Sermon: Third Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2015, St Matthias, morning

Readings Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Since coming to Richmond in 2010 I have made many discoveries, among them the city of Leeds. Soon after we arrived our daughter started exploring where to do a degree, and so we got to know that fine city where she is now in her final year. The unremarkable building where we gathered for a university open day contained a remarkable war memorial. Vice Chancellor Michael Sadler commissioned it, to commemorate those from the university killed in the Great War, from the equally remarkable Eric Gill, a sculptor who combined mysticism with regular breaking of the seventh and elements of the tenth commandment (not a man to run your marriage preparation course, but a fine artist). The result, unveiled in 1923, you can see:

War Memorial by Eric Gill

no cross or sword, no angels or soldiers, but today’s gospel scene, Christ driving the money changers out of the temple. Why choose that scene? Gill wrote,

I’m thinking of making it a pretty straight thing – modern dress as much as possible, Leeds manufacturers, their wives & servants, don’t you see…Here is a sermon given into my hands, so to say. I didn’t invent the notion – I got it from the Gospels, if you’ll believe it!

A sermon on what? ‘The carving,’ said Sadler, ‘will tell its own tale’. So what tale does it tell you?

Let’s first ask why Jesus does what he does in the original story. What is wrong with the money changers? They, and their colleagues selling animals in the temple courtyard, are providing a service for the worshippers, who need to pay their Temple tax in special coinage and get animals for sacrificing. There is no evidence that they are ripping pilgrims off.

So what’s the problem? Is it that the whole money thing is wrong in such a place? Show me a temple or synagogue or church or mosque that can function without money and a cash prize can be yours (more of that in a moment). But what does Jesus say to them? ‘Don’t make my Father’s house a market-place!’ I read that like this:

The temple is where God’s glory dwells, a place where earth and heaven come together, a place where mystical, wonderful, unspeakable experiences might come upon someone; but for you it’s a business opportunity.

Gill’s money-changers, the industrialists of that great Yorkshire cloth city, had done well out of government contracts for uniforms in the Great War. What might Gill’s Jesus be saying to them? Perhaps this:

These are times of terror, when hell is invading earth, when diabolical, horrible, unspeakable experiences are coming upon people; but for you it’s a business opportunity.

Was that fair? No doubt some Leeds industrialists had sons at the front and daughters in uniform. But, in the terms of the gospel story and the story in stone, the problem with both sets of money-changers is that they don’t understand what really is going on, what it’s all for. What is really going on – in first-century Jerusalem or early-twentieth-century Europe – is something huge, something that can turn life upside down (for good or ill), but they maintain the routines in which wealth is created, bills are paid and nice things are bought (and Gill’s are a smart bunch – love the ostrich feathers in the woman’s hat).

God comes among us in Jesus, Jesus enters God’s temple, and business carries on just the same. Gill is provocative in using Jesus’ verdict on the religion of his day to pronounce a verdict on war and wealth. This bears on us as we continue the centenary remembrance of the Great War and as the nation’s military chief says we must devote at least 2% of our GDP to military spending, but the story is not just political commentary. It is also about us and here.

Like the temple, this is place of religious busyness. If you arrived about twenty-five past nine this morning, the first person arrived to get things ready for this service an hour before you, and people began rehearsing music, preparing prayers and sermons) days ago. We must give thanks for those who do all this, and this a moment to give renewed thanks for Valerie Booth, whose funeral was this week, and to remember and all she was and she did as our sacristan. It is important work, and satisfying – I should know, I make a living out of it – but it comes with the danger that we make it an end in itself, that the Lord comes to his temple – that is, to you and me – and we don’t notice and the religious business just carries on; the danger that we forget what all this is for.

We have two exercises underway to keep our minds on the point of it all. The first is our Mission Action Plan. Its priorities are

  • to be at the centre of community in Richmond
  • to embrace people of all ages, especially children
  • to enhance our welcome and pastoral care
  • to grow in numbers by these and other means

We review our progress at our Annual Meetings next month. Meanwhile, find out what your church is committed to doing.

Secondly (as the money changers know) we need to pay for it. I hope you received a Planned Giving pack last month. Have you responded? If you have, thank you; but so far, across our three churches, only 53 out of 350 have. Even so, we are on the way to reaching our first objective – £10k of new money to fund paid, professional leadership of our Sunday School work here at St Matthias and throughout the team. But we aren’t there yet. So your response will make a difference.

And what is it all for? Our purpose is not to further a fascinating hobby, but to be a place and a people in which earth and heaven come together, where mystical, wonderful, unspeakable experiences might come upon someone. And if God does become real to you or to me, it is not simply to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, it is to enlist us in God’s task of changing the world.

Richmond, like Eric Gill’s high-end Leeds, has its share of the well-off and the well-dressed. It certainly has many people who feel the crack of the whip. Some it drives away from their work, through restructuring and redundancy; others it drives in their work: high rewards, perhaps (though not for all) but also long hours, insecurity and sometimes inhuman work regimes, punctuated by bouts of hectic and expensive play, or just plain exhaustion. If even a quarter of the world did work and leisure like we do in Richmond, how many planets would we need to fuel it?

And what is this all for? Our first reading, the ten commandments, often gets a bad press – all those ‘thou shalt nots’ – but it offers a sustained answer to that question: there is a grain to life, a shape to work and rest, to what is mine and what is yours; and it’s all for God.

Not even Richmond can reinvent the world, but there may be more we can do and be, so that we and others can make our choices – about work and leisure and travel and possessions and wealth – in ways that keep in mind what all this is for.

When Jesus cast the moneychangers from the temple, the disciples remembered a text in their holy writings, our Old Testament, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ Perhaps none of us can avoid being consumed by something, but we have some choice in what that consuming thing is. It can the busyness that becomes an end in itself, or it be the stuff that leads to God, who is the end of everything.

 

Notes

Gill and Sadler The quotations are form an article by John F. Sherman, http://www.catholicpeacefellowship.org/nextpage.asp?m=2122 That article also gives the inscriptions on the memorial.

Along the cornice is inscribed: ‘Agite nunc, divites, plorate ululantes in miseriis, vestris, quae advenient vobis. Divitiae vestrae putrefactae sunt.’ (Vulgate, James V.1) ‘Now listen, you rich men, weep and wail because of its misery upon you. Your wealth has rotted.’

In the panel above the dog: ‘Et cum fecisset quasi flagellum de funiculis, omnes ejecit de templo, et numulariorum effudit aes, at mensas subvertit. Et dixit: nolite facere domum Patris mei domum negotiationis.’ (Vulgate, John 2.15) ‘And when he had made as it were a whip of cords, he ejected all from the temple, and the money of the money-changers he poured out and overthrew their tables. And he said: do not make my Father’s house a house of commercialism.’

Planned giving To find our more about our planned giving scheme, contact our Administrator Teresa Cross tersea.cross@richmondteamministry.org

Work patterns See Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘Benedict and the Future of Europe’ – Speech at St Anselmo in Rome http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1770/

About Canon Robert Titley

Robert became Team Rector in 2010. In November 2015 he takes up a new post as Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral.
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