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

“Plan A”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Becoming a Follower,” a Message from the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 25, 2018

“Becoming a Follower”

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, February 25, 2018

Romans 4:13-25  Mark 8:31-38

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          When Shawna teaches skiing on Schweitzer, many times she is assigned to groups of kids or a collection of children from the Kinder-Camp program.  She’s even taught two and three year old’s in private lessons.  Little kids on the mountain eventually have to ride up the chairlift, and they need an adult to ride with them.  Sometimes, when the chair is slow, or stops a lot, or the kids are in a bad mood, Shawna tries to find ways to keep them distracted, to change the mood by focusing on something fun.  Sometimes she sings, or has the kid sing; other times she pulls out a stuffed animal from her pocket.  One of the more effective ways happens when she pulls out the bubbles.

Blowing bubbles from the chairlift catches kids by surprise, and those people skiing under the chair get in on it too.  Bubbles become a community event, and are usually pretty fun.  Sometimes people like to make big ones, or blow a whole bunch of little ones.  If it’s windy, you just hold out the wand and the bubbles come by themselves as they launch into a flight of temporary life.  Seeing how long a bubbles can drift is pretty cool, but much of the time, rather than let these amazing spheres of soapy rainbows linger through the air, people try and pop them.  Chasing and poking the bubbles is also fun, and a natural response, part of human nature; but it destroys the bubbles in the process.

Bubbles are things.  You can point to them, describe them, and make them.  But bubbles at their best are in action: moving, floating, held in tension, interacting with their context, allowing the wind to move them.  The surface of a bubble is in constant motion as the soapy film adjusts and gravity has an effect.  But while they are in existence, bubbles catch peoples’ attention and very often elicit a response.  People may smile, or they might pop the bubble.

You’ve heard that saying, “I hate to burst your bubble,” when someone challenges a typical way of thinking or understanding the world.  Living in a bubble is how we describe living in such a way that we don’t let outside thought or influences or realities to pierce our own conceptions.  Inside a bubble life is protected, sheltered, a certain way, and yet vulnerable.

This morning’s scripture readings talk about the promise of God, and whether it’s Abram’s faith and trust giving God the glory, or in Jesus challenging the disciples’ understanding of what it means to embody God in this world, at the core of these readings is nothing less than love.  The love of God.  The love God has for the world.  The love we share with others.

Blowing bubbles in the mountains is a metaphor for love.  No two bubbles are alike, each is a different size, lasts a different length of time, floats on its trajectory, and contains a different batch of air.  Like love, bubbles are less of a thing and more of an action: they exist as bubbles by doing what bubbles do.  Even Jesus doesn’t describe love, but commands it, as an action.  Love is actually not describable, and words just do not capture it’s fullness or essence; only by sharing in relational ways does love find expression.  This is a mix of beauty, strength, and vulnerability.

Jesus shares these effects of deep love.  Jesus is describing the extent of suffering love will undergo as he predicts his own death at the hands of society’s violence.  As his disciples hear this they are disturbed, and Peter takes him aside and rebukes him.  Notice this action, as Peter separates Jesus from the others, isolates Jesus on his own, and how this echoes the temptation in the wilderness where Jesus is tempted by Satan to do anything but what love commands.  Jesus calls the others to gather around through the power of love, which unites, connects, claims relationship, and intends people to live in community with one another and not in isolation.  No one lives in isolation.  But again, just like people chase down bubbles only to pop them, so too people deny the very living core of love that unites us with all things and reminds us that we are never isolated.

In the winter edition newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we read an article that reminds us that “To talk about love is to talk about what Plato calls ‘holy madness.’” Love cannot be captured by psychological definitions.  And yet, Jesus commands us to love, that we “must love, [we] you absolutely must enter into this unnamable mystery if [we] you are to know God and know [ourselves] yourself!”  (https://cac.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/theMendicant_Vol8No1.pdf, Richard Rohr).

The article goes on to talk about a mirror and a mask.  Love is like a mirror in that it has no ego agenda.  Love simply reflects things as they are, and because a mirror in itself is empty, it is always ready to receive the other with “no preconditions for entry or acceptance.  It receives and reflects back what is there, nothing more and nothing less. The mirror is the perfect lover and the perfect contemplative.  It does not evaluate, judge, or [pretend].”  But here’s how love as mirror does that; here’s what needs to happen for that to take place.  “If we are to be a continuation of God’s way of seeing, […] we must be liberated from ourselves.  We need to be saved from the tyranny of our own judgments, opinions, and feelings about everything […].  In God, our self is no longer its own center.  There is a death of the self-centered and self-sufficient ego.  In its place is awakened a new and liberated self which loves and acts in the Spirit.”

