Saturday, October 30, 2021

Food Security and God's Community: A Homily on the Book of Ruth

Food Insecurity and God’s Community: A Sermon on The Book of Ruth

Preached on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October, All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.  Readings for Proper 31B: Ru 1:1-18; Ps 146; Heb 9:11-14; Mk 12:28-34


The Book of Ruth is one of those small corners of scripture that I suspect we all wish we knew better.   For my part, I confess that I have never before given a sermon on Ruth, which is a terrible admission for a preacher who has a fondness for the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).   It’s known, at least in part, for Ruth’s famous and moving speech to Naomi – “Where you go, I will go” (Ru 1,16-17) but I’m not sure we know what quite to make of it.   In Christian bibles, Ruth is found tucked between Judges and 1 Samuel, leading us to think that it belongs to the historical books of the bible.  However, whereas these historical books are about great kings and prophets, the characters of Ruth are unremarkable, ordinary people living ordinary lives, which encourages us to think that it has something to speak into our ordinary lives.

Today and next Sunday, I want to explore several of the themes of Ruth.   The first is food, which I’ll mostly focus on today; what does the contrast between the opening scene of famine and the grain-filled threshing floor of Boaz have to tell us about food insecurity and our basic needs?   The second theme is love and family; what does Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and Boaz’s kindness to Ruth say to us about how we might live our lives in ways that are gracious to one another and aligned with the purposes of God?   The third we might call God’s providence or design; how does the story of Ruth fit into the saving purposes of God, and how might that give us hope and inspiration?

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land” (Ru 1.1).

In just five verses, the Book of Ruth presents a bleak and uncompromising view of life in ancient Israel.   It begins in hunger and migration.   The husband Elimelech takes his family to the neighbouring land of Moab to escape the famine.  For a while Elimilech and Naomi seem to find better lives and also find wives for their two sons, but within ten years the father and his sons are dead, leaving three homeless widows.  Naomi is left without any male family to provide for and to protect her.  The best she can do is send her daughters-in-law back to their families in the hope that they will be taken in and cared for.  

So the story of Ruth starts in hunger.  It’s not just the hunger of empty stomachs, though that is all too real.   It’s also a story about the hunger of empty lives, of Naomi, whose name in Hebrew means Pleasant, changing her name to Mara, meaning bitter, because she thanks she has nothing, no family, no kin, no love, no future.  It’s also a story about the hunger of loneliness, of Boaz, an older unmarried man who has prosperity but no one to share it with, and who finds in Ruth a wife and in her children a future for his name and lineage.

The progression of the story, from hunger and mourning to the harvested grain and barley on the threshing floor to the marriage and child of Ruth and Boaz, is a gradual movement from emptiness to fullness, from sorrow to joy.  It’s a wonderful little story.  In some ways it is like Job, in its narrative movement from tragedy to joy, though unlike Job, Ruth and Naomi are not caught in a cosmic struggle between God and Satan as Job is, and their restoration to happiness seems quietly deserving compared to the cornucopia of abundance that Job is finally blessed with.

There’s metaphorical hunger here, but there’s real, earthly, deadly hunger in this story.   Elimelech’s taking his family to Moab is one of several examples of hunger-related migration in the Hebrew Scriptures (see the stories of Abraham and Jacob in Genesis), and indeed today hunger and food insecurity lead many millions today to leave their homes in the hopes of finding UN administered relief food refugee camps.   The problem is not unique to overseas.  

Recently I was stunned to read an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail (Oct. 11, 2021) byLori Nikkel, who is CEO of the food rescue organization Second Harvest.  Nikkel opened her essay with the shocking statistic that Canada’s charitable sector (churches, mosques, schools and social problems) gave out $33 billion dollars worth of food to 6.7 million Canadians, which is 18 per cent of our population. 

In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that 1.9 million Canadian households are food insecure, meaning that their diets are inadequate and unhealthy.  Many Canadians are one paycheque away from hunger, while half of the food produced in Canada ends up in landfills.    It’s hard not to conclude from these numbers that there is something systemically and sinfully wrong with food supply in Canada.

