Presiding Bishop preaches at St. John’s Cathedral, Albuquerque

Posted Mar 9, 2015

St. John’s Cathedral
Albuquerque, NM
8 March 2015

The Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Is there any more light in your Lent? Beyond the time change that pushes back the evening darkness? Lent is about enlightenment, whether you live in the northern hemisphere or south of the equator. Some people think of it as spiritual spring house-cleaning, in the sense of clearing away whatever isn’t life-giving. Some see Lent as a motivational tune-up to better govern our runaway urges. Yet Lent is not just about our interior lives, for whatever light that grows within will eventually leak out and shed light on our life in community.

This year I found three new short blogs that have given me greater insight into that inner and outer light. The Society of St. John the Evangelist is offering a daily Lenten word, beginning with time and rest;[1] Episcopal Relief & Development is doing the same around basic human needs like water and food;[2] and I’ve begun to read the year-round Daily Text of the Moravian Church,[3] with whom we’re in full communion. Each has brought a ray of light ere the day begins, and invited me to be a little more light-bearing through love of God and neighbor.

I read one other daily writer, who started so long ago that his work came out in printed booklets (early 1990s). Lately he’s been traveling across the country in a kind of pilgrimage that has offered spiritual insights into his glimpses of communities along the way.[4] One day this week he noted that the commandments we number as 10 may have originally been 12.[5] Most of us have a hard time figuring out how to count them, and this might only add to the confusion, but it also points to a central challenge for human beings. The theory is that it’s the last one, about coveting, that was counted three times to make a total of 12: don’t covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his livestock, or anything he has.

That commandment is rooted in Middle Eastern patriarchal history, where only men owned things, and wives and slaves were among them. Yet coveting is at the root of most human conflict, whether it’s in the family or the marketplace or on the international stage. I think that’s what the Psalmist means when he prays, “clean up my secret faults, and keep me from presumptuous sins” – as if to say, ‘the world doesn’t belong to me. God, help me stay conscious about that.’[6]

The commandments, however we count them, are grounded in the understanding that this is God’s world, God’s creation, and that we are at most its gardeners and stewards. Indigenous spiritual traditions are abundantly clear about this as a central spiritual truth. The Abrahamic traditions started with that awareness, even if it’s been repeatedly subverted and subdued over the centuries. This garden is meant to be shared, with other human beings and with the rest of creation. We’ve had trouble with that since Adam and Eve decided they were the best deciders about what to eat from those trees in the garden. Perhaps we should call them the original picky eaters.

Whose world this is underlies the problem of coveting. The desire to own and control what God has created bedevils us and our neighbors. The very ways in which we make a living and run our economic systems are in league with forces that want to confuse the ownership issue. Yet our relationship to the competition of the marketplace begins to shift when we’re conscious about who has provided the stuff of all life. The challenge is that there’s no easy or complete resolution to that confusion this side of the grave. We live in a world that isn’t black and white, for we use the resources of the earth to feed ourselves and our families. Yet when we give thanks and remember the origin of the food we eat, the material to clothe ourselves, the fuel to power computers and cars (whether from oil, sun, radioactivity, or wind), and the wood and stone and steel to build our houses, we begin to develop a different and more intimate relationship with all those resources and their ultimate origin. Gratitude and thanksgiving are at the root of that shift – or what might theologically be called repentance, turning around, or getting a new mind (metanoia, the Greek word for repentance).

That’s what’s going on in the gospel story about cleansing the Temple. The people going up to Jerusalem at Passover come to the Temple to, in a sense, “pay their respects.” They come to pay their religious tax, and to do that they need coins without the emperor’s picture on them – thus the money-changers. They also come to offer an animal for sacrifice. It’s a lot easier to buy one when you get there than tying up a pigeon or a lamb and hauling it along from home.

This is not ancient history – we still do this. I’ve seen trussed-up chickens and baskets of farm produce brought up to the altar – in the cathedral in Haiti before the earthquake, and in rural churches in Kenya. Those are offerings of people’s lives, thanksgiving for the abundance of God’s earth and providence. What we put in the offering plate here may seem a long way from the forest, farm, and seas, but it has a similar origin. And we do still bring up real wine, even if the bread doesn’t always look much like what we put on the table. This offering is meant to be a conscious response of gratitude for the blessings we’ve received.

That hints at the problem Jesus is addressing. The Temple has become a marketplace, a quid pro quo place, a bartering station. The reason to go there has become an economic exchange, more like filing your tax return and checking it off your “to do” list. We’ve done our duty, and we can largely forget about it until next year. The motivating reason – to give thanks, to worship, to be conscious about the origin and originator of all that we have and use – has largely been lost. Think about it – it’s sort of like going to the mall to worship.

When people used to ask me about the Episcopal cathedral in Nevada, I’d respond, “we don’t have one, though there are a whole lot of cathedrals on the Strip in Las Vegas.” Where we offer our resources today says a lot about what we worship – or covet.

Lenten light doesn’t look like the Luxor’s sky-stabbing light beam. Lent is about lightening up, and letting go of the desire to possess or control. That is what we’re talking about at the beginning of the communion prayer, in the dialogue, “lift up your hearts – we lift them up to the Lord.” Let go of everything except your hunger for God, and you will find your heart surprisingly lifted – your spirits, too. Retail therapy can’t hold a candle to real heart-lifting.

Lightening up comes through giving thanks. Letting go of the desire to possess or control gets easier with practice. An experiment: start a list of your thanksgivings. Name what you’re grateful for, perhaps starting with life and breath and food and shelter. Name the people who bless you, and the growth opportunities the others present. Name the blessings of this day and this week, and what gives you hope. And remember where and who they come from. When we’re full of gratitude, there’s not so much room for coveting, and we’re not so prone to use the marketplace as a substitute for love. Lighten up, lift up your heart in thanks. The world, and you, will be grateful for the light.

[1] on Stop, Pray, Work, Play, and Love


[3] scroll down to Subscribe


[5] Tom Ehrich, On a Journey, “Beyond Coveting” 6 March 2015

[6] Psalm 19:12-13