|Exodus 20:1-17||Psalm 19||1 Corinthians 1:18-25||John 2:13-22|
Do you remember the art made in the ‘60s and ‘70s made with a framework of nails on a board or frame, and thread wound around to make geometric patterns and shapes? These days it’s called ‘string art’. Or Spirograph – patterns made by cogged wheels inside a frame? I always wanted one but never did. Both of these were essentially patterns made in relation to a framework or border – on these the threads were stretched and only by the frame were the patterns made.
We all have frameworks in our lives in a similar way. Inside the framework, our pattern of life is constructed. Without such a framework life becomes incoherent and we become confused and lost. It’s worth spending some time reflecting on the framework of your life? What is it made of? What are its boundaries – the things that you do or don’t do, the things you regard as acceptable or unacceptable for yourself and others?. For many, their framework is set by family and work, friendships, and also wealth or lack of it. For many also, frameworks are also set by faith, whichever faith this might be. Here people find the do’s and don’ts of life, moral codes, ethical values, customs and practices, and communal or cultural identification.
In the past twelve months of disruption our frameworks have been under tremendous stress – as if the threads have been pulled too tight and the nails are coming loose, the frame bending under the pressure. Perhaps this has made us more aware of what we value and what our norms are – things are often not truly appreciated until they’re taken away.
If you look at ‘framework’ in Google images you’ll see lots of diagrams – the ways organisations set their frameworks, but also ways in which they can be changed and adapted in order to expand horizons and enable businesses to break into new markets. Today’s Gospel reading captures another change: Jesus, a Jew who valued religious Law, lashed out at something that was outwardly within the boundaries. He was resetting the framework of religious life. Something which was acceptable and not much talked about suddenly became the focus of attention. Frameworks had become stretched.
Christians have tended to think of this episode in the Gospels in terms of whether or not you should have a church shop selling books and mementos. Jesus’ action was about something more radical. In Jewish society, poverty was not simply to do with the availability of money – it was much more to do with social exclusion. So, for example you could be financially wealthy but still be ‘poor’ because of a disability such as blindness or due to practical things such as having no children. These were things which prevented you from participating in social and religious life, as was your duty. Robbery was not simply to do with the stealing of material goods: it was about denying people the possibility of ‘joining in’, of being full members of society. Money played a part in this, but it wasn’t the full story. As the total amount of available wealth was fairly fixed, a robber was someone who took more than their fair share, thus taking away the ability of someone else to exist. This could be a wealthy person who always wanted more (think of the parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns) just as much as it could be a pickpocket or burglar.
So, whatever the justices or injustices of the commercial activities of the Temple, Jesus’ concern was with the ability of everyone to be able to perform their religious obligations and thus be fully included in social and religious life. This fits fully with what we know of Jesus’ concern that the Law was made for people, for the good of all – not to create hierarchies of acceptability and exclusion. His life was spent largely with people who had been excluded due to mental or physical disability, lack of respectability, suspicion or being unable to fulfil the obligations of religion and society – those with leprosy, for instance.
It is from incidents such as this, in Jesus’ life and teaching, that the great ethos of inclusion was born in the Christian faith. At its best, this is at the heart of our faith. From it came a concern for the hungry, destitute, the sick and those with disabilities. When it turns its back on this founding principle of faith, the church is at its worst.
This will be important in coming years in the Church of England as poorer Dioceses and poorer churches won’t be able to pay their way. In Blackburn Diocese the reserves will have been spent by 2024, and there won’t be much money coming from the centre. Without a major rethink, parishes and Dioceses will sink or swim according to their resources. Of course, this has been compounded by Coronavirus as churches have closed and giving has dropped. As things stand, this will impact on the ability of people in financially poorer areas, to practice their faith. Without a change in our national framework, large numbers of churches will have to close, here in Blackburn and elsewhere, especially in the North. The Church of England is likely to become a church of the wealthy and the South. This is exactly the kind of situation which Jesus was railing against in today’s Gospel reading.
What will remain will be ‘successful’ churches – those with money, resources and big congregations. These things are much more likely in wealthy areas. It is out of line with Jesus’ concern that all people should be enabled to participate in their faith.
Whatever happens, there will be big changes ahead. It is my personal hope that a worldly honouring of ‘success’ will not be the main criterion having a local church. Jesus’ actions suggest the opposite. And, today’s Epistle reminds us that, at its very heart our faith has a crucified man, a crucified God. This is very far from success: it is a plumbing of the depths, a departure from respectability and favour.
Will the Church of England be able to shift from its current framework in order to follow the teaching and example of Jesus? Only time will tell.
But Lent is also a good time for taking a look at our own personal framework. I ask you to return to the second paragraph of this sermon and have a think about your own particular framework of life. How does it reflect your faith, both practically and spiritually? Who or what is contained within, and who or what is left out? May God bless you in this work, and guide you if you need to make changes.
Rev’d Dr. Anne Morris
Vicar of St. Oswald’s Church, Knuzden