“Plan A” – a Message from the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 11, 2018

“Plan A”

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 11, 2018

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22    John 3:14-21        Ephesians 2:1-10

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          Well this has been a busy weekend, busy as a bee.  The bee keeping workshop Saturday, another one coming up Wednesday, my mind is all the buzz regarding hives, frames, tools, and getting ready for spring flowers and nectar flows and, hopefully, a bit of honey if the bees make enough to share.  I have ordered two new packages of bees, which means I’ll get two boxes, each containing about three pounds of bees, which is about 5,000 bees in each box.  There is one bee in each box that stands out, and it’s contained in a separate cage.  You know what that bee is called?  (Queen).  If you’re American, that bee is called the Queen.  But if you’re Slovenian, that bee is called the Mother.

In Slovenia, a country with a very close tie to the heritage of beekeeping, language referring to bees is elevated above common words used for other creatures.  If you have a pet or some type of animal dies, the Slovenians say it dies, but if a bee dies, it perishes, which is what they would say as if a human person perishes.  Those packages of bees will establish what we Americans refer to as a Colony, with a Queen.  But Slovenians tell us the Mother bee is head of the Family.  Rather than Colony, it is a Family, again a human reference point.  Bee species may vary, such as the Carniolan, Italian, Buckfast, or Black bees, and we call them species, but in Slovenia they use another human, social term by referring to these lines as races.  Certainly, bee keeping is an important part of Slovenian culture, and even the terminology used in their language claims the centrality of this identity and heritage, and perhaps more accurately indicates what a bee really is.  Bees are more than an agricultural component or a feature of a commercial industry, but they are living beings in relationship, with an order to their society, and their rhythms and patterns go well beyond the wooden box, linking each family to a larger creation and the miracle of life.

Friends, this morning’s scriptures have a similar dynamic as what I just talked about in regards to how Slovenians view bees compared to how Americans generally do.  In many ways, as we read about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross, and people sick in their troubles calling out for God’s help, even as God’s grace saves us in Christ, many of the terms and images and identities that come to mind have a particular slant to them already.  As we read these words, our mind as it’s been trained filters our understanding and shapes our assumptions.  But, my friends, this is not exactly helpful.  Some of these verses may even sound familiar, like John 3:16, probably the most famous verse of the entire Bible in our world today.  But the flipside of this familiarity, is that we overlook something even more profound.  Worse yet, the church tends to overlook the true source of transformation, and it has failed in its calling to embody Good News, all the while thinking through spiritual pride that it has succeeded.

If you look at the four lectionary passages through a lens of faith development, Numbers 21:4-9 is the Old Testament story of the people in the wilderness dying from snake bites until God has Moses make a brass serpent on a stick, and this represents one level or stage of spiritual development.  The Psalmist picks up on this and takes it a bit further.  John’s Gospel mention’s that story from Moses and sets the stage for a new interpretation of God’s saving power in Jesus.  Then Paul, who experiences on the road to Damascus the Risen Christ, shares in Ephesians a framework that brings it all home as we see interpretations, experiences, and the depths of faith growing.

If we would summarize quickly what the basic, core dynamic at work in this progression involves, it would be this: While God is at first perceived as a judge condemning the unrighteous, this shifts to relating with God in a loving way because God only intends healing and wholeness.  But it’s even more than that, even more special and cosmic, which Paul alludes to as he says, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

This is like Richard Rohr, that Franciscan Priest in New Mexico talks about when he says that God does not send Jesus because people messed up creation, as a type of Plan B because things just didn’t go right the first time.  Rather, Plan A has always included everything created in and through Christ, and in Christ everything drawing back into the Godhead.  Plan A is Incarnation and Presence, Peace and all Good.  As Paul says, “by grace you have been saved,…and raised up with him” it’s his way of saying that it is through Christ that we participate in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that John calls Jesus God’s only Son is another way of sharing encouragement that we don’t have to look any further.  There isn’t something or someone else that we’re missing or waiting on.  In the Jesus Way, Christ is fully realized, and through Christ we gracefull participate in the divine dance of love.  That’s why Christians were first called, “People of the Way.”