What does an ancient bible story about hunger have to say to our context?  Ruth is a story about loyalty, or in Hebrew, hesed.  It’s about bonds of connection and affection, some of which are familial (Boaz is Naomi’s kinsman, Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law) but which are also deeply rooted in heart and soul.   Ruth persists in staying with Naomi, even unto death, when the other daughter in law Orpah obeys Naomi and leaves her.    Boaz shows kindness to a nobody, a foreign widow, who has no claim on him except that he has heard of her faithfulness to his kinswoman Naomi.

This kindness is rooted in the hearts of ordinary people in an ordinary story, but it is also rooted in the purposes of God that is firmly opposed to hunger and human indifference.    Even when Naomi (quite understandably) says bitterly that “the Lord has turned against me” (Ru 1.13), Ruth declares that “your God [shall be] my God” (1.16).  Her faith in this God that she does not yet know is rewarded when Boaz agrees to help Ruth.  As he says to her, “may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ru 2.12).  Boaz is certainly not immune to the charms of a younger woman, but this wealthy farmer seems to understand God’s purpose for him means to be an agent of refuge, and so his faith extends to concrete acts of assistance to others.

The Book of Ruth, then, speaks across the long centuries to a church in twenty-first century Canada and asks us how we will be God’s wings of refuge?   Who are the Ruth’s, the refugees from foreign lands, those of no account and no status, who are hungry and friendless?   I said in my homily last Sunday that the data shows that are immediate neighbourhood as a church is wealthy, but we know that there is hunger in our wider community.    We have an existing relationship with a local food bank that manifests itself in sporadic efforts.  We could certainly do more there.  There are other churches and agencies running food programs in poorer neighbourhoods not far from us that we could reach out to.   How will hunger and food security be part of our mission going forward?

One final thought about why we do this.  At the end of the Book of Ruth we are back in Bethlehem, and we are told that the child born to Boaz and Ruth is Obed, who will be the father of Jesse, who will be the father of David.   From this ancestry a descendent of David will also be born in Bethlehem, and it is that person who will call us to mission as he reveals God’s purposes.  More on that next Sunday.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Churches and Food Insecurity

 This week I've been working on sermons on the Book of Ruth for this coming Sunday and the next.   Perhaps because I've been thinking also about food insecurity, my attention has been drawn to the book's opening setting in a time of famine, and from there to the church's role in helping those living with food insecurity.

There are two articles that I would commend to your attention.   The first is this piece from Religion News Service which notes that half the religious organizations in the US are helping those who don't have enough to eat.  

The second piece is from the Oct 11 issue of the Globe and Mail, which notes that faith-based and other charities engaging in food insecurity ministries provide food to 18% of Canadians, and outnumber grocery stores four to one.   That's a shocking statistic.  Unfortunately the article is behind the Globe's paywall, but subscribers can access it here.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

A Wedding Sermon for Jacob and Amanda


A Sermon for the Wedding of Jacob and Amanda, Sunday, October 23. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. 

 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  (Mk 10.9).

When an engaging young couple called Jacob and Amanda approached me about helping them with their wedding, I jumped at the chance.     Even before Covid, it seemed an increasingly rare thing now for young adults to seek a wedding in a church and in the Christian tradition.  In my conversations with Jacob and Amanda before today, we talked about both the beauty of marriage as its defined in the language of today’s service, and the seriousness of this high calling that these two will enter into today, in your sight and with your support.

Much of the language that you will hear today comes from Christian scripture, which shapes how we have thought about marriage over the centuries.  The tone of this service is joyous, but there are also parts of it that what happens today is also profoundly important, perhaps even the most important choice that two people can make together.

Let me direct your attention to one of these centres of gravity in this wedding service.    Towards the very end, I will say “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  These are not my words.  They were spoke by Jesus, and are found in Mark’s gospel  (Mk 10.9).  As the capstone of the marriage service, these words of Jesus underscore the seriousness of what the couple are entering into, although to be sure the vows themselves speak eloquently of the stakes of marriage:

“… for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, for the rest of our live, according to God’s holy law.  This is my solemn vow.”  (BAS 544).

There’s honesty here, isn’t there?   Those of us with some experience of love know something of the myriads of catastrophes that any newlyweds are vowing to face together: temptation, betrayal and forgiveness; job loss and economic ruin; life changing illnesses and accidents; dementia and slow, undignified decline.  In part, the marriage service is saying to the newlyweds, buckle up, because you’re going to need God’s help to get through this ride.

