I am captivated by the idea of treasure islands. I grew up on a healthy diet of stories about shipwrecked survivors building new lives on remote islands separated from the rest of the world by a large expanse of ocean.
The idea of creating a new and simpler way to live has always connected deeply with my imagination. There is a programme on BBC radio, broadcast in England, but available to listen to on the internet called “Desert Island Discs.” In each episode somebody famous is asked to imagine that they have been stranded alone on an island far away from all that they have known and loved, with ten music records which they have managed to bring with them. And in the programme the guest chooses which pieces of music they would like, and they are played to the audience whilst the interviewer quizzes the person about their life.
What would you take with you, if you were stranded on a desert island? What are the possessions which you have which are most important to you? The Season of Lent is a great time to be asking a question like that, because as we prepare ourselves to be ready to contemplate and celebrate the Easter mysteries once again, the Church provides the opportunity first, in these weeks of preparation, to take stock of our lives and to contemplate what we are collecting around ourselves, and what we are doing and why.
In our house the question about what things are essential to our lives and the way that we live them are not just theoretical ponderings at the current time. Almost everyone here knows, I am sure, what it is like when the boxes have arrived in preparation for moving house. As we begin to tentatively fill the first of the many cartons which will be travelling with us to Newcastle we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that many of the things in our house are not actually things which we need. The very fact that we can contemplate boxing things up a month before we move reminds us of how much we have which is excess and additional to our real needs. When we see the number of boxes which have been delivered to our home, Luisa and I are reminded that our family lives a life which is very different indeed from the ideals of the first Christian communities, and we know that we are not the exception for Western Christians, we are in fact the norm.
In the early Church one attempt at Kingdom-living was to hold everything in common together. The first Christians valued highly the ideal of owning nothing which they could call their own, but instead holding everything in common within the community. We see glimpses of that, and some of the early failures to live up to those ideals in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Early Christians sought to share not only their lives, but their salaries, and homes and inheritance together, so that they could be dispersed for the good of the whole faith community on the basis of need.
In this Parish we seek to be faithful at least to the spirit of that ideal through our faithgiving, where a proportion of the money which is given to this Church by all of you is handed on by the Parish Council to mission agencies and to the Diocese to support the wider Church. We are hoping to have given somewhere in the region of $10,000 away by the end of this financial year, and some of that money will be used to support other parishes which are in need. We should be rightly pleased that part of our own mission here is to support the wider mission of the Church out of the great abundance which God has given to us.
In the 1970s a strong movement developed out of concern for the poor of the Two Thirds World. Richer Christians re-discovered the strategy of seeking highly paid jobs in order to be able to fund development projects and mission work. Those people took on the heavy responsibility of key positions in large companies but sought to live simple lives in order to fund the work of the Church, and especially work in poorer nations. Their response to the call of God reminds us of John Wesley’s ideal many years before, not to give one tenth of his income away, but to live on his tithe and give the rest away – to live on one tenth of his income and give the other nine tenths away to others.
Monastic movements, and religious societies – monks and nuns – have always sought the ideal of poverty and simplicity as a mode of living in which they can encounter God in utter dependence. It is of course a very great mistake to think that anyone who voluntarily becomes poor, lives the same reality as those whose poverty is not a choice, but nevertheless monks and nuns are one sign in our ongoing Christian tradition of what it means to be willing to give our whole lives to God. And as such they act as a sign for the rest of us, a sign that we might imitate in a smaller way – to live lives which are less selfish, and less caught up in the need to acquire more and more for ourselves.
In the Rule of the Society of St John the Evangelist, (one of our own Anglican communities for men), the monks are reminded that too many possessions can distract them from the work of their calling. The Rule by which they live says, “if we clutter our cells [that’s the name that they use for their rooms in which they live] with a profusion of objects or make them chaotic and untidy, our rooms will be a hindrance instead of a help to centred prayerful living. Therefore at least once each year the Superior [the head monk] shall require each brother to renew the order and simplicity of his cell.”
