Growing a New Temple.

April 25, 2010

Sermon for a church anniversary. (Genesis 28, 10-22; 1 Peter 2, 1-10; John 4, 19-26. Psalm 84.)

We are here today to celebrate the anniversary of this place where we worship God. All our readings throw some light on that.

Suppose you were asked to design a new place of worship for God – a new temple. What would you build?

Would you build something like that Hindu temple many of us have visited at Neasden, all domes and spires and statues; or something covered with gold leaf like many of the Buddhist temples in the Far East? Would you adorn it with precious stones and rare wood, as we are told Solomon’s temple was decorated? Would it be dark and mysterious, with many corridors and rooms, as were the temples of ancient Egypt? Or made of glass and full of light as many modern churches and cathedrals are?  Or would it be simple and plain, like the chapel of the Primitive Methodist tradition in which we stand?

To some extent, your design would reflect your taste and what you think is beautiful, because we instinctively offer what is best in our culture to house God. That would mean different things to different people.

Jacob put up a memorial stone in the place where he encountered God, the place where heaven and earth met. Later, his descendants identified that place with the Ark, which moved round with them, and later still, with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Because it was the dwelling place of God, nothing in it could be contrary to the laws which had been revealed to God’s people.

But the problem with identifying the place of encounter with God to a specific location and building, as the later prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel pointed out, was that people came to believe that the only place where God was encountered was the Jerusalem Temple. And this was to limit God to something the human mind could conceive and control.

If we listen carefully to what Jesus said about the Temple, then our ideas about what we might design should be quite different. We will think about the dwelling place of God not as a building but as a person. The new Temple, the one in which the Spirit of God is made flesh, looks like us. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were already working towards this idea when they talked of God  writing the law not on tablets of stone  to be kept in a building, but on human hearts, to be kept by the mind and will.  The same idea is expressed in some of the New Testament epistles, like the first letter of Peter from which we heard earlier, where they talk of believers as ‘living stones’  who offer themselves to be built as  a spiritual temple, around the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

To think of people as the temple of God means a radical change in our way of thinking about  what is holy, and therefore fit to be the dwelling place of the Spirit. For actual people do not necessarily fit our idea of what is beautiful, attractive or worthy. We need therefore to look at  people with God’s eyes, to  look beyond externals to what is within, to value the potential in every individual, if we are to take seriously the message of the New Testament. We cannot confine God to a certain place or time if everyone we meet is a potential dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. We cannot place limits on where we need to observe God’s laws if we may encounter the divine in every home, every workplace and on every street corner.

And if we think of the temple of God as a living person it will make a difference to the way we go about creating that temple, because living things aren’t built, they grow. And the language we use in teaching, in liturgy and in worship will need to reflect this. Sister Lavina Byrne, in her book “Women before God” reflects this change of emphasis when she writes of her dissatisfaction with the formal language of the Divine Office  in the Roman Catholic Breviary.

She says: “The activities suggested there as ways of helping the Kingdom of God grow within seem to rely upon images of strife and construction engineering, and imply that the Kingdom is about numbers and noise rather than attitudes and values. Words like ‘hold’, ‘enfold’, ‘touch’ and ‘embrace’ must appear alongside words like ‘build’, ‘strike’, ‘fill’ and ‘complete’; the images of creation must be fed into those of construction.”

So perhaps what we need to help us imagine the New Temple is language that comes from the experience of parents, farmers, gardeners and teachers rather than soldiers, architects and builders. Jesus certainly used both when he spoke about the Kingdom.

So, let us think for a moment. What do we need to grow a temple? We need a seed. So we must consider where that seed is to come from if it is to grow into a temple for the Holy Spirit among all those people in the world who are not yet aware of their own potential to become such a temple. We need to think what we can do to be or plant that seed, and to help it to grow; and even more important, what it is we might do  to destroy that seed, especially in its early, very fragile state.

A living thing needs the right environment to grow in. Our physical places of worship – churches and chapels – may well be part of that environment, signs of the Kingdom, so we are right to celebrate them, and look after them. Our church services may provide a cultural environment where the seeds of faith may flourish. But we always need to be aware of the prophet Jeremiah’s warning that the physical temple can become a snare, which strangles new spiritual growth. It may give us a false sense of security and closeness to God, when it is actually destroying the Spirit of God within us, or within other people.

Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic hermit monk,  wrote “Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

Jesus teaches us that an environment of love, of truth and of hope is the most productive for the growth of his Spirit. So we need always to be asking ourselves: “Do we provide that here?”

So we need constantly to be reviewing the environment we provide for spiritual growth. Or rather, the environments, for different living things require different environments in which to grow, flourish and bear fruit. Some of the Fresh Expressions of Church may provide this environment for people who won’t grow into temples of the Spirit in conventional church settings.