Of course, for each of these potential tribulations, the wedding vows point to a concomitant blessing. Sickness and health, joy and sorrow, poverty and wealth are all bound up together in the fullness of our lives.  As the psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30.5).    In his earthly life, Jesus had full experience of the variety of human experience, from sharing the joy of the wedding at Canaan and the hospitality of friends’ houses, to his tears at the grave of his friend Lazarus.   Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus is God’s promise of commitment to our earthly life in all its hills and valleys.   In all this, God says in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, I will go with you and be there for you.

Jacob and Amanda, where will this journey take you?   I pray, indeed, in a few minutes, we will all pray, that this journey will take you to many good places.    We will pray that God blesses you with rich long lives, with children, and grandchildren.  We will pray that you will grow wise, patient, and kind with one another, as we heard in today’s readings from scripture.  We will pray that your home will enrich the human community as a place of joy, warmth, and hospitality.   We will pray with confidence that God’s Spirit will go with you, guide you, and even protect you.

I say protect you because I know, as many of us do, that the marriage vows do not guarantee you a smooth ride.    Some years ago, I had the opportunity to spend many hours in an oncology ward, observing patients spending long hours receiving chemotherapy.  What always caught my attention were the couples, some younger than others, but many you could tell whose marriages had strengthened and prepared them for this moment.  I saw loving glances, hands being held, those quiet moments when a spouse’s quiet presence is the greatest gift of all.  The chemo word is one of those places where we see that marriage is a gift of God, part of God’s design for the well-lived human life.

All of the things we see in this marriage service – friendship, partnership, community, parenthood – are part of the created life and order that God gives us to enjoy, and are also resources that God gives us to help us endure the challenges of life.  Jacob and Amanda, may God bless you and go with you through the days and years of this high calling and wonderful gift that you enter into today.


What Do You Want? A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost1

What Do You Want?  A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost.  Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 24 October, 2021.

Readings for this Sunday (Proper 30B):  Job 42:1-6,10-17; Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22); Hebrews 7.23-28; Mark 10.46-52.

 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again”  (Mk 10.51).


Go for a half hour’s walk from All Saints in any direction, and the average annual income of the homes you’ll pass is just over $200,000.  In some neighbourhoods, especially those just north of 15th Sideroad, it’s a lot higher than that.   Which means that as you go for your walk, you’re not likely to meet anyone like blind Bartimaeus from today’s gospel reading.

This week I know a little more about the average income of King City thanks to a demographic survey that the parish just commissioned.  We felt the survey would help us and our next priest to better understand the neighbours whom we hope will join us as we follow Jesus.  The survey gave us a detailed picture of who are King City neighbours are and what’s important to them.  

In brief, the people living within walking distance of All Saints are mostly well off, and many have significant wealth.  They are almost all homeowners, many with at least two children at home.  Those who work are mostly white-collar professionals.   They value the trappings of suburban life, they travel, they are highly status and brand conscious, and their children’s lives are highly programmed.    They value goal-setting, personal control, and being in control of their lives.

Even if you don’t know such people as neighbours (or maybe even as family members!), you’ve met people like this in the gospels these last few Sundays.   Two weeks ago it was the wealthy man who wanted to be spiritual but couldn’t choose Jesus over his many possessions.   Last Sunday it was James and John, who seemed happy being disciples if it meant that they could be masters of the universe, sitting with Jesus in glory.  And today, in stark contrast, here’s poor Bartimaeus, who just knows two things, one, that he’s blind and helpless, and two, that Jesus can help him.

“Son of David, have mercy on me!”   Not everyone in the gospel of Mark knows who Jesus, but Bartimaeus gets closer to the truth than many when he calls on Jesus as the “Son of David” (Mk 10).  In calling Jesus a descendent of David, Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as a Messiah, as someone who has the power to save him.    Moreover, he knows enough to ask Jesus for nothing but mercy, hoping that Jesus will stop and help him out of compassion.  As if to underline his total dependency, when he’s called forward, Bartimaeus throws aside his cloak, which, presumably, as a blind beggar, is perhaps his only possession.    It’s small detail but a total contrast from the rich man who holds back because of his many things.