We are not monks here, we are normal Christian people seeking to be faithful to the way of Christ as we live our lives in the world. There are very few of us who will respond in our lives to a call to voluntary poverty in any of its many forms. But nevertheless Lent provides us a real opportunity to think about what we have collected around us and what we do with all of the resources which we have. If we will open ourselves to the possibility, this season can provide the opportunity for us to do some physical and spiritual spring cleaning, as we clear away the clutter which so easily builds up around us.
In a sense Jesus was doing something similar in the Gospel reading which we heard a few moments ago as he entered the Temple. The authors of John’s Gospel put this account near the start of the ministry of Jesus, but in the other three Gospels Jesus’ entry into the Temple comes during the drama of what we will be commemorating in Holy Week, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrives at the Temple and instead of finding a place of prayer he is confronted with all of the distractions of a marketplace.
In our first reading this morning we hear the voice of God speaking to Moses, giving him the Ten Commandments. The Church reads the Ten Commandments on one of the Sundays in Lent every year. The passage in Exodus that we read today is the conclusion of God inviting Moses up to the mountain and then agreeing to address the people of the Exodus directly, albeit cloaked in thunder, fire, and smoke. I often hear people say that those commandments are the bedrock and foundation for all modern human civilisation, but I fear that the people who say that have not read the commandments for a long time. Because to see the commandments as a kind of social blue print, or a statement of ethics is to misunderstand what they are all about. The Ten Commandments are more concerned with how we relate to God than how we relate to each other. God begins by reminding the people of Israel that it was God who brought them out of slavery, that it is God rather than idols who should be worshipped, that it is God’s name which should be holy and not misused, that one day each week should be set aside for the praise of God. So the Commandments are based around a concern that we should be in a right relationship with God, and that only from that relationship will we be able to accomplish the other commandments which stem from that – not murdering or stealing, and all the others. These are not the house rules of a stern parent, they are the terms of relationship for God’s people who are loved and cared for by their creator.
By the time of Jesus’ ministry, a whole system had been put in place to uphold the Law and help people who broke it to find a way back to that right relationship with God. The faithful loved God’s law, recited it and its application night and day. In addition, a sacrificial system had been developed so that people could offer the proper sacrifice at the Temple and have their relationship with God restored. Part of that sacrifice involved purchasing ritually clean animals, and because Roman currency was considered idolatrous because it was stamped with the image of Caesar, those wishing to use money in the Temple had to exchange Roman currency for Temple money to purchase the sacrificial offerings. And just like Travel Agents today a fee was payable for the exchange of currency which penalised the poor and made the institution of the Temple richer.
As Jesus enters the Temple all of the trappings and additions of the Law become apparent, without any sense of the heart of the Law – the relationship with God – being fulfilled. And the scene which we just heard is very dramatic, Jesus drives those who are selling things, and those who are exchanging money out of the Temple, because he is sure that God does not want there to be any barriers, or any distractions separating people who wish to return to a relationship with God. Jesus is clearing out the clutter and the mess and the distractions and the barriers which separate people from the love of God which is freely offered to all.
If Jesus came to our Church or to our home, what would he see obstructing our relationship with God which he would drive out from our lives? In what ways can our lives and the life of our Church be simplified to help others come to know about God’s love through us?
I am not suggesting that we should go out of this place and give up everything that we own. At the same time I hope that this Season of Lent, this time of preparation, will not pass us by, without us having the opportunity to look closely at what we own, and what we do with our time and our talents and to measure those things against the Ten Commandments and the life and teaching of Christ. Jesus is angry in the Temple because he knows that whatever we might say our priorities are, it is what we do with our time and our money (and not what we say we believe) which will truly show what our priorities really are. That is what the Ten Commandments are all about – putting our relationship with God first, making the worship of God our top priority.
The Temple authorities did not publicly say that there mission was to make the Temple wealthier. They repeatedly said that there chief concern was the worship of God. But when Jesus entered the Temple he saw a mismatch between what was being said, and what was being done. And it was that most of all which he was trying to correct.
As we reflect on that story for ourselves a good place for us to start this Lent would be to take some time this week to ask those questions of our lives. What do we say that our priorities as Christians are? – and what do we actually do with all that God has given to us? Perhaps it is time for each of us to clear away some of the clutter.