Thunder’s Glory, a Message from the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 18, 2018

“Thunder’s Glory”

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34        John 12:20-33     

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          “Father, glorify your name.”  “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.”

When I was in high school I spent a weekend with a youth group camping out on an island on Priest Lake.  It was a water ski retreat, and a few of the parents brought ski boats, while most of us used canoes to paddle out from the main shoreline.  It was an amazing weekend, from the inspiration of the students, the speaker, the beauty of the area, to the weather which gave us everything from sunshine and flat water to windy waves and rain.

American Christianity back then really emphasized revivals and being born again as proof of being saved.  Testimonies shared about life changing moments seemed to capture peoples attention, the more dramatic conversion, the better.  But at the time, I felt uneasy because I had never had an emotional, dramatic, swoon by the Spirit kind of experience, and the pressure laced with a bit of judgment made me feel uneasy, almost guilty that I hadn’t had a specific day and time in my life that I could point to as the time my heart was given to the Lord.  Growing up Presbyterian, what I call being a “cradle-Christian” I never felt as if my heart wasn’t with the Lord.  But I still had a desire for some sort of sign, or some way of confirming God’s active Presence in my life.

Following one of the campfire talks in which the speaker shared his vision of heaven and how great it’s going to be, he asked us to pair off and have a one-on-one time of prayer with our peers.  I picked my friend, Ken Underwood.  He and I got together there on the beach in that awkward teen age way and I shared with him the kind of thing I just told you.  So as we talked on the beach sitting on some drift wood, I decided that rather than demand proof, or want some sort of sign, like the born again Christian kind of drama, that rather, I would simply lean further into trust.  My prayer that day, shared with Ken, was that from that time onward, in my life, I would never doubt God’s Presence with me, and that even when it didn’t feel like God was there, that I would just assume that the living Christ was with me.

From that same weekend, I have two other experiences that stick in my mind.  One involves watching another student get up on two skis and have a great run on water skis, even though the water was a bit choppy, and his legs from the knee down were prosthetics.  They were fake legs, and feet, and yet he was all thumbs up as they roared out into the lake.  Faster, faster, faster, wave to the adoring fans on shore!   Another image is of our group huddled under the tarp as we squished together on the picnic table to get out of the rain.  We used a big stick to hold the tarp up in the middle so the torrential downpour wouldn’t puddle up.  We sheltered out in the middle of the lake on this island, gathered under a tarp in a storm that featured lightning that flashed and the thunder was instantaneous.  That storm was on us in all it’s fury and power.  Impressive, most impressive.

Three takeaways have influenced my life ever since that weekend, or at least that’s when I started to notice.  One involves having confidence in God on God’s terms, a confidence we might call awareness of faith, with a deep joy that is unwavering even though life has its ebbs and flows.  Another take away is that God includes the marginalized, those our society would rather sideline or think, somehow, they are not included in the fullness, when they really are.  Everyone benefits by the lessons learned through a larger, more inclusive diversity.  And a third take away is that the natural world is included in a participatory way in anything related to God, which is everything, and we are part of that natural world in fragile yet powerfully meaningful ways.  My prayer on the beach was shared by the island itself, the lake, the trees, and that storm in which thunder and lightning expressed the voice of God saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”  Thunder’s glory on that weekend reflects a confirmation of God’s glory, and the glory of human life fully realized and lived.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the “Early Church Fathers of the 2nd century AD, […] was bishop of Lyons, in Southern France, though he appears to have grown up in Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey.  There Irenaeus had personal contact with St. Polycarp, one of the Apostolic Fathers who in turn knew the Apostle John, son of Zebedee.”  St. Irenaeus became a martyr around the year 200.  (https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/author/irenaeus/)  One of the most famous quotes attributed to Irenaeus is this, (and I’m keeping it original rather than switching it for inclusive language, because it’s a little too cumbersome to do that with this quote).  He says, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”  He says, “The glory of God gives life; those who see God receive life.  For this reason God, who cannot be grasped, comprehended or seen, allows himself to be seen, comprehended and grasped by men, that he may give life to those who see and receive him.  It is impossible to live without life, and the actualization of life comes from participation in God, while participation in God is to see God and enjoy his goodness.”

(https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/man-fully-alive-is-the-glory-of-god-st-irenaeus/)  That monastery in New York that I went to for a Centering Prayer retreat last month had his quote framed and hung on a wall, translated, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Living the awareness of deep faith, trusting that living Presence of God which is beyond comprehension yet revealed in all things, we are invited to much more than being born again out of some fear for where we’ll end up for all eternity; we are invited to an entirely new way of living and perceiving life itself.  Jeremiah picks up on this in talking about the new covenant, as the LORD says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

God is with us all the time, and all the time, God’s goodness pervades with droplets of grace that drench us in waters of new life.  The New Covenant, which shapes God’s love through Christ within us, invites us to a new way of perceiving reality and awakening to Unity.  By consenting to God’s Presence, in desiring God’s will, we affirm what has been true all along; that in Christ, right relationship is hardwired into our human experience, and for the many ways we deny that reality intentionally or not, we are forgiven, cleansed, and called back to wholeness and blessing.  (Now, depending on how you perceive reality, this next example may or may not make sense).

In a recent online devotional Joanna Macy explored the Kinship with All Life, where she “reconnects our seemingly separate selves with nature, both present and past: the greening of the self [is what she calls it].  It involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation.  It is . . . ‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .”

She says, “. . . Unless you have some roots in a spiritual practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, facing the enormous challenges ahead becomes nearly impossible. . . .

“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of the Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time.  It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime.  The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception.  Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first splitting and spinning of the stars.”

“[…] the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and our own story as life on Earth.  We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas.  In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey, wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layer of our neocortex and what we learned in school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined.  When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”

(http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/CD714989CE6B634E2540EF23F30FEDED/713021DC5DC21FE0C9C291422E3DE149)

Friends, recall how started this Lenten journey.  Burning Palm branches, mixing ash with olive oil, marking a sign of mortality on our foreheads, even while we trust, in Christ, our eternity as those interconnected with all time and space.  “Remember you are star dust, and to star dust you shall return.”

May God continue to teach us what it means to have love and grace and peace, the living Presence of Christ, and our interconnectedness with all things written on our hearts.  May we pray for confidence to trust deeply in the glory of God as we seek to live fully as human beings rooted and growing in Christ.  May God use us to help share the fullness of life abundant, so we may share through the power of great gladness the joy of faith.  And may God be glorified now, even as forever.  Amen.

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“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 Kingdom of God has Come Near,” a Message from the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018

“The Kingdom of God has Come Near”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10    1 Corinthians 7:29-31   Mark 1:14-20

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          In Assisi Italy one of the people we learned more about is Clare.  Saint Clare.  As a young woman, the daughter of aristocracy, one night it was arranged that she would sneak out of the house and meet with St. Francis, and they cut her hair and she joined the movement as Sister Clare.  Today, in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, there is a piece of art from the 13th century that portrays eight stories or scenes of her life.  Looking at this movement, one gets a sense of the power and energy that must have been present in her life, in her context, that would so capture her as to have her turn her back on wealth, prestige, material security, and comfort, and instead embrace a movement that focused on poverty, peace, and prayer.  It seems that the only explanation for this transformation points us to none other than the infinite love of God.  God’s love is at the core of her conversion experience, and the source of her joy which shaped her ministry for the rest of her life.

Here is a prayer from a booklet I picked up in Assisi, attributed to Clare, and called, To Love the Lord.  She says, “Oh Lord my joy, before you I place my eyes, my soul, my heart.  You who gave everything for love of me, transform me into You, and give me the gift to taste the hidden sweetness that until now you have reserved for your friends, so that I can love You with all my heart.”

And in the theme of Epiphany, of celebrating God with us, here is another one called, Rejoice in the Lord.  She prays, “May I always rejoice in You, oh Lord and never allow a cloud of bitterness to surround me!  Teach me to keep my eyes on You, Who are the mirror of eternity – that which does not change and remains for ever; may my soul rest in the splendor of your glory, and may my heart remain in You, because to see You is to see the Father.  You who made yourself like me, make me like you and may my life be open to the joy of loving and being loved.”