With that in mind, hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  If you want to cling to your self-centered and self-sufficient ego, then you cannot hold a cross.  Taking up a cross invites that death.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of good news, will save it.”  Through Christ, we find our center in God’s Spirit and we are awakened to new life which loves and allows the Spirit to fill and blow and send.  (like a bubble)

Along with a mirror that article mentions a mask.  Back in the days of Jesus, actors sometimes wore masks.  They did not have microphones, so the masks were designed in a way that helped project their voice.  We are God’s masks, used to project God’s voice, to share God’s image and likeness.  “My personhood is therefore in direct continuity with the Divine Personhood.  I am created in the “image” of God (see Genesis 1:26–27).  My “I am” is a further breathing forth of the eternal and perfect “I Am Who I Am” (see Exodus 3:14) of the Creator.  All love is a living out of that being, a being that precedes and perfects all doing.  […] Love is, quite simply, Who-We-Are-In-Christ.  Love is our objective identity as sons and daughters of God.  […]We are just a mask, a fragment, an unbelievably blessed part of the Whole.  From that true identity, Love can happen.

You see the dynamic, and how it’s echoed in these scriptures?  Losing your life and finding it takes place through love!  We are like a mirror, in that we are nothing.  That’s the death of our false self.  We are like a mask, in that we are everything, because “love is our objective identity as” children of God.  In losing our life we find life.  That’s why Jesus calls Peter, Satan, and tells him to get behind him, while we also know that Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he would build the Church.  Peter, like us, is learning love’s command to be mirror and a mask.

How far do you take this?  Can we just keep the image of blowing bubbles with kids on the chairlift as a light and family-friendly metaphor for letting God love the world through us?  I wish the death of the ego was that tame.  But even on Schweitzer, sometimes the storms rage, even to the point where the lifts shut down and you have to seek shelter inside.

Life involves struggle, and discomfort, and pain.  Carrying a cross is not an easy challenge.  Learning the art of letting go can be agonizing, and yet there really is no substitute for this passage, this movement, this deepening in faith as love grows and God’s righteousness develops.  Inviting and allowing God’s loving Presence to fill your heart implies that your life will change, your politics will change, your understanding of religious devotion will change as your grip loosens and your awareness widens.  The way you perceive reality changes.

But change is something also implied when we are invited by Jesus to become followers.  ‘Following’ means there is motion involved, discovery and learning, mission and a quality of attention directed toward the One whom we follow.  Following Christ, we are invited on the Way into the heart of relationship itself as we reflect and project God’s love in this world that is blessed beyond belief.

As Christ rebukes and calls, may we too look beyond dualism and conflicts to claim wholeness and grace.  May love grow in us, helping us trust the Jesus Way.  And may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.

“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.

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.

“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.

Merry Christmas Is A Declaration Of Peace

Submission to the Bonner County Daily Bee Newspaper, by Pastor Andy Kennaly


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Christmas Holiday is upon us, and one thing I hear people talk about this time of year involves how busy we get.  Lots of great opportunities to connect with friends and family; the parties, shopping, and hosting are usually really fun, but they do take time and energy.  Expectations or financial strain can also be high, and when things don’t match up or get out of balance (which is often the case) there can be a let-down, or depression, that follows.  Plus, it’s really dark this time of year as the sun is low on the horizon or enshrouded by clouds, and this adds to the dynamic.  For many, the holidays can be a challenging struggle.

The first Christmas was similar between struggle and amazement.  As the story tells, Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem and she gives birth to Jesus.  As Luke’s Gospel shares, an angel appears to shepherds to proclaim the good news of this birth.  Then an entire angel army appears, whose mission is to praise God.  The shepherds head into Bethlehem, find the scene just as they were told, and convey all this news and activity to Mary and Joseph, and apparently others, because “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”  Then comes the clincher, because in the midst of all this action, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

The gift of Christmas is for the heart.  It’s ironic that this season has evolved into a busy time of hustle and bustle, when, as Mary shows us, the heart involves pondering, stillness, and reflection.  God gives the world the gift of Jesus, who is non-violent, lives simply, identifies with the marginalized and ostracized of society, and embodies love and justice even through suffering tremendous injustice.  It’s ironic that the Church has taken the gift of Jesus, who is “good news of great joy for all the people” and reduced it, invariably excluding many.  Church history and social structures prove that people often prefer to stay in the mind space, rather than the heart space.  But the gift of Christmas is for the heart.

The gift of heart space is rooted in the peace of Christ.  In celebrating Christmas, we claim gifts of love, peace, joy, and contentment.  Through a variety of ways, we are invited by God train our hearts to not only receive, but to emanate divine Presence.  That Mary “treasured all these words,” shows us the importance of this mission.

On January 6, from 8:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., a partnership between Cedar Hills Church and First Presbyterian Church presents an introduction to Contemplative Prayer.  This half-day retreat explores spiritual practices which help train our hearts to encounter God.  Call 208-290-3119 or registration@fpcsandpoint.org for registration information.

Because “Merry Christmas” is a declaration of Peace, open your heart to receive the Living Christ.

Peace and All Good,

Pastor Andy Kennaly

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint