Hermitage room, turned on my computer, was sitting at my desk getting ready to prepare this sermon.  My Hermitage is a room at my house, off the side of the garage, so it’s part of the house, only totally separate.  You have to go outside from the house to enter the door that goes into The Hermitage.  It’s a nice space, set up for Spiritual Direction, a couple nice chairs, a book shelf, and a big table next to a desk so there’s plenty of workspace for projects.

One of the things I have in there are two Slovenian A-Z Beehives, without bees.  Just the boxes are there because they’re pretty new, purchased through funding from the Sabbatical grant.  These are the first two Slovenian beehive boxes for my some-day bee house.  I’ll use these for workshops and sharing about Slovenian beekeeping.  But I also had a Langstroth hive, the white box, just a beehive box, without bees, with old frames of wax and pollen, just a bit of honey.  It was in there for storage until my bees need it this spring.

Sitting at my desk, waiting for my computer to boot up, I was actually just about to go sit in one of those nice chairs for a time of Centering Prayer.  But I reached down next to me to move an empty cardboard box that was sitting on top of my Langstroth, American style bee box, only it was stuck.  I figured there must have been some honey or propolis, sticky residue that bonded over the weeks, so I wiggled it more.  It was really stuck so I pulled on it, lifted it up, and it came loose.  I pulled out the box and flipped it over to inspect the bottom, to see what was so sticky.  It was covered in a thick, white web, like a spider web nest, only there were no spiders.  What I found, instead, looked like dozens and dozens of maggots, about an inch long.

Well, friends, these are not maggots, they are larvae.  Beekeeping is a constant struggle against parasites, and bee colonies struggle to survive because parasites invade their hives.  This stored hive box was infested with a larval hatch of wax moth.  Wax moth!  These moths lay their eggs in the wax of old frames, and the larvae chew their way around through the comb, totally destroying it.  Then they spin silky web so they can change form into the adult moth.  I interrupted this process and spent several hours combing through all my stored equipment, inch by inch finding larvae.

If you don’t find the larvae, they will destroy from the inside out and entire bee hive, including burrowing through the wood box and into the wooden frames.  They are very destructive.  I wanted to salvage some of the frames so I put them in my freezer, because extended freezing kills the eggs, larvae, adults, any stage of growth for the wax moth.  Freezing is a form of treatment.  Unfortunately, the most infested frames I added to my burn pile and that afternoon they went up in thick, choking smoke.  Actively destroyed.

I was getting very frustrated during that day, becoming angry that my sermon prep day was getting sucked away by needing to deal with this wax moth situation.  But I needed to face it.  If I left them alone, then this army of grubs would only lead to bigger problems.  I was also frustrated that my day was derailed.  I didn’t take the time for contemplative prayer, my clothing smelled like smoke, some of my bee equipment was destroyed, and I didn’t get my sermon written!  What a lousy day! (almost).

“Almost,” because I realized, I had been writing my sermon the entire time, experientially.  The mystical words of the Apostle Paul were ringing truer than I knew.  “Rejoice always… pray without ceasing… give thanks in all circumstances;… for this is the will of God… in Christ… Jesus for you.

We are not giving thanks for all circumstances, God’s will is not that we suffer or are led into temptation or have to deal with the very real effects of evil.  But God’s will is that we continually live in thanks, claiming prayerful unity, and deep joy.  This third Sunday of Advent, focusing on joy, is so important because in life we face circumstances that are challenging, not only externally, but internally things get stirred that we’d rather ignore or forget.

Paul likes the phrase, “In Christ.”  It is “in Christ” where prayer happens without ceasing and joy finds its eternal source.  Advent and Christmas teach us to live “in Christ,” as Christ becomes incarnate, revealed through creature, not only in Jesus, but again and again and again.  We are “in Christ.”

As Christ lives in and through us, this is anything but passive.  Paul’s words to the Thessalonians remind us of choices we make each day.  Think about the backside of what he says in this passage.  As he says to pray without ceasing, we have the option of ceasing.  We don’t have to give thanks.  We can despise the words of the prophets, letting what’s good slip away as we dive into the depths of evil itself.  But wait, Paul is saying don’t do that, because in Christ we can put the words and experiences of the prophets to the test, and hold fast to the good.  Paul says, abstain from every form of evil.