These two prayers parallel our readings this morning as we Jonah and Paul and those first disciples realizing, recognizing, experiencing, and living the fact that God is before them and they are called to claim and share this love.  Jonah is angry about this, and annoyed that God is so loving because it violates his learned hatred and bitterness towards the Assyrians, especially those living in the capital city of Nineveh.  Paul the Apostle is giving a teaching to a conflicted church in Corinth and supposedly he has the assumption that Jesus is coming back immediately, that life as we know it will not last because at any moment the fullness of God’s kingdom will overturn everything we take as normal.  As Jesus calls those first disciples in Mark, Simon and Andrew, James and John all leave their fishing, their families, their obligations, and their identities as fishermen to follow Jesus and share with people a message of hope and joy.

Through the stories, even the imperfections, the cultural shocks, and unbelievable outcomes; these stories are intended to communicate something deeper than their own plots or storylines.  They point to something existential, they try and describe with words something indescribable, but something that can only be lived and experienced and shared obliquely like Clare praying her joy in living God’s unbounded love.

Jonah is defined as a Prophet who does his duty, even though he is reluctant and not inspired to follow God’s directions.  Remember, this is the literary narrative that has him getting swallowed by a great fish and three days later getting spat out on the shore.  Someone once described this crazy book of Jonah by saying that the part of story where Jonah gets swallowed by a giant fish was actually the most believable part.  The rest of the story is hilarious in how absurd things turn out, like the entire city of Nineveh, including it’s king, repenting from their evil ways.  Unbelievable, and anything but literal.  Yet very powerful as it points to existential reality that the power of God’s love is beyond human limitations, political boundaries, hatreds, ethnic conflicts, and entrenched histories of violence.  God’s love renews, restores, redeems, and it doesn’t take much in the way of cooperation for this power to work like a catalyst, changing the entire mix of life on earth.

The Apostle Paul with his assumptions of the imminent return of Christ teaches something even though his understanding of timing has its limitations.  What he is showing is how our roles, our identities, everything that we have come to know or understand about who we are in relation to everything else; these all fall away.  No title, no role, no position, nothing is able to capture the fullness of who we are as created beings claimed by the intimate and eternal love of God.  As he says, “For the present form of this world is passing away,” Paul is glimpsing the truth that the finite fades, and most aspects of our experience involves the finite, the limited, the temporary, that which is not capable of lasting beyond it’s own context.  Nothing has any eternity to it, except the existential reality of God’s infinite, intimate love.  Paul the mystic is dealing with a conflicted church that just doesn’t get it.  They are arguing over things that really are not ultimate, and he has seen and experienced the Risen Christ, putting everything else in a sort of perspective that can only highlight the unitive power of God’s love.

In Mark’s Gospel, Zebedee probably wondered what in the world had come over his sons.  He may have been shocked, saddened, and insulted that his own boys had left their trained livelihood, their social obligations for family, only to follow a rabbi into an uncertain future.  Perhaps he was proud they were getting into religious life, but we really don’t know about his response.  What we do know is the message Jesus shares says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  The verbs involved, for “fulfilled” and “come near” are in the Greek perfect tense, which means they have already happened and we are living in the effect of this action.  Because of what God has done, of what God has already competed in our sense of time, the result can be repentance.

The other day as Shawna was studying about techniques for teaching skiing she came across something that sounds obvious but isn’t always so clear in practice.  As a ski instructor, this lesson suggests, you don’t want to necessarily teach someone a totally new skill, to have them do something in an entirely new way.  Rather, you want to focus on what it is they are already doing, and help shape that practice into something even more refined and helpful.  You want to build on their strengths, even while you’re sharing practices that help them blossom into a whole new level of ability.

This is the idea behind Mark’s version of repenting.  The typical understanding we’re likely most familiar with is the Hebrew notion of repent as ‘turn around.’  Christianity tends to link this turning with moralism, so not only is repentance a turning, but it involves our concepts of ethics, even guilt.  In verse 15, however, the Greek word involves less a turning, and more of an adjustment to perception.  In Greek, repent means ‘change your way of thinking.’  Jesus is inviting them to wrap their minds around a new reality.  We too, are invited to wrap our minds around a new reality that is good news.  God’s Presence, which is already here, can change our whole reality.  We are invited to see, to experience, to claim this existential reality, and to trust this new way of being, both conceptually and in practice.

