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Sermon for Lent 3

By The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley

“Why spend your money on what is not bread and your labour on what does not satisfy?”

The prophet Isaiah in a phrase of apparent simplicity is throwing out a question of the most profound significance. Using a metaphor about what sustains us, bread, and work, he challenges us, and all who read the words to ask, what really matters?

John Wesley in his notes on this passage argued that when the prophet spoke of money “do not spend your money” Isaiah meant time, and strength, and cost. And by bread Isaiah was speaking not only of real food but of the things which sustain body and soul. Wesley took the passage to be a warning against frittering time and energy on “those things which can never nourish or satisfy you, such as worldly goods, or pleasures. Eat ye –“ Wesley wrote, “That which is truly and solidly, and everlastingly good.” We tend to think that we live in a much more complicated world than our forebears, the people of Wesley’s times, but I am sure that they too felt that things were simpler in their parents’ day. When we contemplate our world, our personal worlds, can we be sure that we are making the right choices as to how we spend our time, our money, our energy? These resources are finite, meaning that they can and will run out. No-one lives forever, are we in fact wasting the resources we have on things we don’t really want or need?

My Lent book for this year is “Finding Sanctuary: Monastic steps for everyday life” and a fascinating read it is too. I chose it because it is very unlike my kind of spirituality, which as you know is energetic and outgoing. The author commends the Benedictine monastic way of life and says that it’s principles can be integrate into the life of anyone, even bouncy, talkative people like me. Abbot Christopher Jamison wrote the book in response to the popularity of a television series made at his monastery, Worth Abbey. In the programmes a group of fairly unreligious or non religious men came to live at the Monastery to be part of its routines and to discover a little of what the monks believe. The series was, I understand, absorbing and so many people are still talking about it, that I decided to work my way through the book, chapter by chapter. It is all challenging and interesting but I wanted to speak to you this morning about one aspect of a chapter on Silence.

I read the chapter for the first time as I was preparing to go up to General Synod last week. The gist of the first bit of the book is that people are busy. They may think that they have to be busy, but most people, he says severely, choose to be busy. They fill their lives with competing demands, they take on more and more things to do, people to see, places to go, hobbies that need to be tended, and their lives are a relentless round of being busy. Now even this gentle man living retired from the world recognises that there are times of life, perhaps when you are raising children and working when you cannot at all dictate the pace of your life. You are forced to adapt to the needs of others, a child must be fetched from school, the dog needs walking, another child needs to go to Brownies, the bills must be paid, sick parents must be tended. Some of these things cannot be avoided, it is just where you are in your life. But in other phases of life, pace can be slowed. And it is in this time of choice, that Isaiah’s words come creeping through your consciousness, why waste time and energy on unimportant things? When you know deep down that your lifestyle doesn’t give you what you are really craving?

Sometimes we choose activity in order to hide from the things we might find out about ourselves. Perhaps if we were more still and listened to God in the silence we might make profound discoveries about ourselves. . Abbot Christopher noted that most of the men who came to be his guests at the monastery found it very difficult to not be busy. They found it hard to turn off their mobile phones, even though most of the calls they made were not about much. They found it hard to stop rushing about and to accept that being with God was the only place that they had to be for those few precious weeks. And it was hard for them and it is hard for us. Because doing things is sometimes necessary or it can be used as a bit of an escape. Some of us fill our lives with things we want to do, or even don’t much want to do, because we need the validation of being busy. Or we enjoy the pace and bustle because it is a diversion, a distraction from inner loneliness and fear.
We need to devote real listening time to God, because only by getting in touch with God can our deepest inner needs and longings be addressed.

Now I hate going on retreat. I find it hard to go and be quiet. I don’t like being away from you all, I miss my family and yes, I enjoy my life and work. Going into silence is hard. But if I am truthful, I am also a little afraid of what thoughts might come if I had to spend a week in silence on my own. So that has been my challenge for Lent, to try and find an hour here and there, in the early morning just to be in silence, with God, calm and waiting for him to speak.

In that mood of serene reflection, having read about Silence, I set off to General Synod. I have written a little about what was debated in Partnership news, so that if you are interested to can see what is happening. Any gathering of religious people in these days always has lots of pressure groups in attendance, people attacking or pushing Trident, campaigning for animal rights, wanting green issues or gay issues fore fronted, wanting the Prayer book and the thirty-nine articles restored to importance. Before I go, I always receive a five inch pile of material to read for the Synod, but in addition you get bombarded with material from special interest groups. Every day at Synod there are fringe meetings and receptions and demonstrations and petitions… well you get the picture. Lots of commendable energy. Lots of wonderful people busy doing things for God. Too many words and too many speeches. The thing that matters, the things that we are really about, can some times get lost beneath the weight of words and the sheer the bustle of doing good and meaning well. Jesus knew this. While he was a very sociable man, making friends, visiting, surrounded often by crowds, he knew that in order to tap into the source of his strength. He had to turn to the silence of the desert and be still and alone there. And it was frightening. We are told that he was confronted by evil there. Evil that challenged and tempted him. I expect he was tormented by inner demons as well, perhaps he asked himself difficult questions. “am I doing the right thing? Should I stay on a path that will lead to my death? Why don’t I go home and settle down? I have done a lot of good things, brought many to God, Could I not have a little longer to enjoy this wonderful world and the people in it?” Can we doubt that Jesus too had fears or doubts? But when he emerged from the desert he wasn’t shaken from his purpose by these questions, doubts and temptations. He was strengthened. He had been cleansed by the stripping away of the cares of life and in the quiet and loneliness of the desert and been able to hear God better.
At Synod within the noise and words, there is worship and when it is good worship, not too difficult and wordy, we can find our way back to the source of our strength and our reason for being. And find the food that truly satisfies.

In the Order of service for funerals, the minister reads this prayers. “We pray that we may use aright the time that is left to us here on earth”. If you look at the things you do, the things that fill up your lives there will be two categories of things that you do: stuff that you must do and stuff that you choose to do. Please let us make this Lent a time when we each of us make a mental inventory, a list of things in our lives: let us pray about that list, take out what is necessary, in order to eat and survive and our duty to others, and then lets look at what is left. Does it really satisfy us at the deepest level? Ask yourself, are you starved for lack of quiet and tranquillity? Is there anything you can do? You could start with turning off the radio or the endless babble of TV in the background. You could cancel the daily paper for a week or so. Perhaps avoid people who complain or gossip, filling your mind with ugly, unnecessary words. And buy yourself a bit of silence to see if you are spending your time wisely on the things that matter. Amen