Fourth Week of Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9

Let’s start with the disappointments. Saul showed up disappointed because the man who was supposed to be king was not doing a good job and God was already moving on. Saul, however, was not ready to move on.

Most of us have come here today disappointed. We are disappointed by lost vacations, jobs that have been suspended or lost, normal schedules that have been disrupted back to nothing, worry about ourselves, our health, our supplies. We are disappointed by less concrete things too – the loss of our sense of security, of opportunities and of our sense of normal life.

When Jesus and his disciples came into town, a man born blind – who might have been a disappointment to his parents because he was not what they were expecting – sat by the gate. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “that this man was born blind? Him or his parents?”

Note who asked the question. I tend to assume it was the Pharisees but it wasn’t. It was the disciples. Perfectly good, well-intentioned people (not that the Pharisees weren’t) who wanted to understand. Who wanted a neat and tidy theological explanation for what had happened to turn this man’s life away from “normal”.

As we do. Why me? Why us? Why them? Why now? Why here? We ask. Like there is ever a logical reason for things that happen. What can we blame for the exponential spread of this Covid-19?

A hundred years ago at tent revivals we would have said it was to turn people to God, to Jesus, away from sin towards salvation. In the Wilderness years it would have been because the People murmured and disputed against Moses or God or both.

Now – we still want answers but we don’t like that kind.

All Jesus has to say is: you’re asking the wrong question. The Question is not why it already happened, the question is how can God’s mighty works be displayed in him?

And the revealing of God’s mighty works started with a very unsanitary healing – mud and spit and a communal pool. Ick. And it ended with the spiritual transformation whose eyesight was now irrelevant. Along with the strong suggestion that just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you have a stranglehold on God. And just because you know lots of stuff doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Pay attention to the people who do, not the people who don’t even understand the questions. (i.e. Bonnie Henry, not the Hot Yoga Studio)

What is important here – and what was important there – is to see where God’s mighty works are displayed. And it’s not necessarily where you think. What’s more  God’s mighty works don’t always work out the way you think.


For a church which prides itself on community and hospitality and radical inclusion it’s mighty hard to be separate, isolated and stuck with ways of communicating that necessarily exclude some people.

This is not going to be easy.

But remember this. David was the 8th son. When Samuel told Jesse to gather his boys, he gathered 7 and forgot David. But God didn’t. And David didn’t stay forgotten.

Don’t underestimate what God can do. And don’t underestimate who God can use to do it. Do not assume that because you don’t know what to do and how to do it that there is nothing you can do.

I can’t tell you the number of people I phoned who said “I have no idea what we can do” who then had GREAT ideas of things to do.

Don’t underestimate you. Your caring, your faithfulness, your commitment, your ability to be God’s mighty work.

And remember that you are not the Light of the World. This is not all on your shoulders. The Light came into the chaos of the world and it shines and nothing and  nobody has been able to put it out.

But wash your hands anyways. Even for the man born blind it was a necessary part of the process.


Rev. Shannon Tennant

Third Sunday in Lent

March 15, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:4-52

Here’s an interesting thing that the people say as they murmur against Moses (did you notice?)

Why is it you brought us up from Egypt to bring death on me and my children and my livestock from thirst?

Did you notice the weird thing that happens in the middle of the question? You won’t find it in your New Revised Standard Version Access Bible or the New International Version or the King James or even The Message or the Jewish Publication Version. You need a translation that really digs into the Hebrew where there’s a shift from the beginning of the question to the end:

The murmuring of the people switches from us to me.

That’s the problem. That’s the problem at the encampment at Rephidim where there is no water for the people to drink. The lack of water was not the problem. The manna of chapter 16 should have eased their anxiety about the water shortage. Or maybe the dry way through the Red Sea when they thought they were trapped between an army and drowning.

The constant challenge of the Wilderness years was to learn to be a people that trusted God. And if the particular test of the Red Sea was to realize that God would not leave them high and dry no matter how impossible the situation and the particular test of the manna was to trust that there was enough and there would be enough again, then the particular test here was to not let anxiety turn them from a we – the community of Israel – individuals each concerned with their own brood.