Jesus puts a very simple question to Bartimaeus:  “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10.50).   It may seem an obvious question to put to a blind beggar, scarcely worth remarking on, until we recall that Jesus put exactly the same question to James and John (Mk 10.36).   By placing these episodes side by side, Mark seems to be inviting us to see the encounter with Jesus as a moment of honesty and self-revelation.  Before he says anything or asks anything of them, Jesus invites these three men to reveal their true selves to him.  James and John reveal their ambition and desire for status.   Bartimaeus reveals his deepest, most desperate need:  “My teacher, let me see again” (10.51).   It’s as if Mark is saying that Jesus can reach us and help us only when we have come to the end of our own resources and find ourselves, like Bartimaeus, totally dependent on him for help.

Another connection between these three episodes is that everyone – the rich man, James and John, and Bartimaeus - addresses Jesus as “teacher” (Mk 10.17,35,51).   A teacher can only be effective if the student is teachable, if they have a willing spirit.  The rich man is left grieving at the side of the road.   With James and John, they’re already disciples, but it’s easy in the gospels to wonder if the disciples ever really learn anything until Pentecost opens them fully to God’s truth.   With Bartimaeus, there’s no doubt that he’s teachable.  Jesus never says to him “follow me” – in fact, Jesus says, “Go” – but for whatever reason, whether gratitude or the excitement of a new life among the sighted, he ends the story walking with Jesus “on the way”.     At that point he vanishes from the gospel stories, but in all his qualities, through his recognition of Jesus, his complete reliance on Jesus for mercy, and for his decision to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus is someone who, as N.T. Wright says, Mark clearly wants us to admire and imitate.

“What is it that you want me to do for you?”  I think one of the lessons of Mark’s gospel these last two Sundays is that this is Jesus’ question to all of us.  It’s a question that can lead nowhere if we want to cling to our own lives, agendas, and resources, but it’s a question that can be transformative if we are truly open and honest with Jesus about what we need the most.

 “What is it that you want me to do for you?”  If Jesus were to walk around King City and pose the question to those living here, we might think that most of our prosperous, self-contented and self-directed neighbours might say “nothing, thanks, I’m good”.  But we don’t know that.   Our mission as church is based on the belief that Jesus can and save all that truly need him.   What salvation looks like in a prosperous neighbourhood might look different from life in a poor one.   For all we know, inside these prosperous stone homes, there are people are burdened by their possessions, oppressed by their desire for status, and haunted by a sense of “is that all there is?”.  To such neighbours, our role as church may be like the crowd at the end of today’s gospel reading, to  simply to point our neighbours at Jesus, our teacher, and say “Take heart, get up, he is calling you”.


Friday, October 22, 2021

Today's Roadside Evangelism


Our parish's sign currently invites readers to ponder the idea of mercy, which is prominent in this Sunday's gospel from St. Mark (Bartimaeus' request to Jesus, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mk 10.48).

I imagine that people have different ideas of mercy, depending on their situation and experience, and whether they even consider it a virtue or a weakness.   It was certainly something that Bartimaeus craved, and indeed, our Christian idea of grace is predicated on the idea of God's mercy.

As we put up this sign this week, several All Saints parishioners contributed to help an elderly man, without means, to have his dentures replaced.   That looks like mercy to me.

Monday, October 18, 2021

My Interview With Inside Your Head Podcast on Grief and Loss

In my yesterday (Oct 17) I referenced an interview I did with an English-based podcast,  Inside Your Head, that's dedicated to mental health.    The host, Henry Hyde, is mostly interested in psychology and secular definitions of what constitutes positive mental wellbeing, but he was interested in my story of how faith and religion helped my late wife Kay and I get through the difficult two years of her experience of cancer and my own experience of grief and loss.  

The interview also talks about my own work as a military chaplain, which Henry was interested in hearing about.  

Here's the link for those who are interested.


Saturday, October 16, 2021

No Sympathy From The Whirlwind: A Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon for Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 17 October, 2021.   Readings for this Sunday, Proper 29 (B):   Job 38:1-7 (34-41); Ps 104:1-9,25,37b; Heb 5.1-10; Mk 10:35-45

Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (Job 38.3).


