Fifth Week of Lent

March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

You know the scene in The Return of the King when the ghost army shows up to save the day at the battle of Minas Tirith? It’s an army that broke its promise to show up at the last big battle and is doomed to be a cross between ghosts and zombies until they can keep their promise. When they agree to do that they get out of their mountain holding space and help to defeat the orc army. It’s a great scene but that’s not what this vision in the Valley of the Dry Bones is about.

Ezekiel’s vision is not about an actual army of dead dried bones knit together and brought to life. There was a time when people thought it was. That it was an early expression of the doctrine of resurrection. But it’s not. It’s a vision for the people of Judah – mostly those in exile, but perhaps also those back in Judah.

They were scattered – like bones in the wilderness. Like us in our separate homes. They were scattered and stuck somewhere they didn’t want to be. They could not go to the Temple to offer proper worship through the sacrificial rites. They had to learn how to be the people of God in a strange place, in a strange way, with the heart of their faith taken from them.

Their Temple had been destroyed. Our sense of community has taken a significant blow.

But even in that dried up valley full of dried up bones, God can breathe new life.

These readings – Ezekiel and the Valley of the Bones and the Raising of Lazarus – are our hopeful pre-Easter Readings. As we move towards the temporary triumph of Palm Sunday we know that the hard readings and stories and feelings of Holy Week with its betrayal, denial, pain, disappointment, grief and death are not far away. We can’t get to Easter without going through those things. But we can hold onto the hope that these readings give us.

Which is what we’re doing. Scattered and distant, sealed in our own homes, maybe even stinking a little, we remember that the story of the dry bones coming together and receiving that holy breath is our story. And the story of Lazarus and his sisters’ grief at being separated from him and their joy when they were reunited is our story. Stories of death and love and strength and faith and starting again – these are all our story.

They have been and they will be. And they are.

No matter how dispirited we may feel we remember hugs. And getting together for coffee. And going to the park and seeing people sitting on the benches and children playing in the playground. We remember classes and courses and socializing without a screen. We remember the joy of singing together and hearing each other. We remember potlucks.

And because we remember we can stay the course. Every prophet ever was like Dr Bonnie Henry: telling people what they didn’t want to hear to get them to change their behaviour towards something that was more spiritually healthy. And every prophet ever spoke to people who didn’t change. Or didn’t change enough. Except Jonah – he’s a special case.
But we will. Because we remember hugs and potlucks and singing together and we want those things back. So we are going to take care of one another by staying home. We’ll call, we’ll zoom, we’ll clap on our balconies at 7 in the evening. But we’ll protect our most vulnerable people by not carrying germs to them. We’ll wash our hands incessantly and we won’t stand too close to each other. And we’ll do this with religious fervour because we want this to end. We will be the people who listen to the prophet.

It will not always be easy. We’ll get discouraged and wonder if it will ever end. We’ll need milk but not want to risk the store. We’ll need to talk but be tired of sitting in the same place, staring at faces through the same screen with its laggy sound and fuzzy image. We’ll get tired of comfortable clothes, netflix, the same old books and the same old games.

When that happens we’ll reach out. And sometimes it’ll just happen that as our spirits flag, someone calls us. A friend, a neighbour, someone from church. And we’ll talk and we’ll realize that we’re not alone in this. We’re together. And this is not forever.

And when it does end and life begins to return to normal, we’ll be like Lazarus emerging from the tomb. We’ll forget we can reach out. We’ll forget how to linger over coffee with someone. We’ll forget that we don’t all have to supply our own candle for worship. But then we’ll remember; and as we remember, we will rediscover those joys and all the other ones that we are beginning to miss. Passing people on the sidewalk without having to walk 2 m out of the way. Taking the bus. Popping out to the store to buy milk. Standing in line.

That’s where we’re going. We may be in the Valley of the Dry Bones, scattered and dispirited, sealed up and away from one another, but it’s not forever. It’s just for now. It may be a very long four days, but eventually the voice of Jesus will say “Come out!” Eventually, the breath of God will come and breathe new life into us. And we will come out. Oh, will we ever live!

We’ll blink in the sunlight and stretch out our arms. We’ll come together again.

This is our story. It has been, it will be, it is. Hope and love that triumph over death and despair. Our story. Amen.

Rev. Shannon Tennant

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

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

Sermon: Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:17-20,38-48

You will recognize the story from the beginning of the service as being almost the same as one told in Matthew 22:
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Except that Jesus put some God into it, which makes Jesus better right? Not so fast.

