This year we are focusing our attention throughout Lent on this season as a time of holy preparation. Historically it is the period when new Christians underwent their final learning, scrutinies, and preparations before the baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Today, in this parish, it is an excellent opportunity to look back and think about some of the very basic tenets of our faith. What does it mean to live as a Christian in this world and do our lives reflect that faith?
Last week I spoke to you about Christian scripture and how we, as a people, have engaged with the Bible. If you open the Bible to the very first verse of the first chapter of the first book, you will find a creation story. God is present where there is only a formless, chaotic nothingness. It is out of this that God establishes order and creates everything that we recognize around us today. As God fashions the various pieces of Creation, God looks at them and recognizes them as good. We do not know why, exactly, God chose to create, but it seems that making some order out of chaotic nothingness and making Creation pleases God and this is good.
Humanity is a part of the order that God establishes in Creation and, from the outset, God is clear that it pleases God to have a personal relationship with us. In the Garden of Eden, God speaks with the first people about what it means to share in responsibility and relationship in this Creation that God has made. That relationship is fractured through humanity’s selfishness and our susceptibility to sin.
Later in our history, at the time detailed in today’s reading from Exodus, there is another conversation between God and the people of Israel about what it means to live as part of God’s ordered Creation. In this case, Moses has returned from a mountaintop conversation with God bearing stone tablets. These tablets hold the words which we know today as the Ten Commandments.
These are instructions from God to the people of Israel about what it means to be part of a covenant with God. There are expectations about how the relationship between Israel and God will be honoured and these commandments are a part of that expectation. In reflecting on this relationship, the psalmist makes clear in today’s psalm the connection between God’s ordering of Creation and the giving of the law to Israel. The desire of God for all of Creation to live in relationship and for that relationship to be reflected in the ordering of lives is marked in today’s psalm.
This theme comes up again in the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians today. Paul is calling for unity among the Corinthians under the order that God has established. Amidst their differences and squabbles, Paul reminds the new Christian community that God’s wisdom in ordering things, as perfectly displayed in Christ and the Cross, is constant. God’s order remains stable while their opinions, ideas, and troubles all shift around it, like the primeval chaos in Genesis. (A thousand years after Paul writes his letter, this will become the motto of the Carthusian order: “The Cross is steady while the world turns.”)
With all of this in mind, it seems that God’s ordering of Creation reflects something of the relationship God wishes to have with us. Understanding that relationship is important to Christians. Different Christian communities take different approaches to how best to incorporate some aspect of this understanding into their lives. Many develop what are called Rules of Life. These are not rules in the sense of directives to be followed, such as in football or hockey. Rather, a rule of life is more like a ruler or a metre stick. Something to measure against for comparison’s sake.
What sort of ideas does a Rule of Life include? Many Rules include suggestions for how and when a person might pray, whether it’s once, twice, four, or eight times a day. Perhaps it includes ideas about what a person should and shouldn’t eat on different days or at different times of the year. The tradition of giving up a particular type of food in Lent is an example of a Rule, adopted for a season. A Rule might also include suggestions on activities like volunteer work or charitable giving. Rules for communities who live together, such as monastic communities, can become significantly more involved, detailing relationships and responsibilities between members.
Many of us probably have unofficial Rules for our own lives which relate to our faith. These go beyond our daily routines, such as when we wake up in the morning, and extend into intentional activities that we set for ourselves, both big and small. Maybe you always say grace before meals or a particular prayer before bed or you have a journal where you spend time each day or each week reflecting on what happened in your life of faith since the last entry. Marking these things intentionally, as holy practices, connects them to our faith and connects us to our relationship with God.
No matter how detailed or broad a Rule of Life might be, it’s important to revisit it from time to time. Lent is an especially appropriate time to think about our faith habits and give them a bit of spring cleaning. There is a danger that the activities we have chosen that are supposed to remind us of our faith and bring us closer to God—they’re supposed to be means to an end—can become ends unto themselves.
We are reminded of this danger in today’s gospel passage. Jesus overturns the tables and pours out the coins of the moneychangers not because he is upset about the changing of money or the sale of animals. These were necessary activities for people to participate in the worship of the Temple at the time. It was impractical to bring your own animals, often at great distance, for the sacrifices, so merchants would sell sacrificial animals to people who had made the pilgrimage. Even Mary and Joseph buy two turtledoves to offer as a sacrifice in thanksgiving for the safe birth of Jesus. (Luke 2.24) What Jesus is upset about is that the sale of animals and the changing of money has become the focus of activity. The materialism and transactions have moved into the space that is supposed to be set aside for prayer and worship and they have become the more important event. The means have become the end.
God has ordered Creation in a wonderful way which includes each of us in relationship. You, me, and all of our siblings in this great human family. God calls us to recognize this relationship by ordering our own lives in ways that reflect the promises we have made, the blessings we have received, and the truths we have come to know. In this Lenten season of preparation, it is a good time to examine and reflect upon how we have ordered our lives and to consider what needs a dusting off, what serves as a good example, and where some of the means may have become their own ends.
How does the ordering of your life draw you closer to God?
How does it assist you to love God and neighbour?
How do our lives, individually and as the Body of Christ, show a catechumen preparing for baptism what it means to be Christian?
Do our own Rules of Life lead us and others to God, or do we get stalled at the marketplace and stop short of the altar?
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.