Joy, Trust, and Focus (a sermon for Thanksgiving on Matthew 6:25-34)

In our Gospel for today there’s one word that gets repeated over and over again: the word ‘Worry’. Not that worry is something that Jesus is recommending! Rather, it’s something that he’s warning us against. He says in verse 25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear”. And again in verses 27-28: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothes?” And again in verse 31, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” And finally in verse 34, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.

Now if you’re at all like me, you might find this a little hard to take. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, was a devout Christian, but he admitted that for his whole life long he struggled against a tendency to be a worrier. Commenting on this passage, he said, “If God wanted us to live like the birds of the air, it would have been nice for him to have given us a constitution that was more like theirs!” I’m sure that you can sympathise with Lewis; I know I can. Like him, I tend to be a worrier. “Don’t worry – be happy” sounds great in theory, but how do you actually put it into practice?

I think we need to begin by recognising that Jesus practiced what he preached. So far as we can tell, he doesn’t seem to have been a person who worried a great deal; he lived his life on the principle of trusting his heavenly Father, and he tried to teach his followers to do the same. So, as we read a passage like today’s gospel, we should see that it flows straight out of Jesus’ own experience of life. And I’d like to suggest to you this morning that there are three basic attitudes that are at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life, three attitudes that are reflected in this passage: joy, trust, and focus.

First, joy, joy in the good things that his heavenly Father had created. I’m an occasional bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending this as a good hobby; he says in verse 26, ‘Look at the birds of the air’! We have no reason to believe that Jesus hadn’t taken his own advice; he must have spent hours watching the birds diving and swooping on the wind currents above the Galilean hills, simply enjoying being alive.

I’m reminded of something Marci and I saw a few years ago outside the rest stop at Innisfree, on the way to Lloydminster. Those of you who have stopped there will know that the restaurant and gas station are up on a hill, and the prairie winds are strong around there. We were in the restaurant having a meal and we saw a raven playing in the wind. It would flap its wings and work hard to climb, up, and up, higher and higher, and then when it reached a certain height it would just let itself go, and it would dive and swoop around until it came back to ground level. Then it would go through the whole process all over again; we watched it doing this several times while we were eating. As far as we could tell, all this activity had no useful purpose; the raven wasn’t on the lookout for field mice or other prey like a hawk would have been. It was simply enjoying itself, riding the currents of air just as God had created it to do.

I’m sure that Jesus had watched birds do this sort of thing many times, and he had figured out that they never seemed to weary themselves doing the kind of work that humans do, and yet they somehow managed to stay alive and well. And Jesus had seen all the flowers, thousands of different species – the word translated ‘lilies of the field’ here actually refers to several different plants – and had been moved by their fragile beauty. One moment they could be standing in the field, the next they could be trampled under foot by horses or cut down by a scythe. Where did all this beauty come from? The flowers didn’t spend thousands of dollars on clothes, nor did they spend several hours a week in a tanning studio getting a good tan, or in front of a mirror putting on makeup. They were just themselves – beautiful, God-given, and free.

Jesus looked around and saw all this, but he saw more than this: he didn’t only see the creation, he also saw through it to its Creator. It’s like the old hymn says:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world: the birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.

Jesus lived a life of joy because he not only enjoyed the creation around him; he also received it as a gift from its Creator, the Father of all. And none of this was about ownership. Jesus didn’t have to own the birds in order to enjoy watching them, and he didn’t have to own a field in order to enjoy the beauty of its flowers. He could simply receive it all as a free gift from his Father.

And this leads us to the second attitude that is at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life: the attitude of trust in his heavenly Father.

I was blessed with a good father. When my brother Mike and I were little boys, my Dad worked hard to put food on the table for us – first as a commercial artist in the advertising business, and later as a priest. When my Dad stopped work for two years to go to seminary, my Mum took her turn in the workforce. Between them they always provided what we needed, and I don’t ever remember worrying about not having food to eat or clothes to wear. That didn’t mean that our parents let us sit around and do nothing, of course; they required us to do our chores, help with the dishes and all that kind of thing. But because we knew that they loved us, we could be secure; we knew that, if need be, they would sacrifice their own comfort to make sure we had the necessities of life.