Living things need to be fed if they are to grow, and to have a varied diet if they are to grow healthily. So we need to ask ourselves whether we provide a varied enough diet to meet the needs of a variety of potential temples of the Spirit – or whether what we provide contains a very narrow range of spiritual vitamins, minerals and proteins.

Finally, living things need space  to grow successfully. One problem with physical buildings is that they limit the space within which we imagine God to be present. Faith groups and denominations can have the same effect. They can encourage us to say: “God is only present within my religion, my denomination, my tradition, my particular church or chapel.” But just as a plant needs space to spread its roots and leaves if it is to grow, and just as children need space to explore and be themselves if they are to become mature, independent adults, so we need to e open to new places and experiences of God if we are to grow into the true temples of the Holy Spirit that God created us to be. The bird of heaven, as Sydney Carter’s hymn reminds us, cannot be caught in a cage.

Anyone who cares for a living thing, be it plant or animal or child, knows that it can be a frustrating and sometimes painful experience. So it is as we seek to grow temples of the Spirit. Paul describes the world groaning in the labour pangs of a new age – anyone who has had a baby knows what that is like! But, on the other hand, in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the change from sorrow to joy that a mother experiences when her labour is over and her child is born, reminding us that there is no greater joy in human life than to share in the creation of a living thing.

As we celebrate today the life of this church, may we rededicate ourselves to the labour and struggle, and sometimes the pain of nurturing the growth of the temple of the Spirit in our community and ourselves, in the faith that we may know the joy of recognising there the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, where we and others may truly encounter the living God.

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Show me!

April 11, 2010

(John 20, 19-end)(Address for Family Communion. Easter 2)

I’ve got a penny  in my hand. Do you believe me. Come and I’ll show you. Now do you believe me?

I’ve got £1 in my hand. Do you believe me? Come and I’ll show you. Now do you believe me?

I’ve got an elephant in my hand. Do you believe me? Come and I’ll show you. Now do you believe me? ( (model elephant!)

Some things are harder to believe than others. Sometimes we believe things because we trust the person who is telling us. As children, we gradually get to believe what our parents tell us – because we learn that they have our best interests at heart, and when they tell us ( for instance) that hot water will scald us, we believe them without touching and finding out for ourselves.

But when we are older and when things are very difficult to believe, we need the evidence of our own eyes before we can be sure.  The apostle Thomas has come in for a lot of criticism down the centuries because he did not immediately believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead when the other disciples had told him. But why should he believe such an impossible thing? He knew what happened to people that the Romans crucified, that the soldiers would have made really sure that their prisoners were dead. He knew Jesus had been buried in a tomb and that days had gone by since the burial. The other disciples and Mary Magdalene and the women had all had personal experiences of the risen Christ. He hadn’t. Why should he believe in it until he himself had seen Jesus?

Once Jesus had appeared to him, he believed as strongly as any of the other disciples, and became an evangelist, taking the Gospel (so the tradition tells us) as far away as India, and founding one of the earliest Christian churches there.  Lots of people came to believe because of the way Thomas and the other disciples lived and told of their their experience of the resurrection of Jesus.

We believe because we trust the experiences of the disciples and the accounts of those who wrote the Gospels.

But there is a very big danger that we may become smug because we ‘believe when we have not seen” and think that is all we have to do.

But the Gospel account says that Jesus did not just appear to the disciples  – he also gave them a job to do. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” he told them. “As I told you your sins are forgiven, so you must tell others their sins are forgiven; as I bring peace to you, you must bring peace to others; as you receive the Holy Spirit through me, you must make sure others receive the Holy Spirit through me too.”

Jesus gives us exactly the same tasks to do. So how do we do it?

Those of you who enjoy musicals may remember a song from the show My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle sings it in frustration to her suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who keeps coming around and telling her he loves her. She sings to him

Don’t talk of stars burning above;

If you’re in love, Show me!

Tell me no dreams filled with desire.

If you’re on fire, Show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night!

Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!

Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that

This is no time for a chat!

Haven’t your lips longed for my touch?

Don’t say how much, Show me! Show me!

Don’t talk of love lasting through time.

Make me no undying vow. Show me now!

I can imagine Jesus singing very similar words to his church; “Don’t just talk about resurrection. Show me!” And it is certainly what we need to do to convince people outside the Church that the resurrection makes a difference to their lives.

So, can we live the resurrection life now, in Watford, in such a way that we convince people that our faith makes a real difference to our lives and to the lives of everyone we meet?