Claiming God’s love, trusting God’s invitation to live with a new way of thinking, one that perceives reality through the unity of mind and heart, disciples are called to follow the Risen Christ into the depths and breadth of God’s expansive, inclusive, unbounded love.  May we heed the call, trusting the goodness of this news, so our lives and our world are transformed through God with us, as we are loving and being loved.  Glory be to God!  Amen.

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

“Depth of Love”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a bit earlier, on December 11, 1964

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

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963

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

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963

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

Martin Luther King Jr.Strength to Love, 1963 

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

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

 

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

Martin Luther King Jr.Why We Can’t Wait

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

In “Strength to Love” he says,

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

 

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

 

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

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

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

Results from Poor Man’s College:

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

Results from Contributed Quotations:

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

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

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

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

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

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

Memphis, Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

http://www.ucc.org/sacred-conversation_dr-kings-last-sermon

 

(long PAUSE for silence)

 

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

“Out of Our Minds,” a Message on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Out of Our Minds”

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 24, 2017

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16      Luke 1:46b-55     Luke 1:26-38

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

          On the Sabbatical one of the places we visited was Innsbruck, Austria.  We spent an entire day exploring and this included a picnic lunch from the top of the Austrian Alps.  Using public transportation, we eventually got off a cable car at the summit of ski area overlooking the city and the entire valley.  You could see the ski jump miles away used in the Olympics.  Even the resort we were at claimed the steepest terrain in all of Europe; it’s ski slopes has 70 degree pitches.  Falling is not an option.  There was about an inch of snow that had fallen the night before, so we were above the snow line on that September day.  The sun came out, the melting started, and after hiking around the summit area we headed back down into the city.  Sometimes it’s nice to have that mountain top experience, to gain the big picture.  But we headed back down to the valley and into the streets.  No skiing for us that day, but standing at the top of a steep pitch gets you thinking about the glory days.

When Shawna and I were in college in northern Wisconsin, the winters there were harsh and long.  But we were members of the downhill ski racing team!  We traveled on weekends to various events throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota, and in that Midwest racing circuit, we came up against some of the most competitive athletes in the world.  Since I had started skiing in eighth grade, by college on my Fischer 205’s with bright red boots and day-glow yellow buckles, I could free ski just about anything.  But being on a racing course with set gates and icy ruts is an entirely different experience.

In most of these races I placed consistently in the pack, and week after week, out of over 90 racers, I was always third or fourth…to last.  Third or fourth to last:  I was a big loser!  Those guys are amazing skiers when you put them in the gates, and the more rutted and icy the course, the faster they go.  I decided I was more of a recreational racer, and rather than spandex, I sported a rag wool sweater.  I thought it was just great getting off campus every weekend, hanging out with my friends, having our meals, hotels and lift tickets paid for through the activity funds.  I got a new winter jacket.  People thought you were cool.  It was a great way to stay in shape.  Our training was really good and my skiing definitely improved, as long as I wasn’t on a race course.

Competition is the name of the game for downhill ski racing, especially in the Midwest where people get bored free skiing.  They want that adrenaline.  Setting goals, measurable results, learning to excel, playing the game to win, getting rewarded for your merit, sticking with successful and proven methods, and above all, working hard.  Individuals with ambition, material resources, and strategies to help them achieve do well when they have a drive and they strive for victory.  These are qualities of champions.

And these represent the orange level quite well.  The orange level, the Rational Self level of Spiral Dynamics, a system of explaining cultural evolution, how society has stages of development and what each level focuses on in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  All those qualities mentioned about the Orange level, the Rational Self level are at the core of what has brought about Capitalistic Democracies, the Free Market, a Global Economy, all of which depend on Scientific Rationalism.  Some of the weaknesses involve using people and the earth as a commodity to help you get what you want, so environmental degradation is a side effect.  Consumerism, materialism, workaholism, and denial of the spirit are also challenges for this level.

There are other levels, such as a lower one called the Power Self, the red level which focuses on aggression, might makes right as you do and be what you want regardless of anyone else.  The quest for heroic status, power, glory, rage and revenge drives people to align with power, seeking loyalty as you take what you need, have power over others, and use force to get what you want.  It’s a legitimate level, part of our story.  The downside is that this level also involves bullying and terrorism, and fear and phobias are driving factors which can lead to depression and anxiety.  Every level has strengths and weaknesses, and we know reality is usually a mixed bag.