You have heard it read, from the Book of Leviticus, in the very heart of the Torah, in the very heart of the Law, in the very heart of the establishment of the presence of God with the people of Israel: Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Those two things cannot be separate. The people of Israel will love their neighbours because they are the people of God. They will continue to be the people of God if they don’t love their neighbour, BUT their connection to God is through these teachings, this Torah, at the heart of which is Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. It’s kind of like first you breathe in and then you breathe out: you can hold your breath for a while but eventually you’ll start breathing again.

Now loving our neighbour – individually or collectively – is as Jesus pointed out not very hard and very hard. Because our neighbours can be annoying or spiteful or ignorant or any number of things that make them hard to love.

So we can love most of our neighbours most of the time but accept our imperfection in not loving some of our neighbours when there is good reason not to, right?

Of course. But. The instruction to love our neighbour as ourself is right there in the middle of the center chapter of the center book of the books of God’s Teachings. It is in a chapter crammed with rules for worship, for relationships, for business practices, for animal husbandry, for farming, for courts of law, for respecting the elderly, for dealing with migrants and immigrants, as well as rules against shaming or harming others, and adopting foreign religious practices.

All punctuated with “I am the Lord.”

The instruction to love our neighbour is right there in the middle of all the messy, everyday things of life, all the little things that can tempt us to fudge the edges and maybe love ourselves and the people it’s easy to get along with a little bit more.

But “I am the Lord” says God and I love you even when you dump me for golden calves or cheat a little on your taxes or sass your mother or embarrass someone else or hold onto a grudge. So you can love your neighbour or friend or co-worker who doesn’t always seem respectful or parks in your parking spot or butts in front of you in line or doesn’t get stuff done on time.

And if you want a shortcut to doing that, pretend when that person doesn’t have their stuff ready or cuts you off in traffic or gets into your lane at the pool, pretend that they’re doing the best they can. Because maybe they are. Maybe they were up all night with a sick child or hot flashes or anxiety about money. Maybe they got a text that the dog was throwing up or the child or they’re hoping that the very important thing they forgot is easy to find – but it’s not.

And maybe they are just a self-centered jerk. But I lose nothing but pretending that they aren’t and I’m probably more right this way. I’m certainly more loving.

It doesn’t mean being taken advantage of. To say “this is the wrong change” is not to accuse someone of stealing. It’s just to acknowledge that a mistake has been made. We do that sometimes.

It means trying to support, not judge. It means taking the risk of trusting. It might mean accepting that their ways are different from our ways – but still perfectly valid and worthwhile.

You may have already spotted the snag in all of this. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. And that -shockingly – could mean assuming that we are doing the best we can right now. It might mean accepting that we make mistakes. It might we trust ourselves. It might mean doing things differently and not judging ourselves. It might mean a lot of things that are not the way we’re used to.

And in all of that it most definitely means remembering that this is a part of holiness. This is integral to being the people of God, a God in whose image we are made.

And as Dorothy Day put it:
If each of us could just remember that we are all created in the image of God, then we would naturally want to love more.

Our neighbours as ourselves. Because we’re all doing the best we can.

February 23, 2020

Rev. Shannon Tennant


The most recent traditional interpretation of all these sayings where Jesus starts out “You have heard it said”, identifies a matter of the Torah, and goes on to say “But I say unto you” with a fairly strict way of looking at whichever teaching he started out with is that Jesus was saying “Yes BUT” to the Pharisees whom we assume preferred an interpretation which allowed them to feel righteous but skirt the edges of injustice if not actually encourage it.

We used to be pretty hard on the Pharisees, but we are coming to understand that they were generally considered to have a high standard of righteousness. Jesus just wanted to clarify that justice and righteousness should be applied across the board – especially for those who had no power to get it on their own and even if the law appeared to give those with power an “out”.

When it comes to all these sayings I don’t want to minimize the words about lust and divorce and keeping your word. Today, though,
given that someone somewhere has been blocking something to support some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the construction of a pipeline through their lands – a construction project that has been approved and accepted by tribal councils in at least some of those lands;
and given that a frequent comment about all this makes reference to the stated priority of all levels of government for Reconciliation;
and given that Jesus’ very first point is about reconciliation with brothers and sisters, that’s what I keep coming back to.