Our world struggles with stages of faith.  One of the reasons there is such diversity in the Christian Church is because people are just at different places in their understandings and experiences of God.  Human culture itself is evolving, and changes don’t come easy.  But one change is especially critical: making the switch from seeing God as a condemning judge to experiencing God as love itself.  If people don’t make that switch, then all of this won’t make any sense.

Another change is related, and might be even harder for 21st Century Western thinkers.  It involves the switch from seeing Jesus as the only embodiment of God’s divinity on earth to experiencing God in all things and all things in God.  If people don’t make that switch, then new life in Christ loses the fullness of it’s effect.

But something has to take place for these changes to occur.  It involves finding our center, In CHRIST.  That’s the term Paul uses so much, In Christ.

Plan A for God has always included creating us in goodness and for good.  We wrestle with sin, we face anger, we struggle with violence and greed and a whole list of vices, but nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ.  We can’t be separated from ourselves, and we are found in Christ.  It’s like having a rainy day fund, or an emergency fund.  You don’t put it in your regular checking, not even at the local bank.  You park it somewhere else, someplace that is outside the everyday billing or the temptation of splurges.  That way, the funds are protected and when an emergency does come, you have a clean source, a safe back-up; not to help bail you out because things are screwed up, but to reflect your intentionality and good planning that was there all along.  Basically, centered in Christ, we are saved by grace through faith, trusting that our life essence is protected, sheltered, loved, and nurtured, connected to its source of life itself.

In addition to finding our center in Christ, we also need a change of perception.  Like putting on a different prescription when our eyes change over time, perceiving reality through our mind, filtered by our ego, only gets us so far and ultimately works against us.  Opening our hearts, trusting through faith in God’s larger, healing Presence; this perception of the heart helps us see what God reveals through Christ in ways that we couldn’t pick up before.  That’s the judgement talked about in John.  God is revealing the light in Jesus.  Jesus the Christ is not condemning, like a sentence being passed, but is decisive in uncovering and disclosing what we have preferred to hold in darkness.  Jesus reveals our need for God, our desire for grace and forgiveness, and helps us in claiming our true identity as creatures blessed by God, carrying the divine image.

Much like Americans may have a hard time calling an insect a Mother and with terms of endearment call a colony of bees a family, so too, Christians in the Western Church have traded a biblical understanding of who we are in Christ.  Under the social and cultural molds of Neo-Platonism, rationalism, and the Industrial Revolution that favors Industry and extreme forms of individualism, viewing life in terms of commodity while seeking profit, we have not been trained to claim our identity as divine beings created in unity with all things seen and unseen.  Even though, for example, our liturgy sends us forth from communion, this sacrament claiming Christ’s body given to us as we re-member Christ in the world (re-member), as we give form to the Spirit’s work, as we live out the incarnation of Jesus in our time; we have been trained by a church that is only sharing part of the story. The sin/redemption model pushes judgment and sin in a condemning way.  We hold ourselves down, and are encouraged to do so.  We sit in darkness, and are afraid to turn on the light.  You don’t have to live into your identity if you deny that identity to begin with.  Like John says, “those who do not believe are condemned already.”

One of the things about bee keeping that I most enjoy is realizing that I am a visitor.  Looking in on a family of bees going about their life in the hive, catching a glimpse of the mother doing her thing, I am coming alongside a system of life that is ancient and elemental, and has built within it, creation creating itself through the power of God.  I am the guest when I visit the bees, and my role is to help the bees, as if they need my help.  In management, my ulterior motive is to get honey and other benefits from this ancient system – my intentions are not pure, but party selfish – hopefully in ways that don’t harm the bees.  And yet the bees give me far more than honey.  They help me pray.  They broaden my perception.  They remind me to raise my awareness that all life at its core is centered in Christ, who holds all things together.

This Lent, maybe you can decide on a hobby that takes you outside of yourself.  More than that, maybe we can all pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us, renew us, and send us forth to serve one another in Christ, but first of all to remind us of who we are, in Christ.  You are a divine being, a spiritual being having a human experience.  Let that light shine, for that is the power of the Good News and the source of the healing and wholeness God lifts up through the cross of Christ Jesus our Lord.  May God transform us from the inside, and renew Christ’s Church as we emerge with a message to share from our identity held in the care of love and grace.  May God be glorified now and forever.  Amen.