Jesus had that sort of trust in his heavenly Father; he had a strong and lively sense of the goodness of God. To him, the goodness of the created world was a sign of the goodness of the one who had made it. And his teaching grew out of his own experience. When he told his followers not to worry about tomorrow, we can assume that he had learned this attitude by putting it into practice himself. He knew from his own experience that the creator of all this beauty was not a stern and stingy killjoy but a loving and utterly dependable Father. And because of his relationship with his Father, Jesus was able to break free from the tyranny of worry and focus his life on the things that really mattered.

So, even though Jesus seems to have known all along that the cross was ahead for him, I don’t get the sense that he was always looking ahead anxiously, worrying about what was coming next. Rather, he seems to have been able to live entirely in the present moment, giving attention to the present task, celebrating the goodness of God here and now. And he wanted his followers to do the same.

It’s important to recognise that when Jesus tells us not to worry about food and drink and clothing, he’s not saying that these things don’t matter. He doesn’t mean that we should live an ascetic life, eating and drinking as little as possible and wearing only the most ragged and moth-eaten clothes. No – Jesus himself enjoyed the good things of life, and he wasn’t telling us that they aren’t important. Rather, he was telling us that we are the children of a loving Father who wants to give good gifts to his children. We can trust our Father to provide for us, just as he provides for the rest of his creation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plant seeds and reap the harvest, or that we shouldn’t work at weaving and spinning to make clothes – or that we shouldn’t work at our own jobs and earn money to pay others for these things, as most of us probably do in this church today. Rather, we should do these things with joy, because God is not a mean tyrant who is out to get us and make life difficult for us, but our loving Father who wants to take care of us and gives us the fruits of the earth as a gift.

So Jesus would counsel us to get close to the creation and learn to take joy in all that God has made there, and he would counsel us to learn to know and trust God as our heavenly Father; the more we cultivate our relationship with this God, the easier it will be for us to live our lives on the basis of simple trust in him. And finally, Jesus would counsel us to choose our focus wisely. In the passage immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus advises us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv.19-21).

He goes on to warn us:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v.24)

And at the end of today’s gospel he says,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (vv.31-33).

Here we are getting to the heart of the matter. The reason Jesus was able to live in joyful trust in his heavenly Father was that he had made his heavenly Father’s priorities his own. And he challenges us to do the same. Seek the Kingdom of God, make it the number one value of your life, and God will respond by providing for you what you need to live. And what is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God means God’s power and love at work through Jesus to heal the world and restore it to his original intention and plan. One day this plan will come to completion; every knee will bow to Jesus, and God’s reign of compassion and justice and peace will be established and will last forever. Jesus challenges us to focus on that vision, to work toward it even now, and to make it the number one value of our lives.

The nineteenth century missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote these words: ‘Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for God will last’. Of course, ‘done for God’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘done for the institutional church’. God’s purposes for his world are far wider than the institutional church; they include building happy marriages and strong families and nurturing caring communities. They include working toward a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much, and a world in which future generations will still be able to enjoy the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as we do today. And they include the spread of the good news of Jesus with a call to everyone to become his disciples.

So these are three attitudes that Jesus lived by himself, and that he tried to pass on to his followers: joy in God and in all the good things that God had made, trust in the goodness of his heavenly Father and in his daily provision for our needs, and focus above all, not on accumulating wealth for ourselves, but on doing God’s will and cooperating with him in the work of healing the world.

Does that sound good to you? Does that sound attractive? Does that sound better than living by the principle of ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’? Does it sound better than accumulating mountains of luxuries and then spending our days worrying that someone is going to steal them from us? Which would you rather do: walk through what the old Prayer Book called ‘the changes and chances of this mortal life’ with only your own skill and strength to depend on, or walk through life with your hand in your Father’s hand, focussing on the things he tells you to focus on, and trusting him to provide the necessities of life for you?

I know which alternative I’d rather go for. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but I’m going to pray that Jesus will teach me day by day to find joy in God’s creation, to trust in the goodness of my heavenly Father, and to focus my attention on seeking God’s kingdom and doing God’s will. Would you like to join me in that prayer?


Marriage and Divorce (a sermon on Mark 10:1-12)

Every preacher who follows the weekly readings in the lectionary knows that there are some passages in the Bible that you can’t read in public without preaching on them. Today’s gospel reading is one of those passages. I need to speak about this reading, because for some of us in church today, these words of Jesus will come across as words of condemnation and not words of hope. And while it isn’t part of my job as a preacher to protect you from the words of Jesus, it is part of my job to make sure we’ve heard those words accurately.

