“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.

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

“Majestic Ordinariness”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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