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

“Regenerative Love”

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

Genesis 1:1-5       Mark 1:4-11

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Incarnation” a Message for Christmas Eve 2017


Christmas Eve 5:30 PM, Year B, December 24, 2017

Isaiah 9:2-7          Psalm 96    Titus 2:11-14       Luke 2:1-20

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          The Gospel of Mark begins in chapter one with the Baptism of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even mention the birth of Jesus in any form of the Christmas story.  John’s Gospel is similar, but it begins with the prologue, a sort of cosmic sounding poetry talking about creation coming to being through Christ, the Word of God, then we read about Jesus being Baptized, but again no birth narrative.  Matthew’s Gospel starts with a genealogy, then talks about Joseph on the verge of dismissing Mary, but an angel comes in a dream and tells him not to do this, but to name the child, Jesus, which he did.  Then it picks up in chapter two with the wise visitors from the east, their conversation with King Herod, another angel or two, this time with warnings, and the family flees to Egypt while the other families in Bethlehem don’t fare so well.     Luke’s Gospel is the most descriptive for what we might call a “classic Christmas story.”  The mention of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the angel, Gabriel greeting young Mary, and the birth stories of both the young Prophet, John, and the Lord, Jesus.  There are shepherds, angel armies, the manger, and then before you know it Jesus is eight days old getting presented in the Temple in Jerusalem and as chapter two finishes Jesus is twelve years old and continues to grow in wisdom and stature.  That’s about it.  No mention of wise men, no genealogy, no mention of Herod’s tirades.

For the early church the birth of Jesus was really no big deal.  Easter was the big deal, the resurrection and celebrating the Lord’s Day was the focus of worship.  It took about 1,000 years for Christmas to get noticed in Western Christianity.  Francis of Assisi through a small movement on the edge of the Roman Catholic Church was one of the first to put direct emphasis on why the birth of Jesus is so important for the world.  St. Francis, the one who made the first creche scenes or manger scenes, recognized that the church up to that point had focused mainly on a condemning God judging the world and sinners offered salvation through the cross.  But Francis had experienced war, and had been a tortured prisoner of war.  For him, a church also engaging in the Crusades and other wars, just didn’t match up with his transformative experience of God as love, and God’s saving presence as act of love, especially reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.  No wonder it’s in Luke, because that is who Luke’s Gospel tries to include through the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.

For St. Francis in the twelfth century, something was missing in the larger theology or teachings of Christianity.  The birth of the Prince of Peace, the Incarnation of God, Christ becoming flesh in creation, helps fill this void, and Francis declared a revolutionary message: that the birth of God in the flesh in Jesus is the point at which we as humans realize that God is on our side.  Salvation comes in the birth of Jesus just as much as we claim it comes through his death.  Christ in the flesh helps us declare that it’s good to be human, and we are blessed to experience life.  If human form is worthy of God’s Presence, then we are honored as those created in God’s image.  But this spiritual development took over 1,100 years, and actually it is still taking place as Christianity continues to Reform, Awaken, and Emerge.

God is so patient, and if anything echoes through the ages, it is the message of what a difference it makes when the Presence of the living God is recognized.  God is there all along, but to face God, to turn to God and awaken to this Presence; this is transformative.  For St. Francis it took a war and deep suffering to get his attention.  For Joseph, angels came in dreams.

What is it for you?  What is your spiritual discipline that helps enlighten your life?  How are you being called by God to make room for the birth of Christ?  What is God’s love doing in your heart?

Christmas is a special time of year.  Love and community, peace and joy, giving and receiving of gifts; all this tells us that something is happening that is worth paying attention to.  The stirring of our heart, the quieting of our mind, the yearning of our soul; these are part of the human experience as spiritual beings.  The light of God shines in all things, and all things are in God, and at Christmas we are reminded of daily miracles that so often get overlooked or ignored.

As we gather around word and song, and as the candles lights are passed, may the blessing of Christmas fill your heart.  The Incarnation of Christ, the unity of God’s holiness on earth, the gift of Jesus who shows us the way to live into this unity without fear; this is what we celebrate every time we say, Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas to you, and may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.