So let’s start by acknowledging that, for many of us, Jesus’ words that we heard a moment ago were very painful. For some of us here today, who are living with the pain of very difficult marriages, his words seemed to close a potential escape hatch for us. For some of us who have been divorced and are now remarried, his words seem to condemn us to living in sin for the rest of our lives. Some of us have a different kind of pain; we have been the victims of frivolous divorce. We didn’t abuse our spouses or cheat on them; they simply found someone younger and better looking than us, and so we were traded in for a newer model. And some of us are the children of divorce, grappling with the fact that statistically this increases our chances of through divorce ourselves. I use the word ‘us’ rather than ‘you’, because I don’t want to give anyone the impression that they are being preached at this morning. We are all in this together, trying to understand these words of Jesus and apply them to our lives.

Jesus is wanting to spare us pain by teaching us how to live in accordance with God’s original intention for us. We need to try to find a way to hear this text today as a word of life and grace, not condemnation. So let’s turn in our Bibles to Mark 10:1-12 and take a closer look at it.

First, let’s ask the question ‘whose marriage is in view here?’ In Tom Wright’s book Mark for Today I found this very helpful story:

In Britain during the early 1990’s, from time to time a journalist would telephone a bishop or theologian to ask about divorce. It happened to me once… But of course the journalists weren’t wanting to write a piece about the church’s attitude to divorce in general. They were wanting to write about Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Once it became clear that their marriage was in real trouble the journalists never left it alone for a minute. Anyone trying to pronounce on the broader question of divorce would at once be seized on: ‘Are you then saying that Prince Charles…?’

A similar thing is happening in this Gospel passage. The apparent question is not the real question. Let me point out the clues for you. First, we’re told in verse 2 that the Pharisees came to Jesus ‘to test him’. Usually this phrase is used when Jesus’ enemies are trying to trick him into saying things that will get him into trouble with the authorities. Second, in verse 12 Jesus says ‘if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’. But in Jewish law a woman could not divorce her husband; only the man could initiate a divorce, so why would Jesus even mention it here?

Verse 1 says that this story takes place in ‘the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan’. This was the area where John the Baptist used to work, and if you know the gospel story you’ll remember that John the Baptist had gotten into trouble because of his comments about the adulterous marriage of King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias. Both Herod and Herodias had been married before – Herodias to Herod’s own brother. But they had met and become infatuated with one another, and so Herodias had left her husband and used the provisions of Roman law to divorce him. Herod had also divorced his wife, and the two had then married each other. This was an enormous issue in Jesus’ time; strict Jews said that Herod could not possibly be God’s anointed king because he had flouted God’s law in this way.

Can you see now what a deadly ‘test’ the Pharisees are placing before Jesus? A negative comment on this situation would not only be a criticism of the King but might also be interpreted as an act of treason, a pronouncement that Herod was not fit to be king. John the Baptist had paid for that kind of statement with his life.

This is the context for Jesus’ remarks here. He isn’t being asked whether a woman who is the victim of repeated abuse should stay in her marriage, or whether a man whose wife has committed adultery against him over and over again should keep on giving her more chances. Rather, he is referring to two married people who divorced their spouses and married each other for no other reason than that they got a better offer. In other words, it’s frivolous divorce and remarriage that Jesus has in view.

Let’s go on to ask the question ‘what is marriage anyway?’ The Pharisees may be testing Jesus, but he turns around and tests them back: ‘What did Moses command you?’. In their answer they refer to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is a very obscure text, which basically says that if a man divorces his wife because he finds something unclean about her, and if she then marries someone else and he divorces her as well, the first husband isn’t to take her back. Why, you ask? I’ve no idea!

However, Jesus’ point is that this is an inadequate answer to the question of what Moses had to say about marriage and divorce, because it doesn’t take us back to first principles of what a marriage actually is. For that we need to go back to the first two chapters of Genesis, which Jesus quotes from: “But from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female’. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv.5-6). In Jesus’ view, these verses record God’s original intentions around marriage.

I need to stop at this point and say that I am not going to make any comment today on the topic of gay and lesbian marriages. There are two reasons for this. First, that’s a big subject which would very quickly take up the rest of the sermon and leave no room for a discussion of anything else. And second, that’s not what Jesus was being asked about here. He was being asked about heterosexual divorce, not homosexual marriage. I’m not trying to avoid the question; I’m trying to set the text in its original context, in a society in which, rightly or wrongly, the possibility of gay and lesbian marriages was never contemplated. I hope no one will read into my silence anything more than that.

