Second Sunday in Lent

March 8, 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-21

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. This means that…
[he was a vampire] [it’s a metaphor] [he didn’t want to be seen]

Because there are other times where he appears to be appearing in daylight I think we have to throw out the vampire option.

In the imagery of the Gospel of John, Darkness is all about spiritual limitedness and Light is for those who have been enlightened. And so Nicodemus was a seeker who had been in the darkness of religious-not-really-understanding but who wanted to come into the light of spiritual understanding.

He may very well have not wanted to be seen. He was a Pharisee, one of the leaders of the Jewish community. He had a lot to lose in terms of standing and position if he was seen cavorting with a religious outlier.

So he came to Jesus to see what he could learn from the man who turned water into wine but he came at night because he didn’t want to give up his day job. He just wanted Jesus to brighten the corners of his faith life. Looking for an upgrade, he discovered that what Jesus was offering was a complete overhaul. It was probably very unsettling for him.

That’s what both of our stories – and the convoluted bit of Romans – are telling us: that complete overhaul in the name of faith is the only thing that matters. Names and positions and genetics and homelands are not enough if we can’t step out in faith and change how we think of ourselves and how we live our lives as we enter into a radically different way of living.

To summarize what Jesus said – and to quote Martin Luther King Jr in the process:
Your whole structure must be changed.

And that is why the birth comparison is so apt. It is messy and dangerous and puts life and death very close together – even today, even though we ignore that bit.

As a process it may be natural but it is also is chaotic and confusing – like the spirit/breath/wind of God: Job’s holy whirlwind hovering over the face of formlessness and void, making the newborn cry as it enters a whole new cold and uncomfortable word.

That is the imagery that Jesus gives us for the process of spiritual transformation summed up as “born anew”. It is giving up plastic for Lent, not chocolate – at least not unless chocolate is part of every single thing you do and how you see the world.

No wonder Nicodemus – at the end of this story – seems to choose his present religion over the transformation Jesus offers.

Except he didn’t. He just took a while. By the end of chapter 7 Nicodemus is standing up for Jesus in front of other Pharisees (7:50-52) and by the end of the story he helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial, bringing an extraordinary about of spices for anointing (19:39-40).

So if our spiritual transformations – or giving up of plastic – often seems like 1 step forward and 2 steps back, remember that it too Nicodemus 3 years. And it took Abraham 25 years to the birth of Isaac and he had – according to tradition – 10 tests. Not all of which he passed.

The other reason that birth is an apt image for this level of spiritual transformation is that after you are born nothing is ever the same again. And the same is true for parents – once a child enters your life – a child that is yours to care for as long as they let you (and even after that) – your life is not the same. You don’t fit a child into the spaces at the edge of your life. It changes the way you do everything. EVERYTHING.

It’s like moving to a new place. A new country in particular. Where the flour is weird and the food is different and the way people speak is different (this can happen even when it’s the same language) and the pace of life is different and the assumptions about how things are done are different. And not always good different. But eventually it’s familiar and given time it becomes home.

It’s like living as though the planet is in crisis. It changes behaviours and assumptions. We have to give up things and start new things and usually the new things aren’t exactly convenient.

But this is what faith invites us into. We are invited to live more and more in line with the teachings of Jesus. We are invited to rely on trust and faith rather than position or comfort. It’s not fun and it’s hard and it can seem like we’re getting nowhere. Until we are.

Rev. Shannon Tennant

The First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:15-16, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The people who do experiments did an experiment. They took some books, dressed them up as library books, and asked students working in the university library to help them out with a prank on a friend.The prank involved writing the word “pickles” in pen in the margin of a library book. The students who were approached said things like “That’s wrong” and “You shouldn’t write in it” and “It’s library property”. But 64% of them wrote the word “pickles” in pen in the margin of what they thought was a library book. 64% of those people who knew it was wrong did it anyways.

Why? Because – and this is what the experiment was about – they didn’t want to judged by the person who asked them to write “pickles” in the library book. They didn’t want to be thought prissy and no fun and too uptight for a good hearted joke.

Normally when we think of asking people to do something we think of it from the point of the view of doing the asking – like asking someone to give up a seat on the bus. We don’t want to be thought of as lazy or demanding or entitled. But if we ask (and the person who started the experiment was pregnant and decided to see what would happen if she did) people will because they don’t want to seem lazy or demanding or entitled. Or just plain rude.

The serpent was the most cunning of all the beasts of the field that Lord God had made. And he asked. The woman apparently hadn’t read the study and didn’t want the serpent to think she was the kind of person who wasn’t interested in knowing good and evil. Or being like a god. So she took and ate and she gave it to the man and he ate and there was no going back.