It is just so bang on isn’t it? So right here, right now, when people are so worried about an illness – a flu that is not more dangerous than other flus but is more unknown and unpredictable – so worried that they will not have enough that we are hoarding pasta and toilet paper to make sure that we are not the ones who go without. And in the process of taking care of the “me” they are creating shortages of hand sanitizer, face masks and cleaning products needed by the very medical professionals that we all need to be functioning at 110% capacity to flatten the curve of the spread of this novel coronavirus. Which puts the “me’s” at more risk because we can’t take care of the “we”.

And then there are the people who have a sore throat, who feel sick, who will go to events – small events, family events, huge crowd events and vacation events – because they don’t want to miss out on their individual experiences: the “me” afraid of missing out threatens the “we” trying to keep the most vulnerable as safe as possible.

I wonder if one of the reasons for that change in translation is that we have become a culture – and even a faith – that prizes individuality. There are many places where the Prophets or the Stories are clearly about The People but we assume it is about The Person – us. As in me.

And in that choice, we lose the significance of the Community of Israel disputing itself out of being community.

But I think the Bible is onto something. And we are watching that something in action as the Corvid apocalypse unfolds around us.

And how do we honour this commitment to being a community at a time when we are being told the best thing we can do is protect ourselves from everyone else? With hand sanitizer and disinfecting sprays and isolation. How do we not become a bunch of women at the well avoiding other people and in need of human contact and grace so that we can get beyond the situation that’s trapped us?

This is, as Adrian Dix pointed out, a different way of loving each other. How do we do it?

We start by not shunning people the way her community shunned by the woman at the well. We remember that even in isolation we are a community. We call, we visit, we check to make sure people have groceries and connection and toilet paper. Just because we’re avoiding large crowds doesn’t mean we can’t connect person-to-person. We don’t complain that we lose our vacation, our concert, our lacrosse game that we were really looking forward to and remember that in that process we may be preventing the virus from getting to one or two or even more people who wouldn’t just get sick and recover but could end up in hospital and on a respirator or even die. And we remember that keeping those two or three people out of the hospitals makes space for other people who couldn’t avoid whatever it was they went to that got them sick.

The story of the Woman at the Well shows us that isolation can be devastating. Jesus shows us that it can also be an opportunity for compassion and possibility. And by the end of that story, having had the opportunity to bathe in the grace-filled acceptance of Jesus, that woman returns to her community as the first recorded evangelist to share her sense of inclusion with everyone else.

May it be so for us. Amen.

Rev. Shannon Tennant

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

Believing, Behaving

Believing, Behaving

Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

Fourth Sunday in Lent

I really dislike this passage from John, by the way, not for what it says but for the baggage it carries. I feel like I need to over-explain it every time it comes up because the culture around us has such a hold on it. There is so much tedious grammar and comparisons with the other gospels and digging into what Eternal life means to John and eschatology and so many big theological things that need to be explained and deconstructed and reconstructed that it’s almost impossible to create a non-boring, useful, related to real life sermon out of it all. And completely impossible to do it in under an hour. Especially if it’s going to stick with you so that I never have to do it again.

But for many people what they know of Christianity is a guy at a ball game with a big sign that says John 3:16 and they google it, if they don’t already know, and they find it and say to each other, Oh it’s those Christians acting like everyone else is going to hell. And no amount of grammar and theology and social context is going to fix that.

If I had my life to live over again I would have done the entire series of reflections during Lent on this because it actually goes with all the passages:

  • God loves the entire world – as shown by the rainbow covenant with all living things
  • Jesus is not going to go for power, glory, fame or popularity – as shown by his rejection of easy routes to those things during his time in the wilderness.
  • God is going to create a great nation and this is going to require commitment (aka belief), whether by leaving home and homeland and trusting an unlikely promise or by picking up a cross and becoming great by becoming least
  • There will be rules. And the importance of the rules is their ability to strengthen our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Which brings us to here. With things being lifted up. And God loving the world but those who do not believe are condemned.

Let’s start with lifting up. The bronze snake was lifted up so that people could see it. They had to look up, toward the mountain, toward God, to be reminded of what their grumbling had cost them and how trustworthy God had been. Lifting something up can mean exalting it – which is what ended up happening to the bronze serpent.

People stopped looking past it to God and started looking at it as a god until the righteous King Hezekiah had it smashed to pieces along with other idols that had snuck into Israel’s religious practices.