So, if Jesus is taking us back to God’s original plan, what’s in the plan? First, it is monogamous; despite later Old Testament stories about polygamy, Genesis teaches that God’s original intent was for one man and one woman to form a marriage. Second, it is their primary commitment: they are to leave their parents and be joined to each other, which means that their first loyalty from now on will be to the new family unit they are creating together. Third, it is sacramental, by which I mean that the physical action of the joining of their bodies in sexual union is a symbol of the deeper joining of their lives as ‘one flesh’. Fourth, it is intended to be permanent: ‘What God has joined together, let no one separate’ (v.9).

This is God’s original purpose for us. Jesus’ intent here is to show us that marriage is not just a legal contract that can be revoked at will if you can afford a good lawyer; rather, it is a deep, mystical, sacramental union. That is why a breakup is so painful. The two have become one flesh; a breakup produces, not two people, but two halves which have been painfully ripped apart.

Sometimes if you’re walking through a trackless forest you can get lost. When that happens, a good thing to do is to climb a tall tree, get above the forest cover, and get your bearings again on the sun and the landmarks. That’s what Jesus is doing for us here. It’s easy for us to get lost in the daily little struggles of marriage or the intricacies of divorce law, and to forget what God called us to in the first place. Jesus is giving us an opportunity to climb a tree, get our bearings, and remind ourselves of God’s original plan.

So what about divorce? Where does it fit in to this plan?

Imagine parents trying to teach their children to clean up their rooms. Suppose Mum and Dad establish a rule: ‘If your room has been messy for seven days, your sister can clean it up and then bill you for her services’. A lazy child might seize on this rule, and exclaim “Ah – so it’s okay for me not to clean up my room as long as I pay my sister to do it!” No, the child has missed the point. That provision is not part of the original plan, which is that you learn to clean up your own room! Rather, it’s a concession, added because of your hardness of heart and to avoid fungal growths on your dirty clothing!

This is what biblical divorce law is all about. It’s not describing God’s original intention. Rather, it is a concession to human sinfulness; as Jesus says, ‘Because of your hardness of heart (Moses) wrote this commandment for you’ (v.5). It was a recognition that because of human brokenness, God’s ideal is never fully achieved, and in some cases the situation causes so much harm that dissolution is the only solution. But still, dissolution was not God’s plan; permanent commitment and lifelong faithfulness were what God wanted to see.

Are Jesus’ words here a total ban on divorce and remarriage? Some Christians say so, but I personally have my doubts, for a couple of reasons. First, as we’ve seen, the original context seems to have in mind a particular kind of divorce and remarriage – that which is exemplified in the actions of Herod and Herodias. This is a situation where a husband or wife falls in love with someone else, and divorces his or her partner for no other reason than to be free to marry the object of his or her new infatuation.

Second, the other Gospels record a qualification here. In Matthew 19 the question the Pharisees ask Jesus is ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause’ (v.3), and Jesus says to his disciples ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’ (v.9). ‘Unchastity’ here refers to sexual immorality. Even the strictest of the Pharisees allowed for divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery, and apparently, according to Matthew, Jesus did too. I suspect he would have allowed for it in cases of abuse as well.

What about us? How do we apply this passage to our lives? Let me conclude with some words of application.

First, this passage is teaching us that the sort of love and intimacy we yearn for is best achieved in a lifelong, faithful, monogamous union with one person. Many people today don’t seem to believe this. We’ve all heard the news about the hundreds of thousands of people who signed up to the Ashley Madison website and its slogan ‘Life is short – have an affair’. To many people whose marriages seem stale and boring to them, the idea of having an affair seems exciting, but the excitement of unfaithfulness is short lived, and the pain that follows lasts forever. Have you read Tolstoi’s brilliant novel Anna Karenina? It’s probably the best novel about marriage and adultery ever written, and in it you’ll see the truth depicted in all its stark reality.

Second, this passage shows us that marriage is a way of discipleship. It’s important to say this, because sometimes in Christian history the church has implied that celibacy, especially in monks and nuns, is a higher way of following Jesus. This section of Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following him. Marriage requires enormous quantities of this self-denial: we have to die to our own preferences and desires, learn to serve our spouses, and so become more like Jesus. As Gary Thomas says, the purpose of our marriage is not just to make us happy but to make us holy.

