I reckon the only way of me keeping regular with my blog is if I post the occasional sermon. So here’s this one from Sunday. The readings were the Overturning of the tables in the Temple, and that thumping great bit from 1 Corinthians.
Yesterday at Synod, we celebrated twenty years of women’s priesthood in Scotland. It was actually twenty one and a bit years, but who’s counting.
It took me back. Because I was there, twenty one and a bit years ago.
In those days I was singing in the Cathedral choir – still very much a Roman Catholic, but I was singing in the ‘piscy cathedral because I loved music, and because they paid me.
But I still maintained the lofty and superior view which I had concerning the superiority of my faith.
Now I don’t want to tar all Catholics with the same brush, that’s not how catholics are, that’s how I was. Anyone can be like that, Anglo-catholic or evangelical, Orthodox or Free church.
During my time at the cathedral, I got to know the clergy. There was a woman deacon who I had become great friends with – still am, in fact, called Jane, who was getting ordained in that first ordination of women. She made me think about why I felt like I did about my faith.
I really did like my faith as a catholic. There was a security in it. There were rules, there were things you had to do – fast on a Friday, go to confession. I felt safe in those rules. You had to go to church every Sunday on pain of hell. And frankly it was as boring as hell. But I felt safe with the rules.
Again, I do want to emphasise, this was how I felt about my catholic faith. This is not how most catholics feel. It’s not the catholic church’s fault I was a bit of a git. I was a Christian by the rules. And the rules felt good.
And in that context, I want to turn to our Gospel reading, and to the Temple.
I mentioned last Sunday and I want to emphasise it – the Pharisees and the priests, and the others who ran the Temple, they weren’t bad people. They were diligent, full of integrity, full of a genuine obedience to God.
They were in a very precarious position. They were under Roman rule, they stood in an uneasy truce; holding the spiritual and moral authority of the Jews, and subject to the rule of the romans. And amidst all of that uncertainty, they had a faith which kept them stable and whole.
Their most important thing to the Temple authorities, in such an important place, was getting the ordinances right. They had to obey the law, and the thing about the law was, it was not ambiguous. Not like our laws today, these were the eternal laws of God, and obeying them, they felt safe. The laws were their fixed point amid the anxiety of the world around them. They loved the law so much that they surrounded it with lots of other laws. It became almost an addiction
Morality on the other hand is very complex. It’s full of doubt, and rarely simple, rarely clear. One can agonise over moral decisions, whereas the law is blessedly straightforward.
There is a pleasing feeling about fulfilling the law, knowing the law, living within the law. So much so that we can fool ourselves that obeying the letter of the law is what matters. We then don’t need to think any of that complex moral stuff, because we have fulfilled the law.
We see that in the tax avoidance issue, or in MPs expenses. There is a genuine perplexity on the part of those who have been accused of behaving immorally, because they have done nothing to break the law.
That’s what happens when you surrender your conscience to laws, because your conscience is like any other part of you – if you don’t use it, it grows weak.
So the Pharisees and the priests had money changers in the temple, making a huge profit from the poor who had come seeking God. They had to pay to change their money from Roman to Jewish, they had to use the Jewish money to buy the clean animals for the sacrifice – animals grown on the farms of the priests – they had to pay to have them sacrificed. And the temple authorities grew ever richer, and at no point did they break the law.
They weren’t deliberately corrupt. They were just blind to it. They had a Temple to run, with ambitions building and decorating projects. They couldn’t, genuinely couldn’t see what the issue was.
Jesus could. And he did.
Because the laws of God, like any laws, were descriptions of what God had said to his people in the past. But they were treating them as proscriptions of how God would act in the future.
And if you only allow God to behave in the same way as he did in the past – well that doesn’t work for the God who makes all things new.
Their love of laws had effectively imprisoned both them and God in the Temple. The God who walked with Adam, who stayed Abraham’s hand, who sheltered Daniel, who wrestled with Jacob, and who spoke to Isaiah and Jeremiah, that God was imprisoned in the holy of holies, enslaved by the rules of those who loved rules.
The same God, though, appeared to Jesus in his baptism, and in his Transfiguration. To the Jews who followed Jesus, those stories must have been like God coming back to life.
At that first ordination of women, I spoke to my friend Jane. I was a catholic and I didn’t want to receive communion, but I respected her, and when it came to her ordination I pointed out to her that when I went to the altar rails, I wouldn’t be receiving communion from her, not because she was a woman, but because she was an Anglcian and I was a catholic.
I was trying to be generous. I think.
And so, safe in my rules, after a wonderful passionate sermon from Bishop Richard, I went to the altar rail to receive my blessing from the newly ordained Jane, now Vice-Provost of the Cathedral. I put my hands across my chest, to indicate I didn’t want communion, Because, the rules had to be kept.
And when I walked back from those altar rails, I felt shame. I felt ashamed of my rules. And if ever God spoke to me it was that day. God said to me “you don’t half believe a load of crap”. That’s not a joke, I really felt it.
I felt God saying that I had to let go of that safe, secure and comfortable faith which holds God at arms length, and which lives by rules.
And I did. And I embraced a more confusing and messier and more difficult world.
The choice the Jews were presented with by Jesus in the Temple was not an easy one for them. It was a choice between straightforward laws, where you knew were you were, and the confusing and difficult, messy passion of a God who requires morality more than law. It was a choice between the rich and the respectable, the outwardly orderly and shiny, and the wild man, full of genuine passion who was making a hell of a mess in the Temple.
But as Paul says, the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.
Where is the scribe?
Where is the wise?
Where is the debater of the age?
Has God not made foolish the wisdom
of the world?
For God’s wisdom is wiser than human wisdom
and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.
To be a Christian, is to let go of a lot of things.
To let go of our comfort,
our pleasing reliance on rules,
and our prisons.