We read this story with 2000 years of interpretation behind it most of it going back to St Augustine who invented the idea of Original Sin – that we are all born with a strong tendency to evil and it’s all because of the fruit of that tree. But that’s not in the story.

None of the things we associate with The Fall are in the story. Even the Fall isn’t in the story. Sin isn’t there or Original Sin. It’s not about obedience. It’s not about women being prone to temptation and men not even asking what’s going on.

What’s going on in the story is the human beings develop the capacity for desire and the capacity for wisdom. They begin to want what they haven’t got. And they know good and evil. And the upshot of that is that they leave the Garden of Eden with a conscience.

A conscience, it turns out, that we aren’t always very good at paying attention to. Like if you’re a student minding your own business when someone asks you to write “pickles” in a library book.

And I wonder if that goes back to the part where the woman and the man saw that they were naked and sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths. Because when they saw they were naked, they realized how exposed and vulnerable they were and they understood how risky that could be and that some of what might happen to them was good, but some was evil and they needed to cover up to protect themselves from that sense of exposure.

Now 6000 or so metaphorical years later we want to cover up our desire not to break rules, or vandalize books, or ask for help, so that others will not see our good hearts, or neediness, or love of peace and order, which seem un-cool, so we write “pickles” in the margin of a library book.

[If equating “naked and ashamed” with our modern concept of mental, emotional and spiritual vulnerability, I can make a pretty good case for it using Leviticus 18, Noah and his sons and a couple of stories from the chronicles of King David. To “uncover someone’s nakedness” was to expose them in a way that was not appropriate for them in the context of who they were to you.]

They would lose their dignity. Just as we might be concerned with not seeming cool and fun and a little bit of an anarchist – it’s a different world out there these days – or of being judged to be no fun or stupid or lazy or incompetent – you probably know what pushes your buttons when it comes to finding yourself doing what you know you shouldn’t.

So take heart and be of good courage: these are the same tricks the devil tried to play on Jesus. The Greek word for “devil” by the way means slanderer and Jesus called him “Satan” which means adversary. It’s probably easier to say “no” when the one trying to push your buttons is called “Pusher of Buttons” so that it’s right out there.

No one will follow you, said the Adversary, if you don’t make them happy with lots of food.
No one will pay attention, said the Slanderer, if you don’t show them your super powers.
No one will care what you say, said the Pusher of Buttons, because why should they? You’re nobody in a backwater province of the greatest empire ever. Be important.

But Jesus, we know, doesn’t care. He won’t write “pickles’ in a library book no matter who asks or why. He will tell the powers of the Roman Empire that they are wrong and show people that they can know good and evil and choose good. Even when it’s hard and risky and dangerous and so can we.

Like the man and the woman who left the Garden of Eden, we have wisdom and we have desire and we have a conscience. Lent is a good opportunity to pay attention to those things. What desires tend to lead us away from good? What wisdom can we bring to bear on understanding why we are drawn away from good? Where do we feel most vulnerable to exposure and how can we avoid sewing together fig leaves to protect ourselves at the risk of losing our connection to wholehearted living?

Because really the trick is to simply know that it’s wrong and to refuse to write in the library book. Simply because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s what matters.

Rev. Shannon Tennant

Precious, Beloved and Called

Precious, Beloved and Called

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

There are a lot of directions a preacher can take with the Baptism of Jesus. A lot of erudite theological,

homiletical and exegetical points she can make.

And if you pick up a copy of the Bible Background Sheet you’ll get some of those and maybe you’ll like them and want to hear (or preach!) a sermon on them.

Someday.

Today I want to talk about this candle.

This is our candle, that we process in every Sunday in front of the Word,

and the worship leader;

and then place,

front and centre,

on our communion table.

 

This is the Shiloh-Fifth Avenue United Church candle,

representing God in our midst.

Reminding us that once there was a man

who said such amazing things

and did such wonderful things

that people followed him.

But they didn’t know who he was.

One day they asked him and he said “I am the Light”:

the light which was the first act of Creation

when the Spirit of God moved across the the waters,

when all was formless and void.

 

That’s why we have a candle.

We have this candle because we used to have a candle that was a white plastic column with an oil canister insert. When we ran out of oil canisters, Vilma and I were appalled by how much it cost to get more and how much more you had to get as a minimum order. I forget where Vilma pulled this candle from when she said “Let’s use this” and I said “Okay”.

 

The rainbow was obviously a good choice for us –

it fits with our logo,

it fits with our inclusivity,

it reminds us of God’s promise after the flood, of a time when sunshine streams through grey skies after rain.