And this angry breakdown of relationship described by Jesus involves insults and grudges, and courts and judges and it all has financial implications, as well as a huge element of keeping promises, someone wanting what they aren’t entitled to and playing games with loyalties and property and ownership – so it’s all over our Canadian struggle to live up to our ideals when it comes to reconciliation.

What I seen in the way Jesus re-interprets – or as we say these days “intensifies” – each of the points needs us to recognize that there is a whole lot of break down before we get to murder or adultery or divorce or breaking our word.
If we are okay with broken down relationships with such simmering levels of resentment, anger and fury that they could lead to murder then we are not innocent.
And when we blame others for our own desire whether for their or for their stuff,
or treat contracts as a convenience for now and getting out of them as a game to be won,
or when we break our word about honouring commitments (like clean water for First Nations communities), then we can’t claim a moral high ground.

At the end of this chapter, Jesus says “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. And whether because of those words or not, perfection has become a social value. And perfect is not what Jesus means.

Most of us here recognize that we are imperfect. It’s one of the gifts of Christianity – it starts out with a bunch of seriously flawed people and we are able to embrace that reality, at least in church and in theory, today.

But we’re not perfect at it. Most of us, on some level, want to be seen as competent enough, put together enough and, well, perfect enough that we don’t have a sneaking suspicion that others will think we’re perfectly on top of it all and so we will avoid shame and blame and judgement from others.

As long as you don’t murder someone, you don’t look like the kind of person who is so greedy or jealousy or angry that they can’t respect moral boundaries.

As long as you don’t commit adultery, you don’t look like the kind of person whose relationship is in trouble, who looks at others as objects to be desired not people to be respected.

I’m going to ignore divorce because it’s all caught up with ideas of purity and property and that’s a whole sermon on its own because no one would throw out a person because they were obnoxious like it says in Deuteronomy, right?

And as long as we keep our word to the important people, the ones whose opinions matter, who have the power and influence to keep us looking perfect, it doesn’t matter if a few commitments to the less noticeable parts of our life get dropped along the way.

So although you have heard it said that We should be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, I say unto you that we will get angry, we will want what we haven’t got, we will have relationship breakdowns, we will not always be able to do what we said we would do the way we said we would do it, and if we pretend otherwise we are failing ourselves and other people.

Perfection, even in following the teachings of God, which has as its sole aim to protect us from looking bad, from shame, blame and the judgement of others, is not holy. It is the opposite of holy.

As long as we’re updating our understandings, I learned something neat about the Greek word for perfect: sometimes it does not mean what you think it means. Sometimes instead of an idealized degree of being on top of everything, it means “mature” or “complete” so that it is the end goal of a process. And you cannot get to mature if you don’t mature. You can’t skip the process and the process involves going through whatever it takes to move us along.

And if dropping the idea that God wants us to be perfect seems like a step in the wrong direction, I want to be clear that perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence. God knows that we are imperfect – that became clear in the stories that talk about the very beginnings of divine-human relations. God knows that we are imperfect and because of those stories we know that God knows that we are imperfect – that is good news.

God loves us as we are, remember, but loves us too much to want us to stay that way.

When we are faced with situations that create discomfort in us, when we know there is no way to navigate them and feel right and strong and proud the whole time, and when we do it anyways, because it matters, because it is God’s Way, then our righteousness begins to exceed that of the scribes and even the Pharisees and maybe we’ll even get a glimpse of the Kindom of heaven.


One way to explain the symbol of light is to present children with several symbols,
e.g. a national flag, a symbol for a sports team, and a cross.
As you present each symbol ask what it stands for and what it makes them think about.

Then tell them that the symbol for God is light. Since we can’t make a picture of light, we use things that make light like a star, sun, candle, lamp.
Display a treetop star ornament that goes at the top of the Christmas or Chrismon tree and note its meaning.
Recall Christmas candle lighting services and note that we lit those candles to remind ourselves that God the light is with us.
Then, move to the discussion below of the candles in the worship center. Talk about the Rainbow Candle and what it means.
When we go into the church – watch for light symbols scattered through the space.

In the days of Herod the King, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
There were magi in the East. And they saw a star rise.
Magi are people who study lots of things including stars and what they might mean, so when these Magi started studying what this star might mean, they decided that it probably meant that a King was being born and because of the star rose in the sky, they figured it was probably a King for Judea. It wasn’t uncommon for people to say a star rose when a great leader was born but it was very rare to actually see the star before the great leader was famous.