That’s the part that I worked on all day, killing wax moth larvae as a metaphor about every form of evil in our lives, and our participation.

That word, “abstain” is an active word.  To abstain means you are choosing not to participate, you are removing yourself from consideration in what otherwise takes place.  If you do not abstain from evil, by default, you participate in it.  Evil happens, and to abstain involves action.  But this is where the mirrors and the bee hives teach us their lessons.

When I walked into the hermitage, my bee equipment looked fine.  It was sitting there just like it had sat there for months.  It wasn’t until I moved that box to reveal what was going on inside the hive, in amongst the frames, down deep in the comb, underneath and protected from the light, that’s when things were discovered and I took action.

When we look into a mirror, we see our reflection.  We see the surface image of our body.  But our life also has layers, and we participate in every layer whether we consciously recognize it or not.  “Abstain from every form of evil” seems easy when we stay on the surface, when we proudly remind ourselves that we are not really social deviants, we’re not out robbing banks or running people over.  We can pat ourselves on the back that we abstain from evil in our daily life.

But we’re fooling ourselves.  Like those wax moths destroying a bee hive box that looks perfectly fine from the outside, other forms of evil are wreaking havoc on us, and often we don’t even recognize it, and worse, if we do, we actually may not be interested in abstaining.  Now, let’s come alongside John the Baptizer challenging the powers of the day, and do some meddling based on the themes Paul presents.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ.  The Prince of Peace is born!  The Prince of Peace, yet our world profits from war.  The American economy and the budget of the Federal Government leads the world in creating weapons of destruction so we can sell them to the highest bidder, who in turn use them to oppress people, killing men, women, and children, and devastating communities.  We support their efforts by tactical and logistical operations, and even our local economy (think Fairchild Airforce Base) profits from refueling missions that enable this slaughter to continue.  Ironic that we don’t rob banks or run people over and think that’s enough when it comes to abstaining from evil.  But evil, like violence, depends on layer upon layer, and you can’t just deal with one layer for active abstention.  But we’re pretty good at compartmentalizing, especially when our way of life is questioned or critiqued.

Paul sees this deception as he calls us to be active, and reminds us that we are not alone.  We can’t do this work by ourselves; it’s far beyond any self-help or pop psychology.  “Abstain from every form of evil.  May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;”  The God of Peace, sanctifying us entirely.  This also is a huge process that goes more than skin deep.

Why do you think I talk about Contemplative Prayer so much?  Why do you think people like Richard Rohr, Pope Francis, James Findley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and others like them get quoted so much in my sermons, or explored in book study on Tuesdays?

It’s because the Holy Spirit is at work, and we’re trying not to quench it.  It’s because contemplative prayer opens up disciplines that help us pray without ceasing.  It’s because holding fast to what is good is only possible through the strength of God given as a gift, and you can only hold fast to something if you’re unencumbered by trying to hold everything else.

Preparing to encounter God, cultivating deep joy in our lives requires an active, open engagement with evil at every level.  The personal level, in our own hearts, souls, and minds; the relational level of our family of origin and current family structures, dealing with the dynamics of those systems and how they affect our attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.  Interpersonal levels as we come together as communities and social groups large and small.  Societal levels of towns, cities, counties, states, and nation.  Cultural levels as our Western, Capitalistic systems interact with other systems and world views.  Historical levels, as culture evolves and we take the larger view of history not as a linear step by step process, but as a living organism developing from one stage to another.  These are just a few of the layers involved as the God of Peace sanctifies us entirely.

Evil happens by default if we do nothing to abstain from it; and what is good slips away if we don’t actively hold fast to it; this is our struggle.  God doesn’t promise to take the struggle away!  Jesus enters the struggle, and shows us the way to journey through it, birthing the Living Christ.  Through this struggle, as creation groans with birthpangs, we are promised joy, relationship and connection, thankfulness, prophetic courage, authenticity, strength, divine Presence, holy peace, faith, calling, and Christ incarnate; these are all shared in these short verses and their power echoes through the ages.  Paul the mystic encourages us, in Christ.

Thanks be to God, the God of Peace, now and forever.  Amen.