Are we people who live in love and hope  and joy? Do we forgive each other as we have been forgiven? Do we bring real peace to situations we are involved in? Do we allow what is past and finished to die, and go forward with expectation into new life? Do we sacrifice what we want for the good of others, even those we don’t like and who don’t like us?  Are our chief concerns for the poor and disadvantaged? Are we always ready to make a new start, in the belief that God can bring new life out of what seems dead and lifeless?

Or do we just talk about it?

At St Andrew’s we have a once in a lifetime opportunity at the end of this month to show the community that we are ready to go forward as a church into new life. We have a new priest in charge being licensed – and on the same day it is hoped our new director of music will begin work with us. As we pray for Ian and Simon and their work among us, can we also prepare ourselves for this new chapter in our church life and pray that through the Holy Spirit, God will inspire and strengthen us to show that we really do believe and live the resurrection.

Come Lord Jesus. Show me how! Show me now!

This Lent, many of us have been following the Diocesan Lent Challenge, reading and meditating on verses and Sunday Gospel readings from the Gospel of Luke.

Today, we continue that Challenge as we hear the story of the Passion of Jesus from the 22nd and 23rd chapters of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke shows us a Jesus who goes to his death calmly and courageously, and continues through his Passion to show love for all,  concern for the weak, the sinner and the outsider. He gives Judas a chance to step back from betrayal; he heals the ear of the high priest’s servant; he shows concern for the women of Jerusalem; he forgives those who crucify him, and the penitent thief, promising him a place in Paradise.

As we hear again the familiar story of betrayal, trial and crucifixion, I invite you to focus on the story from three different aspects.

First, on the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, a self-sacrifice which shows us the way to live  – and die.

Second on ourselves. Where are we in the story? The one who betrays Jesus? The ones who run away? The ones who deny him? The ones who jeer? The faithful followers, who stand at a distance and watch?

Finally,  focus on our world, where the Holy Land is still divided by racial and religious strife, where the innocent still suffer at the hands of the powerful, where there are still rigged trials and unlawful executions. This sermon by an Anglican priest in Mozambique, given during the wave of violence in the 1980’s shows one lens through which the story of the Passion may be viewed.

“I can only face up to the horror of human suffering because of the presence of the Holy One in the middle of all our evil and pain. The agony of our own country is, for me, only bearable, because Christ, the Innocent One, was crucified, hung up to die, while his love remained unbroken and undefeated. This enables me to go on loving, and hoping, and planting new crops. In Christ’s name and in his power, I pray that we shall all find the strength to let love and not hate win the day.”

Good Friday

Music: Introitus. Morten Lauridsen

Introduction

Stand to sing Hymn 738: When I survey the wondrous cross.

Sit

First Reading from the Passion according to Luke.

Luke 22, 39 – 71

Music: Agnus dei. All Angels

Merciful God,

For the things we have done which we regret, forgive us.

For the things which we have failed to do which we regret, forgive us.

For all the times we have acted without love, forgive us.

For all the times we have reacted without thought, forgive us.

For all the times we have withdrawn care, forgive us.

For all the times we have failed to forgive, forgive us.

For hurtful words said, and helpful words unsaid,

for unfinished tasks and unfulfilled hopes,

God of all time,

forgive us and help us to lay down our burdens of regret.

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us. Amen.

Stand to sing Hymn 657: There is a green hill far away

Sit

Second Reading from the Passion according to Luke

Luke 23, 1 – 31

Music: Jesus, remember me (Taizé)

Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ,

For all the benefits you have won for us,

for all the pains and insults you have borne for us.

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,

may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly,

and follow you more nearly, day by day.

Amen

Stand to sing Hymn 333: It is a thing most wonderful

Sit

Third Reading from the Passion according to Luke

Luke 23, 32 – 56

Music: Dulce Jesus mio:  Ex Cathedra

Merciful God,

Creator of all the peoples of the earth,

have compassion on those who do not know you

and on those who have hardened their hearts against your love.

May the grace and power of that love gather us together

in your presence.

We pray this in the Spirit of the One who forgave them

for they knew not what they did.  Amen

Stand to sing Hymn 151: Drop, drop slow tears

Sit

Jesus, Lord of the Cross,

we thank you that you went into the heart of our evil and pain,

along a way that was both terrible and wonderful,

as your kingship became your brokenness,

and your dying became love’s triumph.

We bow down before your cross in wonder and sorrow.

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal

have mercy on us. Amen.

Stand to sing Hymn 535: O sacred head, surrounded

May the cross of our Lord

protect those who belong to Jesus,

and strengthen our hearts in faith,

in hardship and in ease,

in life and in death,

now and forever

Amen.

Music: Quanta Qualia. Patrick Hawes