Sermon 27th September 2020

All Saints Lydiard Millicent

Bishop Lee preached on the Theme of Living Stones, living Temples on Sunday 27th September 2020

Although he preached from notes rather than the text he has supplied here, he hopes this will enable those who do not watch the online sermon to receive what he shared.

Bible Readings: Ps 127; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 1 Peter 2: 4-10

I wonder whether you heard the piece on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme this morning about the Roman Catholic Priest who discovered his holy orders were invalid. The Priest’s brother had sent him a video of the priest’s baptism as an infant. In that service the Deacon had used the word “we” when baptising him in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Deacon should have said “I”, and the Priest immediately wondered whether this had invalidated his baptism.

After contacting ecclesiastical lawyers, he was told that although the baptism was not invalid, it was irregular and he needed to be baptised with the correct words in order to make his baptism “Absolute”. However, there were other knock-on effects flowing from this mistake; because his baptism was defective in this respect, he would need to be ordained once more, first as a Deacon and then as a Priest.

Unfortunately, there was a far more significant implication. Because there had been an issue with the legitimacy of his Holy Orders, all those who he had married as a Priest had a question mark around their validity. They would need to say their vows once more in front of a Priest. Can you imagine how they felt when they were contacted? There was one saving grace here: the Priest had only been ordained a priest for three years so the number of marriages he had solemnised was only 30 rather than 300!

Hearing this only this morning, I realised it was the perfect way to tear up a question which I had planned to ask you to open up our theme. Here is the question for you to ponder: if you were to ask someone who very rarely, if ever, came to church, “What do you think about the church?” What do you think might be their reply? To help you ponder this, imagine stopping random person in the Designer Outlet Centre, or perhaps shopping in Asda or Sainsbury’s. Take a moment to think about how they might respond.

I’m not sure how much it would matter to a Golf Club if, when asked a similar question in relation to what people thought about their Club, people responded that golf was really for the wealthy, the toffs, those who saw themselves as a better class of people than the average man or woman on the street. Of course, it may matter to the Golf Club if it is struggling to get members and change its image.

What people think about the Church really matters to us, and not because we have financial challenges, or because the Church of England is struggling to connect with younger people or those from different ethnic and social backgrounds. It matters because this is about God the Holy Trinity. People’s perception of the Church matters because if we are not communicating a Jesus- shaped image and message to people; that human beings are made in the image of God and are precious and beloved of God, and that God is always with us and for us, then we are failing to be the people Christ has called us to be.

We are not part of a social club looking for new members, or competing with other churches with what we can offer compared with them. We are part of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church, inspired by Jesus to live our lives knowing who we are because our identity is found in Christ. We are those who are clear that life is not due to random accidents but full of meaning both now and eternity. We are those seeking the guidance of God’s Spirit as to how, in our contemporary times, to discover and model what life in all its fullness consists of.

Every now and then we see or hear something which really sticks and stays with us, which touches our emotions and motivates us to change our perceptions, thinking and behaviour. Several years ago, our communications team in the Diocese put together a video. The video included some Vox Pops. In case you do not know what these are they are not ice creams but on the spot interviews with members of the public. The comms team were asking what people on the street thought of the Church.

What sticks in my mind is a woman standing by her VW Golf. In answer to the question she said, “Church is not for people like me – I’m divorced”. That’s here what she said again: “Church is not for people like me… I’m divorced. That is the message that she has heard. It so sad, and it is also sobering. How many messages have people received about Church and from churches, that they are not for them?

In the church I was worshipping last Sunday, the speaker, who was recently ordained, spoke about the journey of faith he had made. It was full of humour and also the difficult experiences he had as a young person. When he eventually found his way into the life of a local church, one of his friends commented that if he ever went inside a church he would be struck by lightning! At one level this is amusing, but at a deeper level what is it communicate about the image of God which that person, and so many others have?

When I heard these words, I was reminded of some very different ones which people have said to me over the years: “I can’t go into a church because when I do I and up crying.” In the movies it is not unusual to see one of the key actors find themselves going into a church building. It is usually empty, though there might be a Priest or a Verger around. The director has often chosen a church which has the figure of Jesus hanging from the cross.

The character in the film takes a seat in a pew and is still. They may kneel to pray, they may simply sit. We may not be sure of what they are thinking, or whether they are praying. Is it looking for forgiveness, guidance or hope? Is it regretting all that has happened. Is it acknowledging they are lost and looking for the God they once knew, or have wondered about?

The church building may be full of marble and ornate, or quite shabby and of little architectural interest. The fact that it is generally empty is so significant because Church is all about people, as our readings reminded us, and not about bricks and mortar. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth, the followers of Jesus Christ are in themselves, in their very bodies, holy temples in which the Spirit of God dwells. We are living temples and living stones. Ultimately, it is not the building which really matters – it is the life of the people of God.

In the Deanery of Maidenhead and Windsor, where I was a Vicar and Area Dean in the early 2000’s, we produced what became a kind of Loyalty Card for members of the Deanery Synod. On the card was a reminder of what God was calling the church to be. For so many outside the Church, and for far too many inside our churches, their thinking about what churches revolved around buildings, having a Parish priest, and raising the money to ensure they kept one.

Drawing on the writings of Canon Robert Warren, the Deanery ‘Loyalty card’ had these words on it:

From Church = Buildings + Priests + Stipend

To Church = Community + Faith + Action

It is not that buildings and clergy are unimportant in the mission of Gods Church - both have significant parts to play. But for too many churches in that deanery at that time, being Church revolved around keeping a building open, ensuring that ‘my church’ had its own Vicar, and profound worries about how to find the finances to pay for both of them. Being a community of faith which was expressed visibly in the parishes each church served seems to have slipped further and further down the agenda; the building and a paid priest were the Church as far as many regular worshippers were concerned.

Our reading from Psalm 127 reminded us that “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” Just as God made a people for his own in the choice and covenant with Israel, so God’s grace has now flowed out to all nations. The House of Israel was always centred on people. Now all nations have been invited in – to discover, to know and to grow in what it means to belong to God and his people. In drawing to a close I want to play a modern hymn about the House which God the Father continues to build through the work of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this text are the words of that hymn which is by Marty Haugen

If you have a computer and WiFi connection it is easy to find it sung by a choir on YouTube. Just search for the Hymn ‘Let us build a house.

Let us build a house
where love can dwell
And all can safely live,
A place where
saints and children tell
How hearts learn to forgive.

Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
Rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions;

Let us build a house where prophets speak,
And words are strong and true,
Where all God's children dare to seek
To dream God's reign anew.

Here the cross shall stand as witness
And a symbol of God's grace;
Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:

Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground,
Where peace and justice meet.

Here the love of God, through Jesus,
Is revealed in time and space;
As we share in Christ the feast that frees us:

All are welcome, all are welcome,
All are welcome in this place.

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