Each of the levels in Spiral Dynamics represents years, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years of human development as a species.  For example, moving from the level of the Instinctive Self that sought daily survival for you and your family, to a more organized tribal level that puts the clan and known entities at the center in order to defend from outsiders and threats, to even more systemic or larger empires and feudal systems; this upward journey continues into levels that provide break-throughs along the way.  The Law and Order of the Rule Level brings relief to chaos and random attacks, and provides stability, direction and purpose for generations.  This Rule level still is very active in our own culture.  And it’s interesting to see higher levels in the spiral getting revealed from time to time, and we see this through things like the desire for human rights, an appreciation of diverse views, being open and affirming of all sorts of people.  Terms that describe these higher levels in the spiral include:  Holistic, compassionate, interactive, ecological, egalitarian, community, sensitive.  Yet even these have their weak points or pitfalls.  Rather than get confused about different levels, the main idea here is that culture is not static.  Human society and our place and role in the larger creation is dynamic, and God’s purposes, grounded in divine, loving Presence, are at the core of this cosmic-level creativity.

In our own lifetime we see people and situations that represent movements along the spiral, sometimes up and sometimes down.  World population includes people at every level, and our Western society reflects those levels where the majority of people in power tend to reside.  It gets tricky when problems created at lower levels need solutions that can’t be found there.  It seems revolutionary when breakthroughs to higher levels reveal the solutions in ways that become quite obvious.

The coach for my ski team had us use a book called, Skiing Out of Your Mind, and it’s basically about visualization.  You’ve likely seen Olympic athletes preparing for their big race with headphones in, eyes closed, body moving; they’re getting in the zone!  They are using their mind, picturing each part of the course, how they will navigate the turns, the changing landscape.  Imagery guiding their reality.

Mind over matter, skiing out of their mind in a focused way, and not from their fears or distractions or anxieties; using that Rational Level self to help them excel.  I suppose it works for those who are into that kind of thing.  What we tell ourselves mentally, the thoughts we entertain and empower, can be very influential.  But even this has it’s limits.  Our mind eventually hits it’s own horizons and there are things in life that are beyond our understanding through that mind space.  Common sense and rationalization, even the scientific method do not necessarily lead to enlightenment.

These scriptures we read this morning on this fourth Sunday of Advent take us on a journey through the spiraling creativity of God and the beauty of humanity’s invitation to dance in love with the Trinity of God.  They are encouragements which bring healing and wholeness as mind, body, soul, and spirit come together, integrating our larger, True Self with the gift of the living Christ.

The spiral dynamics shine through the words of the Psalmist: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.”  We see the limitations and reversals in the story of David and the Prophet, Nathan.  The King was settled and wanted to build God a Temple.  The Prophet tells David, “Go, do all you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”  But the word of the LORD comes to Nathan that very night and shows the limitations of this royal ego trip, reminding them both that its God who decides what actions help express God’s purposes, and this shows the limitations of the mind, even the mind of a king, and a chosen king at that!

The passages from Luke share the story of Mary and her faithfulness, thankfulness, and holy participation in what God is doing in creation, in the birthing of Christ through Jesus.  The details are counter-cultural to say the least, involving a young girl who is not yet fully married, and the town of Nazareth of all places.  She is perplexed and fearful when the angel greets her, yet we read that typical, angelic phrase, “Do not be afraid” along with a reminder that God is with us.

It’s quite an image to picture all of history, all of creation both seen and unseen, heaven and earth and all the cosmos pivoting around this holy moment in which angels wait on baited breath to hear Mary say, “Yes.”  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  This is very different than Nathan’s and David’s approach.  This is very different than many of the ways our world typically works.  Yet her YES in that moment echoes throughout eternity in ways that are as connected, imminent, and current as the breath of God itself.  Like a catalyst in a solution, her YES very quickly changes everything!

We participate in Mary’s YES.  We participate in God’s purposes as co-creators.  And we are invited to remember that we are servants of the LORD, that it is the word of the Lord that takes us out of the limitations of our minds and into our hearts where we find unity with the bigger picture.  It’s from that unified field, the heart-mind-spirit connection in a balanced way that Mary says with integrity and humility, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”  She claims her full humanity as one involved in the Incarnation.

