Sermon for Trinity 17
Sunday 16 October 2011
Dedication And Stewardship
Rev 21.9-14; Matt 21.12-16
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of you may recall the television advert some years ago that ran like this: ‘Listen – to one of the saddest sounds in the world’. On the screen was a glass of water and then, one by one, dropped the two parts of a set of false teeth, accompanied by the ‘plop’ sound as each hit the water and fell to the bottom of the glass. A sad sound, indeed, but one which is perhaps a little less common these days because of advances in dental care.
One of the saddest sights, to my mind, and one which unfortunately is rather more common these days, is that of a redundant church, which may or may not have been converted into a private residence. The reason for this syndrome of churches closing is clear: falling attendances and, as a result, falling revenues, with the inevitable consequences for maintenance of the building. The truth of the matter is, of course, that church buildings are a financial liability. Here at Holy Trinity we know this well enough. It costs something in the region of £100,000 per year to keep this building going and, although baptism is perhaps the one thing the Church of England offers for free, if you have a child baptised here you will often hear the priest taking the service alerting the congregation to the financial burden involved in sustaining this church. So financial stewardship, which is often how we understand the term ‘stewardship’ in the Church, is vital if we are keep this building going year on year. Other parishes have the same problems, of differing magnitude to ours, and I dare say there are as many responses to the need as there are congregations to devise them – whether the emphasis is on fundraising, boosting planned giving, reordering the church building to facilitate a wider range of use by community organisations, and so on. There are parishes (and I’ve known one or two of them) where repairs to the roof or some other capital project has seemingly overtaken the church community, sometimes to the point of becoming the main focus for their activity. That is, I’m sure you’d agree, a lamentable situation to be in.
We all know well that the term ‘church’ is properly understood as referring to the gathered people of God, rather than the building in which the people of God are gathered. This insight lends itself to a school of thought that in recent years has gained greater currency: that the Church’s mission should see a greater emphasis on ‘fresh expressions’ of church, that is to say, we should be putting more energy into being a church community, without being so tied to our church buildings. You don’t need to travel very far from where you are now to find church services taking place in village halls and schools, for example. The church buildings haven’t been abandoned (not yet, at least), but the emphasis is shifting: church is church, whether or not church is in church.
If we put aside for a moment our emotions and simply adopt a purely rational viewpoint, there does seem to be a great deal of sense in this direction of travel. You might even reasonably describe it as the church responding to needs of the twenty-first century: costly church buildings plus lower attendances equals relocation.
But just stop there a moment. Today is our Dedication Festival. Today is the day when we remind ourselves of the importance of this building - big and costly as it is to run - as a place of worship. It’s been a place of worship and prayer for many generations before our own; surely we have a responsibility to keep it as such for the generations to come? We’re back to the importance of stewardship, then. But stewardship is more than financial stewardship and we in the Church sometimes forget this. Our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem of the money changers and market traders, whom he describes as “’robbers’” (Matt 21.13). From the point of view of financial stewardship, Jesus’ actions are perverse, because both the sale of sacrificial animals and the exchange of secular coins for the temple currency were essential for sustaining the religious functions of the temple. But the symbolism of what Jesus did is crucial, because he recovers the essence of what the temple is, and what the church should be for and about: “’It is written,’” he tells those he expels, ‘”My house shall be called a house of prayer.”’ (Matt 21.13). So there is a real sense in which the sacred purpose of our church building must be our first concern; while we cannot neglect the practical and economic aspects of the building, our response to them is informed by our overriding commitment to its role and purpose as a place of worship. It is that role and purpose that we celebrate on this, our Dedication Festival.
Prayer doesn’t just happen ‘in church’, of course. And neither should it. I am sure that prayers said in village halls are as treasured by God as those said in cathedrals. But that isn’t the point, really. Apart from differences of aesthetics and architecture, what sets our churches (and cathedrals) apart is that they have a spiritual life of their own. That may sound a strange thing to say, but in doing so I am making the point that churches can have a transformatory impact on our lives and the lives of others, through our prayer and worship, that simply cannot be replicated in other places. The expression of this is the way in which (most) church buildings lend themselves to worship. It as if they embrace the liturgy itself. To quote Jonathan Baker, Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, “it is in the liturgy that heaven and earth meet.” There are echoes of this in the rich imagery of our reading from the Book of Revelation in which the writer sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21.10). Can ‘fresh expressions’ of church, outside of church buildings like this one, give people a real sense of that encounter? I’m not convinced. Surely the importance of the church building is bound up with the fact that, more explicitly than any other man-made structure, it points humanity towards God’s existence and his presence in the world. Celebration of a church’s Dedication Festival needs no imperative beyond this.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
Trinity 17 | Sunday 16 October 2011