There’s a saying that one hears in the military if you complain about hardship or difficult circumstances.   “Suck it up”, the person is told, often by a sergeant with a distinctly unsympathetic manner.    It often fell to me as a padre to meet with young, bewildered soldiers, to try and help them deal with a system that wasn’t very interested in their complaints and just wanted them to put up with it.   “But it’s not fair, padre, it makes no sense”, they’d say.

Ever since October started, my preaching has been avoiding our Old Testament readings from the Book of Job, rather in the way that one avoids the gaze of a dangerous or odd-looking person on the subway, hoping that they’ll leave you alone if you don’t make eye contact.  Job is one of those books that most of us know by reputation as the book about suffering with no satisfying answers.   Since no preacher has (or should have) a pat answer for suffering, we tend to ignore Job, so (deep breath), here goes.

In today’s reading, Job gets his moment to try and argue his harsh treatment with God, and is told, like my soldiers often were, to suck it up”, or to use the ancient Hebrew phrase, “Gird up your loins like a man”.   “Did you make the world,” God asks Job?  “Do you have the wisdom to explain how the world works?  Are you in charge?   No?  I didn’t think so.”   After another two chapters of this browbeating line of questioning, poor Job backs down.  “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42.3).    We might thus be forgiven for thinking that the message of the Book of Job is to be quiet and let God be in charge.

Unfortunately, that’s not a helpful answer to anyone who is suffering and who feels that they are entitled to complain.  It’s also ignores other passages in scripture that encourage us to bring our complains before God.  “Consider my groaning”, says the psalmist.  “Give attention to the sound of my cry” (Psalm 5.1.2).    Poor Job didn’t give in to the bad advice of his wife – “Curse God and die” (Job 2.9)  but he does feel that he’s entitled to plead his case before God.   Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as alluded to in our second reading from Hebrews, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5.7).  Of course, Jesus does not get the answer he hopes for, but he gets the one he knows that must obey, which is why the author of Hebrews praises Jesus’ “obedience” and “reverent submission”.  But the whole point of Hebrews is that Jesus is sympathetic to our plight and to our cries because he’s shared them with us.

Since I’ve been with you as your interim priest, I’ve seen some of you struggle with your own hardships, adversities, and receive difficult diagnoses.   In such times, I think that those of us who belong to communities of faith feel that we have to put on brave faces around our friends and peers, when like Job we want to scream at God on the inside.   And we certainly want to get more from God than “suck it up”, but more often than not, we receive silence.

Recently I did an interview with a mental health podcast on my experience of grief duringthe long two years that my wife Kay suffered with ovarian cancer before herdeath.    I was very mindful that while the host was curious about how my faith helped me get through this, he himself was what he called a “spiritual atheist” and he was not interested in some pat, dogmatic answer that I might try to offer up. 

But here’s the thing.  I don’t think that any of us, in moments of profound fear, discomfort, or grief, want or need profound theology.  Like Job, we may cry “why?” or just “are you there, God”.    During the interview, I confessed that I had no grand or easy theology to carry me through the worst days of caring for Kay in her indignity and pain, knowing that I would lose her.   All I had to go on, I told the host, was the knowledge that if Jesus himself knew the worst moments of human existence, if he himself had cried out to a God who he felt had forsaken me, then Jesus understood and deeply cared for what Kay and I were going through.    Sometimes this line of thought is called the theology of the cross, but it can be simplified in the idea that we can, mysteriously, know Jesus the most in moments of suffering because it is then that he is closest to us.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the cocksure brothers, James and John, that they have no idea what they’re asking for when they want to “sit, at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk 10.36).   We know better because we’ve heard Jesus say why he’s going to Jerusalem, to die, and we recognize the imagery of the one on the right and on the left as a foreshadowing of the two condemned men hanging on either side of Jesus (Mk 15.27).   We recognize here, on these three crosses, a powerful symbol of God’s solidarity with suffering humanity and a profound symbol of how Jesus will “serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45).  The two suffering bandits hanging beside Jesus may thus be seen as all of sinful humanity, which Jesus came to serve, forgive, and rescue. 

