Fans of the children’s stories about Kipper the dog may know that Mick Inkpen, its author and illustrator, has also worked his magic on some Bible stories for children with a friend Nick Butterworth. One of these is called ‘The Little Gate’. It tells the story about a camel, loaded high with carpets to sell at market. He comes to small gate in the city wall, called the Eye of Needle, because it is so small. Try as he might, this camel is too big with his heavy load to get through the small hole. It’s a bit like the children’s game with trying to get differently shaped and sized items through various holes. That big camel is not going through that small door.
The story, which featured in our Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) is not really about a camel and we who’ve heard it many times before, know this so well. It’s about our attachment to goods, to riches, to money and possessions. If we lighten the load and live simply, we are not weighed down. Carved over the front door of the Deanery is a sign in Latin which translates roughly as ‘live as if you are about to move’. Not the most welcoming sign as you move in and a bit disconcerting as we moved box after box into the house. But it’s a strong challenge: how much stuff do we really need?
One of the things about moving house every so often is that it gives an opportunity for a massive clear out and we have done this each time. But not books. There are some things which just don’t get thrown out. And I know that one day I will have to face this quart-into-a-pint-pot moment, but I am sticking my fingers firmly in my ears for the time being and singing ‘la la la’, to pretend it won’t come, to try to make it go away. I tell myself my books are different; they don’t weigh me down, unless I want to move them, and they are really a resource I refer to. And so I justify their importance. There are probably lots of other things which have loaded up my particular camel as I approach the narrow doorway.
None of us can take any of the stuff we acquire with us on the final journey. And all of us will have to leave them outside if we are to get in, as the camel finds he has to do in the Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth story. The deeper challenge to the ‘live as if you are about to move’ or the heavily loaded camel is whether there are things, possessions, love of money which get in the way of being faithful to Christ? Digging deeper, the question is to ask what these things are covering up, helping us avoid facing because deep down we are scared. Fear often makes us reach for the blanket or cushion on the sofa to hide behind and that’s where the love of possessions and money gets us. It’s a smokescreen, something to cling to because the stark reality of being very exposed and vulnerable is too hard to face.
Later this week there will be a memorial service for a friend of ours in London. She was a Franciscan Sister; one of those holy people who opened her mouth and peace and stillness was brought into the room just by her tone and quiet manner. In the October lockdown last year she generously recorded a sermon for me to use in an online sermon around the feast of St Francis, and as soon as she spoke I could feel the empty church where Susan and I sat alone for the live-streaming both stilled and filled with a deeply spiritual presence.
Franciscans are known for their vow of poverty or simplicity. They embrace the letting go because they trust in God and for Helen Julian this moment came at the end of August when she had to let go in the ultimate sense as she died of cancer, aged just 63. We give thanks for having known her and the true gifts she gave, which were without price but more valuable than any price-tag could show.
The notion of embracing poverty is deeply problematic because no one really does it, not willingly that is. Poverty grinds people down and there are many facing stark choices between eating and heating this winter. I don’t think that is what is meant and even monks and nuns, friars and sisters, have what they need, they just set their sights so much more modestly and are prepared to leave it, to pick up what they find on the way but not hoard.
Living as though you are about to move is a spiritual attitude of trust in God, knowing that God is where our true hope and security lies. Because, as we found with some of the carpets in the Deanery, moth really does consume. We have had to replace some and have some others repaired with a rather cool cookie cutter, which cuts out the threadbare bits and then patches are stuck-in taken from under furniture which will not be moved – not until we leave and then the next person will wonder why there are these little circles cut out in odd places. If you are here then, which is not likely to be anytime soon, you can let that person know.
Living lightly, holding on to things without too strong a grip is a spiritual exercise which also helps the planet. Our excessive consuming, throw away lifestyle and built-in obsolescence is choking the world. We have to learn to live differently and moving from petrol to electric, from fossil fuels to renewables will bring with it a changed way of living. And so it must. Since I’ve changed my phone this week, I find the spotlights shining brightly in my eyes as I say this. The more we try to grasp for ourselves, the less we have; the more we live modestly, the more we all have. Planet and people benefit in this radical economy.
What would you, do you, have you found particularly hard to hold to lightly? What fills the bags on the back of the camel that will make moving through a narrow gate a struggle? And that harder question, the one that will require the longer think, what are these things compensating for, what fear are they covering? Because one day, all fear will end and these things will not go with us as we travel through the narrowest of gates into the wonder that awaits us; as in the words of the memorial in the north aisle, we ‘exchange time for eternity’.
It is hard to cling to riches and truly enter the Kingdom of God, because they block trust, cover the gaps in our real confidence in God. That affects so much in how we live with generous and thankful hearts. True love casts out fear, but first it has to be filled with the love of God to truly trust. This is a spiritual challenge more than a financial one – money is just one of the ways it shows itself. How we approach this reveals how much we really have faith and confidence in God. Though I do want to exempt books and gadgets.
Sermon for Trinity 19, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th October 2021