“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.



(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.