If you look at the first verse of We Three Kings, you see
We three kings of Orient Are Bearing Gifts,
we traverse afar. – So they’re coming from the East (Orient is an old fashioned word for East) and they’re carrying gifts and they’re covering a lot of territory.
What’s East of Jerusalem? Persia, India, Babylon, China, parts of Africa,…
They could have come from any of those places.

And I don’t know why someone decided they were kings. The story says Magi.

So the Magi set out to follow the star. (start travelling) Well, they were actually going to where the star already was. And if you are looking for a King of Judea then the logical place to start is the main city which was Jerusalem and probably the palace should know where the king is.

So that’s where they went. (allow time to arrive in “Jerusalem” if necessary)

And when they told Herod the king what they were doing, Herod was very worried. He was worried that someone was going to take his position as king away. And when Herod got worried about that, he normally went after the people who were worrying him. So when Herod got worried everyone around him started to worry too.

Herod wanted to figure out where the threat was coming from and he figured that Judean priests and scholars would know about a Judean king and they said, “Well our Greatest and most Famous King Ever was from Bethlehem so if we were looking for another Great King we’d probably start there.” And that’s where Herod sent the Magi.

But Herod was sneaky so he asked those Magi to come and tell him when they actually found the new king.

And off they went towards Bethlehem. And the star was still in the sky and they still seemed to be heading in its direction.

When they got to Bethlehem, they found a house, more or less under a star, and in the house were Mary and a child. They figured this must be the place and this must be the child, so they knelt down respectfully (today they would have bowed or curtsied probably) and offered gifts. They offered gold and frankincense and myrrh – which seem like weird gifts to us, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The other important thing – before we get to the gifts – is that they had a dream that they should not report back to Herod so they went home by a different route.

We Three Kings – Hymn Study

Now about those gifts – let’s get in the mood by singing the first verse and chorus of We Three Kings

So what about those gifts?
What kind of gifts would you bring to a baby or a young child?

But these Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The first thing to bear in mind is that this the king of gifts that people brought to rulers like Kings and Queens. Rulers had (things mentioned for baby presents) or the money to get them. And gifts like gold and frankincense in particular were normal gifts for this kind of situation. You might have noticed in the reading Karen did the line about:
They shall bear gold and frankincense,
And it shall herald the glories of the Lord.
when it was describing how all the rich nations would help the exiles get home and contribute to Jerusalem’s wealth.

Gold is pretty obvious – it means wealth and it pays for stuff. It’s like a $100 gift card to anywhere.

Frankincense is connected with worship and we have seen it as a way for the Magi to acknowledge that Jesus was strongly connected to God.

Myrrh was used when preparing bodies for burial so it was a way to recognize that even kings die. So that’s a pretty grim gift for a baby.

But what if there’s more and it’s not so theological?

Because frankincense and myrrh were also used as salves and medicines that could have been really useful for anyone with a new born baby. Myrrh is used for all kinds of sores and might be really expensive diaper cream. And people use frankincense to make a medicine for colic, which I hear is popular with babies.

And frankincense was the most valuable commodity in the world at that time. Kind of like vibranium in the Marvel Universe.

So what the Magi might have been producing was the Ultimate Diaper Bag for a family that was about to be on the run.

Stay in the Transfiguration a Moment

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

This story is splat in the middle of the Gospel of Mark. It’s at the beginning of chapter 9 of a 16 chapter book and without actually counting the verses, I’d say that about as central as you can get. In fact, it is so central to the story, that some people think it’s Mark’s description of the Resurrection that got moved to the middle for editorial reasons, and the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke copied the literary choice as well as including their more expansive resurrection accounts as a fitting and hopeful endnote to the story.

If you’re wondering why someone on the editorial board of the Gospel of Mark (probably the author) wanted it in the middle instead of the end I can’t tell you for sure. All I can offer is my opinion which is that the open ending of Mark that has the man in white telling the three women to tell Peter and the others Jesus had been raised and they should go to Galilee and Jesus would meet them there and they were terrified – that ending was hopeful, but uncertain. It was an invitation to action, and Mark’s is the Action Gospel, so it makes sense to end there.

Still we need something to sustain us and that is this – this revelation to a few disciples. Like the revelation at his baptism that voice that Jesus heard, the Spirit that descended like a dove, only to those most necessary to keep the faith and stay strong and believe that Jesus is who they have found him to be: the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets, Beloved Son of God, the Messiah, the one who will lead them to freedom.

They’re going to need that. Not later. Now.

