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.

Amen.

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

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

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?

 

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.