 

But now it is many years later.

The colours are faded, and they kind of run together.

It’s a little wonky on one side on the bottom.

And the wick started to drown

so Vilma dug out a space

and we stick a tea light in it.

The tea light sometimes runs out during the service.

 

I have suggested that we get a new one.

So have other people.

A nice crisp, maybe white? new one –

fresh and with a wick that works.

One that looks like a church candle.

 

But first Vilma and then Rowan have pointed out –

separately and independently

– that this is theologically unsound.

They ask (indignantly) if I am implying

that only the fresh, the crisp, the beautiful,

the white (metaphorically not racially) (I hope) belong here?

If I am suggesting that anyone who doesn’t fit

the traditional mould

of what a church person looks like isn’t welcome to stay?

 

And they are right.

 

We are not here because of our good looks

and we do not get to stay only as long

as we look or feel beautiful.

We come and we stay even when we are not

fresh and shiny and perfect.

Especially then – this is the place for us.

 

We are here because we fade and blend

and are a little wonky in spots

and sometimes need a little outside help

to be able to shine.

We are here because we are imperfect.

Especially to the wider world.

 

We are here because here we remember

that we are much more

than our tired, wonky, imperfect, un-beautiful bits.

 

We are here because here we remember

that God has made us in all our glorious wonkiness

and because here we can be seen as God sees us:

Beloved,

Precious

Children of God.

 

Here we know that with all of our imperfections,

the light that is God’s first act of creation,

the light in the darkness,

the light that shone through the man who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things,

that light shines in us.

 

And while baptism may be the rite of initiation into the church

it is also intrinsically bound up with these words:

You are my child.

You are my beloved.

You are precious in my sight.

 

 

Baptism is a sacrament.

That means that it is the outward sign

of an inward grace.

That inward grace is in those words

and they are true with or without the water.

They are true even if you cannot imagine

God calling you any of those things.

Because – remember –

God is far beyond our imagining.

So never mind your logic or you life story

or what your parents told you.

Just believe.

 

Just believe and remember what is said at the baptism of Jesus and what is true for us even when it is not said:

 

You are God’s.

You are beloved.

You are beloved.

 

Doubt and Faith

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-16; Mark 8:31-38

At this point in our Lenten Covenant Time of Reflection

  • After God has challenged Abram to leave his home and his people to become a monotheist with the vague promise that as a 75 (now 99) year old childless man he would become the Father of Nations;
  • And after Jesus has invited everyone who wants to follow him to pick up a means of execution, deny themselves, walk away from their families, homes and communities and lose their sense of self
  • After all those stories about Faithful Commitment,

I think we need to take a moment to talk about doubt.

Abram’s doubt is left out of the story. He is normally held up as the Absolute Ideal of Faith. A man so faithful that he left his ancestral home in order to follow up on a promise made to him by one of many gods running around the local theology. A man so faithful that he was willing to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, his only shot at the promises made by his God that he would have more descendants than stars in the sky, take that son to sacrifice him to the God who had hung an entire Covenant on him. A man so faithful that he was willing to circumcise himself on God’s say-so.

All for the sake of his One God.

And now, after this promise, made 24 years after the first one, with a few strings attached and no sign of a son or daughter or any other offspring, Abraham allowed himself a small chuckle. Because, really, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?”

But God did not hold this against him. This chuckle of doubt.

And doubt is what started Jesus’ terrifying speech about discipleship. When “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter had his doubts.

Whether those doubts were about the plan, the necessity or the Resurrection, we don’t know, but Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Because – it sounds like – Jesus was not completely immune to those doubts. They were more temptation from the Adversary, trying to poke holes in God’s ideals.

And the reason for the 40 day period of fasting, penitence and preparation, before Baptism and after a three year membership course was to allow time for doubts, for second thoughts and for settling into a whole new spiritual and theological practice.

Doubt is a necessary part of faith. It’s not the enemy of faith. The enemy of faith is certainty. Doubt is like a conversation that faith has with itself while it’s trying to learn more. Faith can’t grow if doubt isn’t allowed to ask questions.

I’m not talking about self-doubt, although some of this might apply. I’m talking about doubts around the Big Faith Picture, and about doubts about the details.

  • Can God be trusted?
  • Is the apparently impossible possible with God?
  • Is this the right thing to do?
  • Do I believe in a Bodily Resurrection?
  • Is hope a worthwhile pursuit?

These are big questions and important ones too. They are not questions we can or will have all figured out today.

So how lucky are we to have what is just as important as doubts, and that’s a place to ask them and people to ask them with. Not people who will give us the right answers. People we can trust with our questions and, along with our questions, our doubts.

