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Lent 3 - 3 March 2024 GRAFTON 10th Anniversary - Bishop Sarah Macneil

Exodus 20: 1-17

Psalm 19: 7-14

1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

John 2: 13-22

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen

 

Thank you for the invitation to be here today – it is a joy for us to share this time with you as I celebrate a personal milestone of 10 years as a Bishop and to be here in the cathedral where I was consecrated. I feel deeply honoured to know that there will be a permanent reminder of my episcopacy here in this Cathedral, which was central to our time in Grafton Diocese and where Ian served as an honorary priest.

 

Even more importantly, it is a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the consecration of the first woman to be a Diocesan Bishop in this Diocese and, indeed, the whole Anglican Church of Australia. Sadly, there have still only been two of us and although Kay Goldsworthy is now an Archbishop, it seems wrong that the numbers are so small.

 

There is no little irony in the fact that today, a day on which we are in many ways celebrating the church and its ministry, the Gospel reading is the passage usually known as the cleansing of the Temple. It’s almost as if God is having a little laugh at us. But what is actually happening here, in this dramatic and surprising incident? What can we, the church today, with all our structures and traditions, learn from this passage?

 

It seems to me that Jesus’ actions highlight the risks of losing our way even as we worship and offer devotion. They highlight the profound difference between observing the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.   

 

We see the same tensions in Jesus’ approach to the Ten Commandments, our first reading this morning. When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus offered a summary: the summary we know as the 2 great commandments: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. And with all your mind, and with all your strength’ and ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (Mark 12:29-31).

 

Let us look at the Ten Commandments – they are clear, a little challenging maybe, but essentially down to earth; rules to live by, rules to hold together a ragtag band of exiles in the desert as the seek the Promised Land. In fact, by Jesus’ day, the Jewish Law consisted not just of the 10 commandments so familiar to us, but of 613 commandments, all found in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. Centuries of careful, scholarly interpretation hang off these commandments, forming a complex system of law – what to do and what not to do in almost every imaginable circumstance.

 

Jesus, however, comes at the whole question of godly living from a different angle to the Jewish Law, focussing on the relationships which underpin everything: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ He focusses on the spirit of the Law, rather than its letter.

 

The letter of the law has a simplicity that is seductive. There is, after all, a refreshing clarity about ‘don’t stick the fork in the power point or the toaster’ that is lacking in ‘take care not to electrocute yourself’. And there are times, for instance on the road, when simple rules allow complex situations to be safely navigated.

 

Time after time, however, Jesus’ teaching and actions went beneath the surface of the religious system and structures which the Jewish people had erected, no doubt from the best of motives, around the Law. I hesitate to say ‘subverted’ for Jesus himself would argue strenuously that he does no such thing. (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” Matthew 5:17)

 

 According to the letter of the Jewish Law, there was no reason why the animal sellers and the money changers could not ply their trade in the forecourts of the temple – indeed their services made it possible for worshippers to meet their religious obligations. People came to the temple to make sacrifices and to pay their temple taxes. It was much easier for them to get the animals or the right money on the spot. Eminently practical. Why then Jesus’ rage? And it was not just a passing wave of anger – the text says that he made a whip. That takes a while!

 

In allowing the Temple to become a place of commerce, even if it was religiously focussed commerce, something vital had been lost: a sense of the holy, the other, the presence of God perhaps. The letter of the Law was observed, but the spirit of the Law had been lost.

 

Somehow the things that were meant to point people to God had become ends in themselves. The rules, the sacrifices, even the Temple itself, were all designed to connect people with God; to be bridges, windows, paths to deep relationship. But for many there had been a subtle shift of emphasis and this perspective had been lost. It is easier to follow a simple rule and think that that is the important thing.  No wonder Jesus was frustrated and angry.

 

Sitting here comfortably 2000 years later, we can nod sagely, be grateful that we have these cautionary tales and then just move on. Or we can take seriously the idea that the scriptures still have something very pertinent to say to us; we can humbly admit that perhaps we too have not always got it all right, despite having the Scriptures and the example of history to encourage and challenge us.

 

Lent is a time for us to ask what Jesus would like to cleanse from our lives – as individuals but also as communities of faith.

 

At its best, the church is a place of nurture, encouragement, teaching and loving embrace. It is a place where we, the people of God, draw strength from renewing and deepening our relationship with God through worship and community.

 

At its worst, it becomes a place of dogmatism, rejection, criticism and pettiness. Through slavish insistence on doing things our way, we can forget compassion and forgiveness; we can forget that God works in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. We can use religious practice to hide from God.

 

Are our churches places of welcome and nurture? Or are they like the closed door in the Holman Hunt picture, the Light of the World, which we have in the stained glass windows along the nave? The door in Holman Hunt’s image can only be opened from the inside – are our doors open? Do those seeking God in their lives find among us a place where the love of God shines out and their souls find nurture?

 

These readings invite us to look at what we do and ask whether our lives of faith and the communities of the church are in good repair.

 

Are we perhaps just ticking boxes in some kind of spiritual inventory or are we genuinely seeking deeper relationship with and knowledge of God?

 

It may be that we are slavishly and unthinkingly following other people’s ideas of what is right and appropriate rather than  genuinely expressing our own love of God?

Are we simply going through the motions of prayer, of worship, of reflection, or are we truly present to the God who loves us and longs for us to pause and be truly present to the divine?

 

Do the structures and tools we have offer us a place to shelter from God, rather than a path to a deeper love of God?

 

So many questions! But Lent is a time to sit with these questions, as individuals and as church communities, and offer ourselves to God, that we might truly listen and truly be open to where God is leading us, confident that God is with us and desires only the best for us.

 

As is so often the case, the English liturgist Janet Morley has an apt poem:

Holy God,

whose presence is known

in the structures we build,

and also in their collapse;

establish in us a community of hope,

not to contain your mystery,

but to be led beyond security

into your sacred space,

through Jesus Christ. Amen. (Janet Morley)

 

Sarah Macneil

March 2024

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