As I told the host of the podcast during my interview, some of the best theological advice I’ve received is to resist the temptation to try and explain all evil and suffering.   There is even a certain comfort in knowing that not everything can be explained in human comprehension, which does, in a way, bring us back to Job, only with this difference.  “Suck it up” is the theology of the whirlwind.   The theology of the cross, the voice of the gospel, replies to our cries and laments with  “Yes, I know it sucks, but I’m with you, and I will make all things new”. 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Possessions Pivot: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday

The Possessions Pivot:  A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday

Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, October 10, Thanksgiving Sunday and the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost.  

Readings for Proper 28B:  Job 23:1-9,16-17; Ps. 22.1-15; Heb 4.12-16; Mark 10:17-31


When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  Mark 10.22

Today’s gospel comes to us as a rude shock, especially if we were looking forward to Thanksgiving Sunday as a time to be grateful for the abundance we enjoy, only to hear Jesus say “It’s nice that you have good things, now give them all to the poor and follow me”.   Probably not the message we were expecting to hear today, so we could probably be forgiven for trying to use the traditional trick of assuming that Jesus isn’t really speaking to us.  I think there’s a tendency, certainly one I’ll confess to, to assume that when Jesus has pointed things to say in the gospels, he’s not really speaking to us.   Surely Jesus is speaking to someone who really needs to hear the unvarnished truth – tax collectors, or pharisees, yes, but not me, not us, not us Anglicans.

As comfortable as that side-step might be when convenient, I think today’s gospel reading from Mark is a bullet that we simply can’t dodge.   First, there’s the anonymity of the man who comes to Jesus.  Just like us, really, for didn’t we all come here today to meet Jesus and hear what he has to say?  Furthermore, he’s someone who wants to please God, lead a good life, and be rewarded in heaven.   Again, just like us, because it would be odd if you came to church regularly but didn’t want to lead a good life and didn’t want to.  So this well-intentioned man serves as a kind of mirror in which we glimpse our own faces, however uncomfortable that might be.

To make the rich man even more generic, even more mirror-like, unlike in St. Luke’s version of this story he is not described as being a ruler.   Thus we can’t say “well, this guy’s in a higher tax bracket than me, so it doesn’t apply” because in looking at him, Jesus seems to know the man’s one flaw, that his attachment to his “many possessions” (Mk 10.22) will hold him back.  Sound uncomfortably familiar?  Don’t we have “many possessions”?  

Most of us have boxes, bins, garages and storage units full of possessions.  Many of us are sitting in real estate that’s insanely valued in an insane market, not to mention wealth portfolios and pensions.  Even those of us without these things, those on fixed incomes, are wealthier and more privileged than most people on this planet, and certainly we’re wealthier than most people who have ever lived.  As the biblical scholar Matt Skinner notes, there is no getting out of this gospel lesson, no escape route, not even wishful claims that there was a gate in Jerusalem called The Needle that camels could squish through if they dropped some of their load.  So, no, there’s no way we can pretend that Jesus’ words don’t apply to us.

“You lack one thing.”   This “one thing” that Jesus focuses on is pulls this man out of the comfortable sphere of his own personal piety and into the wider sphere of society and community that Jesus later describes in the gospel reading as “the kingdom of God”.   The kingdom of God us social.   To want to enter the kingdom of God, we must be willing to enter a community of transformed and transforming people, knowing that the entrance will cost and will change us.

 The social values of the kingdom of God make demands on us.  As Christians and disciples, we know that charity, the care of the poor, is one of the values of this kingdom that we’re obliged to follow.   Many of Jesus’ teachings (Mt 25.31-46 is perhaps the most dramatic example) tell us that God will judge us on how we care for the least among us.   Most of us are comfortable with the idea of some tithing, of donating a modest share of our wealth, but here Jesus takes it to an extreme.  His call to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”, seems akin to the vows of poverty required by monastic organizations.    No wonder the man is “shocked” and “grieving”.   I think that if Jesus fixed us with his gaze and told us to do the same, we too would be “shocked” and “grieving”.