How lucky – how blessed – we are to have places and people where we don’t need to be confident and sure of everything. How blessed we are to have places like Book Club and Bible Study and a Membership Course and Children’s Church where we can wonder and let faith and doubt and questions explore together. Where we can say Tell Me More about what you believe so that I can explore more deeply what I believe.

That’s how we learn. At least it’s one way. It’s how we understand our faith and what we believe – by being able to explore What I think now in with people who will say Tell Me More with no agenda, no judgement or no hidden right answer they’re pushing us towards.

The traditional approach to doubts has been to tell people to ignore them, express the faith statement and eventually the repetition will take hold and the doubts will go away.

I prefer the statement of the father who came to Jesus looking for help for his sick child. Jesus said, “If you believe, all things are possible.” The father said, “I believe, help my unbelief.” I don’t see any way to read that other than the father wanted to believe, and did believe, but had some doubts. He expressed that doubt to the very person with the power to punish him for it, and with that honesty – that faith in the face of doubts, that willingness to be honest and authentic and faithful – Jesus healed the child.

We are allowed to doubt. We need to doubt. Only through doubt can faith grown. How lucky we are to have permission to let doubt lead faith in community with others who are also trying to learn and to grow along our faith journey.

Belonging in Covenant

Belonging in Covenant

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

What we have here is two wildly inclusive covenants – although Jesus’ isn’t yet labelled as such.

The Covenant described in this part of Genesis is made with “all living flesh” for multiple generations. Those Jesus invites to follow him respond to an open invitation to Repent and Believe in the Good News that the time is now and the Kingdom of God is here, which meant that the early followers were an amazingly diverse group, defying all demographic categorizations. In coming together those early followers became one group where no one belonged and everyone belonged.

Part of the point of baptism was to wash away the old self – your former relational, professional, geographical self – so that you could be made new in Christ. That was what early followers did during Lent: got ready for baptism and new life. Jesus was baptized first and then spent his 40 days in the wilderness, but for the early church the wilderness was a necessary preparation for the rebirth of baptism.

To join the early church was a lonely proposition: it meant leaving behind family, community, status, connectedness and your place in the world. This was not something to be undertaken lightly. But to join the early church also meant a whole new family, a whole new community and purpose in life, and it meant being part of something much greater than yourself.

So in the way you had always seen your place in the world, you had nowhere you know belonged. But in the new way you could see yourself in the world, you belonged to something very powerful and visionary.

Even after that 40 days of preparation, though, belonging takes work. No one magically emerges from Lent thoroughly reborn. If they had, Paul – and others – wouldn’t have needed to write all those letters explaining what it meant to be the church and care for one another and imitate Christ. No one, having been promised that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood, and that this promise is for all generations with all living flesh, is magically going to leave behind the tendency to violence – and the things that lead to violence – that they had grown up knowing was there and suddenly belong to the kind of human race that John Lennon described in the song Imagine.

The difficult work of belonging may be why God just couldn’t leave the covenant alone. That first covenant was all up to God. People didn’t have to invest anything into belonging to the covenant, so maybe they were less invested in the world it was aimed at creating. The early church needed heavily invested members. It demanded a lot of people – beginning with the separation from their former life and asking more and more along the way until it might event ask people to go to their death singing and praising God. Of course, those people needed a lot of time to think it over and strengthen their faith in the new religion they wanted to belong to.

Churches still demand things of the people who belong to them. They demand money, they demand time, they demand commitment and participation in programs and small group membership.Some churches have hard lines and high demands, others are less strict and more indirect in their approach.

We are radically inclusive but we still ask things of each other, starting with a membership course, and going on to acceptance of a congregational covenant and regular participation, whether in worship, leadership, outside of Sunday activities, financial support or practical help like photo-copying, proofreading or counting. Rebecca and Donna, who have done that course and will be received into Full Membership today, are excellent examples of people of whom much has been asked and who have given more.

They belong here in ways that pre-date today. And we are grateful that they have chosen to hang their spiritual hat with us.

But belonging is not just about doing stuff that is asked of you. Believe it or not that would be too easy. Belonging is about conversations and connections, about authenticity and vulnerability – all things that we will see and hear in the stories of God’s covenants, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry in the weeks to come. Belonging is about trusting ourselves and trusting each other.

True belonging is is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.*

We all continue to work on those things: trust, connection, conversation, authenticity and vulnerability. This wildly inclusive group of followers of the way, companions on the journey, is a safe place to learn and to grow – in faith, as children of God, as spiritual seekers and as those who go out into the world with a daring and a tender love.

May it always be so with us.

*Brown, Brené (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House, p. 40.