If this was a traditional Methodist 4 hour sermon, we could unpack all that as it was then, has been understood over the ages and may be deconstructed for today’s context, but we have our mountains to go up and slide down so can’t do that. We can’t stay here forever.

Which is often, maybe normally, what we get from this sermon.

It would be AWESOME to stay up the mountain and bask in the glory of Jesus and Moses and Elijah and be as close as we can handle to the face of God.

We just can’t. We have to go down the mountain and discuss theology and heal people and argue church politics and worry about the end and recontextualize the scriptures, challenge the rich and powerful, and wonder what the resurrection looks like these days. And that’s just chapters 9 and 10.

No wonder Peter wants to create temporary permanent housing for the three great figures of his faith. It’s the light of Jesus as Messiah shining out of the darkness of deny yourself and take up your cross if you want to follow me.

Peter needs that mountain. We need that mountain.

We do – absolutely – need to go back to the plain. And we will. But for now, we need that mountain and the memory of that glory to sustain us through the cross and the self-denial and the arguments and the uncertainty and the overwhelming task in front of us. Don’t give up the mountain.

For parents that mountain can take the form of seeing their children sleeping like the babies they were after a long day of needs and runny noses. For lovers it might be make up sex. For someone dispirited by their job it could be that one encounter that brings them back to why they saw in this line of work the sense that were engaged in a ministry that mattered.

For us a time like that was when Craig Perry came and preached a sermon that reminded us of the kind of church we envisioned and have worked to build and what that meant to him and how important it is to Christianity.

We need these moments. Moments when we behold the glory of God and are enveloped in its vision defying glow.

On a good day, those moments can transform us.

Transformation, by the way, is not the same as transfiguration. Jesus was transfigured as his true nature – glorious, rooted in faith, beloved son of God, Messiah – was revealed to Peter, James and John. Peter, James and John were transformed – remade as disciples into people with a deeper understanding of what was going on. Perhaps more hopeful. Maybe more committed.

We are unlikely to be transfigured. We get glimpses in the sleeping children, the make up sex, the work that is also a calling that remind us of the true nature of love and service, but the kind of things that Peter, James and John saw on that mountain is rare. But like Peter, like all of them, we can be transformed when we are able to reconnect to the heart of what we hold dearest and prize most highly.

In this story, Peter, James and John, and anyone who heard the story after, even us, reconnect to that sense that they had when Jesus said “Follow me” – that something amazing and holy and life-giving and salvational was going on.

And beyond that, there is one who calls us to become much more than we know ourselves to be or ever realized we could be. Bask in THAT for a while.

Clean and Faithful

Clean and Faithful

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-27

Just before sitting down to start the first final draft of this sermon, I cleaned the bathroom, putting all the towels and mats into the washing machine with hot water for maximal sanitizing effect. I even polished the mirror. As you probably know, cleaning the bathroom is the cleaning job with the shortest job satisfaction time because as soon as it’s cleaned you need to brush your teeth, go the bathroom, wash your hands or do something to mar the perfect shiny surfaces. Even so, as I stepped back to admire my work I felt a tremendous sense of goodness. Why?

Because cleanliness is next to godliness.

I was not raised as a neat freak and I’m not one now unless you ask Rowan right after I’ve bugged her to put something away for the umpteenth time. And I know that God is no more present in my freshly vacuumed rug – even if I take the time to make sure all the vacuum lines go in the same direction – than in my dog hair, dog toy and general disorder covered rug.

But cleanliness is still next to godliness.

This is an Old Testament ideal. And I say Old Testament instead of Hebrew Scriptures because it’s not a faithful reflection of the real underlying theological principle which is that as things get more chaotic they get further from God. Chaos is not the same as untidiness. And it’s not really further from God it just becomes harder to find God in the unpredictability and threats to life that are all around.

We no longer believe that I was closer to God on Friday morning at 10 a.m. when my bathroom was pristine than I am now after two days of use or than I was on Friday morning at 9:30.

All of which is to say that when we consider the man with the unclean spirit, we need to be very careful and about saying that man with that unclean spirit had a mental illness. Because the unclean spirit – we can tell this from the word “unclean” – was something that kept that man from God. It meant he was unholy, profane even, and we need to watch our language because for most of us in some way clean is more holy than unclean. It might not be house, it might be habits – like eating healthily is more pleasing to God and respectful of the life God gives us than eating unhealthily. Is eating healthy foods in moderation better than eating unhealthy foods, eating too much or eating too little? Yes. Does it make us more holy? I doubt it. And if it does, it’s probably for some other underlying reason.