Preparing our hearts for Christmas, to receive the Prince of Peace, humbly quieting our minds and disarming our fears, the God of love comes to us with promise and blessing.  As we take our place, united with Mary’s YES, connected throughout history and the echoes of time, God’s eternal now invites us to take deep breaths infused with grace, justice, and love.  May we discover the gift of our full humanity as we live and share the image of God.  The world is blessed.  Christmas joy is upon us.  Do not be afraid!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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

“In Christ”

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

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

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All People Shall See,” Message from Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

“All People Shall See”

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11     Mark 1:1-8

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

One of the features Shawna and I would visit during the Sabbatical were castles.  Whether in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, or any of the other places, castles are an established part of the landscape, in terms of geography, history, and culture.  Prominent rulers made use of castles and entire techniques of warfare were developed around castles.  Back in the day when some form of rocks or sharp sticks were the weapons, either through catapults, spears, or arrows, castles were mainly places of defense with motes, stores of food and water to survive long sieges, and high walls with gates that could be lifted up or closed and locked.  Fortresses!

One castle we visited in Slovenia, the Predjama Castle, is built into a cave along a major cliff, with a stream flowing out.  The occupant was a crook who kept robbing the treasury of the Austrian Emperor.  Soldiers kept the castle under siege, but couldn’t figure out how the occupants could throw fresh fruit at them months into it.  A secret entrance high up on the hill; they smuggled in food.  But eventually he got killed and the castle was taken.

History is filled with stories about those times and places, when and where, powers collide.  That old saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” seems to echo through the ages, and violence is often the result of human obsessions.  Our scene in Mark is no different, and “John the Baptizer” is one who recognizes this, his life shaped as a prophet calling people to turn to God, to trust in God’s redemption.

John is the son of religious authority, and can trace his roots back to Aaron.  His mother, Elizabeth, is likely related to Mary, mother of Jesus.  His father, Zechariah, is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, although tradition has it that when King Herod slaughtered the innocent children under two years old in Bethlehem, Zechariah would not divulge the location of his son, John, so Herod’s soldiers killed him in the Temple.  This would mean John grew up away from centralized power of the Temple system, and many think he was part of the Essene community, a very strict sect of Jews who lived in the Qumran area, where more recently the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

There is so much history when it comes to the prophet John!  By the time this scene takes place he is wearing clothing made from camel’s hair and he eats off the land a simple diet of insects and wild honey.  In other words, he is an ascetic, practicing severe forms of self-discipline and abstaining from any indulgence.  He seems to be leading a solitary life, like a hermit, because everyone has to go out to him, in the wilderness.

Can you believe “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins?”  Out in the wilderness…, in other words NOT in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were baptized by him…, in other words, NOT the official, ordained priest of the Temple, but by this prophet working on the margins.  NOT through a ritual cleansing in the official wash basins, but in a small river that doesn’t have any prestige, some historians even say he was using a tributary and not the Jordan at all.  Confessing their sins…, NOT having the priest make sacrifices on the altar, but turning to God on their own.

All the people of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside; John has celebrity status, yet he is humble.  The High Priest dressed in fine robes in Jerusalem had quite a regiment of ritual cleansings before he would even be presentable in the Temple, let alone make sacrifices at the altar.  He had a separate sky-walk to get from his expensive home to the Temple, so he could avoid touching anybody on the street, especially the ritually unclean.  Yet here is John clothed in itchy camel hair on purpose, standing in a river, fully accessible by everyone.

Christianity has taken many forms over the last 2,000 years, mostly defaulting to the Temple, Sacrifice, Clergy model, very similar to our liturgical traditions involving an order of worship, usually a church building, a facility, and professional clergy.

But this story from Mark about John the Baptizer reminds us of other models, such as the one from the years 300 to 600 as we remember those often called, “The Desert Mothers and Fathers.”  These, also like John, were mainly hermits, people in the wilderness who sought to live a more faithful life than they thought possible through the mainstream of social structures and Empire religion.  Pilgrims, spiritual explorers, seekers, would go out into the desert to visit, to learn from the wisdom gained through spiritual disciplines and solitude.