When Jesus, the Son of Man, is lifted up, on the other hand, it is on a cross and that not look like any kind of exaltation. It looks like humiliation and suffering and defeat.

That happened because God loved the world. To explore that properly you’re going to have to come on Good friday, but it’s part of what we saw with creation and with the rainbow covenant.

And all that stuff about condemnation and eternal life. This is tricky because “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life” sounds like if you believe in Jesus you get to heaven. And “those who do not believe are condemned already” sounds like if you do not believe in Jesus you are not going to heaven.

When Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the first place, Jesus explained about being born anew. He wasn’t talking about revisiting the birth canal as Nicodemus first seems to think. He was talking about becoming part of a new family, the family of Jesus followers.

Those who become part of this Jesus follower family express their family loyalty through behaviours that are compassionate, justice-driven and push us towards God, love, life, Spirit, Eternal Life and Salvation.

There is so much baggage in those words I can hardly stand leaving them alone. But I’m going to for the sake of all of our sanity and so we can go back to the Whosoever believes bit.

Belief is complicated in the Bible. First, it is not a one time offer. Numbers is the last of the grumbling stories. There are at least six times that God wants to give up on Israel and Moses negotiates a reconciliation. Even when God does give up, it’s temporary. God knows that. The prophets know that. It’s only the despair of the present time that makes it hard for everyone else to know that.

And the reason that things came to such an unfortunate pass so many times was usually because people didn’t believe. And by believe I mean act like they had faith.

Believe is a verb and faith is a noun and they go together but believe is not intellectual or emotional agreement with Jesus is Lord (not Caesar). Not in any of the gospels, even the gospel of John. Believe is behaviours that reflect an allegiance to Jesus as Lord (not Caesar). You can probably figure out what those are. They aren’t about profit. They aren’t about judgement. They aren’t about hoarding or hiding or staying safe. They are about hope. They are about compassion. They are about risk. They are about justice. They are about trusting God.

And the question that comes to the people of God, in every time and place,  over and over again, is: Do we trust God? Or are we – people used to being in control of our own lives – unwilling or even unable to trust God with our church, with our lives, with our hopes and dreams? THAT is a, maybe the, fundamental question of discipleship.

Do we believe? And can we behave like we believe?

If there were homework, that would be it: pay attention to how you view the world, some of the choices you make this week and ask: Do these choices reflect an active belief in God? Or do they say that I think I am (we are) the one in control and responsible?

Closing the Holiness Gap

Closing the Holiness Gap

Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22

Third Sunday in Lent

I want to invite you into a slightly warped and not necessarily biblically accurate way of looking at the juxtaposition of those two texts.

The first is a bunch of rules for living in relationship – first with God and then with the rest of the people in the community. They are, in this format, pretty low barrier.

Then there are three books – Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – with clarifications and further commentary and ways of ensuring that holy relationship between God and humanity and humanity and one another. The barriers began to mount. Things got complicated. Eventually, whether because of the passage of time or the influence of Babylon and Rome or the inevitable result of increased non-conquering encounters with other cultures, rules became more important than rituals. How things got done became more important than that things got done.

And when Jesus came into the Temple that day, in our second story, he saw

  • Commercialized sacrifice
  • Profit driving temple taxes
  • A smug elite that made sure undesirable elements didn’t mess up the system

And he lost it.

Neither of these seems like a particularly good reading for Annual Meeting Sunday. We already have our Mission Statement, our Vision Statement, our Congregational Covenant, all aimed at facilitating our relationships with God and with each other. We are progressive and radically inclusive and committed to creating a low barrier community for worship, faith, spirituality and fun. So if Jesus were to come in here, what would he have to say?

Just looking at the gospel of John so far, I wonder

  • Do we turn enough water into wine? (John 2:1-12)
  • Are we stuck hiding under the fig tree? (John 1:43-51)
  • Are we stuck on what God should be doing instead of paying attention to what we could be doing with God? (John 1:19-34)

It comes back to Kathy Davies’ question: Where do we want to be get to and what are we doing to get there?

Are we in a temple courtyard that we have filled with barriers to spiritual wholeness or have we got a sense of what will help us follow Jesus faithfully in community with one another? And where we are not there yet, what can we destroy or throw out in order to get there?