I think it’s important for us to sit with this gospel reading for a while and acknowledge our own shock and grief at our inability to be generous.   There’s a word for this kind of self-examination in our Christian tradition– repentance.  Mark’s gospel practically begins with this word.  As soon as he is baptized, Jesus baldly states what he is about:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near  repent; and believe in the good news” (Mk 1.15).  Repent here is used as part of a pivot, away from the world (repent in Mark’s Greek, as is often said, means a changing of the mind) and towards the good news of the kingdom of God coming into being.   Jesus here gives the man a glimpse of what it means to accept this kingdom and the kind of transformation it offers, but the man turns away in despair, unable to make the pivot, held back by his old life.

The man isn’t alone in his depair.  Surely there’s something of despair, mixed in with petulance, in Peter’s words to Jesus, “Look, we’ve left everything to follow you”.   The disciples feel that they’ve made the necessary sacrifices, and to be fair, they have walked away from families and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and now Jesus is telling them that it’s impossible for humans to save themselves by their own pious efforts.   In one breath, Jesus seems to say “give away all you have”, and in the next, he seems to say, “it won’t be enough”.    If we were there, surely we’d be grumbling along with Peter and the disciples.

 If we’re perplexed at this point, let’s recall that this gospel story happens on a road, as Jesus is “setting out on a journey” (Mk 1.17) – the Greek text simply says Jesus is setting out on the way.  It’s not a random stroll.  We know where this road goes.   Three times in this part of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will be killed  (Mk 8.27, 9.33,10.32).  Seen in this context, Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is a variant on “If any want to become my follower, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8.34).   Sell your possessions and follow me is the same call to self-sacrifice, and no wonder that the rich man remains at the side of the road, watching Jesus go where he cannot go.

Again to quote Matt Skinner, if the rich man is standing at the side of the road, he’s in good company, because that’s where we are.  As Skinner writes, “You and I are beside the way ... We watch. We evaluate. We take a few steps in the right direction every now and then. Sometimes we hide in the bushes and hope Jesus has forgotten our pledge to follow him.

We know that Jesus is going to the place where we can’t go, to be the sacrifice that we can’t be, to give what we can’t give, out of God’s love for us, the same love with which he looked at the rich man, the same way that he looks at us.  We are saved by love and grace, and for that we are ever grateful. 

At the same time, sacrifice is in our DNA as disciples and as church.   Sacrifice is part of the kingdom of God.  We know that we are called to give, to care, to help.   We know that the story of the Good Samaritan is always there to pull us back from our moments of complacent and self-congratulatory holiness.  We know that we must hold our prosperity and security less tightly if we are to reach out a hand to those around us.   Indeed, how can we help others, if our hands our firmly clutching out stuff? As Jesus promises his disciples, the way of self-sacrifice, however timidly we take it, leads to rewards and blessings.

As disciples, we never know when this sacrificial giving may be asked of us, but I think we may recognize these moments when they come, and even be grateful for them.   Near my home in Barrie, a United Church congregation was dwindling, and after years of struggle and waning energies, they agreed to close, but in a way that had a profound impact on their community.   After selling the building, they put the proceeds in a trust, and chose deserving local charities, such as a women’s shelter, to receive funds from that trust      That congregation could have gone on for a few more years, perhaps, but instead they chose the way of the cross, and as their final act, brought the kingdom of God a little nearer to those who desperately needed it.

People, like churches, may find similar opportunities as we draw near to the end. For many of us in a greying congregation there may be opportunities to plan our estates or dispose of assets in such a way that we can be less encumbered as we follow Jesus.    Wherever we are in life, all of us can take a moment to ask, how much further could we follow Jesus if we were less burdened with the things we selfishly cling to.   This Thanksgiving weekend, I pray that we may be all more thankful for our call as disciples, and less mindful of what sacrifices that call might ask of us.


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Marriage and Creation: A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon for Sunday, October 3, the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. 

Readings for Proper 27B:  Job 1.1, 2:1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1:1-4,2.5-12; Mk 10:2-16.

 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  (Mk 10.9).

If these words from today’s gospel reading sound familiar to you, it’s because they are used at the end of the marriage liturgy of the Anglican church (BAS p.545).   A few weeks from now, I’ll be reading them to a young bride and groom who will stand before me as they enter into this remarkable state of being that Jesus here describes.   In my experience, it’s a remarkably rare thing now for young adults to seek a wedding in a church and in the Christian tradition.   I suspect that your experience, perhaps with your own adult children, is similar.