Thirdly, this passage challenges us to rule out frivolous divorce as an option for us. Some time ago I sat across the table from a friend of mine; he had left his wife a year or so ago, and had recently moved into a common law relationship with another woman. He told me “The feeling has completely gone from my marriage; there’s nothing left”. Well, I have to tell you that this is not a biblical reason for divorce. In the Bible, marriage is based on service and action, not feelings. In many cases where it looks hopeless, it really isn’t.

But in some cases, as we’ve seen, Scripture does seem to allow for divorce; Jesus specifically names the ground of adultery in Matthew 19:9. These are not frivolous divorces in which I simply trade my partner in for a newer model. Rather, they are serious situations in which the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness, by violence, or something similar.

What about those of us who are on our second marriages, and who came to them by way of divorce? I think it is important for us to remember the Gospel, which tells us that God starts with us where we are. So our call is to strive to make what Jesus says about marriage here a reality in our lives: to live that committed, lifelong, one flesh union with our spouse as a way of faithful Christian discipleship.

Finally, let me refer you to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, a passage I often use at weddings:

‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken’.

To me it is clear that this ‘threefold cord’ refers to the help of God, and it can be applied to marriage, in which God and the couple are partners together. So let’s not be afraid to call on God’s help. God has a huge stake in the success of marriages. Furthermore, Jesus is able to heal our hard-heartedness and give us strength to serve one another in his name. So for those of us who are married, let us live out our marriages in God’s sight, call on God’s help, strive toward God’s best for us, and look forward to the day when all our brokenness is healed in the Kingdom of God.

Funny how you remember dates

Ten years ago today, for the first time, I walked into an Edmonton open stage, got up behind a microphone, and performed a few songs. The open stage was held at what was then the Druid South, an Edmonton pub that in longer exists, and the host was Chris Wynters, who is now the Executive Director of Alberta Music. Thank you, Chris, for giving me such a good start!

Before that night I’d played in church from time to time, and the odd one-off gig here and there, but never with any consistency. I’d always loved music, though, and I was curious about what it would be like to participate in an open stage. Little did I know, on that evening of October 2nd 2005, how much richer my life would be ten years later.

Since that night I’ve learned dozens of traditional folk songs, and written some songs of my own. I’ve become the owner of two beautiful guitars and a cittern, and I love playing them. I’ve performed at open stages, at gigs in coffee shops and folk clubs and churches, and at some truly amazing fundraisers with other musicians. I’ve recorded and released a professionallyproduced CD. And, best of all, I’ve made some wonderful friends.

Thank you, Edmonton music community. Today, I can’t imagine my life without you!

What comes after the niqab?

collarI don’t very often wear a clerical collar, for all kinds of reasons, but I’m thankful to be free to wear it. There are countries in the world where Christian clergy are banned from wearing any sort of clerical dress.

Apparently Daniel Dennett thinks clergy like me make it our business to control what our ‘adherants’ know. I assume that he sees my clerical collar as a symbol of oppression. One day Daniel Dennett and people who agree with him may be in a majority, and I may be part of a tiny minority. If the day ever comes when the vast majority of people in Canada are offended by a clerical collar and what it symbolizes to them, will someone try to ban clergy from wearing it?

I’m asking this, because I have seen links to posts on Facebook in which people are seriously saying, not only that women should not be allowed to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, but that the niqab should be banned altogether. Those who claim that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women by men, and that no woman ever wears one by her own choice, now want to force women not to wear them. How is that not oppression?

This is the dangerous powder keg that our federal politicians have set a lighted match to in this election campaign. They may not have intended it to go any further than citizenship ceremonies, but extremists are already taking it a lot further.

In this country we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In this country I am free to practice my religion. I am even free to say that my allegiance to God is more important to me than my allegiance to Canada. I’ve been told that our prime minister claims to be an evangelical Christian; if so, I hope he would say the same thing.

Martin Niemöller, famous German pastor from World War Two who had the courage to stand up to Hitler, once said,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Indeed. And if I don’t speak up when they come for those Muslim women who want the freedom to wear the niqab, who will speak up for me when my turn comes? That’s why I want to be included as one of the #peoplelikeNenshi.