In an article called, “Blurring the Boundaries: Paradox in the Spirituality of the Desert Mothers and Fathers,” Richard Bonacci explores this mystical side of Christian faith.  He says “the movement into the desert…is also a transformation of spiritual and psychological significance.  It is where we encounter in humility our true selves, where we talk to God, and our demons talk to us.  Our journey into the desert is not one of escape but of encounter with the fullness of our humanity and with the awesomeness of God, the ground of our being.” (Presence magazine, An International Journal of Spiritual Directors, Vol. 23 No. 4, December 2017, pg. 32).

Let’s make sure we recognize that we’re not just talking about sand and rocks of an arid environment.  Desert is not only a physical place, but can be experienced in our lives at any time.  Desert means wilderness, somewhere we are away from the familiar or what’s considered normal.  Maybe it’s an addiction we face, or some form of challenge to the way we thought life was supposed to be.  Deserts blur the vision of the horizons we thought we could see, and living on the margins can be both very disorienting and illuminating.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers “understood the destructive nature of the material world,” especially when it came to attachment, and the regrets and longings that go with that attachment.  Bonacci says, “the real threat for seekers [is bringing] their emotional baggage into their spiritual desert.  The abbas and ammas spoke often of what we call the deadly or capital sins.  Of particular concern for them were envy, pride, and an unhealthy need for recognition.”  Quite the luggage, huh?

As John calls people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he is calling people away from envy, pride, and the unhealthy patterns.  “Envy is destructive” because when we continually compare ourselves with our neighbors, and we judge them, this makes it very hard to be compassionate.  Compassion involves going with people “to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken,” and with envy we are not likely to have this desire for compassion.

Pride involves an idealized sense of ourselves.  In fact, we become so focused on our self-image that we really can’t handle reality.  Bonacci puts it, “When we fail to look to God for the source of our virtue and compassion, we are on shaky ground.  The only antidote for pride is our being one in the pain and suffering of all humanity.” (pg. 33-34).  Again, how many people want to willingly enter the pain and suffering of all humanity?

That third deadly threat, an “exaggerated need for approval,” makes us too “dependent on the respect and affection of others.”  The desire for recognition can become destructive.  When all you’re after are approval ratings, you can lose any sense of your true self.  “The desert elders considered it their task to disillusion those who came to the desert to be applauded for their efforts or to find a quick spirituality.”  They probably said things like, “Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but…”  They would rather be called foolish that be promoted and acclaimed as holy and saintly.  They did not like drawing attention to themselves.

The greatest lesson involves humility.  “Without humility, we are in danger of mistaking our own thoughts and desires for the will of God.” (pg. 36).  “To acknowledge your pain, weakness, and failings is positive, and repentance and healing are essential.”  Holding on to past sins and regrets is counterproductive to “gratitude for God’s loving mercy and kindness.”  (pg. 37).

John the Baptizer and the Desert Mothers and Fathers approached ascetic disciplines as a measure, a tool to gauge sincerity in the spiritual journey.  Most people don’t want an encounter with God, they don’t; it would seem too frightening because encounters with God can be disturbing as well as comforting.  That’s what most people want: spiritual comfort.  The prophets are calling out the Word of God: “Comfort, comfort, my people.”  But we are also called to the wilderness so we can sort out what voice it is that we hear.  Spiritual disciplines do not give us a deeper relationship with God, but they do prepare us to have willingness to encounter God.

Do you want to encounter God, even if it’s a mix of comfort and disruption?  Are you willing to repent, to turn to God and away from some false understanding of yourself, especially envy, pride, and the need for recognition?  What desert is on your threshold?  What wilderness is ready to test your spiritual intentions?  Are you interested in spiritual disciplines that help prepare us to encounter God?  Are you willing to go into the wilderness, humbly receiving simple sustenance, or do you prefer the security of the castle, trying to survive the siege with what stores you have saved up for yourself?

Castle warfare came to an end.  Culture evolved and what once worked stopped working.  May we, on this Advent journey be willing to explore the margins, where faith honestly recognizes that what once worked, may not work anymore, and each day is a new day calling us forward in a new way.  Wild honey is amazingly sweet, but you gotta get stung a few times, yet this discomfort helps us appreciate this golden gift of nourishment.  As we follow the Jesus way, may we more and more prepare for encounter with God, for discovery of our True Self in Christ, and be open to the grace and workings of the Holy Spirit.  And, may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.