Sermons from St Faith's

A Dedicated Nation

Fred Nye, Dedication Festival, October 9th, 2011

We Anglicans love our church buildings, and no wonder. From tiny Saxon village churches to the gems of our medieval cathedrals we have inherited some of the most beautiful and numinous religious buildings in the world. And here in Waterloo and Crosby we enjoy the legacy of our Victorian forebears, who have left us with large, confident churches, built before the age of uncertainty began to disturb peoples’ faith.

I wonder what Jesus would have felt towards the religious building that he would have known best, the temple at Jerusalem?  What would have been his emotions as he made the journey to the temple at the time of Passover? It had been built five hundred years earlier by Zerubabbel after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, and was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It had 40 foot marble columns adorned with golden vines, with grape clusters as tall as a man.  Josephus the Jewish historian describes it, when seen at a distance, as resembling ‘a mountain covered with snow, for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceedingly white’.

To Jesus as to all Jews, the temple was the dwelling place of God on earth – ‘surely this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. It was the meeting place between God and his people, as expressed through the Law, and the offering of sacrifices. And placed at the heart of Jerusalem, the city of peace, it was the spiritual home of the Jewish people, and the symbol of their national identity. Perhaps we can therefore share, with Our Lord, a love of our familiar place of worship as a spiritual home, a sacred space where earth and heaven meet one another.

And yet St. John tells us that Jesus was, to say the least, uneasy about how the temple had come to be regarded, and about how it was being used. In a sudden outburst, the only example recorded in the gospels, Jesus enters the building, dashes the money changers’ coins to the floor and drives out all the sacrificial animals and birds. It was another of his acted parables: he could not have demonstrated more clearly how the spiritual purpose of the temple had become perverted by concerns about money, and the externals of ritual. Only a page or two later in his gospel, John describes Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He tells her not to be too pre-occupied with the style or place of worship, because they are always temporary and provisional: ‘the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship…..’ What really matters is to seek from Our Lord the living water, the gift of new life, however that search becomes expressed in worship.

And so a festival of Dedication becomes not so much a celebration of a building as a celebration of the relationship that the building expresses, our relationship with our Saviour. It is not that church buildings engender Christian communities, but that Christian communities, as the Body of Christ, from time to time engender buildings! It is we, rather than the bricks and mortar, that need to be dedicated. Here in this place the human story is played out in the constant hope of new life in Christ. Here at the start of their journey young children are dedicated to Our Lord at their baptism; here in marriage man and wife dedicate themselves to each other in faith and love and enter a new life together; here in the Eucharist the faithful share Christ’s dedicated, sacrificial life; here the penitent receive forgiveness and dedicate themselves once more to following their Lord. And here, at the end of life, we commend those who have died in faith to the Father’s loving mercy and protection, in the Resurrection hope of new life in Christ. For we ‘are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, and a people claimed by God for his own’. 

But we must remember that Jesus was always warning his own people about the dangers of self-righteousness and complacency. As we contemplate our future as a church community there is in fact rather little to be complacent about: we know only too well the dangers of dwindling church membership, rising bills and falling bank balances, and the risk of losing buildings and clergy. And yet I am still strengthened and comforted by that promise of new life that Jesus gave us, life that he described to the Samaritan woman as ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’.

The prophet Ezekiel, writing during the time of exile in Babylon, had a glorious vision of the new temple. From it flowed the water of life, bringing with it an abundance of creatures and plants, and carrying teeming new life ever downstream, to restore at last even the Dead Sea itself.  What a parable for our time – and what a reminder to us that the spiritual gifts we enjoy in this place are to be shared in abundance with those outside it!

And yet if you read the account of Exekiel’s vision in this morning’s lesson, you will find that the lectionary has skipped a few verses. I am always very curious when this sort of thing happens, as it often means that something difficult but rather important as been left out! The critical bit is verse 11 – still talking about the river, Ezekiel says ‘But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh: they are to be left for salt’.

To the Jewish people salt was very precious. It was essential for life, added zest and flavour to food, and was used as a purifier and preservative. Jesus spoke of his disciples as ‘the salt of the earth’. And so we should not be depressed as we contemplate our future, even if the stream of which we are a part is becoming a little slow and spent. For salt is not crystallised in deep fast-flowing currents, but often in life’s smaller, less tumultuous waterways. So let us pray that we may yet be God’s dedicated people, the salt of the earth. And let us pray that whatever the fate of this building, the spiritual waters that have sprung from it will continue to bring lasting life and hope to many, long into the future.

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