Does going to church make us more holy than not people who don’t go to church or than ourselves on days when we don’t go to church? No. But it does connect us intentionally and communally to what is holy – God, God’s teachings, God’s holiness, God’s glory, God’s presence in our community and in our lives. Yes, we can do it at home, but there is something about reaching out to God together that is more profound and more satisfying.

And again, I’m back to the man in the synagogue, the man with the unclean spirit. The unclean spirit in him made him unholy and unfit to be in the synagogue. It is astonishing that he was there. Did they know he had an unclean spirit but chose to include him anyways or had he been able to hide it from those around him? Did the man himself recognize that there was something in him that didn’t belong? Or did that unclean spirit only manifest in that moment?

We have no idea and we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that when Jesus came in with him authoritative teaching, the unclean spirit recognized that Jesus represented a threat to the community: “‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’

Not me. Us. Later on, Jesus meets another man who lives in a graveyard and is so unpredictable and frightening that the community has tried to chain him and when Jesus asks his name, he says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” But before that, when he saw Jesus approaching he yelled, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ (Mark 5:1-13). Jesus can change me. But Jesus can also start by changing us.

I feel like all I do is talk about grammar but do you notice? The man with so many unclean spirits that their name is Legion, which means 20 000, says “me” and the man with the unclean spirit, implying one, says “us”.

I may be reading too much into this but to me that says that the man with the unclean spirit at the very beginning of Jesus’ story recognizes that what Jesus is about to teach – for the next 15 chapters of this story – is a threat to the community. Because Jesus has come to set the values system of the faith that has sustained them for centuries, that they have fought for and died for and struggle to live out day to day, on its head. Not to change it into something different, but to transform it into something unrecognizably the same.

This will call people out of families and society and into danger and new communities. This is the word of a prophet who is trying to reinterpret the Word of God for a new time and a new place. And if you ignore it, it will not go away. It is the Word of God and it must be told. To ignore it is to invite some kind of disaster, spiritual, political, geo-political, social – who knows?

So had Jesus come to destroy the community? Yes. Or no.

Yes. Jesus had come to upset the apple cart and put the horse back in front of it. He had come to call people back (Repent!) into a new way of entering their relationship with God through their relationships with their neighbours. Jesus was offering a sense of wholeness and holiness in every day living that had begun to seem distant. The community could be stronger and more godly than ever. Jesus continues to try to destroy our communities in this way.

No. Jesus had not come to destroy the community. He wanted to restore it. To shore it up. To make it strong in those things that make people and places and societies holy, not in the distractions that let us think we’re holy – like clean bathrooms, church attendance and noticing the faults of others.

God was and is not there for the status quo. Personal interests would not be protected. Illusions about our own special sanctity might tumble around our ears. And while that could make space for more spiritual religion to grow, it would come at the cost of self-image and self-righteousness.

If you want the Oscar nominated movie tie in, go watch The Post, in which the struggle to get an unpleasant but important truth out of the hidden files of the government is a threat to friendships, national self-image and personal freedom. But it’s the truth and it’s a movie so it all turns out.

Jesus’ audience didn’t know the ending. They just knew that what he was saying was new and compelling and had the ring of truth about it. But the man with the unclean spirit also recognized that it held a note of menace. A whole hearted buy in was going to change everything. And the struggle to ignore it could ruin all the carefully constructed patterns that held it all together.

And here we are. We are trying to discover the voices that will tell us God’s will so that we can inhabit the glory of God without being destroyed. We are trying to find a new way to be what we have always been: faithful, inclusive, servant people of God, open minded, open hearted, open armed.

And when when we hear the voice, external or internal, ask “Is this going to destroy us?” we get to wonder together – is what new direction might God be calling us that will destroy us as we know ourselves in order to create something new? or have we become so distracted by false promises and false prophets that we are now at risk of no longer being who we are meant to be?

Wrestling with this stuff is what faith, religion and spirituality are all about. It’s not about how clean we are, how shiny we look or how much we are like our own ideal of a Christian person or a faithful place. It’s the struggle to always be paying attention to that voice of God, that call to obey, to draw closer, to be true to ourselves, our faith and our God-given calling – even when it scares us. Even when it feels like it might destroy us.

Because we are not a people of cleanliness. We are a resurrection people, a people of repentance, grace and new beginnings. And it is only in those things that we find God’s abundant life.