That young people seem to have largely abandoned Christian marriage is an index of the predominant secularity of our age.   Civil unions and co-habitation offer other alternatives for life together.  Weddings on beaches and in gardens, with self-written vows, cater to our society’s desire for authenticity and self-expression.  No-fault divorce laws and the idea of the “starter marriage” provide off-ramps for those who become dissatisfied.  

We’ll get to Jesus’ teaching here on divorce towards the end of this homily, but here in the first part I want to talk about what Jesus’ comments say about God’s creative intentionality, and about how Jesus frames marriage as God’s design.

“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  (Mk 10.9).  As the capstone of the marriage service, these words of Jesus underscore the seriousness of what the couple are entering into, although to be sure the vows themselves speak eloquently of the stakes of marriage:

“… for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, for the rest of our live, according to God’s holy law.  This is my solemn vow.”  (BAS 544).

Think of the myriads of catastrophes that the newlyweds are vowing to face together: temptation, adultery and betrayal; job loss and economic ruin; life changing illnesses and accidents; dementia and slow, undignified decline.  In part, the marriage service is saying to the newlyweds, buckle up, because you’re going to need God’s help to get through this ride.

Of course, for each of these potential tribulations, the wedding vows point to a concomitant blessing. Sickness and health, joy and sorrow, poverty and wealth are all bound up together in the fullness of our lives.  As the psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30.5).    In his earthly life, Jesus had full experience of the variety of human experience, from sharing the joy of the wedding at Canaan and the hospitality of friends’ houses, to his tears at the grave of his friend Lazarus.   Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus is God’s promise of commitment to our earthly life in all its hills and valleys.   In all this, God says in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, I will go with you and be there for you.

 “Therefore, what God has joined together …”.  In saying that marriage is God’s agency, Jesus is saying something profound about the created nature of our experience.  In quoting Genesis 2:18-24, Jesus God’s desire that marriage is part of the life that is God’s gift to us to enjoy, as well as a participation in God’s work of Creation by continuing it from generation to generation.   All of the things we see in our marriage service – friendship, partnership, community, parenthood – are part of the created order that God gives us to enjoy, and are also resources that God gives us to help us endure the challenges of life.

“… let no one separate”.  These words remind us that Jesus’ teachings here on marriage are within the context of a discussion on divorce.  Here I think the church needs to tread carefully and pastorally, sensitive to the lived experience of many of the faithful.   Some of the alienation from marriage that I described earlier may be attributable to defences of “traditional marriage” mounted by religious conservatives fighting culture wars.   I have no interest in these battles.   If everyone in church had to raise their hands honestly if asked if they were ever divorced, my hand would be first in the air, even though the admission does me no credit and is still a shameful memory.  We are human, and liable to err, as St. Paul writes (Rom 3.23).

It’s often said that Jesus in Mk 10 is speaking up against male-dominated divorce practices of his day which saw wives easily cast off and forced into lives of poverty and prostitution.   I myself think this context is important, because it is entirely congruent with Jesus’ concern for the dignity of women as children of God, seen throughout his ministry.   It would thus be a perversion of the gospel to read Mark 10 as a being a blanket prohibition against all divorce, even in cases of violence or neglect.  My wife is on the board of a shelter for women and children escaping abusive relationships.   Would Jesus condemn her for thus undermining marriage?   I don’t see how any reading of the good news of God in Christ could require a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship.

Our Anglican Church has evolved its thinking on divorce and on marriage.  We have moved towards an understanding of marriage as a means of knowing God’s grace, love, and the communion of the Trinity within matrimony, regardless of the gender of the participants or whether one or both parties have been divorced.  To be sure, these changes break with Christian history and tradition of marriage, and only in the fulness of time will we know if we are right to alter our concept of marriage.  I pray that we are right in these things.  What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that in the mystery of marriage, we are given the power to love, to forgive, and to stand by one another through the darkest hours, all the while within the fulsome love of God in Christ who calls us to renew creation in the communion and community of this mysterious and wonderful way of being.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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